The story behind the signature cocktail of Venice leads to one man, and to more than a little mystery
Giuseppe Cipriani was keen to leave his mark on Venice, the city where he’d found employment as a bartender after the First World War. The chance came after he’d loaned money to student and sometime boozehound Harry Pickering that was later repaid, with considerable interest, and with an offer of a business partnership.
That led to the purchase of what has since 1931 been known as Harry’s Bar, and later to the Venetian hotel that still bears the Cipriani name, although it has since 1976 been run by the company than now trades under the Belmond banner.
Both properties can offer visitors the quintessential Venice experience, coming steeped in the city’s vast history, and in tales of celebrity.
The likes of Ernest Hemingway and Peggy Guggenheim have propped up the bar at Harry’s down though the years, while the Cipriani has in more recent times become the regular haunt of A-listers George Clooney and Meryl Streep.
You might not brush your linen trousers up against any of them, during your visit, but you can at least toast the town with the cocktail Cipriani gave the rich and famous – and the city itself.
The Bellini is Venice’s signature drink and one which, should the mood take you, can lead deep into its past, and to a man who, like Cipriani, left his mark on the city he loved, but today remains shrouded in a sense of mystery.
“If you come to Venice, the first thing you should do is embrace a Bellini,” says Belmond Hotel Cipriani head bartender Walter Bolzonella, who learnt how to make the drink from the man himself, after joining the team in 1978.
When in late 1930s it came to creating the cocktail, Cipriani looked to add uniquely Venetian flavours, hence the Bellini is combined with prosecco and the local and very distinct peach.
And for its name, he looked to the distinct colour of the peach puree or nectar – a colour often used also by the man who’s known as arguably the most famous artist to come out of Venice.
Giovanni Bellini was born around 1430 – no one is sure exactly when and there’s a whisper he was illegitimate – and he would go on to become among Venice’s most famed, and adored, artists.
The surprise is that for a city about which so much has been written down through the centuries, precious few facts are known about Bellini the man. Or, more to the point, about what kind of a man he was.
The Fondazione Querini Stampalia has since 1869 operated as a library and museum and is one of Venice’s hidden gems. It sits off a fairly regular-looking Venetian square where come afternoons, young boys boot a football around in much the same manner in which they must have done down the generations.
The sense is that most often, visitors to town pass by on the way somewhere else, perhaps to the Santa Maria Formosa church next door.
But the Querini Stampalia home not only continues to be used, free of charge, by the city’s aspiring intellects (you’ll have to quietly creep by as they furrow their brows deep in thought), its contains rich treasures.
Its book collection has around 350,000 ancient and modern titles, it features stunning examples of modern Venetian architecture – after renovation works started in 1949 – and it boasts the private art collection of the Querini Stampalia family in a museum-house setting that helps transport visitors back in time.
“From the start the Querini Stampalia family wanted this place to remain a living, breathing part of Venice,” said the foundation’s Sara Bossi.
Pride of place is taken by Bellini’s The Presentation at the Temple, a painting as mysterious as the man himself. Bellini was nothing if not an adaptor and such was his skill that he was able to alter his style to suit the trends – and the needs – of the day.
Hence he fell under the influence of Byzantine and Flemish art, and of course Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance, while painting everything from portraits of Venice’s wealthy youths, to altar pieces.
The Presentation at the Temple is an intriguing back story. Two of the figures depicted alongside the Madonna and Child (being presented to Simeon) have at one time been identified as his sister Nicolosia and her husband, the artist Andrea Mantegna, while the man at the far right is said to be Bellini himself. He looks intently, like he has a secret to share. And well he might.
Mantegna had some years before painted a very similar subject, and for a long time it was thought this work of art was his as well. It was however attributed to Bellini in 1916, after years of intense study.
But the fact that someone, at some stage, signed “Andrea Mantegna” on the back of the canvas has long left people scratching their heads.
No one has ever been able to ascertain just when the signature appeared – the best guest is some time in the 18th century – or indeed why they bothered to do so.
Where to go: Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, 5252, 30122 Venezia, Italy. Tel +39 041 271 1411. www.querinistampalia.org