THIS is, as it were, the central division of the three sestieri which lie to the north of the Grand Canal. It has to the east the Iargest of all, the sestiere of Castello, and to the west that of Cannaregio. The Sestiere di S. Marco really comprises all that great promontory of the city which thrusts itself southward from the north into the Grand Canal. Its boundaries are the Rio del Palazzo and the canals which to the left lead out of it just to the north of S. Zulian and enter the Grand Canal just above the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, beyond the Ponte di Rialto. The best way to examine this region will be by way of the Merceria.
The Merceria leaves the Piazza di S. Marco under the clock tower, and is the oldest and the principal business street of the city. Here the sword makers, the armourers, and the drapers and merchants in brocades and stuffs of cloth of gold and silver had their shops. Evelyn, who was in Venice in 1645, speaks of it very eloquently : “1 passed through the Merceria,” he says, “one of the most delicious streetes in the world for the sweetnesse of it, and is all the way on both sides tapistred, as it were, with cloth of gold, rich damasks and other silk, which the shops expose and hang before their houses from ye first that for neere half ye yeare spent chiefly in this city, I hardly remember to have seen ye same piece twice exposed ; to this add the perfumers, apothecaries shops, and the innumerable cages of nightingales which they keep, that entertaine you with their melody from shop to shop, so that, shutting your eyes, you would imagine yourself in the country, when indeed you are in the middle of the sea. It is almost as silent as the middle of a field, there being neither rattling of coaches nor trampling of horses. This street, paved with brick and exceedingly clean, brought us through an arch into the famous piazza of St. Marc. Over the arch stands that admirable clock celebrated next to that of Strassburg for its many movements; amongst which about 12 and 6, which are their hours of Ave Maria, when all the town are on their knees, come forth the three kinges led by a starr, and passing by ye image of Christ in His Mother’s armes, do their reverence, and enter into ye clock by another door. At the top of this turret another automaton strikes ye quarters ; an honest merchant told me that walking in the piazza he saw the fellow who kept the clock struck with this hammer so forceably, as he was stooping his head neare the bell to mende something amisse at the instant of striking, that being stunn’d he reel’d over the battlements and broke his neck.”
It is perhaps difficult for the traveller to realize that this street, which seems so narrow and tortuous, is in fact, as it has been for many centuries, the chief thoroughfare of Venice apart from the canals. It leads from the Piazza di S. Marco past two great churches, S. Zulian and S. Salvatore to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the Rialto. And to-day it is divided into three main parts, which get their names from these churches and from the clock tower whence the Merceria starts; they are known as the Merceria dell’ Orologio, di S. Zulian, and di S. Salvatore. Nor was it merely as the great street of the shops and of the merchants that the Merceria was celebrated. It was the great processional way of Venice, apart from the Grand Canal. The Patriarchs and Procuratori made their entry into Venice on their appointment by the Merceria, which was gaily decorated for the occasion. They came from the Rialto bridge, then and till late years the only bridge across the Grand Canal. But this part of the Merceria, the Merceria dell’ Orologio, is perhaps most famous as the scene of the Feria dell’ Ascensione, the Fair of the Ascension, which accompanied the great ritual of the wedding of the Adriatic which the Doge performed at the Lido every year on that day. We shall speak of that splendid ceremony later ; here we shall deal with the fair which accompanied it, advantage being taken of the presence of many strangers in Venice drawn thither by the national feast and the Indulgences the Pope had conferred upon all visits paid at that time to the shrine of S. Mark.
