Skip to main content

The Rialto Bridge seen over Venice’s Grand Canal in the late 19th century.

What happens when you use 19th-century travel guides to navigate Venice? Gabriella Gage tackles the ancient locale's twisting alleys

From across the Grand Canal at the Venezia Santa Lucia train station, the patina of San Simeone Piccolo's dome glows an unnatural hue, intensified by the canal water. Disoriented, I glance at the guidebook in my hand by travel writer Mariana Starke. "It is scarce possible to discover the magnificent edifices of Venice floating, as it were, on the bosom of the deep, without exclaiming, 'Singular and beautiful City!' of whose appearance imagination can form no idea, because no other work of man is like thee," Starke writes. If this sounds more lyrical than the everyday travel guide, that's because it's from 1828. Starke's text, along with two other 19th-century guidebooks, will serve as my companions on a day's journey through Venice.

The plan: Explore and/or stumble around this foreign city relying solely on their antique guidance – a scavenger hunt in which the only prize is the strange, transcendent satisfaction that comes from being directed by the words of the dead.

The oldest of my three guidebooks, Travels in Europe Between the Years 1824 and 1828 was written by Starke, a pioneer of the modern travel guide and a bit of an anomaly in her time as a solo British female traveller. She is joined in historical spirit (and in my backpack) by a detail-oriented German named Karl Baedeker, whose Italy: Handbook for Travellers more closely resembles the traditional guidebook. Published in 1883, it helped solidify the Baedeker guidebook powerhouse (still around today), with its red leather-bound volumes the mark of the emerging 19th-century tourist. My third companion, A Week in Venice: A Complete Guide-book to the City and Its Environs, lists only G.E.M. and Colombo Coen, an obscure Jewish publisher from Trieste, in the publication information.

The 1880 guide focuses exclusively on Venice, offering the insider details of a resident rather than the generalizations of an interloper.

Like favourite characters out of life and literature, Starke, Karl and Colombo – as I begin to call them – form a motley crew of cicerones. I picture Starke wearing an oversized safari hat. Karl sports uncomfortably trim but practical khaki shorts. And for Colombo, a cigar – and a detective's eye scanning the small details of the city.

Why this experiment? In short, I like old stuff.

A 19th-century guidebook describes the Grand Canal as ‘the finest street in Venice, and one of the finest in the world.’

I've always been drawn to vintage aesthetics and have a quiet feeling that I'm a walking, talking anachronism – a feeling that sometimes borders on hypernostalgia and temporal displacement (a made-up term that sounds appropriately like a 19th-century ailment). It's like a bustle-wearing Victorian showing up at a keg party where everyone is on hoverboards, except that I was born in the era of Muppet Babies and can claim no such cultural superiority. It feels daring but also somehow comforting to go into a trip blind to the present, with nothing but extensive, up-to-date information from long ago.

Though I'd prefer the sweet-smelling, faded leather of the original hardcovers, my photocopies of these guidebooks are more practical – lightweight, disposable and free, thanks to public domain. I wonder how much will have changed since their publication, figuring they will tend toward obsolescence. Many timelines of Venice's history conspicuously end around Italian unification, so it seems a uniquely positioned "timeless city." But time is the foe of timeless places, and Venice is sinking at the rate of about two millimetres a year.

The blockish railway station behind me is unabashedly modern, not the original Colombo and Karl mention (rail was not yet the dominant form of travel when Starke was writing). But their terminal can't be far off, since both descriptions place me roughly at the northwest corner of the Grand Canal.

"Paved with water," Colombo says, "the Grand Canal is the finest street in Venice, and one of the finest in the world." The gondolas, once the primary mode of transport for my guides ("four francs per day," scoffs an imagined Starke), are now a pricey novelty at €80, propelled by gondoliers who can be "weird and melancholy" (Karl's words). Nostalgia, I'm learning, comes at a price. Most of the gondolas are occupied by the same selfie-taking passengers you might see hailing a horse and buggy in Central Park. Like the buggies, there's romance in another era's everyday, though it's slightly more practical here given that Venice has evolved far less than 1890s Manhattan.

I'm off to a rough start until I read Karl's tip that " vaporetti comunali of the municipality ply on the canals." Seeing the signs for these vaporetti, I purchase a water-taxi ticket for €6.

