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When the three great temperance beverages, cocoa, tea, and coffee, came to Europe—Coffee first mentioned by Rauwolf in 1582—Early days of coffee in Italy—How Pope Clement VIII baptized it and made it a truly Christian beverage—The first European coffee house, in Venice, 1645—The famous Caffè Florian—Other celebrated Venetian coffee houses of the eighteenth century—The romantic story of Pedrocchi, the poor lemonade-vender, who built the most beautiful coffee house in the world

Of the world's three great temperance beverages, cocoa, tea, and coffee, cocoa was the first to be introduced into Europe, in 1528, by the Spanish. It was nearly a century later, in 1610, that the Dutch brought tea to Europe. Venetian traders introduced coffee into Europe in 1615.

Europe's first knowledge of coffee was brought by travelers returning from the Far East and the Levant. Leonhard Rauwolf started on his famous journey into the Eastern countries from Marseilles in September, 1573, having left his home in Augsburg, the 18th of the preceding May. He reached Aleppo in November, 1573; and returned to Augsburg, February 12, 1576. He was the first European to mention coffee; and to him also belongs the honor of being the first to refer to the beverage in print.

Rauwolf was not only a doctor of medicine and a botanist of great renown, but also official physician to the town of Augsburg. When he spoke, it was as one having authority. The first printed reference to coffee appears as chaube in chapter viii of Rauwolf's Travels, which deals with the manners and customs of the city of Aleppo. The exact passage is reproduced herewith as it appears in the original German edition of Rauwolf published at Frankfort and Lauingen in 1582–83. The translation is as follows:

If you have a mind to eat something or to drink other liquors, there is commonly an open shop near it, where you sit down upon the ground or carpets and drink together. Among the rest they have a very good drink, by them called Chaube [coffee] that is almost as black as ink, and very good in illness, chiefly that of the stomach; of this they drink in the morning early in open places before everybody, without any fear or regard, out of China cups, as hot as they can; they put it often to their lips but drink but little at a time, and let it go round as they sit.

In this same water they take a fruit called Bunnu which in its bigness, shape and color is almost like unto a bayberry, with two thin shells surrounded, which, as they informed me, are brought from the Indies; but as these in themselves are, and have within them, two yellowish grains in two distinct cells, and besides, being they agree in their virtue, figure, looks, and name with the Bunchum of Avicenna, and Bunca, of Rasis ad Almans exactly; therefore I take them to be the same, until I am better informed by the learned. This liquor is very common among them, wherefore there are a great many of them that sell it, and others that sell the berries, everywhere in their Batzars.

The Early Days of Coffee in Italy

It is not easy to determine just when the use of coffee spread from Constantinople to the western parts of Europe; but it is more than likely that the Venetians, because of their close proximity to, and their great trade with, the Levant, were the first acquainted with it.

Prospero Alpini (Alpinus; 1553–1617), a learned physician and botanist of Padua, journeyed to Egypt in 1580, and brought back news of coffee. He was the first to print a description of the coffee plant and drink in his treatise The Plants of Egypt, written in Latin, and published in Venice, 1592. He says:

I have seen this tree at Cairo, it being the same tree that produces the fruit, so common in Egypt, to which they give the name bon or ban. The Arabians and the Egyptians make a sort of decoction of it, which they drink instead of wine; and it is sold in all their public houses, as wine is with us. They call this drink caova. The fruit of which they make it comes from "Arabia the Happy," and the tree that I saw looks like a spindle tree, but the leaves are thicker, tougher, and greener. The tree is never without leaves.

Alpini makes note of the medicinal qualities attributed to the drink by dwellers in the Orient, and many of these were soon incorporated into Europe's materia medica.

