A Roman Caffè of Culture. CAFFE GRECO HAS BEEN A GATHERING PLACE FOR ARTISTS AND WRITERS OVER THREE CENTURIES

Evelina Grigorieva

Article: 
MEETING PLACE
Magazine issue: 
#2 2020 (67)

The oldest cafe in Rome, the renowned Antico Caffè Greco on the city’s Via Condotti, has been welcoming its distinguished cultural clientele for more than 250 years. Russian cultural figures have been among its most eminent visitors: it was here that Nikolai Gogol worked on “Dead Souls” and here that he met with Karl Bryullov, Alexander Ivanov and others from the established Russian artistic community in Rome of the day. In the 20th century, it entered Soviet art history as a meeting place for masters of the “Severe Style”, memorably depicted in Viktor Ivanov’s 1974 painting “At the Caffè Greco”, in which the artist sits at a table with his contemporaries Gely Korzhev, Pyotr Ossovsky, Ephraim Zverkov and Dmitry Zhilinsky.

Interior of the “Omnibus” hall, Caffè Greco
Interior of the “Omnibus” hall, Caffè Greco. Photograph

Walking the ancient streets of Rome, at every corner, the visitor is unwittingly drawn into the past. In every stone from which this modern metropolis has been created - from its cobbled streets to its unique monuments - there is a centuries-old history that feels absolutely tangible. This unique city encompasses everything, from the ancient world to the Baroque, from classicism to more recent milestones of modernity.

The Via Condotti is no exception. One of the most elegant and refined streets in Europe, it is known today for its fashion stores, but it is also a treasury of history, home to legends. The origins of today's promenade lie in the ancient Via Trinitatis, which appeared in the first half of the 16th century under the pontificate of Paul III Farnese and continued to develop under Julius III: the street's original name came from the fact that it led to the Church of Trinita Dei Monti, at the top of the Spanish Steps above the Piazza de Spagna. It was renamed as Via Condotti only when Pope Gregory XIII laid underground pipes, through which the virgin water springs of the ancient city ran. Its name, “Condotti", came from the Latin ducti, meaning to be guided or to be led, which originated with the legend in which the soldiers of Agrippa, thirsty after battle, were “led" by an attractive Roman girl (in Latin, “virgo") to a spring that came to be known as the “Acqua Vergine".

Further down Via Condotti from the piazza stands another 18th-century masterpiece, the Church of the Santissima Trinita degli Spagnoli by the architect Emanuele Rodriguez dos Santos. The Spanish Trinitarians, probably in deference to the street's ancient name, wanted to build their church here. Its interior deserves attention with its frescoes and paintings, among which the work of the 18th-century master Corrado Giaquinto, dedicated to Holy Trinity, is especially noteworthy.

But it is a secular location that, for many Romans, typifies the rich history of Via Condotti: located at number 86, the Caffè Greco - or, to give it its full name, “An- tico Caffè Greco" - bears a plaque that attests to its history: “Il Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione. Il Caffè Greco dichiarato di interesse particolarmente importante ai sensi degli articoli No. 1 e No. 2 e seguenti della legge - 1 giugno 1939 No. 1089 - decreto 27 luglio 1953."[1].

The Antico Caffè is a unique establishment, marking the 260th anniversary of its foundation this year. The oldest coffee house in Rome, it was founded in 1760 by Nicola Della Maddalena, a Greek citizen who devoted his life to his creation (the “Greco" of its title commemorates the Greek roots of its founder). In his book “Antichi Mestieri di Roma" (“Ancient Crafts of Rome"), Mario La Stella tells how ancient documents show that the original name has survived to this day, the only thing apparently lost over the centuries being Caffè Greco's sign board, which depicted the figure of its Greek founder.[2]

Today, coffee-house gatherings are an accustomed element of life, but the history of such establishments is little known, including how they came into being. The history of the first coffee houses dates from the end of the 17th century in Europe, when such venues, known as “caffeàos", “kaffeehaus" or “Caffè-house", began to appear in the main cities of France, Italy and Germany. They revealed to visitors the secret of coffee itself, then little known in Europe, the first references to which come from Vienna. After the capture of that city by the Turks in 1683, the new overlords brought with them part of their culture, which we know as the Arab model of a coffee house, one that had spread by then throughout the Middle East and as far as Constantinople.

