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

Chapter 22

This Venice, which was a haughty, invincible, magnificent Republic for
nearly fourteen hundred years; whose armies compelled the world's
applause whenever and wherever they battled; whose navies well nigh held
dominion of the seas, and whose merchant fleets whitened the remotest
oceans with their sails and loaded these piers with the products of every
clime, is fallen a prey to poverty, neglect and melancholy decay. Six
hundred years ago, Venice was the Autocrat of Commerce; her mart was the
great commercial centre, the distributing-house from whence the enormous
trade of the Orient was spread abroad over the Western world. To-day her
piers are deserted, her warehouses are empty, her merchant fleets are
vanished, her armies and her navies are but memories. Her glory is
departed, and with her crumbling grandeur of wharves and palaces about
her she sits among her stagnant lagoons, forlorn and beggared, forgotten
of the world. She that in her palmy days commanded the commerce of a
hemisphere and made the weal or woe of nations with a beck of her
puissant finger, is become the humblest among the peoples of the earth,
--a peddler of glass beads for women, and trifling toys and trinkets for
school-girls and children.

The venerable Mother of the Republics is scarce a fit subject for
flippant speech or the idle gossipping of tourists. It seems a sort of
sacrilege to disturb the glamour of old romance that pictures her to us
softly from afar off as through a tinted mist, and curtains her ruin and
her desolation from our view. One ought, indeed, to turn away from her
rags, her poverty and her humiliation, and think of her only as she was
when she sunk the fleets of Charlemagne; when she humbled Frederick
Barbarossa or waved her victorious banners above the battlements of
Constantinople.

We reached Venice at eight in the evening, and entered a hearse belonging
to the Grand Hotel d'Europe. At any rate, it was more like a hearse than
any thing else, though to speak by the card, it was a gondola. And this
was the storied gondola of Venice!--the fairy boat in which the princely
cavaliers of the olden time were wont to cleave the waters of the moonlit
canals and look the eloquence of love into the soft eyes of patrician
beauties, while the gay gondolier in silken doublet touched his guitar
and sang as only gondoliers can sing! This the famed gondola and this
the gorgeous gondolier!--the one an inky, rusty old canoe with a sable
hearse-body clapped on to the middle of it, and the other a mangy,
barefooted guttersnipe with a portion of his raiment on exhibition which
should have been sacred from public scrutiny. Presently, as he turned a
corner and shot his hearse into a dismal ditch between two long rows of
towering, untenanted buildings, the gay gondolier began to sing, true to
the traditions of his race. I stood it a little while. Then I said:

"Now, here, Roderigo Gonzales Michael Angelo, I'm a pilgrim, and I'm a
stranger, but I am not going to have my feelings lacerated by any such
caterwauling as that. If that goes on, one of us has got to take water.
It is enough that my cherished dreams of Venice have been blighted
forever as to the romantic gondola and the gorgeous gondolier; this
system of destruction shall go no farther; I will accept the hearse,
under protest, and you may fly your flag of truce in peace, but here I
register a dark and bloody oath that you shan't sing. Another yelp, and
overboard you go."

I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed
forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out
into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry
and romance stood revealed. Right from the water's edge rose long lines
of stately palaces of marble; gondolas were gliding swiftly hither and
thither and disappearing suddenly through unsuspected gates and alleys;
ponderous stone bridges threw their shadows athwart the glittering waves.
There was life and motion everywhere, and yet everywhere there was a
hush, a stealthy sort of stillness, that was suggestive of secret
enterprises of bravoes and of lovers; and clad half in moonbeams and half
in mysterious shadows, the grim old mansions of the Republic seemed to
have an expression about them of having an eye out for just such
enterprises as these at that same moment. Music came floating over the
waters--Venice was complete.

