Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Venice

It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure
there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything
to it. Venice has been painted and described many thousands of
times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to
visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find
a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer's and
you will find three or four high-coloured "views" of it. There
is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject. Every one
has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of
photographs. There is as little mystery about the Grand Canal as
about our local thoroughfare, and the name of St. Mark is as
familiar as the postman's ring. It is not forbidden, however, to
speak of familiar things, and I hold that for the true Venice-
lover Venice is always in order. There is nothing new to be said
about her certainly, but the old is better than any novelty. It
would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to
say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having
no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten
the reader; I pretend only to give a fillip to his memory; and I
hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love
with his theme.


I

Mr. Ruskin has given it up, that is very true; but only after
extracting half a lifetime of pleasure and an immeasurable
quantity of fame from it. We all may do the same, after it has
served our turn, which it probably will not cease to do for many
a year to come. Meantime it is Mr. Ruskin who beyond anyone helps
us to enjoy. He has indeed lately produced several aids to
depression in the shape of certain little humorous--ill-humorous--
pamphlets (the series of St. Mark's Rest) which embody
his latest reflections on the subject of our city and describe
the latest atrocities perpetrated there. These latter are
numerous and deeply to be deplored; but to admit that they have
spoiled Venice would be to admit that Venice may be spoiled--an
admission pregnant, as it seems to us, with disloyalty.
Fortunately one reacts against the Ruskinian contagion, and one
hour of the lagoon is worth a hundred pages of demoralised prose.
This queer late-coming prose of Mr. Ruskin (including the revised
and condensed issue of the Stones of Venice, only one
little volume of which has been published, or perhaps ever will
be) is all to be read, though much of it appears addressed to
children of tender age. It is pitched in the nursery-key, and
might be supposed to emanate from an angry governess. It is,
however, all suggestive, and much of it is delightfully just.
There is an inconceivable want of form in it, though the author
has spent his life in laying down the principles of form and
scolding people for departing from them; but it throbs and
flashes with the love of his subject--a love disconcerted and
abjured, but which has still much of the force of inspiration.
Among the many strange things that have befallen Venice, she has
had the good fortune to become the object of a passion to a man
of splendid genius, who has made her his own and in doing so has
made her the world's. There is no better reading at Venice
therefore, as I say, than Ruskin, for every true Venice-lover can
separate the wheat from the chaff. The narrow theological spirit,
the moralism à tout propos, the queer provincialities and
pruderies, are mere wild weeds in a mountain of flowers. One may
doubtless be very happy in Venice without reading at all--without
criticising or analysing or thinking a strenuous thought. It is
a city in which, I suspect, there is very little strenuous
thinking, and yet it is a city in which there must be almost as
much happiness as misery. The misery of Venice stands there for
all the world to see; it is part of the spectacle--a
thoroughgoing devotee of local colour might consistently say it
is part of the pleasure. The Venetian people have little to call
their own--little more than the bare privilege of leading their
lives in the most beautiful of towns. Their habitations are
decayed; their taxes heavy; their pockets light; their
opportunities few. One receives an impression, however, that life
presents itself to them with attractions not accounted for in
this meagre train of advantages, and that they are on better
terms with it than many people who have made a better bargain.
They lie in the sunshine; they dabble in the sea; they wear
bright rags; they fall into attitudes and harmonies; they assist
at an eternal conversazione. It is not easy to say that
one would have them other than they are, and it certainly would
make an immense difference should they be better fed. The number
of persons in Venice who evidently never have enough to eat is
painfully large; but it would be more painful if we did not
equally perceive that the rich Venetian temperament may bloom
upon a dog's allowance. Nature has been kind to it, and sunshine
and leisure and conversation and beautiful views form the greater
part of its sustenance. It takes a great deal to make a
successful American, but to make a happy Venetian takes only a
handful of quick sensibility. The Italian people have at once the
good and the evil fortune to be conscious of few wants; so that
if the civilisation of a society is measured by the number of its
needs, as seems to be the common opinion to-day, it is to be
feared that the children of the lagoon would make but a poor
figure in a set of comparative tables. Not their misery,
doubtless, but the way they elude their misery, is what pleases
the sentimental tourist, who is gratified by the sight of a
beautiful race that lives by the aid of its imagination. The way
to enjoy Venice is to follow the example of these people and make
the most of simple pleasures. Almost all the pleasures of the
place are simple; this may be maintained even under the
imputation of ingenious paradox. There is no simpler pleasure
than looking at a fine Titian, unless it be looking at a fine
Tintoret or strolling into St. Mark's,--abominable the way one
falls into the habit,--and resting one's light-wearied eyes upon
the windowless gloom; or than floating in a gondola or than
hanging over a balcony or than taking one's coffee at Florian's.
It is of such superficial pastimes that a Venetian day is
composed, and the pleasure of the matter is in the emotions to
which they minister. These are fortunately of the finest--
otherwise Venice would be insufferably dull. Reading Ruskin is
good; reading the old records is perhaps better; but the best
thing of all is simply staying on. The only way to care for
Venice as she deserves it is to give her a chance to touch you
often--to linger and remain and return.


