Venice in
Buenos Aires

History tells us that Buenos Aires was founded twice. The first time by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536, and again by Juan de Garay in 1580. Mendoza's settlement on the south bank of the Río de la Plata lasted only a few years, ravaged by starvation and the constant attack of the natives, but Garay's village, just a few miles to the north of the original one, gave rise to what today is downtown Buenos Aires. Jorge Luis Borges in his 'Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires' tells us that he doesn't believe Buenos Aires had any beginning, he judges it as eternal as water and air.

Despite what history and literature say, the truth is that Buenos Aires was founded three times.

The last and decisive founding of Buenos Aires took place not by a royal decree of the Spanish Crown, but by a slow and constant influx of Europeans, mainly Italians and Spaniards, who arrived in the city between 1880 and 1930. In 1890 the population of Buenos Aires was about half a million; by 1930 it had quadrupled. More than three million Italians came to Argentina looking for a brighter future; most from the South but many came from the North as well, including the Veneto region. They brought their language and their customs, their food and their architecture and in a few years they changed the fabric of the city in such away that the Buenos Aires of the 1910's would have looked unrecognizable to a traveler returning to the city after a few years of absence.

A stroll around the center of town reveals a taste for French architecture from the turn of twentieth century, sprinkled with a large dose of art nouveau, art deco, neoclassical and the occasional touch of neogothic. One such touch is the building that takes up a small, triangular block at the intersection of Diagonal Norte and Maipú Street. The lower floor is occupied by a bank. The Lion of Saint Mark is on the second floor balcony. The building known as the Italia-América Palace was designed by the Italian-Argentine architect Francesco Gianotti in the late 1920's and first housed the Compañía de Navegación Italia-América and later the Banco di Napoli. Today it's the headquarters of an Argentine bank.

A few blocks away, in the heart of Puerto Madero (a posh neighborhood near downtown Buenos Aires) on Avenida de los Italianos, stands the Column of Saint Mark, erected in 2001, a gift from the Giunta Regionale del Veneto to the city of Buenos Aires in recognition of the unbreakable bond that links Venice and Buenos Aires. It is not as tall or as impressive as the column in the Molo (it stands only 9 meters in height) but it must be one of the few such columns outside the Veneto.


Not too far away, near the Congress building, stands a reproduction of the Moors atop Torre de l'Orologio in Piazza San Marco. The eleven-story building was designed by the Italian architect Atilio Locatti and opened in 1927. Its second and third floors, with the tall central arch that spans both floors, are reminiscent of the piano nobile and the mezzanine of a Venetian palazzo. The clock was built in 1926 by the company of Fratelli Miroglio in Turin. It was a gift of the Duke of Aosta. For many years it housed the Biological Institute of Argentina. It is located at 1735 Rivadavia Avenue.

Some 20 miles North of Buenos Aires, in the delta of the Paraná river, is the beautiful town of Tigre, a place that by geography resembles the environment of the Venetian lagoon. In the center of town stands the headquarters of the Canottieri Italiani Club (a rowing club). The building, evocative of the Doge's Palace, was built in 1921 by the Italian architect Gaetano Moretti.

Back in downtown Buenos Aires, also on Rivadavia Avenue, number 3222, stands the House of the Peacocks (Casa de los Pavos Reales), a beautiful neoclassical, neogothic and art nouveau pastiche built by the Italian architect Virginio Colombo in 1912. Notice the biforate, round-arched windows with oculi in the middle, similar to those in the Vendramin-Calergi Palace on the Grand Canal. The brick work and the gothic crenellations are reminiscent of the Doge's Palace, and the profusion of ceramic tiles and ornamentation more proper of an art nouveau building.

It may sound strange but there are only a few restaurants in Buenos Aires, or Argentina for that matter, that advertise themselves as being Italian. The prominence of Italian food in Argentine cuisine is such that to call a restaurant in Buenos Aires Italian, would be almost the same as to call a restaurant in Tokyo, Japanese. Or at least that's what Argentines would like to believe. The truth is that Argentine cuisine borrowed many dishes from the Italian table but made them its own by adding local ingredients and fusing them with other cuisines, to the point that today they may share the same names with their Italian counterparts but they are miles apart in texture and flavor. Case in point, you can go to ten restaurants in Buenos Aires that serve risotto and you would find ten different ways of cooking rice with an assortment of components - some of them utterly delicious in their own right- but probably none of them would resemble the creamy, nutty and smooth dish that you would get in Italy. An exception is Filò, a Venetian restaurant in the heart of Buenos Aires. They specialize in authentic Venetian food (and beyond), so it is the perfect place to get fegato alla Veneziana, grilled polenta, risotto, bacalà mantecato, and the freshest fish, among many other Venetian and Italian dishes. The restaurant is located at 975 San Martin Street.

The origin of the name Filò deserves a comment. Il filò was an old tradition of the Veneto region before the advent of mass entertainment. In the cold winter months, after a long day of work in the fields or in the lagoons, the villagers would get together under the roof of a stable to eat, drink, dance and tell stories while the older women would spin yarn fibers (filare). These gatherings were called filò in the Venetian language.

The influence of Italian culture in Argentina goes beyond architecture and food. It has permeated every single aspect of Argentine life, from language to sports, from politics to the fine arts. The National Museum of Fine Arts in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires has a small collection of paintings by Venetian artists. There is a beautiful Guardi with an bygone view of the Grand Canal with the demolished church of  Santa Lucia in the forefront, and an engaging Favretto with street musician playing by the Sotoportego del Nonzolo. But to me, one of the paintings most evocative of Venice is not by a Venetian artist and it's not in the Museum of Fine Arts. It is a fresco by the Argentine master Raúl Soldi and it is nonchalantly displayed on a side wall of a store in a shopping center: Gallerías Santa Fe (1660 Santa Fe Avenue). It is called The Lovers and was inspired by the artist's girlfriend who lived across the street. Like Carpaccio, Soldi does not depict Venice proper, but transports us to La Serenissima at first sight.

The ties between Argentina and Italy, in general, and Venice in particular, are many, but caught in the maelstrom of daily life, Argentines are oblivious to them. Even the fact that the very name Argentina is indirectly due to a Venetian explorer is relegated to a footnote of history. Sebastiano Caboto, a Venetian born explorer, son of Giovanni Caboto (a plaque remembering both father and son stands on Via Garibaldi in Venice), while at the service of the Spanish Crown, explored the shores of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers in what today is Argentine territory, between 1526 and 1529. He founded the first European settlement in Argentina, Fort Sancti Spiritu. He sailed up the Paraná river to present day Asunción in Paraguay and gave trinkets to the natives getting in return some silver objects. Because of these objects the name Río de la Plata or River of Silver was coined to refer to the estuary formed by the Paraná and Uruguay rivers. The name Río de la Plata eventually gave rise to the name Argentina or Country of Silver.

I can only imagine Caboto's delight when he first sailed across the marshy waters of the  Paraná River delta and discovered a place so reminiscent of his native Venetian lagoon. No wonder he chose this river to establish a colony.