Over time, a new version of meetings over a cup of coffee appeared thanks to an Austrian Pole, whose name has, unfortunately, not survived: all that we know of him is that he was employed as a courier during the Austro-Turkish War and that, after studying the invaders' methods of making coffee, he opened the first establishment in 1684. The fame of this new favourite drink quickly spread and, within a short period of time, more and more such establishments were to be found.

However, coffee only reached Italy in the 18th century, its spread hindered by opposition from the Church, which considered the dark drink, with its properties to excite, as “the work of the Devil" and, therefore, against the law. This opposition was only reversed by Clement VIII: according to legend, when he secretly tasted the forbidden drink, he was so struck by its pleasant taste that he decided to risk repealing the ban.

After such a prolonged prohibition, coffee made its first appearance in Venice in 1720 with the opening of the famous Caffè Florian, the oldest venue of its kind in Italy, near the trading port, and soon the Turkish merchants appeared as customers. It was followed by the Pedrocchi coffee house in Padua, which opened in 1722, Florence's Caffè Gilli, in 1733, and Rome's Caffè Greco in 1760.

Several decades after the opening of this new oasis of civilisation, its stewardship was transferred to one Salvioni. It was only thanks to him that, during the blockade imposed by Napoleon in 1806, the citizens of Rome did not lose the opportunity to enjoy the true taste of the oriental drink (other establishments in the beleaguered city were forced to offer an erzatz replacement). Despite these difficult days, Caffè Greco continued to offer its patrons the same authentic coffee, thanks to reducing the size of the vessel in which it was served: it is perhaps from those years that such miniature cups continue to be used to serve espresso.

But that was not the end of the difficulties facing Caffè Greco. From the time of its foundation, the legendary coffee house had acquired a reputation as being “patriotic and republican" and during Napoleon's occupation of Italy, many further tests of endurance would follow; it was considered a den of “ill-thinkers", a society hostile to the soldiers of the French army of Marshal Nicolas-Charles Oudinot, who served in the city.

It was during this period that the Caffè Greco assumed the role of a cultural centre, where a community of like-minded intellectuals and aristocrats could take refuge. It acquired the status of a full-fledged salon, a place for discussions of politics or literature, even for plotting a revolution. Such literary discussions continue to this day, when the eminent figures of culture, literature and art in Rome gather in the “Omnibus" hall on the first Wednesday of every month to hold their meetings of the intelligentsia. Since 1940, an annual almanac of their works and thoughts, the “Strenna dei Romanisti", has been published just before each Christmas, providing a record of discussions enjoyed at the Caffè during the previous year.

 

Gallery of artists

The Caffè has attracted travellers and cultural figures for decades, with the same dazzling stucco mouldings, rich decoration, bas-reliefs and statues that have inspired artists to create masterpieces. Its halls, saturated with the aroma of coffee, offer them the chance to discover the many works of art that adorn the ancient walls of this room, covered with their elegant velvet fabric. The legendary Caffè displays some 300 paintings, making it a significant private collection.

It is an achievement of local patrons that, despite all the difficulties the Caffè has experienced over the years, its 18th-century appearance, reflecting the history of centuries past, has been preserved, its atmosphere embodied in every item of its interior. Among such objects is a painting by Marianna Dionigi (1756-1826) that she painted in 1797: it remains perfectly preserved and you can sit at the very table at which the artist herself once sat and admire her work, inspecting every detail of the interior as it was centuries ago.