"Let the reader accompany us with this guide-book in his hand down the Grand Canal," Colombo says as he describes point-by-point attractions from left to right. I am in no position to verify their accuracy. As I follow along the landscape of tangerine structures popping against viridian water and overcast skies, I quickly and fully commit to trusting the guides with my destiny, much as I would the all-powerful GPS wizard.

We arrive at Piazza San Marco. Colombo assures me it is "one of the finest squares in the world; not the largest – for Trafalgar Square is larger – or the most regular – for it is crooked compared with the Place de la Concorde – but it defies London and Paris to produce its equal." Twirling in place leaves me with distorted impressions of multiple styles – classical, neoclassical, gothic, Italo-Byzantine – and skewed angles, as in convex mirrors. It looks like a larger version of a small-town square, equal parts monastery and market, air filled with classical music. "One Venice, one sun, and one Piazza San Marco. This is the boast of the Venetians," Colombo adds, and I'm inclined to agree.

"The nucleus" of this square, Karl notes, is St. Mark's Basilica, built in the 11th century. We shuffle along in line on raised wooden planks, a few feet above the puddles from the recent acqua alta (flooding), until I learn of the "no bag" policy that my guidebooks could never have anticipated. I am booted out with a swift hand gesture by the uniformed guard and directed to a bag check down a nearby alley.

Once inside, three people are scolded for taking photos of the gold glass mosaics. I wonder how my three Virgils would view such modern cruelties. We escape to the second-storey porch of St. Mark's, where the Triumphal Quadriga, otherwise known as the Horses of St. Mark, preside over the square. The horses, Starke chimes in, are made of bronze gilt and, in her opinion, "extremely ill placed." They were captured in Constantinople in 1204, brought to Venice, looted by Napoleon in 1797 and finally returned after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. It isn't until I'm back inside that I discover the real Horses of St. Mark (the ones outside are replicas) and learn they are actually copper, not bronze.

Born in 1761, Starke grew up in India, where her father was governor of the British East India Company's colony in Madras. She began her travel escapades while visiting an ailing relative in 1792 and experienced Napoleon's First Italian Campaign firsthand. As both memoir and travel guide, her work stood apart from the travel literature of the period, which was chiefly geared toward young, wealthy British males embarking on the Grand Tour, considered a path to dignified manhood. Instead, her guides presented practical information, such as the fact that entry into Venice required a passport signed by an Austrian ambassador, and details such as prices, accommodations, mail routes and other budget-conscious, even family-friendly advice. Starke never married and continued her writing and travels – often under the name Jack Starke – until her death in 1838.

Imposing buildings line the Grand Canal, seen from a Venetian vaporetto.

I exit the basilica, where a fluted brick tower with a golden weather vane looms overhead to my left. Colombo tells me it's a 10th-century structure, 98.6 metres high, and Starke interjects, saying it "is well worth seeing" and is where "Galileo made his astronomical observations." I'm skeptical, wondering how it has survived the centuries on soft ground. It is only when I consult an earnest Karl that I learn the structure should no longer exist. "The square Campanile di San Marco 322 ft in height which rose opposite St Mark's to the SW collapsed on July 14th 1902 crushing the Loggetta at its foot," he writes. Since I'm staring at a tower, I can reasonably deduce that it was rebuilt. Later, a sign informs me that the new structure was completed in 1912.

I had assumed that the guidebooks would offer outdated dining information, but Venice's frozen-in-time vibe proves me wrong. "Under the same arcades of the New Procuratie," writes Colombo, "is the Caffe Florian the resort of the aristocracy and the favourite coffee house of English and American tourists." Famished, I head there, even though Karl, ever the downer, cautions me that Florian is "the best-known café, numerous newspapers, high charges." Opened in 1720, Florian was a favourite haunt of the legendary Casanova, thanks to it being one of the only establishments of its time to allow women.