II

The danger is that you will not linger enough--a danger of which
the author of these lines had known something. It is possible to
dislike Venice, and to entertain the sentiment in a responsible
and intelligent manner. There are travellers who think the place
odious, and those who are not of this opinion often find
themselves wishing that the others were only more numerous. The
sentimental tourist's sole quarrel with his Venice is that he has
too many competitors there. He likes to be alone; to be original;
to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries. The
Venice of to-day is a vast museum where the little wicket that
admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march
through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers. There is
nothing left to discover or describe, and originality of attitude
is completely impossible. This is often very annoying; you can
only turn your back on your impertinent playfellow and curse his
want of delicacy. But this is not the fault of Venice; it is the
fault of the rest of the world. The fault of Venice is that,
though she is easy to admire, she is not so easy to live with as
you count living in other places. After you have stayed a week
and the bloom of novelty has rubbed off you wonder if you can
accommodate yourself to the peculiar conditions. Your old habits
become impracticable and you find yourself obliged to form new
ones of an undesirable and unprofitable character. You are tired
of your gondola (or you think you are) and you have seen all the
principal pictures and heard the names of the palaces announced a
dozen times by your gondolier, who brings them out almost as
impressively as if he were an English butler bawling titles into
a drawing-room. You have walked several hundred times round the
Piazza and bought several bushels of photographs. You have
visited the antiquity mongers whose horrible sign-boards
dishonour some of the grandest vistas in the Grand Canal; you
have tried the opera and found it very bad; you have bathed at
the Lido and found the water flat. You have begun to have a
shipboard-feeling--to regard the Piazza as an enormous saloon
and the Riva degli Schiavoni as a promenade-deck. You are
obstructed and encaged; your desire for space is unsatisfied; you
miss your usual exercise. You try to take a walk and you fail,
and meantime, as I say, you have come to regard your gondola as a
sort of magnified baby's cradle. You have no desire to be rocked
to sleep, though you are sufficiently kept awake by the
irritation produced, as you gaze across the shallow lagoon, by
the attitude of the perpetual gondolier, with his turned-out
toes, his protruded chin, his absurdly unscientific stroke. The
canals have a horrible smell, and the everlasting Piazza, where
you have looked repeatedly at every article in every shop-window
and found them all rubbish, where the young Venetians who sell
bead bracelets and "panoramas" are perpetually thrusting their
wares at you, where the same tightly-buttoned officers are for
ever sucking the same black weeds, at the same empty tables, in
front of the same cafés--the Piazza, as I say, has resolved
itself into a magnificent tread-mill. This is the state of mind
of those shallow inquirers who find Venice all very well for a
week; and if in such a state of mind you take your departure you
act with fatal rashness. The loss is your own, moreover; it is
not--with all deference to your personal attractions--that of
your companions who remain behind; for though there are some
disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as
the visitors. The conditions are peculiar, but your intolerance
of them evaporates before it has had time to become a prejudice.
When you have called for the bill to go, pay it and remain, and
you will find on the morrow that you are deeply attached to
Venice. It is by living there from day to day that you feel the
fulness of her charm; that you invite her exquisite influence to
sink into your spirit. The creature varies like a nervous woman,
whom you know only when you know all the aspects of her beauty.
She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink,
cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour.
She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a
thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy
accidents. You become extraordinarily fond of these things; you
count upon them; they make part of your life. Tenderly fond you
become; there is something indefinable in those depths of
personal acquaintance that gradually establish themselves. The
place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and
conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress
it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows
up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair. It is very
true that if you go, as the author of these lines on a certain
occasion went, about the middle of March, a certain amount of
disappointment is possible. He had paid no visit for several
years, and in the interval the beautiful and helpless city had
suffered an increase of injury. The barbarians are in full
possession and you tremble for what they may do. You are reminded
from the moment of your arrival that Venice scarcely exists any
more as a city at all; that she exists only as a battered peep-
show and bazaar. There was a horde of savage Germans encamped in
the Piazza, and they filled the Ducal Palace and the Academy with
their uproar. The English and Americans came a little later. They
came in good time, with a great many French, who were discreet
enough to make very long repasts at the Caffè Quadri, during
which they were out of the way. The months of April and May of
the year 1881 were not, as a general thing, a favourable season
for visiting the Ducal Palace and the Academy. The valet-de-
place
had marked them for his own and held triumphant
possession of them. He celebrates his triumphs in a terrible
brassy voice, which resounds all over the place, and has,
whatever language he be speaking, the accent of some other idiom.
During all the spring months in Venice these gentry abound in the
great resorts, and they lead their helpless captives through
churches and galleries in dense irresponsible groups. They infest
the Piazza; they pursue you along the Riva; they hang about the
bridges and the doors of the cafés. In saying just now that I was
disappointed at first, I had chiefly in mind the impression that
assails me to-day in the whole precinct of St. Mark's. The
condition of this ancient sanctuary is surely a great scandal.
The pedlars and commissioners ply their trade--often a very
unclean one--at the very door of the temple; they follow you
across the threshold, into the sacred dusk, and pull your sleeve,
and hiss into your ear, scuffling with each other for customers.
There is a great deal of dishonour about St. Mark's altogether,
and if Venice, as I say, has become a great bazaar, this
exquisite edifice is now the biggest booth.


