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Casa Alvisi

Invited to "introduce" certain pages of cordial and faithful
reminiscence from another hand, [1]

[1] "Browning in Venice," being Recollections of the late
Katharine De Kay Bronson, with a Prefatory Note by H. J.
(Cornhill Magazine, February, 1902).]

in which a frankly predominant presence seems to live again, I
undertook that office with an interest inevitably somewhat sad--
so passed and gone to-day is so much of the life suggested.
Those who fortunately knew Mrs. Bronson will read into her notes
still more of it--more of her subject, more of herself too, and
of many things--than she gives, and some may well even feel
tempted to do for her what she has done here for her
distinguished friend. In Venice, during a long period, for many
pilgrims, Mrs. Arthur Bronson, originally of New York, was, so
far as society, hospitality, a charming personal welcome were
concerned, almost in sole possession; she had become there, with
time, quite the prime representative of those private amenities
which the Anglo-Saxon abroad is apt to miss just in proportion as
the place visited is publicly wonderful, and in which he
therefore finds a value twice as great as at home. Mrs. Bronson
really earned in this way the gratitude of mingled generations
and races. She sat for twenty years at the wide mouth, as it
were, of the Grand Canal, holding out her hand, with endless
good-nature, patience, charity, to all decently accredited
petitioners, the incessant troop of those either bewilderedly
making or fondly renewing acquaintance with the dazzling city.

[Illustration: CASA ALVISI, VENICE]

Casa Alvisi is directly opposite the high, broad-based florid
church of S. Maria della Salute--so directly that from the
balcony over the water-entrance your eye, crossing the canal,
seems to find the key-hole of the great door right in a line with
it; and there was something in this position that for the time
made all Venice-lovers think of the genial padrona as thus
levying in the most convenient way the toll of curiosity and
sympathy. Every one passed, every one was seen to pass, and few
were those not seen to stop and to return. The most generous of
hostesses died a year ago at Florence; her house knows her no
more--it had ceased to do so for some time before her death; and
the long, pleased procession--the charmed arrivals, the happy
sojourns at anchor, the reluctant departures that made Ca'
Alvisi, as was currently said, a social porto di mare--is,
for remembrance and regret, already a possession of ghosts; so
that, on the spot, at present, the attention ruefully averts
itself from the dear little old faded but once familiarly bright
fašade, overtaken at last by the comparatively vulgar uses that
are doing their best to "paint out" in Venice, right and left, by
staring signs and other vulgarities, the immemorial note of
distinction. The house, in a city of palaces, was small, but the
tenant clung to her perfect, her inclusive position--the one
right place that gave her a better command, as it were, than a
better house obtained by a harder compromise; not being fond,
moreover, of spacious halls and massive treasures, but of compact
and familiar rooms, in which her remarkable accumulation of
minute and delicate Venetian objects could show. She adored--in
the way of the Venetian, to which all her taste addressed itself-
-the small, the domestic and the exquisite; so that she would
have given a Tintoretto or two, I think, without difficulty, for
a cabinet of tiny gilded glasses or a dinner-service of the right
old silver.

The general receptacle of these multiplied treasures played at
any rate, through the years, the part of a friendly private-box
at the constant operatic show, a box at the best point of the
best tier, with the cushioned ledge of its front raking the whole
scene and with its withdrawing rooms behind for more detached
conversation; for easy--when not indeed slightly difficult--
polyglot talk, artful bibite, artful cigarettes too,
straight from the hand of the hostess, who could do all that
belonged to a hostess, place people in relation and keep them so,
take up and put down the topic, cause delicate tobacco and little
gilded glasses to circulate, without ever leaving her sofa-
cushions or intermitting her good-nature. She exercised in these
conditions, with never a block, as we say in London, in the
traffic, with never an admission, an acceptance of the least
social complication, her positive genius for easy interest, easy
sympathy, easy friendship. It was as if, at last, she had taken
the human race at large, quite irrespective of geography, for her
neighbours, with neighbourly relations as a matter of course.
These things, on her part, had at all events the greater
appearance of ease from their having found to their purpose--and
as if the very air of Venice produced them--a cluster of forms so
light and immediate, so pre-established by picturesque custom.
The old bright tradition, the wonderful Venetian legend had
appealed to her from the first, closing round her house and her
well-plashed water-steps, where the waiting gondolas were thick,
quite as if, actually, the ghost of the defunct Carnival--since
I have spoken of ghosts--still played some haunting part.

