20 June 2008

“...a gentleman, white of fur...”

The coffee-sipping feline subject of this lively, naïve painting on the front of a bar opposite ai Frari is not a cartoon character. This is – rather this was – “Nini,” and he was no ordinary mouser.

Perhaps the most famous cat ever, Nini was a white tom who lived at that particular bar at the end of the nineteenth century. His owner, being a shrewd Venetian businessman and one with a typically Venetian sense of humor, managed to make it fashionable for visiting dignitaries to call on his cat and sign his visitors’ book.

When Nini passed on in 1894, there was a somber ceremony. No less a scholar than Horatio Brown wrote a flattering poem about him. A sculptor created a figure of him. A funeral march and a long ode on his death as well as many fawning tributes from artists, poets, and musicians (including the title of this post) were added to the long list of illustrious names already scribbled in his book (Pope Leo XIII, Czar Alexander III, the King and Queen of Italy, and Giuseppe Verdi among them).

Alas, that amazing memory book is no longer kept at the bar. But for many years customers could peruse it simply by asking for the privilege in a suitably serious and reverent fashion. Jan Morris, in her The World of Venice, finishes this story far better than I can:

“It was all done in a spirit of dead-pan satirism that was essentially Venetian, and you had to look very hard in the eye of the barman as he wrapped the book in brown paper and put it carefully away, to detect a distant thin flicker of amusement.”

If you visit Nini’s bar, don’t ask the barman what happened to the book, nor whether it shouldn’t be found and added to the city’s archives for its obvious historical value. You’ll just annoy the bejeezus out of him. Trust me on this.