III

It is treated as a booth in all ways, and if it had not somehow a
great spirit of solemnity within it the traveller would soon have
little warrant for regarding it as a religious affair. The
restoration of the outer walls, which has lately been so much
attacked and defended, is certainly a great shock. Of the
necessity of the work only an expert is, I suppose, in a position
to judge; but there is no doubt that, if a necessity it be, it is
one that is deeply to be regretted. To no more distressing
necessity have people of taste lately had to resign themselves.
Wherever the hand of the restorer has been laid all semblance of
beauty has vanished; which is a sad fact, considering that the
external loveliness of St. Mark's has been for ages less
impressive only than that of the still comparatively uninjured
interior. I know not what is the measure of necessity in such a
case, and it appears indeed to be a very delicate question. To-
day, at any rate, that admirable harmony of faded mosaic and
marble which, to the eye of the traveller emerging from the
narrow streets that lead to the Piazza, filled all the further
end of it with a sort of dazzling silver presence--to-day this
lovely vision is in a way to be completely reformed and indeed
well-nigh abolished. The old softness and mellowness of colour--
the work of the quiet centuries and of the breath of the salt
sea--is giving way to large crude patches of new material which
have the effect of a monstrous malady rather than of a
restoration to health. They look like blotches of red and white
paint and dishonourable smears of chalk on the cheeks of a noble
matron. The face toward the Piazzetta is in especial the newest-
looking thing conceivable--as new as a new pair of boots or as
the morning's paper. We do not profess, however, to undertake a
scientific quarrel with these changes; we admit that our
complaint is a purely sentimental one. The march of industry in
united Italy must doubtless be looked at as a whole, and one must
endeavour to believe that it is through innumerable lapses of
taste that this deeply interesting country is groping her way to
her place among the nations. For the present, it is not to be
denied, certain odd phases of the process are more visible than
the result, to arrive at which it seems necessary that, as she
was of old a passionate votary of the beautiful, she should to-
day burn everything that she has adored. It is doubtless too soon
to judge her, and there are moments when one is willing to
forgive her even the restoration of St. Mark's. Inside as well
there has been a considerable attempt to make the place more
tidy; but the general effect, as yet, has not seriously suffered.
What I chiefly remember is the straightening out of that dark and
rugged old pavement--those deep undulations of primitive mosaic
in which the fond spectator was thought to perceive an intended
resemblance to the waves of the ocean. Whether intended or not
the analogy was an image the more in a treasure-house of images;
but from a considerable portion of the church it has now
disappeared. Throughout the greater part indeed the pavement
remains as recent generations have known it--dark, rich, cracked,
uneven, spotted with porphyry and time-blackened malachite,
polished by the knees of innumerable worshippers; but in other
large stretches the idea imitated by the restorers is that of the
ocean in a dead calm, and the model they have taken the floor of
a London club-house or of a New York hotel. I think no Venetian
and scarcely any Italian cares much for such differences; and
when, a year ago, people in England were writing to the
Times about the whole business and holding meetings to
protest against it the dear children of the lagoon--so far as
they heard or heeded the rumour--thought them partly busy-bodies
and partly asses. Busy-bodies they doubtless were, but they took
a good deal of disinterested trouble. It never occurs to the
Venetian mind of to-day that such trouble may be worth taking;
the Venetian mind vainly endeavours to conceive a state of
existence in which personal questions are so insipid that people
have to look for grievances in the wrongs of brick and marble. I
must not, however, speak of St. Mark's as if I had the pretension
of giving a description of it or as if the reader desired one.
The reader has been too well served already. It is surely the
best-described building in the world. Open the Stones of
Venice
, open Théophile Gautier's ltalia, and you will
see. These writers take it very seriously, and it is only because
there is another way of taking it that I venture to speak of it;
the way that offers itself after you have been in Venice a couple
of months, and the light is hot in the great Square, and you pass
in under the pictured porticoes with a feeling of habit and
friendliness and a desire for something cool and dark. There are
moments, after all, when the church is comparatively quiet and
empty, and when you may sit there with an easy consciousness of
its beauty. From the moment, of course, that you go into any
Italian church for any purpose but to say your prayers or look at
the ladies, you rank yourself among the trooping barbarians I
just spoke of; you treat the place as an orifice in the peep-
show. Still, it is almost a spiritual function--or, at the
worst, an amorous one--to feed one's eyes on the molten colour
that drops from the hollow vaults and thickens the air with its
richness. It is all so quiet and sad and faded and yet all so
brilliant and living. The strange figures in the mosaic pictures,
bending with the curve of niche and vault, stare down through the
glowing dimness; the burnished gold that stands behind them
catches the light on its little uneven cubes. St. Mark's owes
nothing of its character to the beauty of proportion or
perspective; there is nothing grandly balanced or far-arching;
there are no long lines nor triumphs of the perpendicular. The
church arches indeed, but arches like a dusky cavern. Beauty of
surface, of tone, of detail, of things near enough to touch and
kneel upon and lean against--it is from this the effect proceeds.
In this sort of beauty the place is incredibly rich, and you may
go there every day and find afresh some lurking pictorial nook.
It is a treasury of bits, as the painters say; and there are
usually three or four of the fraternity with their easels set up
in uncertain equilibrium on the undulating floor. It is not easy
to catch the real complexion of St. Mark's, and these laudable
attempts at portraiture are apt to look either lurid or livid.
But if you cannot paint the old loose-looking marble slabs, the
great panels of basalt and jasper, the crucifixes of which the
lonely anguish looks deeper in the vertical light, the
tabernacles whose open doors disclose a dark Byzantine image
spotted with dull, crooked gems--if you cannot paint these things
you can at least grow fond of them. You grow fond even of the old
benches of red marble, partly worn away by the breeches of many
generations and attached to the base of those wide pilasters of
which the precious plating, delightful in its faded brownness,
with a faint grey bloom upon it, bulges and yawns a little with
honourable age.

[Illustration: FLAGS AT ST. MARK'S VENICE]


IV

Even at first, when the vexatious sense of the city of the Doges
reduced to earning its living as a curiosity-shop was in its
keenness, there was a great deal of entertainment to be got from
lodging on Riva Schiavoni and looking out at the far-shimmering
lagoon. There was entertainment indeed in simply getting into the
place and observing the queer incidents of a Venetian
installation. A great many persons contribute indirectly to this
undertaking, and it is surprising how they spring out at you
during your novitiate to remind you that they are bound up in
some mysterious manner with the constitution of your little
establishment. It was an interesting problem for instance to
trace the subtle connection existing between the niece of the
landlady and the occupancy of the fourth floor. Superficially it
was none too visible, as the young lady in question was a dancer
at the Fenice theatre--or when that was closed at the Rossini--
and might have been supposed absorbed by her professional duties.
It proved necessary, however, that she should hover about the
premises in a velvet jacket and a pair of black kid gloves with
one little white button; as also, that she should apply a thick
coating of powder to her face, which had a charming oval and a
sweet weak expression, like that of most of the Venetian maidens,
who, as a general thing--it was not a peculiarity of the land-
lady's niece--are fond of besmearing themselves with flour. You
soon recognise that it is not only the many-twinkling lagoon
you behold from a habitation on the Riva; you see a little of
everything Venetian. Straight across, before my windows, rose the
great pink mass of San Giorgio Maggiore, which has for an ugly
Palladian church a success beyond all reason. It is a success of
position, of colour, of the immense detached Campanile, tipped
with a tall gold angel. I know not whether it is because San
Giorgio is so grandly conspicuous, with a great deal of worn,
faded-looking brickwork; but for many persons the whole place has
a kind of suffusion of rosiness. Asked what may be the leading
colour in the Venetian concert, we should inveterately say Pink,
and yet without remembering after all that this elegant hue
occurs very often. It is a faint, shimmering, airy, watery pink;
the bright sea-light seems to flush with it and the pale
whiteish-green of lagoon and canal to drink it in. There is
indeed a great deal of very evident brickwork, which is never
fresh or loud in colour, but always burnt out, as it were, always
exquisitely mild.