Let me add, at the same time, that Mrs. Bronson's social
facility, which was really her great refuge from importunity, a
defence with serious thought and serious feeling quietly
cherished behind it, had its discriminations as well as its
inveteracies, and that the most marked of all these, perhaps, was
her attachment to Robert Browning. Nothing in all her beneficent
life had probably made her happier than to have found herself
able to minister, each year, with the returning autumn, to his
pleasure and comfort. Attached to Ca' Alvisi, on the land side,
is a somewhat melancholy old section of a Giustiniani palace,
which she had annexed to her own premises mainly for the purpose
of placing it, in comfortable guise, at the service of her
friends. She liked, as she professed, when they were the real
thing, to have them under her hand; and here succeeded each
other, through the years, the company of the privileged and the
more closely domesticated, who liked, harmlessly, to distinguish
between themselves and outsiders. Among visitors partaking of
this pleasant provision Mr. Browning was of course easily first.
But I must leave her own pen to show him as her best years knew
him. The point was, meanwhile, that if her charity was great even
for the outsider, this was by reason of the inner essence of it--
her perfect tenderness for Venice, which she always recognised as
a link. That was the true principle of fusion, the key to
communication. She communicated in proportion--little or much,
measuring it as she felt people more responsive or less so; and
she expressed herself, or in other words her full affection for
the place, only to those who had most of the same sentiment. The
rich and interesting form in which she found it in Browning may
well be imagined--together with the quite independent quantity of
the genial at large that she also found; but I am not sure that
his favour was not primarily based on his paid tribute of such
things as "Two in a Gondola" and "A Toccata of Galuppi." He had
more ineffaceably than anyone recorded his initiation from of

She was thus, all round, supremely faithful; yet it was perhaps
after all with the very small folk, those to the manner born,
that she made the easiest terms. She loved, she had from the
first enthusiastically adopted, the engaging Venetian people,
whose virtues she found touching and their infirmities but such
as appeal mainly to the sense of humour and the love of anecdote;
and she befriended and admired, she studied and spoiled them.
There must have been a multitude of whom it would scarce be too
much to say that her long residence among them was their settled
golden age. When I consider that they have lost her now I fairly
wonder to what shifts they have been put and how long they may
not have to wait for such another messenger of Providence. She
cultivated their dialect, she renewed their boats, she piously
relighted--at the top of the tide-washed pali of traghetto
or lagoon--the neglected lamp of the tutelary Madonnetta; she
took cognisance of the wives, the children, the accidents, the
troubles, as to which she became, perceptibly, the most prompt,
the established remedy. On lines where the amusement was happily
less one-sided she put together in dialect many short comedies,
dramatic proverbs, which, with one of her drawing-rooms
permanently arranged as a charming diminutive theatre, she caused
to be performed by the young persons of her circle--often, when
the case lent itself, by the wonderful small offspring of humbler
friends, children of the Venetian lower class, whose aptitude,
teachability, drollery, were her constant delight. It was
certainly true that an impression of Venice as humanly sweet
might easily found itself on the frankness and quickness and
amiability of these little people. They were at least so much to
the good; for the philosophy of their patroness was as Venetian
as everything else; helping her to accept experience without
bitterness and to remain fresh, even in the fatigue which finally
overtook her, for pleasant surprises and proved sincerities. She
was herself sincere to the last for the place of her
predilection; inasmuch as though she had arranged herself, in the
later time--and largely for the love of "Pippa Passes"--an
alternative refuge at Asolo, she absented herself from Venice
with continuity only under coercion of illness.

At Asolo, periodically, the link with Browning was more confirmed
than weakened, and there, in old Venetian territory, and with the
invasion of visitors comparatively checked, her preferentially
small house became again a setting for the pleasure of talk and
the sense of Italy. It contained again its own small treasures,
all in the pleasant key of the homelier Venetian spirit. The
plain beneath it stretched away like a purple sea from the lower
cliffs of the hills, and the white campanili of the
villages, as one was perpetually saying, showed on the expanse
like scattered sails of ships. The rumbling carriage, the old-
time, rattling, red-velveted carriage of provincial, rural Italy,
delightful and quaint, did the office of the gondola; to Bassano,
to Treviso, to high-walled Castelfranco, all pink and gold, the
home of the great Giorgione. Here also memories cluster; but it
is in Venice again that her vanished presence is most felt, for
there, in the real, or certainly the finer, the more sifted
Cosmopolis, it falls into its place among the others evoked,
those of the past seekers of poetry and dispensers of romance. It
is a fact that almost every one interesting, appealing,
melancholy, memorable, odd, seems at one time or another, after
many days and much life, to have gravitated to Venice by a happy
instinct, settling in it and treating it, cherishing it, as a
sort of repository of consolations; all of which to-day, for the
conscious mind, is mixed with its air and constitutes its
unwritten history. The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted,
the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there
something that no other place could give. But such people came
for themselves, as we seem to see them--only with the egotism of
their grievances and the vanity of their hopes. Mrs. Bronson's
case was beautifully different--she had come altogether for

Henry James