In the second half of the 14th century, Venice produced her first famous female author, Christine de Pizan. De Pizan wrote mostly in the Middle French language and lived most of her life in Paris because her father was appointed by the court of Charles V of France. She married at the age of 15 and was widowed 10 years later. De Pizan had to write to support her two children and her mother. Her writings included ballads and romantic exploits. She also participated in literary debates of the time. She might have picked up the chivalric stories she wrote about in France, but her own individualized and humanistic approach was certainly influenced by her Venetian origin and experience.
Christine de Pizan established herself as a female intellectual and could be considered as one of the earliest feminists. Some of her writings were allegorical stories from a completely female perspective. She believed every woman should have skills in discourse as well as values in chastity and restraint. Her belief in female virtues still conformed to the common set of virtues of the Middle Ages, but like the ancient Greeks, she believed in the power of rhetoric to settle differences, and that women should assert themselves. She offered her advice to all women, including widows and even prostitutes. A Venetian woman who left her influence not only on 15th century English poetry, De Pizan also left her footprint on the male-dominated field of rhetorical discourse.
Early in the 14th century, before Christine de Pizan, there was Marco Polo, the world famous traveler and adventurer who wrote “The Book of the Marvels of the World,” also known as “The Travels of Marco Polo”. This caused widespread fascination in, and intrigue with Cathay among the Europeans. Contemporary with these two writers was Dante Alighieri, whose famous work, “Inferno”, included Venice’s Arsenal where the hellish pit of the robbers was to be found. Dante’s Inferno of the Divine Comedy has become the model description for hell ever since. Another son and adventurer of Venice was Giacomo Casanova. He wrote “The Story of My Flight”, or “The History of My Life”, which gave detailed descriptions of the intemperance of life in 18th century Venice.
Venice, for some reason, has inspired writers of different nationalities throughout the ages. Intellectuals from every era have been unable to resist the spell of Venetian magic– its beauty, refinement, history, and decadence, as well as its melancholy mood. A quiet solitary walk in St. Mark’s Square on a misty night has sparked so many literary spirits.
In the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice”. In the 18th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Venice and wrote his “Italian Journey”. Rousseau and Voltaire, both Enlightenment thinkers, thoroughly enjoyed Venice. One can see from Voltaire’s most famous book, “Candide”, that Venice was totally decadent. The book’s Venetian protagonist, Count Pococurante, complained there were “too many women, too much art, music and literature” in Venice.
In the spring of 1818, Lord Byron rented the “piano nobile” of the Palazzo Mocenigo and became part of the magic of Venice. In the mid-1850’s, John Ruskin’s three-volume treatise, “The Stones of Venice”, cast a long shadow on Venice and contributed to the great Gothic Revival in the 19th century.
Less than three decades after Byron, Robert Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, visited Venice and stayed for the rest of their lives.
Henry James and Ernest Hemingway also joined the ranks of Venetian literary ghosts. Like Hemingway, 20th century German novelist Thomas Mann loved Venice’s Lido Island and used it as the setting in his famous novella, “Death in Venice”. His melancholy story overlooked the grey Adriatic Sea and symbolized the lazy Venetian summer during the Belle Epoque period. Cole Porter’s music, together with a glass of Venetian spritz became the mood and spirit that so many of the Jazz Era’s international jet-setters sought. D.H. Lawrence described Venice as the “holiday-place of all holiday-places” in his “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.
Finally, in 20th century writer Italo Calvino’s wonderful book, “Le Citta Invisibili” (Invisible Cities), each of the cities he depicted is, in reality, a description of a different aspect of this extravagant and theatrical beauty called Venice.