Certain little mental pictures rise before the collector of
memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places
he has loved. When I hear, when I see, the magical name I have
written above these pages, it is not of the great Square that I
think, with its strange basilica and its high arcades, nor of the
wide mouth of the Grand Canal, with the stately steps and the
well- poised dome of the Salute; it is not of the low lagoon, nor
the sweet Piazzetta, nor the dark chambers of St. Mark's. I
simply see a narrow canal in the heart of the city--a patch of
green water and a surface of pink wall. The gondola moves slowly;
it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the
gondolier's cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of
splash in the stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which
has an arch like a camel's back, with an old shawl on her head,
which makes her characteristic and charming; you see her against
the sky as you float beneath. The pink of the old wall seems to
fill the whole place; it sinks even into the opaque water. Behind
the wall is a garden, out of which the long arm of a white June
rose--the roses of Venice are splendid--has flung itself by way
of spontaneous ornament. On the other side of this small water-
way is a great shabby facade of Gothic windows and balconies--
balconies on which dirty clothes are hung and under which a
cavernous-looking doorway opens from a low flight of slimy water-
steps. It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and
the whole place is enchanting.

[Illustration: A NARROW CANAL, VENICE]

It is poor work, however, talking about the colour of things in
Venice. The fond spectator is perpetually looking at it from his
window, when he is not floating about with that delightful sense
of being for the moment a part of it, which any gentleman in a
gondola is free to entertain. Venetian windows and balconies are
a dreadful lure, and while you rest your elbows on these
cushioned ledges the precious hours fly away. But in truth Venice
isn't in fair weather a place for concentration of mind. The
effort required for sitting down to a writing-table is heroic,
and the brightest page of MS. looks dull beside the brilliancy of
your milieu. All nature beckons you forth and murmurs to
you sophistically that such hours should be devoted to collecting
impressions. Afterwards, in ugly places, at unprivileged times,
you can convert your impressions into prose. Fortunately for the
present proser the weather wasn't always fine; the first month
was wet and windy, and it was better to judge of the matter from
an open casement than to respond to the advances of persuasive
gondoliers. Even then however there was a constant entertainment
in the view. It was all cold colour, and the steel-grey floor of
the lagoon was stroked the wrong way by the wind. Then there were
charming cool intervals, when the churches, the houses, the
anchored fishing-boats, the whole gently-curving line of the
Riva, seemed to be washed with a pearly white. Later it all
turned warm--warm to the eye as well as to other senses. After
the middle of May the whole place was in a glow. The sea took on
a thousand shades, but they were only infinite variations of
blue, and those rosy walls I just spoke of began to flush in the
thick sunshine. Every patch of colour, every yard of weather-
stained stucco, every glimpse of nestling garden or daub of sky
above a calle, began to shine and sparkle--began, as the
painters say, to "compose." The lagoon was streaked with odd
currents, which played across it like huge smooth finger-marks.
The gondolas multiplied and spotted it allover; every gondola and
gondolier looking, at a distance, precisely like every other.

There is something strange and fascinating in this mysterious
impersonality of the gondola. It has an identity when you are in
it, but, thanks to their all being of the same size, shape and
colour, and of the same deportment and gait, it has none, or as
little as possible, as you see it pass before you. From my
windows on the Riva there was always the same silhouette--the
long, black, slender skiff, lifting its head and throwing it back
a little, moving yet seeming not to move, with the grotesquely-
graceful figure on the poop. This figure inclines, as may be,
more to the graceful or to the grotesque--standing in the "second
position" of the dancing-master, but indulging from the waist
upward in a freedom of movement which that functionary would
deprecate. One may say as a general thing that there is something
rather awkward in the movement even of the most graceful
gondolier, and something graceful in the movement of the most
awkward. In the graceful men of course the grace predominates,
and nothing can be finer than the large, firm way in which, from
their point of vantage, they throw themselves over their
tremendous oar. It has the boldness of a plunging bird and the
regularity of a pendulum. Sometimes, as you see this movement in
profile, in a gondola that passes you--see, as you recline on
your own low cushions, the arching body of the gondolier lifted
up against the sky--it has a kind of nobleness which suggests an
image on a Greek frieze. The gondolier at Venice is your very
good friend--if you choose him happily--and on the quality of
the personage depends a good deal that of your impressions. He is
a part of your daily life, your double, your shadow, your
complement. Most people, I think, either like their gondolier or
hate him; and if they like him, like him very much. In this case
they take an interest in him after his departure; wish him to be
sure of employment, speak of him as the gem of gondoliers and
tell their friends to be certain to "secure" him. There is
usually no difficulty in securing him; there is nothing elusive
or reluctant about a gondolier. Nothing would induce me not to
believe them for the most part excellent fellows, and the
sentimental tourist must always have a kindness for them. More
than the rest of the population, of course, they are the children
of Venice; they are associated with its idiosyncrasy, with its
essence, with its silence, with its melancholy.

