NEXT to the Piazza the Riva dei Schiavoni is, perhaps, the most attractive place in Venice. It is not only for the sake of the view, although that is magnificent, or for S. Giorgio best beloved of all lesser Venetian shrines opposite; but it is because there you see whatever is left of the vivacity and joyousness of Venetian life. At Florian’s you may see the more elegant side of society, more of the dandies and the well dressed ladies, and the foreigners and tourists, but on the Riva you have the life of the people.
This is the place for the artist who knows dexterously to combine groups of figures with shipping and buildings. He has but to take his stand on a balcony overlooking the Riva, or under the vine-trellis of one of the numerous cafes, or osterias, along the quay, and he will see every type and variety conceivable. Sailors of all countries throng the doors, ships from all parts of the world are seen by the side of those red and orange Chioggia sails, which are familiar objects in all Venetian drawings. The scene is always lively and amusing. From early dawn the shrill voices of the street-sellers make themselves heard under your windows. The cries “Aqua! polenta! pomi d’oro, limonada!” mingle with those of shell and bead-sellers, of flower-girls and fishermen,praising their wares, of gondoliers, and facchini seeking custom or quarrelling among themselves, and cursing each other’s remotest descendants in the most voluble language.
Towards mid-day a change comes over the scene. There is a lull in the busy traffic, a pause in the movement of the crowd. The cries become fewer and feebler, until by degrees they die out entirely, and slumber creeps over the noisiest and most pertinacious vendors of anise-water and macaroni. Those two gondoliers, who half-an-hour ago were calling heaven and earth to witness the eternal hatred which they vowed against each other, are peacefully sleeping side by side, on the steps of the quay, in the most confiding trustfulness. Even the little, sharp-faced fruit-seller, who has been crying the ambrosial sweetness of his peaches, exactly under your window, until you wonder he has any voice left, is silent now, and leans against his stall, nodding his head over the piles of ripe fruit before him. Sleep has overtaken all alike, and the only voices to be heard proceed from parties of indefatigable English, who, intent on pursuing their daily round of sight-seeing regardless of the sun’s meridian power, come in search of a gondolier. As the hours go by, and the heat of the day passes, another change comes over the Riva. A steamer arrives, there is a rush of people to the quay, the sleeping mummies on the pavement lift their heads and rise slowly to their feet. One by one the sellers return, the cries begin exactly as before, only a trifle shriller and more persistent than before. The plot thickens as the afternoon wears away, and a fresh breeze springs up from the lagoon. Guitar players and barrel-organs wake the echoes, marionettes and puppet-shows attract small crowds of children and idlers, boatmen and beggars return to the charge with the vigour of giants refreshed with wine, the bargaining and the wrangling and shouting become louder and more bewildering than ever.
And now it is the hour of promenade, when the beauty and fashion of Venice take the air, and you may see ladies wrapped in lace mantillas go by, wearing gold or pearl pins in their hair and waving large fans to and fro as they walk, followed by groups of friends and admirers. They are dark-eyed beauties for the most part, but occasionally you may see a maiden with the golden hair which Tintoret and Paris Bordone loved to paint, and you may be sure la biondina will excite more than one exclamation of frank admiration from the passers-by. Often the handsomest faces are those of the women of the humbler classes, who also come out to take the air on the Riva at this hour. Some of them wear large straw hats, and others heavy gold chains and earrings, and often silver arrows stuck through their classically braided tresses, while all, whatever their dress may be, have a gaily-coloured handkerchief on their shoulders.
The scene on the sea is as lively as that on shore. The lagoon swarms with gondolas and barcas, and the bright colours of the striped awnings and crimson or blue and white scarves of the gondoliers enliven the blackness of the boats as they go flitting by across the waters. Now and then the note of a guitar is heard from a gondola, and if it be a festa a boatful of men and boys are sure to be there, singing in their rich musical voices the refrain of the favourite chorus :
“Venezia, gem ma triatica, sposa del mar,” the one perpetual strain of which Venetian boatmen never seem to tire. So it all goes on for hours, the music and the voices and the movement of feet passing up and down, while the western sun is pouring its glory over the shore, and Ducal Palace and lagoon and the tall campanile of S. Giorgio yonder are steeped in one rosy glow.
Long after it has dropped into the sea, and the stars have come out in the sky, they will be promenading, talking, and laughing still, and the voices will wax merrier, and the laughter more joyous as the pleasant twilight hour deepens. But if you have had enough of the noise and of the dazzling brightness which does at last begin to weary your eyes in Venice, you have only to turn a few steps aside from the gay Riva, and stand on the lonely bridge which joins it to the Piazzetta. It is called the Ponte della Paglia, and crosses the narrow channel which flows between the Palace and the Prisons. There it is silent enough, and no one will disturb you as you look down at the dark waters lapping the massive cornices and iron bound windows of the majestic Rio facade. Not a sound breaks the stillness,except it be the hum of distant voices and music on the Riva, or the splash of an oar as a solitary gondola comes stealing along by the blackened walls, and under the tomb-like structure of the Bridge of Sighs, hanging in mid-air as if it had been flung aloft on purpose to catch the moonbeams which go straying into the waters below. It is to these sudden contrasts that we owe half the charm of Venice.