Venetian Hours: Franco-Venice and French Cuisine
French Food in Venice
The Venetians might have ruled much of the refined sugar trade in Europe, but by the eighteenth century, they were importing French pastry techniques. “Count Cavour, the first prime minister of a united Italy,” sent his personal chef to be trained in France, while the Italian royal family was eating macaroni à la Parisienne.
Today, the French influence is best seen at the Tonolo pasticceria in the San Polo neighborhood, which won a gold medal in Paris for its sweet focaccia in 1909 and has some of the best coffee in Venice. To say this is a Venetian establishment would be grossly understating it. And it wasn’t the Paris-Brest that hooked me on Tonolo so many years ago: it was the quality of absolutely everything they make, from their coffee to their Venetian pastries to their cream-filled pastries. It was the extreme care taken with the presentation and visual aspects — something many Venetian pastry chefs lack, despite the good taste. After living in France for so long, I immediately felt right at home in Tonolo, so familiar, reminding of my youth when I discovered mille-feuilles and éclairs and tried new pastries every day.
Historic Influence of France on Venice – Napolean and the Crusaders
Napoleon’s troops marched into Piazza San Marco in 1797; the Venetians had little choice but to submit despite long negotiations to prevent it. “You have murdered my children—the winged lion of St. Mark (the armorial bearing of Venice) must lick the dust,” he said. Some Venetian merchants were so grateful for his making Venice a free port that they commissioned a statue of him dressed as Caesar, which stood in the Piazza San Marco from 1811 to 1814. The statue can now be seen in what is today called the Correr Museum at the end of the piazza, which itself dates from the time when Venice belonged to the Kingdom of Italy, of which Napoleon was sovereign. Napoleon demolished the San Geminiano Church and replaced it with this palace for the Viceroy, his son-in-law.
Need I say that the Venetians are not particularly fond of Napoleon, but they’ve none the less left a 10-foot statue of him standing in the entrance hall of one of the Mocenigo palaces, now a private apartment house, even though the public one in Piazza San Marco was removed. The native Venetian sculptor Canova even sculpted Napoleon as Mars, in the nude, in full classic style, but that’s a tangent.
Napoleon’s viceroy was not the first important Frenchman to call La Serenissima home for a while. The Fourth Crusade was conceived in northern France in 1199 and with a profusion of emotion, French barons took on the cause of recapturing the Holy Land from Islamic rule and traveling overland to Venice — perhaps the richest and most powerful city in Europe — to commission a fleet of boats.
The French Crusaders ended up spending over a year on the sandy island of the Lido off Venice before setting sail, as they waited for the Venetians to build their boats and money to arrive — plenty of time to have influenced Venetian cuisine, but did they, since they were virtually starving due to lack of funds? I can’t help wondering what the French ate when they inhabited this sand bar in the lagoon.
Casinos or Casini
The Casino Venier is a little eighteenth-century jewel box now home to the Alliance Française. In Italian, a casino is a small, private place where friends and family meet to gamble, listen to music, and generally have a good time. By 1774, there were 118 of them. Gambling was a favorite pastime and was made illegal time and time again, so it had to be kept out of sight. Casino Venier is laid out like a little palazzo. It was restored by to the French Committee to Save Venice from 1981-93, and is today the property of the City of Venice.
Palazzetto Bru Zane
The Palazzetto Bru Zane, designed in the seventeenth century by the architect Longhena, is another casino in the Italian sense of the word, replete with frescos, marble mosaic floors and sumptuous wood carving. It was originally connected by a small garden to the Zane family’s main palazzo, today the Scuola Livio Sanudo, thereby giving quick, easy access.
In 2006, the French Fondation Bru started to renovate it to its original state for the promotion of French classical music. The Centre de Musique Romantique Française, or French Romantic Music Center, has two main aims: 1) to obtain recognition for the lesser-known works of well-known French composers such as Bizet, Gounod, Massenet and others, and 2) to bring attention back to composers such as Méhul, Hérold, Onslow — France’s “Beethoven” — Alkan, Pierné and others, whose works are rarely played in concert. The center also holds symposia in Venice and other cities around Europe based on their scientific and musicological research in the related fields of art history, organology, literature, and the performing arts. Madame Bru, the sponsor, is French.
LVMH at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi
The “German Foundation” building by the Rialto bridge is the “most important trading post and warehouse on the Grand Canal” and it’s now French, one might say. It was built in 1225 and was used by the Germans, Austrians, Bohemians, Hungarians and Flemish for centuries for trading purposes. After many renovations and rebuilds (it burned in 1505, but was rebuilt almost immediately), it was bought by Benetton in 2008 with plans to make it into an ultra-contemporary complex with a link between culture and commerce, bringing a new vitality to the historic heart of Venice. After much delay and protest over its plans from both Venetians and foreign lovers of Venice, Benetton sold it to Bernard Arnaud’s French group LVMH and the work is now in full progress; its department store is scheduled to open in the summer of 2016. Whether they will sell French food delicacies alongside Italian is à suivre.
Frenchman François Pinault is not new to Italian business. When his luxury goods firm PPR bought Gucci Group, which includes Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Sergio Rossi, Boucheron, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga back in 1999, it became more Italian than French.
In Venice, his cultural investments include Palazzo Grassi, owned and run as an exhibition space by Fiat Group’s Gianni Agnelli from 1983 until his death in 2005, after which Pinault took over. In 2006, the city of Venice decided to turn the old customs house, the Punta della Dogana, into a center for contemporary art. Pinault’s foundation won the competition and started renovation of the site in 2008; it opened as a space for temporary exhibitions in 2009.