When I say they are associated with its silence I should
immediately add that they are associated also with its sound.
Among themselves they are an extraordinarily talkative company.
They chatter at the traghetti, where they always have some
sharp point under discussion; they bawl across the canals; they
bespeak your commands as you approach; they defy each other from
afar. If you happen to have a traghetto under your window,
you are well aware that they are a vocal race. I should go even
further than I went just now, and say that the voice of the
gondolier is in fact for audibility the dominant or rather the
only note of Venice. There is scarcely another heard sound, and
that indeed is part of the interest of the place. There is no
noise there save distinctly human noise; no rumbling, no vague
uproar, nor rattle of wheels and hoofs. It is all articulate and
vocal and personal. One may say indeed that Venice is
emphatically the city of conversation; people talk all over the
place because there is nothing to interfere with its being caught
by the ear. Among the populace it is a general family party. The
still water carries the voice, and good Venetians exchange
confidences at a distance of half a mile. It saves a world of
trouble, and they don't like trouble. Their delightful garrulous
language helps them to make Venetian life a long
conversazione. This language, with its soft elisions, its
odd transpositions, its kindly contempt for consonants and other
disagreeables, has in it something peculiarly human and
accommodating. If your gondolier had no other merit he would have
the merit that he speaks Venetian. This may rank as a merit even-
-some people perhaps would say especially--when you don't
understand what he says. But he adds to it other graces which
make him an agreeable feature in your life. The price he sets on
his services is touchingly small, and he has a happy art of being
obsequious without being, or at least without seeming, abject.
For occasional liberalities he evinces an almost lyrical
gratitude. In short he has delightfully good manners, a merit
which he shares for the most part with the Venetians at large.
One grows very fond of these people, and the reason of one's
fondness is the frankness and sweetness of their address. That of
the Italian family at large has much to recommend it; but in the
Venetian manner there is something peculiarly ingratiating. One
feels that the race is old, that it has a long and rich
civilisation in its blood, and that if it hasn't been blessed by
fortune it has at least been polished by time. It hasn't a genius
for stiff morality, and indeed makes few pretensions in that
direction. It scruples but scantly to represent the false as the
true, and has been accused of cultivating the occasion to grasp
and to overreach, and of steering a crooked course--not to your
and my advantage--amid the sanctities of property. It has been
accused further of loving if not too well at least too often, of
being in fine as little austere as possible. I am not sure it is
very brave, nor struck with its being very industrious. But it
has an unfailing sense of the amenities of life; the poorest
Venetian is a natural man of the world. He is better company than
persons of his class are apt to be among the nations of industry
and virtue--where people are also sometimes perceived to lie and
steal and otherwise misconduct themselves. He has a great desire
to please and to be pleased.


V

In that matter at least the cold-blooded stranger begins at last
to imitate him; begins to lead a life that shall be before all
things easy; unless indeed he allow himself, like Mr. Ruskin, to
be put out of humour by Titian and Tiepolo. The hours he spends
among the pictures are his best hours in Venice, and I am ashamed
to have written so much of common things when I might have been
making festoons of the names of the masters. Only, when we have
covered our page with such festoons what more is left to say?
When one has said Carpaccio and Bellini, the Tintoret and the
Veronese, one has struck a note that must be left to resound at
will. Everything has been said about the mighty painters, and it
is of little importance that a pilgrim the more has found them to
his taste. "Went this morning to the Academy; was very much
pleased with Titian's 'Assumption.'" That honest phrase has
doubtless been written in many a traveller's diary, and was not
indiscreet on the part of its author. But it appeals little to
the general reader, and we must moreover notoriously not expose
our deepest feelings. Since I have mentioned Titian's
"Assumption" I must say that there are some people who have been
less pleased with it than the observer we have just imagined. It
is one of the possible disappointments of Venice, and you may if
you like take advantage of your privilege of not caring for it.
It imparts a look of great richness to the side of the beautiful
room of the Academy on which it hangs; but the same room contains
two or three works less known to fame which are equally capable
of inspiring a passion. "The 'Annunciation' struck me as coarse
and superficial": that note was once made in a simple-minded
tourist's book. At Venice, strange to say, Titian is altogether a
disappointment; the city of his adoption is far from containing
the best of him. Madrid, Paris, London, Florence, Dresden, Munich
--these are the homes of his greatness.

There are other painters who have but a single home, and the
greatest of these is the Tintoret. Close beside him sit Carpaccio
and Bellini, who make with him the dazzling Venetian trio. The
Veronese may be seen and measured in other places; he is most
splendid in Venice, but he shines in Paris and in Dresden. You
may walk out of the noon-day dusk of Trafalgar Square in
November, and in one of the chambers of the National Gallery see
the family of Darius rustling and pleading and weeping at the
feet of Alexander. Alexander is a beautiful young Venetian in
crimson pantaloons, and the picture sends a glow into the cold
London twilight. You may sit before it for an hour and dream you
are floating to the water-gate of the Ducal Palace, where a
certain old beggar who has one of the handsomest heads in the
world--he has sat to a hundred painters for Doges and for
personages more sacred--has a prescriptive right to pretend to
pull your gondola to the steps and to hold out a greasy
immemorial cap. But you must go to Venice in very fact to see the
other masters, who form part of your life while you are there,
who illuminate your view of the universe. It is difficult to
express one's relation to them; the whole Venetian art-world is
so near, so familiar, so much an extension and adjunct of the
spreading actual, that it seems almost invidious to say one owes
more to one of them than to the other. Nowhere, not even in
Holland, where the correspondence between the real aspects and
the little polished canvases is so constant and so exquisite, do
art and life seem so interfused and, as it were, so
consanguineous. All the splendour of light and colour, all the
Venetian air and the Venetian history are on the walls and
ceilings of the palaces; and all the genius of the masters, all
the images and visions they have left upon canvas, seem to
tremble in the sunbeams and dance upon the waves. That is the
perpetual interest of the place--that you live in a certain sort
of knowledge as in a rosy cloud. You don't go into the churches
and galleries by way of a change from the streets; you go into
them because they offer you an exquisite reproduction of the
things that surround you. All Venice was both model and painter,
and life was so pictorial that art couldn't help becoming so.
With all diminutions life is pictorial still, and this fact gives
an extraordinary freshness to one's perception of the great
Venetian works. You judge of them not as a connoisseur, but as a
man of the world, and you enjoy them because they are so social
and so true. Perhaps of all works of art that are equally great
they demand least reflection on the part of the spectator--they
make least of a mystery of being enjoyed. Reflection only
confirms your admiration, yet is almost ashamed to show its head.
These things speak so frankly and benignantly to the sense that
even when they arrive at the highest style--as in the Tintoret's
"Presentation of the little Virgin at the Temple"--they are still
more familiar.

