Murano – Venice

BUT it is morning now: we have a hard day’s work to do at Murano, and our boat shoots swiftly from beneath the last bridge of Venice, and brings us out into the open sea and sky.

The pure cumuli of cloud lie crowded and leaning against one another, rank beyond rank, far over the shining water, each cut away at its foundation by a level line, trenchant and clear, till they sink to the horizon like a flight of marble steps, except where the mountains meet them, and are lost in them, barred across by the grey terraces of those cloud foundations, and reduced into one crestless bank of blue, spotted here and there with strange flakes of wan, aerial, greenish light, strewed upon them like snow. And underneath is the long dark line of the mainland, fringed with low trees; and then the wide-waving surface of the burnished lagoon trembling slowly, and shaking out into forked bands of lengthening light the images of the towers of cloud above. To the north, there is first the great cemetery wall, then the long stray buildings of Murano, and the island villages beyond, glittering in intense crystalline vermilion, like so much jewellery scattered on a mirror, their towers poised apparently in the air a little above the horizon, and their reflections, as sharp and vivid and substantial as them-selves, thrown on the vacancy between them and the sea.

And thus the villages seem standing on the air; and to the east, there is a cluster of ships that seem sailing on the land; for the sandy line of the Lido stretches itself between us and them, and we can see the tall white sails moving beyond it, but not the sea, only there is a sense of the great sea being indeed there, and a solemn strength of gleaming light in sky above.

The most discordant feature in the whole scene is the cloud which hovers above the glass furnaces of Murano; but this we may not regret, as it is one of the last signs left of human exertion among the ruinous villages which surround us. The silent gliding of the gondola brings it nearer to us every moment; we pass the cemetery, and a deep sea-channel which separates it from Murano, and finally enter a narrow water-street, with a paved footpath on each side, raised three or four feet above the canal, and forming a kind of quay between the water and the doors of the houses. These latter are, for the most part low, but built with massy doors and windows of marble or Istrian stone, square set, and barred with iron; buildings evidently once of no mean order, though now inhabited only by the poor. Here and there an ogee window of the Fourteenth Century, or a doorway deeply enriched with cable mouldings, shows itself in the midst of more ordinary features; and several houses, consisting of one story only carried on square pillars, forming a short arcade along the quay, have windows sustained on shafts of red Verona marble, of singular grace and delicacy. All now in vain : little care is there for their delicacy or grace among the rough fishermen sauntering on the quay, with their jackets hanging loose from their shoulder, jacket, cap and hair all of the same dark-greenish sea-grey. But there is some life in the scene, more than is usual in Venice: the women are sitting at their doors knitting busily, and various workmen of the glass-houses sifting glass dust upon the pavement, and strange cries coming from one side of the canal to the other, and ringing far along the crowded water, from venders of figs and grapes, and gourds and shell-fish; cries partly descriptive of the eatables in question, but interspersed with others of a character unintelligible in proportion to their violence, and fortunately so if we may judge by a sentence which is stencilled in black within a garland, on the whitewashed walls of nearly every other house in the street, but which, how often soever written no one seems to regard : ” Bestemme non piu Lodate Gesu.”

We push our way on between large barges laden with fresh water from Fusina, in round white tubs, seven feet across, and complicated boats full of all manner of nets that look as if they could never be disentangled, hanging from their masts and over their sides; and presently pass under a bridge with the lion of St. Mark’s on its archivolt, and an-other on a pillar at the end of a parapet, a.small red lion with much of the puppy in his face, looking vacantly up in the air (in passing we may note that, instead of feathers, his wings are covered with hair, and in several other points the manner of his sculpture is not uninteresting). Presently the canal turns a little to the left, and thereupon becomes more quiet, the main bustle of the water-street being usually confined to the first straight reach of it, some quarter of a mile long, the Cheapside of Murano. We pass a considerable church on the left, St. Pietro, and a little square opposite to it with a few acacia trees, and then find our boat suddenly seized by a strong green eddy and whirled into the tide-way of one of the main channels of the lagoon, which divides the town of Murano into two parts by a deep stream some fifty yards over crossed only by one wooden bridge. We let ourselves drift some way down the current looking at the low line of cottages on the other side of it, hardly knowing if there be more cheerfulness or melancholy in the way the sun-shine glows on their ruinous but whitewashed walls, and sparkles on the rushing of the green water by the grass-grown quay. It needs a strong stroke of the oar to bring us into the mouth of another quiet canal of the farther side of the tide-way, and we are still somewhat giddy when we run the head of the gondola into the sand on the left-hand side of this more sluggish stream, and land under the east end of the Church of San Donato, the ” Matrice ” or ” Mother ” Church of Murano.