Near the swirling staircase that leads to other mysterious halls, the visitor's attention is caught by a work by Renato Guttuso (1911-1987), the Italian 20th-century painter and graphic artist, in which he portrayed his regular conversation partners at the Caffè. A close friend of Guttuso, the metaphysical artist and surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) was another regular here, following his acquisition in 1948 of a house near the Spanish Steps (it is now the artist's house museum). Every day at about noon, the artist would leave his studio and walk to the Caffè, deep in thought. As he would write to his friend the journalist and art critic Franco Simongini: “I have a wonderful time in Rome ... I like living in the Piazza di Spagna, do you know why? Because every day, just after noon, I walk down the main street of the city to take an aperitif at Caffè Greco..." Stories still circulate of how more than once, the artist preferred to pay for coffee with a drawing rather than with money, but, unfortunately, no examples of such "payments" can be seen on the walls today.

Here, among many such works of art, there are portraits or other records of famous visitors, which Caffè Greco always remembers and honours. The numerous works of art on display include portraits or records of famous visitors, artists, writers, politicians and intellectuals both Italian and foreign, among them Angelica Kauffman, Antonio Canova, Ingres, Goethe, James Fen- imore Cooper, Rossini, Schopenhauer, Camille Corot, Paul Delaroche, Giacomo Leopardi, Hector Berlioz, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Wagner, Lord Byron, Johannes Brahms, Mark Twain, Georges Bizet, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Ludwig II of Bavaria, Giuseppe Cellini, Carlo Levi, Hans Christian Andersen, Alberto Moravia, Pericles Fazzini and many others.

Close by the Caffè Greco at 43, Via Condotti lived Carlo Goldoni, the famous playwright who was another faithful client he had arrived in Rome on November 23, 1758, at the invitation of Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico, nephew of Pope Clement XIII of Venice. The prelate dreamed of Goldoni moving to the Eternal City, so that his plays could be staged at the Teatro Tordinona, which was owned by the Papal Court. The Cardinal settled the playwright in a beautiful apartment in the centre of Rome, complete with a carriage for his personal use, and, every morning, he would drive to the door of the Antico Caffè. In one of his works, his comedy “The Coffee House", the master immortalised the memory of his beloved cafe, in which he would spent entire days in the company of his friends.

Once, after watching a production of Goldoni's “The Servant of Two Masters", I went to the Antico Caffè to breathe in the creative air that had nurtured the talented playwright and to chat with a regular visitor there, from whom I have heard many of the fascinating stories that have been preserved in the memory of guests and handed down, by word of mouth, over the centuries.

One of them concerns Giacomo Casanova, who, long before he became famous as the quintessential amorous adventurer of Europe, came to Rome as a young scribe in the retinue of Cardinal Pasquale Acquaviva d'Aragon. He first appeared at the Caffè Greco at the invitation of Abbe Gama and his friends and, in its relaxed atmosphere, the company started exchanging stories and anecdotes that were far from the usual strict framework of a priest's life. During their conversation, Casanova's gaze fell on Giuseppe Richarelli, also known as Beppino Della Mamma, whom he mistook for a woman and with whom he began to flirt. Abbé Gama, almost helpless with laughter, watched the proceedings. Only after the beautiful stranger had invited Casanova to spend the night with the Abbe, if Casanova would promise to play for him the role of both girl and boy as Beppino would choose, did the abbot introduce the well- known castrato Beppino to his friend.

Another famous customer was Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pseudonym Stendhal, who crossed the threshold of the establishment, for the first and only time, in search of his double. During an earlier visit to the city of Terni, the French writer had been mistaken for the artist Stefan Forby and received with extreme hospitality and courtesy. Stendhal tried to clarify the misunderstanding, but he was not able to convince the townspeople of his true identity due to his great resemblance to Forby. After a long search, the writer found out that his double was a frequent visitor to a certain cafe in Rome, where he went in the hope of meeting him. However, this acquaintance proved gravely disappointing, as the artist was hardly groomed at all, and a little ugly at that. Offended, the writer left the Antico Caffè that instant, never to return.