Johann Vesling (Veslingius; 1598–1649), a German botanist and traveler, settled in Venice, where he became known as a learned Italian physician. He edited (1640) a new edition of Alpini's work; but earlier (1638) published some comments on Alpini's findings, in the course of which he distinguished certain qualities found in a drink made from the husks (skins) of the coffee berries from those found in the liquor made from the beans themselves, which he calls the stones of the coffee fruit. He says:

Not only in Egypt is coffee in much request, but in almost all the other provinces of the Turkish Empire. Whence it comes to pass that it is dear even in the Levant and scarce among the Europeans, who by that means are deprived of a very wholesome liquor.

From this we may conclude that coffee was not wholly unknown in Europe at that time. Vesling adds that when he visited Cairo, he found there two or three thousand coffee houses, and that "some did begin to put sugar in their coffee to correct the bitterness of it, and others made sugar-plums of the berries."

Coffee Baptized by the Pope

Shortly after coffee reached Rome, according to a much quoted legend, it was again threatened with religious fanaticism, which almost caused its excommunication from Christendom. It is related that certain priests appealed to Pope Clement VIII (1535–1605) to have its use forbidden among Christians, denouncing it as an invention of Satan. They claimed that the Evil One, having forbidden his followers, the infidel Moslems, the use of wine—no doubt because it was sanctified by Christ and used in the Holy Communion—had given them as a substitute this hellish black brew of his which they called coffee. For Christians to drink it was to risk falling into a trap set by Satan for their souls.

An Eighteenth Century Italian Coffee House
An Eighteenth Century Italian Coffee House

After Goldoni, by Zatta

It is further related that the pope, made curious, desired to inspect this Devil's drink, and had some brought to him. The aroma of it was so pleasant and inviting that the pope was tempted to try a cupful. After drinking it, he exclaimed, "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it, and making it a truly Christian beverage."

Thus, whatever harmfulness its opponents try to attribute to coffee, the fact remains (if we are to credit the story) that it has been baptized and proclaimed unharmful, and a "truly Christian beverage," by his holiness the pope.

The Venetians had further knowledge of coffee in 1585, when Gianfrancesco Morosini, city magistrate at Constantinople, reported to the Senate that the Turks "drink a black water as hot as they can suffer it, which is the infusion of a bean called cavee, which is said to possess the virtue of stimulating mankind."

Dr. A. Couguet, in an Italian review, asserts that Europe's first cup of coffee was sipped in Venice, toward the close of the sixteenth century. He is of the opinion that the first berries were imported by Mocengio, who was called the pevere, because he made a huge fortune trading in spices and other specialties of the Orient.

In 1615 Pierre (Pietro) Delia Valle (1586–1652), the well known Italian traveler and author of Travels in India and Persia, wrote a letter from Constantinople to his friend Mario Schipano at Venice:

The Turks have a drink of black color, which during the summer is very cooling, whereas in the winter it heats and warms the body, remaining always the same beverage and not changing its substance. They swallow it hot as it comes from the fire and they drink it in long draughts, not at dinner time, but as a kind of dainty and sipped slowly while talking with one's friends. One cannot find any meetings among them where they drink it not.... With this drink, which they call cahue, they divert themselves in their conversations.... It is made with the grain or fruit of a certain tree called cahue.... When I return I will bring some with me and I will impart the knowledge to the Italians.

Nobility in an Early Venetian Caffè
Nobility in an Early Venetian Caffè

From the Grevembroch collection in the Museo Civico

Della Valle's countrymen, however, were in a fair way to become well acquainted with the beverage, for already (1615) it had been introduced into Venice. At first it was used largely for medicinal purposes; and high prices were charged for it. Vesling says of its use in Europe as a medicine, "the first step it made from the cabinets of the curious, as an exotic seed, being into the apothecaries' shops as a drug."

The first coffee house in Italy is said to have been opened in 1645, but convincing confirmation is lacking. In the beginning, the beverage was sold with other drinks by lemonade-venders. The Italian word aquacedratajo means one who sells lemonade and similar refreshments; also one who sells coffee, chocolate, liquor, etc. Jardin says the beverage was in general use throughout Italy in 1645. It is certain, however, that a coffee shop was opened in Venice in 1683 under the Procuratie Nuove. The famous Caffè Florian was opened in Venice by Floriono Francesconi in 1720.

