Henry James’s Venice is a sinking beauty

Henry James – who is considered by many to be among the greatest novelists in the English language – had an intimate relationship with Venice which gave him a profound knowledge of the city’s art and architecture. He visited Venice repeatedly between the 1860s and the 1890s and this would make him more of an expatriate resident than a tourist. As a central figure in the city’s American expatriate community, he made Venice the principal setting in two of his works of fiction, namely The Wings of the Dove and The Aspern Papers. In addition, James also explored the city in short fiction, including Travelling Companions and Venice, and in Italian Hours, a travelogue focused on Italy.

Courted and lionised, James naturally took a front seat to the goings on in the late 19th-century Venice as the eminent guest of wealthy American socialites. He initially stayed as a guest with the popular New York hostess Katherine Bronson whose salon at the Casa Alvisi on the Grand Canal was presided over by Browning and Whistler. He later moved to the salon at the Palazzo Barbaro run by the hospitable Bostonian Curtises and also frequented by Sargent. Some years later James returned to the same palazzo as a guest of art collector and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner, the founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

James, who once described Venice as “the repository of consolations” or the ideal place for anyone feeling let down by life, comes across as a rather aloof, even lonely figure during his sojourns here. In the late 1880s he would often be found looking down in sadness at the Grand Canal from the balcony of the Casa Alvisi. The city evokes feelings of melancholy and foreboding as a golden age slips into a past that is only retrievable through reminiscence while tourists taint the vestiges of a former splendour. On that last note, he wrote memorably that “though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors”.

James’s view of the city as decaying in her glory and splendid in her decay is perhaps at its most poignant in the Venetian setting of The Wings of the Dove. This motif renders Venice as a particularly suitable seat for the novel’s conspiracies and betrayals surrounding its main character Milly Theale. This American heiress is stricken with a disease and some people around her befriend her with ulterior motives. The cold-blooded deception plot in the novel is characterised by a setting of wintry coldness, splashing rain and even a touch of acqua alta. Sinking Venice is a mirror of sinking Milly Theale as the sense of coldness and despairing death prevail in the end.

But for all his doom and gloom, James remains an avowed admirer of Venice. In Italian Hours, he writes: “It is a fact that almost everyone interesting, appealing, melancholy, memorable, odd, seems at one time or another, after many days and much life, to have gravitated to Venice by happy instinct.” He clearly speaks for himself when he says of Venice that “the deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place can give”. When he suggests that there is nothing new to be said about the city, he contradicts himself spectacularly with his own works about Venice.