Wanting to avoid the pigeons and the patio surcharge, I select a seat in a partially enclosed tearoom – with marble tables and red-velvet upholstery – to enjoy the piazza's music and tableau. Outside, a pair of newlyweds try to pose for a photo with the famed colombi amid the puddles. Despite being entirely "dependent upon private charity," according to Karl, these pigeons appear unco-operative to the couple's blissful plight. "The Pigeons are the protégés of the city as the Lions are its protectors," Colombo offers, before explaining in detail the various punishments – such as fines or imprisonment – for "ill-treating a pigeon." By the looks of disgust I witness, a clear shift in pigeon-Venetian relations has occurred in the past century or so; the only punishment now associated with pigeons, according to the signs, is the fine for feeding them.

My waiter wears a pristine white jacket and an oversized black bow tie and brings my club sandwich on a silver platter. With no Casanovas in sight, I shake my ghosts momentarily for a brief interlude into the realm of the living and strike up a conversation with Alexandra and Hannah, two New York designers on a work-related textile trip to Florence. "It's worth it, even for a short trip," said Hannah, who shares my philosophy that if one has a chance to get to Venice, he or she better do it or live with the regret of a thousand pigeon offenders. As a more expensive, touristy option, it's no surprise the café did not make Starke's guide, but the ambience is as exactly as promised.

Hunger vanquished, I am confronted by the biggest – and most logical – failure of the books: their lack of relevant museum opening or ticket information. That part of my visit must be done entirely on the fly. But what they lack in practical information, all three guides make up for it with strange facts and extensive descriptions of works of art and artifacts in each church and museum, unmatched by the modern travel guide. Long before user reviews and travel websites, they also offered thinly disguised narratives, despite their attempts at objectivity.

The most modern of my companions, Karl, began publishing worldwide travel guides in 1830 in German, and later English, with meticulous prose and sometimes offensive cultural generalizations typical of the period. While "rheumatism is prevalent," Karl explains, "its perfect immunity from dust is one of the chief advantages of Venice." He goes on to bombard me with facts and even an accurate estimate of the seasonal average temperature (14.8 C).

By way of contrast, Colombo – the publisher and perhaps even author – is more elusive. He was known for producing beautiful editions of the Haggadah until his death circa 1877. He offers detailed background information on Venice. "She has suffered severely by the discovery of America and the Cape of Good Hope, and her position as a commercial city was no longer so central as heretofore," he explains, personifying the city.

Starke also provided a revolutionary travel invention: a rating system for attractions using exclamation marks, a precursor to the modern star system later adopted by her more famous male counterparts John Murray and Karl.

The Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy, in the late 19th century.

And so she leads my greatest hits tour of museums. Given her extensive journeys throughout the continent and the sheer ubiquity of priceless works in Italy, the highest rating anything in Venice gets is (!!), while sights in Naples and Rome receive a rare (!!!!!). The absence of exclamation marks does not seem to indicate a negative opinion, but each mark extends her enthusiasm for a site beyond baseline intrigue, as with increasingly friendly e-mails. Starke hints that Venice's appeal is more other-worldly and poetic, almost beyond the realm of ranking.

I travel below the Bridge of Sighs, which Colombo tells me was built at the turn of the 17th century and displays a style "neither very good, nor very bad." Likewise, he mutters, the iconic Rialto Bridge is "not very remarkable as a work of art." He did not predict that my attempts to cross the bridge would be thwarted by a dozen or so women belly dancing down the steps toward me with jangling belts on their hips.

I learn that a compass is more useful than a map in Venice. A 20-minute walk can easily become a 45-minute circuitous journey of dead ends. Just when I'm about to give up my search for "a pretty winding-staircase," the smell of a bakery marked only by a number leads me to Scala Contarini del Bovolo. The snail-like staircase's architect, Colombo says, "seems to have wished to imitate the famous leaning tower of Pisa and has produced something still more curious though less important." As with much of chimerically designed Venice, it begs the question "Why?" and answers with a starry-eyed "Because."

As the day concludes, the unique voices offered by Colombo, Karl and Starke create a sense of poetry and companionship, hitting that sweet spot between travelogue and the modern guidebook – a reminder that sometimes a void in the current literature is best filled by looking to the past.

As I board the last train to Rome, my farewell is an echo of those who've come before: "Oh, singular and beautiful city!" Enthralled by the day's idiosyncrasies, I feel as though I've pieced together an intricate puzzle, with the help of three strange characters, across space and time in an exotic kingdom that persists despite its inherent vulnerability. A city like my trip – ancient, irrational and beautiful.