The first authoritative treatise devoted to coffee only appeared in 1671. It was written in Latin by Antoine Faustus Nairon (1635–1707), Maronite professor of the Chaldean and Syrian languages in the College of Rome.

During the latter part of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth, the coffee house made great progress in Italy. It is interesting to note that this first European adaptation of the Oriental coffee house was known as a caffè. The double f is retained by the Italians to this day, and by some writers is thought to have been taken from coffea, without the double f being lost, as in the case of the French and some other Continental forms.

To Italy, then, belongs the honor of having given to the Western world the real coffee house, although the French and Austrians greatly improved upon it. It was not long after its beginning that nearly every shop on the Piazza di San Marco in Venice was a caffè[41]. Near the Piazza was the Caffè della Ponte dell' Angelo, where in 1792 died the dog Tabacchio, celebrated by Vincenzo Formaleoni in a satirical eulogy that is a parody of the oration of Ubaldo Bregolini upon the death of Angelo Emo.

In the Caffè della Spaderia, kept by Marco Ancilloto, some radicals proposed to open a reading-room to encourage the spread of liberal ideas. The inquisitors sent a foot-soldier to notify the proprietor that he should inform the first person entering the room that he was to present himself before their tribunal. The idea was thereupon abandoned.

Goldoni in a Venetian Caffè
Goldoni in a Venetian Caffè

From a painting by P. Longhi

Among other celebrated coffee houses was the one called Menegazzo, from the name of the rotund proprietor, Menico. This place was much frequented by men of letters; and heated discussions were common there between Angelo Maria Barbaro, Lorenzo da Ponte, and others of their time.

The coffee house gradually became the common resort of all classes. In the mornings came the merchants, lawyers, physicians, brokers, workers, and wandering venders; in the afternoons, and until the late hours of the nights, the leisure classes, including the ladies.

For the most part, the rooms of the first Italian caffè were low, simple, unadorned, without windows, and only poorly illuminated by tremulous and uncertain lights. Within them, however, joyous throngs passed to and fro, clad in varicolored garments, men and women chatting in groups here and there, and always above the buzz there were to be heard such choice bits of scandal as made worthwhile a visit to the coffee house. Smaller rooms were devoted to gaming.

In the "little square" described by Goldoni[42] in his comedy The Coffee House, where the combined barber-shop and gambling house was located, Don Marzio, that marvelous type of slanderous old romancer, is shown as one typical of the period, for Goldoni was a satirist. The other characters of the play were also drawn from the types then to be seen every day in the coffee houses on the Piazza.

In the square of St. Mark's, in the eighteenth century, under the Procuratie Vecchie, were the caffè Re di Francia, Abbondanza, Pitt, l'eroe, Regina d'Ungheria, Orfeo, Redentore, Coraggio-Speranza, Arco Celeste, and Quadri. The last-named was opened in 1775 by Giorgio Quadri of Corfu, who served genuine Turkish coffee for the first time in Venice.

Under the Procuratie Nuove were to be found the caffè Angelo Custode, Duca di Toscana, Buon genio-Doge, Imperatore Imperatrice della Russia, Tamerlano, Fontane di Diana, Dame Venete, Aurora Piante d'oro, Arabo-Piastrelle, Pace, Venezia trionfante, and Florian.

Probably no coffee house in Europe has acquired so world-wide a celebrity as that kept by Florian, the friend of Canova the sculptor, and the trusted agent and acquaintance of hundreds of persons in and out of the city, who found him a mine of social information and a convenient city directory. Persons leaving Venice left their cards and itineraries with him; and new-comers inquired at Florian's for tidings of those whom they wished to see. "He long concentrated in himself a knowledge more varied and multifarious than that possessed by any individual before or since," says Hazlitt[43], who has given us this delightful pen picture of caffè life in Venice in the eighteenth century:

Venetian coffee was said to surpass all others, and the article placed before his visitors by Florian was the best in Venice. Of some of the establishments as they then existed, Molmenti has supplied us with illustrations, in one of which Goldoni the dramatist is represented as a visitor, and a female mendicant is soliciting alms.

