Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro

Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro


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The novelist Henry James arrived in Venice as a tourist, and instantly fell in love with the city – particularly with the splendid Palazzo Barbaro, home of the expatriate American Curtis family. This selection of letters covers the period 1869-1907 and provides a unique record of the life and work of this great writer.
Includes historical photographs and a foreword by Leon Edel, Henry James’s biographer.

Pushkin Collection editions feature a spare, elegant series style and superior, durable components. The Collection is typeset in Monotype Baskerville, litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owned printer TJ International in Padstow. The covers, with French flaps, are printed on Colorplan Pristine White Paper. Both paper and cover board are acid-free and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908968890
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 09/10/2013
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 6.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Henry James (1843-1916) is one of the most prominent figures of American and British Literature. Son of a clergyman, and brother of the philosopher and psychologist William James, he moved between America and Europe during his early life, eventually settling in England at the age of twenty. A prolific novelist, essayist and literary critic, James was much concerned with questions of identity, belonging, creativity and consciousness.
He is perhaps most famous for his novels The Bostonians, The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller and What Maisie Knew, and for his ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. Between 1906 and 1910, James revised much of his fiction for the so-called New York Edition of his complete works, adding now-famous Prefaces. In 1915, prompted by the First World War, he became a British citizen; he received the Order of Merit in 1916, shortly before his death.

Date of Birth:

April 15, 1843

Date of Death:

February 28, 1916

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

London, England


Attended school in France and Switzerland; Harvard Law School, 1862-63

Read an Excerpt

Letters From The Palazzo Barbaro

By Henry James, Rosella Mamoli Zorzi

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 1998 Rosella Mamoli Zorzi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908968-89-0



There is a palazzo, on the Grand Canal, quite close to the Accademia Bridge, which looks over the vast ribbon of the Grand Canal where it widens into the Bacino of St. Mark's. If you lean out just a little from the balcony of its Gothic windows, you will see the magnificent structure of the Salute church across the water, near the Punta della Dogana. Then your eyes, coming back along the Canal, will take in the façades of the Gothic Palazzo Semitecolo, the Wolkoff, the multicoloured and now infamous Dario, the unfinished majesty of the Venier dei Leoni (now the Peggy Guggenheim Museum), the modest Casa Biondetti — once the home of painter Rosalba Carriera — the imposing Gothic façade of Palazzo Da Mula, and then, beyond the Canal of San Vio, the façades of Ca' Loredan and Contarini dal Zaffo, stopping in front of the Accademia bridge.

Your gaze, turning into the interior of the palace after being dazzled by the view outside of the Grand Canal, will not find a rest: the glimmering splendour of the water and the bright colours of the marble façades are replicated in the glory of the gilded stuccoes, of the paintings, of the mother-of-pearl floors. The dazzle will only relent in the slightly damp penumbra of the courtyard, when you descend the steep, open staircase, or in the shadowy light which filters through the long ground-floor passageway leading to the palazzo's water gate. In that passageway a grounded gondola, with its black felze still there to protect its passengers from wind and rain, seems to be waiting for a Domenico or an Angelo to row it back into its natural element, the water of the Grand Canal.

This palace, Palazzo Barbaro, is only one of the many patrician houses that testify to the former greatness of Venetian families and of a civilization tracing back many generations. It is also one of the many palaces that were sold after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 and which fell into the greedy hands of speculators, who did not hesitate to sell off and disperse the memories of centuries of history, the family archives, paintings, art objects, antique furniture. The very walls of these palaces were plundered: the stucco work was chiselled off, the frescoes were torn down, the inlaid wooden doors were lifted off their iron hinges; whole buildings were razed and the bricks and stones were used as building materials.

Until 1797 the Palazzo Barbaro had witnessed centuries of splendour. In the fifteenth century it had been the meeting point for some of the most illustrious representatives of Renaissance humanism. These scholars had been drawn to the house by the bright mind of Almorò Barbaro, who meditated on the chapters of Aristotle which he would expound, in the original Greek, to his disciples from the University of Padua while walking to and fro in his grand salon. To this house came Poliziano, to receive a Greek vase from the hands of Almorò's father, Zaccaria, the Procuratore of San Marco, an illustrious politician and the son of the first Venetian humanist, Francesco. Zaccaria was the Barbaro who, around 1460, had originally bought the palace that would carry his family's name for so many centuries.