It was a beautiful picture--very soft and dreamy and beautiful. But what
was this Venice to compare with the Venice of midnight? Nothing. There
was a fete--a grand fete in honor of some saint who had been instrumental
in checking the cholera three hundred years ago, and all Venice was
abroad on the water. It was no common affair, for the Venetians did not
know how soon they might need the saint's services again, now that the
cholera was spreading every where. So in one vast space--say a third of
a mile wide and two miles long--were collected two thousand gondolas, and
every one of them had from two to ten, twenty and even thirty colored
lanterns suspended about it, and from four to a dozen occupants. Just as
far as the eye could reach, these painted lights were massed together
--like a vast garden of many-colored flowers, except that these blossoms
were never still; they were ceaselessly gliding in and out, and mingling
together, and seducing you into bewildering attempts to follow their mazy
evolutions. Here and there a strong red, green, or blue glare from a
rocket that was struggling to get away, splendidly illuminated all the
boats around it. Every gondola that swam by us, with its crescents and
pyramids and circles of colored lamps hung aloft, and lighting up the
faces of the young and the sweet-scented and lovely below, was a picture;
and the reflections of those lights, so long, so slender, so numberless,
so many-colored and so distorted and wrinkled by the waves, was a picture
likewise, and one that was enchantingly beautiful. Many and many a party
of young ladies and gentlemen had their state gondolas handsomely
decorated, and ate supper on board, bringing their swallow-tailed,
white-cravatted varlets to wait upon them, and having their tables
tricked out as if for a bridal supper. They had brought along the
costly globe lamps from their drawing-rooms, and the lace and silken
curtains from the same places, I suppose. And they had also brought
pianos and guitars, and they played and sang operas, while the plebeian
paper-lanterned gondolas from the suburbs and the back alleys crowded
around to stare and listen.

There was music every where--choruses, string bands, brass bands, flutes,
every thing. I was so surrounded, walled in, with music, magnificence
and loveliness, that I became inspired with the spirit of the scene, and
sang one tune myself. However, when I observed that the other gondolas
had sailed away, and my gondolier was preparing to go overboard, I
stopped.

The fete was magnificent. They kept it up the whole night long, and I
never enjoyed myself better than I did while it lasted.

What a funny old city this Queen of the Adriatic is! Narrow streets,
vast, gloomy marble palaces, black with the corroding damps of centuries,
and all partly submerged; no dry land visible any where, and no sidewalks
worth mentioning; if you want to go to church, to the theatre, or to the
restaurant, you must call a gondola. It must be a paradise for cripples,
for verily a man has no use for legs here.

For a day or two the place looked so like an overflowed Arkansas town,
because of its currentless waters laving the very doorsteps of all the
houses, and the cluster of boats made fast under the windows, or skimming
in and out of the alleys and by-ways, that I could not get rid of the
impression that there was nothing the matter here but a spring freshet,
and that the river would fall in a few weeks and leave a dirty high-water
mark on the houses, and the streets full of mud and rubbish.

In the glare of day, there is little poetry about Venice, but under the
charitable moon her stained palaces are white again, their battered
sculptures are hidden in shadows, and the old city seems crowned once
more with the grandeur that was hers five hundred years ago. It is easy,
then, in fancy, to people these silent canals with plumed gallants and
fair ladies--with Shylocks in gaberdine and sandals, venturing loans upon
the rich argosies of Venetian commerce--with Othellos and Desdemonas,
with Iagos and Roderigos--with noble fleets and victorious legions
returning from the wars. In the treacherous sunlight we see Venice
decayed, forlorn, poverty-stricken, and commerceless--forgotten and
utterly insignificant. But in the moonlight, her fourteen centuries of
greatness fling their glories about her, and once more is she the
princeliest among the nations of the earth.

"There is a glorious city in the sea;
The sea is in the broad, the narrow streets,
Ebbing and flowing; and the salt-sea weed
Clings to the marble of her palaces.
No track of men, no footsteps to and fro,
Lead to her gates! The path lies o'er the sea,
Invisible: and from the land we went,
As to a floating city--steering in,
And gliding up her streets, as in a dream,
So smoothly, silently--by many a dome,
Mosque-like, and many a stately portico,
The statues ranged along an azure sky;
By many a pile, in more than Eastern pride,
Of old the residence of merchant kings;
The fronts of some, tho' time had shatter'd them,
Still glowing with the richest hues of art,
As tho' the wealth within them had run o'er."

What would one naturally wish to see first in Venice? The Bridge of
Sighs, of course--and next the Church and the Great Square of St. Mark,
the Bronze Horses, and the famous Lion of St. Mark.