It stands, it and the heavy campanile detached from it a few yards, in a small triangular field of somewhat fresher grass than is usual near Venice, traversed by a paved walk with green mosaic of short grass between the rude squares of its stones, bounded on one side by ruinous garden walls, on another by a line of low cottages, on the third, the base of the triangle, by the shallow canal from which we have just landed. Near the point of the triangular space is a simple well, bearing date 1502; in its widest part, between the canal and campanile, is a four-square hollow pillar, each side formed by a separate slab of stone, to which the iron hasps are still attached that once secured the Venetian standard.

The cathedral itself occupies the northern angle of the field, encumbered with modern buildings, small outhouse-like chapels, and wastes of white wall with blank square windows, and itself utterly defaced in the whole body of it, nothing but the apse having been spared ; the original plan is only discoverable by careful examination, and even then but partially. The whole impression and effect of the building are irretrievably lost, but the fragments of it are still most precious.

We must first briefly state what is known of its history.

The legends of the Romish Church, though generally more insipid and less varied than those of Paganism, deserve audience from us on this ground, if on no other, that they have once been sincerely believed in by good men, and have had no ineffective agency in the foundation of the existent European mind. The reader must not therefore accuse me of trifling, when I record for him the first piece of information I have been able to collect respecting the cathedral of Murano : namely, that the Emperor Otho the Great, being overtaken by a storm on the Adriatic, vowed, if he were preserved, to build and dedicate a church to the Virgin, in whatever place might be most pleasing to her; that the storm thereupon abated ; and the Virgin appearing to Otho in a dream showed him, covered with lilies, that very triangular field on which we were but now standing, amidst the ragged weeds and shattered pavement. The emperor obeyed the vision; and the church was consecrated on the 15th of August, 957.

Whatever degree of credence we may feel disposed to attach to this piece of history, there is no question that a church was built on this spot before the close of the Tenth Century: since the year 999 we find the incumbent of the Basilica (note this word, it is of some importance), di Santa Maria Plebania di Murano taking an oath of obedience to the Bishop of the Altinat church, and engaging at the same time to give the said bishop his dinner on the Domenica in Albis, when the prelate held a confirmation in the mother church, as it was then commonly called of Murano. From this period, for more than a century, I can find no records of any alterations made in the fabric of the church, but there exist very full details of the quarrels which arose between its incumbents and those of San Stefano, San Cipriano, San Salvatore, and the other churches of Murano, touching the due obedience which their less numerous or less ancient brotherhoods owed to St. Mary’s.

These differences seem to have been renewed at the election of every new abbot by each of the fraternities, and must have been growing serious when the Patriarch of Grado, Henry Dandolo, interfered in 1102, and in order to seal a peace between the two principal opponents, ordered that the abbot of St. Stephen’s should be present at the service in St. Mary’s on the night of the Epiphany, and that the abbot of St. Mary’s should visit him of St. Stephen’s on St. Stephen’s day; and that then the two abbots ” should eat apples and drink good wine together, in peace and charity.”

But even this kindly effort seems to have been without result; the irritated pride of the antagonists remained unsoothed by the love-feast of St. Stephen’s day; and the breach continued to widen until the abbot of St. Mary’s obtained a timely accession to his authority in the year 1125. The Doge Domenico Michele, having in the Second Crusade secured such substantial advantages for the Venetians as might well counterbalance the loss of part of their trade with the East, crowned his successes by obtaining possession in Cephalonia of the body of San Donato, bishop of Eurcea; which treasure he having presented on his return to the Murano basilica, that church was thenceforward called the church of Sts. Mary and Donato. Nor was the body of the saint its only acquisition : St. Donato’s principal achievement had been the destruction of a terrible dragon in Epirus; Michele brought home the bones of the dragon as well as of the saint; the latter were put in a marble sarcophagus, and the former hung up over the high altar.

