Venice has a rich history, but no café there is more famous than Caffè Florian in St. Mark’s Square. It’s where one can relish 18th-century decor and soak up the sun while listening to the patio orchestra, while gazing on Doge’s Palace (with a fleet of pigeons).
As the oldest café in Italy—and the world, in fact—Caffè Florian recently celebrated its 300th anniversary on December 29 with no fanfare. It was a far cry from the 290th celebration in 2010, with cakes, an enormous party, and a live concert. The café famed for its celebrity clientele—from Charles Dickens to Andy Warhol—now faces closure since the pandemic has taken a toll on tourism.
“We do everything possible to keep the business alive,” Marco Paolini, the managing director of the café, tells AD. “We are working to stay open for as long as we can.”
The café was opened in San Marco Square in 1720 by Italian entrepreneur Floriano Francesconi (locals knew it as Floriano’s). It has been a gathering place for locals, a place to woo tourists, and a hot spot for A-listers for hundreds of years. In 1895, the idea of the Venice Biennale was born here, to pay homage to King Umberto and Queen Margherita, and scenes from Hollywood films have been shot here, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley (starring Matt Damon) and Summertime (starring Katharine Hepburn). Marcel Proust and Charles Dickens were frequent visitors, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche, Casanova, and Charlie Chaplin. Ernest Hemingway would sit out on the patio drinking coffee in the sun, while Claude Monet charmed the pigeons into standing on his head in the same spot.
Today, it retains Old World charm, with red velvet seating, marble tables, and gold-leaf walls adorned with century-old artworks by Italian masters Antonio Pascutti, Giuseppe Ponga, and Cesare Rota.
“We are devastated,” says Paolini. “The pandemic has affected everyone, but we couldn’t benefit from various benefits.” The brand had a turnover of more than $10 million in 2019 but suffered a decline of 80% of sales in 2020. They have not received any benefits from the state since the first lockdown started, and Caffè Florian is eligible for receiving just $190,000 in government funding.
Paolini notes that the café is still alive, “albeit dying,” and is surviving thanks to the help of shareholders and help from the bank, including a line of credit.
“There are no prospects for now, we don’t even know a reopening date.” The cafe currently employs a staff of 70, plus seasonal staff during peak seasons. “We are concerned about the future,” adds Paolini. “If the café is closed, you wouldn’t miss just a coffee, but a piece of Venice.”
Recently, the Italian Post Office created a stamp to honor the café’s tercentenary, despite its current struggles. The stamp was sketched and engraved by Italian artist Rita Fantini, depicting the café’s façade with the palace in the background; only 400,000 copies were printed.
The café is also a luxury brand with outposts abroad. It has six stores across Asia and plans to open in Japan, once it finds the right partner. People can certainly help the café by shopping on the online gift shop, which boasts a variety of products, from historic books to teacups, perfume, silk scarves, and ground coffee.
“Celebrating the 300th anniversary of a business with doors closed is a symbol of this crisis in Venice, and of the cities of art, in general,” says Paolini. “This crisis is not only economic but historical, as Caffè Florian is a piece of Italian history known throughout the world.”
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