Each season has its special charm in Venice. Even the winter, which is decidedly the least preferable, is not without its advantages. The climate is decidedly milder than that of Florence or Milan, and if you can secure comfortable quarters and a good stove to warm your room it is possible to spend the winter very pleasantly in Venice. The Riva is always warm on sunny days, and the Piazza loses nothing of its glory. Frost and ice have not hindered our artists from painting St. Mark’s under these exceptional circumstances; and how beautiful it can be in a fall of snow Mr. Howells has told us in words that are a picture in themselves. Others, whose works are too well known and too recent to need mention, have shown us the fairness of hazy mornings in winter and the soft clearness of its twilight skies. The worst part is the absence of sun in the narrow calli, and the cutting winds which meet you at the corners, making you envy the scaldino which every woman carries and the brisk fires of the chestnut-roasters, who carry on a brisk trade in the alleys. But even sterner ordeals than these would be worth enduring for the sake of the burst of spring which follows close upon the darkest and dreariest winter time.
A few warm, bright February days, and the whole city wakes from the long sleep in which it has lain torpid for the last weeks. Faces look out again from the windows, people stand talking to each other from the balconies of different houses, bird-cages are hung out again along the upper stories of the alleys, and the cats steal out on the roofs to bask under dormer windows or make themselves at home among the chimney-pots. The streets are full of shouting and singing and the canals are alive with boats. Soon a mantle of fresh green clothes the old buildings with new brightness, fig-trees and acacias burst into leaf, the young ivy runs riot among the carved stone-work of the ancient well and wreathes the rusty iron ring to which the gondola is moored. The market-places are full of hyacinths and early lilies; the vines at the traghetti on the Riva and Canalazzo put forth delicate shoots, and not an old wall or dark courtyard but has a bud or leaf to wave at the coming spring.
This first gladness of early spring in Venice is charming, and better still the later months, when May ushers in the summer-time, with its long days and heavenly nights. But hard as it is to choose between the seasons, I am not sure that autumn is not the pleasantest time of all these. ‘When here at home the cold north west wind and sere leaves are already reminding us that the year is on the wane it is still summer in the lagoons.
The great heats are over, it is true; a thunder-storm or two has cooled the air and added keener zest to the pleasures of the out-of-doors life which the Venetian loves. The gay Riva is gayer than ever. On evenings when the band plays the crowds on the Piazza overflow into the Piazzetta and stretch from the Royal Terrace all along the shore to the Public Gardens. Everywhere there is a fulness of life and colour. Now, if ever, it is the artists’ time, and you meet them wherever you go, not only round St. Mark’s and the Piazza, where they cluster like bees, but in the more remote quarters and distant canals, painting the fruit laden rafts or lingering to watch the sinking sun scatter clouds of fire over sky and sea and palace roofs. The sunsets are more splendid in September and October, I think, than at any time; and their glory lingers longer in our minds because we know they will soon be followed by those damp, white mists which rest in thick folds on the lagoon, hiding the scene from your eyes and sending their chilliness into your bones.
Flowers are still plentiful, roses abound in the market-places; you may still buy as many carnations as you can hold in both hands for a soldo. And better still, the fruit season is at its height, and brings a new wealth of colour into the narrowest streets and most desolate squares. Earlier in the year you have had the cherries and the strawberries; all the winter there were pyramids of oranges and lemons, and cart-loads of chestnuts, but now you have black and white grapes and purple figs, and scarlet tomatoes and pomegranates, and peaches, and apples and pears in countless profusion. At every corner of the Riva stalls and booths are set up laden with fruit of a thousand hues; at every turn of the streets you see the dark-green watermelons Zucchi santi which appear to form the chief food of the poorer classes at this season. You pass a fruiterer’s shop in some narrow lane and see them lying in a great heap under the picture of a Ma-donna, with a tiny oil lamp burning in her honour and throwing a hundred sparkles into the rippling water below. A step or two further on and you find a dozen of the same round green balls, tumbled together in the archway of a bridge on the edge of the canal, while a ragged beggar-boy with a Murillo face and thick crop of curly hair is munching the biggest he can lay hands on.
All the morning fruit-vendors, with baskets of figs and grapes on their heads, throng the narrow streets between the Merceria and the Rialto; at evenfall a stream of boats and rafts are seen slowly wending their way across the Giudecca or along the Riva, bringing the produce of their gardens from Mazzorbo, from Malamocco, and Pelestrina, to the Venetian market. They are among the most picturesque craft in Venice these market-boats, piled up with grapes and pomegranates and vegetables, and rowed by strong-limbed fisher-men with bronzed faces or black-eyed lads in torn blue hose and slouching hats. Sometimes a curly-headed child lies asleep in the stern, his head resting on a big cabbage ; and I have a vivid remembrance of a brown-faced maiden, with a yellow handkerchief on her shoulders and a string of gold beads round her throat, who sat throned like a goddess among the fruit-baskets. The cloud-like masses of her wavy hair were gathered in loose tresses about her brows, her cheek rested thoughtfully on her hand and her dark eyes, turned with I know not what dream of yearning, towards the distant islands lying in the pearly light of the far horizon, while the bark with its precious freight moved slowly over the green waters. It was a picture worthy of being painted by the hands of a Millet or a Costa.
These boats are often to be seen on the outskirts of the city or in the lagoons of Murano and Chioggia; but if you want to study them at your leisure you must go to the Rialto at evening when the peasant women are setting up their stalls for the morrow’s market, and boatmen, in striped blue and white jackets, are talking and gesticulating on the steps of the quay, as one by one the fruit laden rafts come in. It is a lively and animated scene, and apart from the charm of colour and movement in the busy human life that is always stirring there, the Venetian market has a peculiar interest. For this is the heart and core of old Venice, the very centre of her once mighty life. The pavement now trodden by fruiterers and peasants was of old the Exchange where her merchant-princes traded. That church behind the market is S. Giacomo di Rialto, which dates back to the Ninth Century and the days when the first Venetians fled before King Pepin to found the Republic of St. Mark and the Doges fixed their seats at Riva alto.