From that date the salons of the palace echoed with debates regarding the noblest themes of culture and the most important political issues.

In the 1540s, in these rooms, Daniele, the ambassador of the Venetian Republic to England, later the Patriarch Elect of Aquileia, gathered the founders of modern mathematics and architecture. A friend and a patron of Palladio and Scamozzi, Daniele obtained for them the great public commissions of Venice. His own translation of, and commentary on, Vitruvius's Treaty on Architecture was extremely influential. In the same period, his brother Marc' Antonio devoted himself to diplomacy and politics, becoming a Procuratore of San Marco. Splendid and cultured, he shared and supported his brother's choices, and with him he decided to build the famous Villa of Maser, designed by Palladio, with frescoes by Veronese. Half a century later, another Barbaro, Antonio, an opponent of the great general Francesco Morosini, had the baroque church of Santa Maria del Giglio built to celebrate the family.

Voices full of wisdom, knowledge, and power resounded within the damask-lined walls of the palace, against its Istria stone balconies, on its terrazzo floors. The century of baroque splendour brought sumptuous embellishments to the house, clear signs of the great power of the family. At the end of the seventeenth century, the architect Antonio Gaspari was commissioned to build the great ballroom, linking two adjacent palaces. Artists in stucco work from Ticino were called to decorate the ballroom walls with shells and putti and ribbons and gilded triumphs — just as in the Albrizzi and Sagredo palaces or at the Scuola dei Carmini — while great masters were entrusted with the paintings and frescoes. Giambattista Tiepolo, Gian Battista Piazzetta, Sebastiano Ricci and Antonio Balestra were among them. The perfect taste of the Barbaros chose the best artists of each generation.

Then, after all this glory of culture, politics, and art, ruin descended on the palazzo. After 1861, the palace was sold several times, into the clutches of unscrupulous antique dealers. Among these some tried to tear down the stucco work to sell it to the London South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum), but the palace did not allow them to do this: it was simply impossible to detach the stucco work. The greed of one dealer saved the great doors: he thought the 17,000 lire offered by Lady Alford too low a price. But the Tiepolos were sold, the courtyard well-head removed, hoisted onto a big black boat, and taken away; the ceiling was partly covered with bitumen, because the people who had moved into the palace did not like being "spied" upon by the allegorical figures flying above them in the painted skies.

The ruin of the palace seemed unavoidable. On a December afternoon in 1885, "buyers and sellers, lawyers and witnesses" met to draw up a sale contract. Palazzo Barbaro, then the property of "Cav. Dott. Cesare Musatti" through his wife, was sold to an American couple, Daniel Sargent Curtis and Ariana Wormeley Curtis.

The palace was saved.

If Daniel and Ariana were certain they had made a good investment, for the palace it was the height of good fortune to end up in the hands of a couple who loved it, restored it, and respected it. They were determined not to redo it completely as was the custom with those nineteenth-century owners and architects against whom Ruskin had fought his battles, together with Alvise Piero Zorzi in Venice. The Curtises transformed the palace again and made it into a centre of elegant social life, but they also invited artists, writers, poets, painters, and musicians. These artists caught and expressed the essence of the Barbaro, in paintings and novels, building the Barbaro of their imagination, of pigments and words.

The Barbaro salons with their frescoes and paintings and stucco work fascinated such painters as John Singer Sargent, who portrayed the Curtises, with their son Ralph, a painter himself, and his wife Lisa, in the splendour of the ballroom, in the painting entitled An Interior in Venice (1899). The palace also enchanted Anders Zorn, who portrayed Isabella Stewart Gardner, the creator of Fenway Court at Boston and who occasionally rented the palace, as she stepped in from the palazzo balcony, against the nocturnal background of the Grand Canal lit up by fireworks. Other painters, such as Walter Gay, or Ralph Latimer, offered other interpretations: Gay painted the ballroom, with its paintings, stucco work, sofas, chairs and tables, without any human figure in it, as if the beauty of the place was enough. Latimer, Ralph Curtis's cousin, painted several rooms of the Barbaro.