But the clergy of St. Stefano were indomitable. At the very moment when their adversaries had received this formidable accession of strength, they had the audacity ” ad onta de replicati giuramenti, e dell’ inveterata consuetudine,” to refuse to continue in the obedience which they had vowed to their mother church. The matter was tried in a provincial council; the votaries of St. Stephen were condemned, and remained quiet for about twenty years, in wholesome dread of the authority conferred on the abbot of St. Donato, by the Pope’s legate, to suspend any of the clergy of the island from their office if they refused submission. In 1172, however, they appealed to Pope Alexander III., and were condemned again: and we find the struggle renewed at every promising opportunity, during the course of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries; until, at last, finding St. Donato and the dragon together too strong for him, the abbot of St. Stefano ” discovered ” in his church the bodies of two hundred martyrs at once!—a discovery, it is to be remembered, in some sort equivalent to those days to that of California in ours. The inscription, however, on the facade of the church recorded it with quiet dignity:—”MCCCLXXIV. a di XIV., di !1 prile. Furono trovati nella presente chiesa del protomartire San Stefano, duecento epiu corgi de’ Santi Martiri, dal Yen. Prete Matteo Fradello provano della chiesa.” 1 Corner, who gives this inscription, which no longer exists, goes on to explain with infinite gravity, that the bodies in question, ” being of infantile form and stature, are reported by

On the 14th day of April, 1374, there were found, in this church of the first martyr, St. Stefano, two hundred and more bodies of holy martyrs, by the venerable priest, Matthew Fradello, incumbent of this church.

The issue of the struggle is not to our present purpose. We have already arrived at the Fourteenth Century, without finding record of any effort made by the clergy of St. Mary’s to maintain their influence by restoring or beautifying their basilica; which is the only point at present of importance to us. That great alterations were made in it at the time of the acquisition of the body of St. Donato is, however, highly probable, the mosaic pavement of the interior, which bears its date 1140, being probably the last of the additions. I believe that no part of the ancient church can be shown to be of more recent date than this; and I shall not occupy the reader’s time by any inquiry respecting the epochs or authors of the destructive modern restorations; the wreck of the old fabric, breaking out from beneath them here and there, is generally distinguishable from them at a glance; and it is enough for the reader to know that none of these truly ancient fragments can be assigned to a more recent date than 1140, and that some of them may with probability be looked upon as remains of the shell of the first church erected in the course of the latter half of the Tenth Century.

It is roofed by a concha, or semi-dome; and the external arrangement of its walls provides for the security of this dome by what is, in fact, a system of buttresses as effective and definite as that of any of the northern churches, although the buttresses are obtained entirely by adaptations of the Roman shaft and arch, the lower story being formed by a thick mass of wall lightened by ordinary semicircular round-headed niches, like those used so extensively afterwards in Renaissance architecture, each niche flanked by a pair of shafts standing clear of the wall and bearing deeply moulded arches thrown over the niche. The wall with its pillars thus forms a series of massy buttresses, on the top of which is an open gallery, backed by a thinner wall, and roofed by arches whose shafts are set above the pairs of shafts below. On the heads of these arches rests the roof. We have, therefore, externally a heptagonal apse, chiefly of rough and common brick, only with marble shafts and a few marble ornaments; but for that reason all the more interesting, because it shows us what may be done, and what was done, with materials such as are now at our own command ; and because in its proportions, and in the use of the few ornaments it possesses, it displays a delicacy of feeling rendered doubly notable by the roughness of the work in which laws so subtle are observed, and with which so thoughtful ornamentation is associated.

We must now see what is left of interest within the walls.

