recycling the cinema, part 2


As I mentioned in my last post, Venice used to be infested with movie theatres, but time and tide and commerce wait for no man, and we all know that cinemas stay in business on a margin thinner than tissue paper.  But it wasn’t always so.  Lino took me on a walk around Venice to discover the movie theatres he remembered from days gone by.

Launching our voyage of discovery were two plaques I had long since noted (I can’t remember why I was there) on a meaningless little side street between San Marco and San Moise’.  These announce to the few people who pass each day that two extraordinary events in Venetian history, and the history of theatre/spectacle/opera/public performances, took place there.

This spot was the site of the Teatro San Moise’, which like many cinemas was born as a regular theatre, with a stage and sandbags and so on.  It had been established (as many theatres were) by a noble family — in this case, the Giustinian of San Barnaba — as an opera house in 1640 and, though small, was highly influential.  (In 1668 it was enlarged to 800 seats.)  Vivaldi and Albinoni and other musicians, Venetian or otherwise, held concerts of their music here, and it was also used for entertainments of the commedia dell’arte.  In 1818 the theatre shifted to puppets, then was rebuilt as the Teatro Minerva.

There is nothing that even hints at an erstwhile theatre except this doorway:

I detect that this door now leads in a semi-secret way into the Hotel Europa Regina.  Passing beneath this mythic goddess must — I hope — exert some positive influence on somebody.

Back to the plaques.  The first one commemorates the defunct theatre in its musical incarnation:

It says: “From the theatre of S. Moise’ which stood here the evening of 3 November 1810 the genius of Gioachino Rossini 18 years old with ‘The Marriage Contract’ his first opera happily began his flight toward immortal glory.  The Comune 1914.”

And just a few feet away, on the same wall of what is now partly shops and partly apartments, is this:

It says: “Here stood the Teatro Minerva (once San Moise’) where on the evening of 9 July 1896 the first public Venetian projection of film by the Lumiere brothers took place.  On the first centenary the Comune of Venice 1996.”

As must be clear by now, movie theatres came, and then went.  Their relatively brief life here was glorious.  Following are most of the cinemas that Lino remembers.  He didn’t favor me with any reminiscences about the back rows.

This building on via Garibaldi was once a cinema (though by the look of the bishop carved over the main door, that wasn’t its first job). I presume that the entrance to the theatre was under the bishop, but I knew it for years as a massive big store called “Il Bottegon” which closed last year. (Pause for respectful silence.)  The shop entrance was the central gray steel gate, and it went on forever inside, crammed to the gills with everything you could ever need except pencils and paper.  Anyway, to create this amazing emporium the renovators just ripped everything out and put in vast shelving, and left the projection room intact; it loomed above the cash registers, with the unmistakeable medium-sized square hole for the projector clearly cut into the sheetrock.

Bird’s-eye view of the photo above.  The map scheme will continue; I hope it’s helpful.  It seemed like a good idea when Lino suggested it.

Behind the church of the Pieta’ and across the street from the Hotel Bisanzio was the Cinema Arsenale.

The former cinema here is now an elementary school named for General Armando Diaz.

This trattoria across the street next to the church of San Zulian was once the “Olimpia.”  I’ve seen this space go through a few different versions (the erotic museum didn’t last long), but never saw it as a cinema.

The “Ridotto” was famous in Casanova’s day as one of the more noted gambling houses cum brothels. Lino went to a New Year’s Eve party here when it was a theatre (it never evolved into a cinema). It has now been digested by the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal.

“Il Ridotto” at Ca’ Rezzonico by Pietro Longhi (1701-1785) gives an idea of the atmosphere in a ridotto, especially when wearing masks was permitted.  There were a number of “ridottos” in assorted palaces, duly painted by the artists of the day.

The desperately trendy Caffe Centrale was once the Cinema Centrale.

Happily for us, nobody bothered to obliterate the traces of what appear to have been a series of signs. I can make out the skeleton of the word “spettacolo.”

And I detect “centrale” here.

The Scuola Grande di San Teodoro lived a brief portion of its long life as a cinema named “Il Massimo” (the greatest, the maximum). There were a number of movie theatres operated by churches or monasteries, and this would, I surmise, have been run by the remnant of whoever is responsible for the building.