We intended to go to the Bridge of Sighs, but happened into the Ducal
Palace first--a building which necessarily figures largely in Venetian
poetry and tradition. In the Senate Chamber of the ancient Republic we
wearied our eyes with staring at acres of historical paintings by
Tintoretto and Paul Veronese, but nothing struck us forcibly except the
one thing that strikes all strangers forcibly--a black square in the
midst of a gallery of portraits. In one long row, around the great hall,
were painted the portraits of the Doges of Venice (venerable fellows,
with flowing white beards, for of the three hundred Senators eligible to
the office, the oldest was usually chosen Doge,) and each had its
complimentary inscription attached--till you came to the place that
should have had Marino Faliero's picture in it, and that was blank and
black--blank, except that it bore a terse inscription, saying that the
conspirator had died for his crime. It seemed cruel to keep that
pitiless inscription still staring from the walls after the unhappy
wretch had been in his grave five hundred years.

At the head of the Giant's Staircase, where Marino Faliero was beheaded,
and where the Doges were crowned in ancient times, two small slits in the
stone wall were pointed out--two harmless, insignificant orifices that
would never attract a stranger's attention--yet these were the terrible
Lions' Mouths! The heads were gone (knocked off by the French during
their occupation of Venice,) but these were the throats, down which went
the anonymous accusation, thrust in secretly at dead of night by an
enemy, that doomed many an innocent man to walk the Bridge of Sighs and
descend into the dungeon which none entered and hoped to see the sun
again. This was in the old days when the Patricians alone governed
Venice--the common herd had no vote and no voice. There were one
thousand five hundred Patricians; from these, three hundred Senators were
chosen; from the Senators a Doge and a Council of Ten were selected, and
by secret ballot the Ten chose from their own number a Council of Three.
All these were Government spies, then, and every spy was under
surveillance himself--men spoke in whispers in Venice, and no man trusted
his neighbor--not always his own brother. No man knew who the Council of
Three were--not even the Senate, not even the Doge; the members of that
dread tribunal met at night in a chamber to themselves, masked, and robed
from head to foot in scarlet cloaks, and did not even know each other,
unless by voice. It was their duty to judge heinous political crimes,
and from their sentence there was no appeal. A nod to the executioner
was sufficient. The doomed man was marched down a hall and out at a
door-way into the covered Bridge of Sighs, through it and into the
dungeon and unto his death. At no time in his transit was he visible to
any save his conductor. If a man had an enemy in those old days, the
cleverest thing he could do was to slip a note for the Council of Three
into the Lion's mouth, saying "This man is plotting against the
Government." If the awful Three found no proof, ten to one they would
drown him anyhow, because he was a deep rascal, since his plots were
unsolvable. Masked judges and masked executioners, with unlimited power,
and no appeal from their judgements, in that hard, cruel age, were not
likely to be lenient with men they suspected yet could not convict.

We walked through the hall of the Council of Ten, and presently entered
the infernal den of the Council of Three.

The table around which they had sat was there still, and likewise the
stations where the masked inquisitors and executioners formerly stood,
frozen, upright and silent, till they received a bloody order, and then,
without a word, moved off like the inexorable machines they were, to
carry it out. The frescoes on the walls were startlingly suited to the
place. In all the other saloons, the halls, the great state chambers of
the palace, the walls and ceilings were bright with gilding, rich with
elaborate carving, and resplendent with gallant pictures of Venetian
victories in war, and Venetian display in foreign courts, and hallowed
with portraits of the Virgin, the Saviour of men, and the holy saints
that preached the Gospel of Peace upon earth--but here, in dismal
contrast, were none but pictures of death and dreadful suffering!--not a
living figure but was writhing in torture, not a dead one but was smeared
with blood, gashed with wounds, and distorted with the agonies that had
taken away its life!

From the palace to the gloomy prison is but a step--one might almost jump
across the narrow canal that intervenes. The ponderous stone Bridge of
Sighs crosses it at the second story--a bridge that is a covered tunnel
--you can not be seen when you walk in it. It is partitioned lengthwise,
and through one compartment walked such as bore light sentences in
ancient times, and through the other marched sadly the wretches whom the
Three had doomed to lingering misery and utter oblivion in the dungeons,
or to sudden and mysterious death. Down below the level of the water, by
the light of smoking torches, we were shown the damp, thick-walled cells
where many a proud patrician's life was eaten away by the long-drawn
miseries of solitary imprisonment--without light, air, books; naked,
unshaven, uncombed, covered with vermin; his useless tongue forgetting
its office, with none to speak to; the days and nights of his life no
longer marked, but merged into one eternal eventless night; far away from
all cheerful sounds, buried in the silence of a tomb; forgotten by his
helpless friends, and his fate a dark mystery to them forever; losing his
own memory at last, and knowing no more who he was or how he came there;
devouring the loaf of bread and drinking the water that were thrust into
the cell by unseen hands, and troubling his worn spirit no more with
hopes and fears and doubts and longings to be free; ceasing to scratch
vain prayers and complainings on walls where none, not even himself,
could see them, and resigning himself to hopeless apathy, driveling
childishness, lunacy! Many and many a sorrowful story like this these
stony walls could tell if they could but speak.