But the artist who more than anyone else filtered through his imagination the enchantment of the "marble halls" of the Barbaro was the American writer, Henry James (1843–1916). After a first visit in 1887 he was often a guest of the Curtises or of Isabella Stewart Gardner.

The impressions that James had of the Barbaro — over a period of several years — can be traced in his letters, which, although they are not entirely devoted to this topic, bear witness to the power of the Barbaro over the writer's imagination.

In James's letters to Catherine Walsh (VII), Grace Norton (IX), and Ariana Curtis (XIV, XV) "the beautiful empty Barbaro", "all marbles and frescoes and portraits of the Doges", starts to exercise a charm that "sinks into your spirit only as you go on living there, seeing it in all its hours and phases" (III, 195). These words appear, almost identical, in his essay The Grand Canal (1892), — where the name of the palace is not given, out of respect for the Curtises' privacy — but where the Barbaro is clearly recognizable with its "painted chambers that still echo with one of the historic names":

"As you live in it day after day its beauty and its interest sink more deeply into your spirit; it has its moods and its hours and its mystic voices and its shifting expressions ...

"If in the absence of its masters you have happened to have it to yourself for twenty-four hours you will never forget the charm of its haunted stillness, late on the summer afternoon for instance, when the call of playing children comes in behind from the campo, nor the way the old ghosts seemed to pass on tiptoe on the marble floors."

In the summer of 1892 Isabella Stewart Gardner, having the house chock-full of guests, had a canopied bed, with a pink mosquito net, placed in "the divine old library", on the top floor, a room also decorated with delicate stucco medallions and eighteenth century boiseries à la chinoise. James spent delightfully quiet days there, in spite of the scorching scirocco, allowing the beauty of the place to sink into himself, almost passively. He wrote about it, with some humour, to Mrs. Curtis (XV), telling her that she, the real mistress of the house, did not know her own house at all:

"Have you ever lived here? — if you haven't, if you haven't gazed upward from your couch, in the rosy dawn, or during the postprandial (that is after luncheon) siesta, at the medallions and arabesques of the ceiling, permit me to tell you that you don't know the Barbaro."

The enchantment Palazzo Barbaro exercised on the writer is parallel with that wrought on him by the whole city: James started to dream about having his own pied-à-l'eau in Venice (XIII, XIV, XVII, XIX).

The young James arriving in 1869 in Italy, and in Venice for the first time aged twenty-five, found that Venice was "quite the Venice of one's dreams", although it remained "strangely the Venice of dreams, more than of any appreciable reality". At that time he felt the need to declare to his brother the sense of his "yankeehood", which did not allow him to enjoy Venice from the inside, as a part of his own civilization, unlike his experience in England (Letter I). This statement was at least partly contradicted by the ecstatic tone with which James wrote to his brother, in the very same letter, of the deep and overwhelming impression made on him by Tintoretto. The enormous mass of Tintoretto's works was looked at by James in the wake of Ruskin. It was not a coincidence that James adored Tintoretto as a colourist and also for his extraordinary perspectives, or points of view, and the compositions of his paintings: in his enthusiasm for Tintoretto, James seemed to see the extraordinary achievements in the use of viewpoint that would characterize the twentieth century novel, which owed so much to James himself.

No doubt James was conquered by, or gave himself up to Venice gradually, contrary to his response to Rome, as expressed in his famous and oft-quoted letter, where he declared "At last — for the first time — I live!"

