The year 1615 is taken as the date when coffee was taken to Europe for the first time by the Venetian traders who travelled on the sea courses that joined the East with Venice and Naples. The merit of introducing coffee is given to the botanist Prospero Alpini, the doctor of the consul of Venice in Egypt, and to G. Francesco Morosini, Pietro della Valle, and Fausto Nairone.
Venice was the first town in Italy to taste the flavour of coffee, which then spread all over the Italian peninsula to become a basic commodity not only for the Italian merchants, but also for the traders from other countries and from the centre-north of Europe in particular.
Before its use as a beverage per se, coffee used to be drunk to make the most of some medicamentous and digestive properties; therefore it was an expensive product. When it became clear that the diffusion of coffee could fill the State coffers, the first “Botteghe del Caffè”, or coffee houses, were opened. The oldest in Europe, Caffè Florian, is still in business under the portico of St. Marc’s Square in Venice. To beat his competitors, a coffee merchant had a booklet published and distributed, which praised the properties of this elixir from the Far East.
Coffee has a long history indeed. Some say that its journey started around 900-1000 A.D. and it has never stopped since. Today coffee is very popular, a symbol of socialization (and the Italians, who love to drink it with friends, know this well), and a beverage that rouses the interest of scientists.
Coffee beans were taken to Europe along the same ship courses that brought many more unknown products and food to Europe. Typically in these instances, popular tradition and legends mingle with reality to tell more or less true stories about the origin and the diffusion of this drink.
Some scholars believe it existed as early as the age of Homer, and that the Trojans used to drink coffee. This is but one of the many legends about the origin of coffee; if we were to keep track of all of them, we would get lost in a maze of known stories.
We know for sure that in 1454 the people living in present-day Yemen used to sip coffee, and their government approved its consumption and praised its tonic properties as opposed to the sleepiness induced by the qat or kat, a popular drink in that territory.
The use of coffee spread and reached the shores of the Red Sea, Mecca and Medina down to Cairo, where it met with the warm favour of the Arabic peoples. This popularity was favoured by the Koran’s banning wine drinking; therefore wine was immediately replaced with coffee so much so that coffee is still named the “Wine of Islam” today.
Some tales have it that coffee stimulates intelligence, creativity and fantasy; the Islamic religion considered this a positive feature as opposed to wine, which was seen as possessing negative properties and causing sleepiness and lack of attention.
The Islamic religion diffused rapidly, and equally rapidly brought with it the charm of this new dark drink – coffee indeed. After Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt around 1517, this drink spread in Constantinople too. It was then that the whole Turkish Empire became accustomed to drinking coffee, while this habit had already rooted in Damascus (which boasted two well-known coffee houses at the time) and Aleppo.
In Constantinople as well the love for this drink favoured the opening of several coffee houses, some of which were gorgeous indeed and served as a place for meetings, amusement, and political debates.
What is the reason why coffee houses were so popular in the Middle East and in Europe alike? Undoubtedly it is explained by the fact that these were a new form of public place that had never been experienced before. In coffee houses people could drink coffee quietly with their friends and acquaintances, as still happens in present-day cafés, living rooms, or bars.
Coffee spread in Europe thanks to the action of the several travellers, traders and adventurers who followed the ship courses, but also of scholars, doctors and illustrators. All of them considered coffee as a change of great relevance, which deserved pages and pages of written works and drawings; still today we can find several reproductions or period miniatures about this topic. Among the several authors who have left us their testimony, worth citing are Prospero Albini called Albus, a physician and a botanist at the university of Pavia; Leonhard Rauwolf, a doctor from Augsburg who wrote one of the first books about coffee; Antoine de Galland and Jean Thévenot.
But let us leave aside the experiences of these historical characters, because it is far more interesting to see how coffee was taken to Italy and Europe. In Italy coffee soon became a present on specific occasions, and it was also offered as a gift of love or friendship; suitors used to send their sweethearts trays of coffee and chocolate.
For coffee to become as popular in the West as it already was in the Islamic countries, it had to overcome some difficulties. One is worth mentioning because it is linked to religion: some priests opposed this drink and proposed to excommunicate it on the basis of its being “the Devil’s drink”; they lobbied on Pope Clement VIII for him to ban its use.
Therefore the Pope decided to taste it himself before banning it; he was so positively struck that not only did he decide not to excommunicate coffee, but he even renamed it as a “Christian beverage”.
More and more coffee houses were opened in Italy since 1683; and although Venice counted more coffee houses than any other town in Italy, soon coffee houses flourished in many other towns along the Peninsula. Giorgio Quadri was the first to offer the true Turkish-style coffee to its customers, in 1775.
Elegant cafeterias, today known as “the historical Cafés”, flourished in Venice and elsewhere (Caffè Greco in Rome, Caffè Pedrocchi in Padua, Caffè San Carlo in Turin and many more). Over the centuries the name of these cafés has been tied with that of famous people (novelists, politicians, philosophers) who used to spend some time in these places, and thus bestowed extra value and prestige to these “cafeterias”.