In a little narrow corridor, near by, they showed us where many a
prisoner, after lying in the dungeons until he was forgotten by all save
his persecutors, was brought by masked executioners and garroted, or
sewed up in a sack, passed through a little window to a boat, at dead of
night, and taken to some remote spot and drowned.

They used to show to visitors the implements of torture wherewith the
Three were wont to worm secrets out of the accused--villainous machines
for crushing thumbs; the stocks where a prisoner sat immovable while
water fell drop by drop upon his head till the torture was more than
humanity could bear; and a devilish contrivance of steel, which inclosed
a prisoner's head like a shell, and crushed it slowly by means of a
screw. It bore the stains of blood that had trickled through its joints
long ago, and on one side it had a projection whereon the torturer rested
his elbow comfortably and bent down his ear to catch the moanings of the
sufferer perishing within.

Of course we went to see the venerable relic of the ancient glory of
Venice, with its pavements worn and broken by the passing feet of a
thousand years of plebeians and patricians--The Cathedral of St. Mark.
It is built entirely of precious marbles, brought from the Orient
--nothing in its composition is domestic. Its hoary traditions make it an
object of absorbing interest to even the most careless stranger, and thus
far it had interest for me; but no further. I could not go into
ecstasies over its coarse mosaics, its unlovely Byzantine architecture,
or its five hundred curious interior columns from as many distant
quarries. Every thing was worn out--every block of stone was smooth and
almost shapeless with the polishing hands and shoulders of loungers who
devoutly idled here in by-gone centuries and have died and gone to the
dev--no, simply died, I mean.

Under the altar repose the ashes of St. Mark--and Matthew, Luke and John,
too, for all I know. Venice reveres those relics above all things
earthly. For fourteen hundred years St. Mark has been her patron saint.
Every thing about the city seems to be named after him or so named as to
refer to him in some way--so named, or some purchase rigged in some way
to scrape a sort of hurrahing acquaintance with him. That seems to be
the idea. To be on good terms with St. Mark, seems to be the very summit
of Venetian ambition. They say St. Mark had a tame lion, and used to
travel with him--and every where that St. Mark went, the lion was sure to
go. It was his protector, his friend, his librarian. And so the Winged
Lion of St. Mark, with the open Bible under his paw, is a favorite emblem
in the grand old city. It casts its shadow from the most ancient pillar
in Venice, in the Grand Square of St. Mark, upon the throngs of free
citizens below, and has so done for many a long century. The winged lion
is found every where--and doubtless here, where the winged lion is, no
harm can come.

St. Mark died at Alexandria, in Egypt. He was martyred, I think.
However, that has nothing to do with my legend. About the founding of
the city of Venice--say four hundred and fifty years after Christ--(for
Venice is much younger than any other Italian city,) a priest dreamed
that an angel told him that until the remains of St. Mark were brought to
Venice, the city could never rise to high distinction among the nations;
that the body must be captured, brought to the city, and a magnificent
church built over it; and that if ever the Venetians allowed the Saint to
be removed from his new resting-place, in that day Venice would perish
from off the face of the earth. The priest proclaimed his dream, and
forthwith Venice set about procuring the corpse of St. Mark. One
expedition after another tried and failed, but the project was never
abandoned during four hundred years. At last it was secured by
stratagem, in the year eight hundred and something. The commander of a
Venetian expedition disguised himself, stole the bones, separated them,
and packed them in vessels filled with lard. The religion of Mahomet
causes its devotees to abhor anything that is in the nature of pork, and
so when the Christian was stopped by the officers at the gates of the
city, they only glanced once into his precious baskets, then turned up
their noses at the unholy lard, and let him go. The bones were buried in
the vaults of the grand cathedral, which had been waiting long years to
receive them, and thus the safety and the greatness of Venice were
secured. And to this day there be those in Venice who believe that if
those holy ashes were stolen away, the ancient city would vanish like a
dream, and its foundations be buried forever in the unremembering sea.

Mark Twain