So cordial was the esteem of the great sculptor Canova for him, that when Florian was overtaken by gout, he made a model of his leg, that the poor fellow might be spared the anguish of fitting himself with boots. The friendship had begun when Canova was entering on his career, and he never forgot the substantial services which had been rendered to him in the hour of need.

In later days, the Caffè Florian was under the superintendence of a female chef, and the waitresses used, in the case of certain visitors, to fasten a flower in the button-hole, perhaps allusively to the name. In the Piazza itself girls would do the same thing. A good deal of hospitality is, and has ever been, dispensed at Venice in the cafés and restaurants, which do service for the domestic hearth.

There were many other establishments devoted, more especially in the latest period of Venetian independence, to the requirements of those who desired such resorts for purposes of conversation and gossip. These houses were frequented by various classes of patrons—the patrician, the politician, the soldier, the artist, the old and the young—all had their special haunts where the company and the tariff were in accordance with the guests. The upper circles of male society—all above the actually poor—gravitated hither to a man.

For the Venetian of all ranks the coffee house was almost the last place visited on departure from the city, and the first visited on his return. His domicile was the residence of his wife and the repository of his possessions; but only on exceptional occasions was it the scene of domestic hospitality, and rare were the instances when the husband and wife might be seen abroad together, and when the former would invite the lady to enter a café or a confectioner's shop to partake of an ice.

Florian's Famous Caffè in the Piazza di San Marco,
Venice, Nineteenth Century

Florian's Famous Caffè in the Piazza di San Marco, Venice, Nineteenth Century

The Caffè Florian has undergone many changes, but it still survives as one of the favorite caffè in the Piazza San Marco.

By 1775 coffee-house history had begun to repeat itself in Venice. Charges of immorality, vice, and corruption, were preferred against the caffè; and the Council of Ten in 1775, and again in 1776, directed the Inquisitors of State to eradicate these "social cankers." However, they survived all attempts of the reformers to suppress them.

The Caffè Pedrocchi in Padua was another of the early Italian coffee houses that became famous. Antonio Pedrocchi (1776–1852) was a lemonade-vender who, in the hope of attracting the gay youth, the students of his time, bought an old house with the idea of converting the ground floor into a series of attractive rooms. He put all his ready money and all he could borrow into the venture, only to find there were no cellars, indispensable for making ices and beverages on the premises, and that the walls and floors were so old that they crumbled when repairs were started.

He was in despair; but, nothing daunted, he decided to have a cellar dug. What was his surprise to find the house was built over the vault of an old church, and that the vault contained considerable treasure. The lucky proprietor found himself free to continue his trade of lemonade-vender and coffee-seller, or to live a life of ease. Being a wise man, he adhered to his original plan; and soon his luxurious rooms became the favorite rendezvous for the smart set of his day. In this period lemonade and coffee frequently went together. The Caffè Pedrocchi is considered one of the finest pieces of architecture erected in Italy in the nineteenth century. It was begun in 1816, opened in 1831, and completed in 1842.

Coffee houses were early established in other Italian cities, particularly in Rome, Florence, and Genoa.

In 1764, Il Caffè, a purely philosophical and literary periodical, made its appearance in Milan, being founded by Count Pietro Verri (1728–97). Its chief editor was Cesare Beccaria. Its object was to counteract the influence and superficiality of the Arcadians. It acquired its title from the fact that Count Verri and his friends were wont to meet at a coffee house in Milan kept by a Greek named Demetrio. It lived only two years.

Other periodicals of the same name appeared at later periods.

Coffee Pot