Italy – Gondolas

THERE is no creature in the world so proud as a gondola, unless perhaps it be a camel in his own desert, or in the market-place of some desert-bordering city. Possibly this seems so because we only see him in his own ancient town, stabled underneath palatial porticoes in the Grand Canal, or prowling silently down little secret ways where ever and anon an old green door aswing in a wall of marble suggests some mystery that the gondola knows. I cannot say how he would appear to us if we saw him on the Thames whether he would go drifting under the bridges as the barges do, wearing the weary air of some captive pent in Babylon, or whether, even though a slave, his pride would not desert him, and he would go by, though piled up high with merchandise, still wearing that lofty, haughty air of his and standing out jet black, even against London, an alien fierce and notable, so that some Venetian by chance beholding him would burst into song. I think it is more likely that on being transported his timbers would rot asunder, and that when they launched him he would instantly sink, dying as was the custom of barbarian kings destined for some triumph of old Rome ; and his soul would go home by the long ways of the sea, round Cape Tarifa, through the Mediterranean, and up the Adriatic to the Lido, and into Venice with the rise of the tide.

Certainly, seen in his own land, the bearing of a gondola is magnificent. Easily moved to anger, they are splendid even in their wrath. Nothing else dares to dispute with them the right of the ways of Venice except the steamers on the Grand Canal. When these go by, the gondolas stand absolutely motionless at their moorings with their disdainful heads in air. But a moment after-wards their fury vents itself. They toss their stately heads and stamp on the water ; they, the descendants of the old sea-horses, whose crests they bear to-day, to be disturbed by the snorts of a modern ship made out of machinery without a soul ! And they jostle and quarrel with one another in their fury, and the gondoliers awake from sleep and swear, and for a long time there is anger among the gondolas.

In spring and summer, as soon as the night has fallen, lanterns are lit on rafts out in the open lagoon, and men and women sing, and then from the palaces whereby they are stabled, and from little alleys and by-ways of the sea the nodding gondolas come one by one, peering toward the lights. And more and more glide quietly in, all nodding as they come, and draw themselves up in rows all round the music, like great wise moths that some beautiful candle has lured out of the night, who are content to watch it without ruin. And gathered there around the music and lights, their shapely heads lift slowly sleepily up, and fall again in rhythm to the faint echo of the throb of the pulse of the Adriatic elate with some far-off storm.

No two gondolas are alike. You tell them by their faces as one tells men, and the steel face of every gondola differs from every other in Venice.

I am fond of the gondolas. I know that he great steamships whom the gondolas despise, and who hate the gondolas, can move much faster than any one of them, if one must needs be in a hurry. I know that the whole system under which the gondolas exist is an artificial one. I know that the Adriatic will one day sweep away the mud-banks and whelm Venice, and that not one gondola will ever weather that storm.

Nevertheless I love the gondolas. For they have in their hearts the pride of the old sea-horses, and theirs is the grace of princely bygone times. And they have carried me into their favourite haunts, to and fro through little darkening ways, where strange faces peer from little windows and songs begin to arise, when the sunset, unseen from the waterways, is turning the palaces into haunts of faery in which dwelt the princes of Once-upon-a-time and the people of Over-the-hills-and-faraway.

All this the bats know, who the whole day long hang silent under marmorean eaves, but at sunset drop head downwards from their homes, when all the bugles speak in foreign tongues, and the great alien vessels furl their flags, and the bats pass up and down and to and fro and know all the ways of Venice.