Schopenhauer was another frequent visitor, always bringing with him his white poodle Atma (the name, which the philosopher gave all the dogs he owned towards the end of his life, means “the supreme universal soul from which all other souls arise" in Hindu). In the Caffè Greco, he was repeatedly attacked by a group of the Nazarene artists for insulting their native land, Germany: for the philosopher, this was the most stupid nation on Earth, the only superiority that he recognised for them being that “the Germans could do without religion."

Franz Liszt, a frequent visitor to Rome, was another regular guest. On one occasion, he told the guests of the cafe about an incident when a princess had invited him to dinner. This aristocrat asked Liszt to play something from his repertoire, which seemed to the composer a rather immodest and inappropriate request, but he sat down at the piano nevertheless, played several chords, then stood up with the words “Madame, le dîner est payé"[3], and left the palace without looking back.

It was in the Caffè Greco that Pope Leo XIII met Liszt. Leo's memoirs mention the time he spent there in his student years. Among the autographs, paintings, drawings, photographs and letters housed there is an anonymous letter dated 1910, written (as it later turned out) by Count Louis Pecci, the nephew of Leo XIII, in which he refers to the fact that the Pope had been a frequent visitor there in his youth. Thus a legend arose that if a Cardinal sits down with a cup of “Greek" coffee, he is sure to become the Pope. The cafe's managers requested - and received - a rare photograph of the future Pope, when he was not yet a priest, but still an apostolic delegate in Benevento and now photograph and letter associated with the Pope are next to those that concern Liszt.

 

A Russian connection

The Antico Caffè has rich associations with Russian culture, too: its visitors have included artists such as Karl Bryullov, Alexander Ivanov, Orest Kiprensky and the architect Nicholas Benois, as well as writers such as Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. Even Emperor Paul I honored Caffè Greco with a visit. But nothing makes the Caffè as popular among Russian tourists as the fact that it was here that part of Gogol's “Dead Souls", that masterpiece of Russian literature, was written. The writer lived on a street parallel to Via Condotti and, of course, spent many hours at the Antico Caffè. The Italian period of his life dates from 1838 until 1842, when Gogol had left Russia, believing that writing about the country was much better done when beyond its borders. Underneath a table glass here is displayed a sheet with lines from the letter that Gogol wrote to his friend Peter Pletnyov on March 17, 1842: “I can write about Russia only in Rome, only there it appears to me in all its scale and enormity".

The writer's companions in Rome were the artists Ivanov, Kiprensky and Bryullov, who were living in Rome on graduation stipend-scholarships from the Academy of Arts; they would meet in Caffè Greco, where they were no doubt inspired towards their masterpieces by the “coffee-house muse". According to the recollections of witnesses, Gogol is said to have spent hours at his favourite table in the centre of the cafe, sometimes not noticing how morning would turn into evening. A miniature portrait of the writer, created by Pavel Svedomsky on the 50th anniversary of Gogol's death, now hangs opposite the corner at which he once gazed.

 

An uncertain future

The 1960s and 1970s saw Caffè Greco become a gathering place for high society and prominent cultural figures, adding the stars of the present day to its illustrious historical roster. Here, not long ago, you could exchange a word or two with Federico Fellini or Marcello Mastroiani. It was visited by royalty too, from the rulers of Monaco to Diana, Princess of Wales. I had the opportunity to meet the delightful Sophia Loren here, talking with Carla Fendi.

As the centuries have passed, coffee houses have spread across all Italy, their external appearances changing with their “politics" Today, Italy has some 150,000 cafes, but no institution retains such a rich history and charm as Caffè Greco, which continues to be a meeting place for bohemians, academics and cultural figures. In memory of its creator, Nicola Della Maddalena, the coffee recipes remain unchanged, served as always by waiters in their traditional tailcoats, their friendly smiles equally familiar.

