A Visit To La Fenice: A Taste Of Nobles’ Social Lives

La Fenice lives up to the significance of its name, rising from the ashes and remaining a strong center for the performing arts.

La Fenice
PHOTO BECKY CHAO

For my flight, I brought Andrea di Robilant’s A Venetian Affair, a fitting choice since I was about to embark on my own Venetian affair, though not quite in the same sense as in the title. I read about 18th century nobleman Andrea Memmo’s extended love affair with ambiguously noble, half-English Giustiniana Wynne, from the encrypted letters they exchanged to their trysts in rooms borrowed from their sympathetic friends (sometimes, these rooms weren’t so private.) Their undeniable passion for each other ignited desperation that resorted to opera boxes (with closed curtains, of course.) But for most elite Venetians, going to the opera was a different type of social excursion; it was a way for them to show off and gossip among themselves. When I visited the infamous: La Fenice, it was evident that it would require a certain societal status and wealth to afford such a luxury.

La Fenice
PHOTO BECKY CHAO

Upon first entering the structure, it is easy to mistaken the opera house for a palace. Marble columns line the grand hall before a split staircase, red carpet leading the way. In my typical tourist garb of shorts and a tank top, I felt utterly out of place. The theater is shaped like a circle, with multiple floors of private boxes. The auditorium is adorned with fantastic frescoes, cupids and figures charmingly frolicking around as if encouraged by the performance, bordered by gold-plated stuccowork. Its ceiling appears to be a dome, but in fact, it’s merely a trompe l’oeil due to the gradient – making it all the more impressive. But perhaps most impressive resides in the private box at the center: In 1807, in preparation for Napoleon’s arrival in Venice, six identical individual boxes (as it was built during Republican Venice) were demolished in order to make room for one magnificent box, then known as the Imperial Box before it was changed in 1866 to the Royal Box for the king of Italy, complete with gold furnishings and heavy red curtains.

La Fenice
PHOTO BECKY CHAO

Built as a replacement for the San Benedetto Theatre, which had been Venice’s leading opera house for over forty years until it was destroyed in a fire in 1774, La Fenice is suitably named “the phoenix.” This name would later prove even more suiting as the years went on, as in 1836, yet another fire damaged the theater, leaving only the façade, and then more recently in 1996, it was completely destroyed through arson when it was undergoing restoration work, and those involved wished to avoid sanctions for the delay in completion. Yet each time, La Fenice lives up to the significance of its name, rising from the ashes and remaining a strong center for the performing arts.

Becky Chao

A graduate from Duke University, Becky lived in Venice for several months. She traveled throughout Italy, Barcelona and other countries in Europe.

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