But it is hard, as I say, to express all this, and it is painful
as well to attempt it--painful because in the memory of vanished
hours so filled with beauty the consciousness of present loss
oppresses. Exquisite hours, enveloped in light and silence, to
have known them once is to have always a terrible standard of
enjoyment. Certain lovely mornings of May and June come back with
an ineffaceable fairness. Venice isn't smothered in flowers at
this season, in the manner of Florence and Rome; but the sea and
sky themselves seem to blossom and rustle. The gondola waits at
the wave-washed steps, and if you are wise you will take your
place beside a discriminating companion. Such a companion in
Venice should of course be of the sex that discriminates most
finely. An intelligent woman who knows her Venice seems doubly
intelligent, and it makes no woman's perceptions less keen to be
aware that she can't help looking graceful as she is borne over
the waves. The handsome Pasquale, with uplifted oar, awaits your
command, knowing, in a general way, from observation of your
habits, that your intention is to go to see a picture or two. It
perhaps doesn't immensely matter what picture you choose: the
whole affair is so charming. It is charming to wander through the
light and shade of intricate canals, with perpetual architecture
above you and perpetual fluidity beneath. It is charming to
disembark at the polished steps of a little empty campo--a
sunny shabby square with an old well in the middle, an old church
on one side and tall Venetian windows looking down. Sometimes the
windows are tenantless; sometimes a lady in a faded dressing-gown
leans vaguely on the sill. There is always an old man holding out
his hat for coppers; there are always three or four small boys
dodging possible umbrella-pokes while they precede you, in the
manner of custodians, to the door of the church.


VI

The churches of Venice are rich in pictures, and many a
masterpiece lurks in the unaccommodating gloom of side-chapels
and sacristies. Many a noble work is perched behind the dusty
candles and muslin roses of a scantily-visited altar; some of
them indeed, hidden behind the altar, suffer in a darkness that
can never be explored. The facilities offered you for approaching
the picture in such cases are a mockery of your irritated wish.
You stand at tip-toe on a three-legged stool, you climb a rickety
ladder, you almost mount upon the shoulders of the
custode. You do everything but see the picture. You see
just enough to be sure it's beautiful. You catch a glimpse of a
divine head, of a fig tree against a mellow sky, but the rest is
impenetrable mystery. You renounce all hope, for instance, of
approaching the magnificent Cima da Conegliano in San Giovanni in
Bragora; and bethinking yourself of the immaculate purity that
shines in the spirit of this master, you renounce it with chagrin
and pain. Behind the high altar in that church hangs a Baptism of
Christ by Cima which I believe has been more or less repainted.
You make the thing out in spots, you see it has a fullness of
perfection. But you turn away from it with a stiff neck and
promise yourself consolation in the Academy and at the Madonna
dell' Orto, where two noble works by the same hand--pictures as
clear as a summer twilight--present themselves in better
circumstances. It may be said as a general thing that you never
see the Tintoret. You admire him, you adore him, you think him
the greatest of painters, but in the great majority of cases your
eyes fail to deal with him. This is partly his own fault; so many
of his works have turned to blackness and are positively rotting
in their frames. At the Scuola di San Rocco, where there are
acres of him, there is scarcely anything at all adequately
visible save the immense "Crucifixion" in the upper story. It is
true that in looking at this huge composition you look at many
pictures; it has not only a multitude of figures but a wealth of
episodes; and you pass from one of these to the other as if you
were "doing" a gallery. Surely no single picture in the world
contains more of human life; there is everything in it, including
the most exquisite beauty. It is one of the greatest things of
art; it is always interesting. There are works of the artist
which contain touches more exquisite, revelations of beauty more
radiant, but there is no other vision of so intense a reality, an
execution so splendid. The interest, the impressiveness, of that
whole corner of Venice, however melancholy the effect of its
gorgeous and ill-lighted chambers, gives a strange importance to
a visit to the Scuola. Nothing that all travellers go to see
appears to suffer less from the incursions of travellers. It is
one of the loneliest booths of the bazaar, and the author of
these lines has always had the good fortune, which he wishes to
every other traveller, of having it to himself. I think most
visitors find the place rather alarming and wicked-looking. They
walk about a while among the fitful figures that gleam here and
there out of the great tapestry (as it were) with which the
painter has hung all the walls, and then, depressed and
bewildered by the portentous solemnity of these objects, by
strange glimpses of unnatural scenes, by the echo of their lonely
footsteps on the vast stone floors, they take a hasty departure,
finding themselves again, with a sense of release from danger, a
sense that the genius loci was a sort of mad white-washer
who worked with a bad mixture, in the bright light of the
campo, among the beggars, the orange-vendors and the
passing gondolas. Solemn indeed is the place, solemn and
strangely suggestive, for the simple reason that we shall
scarcely find four walls elsewhere that inclose within a like
area an equal quantity of genius. The air is thick with it and
dense and difficult to breathe; for it was genius that was not
happy, inasmuch as it, lacked the art to fix itself for ever. It
is not immortality that we breathe at the Scuola di San Rocco,
but conscious, reluctant mortality.

Fortunately, however, we can turn to the Ducal Palace, where
everything is so brilliant and splendid that the poor dusky
Tintoret is lifted in spite of himself into the concert. This
deeply original building is of course the loveliest thing in
Venice, and a morning's stroll there is a wonderful illumination.
Cunningly select your hour--half the enjoyment of Venice is a
question. of dodging--and enter at about one o'clock, when the
tourists have flocked off to lunch and the echoes of the charming
chambers have gone to sleep among the sunbeams. There is no
brighter place in Venice--by which I mean that on the whole there
is none half so bright. The reflected sunshine plays up through
the great windows from the glittering lagoon and shimmers and
twinkles over gilded walls and ceilings. All the history of
Venice, all its splendid stately past, glows around you in a
strong sealight. Everyone here is magnificent, but the great
Veronese is the most magnificent of all. He swims before you in a
silver cloud; he thrones in an eternal morning. The deep blue sky
burns behind him, streaked across with milky bars; the white
colonnades sustain the richest canopies, under which the first
gentlemen and ladies in the world both render homage and receive
it. Their glorious garments rustle in the air of the sea and
their sun-lighted faces are the very complexion of Venice. The
mixture of pride and piety, of politics and religion, of art and
patriotism, gives a splendid dignity to every scene. Never was a
painter more nobly joyous, never did an artist take a greater
delight in life, seeing it all as a kind of breezy festival and
feeling it through the medium of perpetual success. He revels in
the gold-framed ovals of the ceilings, multiplies himself there
with the fluttering movement of an embroidered banner that tosses
itself into the blue. He was the happiest of painters and
produced the happiest picture in the world. "The Rape of Europa"
surely deserves this title; it is impossible to look at it
without aching with envy. Nowhere else in art is such a
temperament revealed; never did inclination and opportunity
combine to express such enjoyment. The mixture of flowers and
gems and brocade, of blooming flesh and shining sea and waving
groves, of youth, health, movement, desire--all this is the
brightest vision that ever descended upon the soul of a painter.
Happy the artist who could entertain such a vision; happy the
artist who could paint it as the masterpiece I here recall is
painted.