All hope is taken away by our first glance; for it falls on a range of shafts whose bases are concealed by wooden panelling, and which sustains arches decorated in the most approved style of Renaissance upholstery, with stucco roses in squares under the soffits, and egg and arrow mouldings on the architraves, gilded, on a ground of spotty black and green, with a small pink-faced and black-eyed cherub on every keystone; the rest of the church being for the most part concealed either by dirty hangings, or dirtier whitewash, or dim pictures on warped and wasting canvas; all vulgar, vain, and foul. Yet let us not turn back, for in the shadow of the apse our more careful glance shows us a Greek Ma-donna, pictured on a field of gold ; and we feel giddy at the first step we make on the pavement, for it, also, is of Greek mosaic, waved like the sea and dyed like a dove’s neck.

Nor are the original features of the rest of the edifice altogether indecipherable; the entire series of shafts marked in the ground plan on each side of the nave from the western entrance to the apse, are nearly uninjured; and I believe the stilted arches they sustain are those of the original fabric, though the masonary is covered by the Renaissance stucco mouldings. Their capitals, for a wonder, are left bare, and appear to have sustained no farther injury than has resulted from the insertion of a large brass chandelier into each of their abaci, each chandelier carrying a sublime wax candle two inches thick, fastened with wire to the wall above. The due arrangements of these appendages, previous to festa days, can only be effected from a ladder set against the angle of the abacus; and ten minutes before I wrote this sentence, I had the privilege of watching the candle-lighter at his work, knocking his ladder about the heads of the capitals as if they had given him personal offence. He at last succeeded in breaking away one of the lamps altogther, with a bit of the marble of the abacus; the whole falling in ruin to the pavement, and causing much consultation and clamour among a tribe of beggars who were assisting the sacristan with their wisdom respecting the festal arrangements.

It is fortunate that the capitals themselves, being somewhat rudely cut, can bear this kind of treatment better than most of those in Venice. They are all founded on the Corinthian type, but the leaves are in every one different; those of the easternmost capital of the southern range are the best, and very beautiful, but presenting no feature of much interest, their workmanship being inferior to most of the imitations of Corinthian common at the period; much more to the rich fantasies which we have seen at Torcello. The apse itself today (12th September, 1851), is not to be described; for just in front of it, behind the altar, is a magnificent curtain of a new red velvet with a gilt edge and two golden tassels, held up in a dainty manner by two angels in the upholsterer’s service; and above all, for concentration of effect a star or sun, some five feet broad, the spikes of which conceal the whole of the figure of the Madonna except the head and hands.

The pavement is however still left open, and it is of infinite interest, although grievously distorted and defaced. For whenever a new chapel has been built, or a new altar erected the pavement has been broken up and readjusted so as to surround the newly inserted steps or stones with some appearance of symmetry; portions of it either carved or carried away, others mercilessly shattered or replaced by modern imitations, and those of very different periods, with pieces of the old floor left here and there in the midst of them, and worked round so as to deceive the eye into acceptance of the whole as ancient. The portion, however, which occupies the western extremity of the nave, and the parts immediately adjoining it in the aisles, are, I believe, in their original positions, and very little injured: they are composed chiefly of groups of peacocks, lions, stags, and griffins, two of each in a group, drinking out of the same vase, or shaking claws together, enclosed by interlacing bands, and alternating with chequer or star patterns, and here and there an attempt at representation of architecture, all worked in marble mosaic. The floors of Torcello and of St. Mark’s are executed in the same manner; but what remains at Murano is finer than either, in the extraordinary play of colour obtained by the use of variegated marbles. At St. Mark’s the patterns are more intricate, and the pieces far more skilfully set together; but each piece is there commonly of one colour: at Murano every fragment is itself variegated, and all are arranged with a skill and feeling not to be taught, and to be observed with deep reverence, for that pavement is not dateless, like the rest of the church ; it bears its date on one of its central circles, 1140, and is, in my mind, one of the most precious monuments in Italy, showing thus early, and in those rude chequers which the bared knee of the Murano fisher wears in its daily bending, the beginning of that mighty spirit of Venetian colour, which was to be consummated in Titian.