By the 1890s, James had had the opportunity of enjoying the city during various visits, staying in different houses: he no longer used the lodgings of Casa Barbesi, or the rooms on the Riva degli Schiavoni where he had been vainly trying to write The Portrait of a Lady. He had enjoyed the hospitality of Mrs. Bronson's Casa Alvisi, on the Grand Canal, right across from the Salute, and then that of the Curtises at Palazzo Barbaro. He had had the time to possess himself of the city, writing on it on several occasions, in the essays, from Venice: an Early Impression in 1872 to Venice in 1882 and The Grand Canal in 1892, where the writer took his reader along the main watery thoroughfare of Venice as if he were following one of those nineteenth century guides illustrating the main palaces on both sides of the Canal, from its beginning, at San Marco, to the Accademia and Rialto and finally to the Station. By 1892 James had written both short stories and novels at least partly set in Venice, and above all The Aspern Papers (1888). Perhaps towards the end of the 1880s or at the beginning of the 1890s James really dreamed of having a small pied-à-terre in Venice. But in the summer of 1893 he acknowledged this wish was a mere dream, "fading a little" (XIX) when he was not there.

Other, tragic, experiences intervened to defeat the dream. On January 24th, 1894, Constance Fenimore Woolson, an American writer, a descendant of James Fenimore Cooper, and a dear friend of James, committed suicide, throwing herself out of the window of Palazzo Semitecolo. James had in 1886 shared a house with her, Villa Brichieri, at Bellosguardo, living however on different floors. James's letters to Mrs. Bronson (XXI, XXII) do not hide or mask the impression of horror which Miss Woolson's death had wrought on James. A sense of horror clearly accompanied by a sense of guilt — it does not matter whether justified or not — that crops up also in the long explanation of Miss Woolson's death that James felt himself impelled to give to Mrs. Bronson a few days after her suicide. The act, according to James, was caused by "some violent cerebral derangement", and everything seemed to prove this since Miss Woolson, a successful writer, was "liked, peculiarly, by people who knew her", and her relations "adored her". James seems to wish to persuade Mrs. Bronson, but above all himself, that a person so beloved by everybody should not have expected any love from himself. The "strange obscurity" of the facts covers up the difficulty of a relationship that seems to have become clear to James only after Miss Woolson's death, with the sudden violence, which the reader will find in such a story as The Beast in the Jungle.

Miss Woolson's death marked, for James, a period of detachment from Venice, or even of horror towards it. On July 29, 1894, James wrote to Mrs. Gardner (XXIII). Not only will he not be in Venice when "Mrs. Jack" holds her court at Palazzo Barbaro, but perhaps he will not return, ever, to Venice, because the city has been "simply blighted": a beautiful flower, killed by the frost of death. To Mrs. Curtis, James wrote: "How strange and empty Venice seemed to me, without you. The light is white and absent ...". The "bright Venetian air" has lost its splendour and colour. Even Palazzo Barbaro is "lovelier than ever — but what's the use?" What James did not write to Mrs. Gardner in his letter was what he had been doing in the three months he had spent in Venice, staying in that Casa Biondetti where Miss Woolson had lived before moving to Palazzo Semitecolo, and where he had acted as her literary executor. More than one contemporary witness wrote of James recounting in a suppressed, devious way, of the "execution", or suppression of, Miss Woolson's papers — and even of her black clothes — in the black waters of the lagoon. One can add Zina Hulton's version:

"Then he [Henry James] told me that when he had sorted out a few manuscripts of hers [Miss Woolson's] which were complete, there remained a great mass of notes and commencements and other worthless fragments. After thinking the question over, he decided to destroy all these by drowning them in the lagoon. So he went far out in a gondola and committed them to the water where it was really deep."

Death, the cancellation of what is dearest to a writer, his or her work, is represented by drowning in the deepest waters of the lagoon. The story of James's relationship with Venice becomes gloomy, ominous. Gone is the "bright Venetian air".


Excerpted from Letters From The Palazzo Barbaro by Henry James, Rosella Mamoli Zorzi. Copyright © 1998 Rosella Mamoli Zorzi. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Leon Edel, 13,
Introduction by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, 19,
Letters by Henry James, 57,
Letters by the Curtises, 171,
Notes by Ariana Curtis, 205,
Notes by Patricia Curtis Viganò, 213,
Index, 218,

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