The Tintoret's visions were not so bright as that; but he had
several that were radiant enough. In the room that contains the
work just cited are several smaller canvases by the greatly more
complex genius of the Scuola di San Rocco, which are almost
simple in their loveliness, almost happy in their simplicity.
They have kept their brightness through the centuries, and they
shine with their neighbours in those golden rooms. There is a
piece of painting in one of them which is one of the sweetest
things in Venice and which reminds one afresh of those wild
flowers of execution that bloom so profusely and so unheeded in
the dark corners of all of the Tintoret's work. "Pallas chasing
away Mars" is, I believe, the name that is given to the picture;
and it represents in fact a young woman of noble appearance
administering a gentle push to a fine young man in armour, as if
to tell him to keep his distance. It is of the gentleness of this
push that I speak, the charming way in which she puts out her
arm, with a single bracelet on it, and rests her young hand, its
rosy fingers parted, on his dark breastplate. She bends her
enchanting head with the effort--a head which has all the
strange fairness that the Tintoret always sees in women--and the
soft, living, flesh-like glow of all these members, over which
the brush has scarcely paused in its course, is as pretty an
example of genius as all Venice can show. But why speak of the
Tintoret when I can say nothing of the great "Paradise," which
unfolds its somewhat smoky splendour and the wonder of its
multitudinous circles in one of the other chambers? If it were
not one of the first pictures in the world it would be about the
biggest, and we must confess that the spectator gets from it at
first chiefly an impression of quantity. Then he sees that this
quantity is really wealth; that the dim confusion of faces is a
magnificent composition, and that some of the details of this
composition are extremely beautiful. It is impossible however in
a retrospect of Venice to specify one's happiest hours, though
as one looks backward certain ineffaceable moments start here and
there into vividness. How is it possible to forget one's visits
to the sacristy of the Frari, however frequent they may have
been, and the great work of John Bellini which forms the treasure
of that apartment?


VII

Nothing in Venice is more perfect than this, and we know of no
work of art more complete. The picture is in three compartments;
the Virgin sits in the central division with her child; two
venerable saints, standing close together, occupy each of the
others. It is impossible to imagine anything more finished or
more ripe. It is one of those things that sum up the genius of a
painter, the experience of a life, the teaching of a school. It
seems painted with molten gems, which have only been clarified by
time, and is as solemn as it is gorgeous and as simple as it is
deep. Giovanni Bellini is more or less everywhere in Venice,
and, wherever he is, almost certain to be first--first, I mean,
in his own line: paints little else than the Madonna and the
saints; he has not Carpaccio's care for human life at large, nor
the Tintoret's nor the of the Veronese. Some of his greater
pictures, however, where several figures are clustered together,
have a richness of sanctity that is almost profane. There is one
of them on the dark side of the room at the Academy that contains
Titian's "Assumption," which if we could only see it--its
position is an inconceivable scandal--would evidently be one of
the mightiest of so-called sacred pictures. So too is the Madonna
of San Zaccaria, hung in a cold, dim, dreary place, ever so much
too high, but so mild and serene, and so grandly disposed and
accompanied, that the proper attitude for even the most critical
amateur, as he looks at it, strikes one as the bended knee. There
is another noble John Bellini, one of the very few in which there
is no Virgin, at San Giovanni Crisostomo--a St. Jerome, in a red
dress, sitting aloft upon the rocks and with a landscape of
extraordinary purity behind him. The absence of the peculiarly
erect Madonna makes it an interesting surprise among the works of
the painter and gives it a somewhat less strenuous air. But it
has brilliant beauty and the St. Jerome is a delightful old
personage.

The same church contains another great picture for which the
haunter of these places must find a shrine apart in his memory;
one of the most interesting things he will have seen, if not the
most brilliant. Nothing appeals more to him than three figures of
Venetian ladies which occupy the foreground of a smallish canvas
of Sebastian del Piombo, placed above the high altar of San
Giovanni Crisostomo. Sebastian was a Venetian by birth, but few
of his productions are to be seen in his native place; few indeed
are to be seen anywhere. The picture represents the patron-saint
of the church, accompanied by other saints and by the worldly
votaries I have mentioned. These ladies stand together on the
left, holding in their hands little white caskets; two of them
are in profile, but the foremost turns her face to the spectator.
This face and figure are almost unique among the beautiful things
of Venice, and they leave the susceptible observer with the
impression of having made, or rather having missed, a strange, a
dangerous, but a most valuable, acquaintance. The lady, who is
superbly handsome, is the typical Venetian of the sixteenth
century, and she remains for the mind the perfect flower of that
society. Never was there a greater air of breeding, a deeper
expression of tranquil superiority. She walks a goddess--as if
she trod without sinking the waves of the Adriatic. It is
impossible to conceive a more perfect expression of the
aristocratic spirit either in its pride or in its benignity. This
magnificent creature is so strong and secure that she is gentle,
and so quiet that in comparison all minor assumptions of
calmness suggest only a vulgar alarm. But for all this there are
depths of possible disorder in her light-coloured eye.

