John Addington Symonds, literary tourism and the colour of Venetian canals

Amber K. Regis (University of Sheffield)

In the weeks leading up to the recent NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA conference, hosted by Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, I read the following passage from John Addington Symonds’s The Fine Arts, the third volume in his Renaissance in Italy series:

Venice, with her pavement of liquid chrysoprase, with her palaces of porphyry and marble, her frescoed facades, her quays and squares aglow with the costumes of the Levant, her lagoons afloat with the galleys of all nations, her churches floored with mosaics, her silvery domes and ceilings glittering with sculpture bathed in molten gold.[i]

I included this passage in my conference paper as an example of Symonds’s ‘Venice register’—typical of his diction and figurative language when describing Italy’s “sea city”.[ii] On my first reading I hit the seventh word and paused. Chrysoprase. What was that? A Google search revealed it was a semi-precious stone, and a Google Image search revealed it was green in colour, somewhere between jade and aqua-marine, veined through with lines of a darker shade. After this moment’s distraction on the Internet, I thought little more of Symonds’s use of this stone in his writing.

A few weeks later I found myself on a plane landing at Marco Polo Airport, Venice. A short bus ride later I was at the Piazzale Roma catching a vaporetti on my way to San Marco. It was then I noticed the water—its colour, its movement and its differing shades. A striking phrase resurfaced in my mind: “Venice, with her pavement of liquid chrysoprase”. What I had assumed to be Symonds’s purple prose, yet another example of his hyperbolic tendencies, proved to be a rather exact description. The canals were indeed a striking shade of blue-green, and everywhere I looked, the luminous brine was interspersed with dark fronds of seaweed.

This moment was revelatory. I would never have understood Symonds’s description if I hadn’t travelled to Venice. I would never have sympathised with nor understood his paradoxically literal use metaphor. I would never have fully shared his affective response to Venice’s dilapidated beauty and rich colour palette. My understanding of the way Symonds envisioned the city had changed. Was this unquantifiable? Certainly. Was it sentimental? Perhaps. But there had been an undeniable shift.

Spurred on by this experience, I took time out from the busy conference schedule to embark on some Symonds tourism. I took a vaporetti to the Lido to walk the streets of the Parrocchia Santa Maria Elisabetta where Symonds had met and fallen in love with a Venetian gondolier, Angelo Fusato, in 1881. A fruitless hour was spent in search of Fighetti’s, a wine shop where Symonds had been drinking and the exact location of their first meeting. But it was, perhaps, too much to ask to find this business still a going concern.

Another outing saw me walking the length of the Zattere, a waterfront promenade running alongside the canal of the Guidecca. I was searching for Ca’ Torresella, a house that once belonged to Horatio F. Brown and in which Symonds rented a mezzanine flat. I couldn’t remember the house number and I had only the haziest memory of this building from a black and white photograph reproduced in Phyllis Grosskurth’s 1964 biography of Symonds. And yet, I found a house that looked vaguely familiar and I duly took a photograph. Back at the conference and connected once more to the Internet, a spot of Google searching revealed I had indeed been outside Ca’ Torresella and caught a glimpse of Symonds’s Venetian getaway.

It would be easy to feel foolish, on reflection, for spending precious hours of my time in Venice looking for a long since disappeared wine shop and a house I couldn’t quite remember. And indeed, discussions at the conference were not helping matters. Many of the papers I attended explored a tendency in travel writing (and in critical accounts of travel writing) to distinguish between travellers and tourists, between ‘authentic’ and supposedly ‘inauthentic’ encounters with a foreign country. Travellers might embark on a journey for a variety of reasons. They might be travelling for business, for example, pursuing professional ends—they might be an anthropologist, archaeologist, architect (and this is just a sample of the list beginning with ‘A’). Travellers do not stick to well-beaten tracks, nor are they beholden to fixed itineraries. By contrast, the tourist travels journeys for pleasure and is certain to take in all the usual sites/sights. Tourists move in groups, following routes laid down in guidebooks or dutifully following a tour guide. Tourists collect photographs and souvenirs, documenting their experience in the hope of taking home an authentic piece of their foreign travels.

This was by no means a distinction left untroubled by speakers at NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA, and unfortunately there isn’t space here to debate the various de/merits of this binary. But as I sat in the conference searching for a picture of Symonds’s Venetian home on Google Images, I wondered into what category I would fall. As a conference attendee on the island of San Servolo, I was surely a traveller who off the beaten track. But as a reader of Symonds searching for a wine shop and mezzanine flat, taking photographs as I went, I was surely a tourist.

And I want to write in praise of the touristical act. Looking now at my photograph of Ca’ Torresella I am saddened to see the graffiti on its walls (and I suspect that Symonds would share this sentiment). But I am also cheered. Having walked the streets and seen the views that would have greeted him everyday of his residence there, I am better placed as a reader:

I am just above a bridge […] up & down wh[ich] go divine beings: sailors of the marine, soldiers, blue vested & trousered fishermen, swaggering gondoliers. I can almost see their faces as they top the bridge. By rising from the chair a little—I do so at once, and get some smiles from passing strangers.[iii]

I spend a lot of time with Symonds’s words and it is all too easy to begin to see them as nothing more than ink on paper—words, words, words. But now I can locate Symonds’s homoerotic gaze to a precise location—I have walked the street; I have crossed the bridge; I have gazed at the gondoliers that still pass by his window. How refreshing it is to see as well as to read—to read “pavements of liquid chrysoprase” and see the colour of Venetian canals.

Amber Regis is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests include life-writing and the work of John Addington Symonds. She is currently at work on a new edition of Symonds’s Memoirs and a book-length study of experiment in Victorian auto/biography.

With thanks to Trev Lynn Broughton and James Williams for their company along the Zaterre, and to Annisa Suliman for her patience on the Lido when searching for Fighetti’s long-lost wine shop.

[i] John Addington Symonds [1877], Renaissance in Italy: The Fine Arts, New Edn (London: Smith, Elder, 1914), p. 255.

[ii] John Addington Symonds, ‘A Venetian Medley’, Fraser’s Magazine (September 1882), 363-80 (p. 363).

[iii] John Addington Symonds to Edmund Gosse, 9 November 1890. Reproduced on Rictor Norton’s The John Addington Symonds Pages, [accessed 28 June 2013].


  1. Amber, a fitting contemporary tribute to Symonds and his love affair with Venice. As Symonds does with his prose, you certainly capture the essence of what he was trying to say. I have never really studied Symonds, so your knowledge of his life really brought those Lido streets to life. I enjoyed picking over his words and the detective work involved in trying to pin his descriptions and experiences to one particular place. In terms of success, our visit may not have delivered what we’d hoped (rather like research in many ways) but our touristical act was certainly a fruitful one. On this particular trip, Symonds became a real person and made me look at the Lido in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I first stepped off the vaporetto.
    With regard to the discussion about authentic and inauthentic tourism, I agree with you. Our engagement with the streets of the Lido may not have been strictly authentic, after all we were basing our visit upon Symonds’ accounts; but surely by attempting to see things through his eyes we were following in an authentic touristic tradition in which travellers visit strange and wonderful places precisely because someone else thinks them significant. This doesn’t devalue the experience (though some would argue this) for whether you find what you expect or hate what you see – each visit is unique to each individual experience. That Symonds’ Venice register still speaks to us today is confirmation that the gap in sensibilities between Nineteenth Century and Twenty-First Century travellers isn’t as great as some would suppose, nor is travel writing as subjective as some would suppose; and just because we may follow in someone else’s footsteps doesn’t make our experience of a place any more or less authentic.
    Thank you for sharing your Symonds odyssey.

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