But nothing lasts forever: most unfortunately, there is a risk today that the historical Caffè Greco may cease to exist. The land on which it stands has, in recent years belonged to the Israelite Hospital in Rome and the disputes that arose after the conclusion of a lease in September 2017 cannot be settled, it seems, with the current managers. The hospital management showed me a document stating that “for two years now, the process of vacating the premises has been going on, due to disagreements with the current manager about an economic agreement in accordance with the market value." No matter what, however, the Israelite Hospital assures the people of Rome that this place of historical value, of art and antiquity, has their full protection and that it is in their absolute interest to defend this island of culture, one that is so rich in history and full of the ghosts of centuries of patrons past.

 

  1. “Ministry of Education. The Caffè Greco is declared of particularly important interest pursuant to articles No. 1 and No. 2 and following the law of June 1, 1939 No. 1089, decree of July 27, 1953
  2. La Stella Mario. Antichi Mestieri di Roma. Published April 2005 by Newton & Compton. 431 pages.
  3. “Madam, the dinner has been paid for."

Illustrations

Entrance of the Antico Caffè Greco, Via Condotti, Rome. 2019
Entrance of the Antico Caffè Greco, Via Condotti, Rome. 2019. Photograph
Viktor IVANOV. At the Caffè Greco. 1974
Viktor IVANOV. At the Caffè Greco. 1974
Oil on canvas. 184.5 × 204 cm
Karl BRYULLOV. Self-portrait. 1831
Karl BRYULLOV. Self-portrait. 1831
Watercolour, ink, graphite pencil on cardboard. 15 × 14.5 cm
© Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
Commemorative plaque, Caffè Greco
Commemorative plaque, Caffè Greco
Photograph
Alexander IVANOV. Alexander Ivanov’s studio in Rome. c. 1840
Alexander IVANOV. Alexander Ivanov’s studio in Rome. c. 1840
Ink, watercolour on paper; brush, pen. 24.6 × 35 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Alexander IVANOV. View of Milvio Bridge in Rome. End of 1830s – beginning of 1840s
Alexander IVANOV. View of Milvio Bridge in Rome. End of 1830s – beginning of 1840s
Watercolour on paper. 12.6 × 41.8 cm
Interior of the Caffè Greco
Interior of the Caffè Greco
Photograph
Traditional historical Caffè Greco coffee cups
Traditional historical Caffè Greco coffee cups
Photograph
Renato GUTTUSO. Caffè Greco. 1976
Renato GUTTUSO. Caffè Greco. 1976
Acrylic on lined cardboard. 186 × 243 cm
© Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Tahir SALAKHOV. Rome. Caffè Greco. 2002
Tahir SALAKHOV. Rome. Caffè Greco. 2002
Oil on canvas. 120 × 160 cm
Andrei Shandalov’s collection
Portrait gallery, Caffè Greco
Portrait gallery, Caffè Greco
Photograph
19th-century photograph of the interior at the Caffè Greco, with Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia
19th-century photograph of the interior at the Caffè Greco, with Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia
A painting featuring Nikolai Gogol inside the Caffè Greco
A painting featuring Nikolai Gogol inside the Caffè Greco
Nikolai Gogol's favourite table in the Caffè Greco
Nikolai Gogol's favourite table in the Caffè Greco
Photograph
Сommemorative plaque dedicated to Nikolai Gogol, Caffè Greco
Сommemorative plaque dedicated to Nikolai Gogol, Caffè Greco
Photograph
Alexander IVANOV. Portrait of Nikolai Gogol. 1841
Alexander IVANOV. Portrait of Nikolai Gogol. 1841
Oil on canvas. 14 × 12.5 cm (oval)
© Russian Museum
Alexander DEINEKA. Street in Rome. 1935
Alexander DEINEKA. Street in Rome. 1935
Oil on canvas. 186.5 × 196.5 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Giorgio DE CHIRICO. Manichino (The Mannequin). 1964
Giorgio DE CHIRICO. Manichino (The Mannequin). 1964
Lithograph
Private collection

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