Plenty of people, including me, still refer to this supermarket as the Cinema Rossini. I remember it as the place where Lino and I saw “Titanic.” I nagged him into going because everybody in the galaxy was talking about the dang thing, and then we were walking to the theatre one gray Sunday afternoon and I suddenly had qualms. I said, “I don’t know if I want to see entertainment about a huge tragedy…..” to which he replied, “You wanted to go, we’re going.” And we went.

The theatre concept is hanging tough, though — the supermarket is at the feet of the “Ponte del Teatro” and is bordered by a street named for “la chiesa o il teatro” (the church or the theatre — you get to pick?). A Multisala Rossini has been built behind the supermarket, so the movies live on, if in somewhat less imposing surroundings.

The magnificent Teatro Malibran, named for the extremely famous soprano of the 19th century, Maria Malibran.  It was inaugurated in 1678 as the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo by the Grimani family and was the most splendid opera house in Venice for many years.  After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 it became the Teatro Civico, deteriorated, was restored in 1819, continued to deteriorate, was renamed  Teatro Emeronitto and reopened in 1834.  But it was still a mess; when the diva Malibran came to sing in 1835, she renounced her fee, telling the management it ought to spend the money on the theatre.  I don’t know if the work was ever done, but they did change the name in her honor.  (Meanwhile, she spent most of that year singing at La Fenice.)  I don’t know at what point it became a cinema, but Lino remembers it in that incarnation. It is now very much restored to its former theatrical glory, and many productions of various types are staged here.

Yes, the Hotel Nazionale near the train station on the Lista di Spagna used to be a cinema. Lino went there once when he was 8 or 9 years old with his mother’s cousin, who was a fireman.  On Epiphany — which translates as “more candy and presents!!” — the firemen organized a big party for all the children in the firemen’s families. Lino says that many organizations put on this kind of party for their members’ children — the railway workers also did it. When they called his name he went up onstage and got candy and also a hobbyhorse.  Movie theatres were ideal for this kind of party because they were big, lots of space for all those little Venetians.

Let’s stop for coffee.  The next episode will be a wander around Lino’s old neighborhood on the other side of the Grand Canal.

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Categories : History


  1. Barbara aBonn says:

    What’s become of the little cinema in Campo Santa Margherita?
    Last time I looked (some years ago) the curved marquee was still up but it looked as though some construction was in very slow progress inside. Question: with all the recycling of theater buildings, where CAN one go to the movies in Venice?

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I’m not sure I know of a “curved marquee'” — my latest post covers everything I can tell you about cinemas in Campo Santa Margherita. As for where you can go, every day the Gazzettino lists the daily shows and times. At the moment, there is the Giorgione Movie d’Essai, Cannaregio 4612, 041-522-6298; Casa del Cinema, San Stae 1990, 041-524-1320; Rossini Multisala, San Marco 3997/A, 041-241-7274; and Multisala Astra, via Corfu, 12, Lido, 041-526-5736. There is one movie theatre and four multiplexes in Mestre.

  2. Cherie Konyha Greene says:

    You noted that “The phenomenon of public performances of anything, to which anybody might buy a ticket, originated in Venice.” I hadn’t known this, which seems to be a rather large gap in my knowledge of theatre history as well as of Venetian history. Do you happen to know when this happened? (Even a date rounded to the nearest century would be helpful.)
    Thanks for the useful tidbit!

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      The first public theatre in Venice was the Teatro San Cassiano, owned by the Tron family and located in the parish of San Cassiano; it opened in 1637. It offered operas rather than plays; music lovers might want to note that Claudio Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” was performed here in 1641. The theatre closed in 1807 by order of Napoleon because, you know, Napoleon.

  3. Rob C says:

    Love the satellite maps! Very useful. And lovely anecdotes too:-)

  4. chris steele says:

    A round of applause to Lino for the maps. One query – public theatres were operating in London in the 1580’s, surely the history of public performances goes back much further to Greece and Rome of the 4thC BC?
    Enough nit picking, thanks again for all your fascinating missives