From Shakespeare to Byron and Henry James, Venice has long been a muse for writers and artists alike. By the early twentieth century, Venice had become a highly popular tourist destination, and, as Evangeline Holland has pointed out in her guide to Edwardian England, the British upper and upper-middle classes, particularly those with artistic leanings, flocked there in their droves.
Above: A silent film about Venice (1920s)
The Bloomsbury group were far from immune to the allure of Venice and drew similarities between the watery city and Cambridge, where St. John’s had its very own Bridge of Sighs and the punts glided over the river Cam as gondolas did through the narrow canals of Venice.
Virginia Woolf was to visit Venice on three occasions. The first one was with her family in 1904, shortly after the death of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen and her move to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury with her brother Thoby and sister Vanessa. Virginia had been quite overwhelmed by Venice, initially, writing to her friend Violet Dickinson in April 1904 that, ‘There was never such an amusing and beautiful place.’ However, the city was experiencing significant overcrowding; she began to find this oppressive, and, as Jane Dunn has claimed, Virginia started to feel as if she were a caged bird by the end of their trip. Thoby Stephen, however, (who would later contract typhoid and tragically die on another family holiday to Greece in 1906) was captivated by the aesthetic charms of Venice, writing to Clive Bell (whom Vanessa would eventually marry in 1907), ‘Until a man has been there he has no more right to speak of painting than a man who has read neither Sophocles or Shakespeare to criticize literature.’
Vanessa too found Venice to be a source of great artistic inspiration for her paintings, and it was there that she first encountered the work of Tintoretto, whose work she deeply admired, and who would remain one of her favourite painters. Indeed, it is not hard to see why the Bloomsbury artists, including Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, were so drawn to and frequently painted scenes of Venice, as for them, the city itself was a living and breathing work of art. The influence of Venetian culture can also be seen at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and David Garnett, along with Vanessa and Clive Bell’s sons, Julian and Quentin, moved to in 1916, and which remained Vanessa’s home for the rest of her life. The house’s interior is covered in artworks by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and paintings and their rich colours reflect the murals and colourful displays found inside many traditional Venetian homes.
In 1912, Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf and she returned to Venice for her honeymoon. That same year, the German novelist, Thomas Mann, published Death in Venice, a novella about a middle-aged writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, troubled by a lack of inspiration who decides to visit Venice, staying at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido. At the same hotel, a Polish youth, Tadzio, with whom von Aschenbach develops a consuming obsession, is staying with his family. Overcome by Tadzio’s youthful beauty and innocence, whilst his own life is gradually ebbing away, von Achenbach finally succumbs to the cholera outbreak that is plaguing Venice. The book highlights that, despite the sublime beauty of Venice, it had a darker side, and, as Virginia Woolf claimed, could also be seen as ‘the playground of all that was gay, mysterious and irresponsible.’
Above: The final scene of the film, Death in Venice, with Dirk Bogarde as von Aschenbach (1971)
It would be another twenty years until Virginia Woolf returned to Venice for the last time, accompanied by her husband Leonard, Roger Fry and Fry’s sister Margery. By the 1930s, as Fascism was beginning to spread across Europe, it seemed that even the idyllic islands of Venice were not to remain untouched. As Dr Kate Ferris has revealed in her study, Everyday Life in Fascist Venice, 1929-1940, from the early 1920s onwards, the political landscape of Venice had been shifting from Socialist to Fascist. Jonathan Buckley has also maintained that Venice was the second city in Italy where an organized Fascist movement emerged and even as early as 1919, a local Venetian newspaper had appealed for the creation of Fascist squads.
The outbreak of the Second World War ensured that not only was travel to Venice restricted, the cultural and artistic life of the city was also impacted upon. For instance, the Venice Biennalle, a contemporary art exhibition, held every two years and which had begun in 1895 (the 1928 British Artistic committee had included Roger Fry) was removed from the control of the Venice City Council and placed into the hands of the Fascist government. The Biennalle was eventually suspended for four years from 1944 to 1948, however, in 1936, Britain had refused to exhibit due to Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and the 1940 and 1942 exhibitions also saw Britain refuse to formally exhibit because of the War. Instead, in 1940, the British Council held an exhibition at Hertford House in London, which included a painting by Duncan Grant.
Despite having been subjected to aerial bombardment during the First World War, Venice remained undamaged during the Second, and afterwards, re-emerged as a popular destination with visitors from around the world. In the late 1940s, the poet, writer and friend of the Woolfs, Stephen Spender, spent time in Venice, along with his fellow poets W.H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis. In 1955, David Garnett, by then married to Angelica Garnett (née Bell) the illegitimate daughter of his former lover, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell, used Venice as the backdrop for his romantic novel, Aspects of Love.
Venice remains largely as it was the first time Virginia Woolf laid eyes on it over a hundred years ago, and countless artists and writers since have shared Woolf’s first impression of the city. The timeless, magical and decaying beauty of Venice continues to enchant, enthrall and inspire as it has done for centuries. No doubt the Queen of the Adriatic, still sitting ‘in state, throned on her hundred isles,’ will do so for many more to come.
The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume I, 1888-1912 – Edited by Nigel Nicholson and Joanne Trautmann (1975)
Venice – Stephen Spender (1979)
Everyday Life in Fascist Venice, 1929-1940 – Kate Ferris (2012)