By ROBIN SAIKIA.
Some say that despite Napoleon’s conquest and the period of Austro-Hungarian rule here that followed his defeat, the Republic never really died. Not even the unification of Italy could tame the Lion of St Mark. He slept quietly for a century — just as he is depicted on the tomb of Canova in the Frari — and woke again more or less just before the First World War, refreshed and able to confront the new century with the old wiliness and defiance.
Returning to the Spritz, it is a mixture in three equal parts of prosecco, fizzy water and (usually) Aperol, Campari or Cynar. The irony is that it is an Austro-Hungarian, not a Venetian confection. All soldiers are heavy drinkers, largely because of the boredom engendered by protracted campaigns, and the 19th century Austrian army of occupation was no exception. In the old days of the Republic, locals drank little but wine, sold by street vendors in the alleys and squares of the city. In Venetian parlance, a small glass of wine is still called an ombra, literally a ‘shadow’, a reference to the street vendors who would hourly move their pitches in Piazza San Marco, making sure that the flagons of wine were always in the cool shade of the campanile. The beer-swilling Austrian squaddy was unused to wine – and drunken chaos quickly became the order of the day. The commanding officers, rather than impose what would have been a mutiny-provoking ban on booze, hit on the idea of watering down the wine ration. It was from this expedient that the refreshing and not-too-alcoholic modern cocktail of Spritz developed. There is even a dog called Spritz, my best four-legged friend in Venice, pictured just below.
You will notice that Spritz is standing on a handsome marble floor, a perfect example of what is known as terrazzo veneziano. These mosaic-effect floors, created by craftsmen in a seemingly infinite variety of designs, are a common feature of palaces and churches in the city. However, the floor upon which Spritz stands is two hours distant from Venice, in the ballroom of a superb 18th century country house, the Villa Gallici Deciani near Udine in Friuli Venezia Giulia, home of my pal Count Luigi Deciani whom you met briefly in the last Letter from Venice.
Friuli was, in the old days, one of the furthest-flung mainland dominions of the Venetian empire — and therefore its cities, towns, villas and churches bear unmistakeable traces of Venice. Yet since Friuli is in the north-east and close to what are now the borders of Austria and Slovenia, the Venetian leitmotiv in everything from architecture to cuisine is fused with other, non-Italian, influences. The food in particular is an intriguing mix of Mitteleuropa, Slavic and Mediterranean flavours – and in quality the local wine is certainly first-equal to that of Tuscany. The climate is mild: fresh breezes blow down from the Alps to temper the sometimes unforgiving blaze of Italian sunshine. All of which makes Friuli the perfect retreat from the oven of Venice during the dog days of the Ferragosto, the prolonged Italian national holiday in August — so this reaches you directly from the Villa Gallici Deciani.
You would not think, from the splendid condition in which you will find it today, that Luigi’s villa has had a rough ride over the last seventy years. It was occupied by the Wehrmacht (mercifully not the Gestapo) during the Second World War and subsequently by the Americans, who converted the Green Drawing-Room into a bar. The word ‘Bar’ is still to be seen stencilled on the door that leads from the ballroom to the drawing-room. Moreover, the Americans took to throwing their pocket knives at this door to act as temporary coat hangers – and Luigi has lovingly preserved the resulting damage. Later, the villa was badly shaken up during the 1976 Friuli earthquake and rendered completely uninhabitable.
It was not until 1987, after a time-consuming restoration project, that Luigi was able to open the house and grounds to the public. Now, Villa Gallici Deciani doubles as a family home and as a venue for concerts, weddings, poetry readings and outward-bound projects for young people. For the last week it has been quiet — no events — and therefore we have enjoyed an agreeably eccentric country house long weekend. I even managed to cook, reasonably successfully, my favourite Friulian dish — salami, sliced and slowly fried in finely chopped onions then simmered in the best quality red wine vinegar.
The Count meanwhile – with his cinematic good looks and ready wit, not to mention his resourceful Sri Lankan butler and footman — kept us regally entertained. Among those staying were a Russian artist, a French art dealer, a German banker, a Japanese therapist and an Austrian location agent — all good company and all good cooks. I have to say that being writer-in-residence at the villa is a far from onerous occupation in comparison to other slogs I’ve undertaken at the literary coalface.
HOWEVER…BACK TO the coalface of Venice tomorrow – and next month you can expect a report on the run-up to the Film Festival and an objective review of what to expect in this year’s Venice Biennale. For the uninitiated the term ‘Biennale’ is now pretty much a quaint hangover from the past, since we now have events every year rather than every two years – one year art, the next architecture. This year it’s architecture, and the overarching intention has been to use architecture as a means of illustrating the cultural and social history of each of the participating countries. This, I think, is a good idea, since it has greatly reduced the number of get-me installations biennially put together by prominent contemporary architects in an attempt to trumpet their cutting-edge practices. Instead, there is a great deal of genuinely valuable and informative material – all of it suggesting that, at his best, the architect is the servant of his patron or community rather than a master equipped with a carte blanche to superimpose unattractive or unwelcome ideas spewed forth from the drawing-board. I look forward to giving you the best and worst in next month’s dispatch. I will also report on the unfortunate events preceding and surrounding the sale by auction of the haunted island of Poveglia in the Venice lagoon. In the meantime, take a look at the video.
Robin Saikia is a writer and historian based in London and Venice. He grew up in Britain, Zambia, India, and Italy, and was educated at Winchester College and at Merton College, Oxford. He is a good cook, an adventurous traveller and an accomplished classical pianist. He is the Venice correspondent to The Fortnightly Review and the author of The Venice Lido, the first ever full-length historical and cultural guide to Venice’s glamorous beach resort, along with several other Blue Guides. His website is here.