The Gay Gondolier
Seymour Street (Marylebone)
On 7 December 1889 the Savoy Theatre on the Strand premiered the opera The Gondoliers. It was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last great success and ran for 554 performances, closing on 30 June 1891. Its title highlighted the long-lasting British passion for Venice and its gondolas. From then to the Italian Exhibition at Earls Court in 1904 (with a special section on ‘Venice at Night’) gondola-mania was at its height.
Venice installed its first Doge as leader of the young autonomous state in 697. It amassed its wealth from agriculture, local industry (textiles), maritime trade, and international banking. Shipbuilders provided commercial vessels and a naval fleet to protect and control the seaways. Commercial growth was matched by an astonishing cultural development. From Titian to Tintoretto, the city was home to renowned Renaissance painters and laid claim to the celebrated architects Jacobo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio. Aldus Manutius founded the Aldine Press producing the first printed editions of many of the Greek and Latin classics. Venice ruled the world, commercially, intellectually, and artistically. Known as Seranissima (‘most serene’), the Republic divided its power amongst members of the Doge’s Inner Circle which included six councillors and three inquisitors who were responsible for law and order. Policing the expanding domain was a necessity. After all, Venice produced Giacomo Casanova, Europe’s most notorious ruffian.
During the Renaissance it was also a city of courtesans of which there were two classes, namely ‘cortigna onesta’ (educated prostitutes) and ‘cortigna lume’ (common prostitutes). The first group was of a patrician or merchant background. In a society that dictated exorbitant dowries, many daughters were denied the opportunity of marriage. They would become nuns or spinsters. Alternatively, they followed a path into prostitution which enabled them to support themselves and other members of the family. As it was a duty for a Venetian male to make his fortune before marriage, many youngsters sought pleasure with women of taste and refinement (and most likely without disease). Elderly men were happy to supply young courtesans with a luxurious lifestyle.
The prostitute appeared in influential circles and mixed with artists, poets, politicians, and philosophers. She was introduced into art and poetry (the trend was set by Pietro Aretino) – and with her presence the gondola became a regular feature. Boat ride and sex became intertwined. Sometimes in a shocking manner. In Il trentuno della Zaffetta (1532) Lorenzo Venier – a friend of Aretino – recounts the alleged ‘trentuno’ (gang rape) of Angela del Moro on 6 April 1531. The attack was organised by her noble lover as a punishment for her betrayal. He lures Angela into a gondola for a sumptuous day trip, but instead she ends up in the fishing town of Chioggia where she is raped by eighty of his cronies. She is then sent back to Venice in a boat full of melons, a fruit loaded with erotic connotations at the time. The impact of Vernier’s poem was significant and soon the word ‘trentuno’ became common place as a euphemism for the group violation of a single female victim. It appeared in English for the first time in John Florio’s Anglo-Italian dictionary A Worlde of Words in 1598.
The British passion for manifestations of Italian culture has a long history. The sonnet was introduced into English literature during the 1550s in imitation of models pioneered by Francesco Petrarca (known as Petrarch in English). For generations to come, Italy was considered the home of poetry. To Shakespeare, it was the domain of imagination. His plays may be set in France, Austria, or Denmark, but his references to Italy are frequent and mostly accurate (John Florio, the London-born son of a Reformed refugee from Tuscany, was tutor of the Earl of Southampton, patron of the bard). Such is the contemporary association of Shakespeare with Venice that Stratford-upon-Avon offers the affluent tourist a romantic passage on the river in his/her private gondola.
During the eighteenth century Venetian painting came to the fore. Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, produced urban panoramas in which the painter tended to include architectural distortions for pictorial effect. From the late 1720s to the early 1750s Canaletto’s fortunes were bound up with the figure of Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice. The latter was one of the foremost collectors in the city who, over three decades, acquired fifty paintings by the artist which he housed in his palazzo on the Grand Canal. They were eventually sold en bloc to George III in 1762. Canaletto was and remains one of Britain’s favourite artists, widely appreciated as the genius of gondolas.
Lord Byron lived between 1816 and 1823 in Italy and adored the country’s cultural history and vibrant present. He was the most Italian of British poets and certainly the most Venetian one. During his stay, Venice had an exuberant gay community although the punishment for sodomy remained severe. However, the topography of the city provided unparalleled opportunities for clandestine meetings. According to Casanova, gondolas were primarily used for ‘sex acts on water’. Venetian gondoliers sold a range of erotic services to both male and female clients (John Addington Symonds for years had an affair – love at first sight – with a blue-eyed gondolier named Giacomo ‘Angelo’ Fusato). Byron greatly enjoyed the Venetian Carnival in which gay men happily took part. The traditional costumes disguised the features of the masked wearer making it impossible to guess his or her gender. In Beppo: A Venetian Story (1817) Byron praised the carnival in terms of its ‘Gaiety’. During his lifetime, the word gay was already understood in its current use.
Giovanni Battista [Tita] Falcieri was born in Venice in 1798 into a family of hereditary gondoliers. He was described as a huge but gentle person, black-bearded, and ferocious in appearance. He was first employed as manservant by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, the Gothic and homosexual novelist. Tita accompanied the author on his tour of the Continent and joined him on the long voyage to inspect his plantations in Jamaica. When in the early summer of 1818 Byron rented the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal, Falcieri entered into the poet’s service as his personal gondolier, probably through Lewis’s intervention. Like the former, Byron liked the proximity of young and muscular men. There have been suggestions of a homo-erotic exchange between the two authors of an attractive male member of staff in their entourage.
Falcieri was close to Byron at Missolonghi when the poet died on 19 April 1824. He accompanied the body to England and was a mourner at his funeral. Tita subsequently fought for the Greek cause in an Albanian regiment. Having returned to England, he was employed as butler by Isaac D’Israeli at Bradenham House, Buckinghamshire. On Isaac’s death in 1848, Byron’s friend John Hobhouse arranged for him to be employed as a Government messenger at the (Indian) Board of Control’s headquarters at Canon Row, Westminster. He got married a year later. Falcieri was later appointed chief messenger at the new India Office, but without the liability of having to carry any messages. Venice had become a distant memory. The gay gondolier had become a grey civil servant, living at no. 60 Seymour Street in respectable Marylebone where he died in December 1874.