In Venetian history

Coffee trade in Venice reached its climax in the middle of the 18th century. 

Nearly 28 million cups of coffee per year would be drunk in Venice and its territories in the Stato da Terra in Northern Italy. Nearly 600 cafes were active (285 cafes just in Venice), one every 460 inhabitants. 50% of the Venetian total income related to commerce in the East depended on this commodity. 

Not just: thanks to coffee trade, Venice kept on arranging maritime convoys to Alexandria and the Middle East thus supporting Venetian shipbuilding and traditional arts and crafts, in particular textiles and glass —especially the most celebrated “conterie” seed glass beads. Coffee trade had in the end replaced the commerce of spices!

How did coffee trade become so important for Venice?

Originally from Kaffa, in Ethiopia, in the 1400s coffee plants grew in Yemen, too. In one hundred years, these plants were present all over the Ottoman Empire, up to Damascus. It was in Syria in the 1530s that a first cafe opened. In 1554 you could already enjoy the aromatic infusion in Istanbul. There were five cafes in 1565 in Jerusalem, too. Two in Gaza.

Coffee beans, a photo I took in Zanzibar in 2019

Less than ten years later, in 1573, in the Senate Hall of the Doge’s palace coffee was mentioned for the first time.

The words of Senator Costantino Garzoni, ambassador of Venice in Istanbul are quite interesting:

Turks sit together and to enjoy themselves they drink in public, in some shops as well as in the streets, of any social class, some black boiling water which comes from some seeds they call “cavèe”. It is said to have the virtue of keeping awake

In her wonderful archivist research recently published in Italian for “ytali Publishers” (2022), Sandra Stocchetto very well narrates the intricate history of coffee as a drink in Venice, highlighting the economic aspects. Another great analysis was offered some years ago by Tiziana Plebani, focusing on the cultural aspects of how an exotic drink connected to the Ottoman Empire slowly conquered Venetians, overcoming the distrust towards the “Turkish barbarians”. Only when the relation between Ottomans and Venice was no longer a conflictual one, then coffee would be accepted.

Who were the protagonists of the coffee trade in Venice?

As with sugar, also coffee was first commercialized in Europe through Venice. 

It was likely brought to Venice by Armenians or Sephardic Jews. One should also not forget when Shah Abbas the Great sent his delegates to Venice in 1603, it may be coffee was also brought amidst silk carpets and more Persian gifts. In fact, Abbas had promoted the creation of a first cafe in his Persian city, Isfahan. 

But it might also be it was Venetian expats who lived in Alexandria, or Aleppos, Damascus, Beirut and Istanbul who brought the usage of drinking coffee to Venice.

In Stocchetto’s scrupulous research, however, it is highlighted how it was thanks to Sephardic Jews in the Ghetto Vecchio and Nuovissimo that coffee reached these high figures. Jews were supporting the diffusion of this commodity both for international wholesale trade (import and export) as well as small businesses run by Jews in the Ghetto. Without them, Venice would have not become such an important centre for coffee trade, especially when French and Dutch competitors became very aggressive importing coffee from the Antilles or Java. 

The cafe, a new urban project

Coffee drinking is a social event. In Pietro Longhi’s paintings at the Querini Stampalia Palace museum or at Ca’ Rezzonico Palace museum, coffee as a social drink is everywhere. In the casinos, the elegant “ridotti” where social gatherings and gambling required energy drinks, as well as in private homes we see waiters delivering cups and coffee pots.

Gabriel Bella, The Ridotto, Querini Stampalia Palace Museum, 1780s, Venice

Even in the convents.

Francesco Guardi, The parlor room in the convent of San Zaccaria, Ca’ Rezzonico Museum Venice

Although I have the feeling that when it comes to noble private homes, it’s chocolate and not coffee that guests are offered, it is a sign of how exotic drinks (and porcelain pottery) became distinctive characters of the age.

Coffee cup and saucer in Murano glass at the Glass Museum in Murano, 18th century

However, the fact that in Italian the word “caffè” is used for both the drink, the plant and the place where you drink coffee lets us understand cafes would not exist if it weren’t for coffee. A cafe was a place where the time you spent was quite variable. Cafes were strongly interconnected to the urban context. As the famous Venice born journalist Gasparo Gozzi wrote in the middle of the 1700s:

Cafes are a joy for the eyes so much that when you approach one of them, it does not feel as if you are looking at a shop, but rather a lovely theatre show; inside you will enjoy decorations feigning gardens, scenes of hunting and games, enriched with refined carvings framing mirrors, comfortable armchairs and sofas

Interiors of the Florian Cafe founded in St Mark’s square in 1720, Venice

A cafe is not a bar or a jazz club

As a result, cafes opening in Venice looked like the boudoir in a private palazzo with a main characteristic: the window. Take as an example the cafes in St Mark’s square.

A window to watch and be watched: Florian Cafe in St Mark’s square, Venice

A sort of a theatre stage, as Gozzi wrote, but in both directions. For the ones sitting inside, the show was St Mark’s square, for the passer-byes the show was inside the cafe. Very different concept from bars or jazz clubs.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, Art Institute Chicago

Coffee trade and revolutionary ideas: journalism and sexual liberation

Cafes soon became more than a place where you could recover as they also offered an occasion for cultural meetings. One could almost say journalism was born in a cafe. That’s where news were gathered and discussed. That’s where newspapers talking about economics, politics, literature and science would be distributed, too!

Not to mention that women were also participating in this cultural revolution. No wonder in 1776 cafes were prohibited to women, in order to avoid promiscuous situations promoting immorality or sexual liberation… till cafes’ owners begged the authority to remove the prohibition as it clearly affected their business and in ten years women were back.

Antonio Donghi, A woman at a cafe, 1931, Ca’ Pesaro Museum of Modern Art in Venice

It was Montesquieu who wrote in 1721:

If I were the King, I would close all the cafes! I would prefer cafes’ clients to get drunk in the wine bars rather than letting their brains get “warm” in the cafes…

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Sandra Stocchetto, Il negozio del caffè nella Serenissima, ytali Venezia 2022
Tiziana Plebani, “Acque negre, acque salse, acque levantine” in Il caffe, ossia brevi e vari discorsi in area padana, a cura di Angelo d’Orsi, Silvana Milano 1991

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Showing 2 comments
  • Jill Kerby

    Fascinating as ever. One of the best consequences of staying in Venice a little longer than most visitors is that you inevitably find a cosy local cafe to settle into for your morning ‘cafe’ and to pick up the neighbourhood and wider bits of gossip.

    For this visit my ‘local’ is a great little place called Cafe Boresa near San Stae where I met a most interesting American couple who had just visited Ca Mocenigo, and needed a coffee break! They mentioned they were joining a cruise later in the week that would spend a few days in Turkish waters – and in Istanbul – and we got talking about last weekend’s Turkish election result.

    Let’s hope the good relations between Italy (Venice) and Turkey that did eventually develop over the coffee trade continues: ‘coffee diplomacy’ sounds like it’s needed now, as much as it was hundreds of years ago.

    • Thank you for leaving this comment. I am really glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the post! Coffee is a great intellectual drink, with cosmopolitan flavors! I find it interesting that coffee, tea and chocolate were never prohibited… so absolutely a diplomatic drink.