All Souls Day – Venice

THE Italians keep their Lemuria or festival for the dead, not in May, as their Roman ancestors did, but in November. The 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day, and its octave are more generally observed than any other of the minor holy days in the Roman calendar. No festival could so unite all classes of people as this, on which each family pays the tribute of memory to its lost ones, and acknowledges the power of that great Democrat, Death. Every day throughout the octave, the churches of Venice recite a mass for the souls of those who are gone and implore for them the intercession of All Saints, whose festival comes immediately before the day of the dead. In the evening another service is held, a little after sundown. There is a sermon ; and then begins the lighting of candles all through the church, before each altar and round the catafalque in the centre. It is upon the vigil of All Souls, the ” notte dei Morti ” as it is called, and at the church of the Gesuati, upon the Zattere, that the greatest illumination takes place. The Gesuati is that late Palladian church, built of Istrian stone, almost opposite the nobler facade of the Redentore, and more formally known as Santa Maria del Rosario. The church is called the Gesuati because hard by—but long before the foundation of this present building, which dates from the last century only the company of the Blessed John Colombini, which was called the Gesuati, first established itself in the year 1392. Among the other pious duties of the brother-hood was that of supplying and carrying the torches at funerals, and hence it comes that the Gesuati makes this display of light every 2nd of November. The order of the Blessed John was suppressed in the year 1668; but the Dominicans who succeeded the Gesuati in the possession of their monastery and church continue the custom of the candles.

Outside, over the main door of the church is a large blackboard, and, in white letters, an invitation to all good Christians to pray for the souls of the departed. Round this table hangs a wreath of laurel leaves, twined on a black and white ribbon. Every other door of the church has a similar garland above it. The sun is setting in a cold and cloudless sky, serene and almost hard. In the zenith the colour is deep blue, but towards the west a thin film of gold is spread where the sun is sinking. The wind comes fine and searching, as it so often does on an autumn evening. The broad and rippled waters of the Giudecca Canal seem as hard as the sky they reflect.

Inside the church, through the open door where the women troop, pulling their shawls up over their heads as they enter, all is dark and gloomy, every column, pilaster, and architrave draped in black cloth with silver fringes; and wreaths of laurel are twined round each pillar’s base. The high altar is hidden by a towering cenotaph, raised in the middle of the nave; against its blackness the thin white stripes of the tapers that surround it stand out clear. The people, chiefly women and boys, scuffle and whisper subduedly as they kneel in rows. The black walled, black-roofed church seems to enclose and compress them as if in some vast and lugubrious tomb; and their mutterings sound like the gibbering of ghosts. The sermon begins; a voice alone, full of inflexion, passion, forcible cadences, speaking out of the darkness. Though the preacher is invisible, the mind unconsciously and perforce pictures the action that must accompany this strong Italian rhetoric. The voice holds the church; and there is silence in the congregation except for the dull thud of the padded doors as some new-comers arrive. The sermon is not long; only a few rapid passages, and then comes the close. The shuffling and whispering are resumed ; and the sacristans begin to light the candles. Through the darkness the little yellow tips of fire move noiselessly, touching the tall wax tapers before each altar, and down the nave, and round the cenotaph in the centre. Presently the church is faintly illuminated by these warm yellow stars, that waver to and fro in the gloom, but do not overcome it. There is a short hush of silent prayer; then the congregation rises and shuffles out down the steps of the church on to the broad pavement of the Zattere.

The sun has set, the wind died away; the air is mild and clear; the sky in the west is mellowed to a wonderful enamel of molten blue and green and daffodil ; and no stars are shining yet. The crowd disappears rapidly; the boys rush off with shouts; the men follow in twos or threes with long swinging step and conscious manly movement; the women linked arm in arm, go clattering down the narrow street on their noisy pattens.

On All Souls’ Day it is the custom to visit the graves of relations and friends in that grim cemetery of San Michele, whose high brick wall you pass on the way to Murano or Torcello. The church itself is a lovely specimen of Lombardi work with delicate bas-reliefs in Istrian stone upon the little pentagonal Cappella Emiliana adjoining it. But there is something terrible and sinister in the cemetery itself, where the dead lie buried in the ooze of the lagoon-island. On this day the Venetians carry wreaths to lay on the graves. The wealthier have garlands made of real flowers, but, for the most part, these wreaths are twined out of Venetian beads—red and blue, Madonna’s colours, for the women; or black and white for the men, who have no universal patron in the heavens.

There is one old custom connected with this festival of the dead which still survives in Venice, and recalls a Latin, or even an earlier superstition. The pious man in Ovid’s ” Fast rises at midnight to fling black beans behind his shoulder. Nine times he flung his beans, and then the ghost was laid. The Venetian does not fling away his beans; he eats them. In Venice this custom of eating beans through the octave of All Souls’ is extremely ancient. The monks of every cloister in the city used to make a gratuitous distribution of beans on All Souls’ Day to any of the poor who chose to come for them. A huge caldron was placed in the middle of the courtyard and the food ladled out to the crowd. The gondoliers did not come with the rest, but had their portion sent down to them at their ferries. This grace was granted to them in consideration of the fact that all the year round they rowed the brothers across the canals for nothing. In-deed, though the custom is almost extinct, they still do so you may sometimes see a brown-cowled friar crossing a ferry with no other payment than a pinch of snuff or a benediction. As the Venetians grew more wealthy true beans became distasteful to the palates of the luxurious, who were yet unwilling to break through the custom of eating them on All Souls’ Day. The pastry cooks saw their opportunity, and invented a small round puff, coloured blue or red or yellow, and hollow inside; these they called fave, or beans; and these are to be seen at this time of the year in all the bakers’ windows. If a man should happen to be courting at this season it is customary for him to make a present of a boxful of these fave to his lady. But the pious mind has never been quite at ease under the gastronomic deception; and so, though you may hate beans and keep your hands from them as scrupulously as any pupil of Pythagoras, should your cook chance to be a good Catholic you will assuredly, about the month of November, have beans set before you for dinner in Venice.