I had meant however to say nothing about her, for it's not right
to speak of Sebastian when one hasn't found room for Carpaccio.
These visions come to one, and one can neither hold them nor
brush them aside. Memories of Carpaccio, the magnificent, the
delightful--it's not for want of such visitations, but only for
want of space, that I haven't said of him what I would. There is
little enough need of it for Carpaccio's sake, his fame being
brighter to-day--thanks to the generous lamp Mr. Ruskin has held
up to it--than it has ever been. Yet there is something
ridiculous in talking of Venice without making him almost the
refrain. He and the Tintoret are the two great realists, and it
is hard to say which is the more human, the more various. The
Tintoret had the mightier temperament, but Carpaccio, who had the
advantage of more newness and more responsibility, sailed nearer
to perfection. Here and there he quite touches it, as in the
enchanting picture, at the Academy, of St. Ursula asleep in her
little white bed, in her high clean room, where the angel visits
her at dawn; or in the noble St. Jerome in his study at S.
Giorgio Schiavoni. This latter work is a pearl of sentiment, and
I may add without being fantastic a ruby of colour. It unites the
most masterly finish with a kind of universal largeness of
feeling, and he who has it well in his memory will never hear the
name of Carpaccio without a throb of almost personal affection.
Such indeed is the feeling that descends upon you in that
wonderful little chapel of St. George of the Slaves, where this
most personal and sociable of artists has expressed all the
sweetness of his imagination. The place is small and
incommodious, the pictures are out of sight and ill-lighted, the
custodian is rapacious, the visitors are mutually intolerable,
but the shabby little chapel is a palace of art. Mr. Ruskin has
written a pamphlet about it which is a real aid to enjoyment,
though I can't but think the generous artist, with his keen
senses and his just feeling, would have suffered to hear his
eulogist declare that one of his other productions--in the Museo
Civico of Palazzo Correr, a delightful portrait of two Venetian
ladies with pet animals--is the "finest picture in the world." It
has no need of that to be thought admirable; and what more can a
painter desire?


VIII

May in Venice is better than April, but June is best of all. Then
the days are hot, but not too hot, and the nights are more
beautiful than the days. Then Venice is rosier than ever in the
morning and more golden than ever as the day descends. She seems
to expand and evaporate, to multiply all her reflections and
iridescences. Then the life of her people and the strangeness of
her constitution become a perpetual comedy, or at least a
perpetual drama. Then the gondola is your sole habitation, and
you spend days between sea and sky. You go to the Lido, though
the Lido has been spoiled. When I first saw it, in 1869, it was a
very natural place, and there was but a rough lane across the
little island from the landing-place to the beach. There was a
bathing-place in those days, and a restaurant, which was very
bad, but where in the warm evenings your dinner didn't much
matter as you sat letting it cool on the wooden terrace that
stretched out into the sea. To-day the Lido is a part of united
Italy and has been made the victim of villainous improvements. A
little cockney village has sprung up on its rural bosom and a
third-rate boulevard leads from Santa Elisabetta to the Adriatic.
There are bitumen walks and gas-lamps, lodging-houses, shops and
a teatro diurno. The bathing-establishment is bigger than
before, and the restaurant as well; but it is a compensation
perhaps that the cuisine is no better. Such as it is, however,
you won't scorn occasionally to partake of it on the breezy
platform under which bathers dart and splash, and which looks
out to where the fishing-boats, with sails of orange and crimson,
wander along the darkening horizon. The beach at the Lido is
still lonely and beautiful, and you can easily walk away from the
cockney village. The return to Venice in the sunset is classical
and indispensable, and those who at that glowing hour have
floated toward the towers that rise out of the lagoon will not
easily part with the impression. But you indulge in larger
excursions--you go to Burano and Torcello, to Malamocco and
Chioggia. Torcello, like the Lido, has been improved; the deeply
interesting little cathedral of the eighth century, which stood
there on the edge of the sea, as touching in its ruin, with its
grassy threshold and its primitive mosaics, as the bleached bones
of a human skeleton washed ashore by the tide, has now been
restored and made cheerful, and the charm of the place, its
strange and suggestive desolation, has well-nigh departed.

It will still serve you as a pretext, however, for a day on the
lagoon, especially as you will disembark at Burano and admire the
wonderful fisher-folk, whose good looks--and bad manners, I am
sorry to say--can scarcely be exaggerated. Burano is celebrated
for the beauty of its women and the rapacity of its children, and
it is a fact that though some of the ladies are rather bold about
it every one of them shows you a handsome face. The children
assail you for coppers, and in their desire to be satisfied
pursue your gondola into the sea. Chioggia is a larger Burano,
and you carry away from either place a half-sad, half-cynical,
but altogether pictorial impression; the impression of bright-
coloured hovels, of bathing in stagnant canals, of young girls
with faces of a delicate shape and a susceptible expression,
with splendid heads of hair and complexions smeared with powder,
faded yellow shawls that hang like old Greek draperies, and
little wooden shoes that click as they go up and down the steps
of the convex bridges; of brown-cheeked matrons with lustrous
tresses and high tempers, massive throats encased with gold
beads, and eyes that meet your own with a certain traditional
defiance. The men throughout the islands of Venice are almost as
handsome as the women; I have never seen so many good-looking
rascals. At Burano and Chioggia they sit mending their nets, or
lounge at the street corners, where conversation is always high-
pitched, or clamour to you to take a boat; and everywhere they
decorate the scene with their splendid colour--cheeks and
throats as richly brown as the sails of their fishing-smacks--
their sea-faded tatters which are always a "costume," their soft
Venetian jargon, and the gallantry with which they wear their
hats, an article that nowhere sits so well as on a mass of dense
Venetian curls. If you are happy you will find yourself, after a
June day in Venice (about ten o'clock), on a balcony that
overhangs the Grand Canal, with your elbows on the broad ledge, a
cigarette in your teeth and a little good company beside you. The
gondolas pass beneath, the watery surface gleams here and there
from their lamps, some of which are coloured lanterns that move
mysteriously in the darkness. There are some evenings in June
when there are too many gondolas, too many lanterns, too many
serenades in front of the hotels. The serenading in particular is
overdone; but on such a balcony as I speak of you needn't suffer
from it, for in the apartment behind you--an accessible refuge--
there is more good company, there are more cigarettes. If you are
wise you will step back there presently.

1882.

Henry James