The fair had its origin in 1180. It was held, as I have said, in the Merceria dell’ Orologio and in that part of the Piazza especially into which that street opens. It began on the Vigil of the Ascension, whence its popular name of Sensa arose, and it lasted officially for the eight following days, but actually it was prolonged by the people for fifteen. Innumerable booths were built in the Piazza, the shops and stalls of the Merceria were decorated, and there were exposed the rarest and loveliest productions of the Orient side by side with Venetian work in cloth of gold and silver, in glass, in iron and armour and the beaks of ships. All was gaiety and profusion, and I suppose that nowhere today can such a scene be witnessed, save, perhaps, in Seville at Easter. One strange and characteristic feature of the Venetian fair must not be altogether passed over. In the midst of the Feria a great doll dressed as a woman in the latest fashion was set up, and if we may believe the report served as a sort of model for the mode during the year. One must not, however, confuse this Feria with that which the Senate arranged in 1776 and the following years. This later fair was a much more luxurious and corrupt business. A kind of vast exhibition was then organized in a large building erected here for the occasion, of which the celebrated Macaruzzi was part. This was an architectural feature apparently of some beauty. Oval in shape, it was divided into four parts within, where in the innermost circuit the most precious goods were exposed, those of less quality and price being arranged in the exterior parts. But the great feature of this later fair was the exhibition of dolls in the Merceria, all dressed in the latest styles and evidently a development of the great figure that adorned the earlier Feria. They were a sort of fashion plates, and set the mode for men as well as women. The people attended in domino, the women often dressed as men. The fair seems at last to have degenerated into a sort of disgraceful carnival where every sort of licence was allowed and public gambling was the chief attraction.
The Merceria is still, I suppose, robbed though it be of all its riches, the busiest street in the city, through which it winds so tortuously that but for the stream of people one would soon lose one’s way.
After passing the Calle del Cappello Nero, where one of the old inns of Venice, founded in 1341, still plies its trade, we come in the second street on the right to the Church of S. Zulian or S. Giuliano. A church has stood here under this dedication since the ninth century, but the building we see was designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1553, and was for the most part built by Alessandro Vittoria. Over the doorway is a bronze statue of Thomas of Ravenna, the founder, by Sansovino. Within the church is spacious, though dark. It contains nothing of very great interest : a Madonna and Child with four saints by Boccaccio Boccaccini over the first altar on the left, a Coronation of the Blessed Virgin by Girolamo da S. Croce over the High Altar, and some reliefs and statues by Campagna in the chapel to the north of the High Altar, nothing else, save an early Madonna, a miracle picture, in the chapel at the top of the south aisle.
Returning to the Merceria, we come into that part of it which of old was devoted to the sale of hats and of leather work. The first bridge we cross is the Ponte dei Berrettai, whose name commemorates this. Thence we enter the Mer ceria di S. Salvatore and soon see the noble and lofty choir of the church of that name between the close packed houses in the vista of the street.
There has been a Church of S. Salvatore on this site since very early times. Under the porch of that which stood here in the twelfth century Pope Alexander III is said to have spent the night as a fugitive, and an old shrine on the front of the present church commemorates this ; but S. Salvatore is not the only church in Venice which claims this honour. The story goesit is told in the pictures that deco-rate the north wall of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace that in 1177 Pope Alexander III came to Venice as a refuge from the wrath of the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa. He came as a pilgrim, disguised, and having nowhere to lay his head, spent the night in the porch of this church, where in the morning he was recognized and brought with all honour to the Doge. Another tale has it that he served in the kitchen of the convent of S. Maria della Carità for some six months, till indeed he was recognized by a Frenchman who had once seen him in Rome. All this was in the time of Doge Sebastiano Ziani, who, as the pictures in the Doge’s Palace tell us, brought the Emperor to his knees before the Pope in the porch of S. Mark’s Chunch.
The present church of S. Salvatore was built by Tullio Lombardo in the first part of the sixteenth century, and is, perhaps, the finest Renaissance church in Venice. The façade, however, is a baroque work of the middle of the seventeenth century. It contains two works of the highest interest the Transfiguration, by Titian, in the choir, and the Annunciation, by the same master, over the third altar in the right aisle. The first is a work in the master’s later style, painted after 1560 but before 1566, when Vasari saw it. It has, how ever, unhappily been much restored and gravely injured. The Annunciation, painted at the same period, is still perfect. Not one of Titian’s religious pictures has the power to move us as any work by Giotto or Simone Martini can do, but if there be any in Venice that may compare with the Entombment, in Paris, for instance, or the tremendous Crowning with Thorns at Munichit is certainly here in S. Salvatore we shall find it. Titian himself does not seem to have thought much of the Transfiguration, according to Vasari ; but I sometimes think that, in spite of its restoration and injury, it is the most profound and powerful of all those works which speak to us so insistently rather of God than of man. Here, for a moment, we seem to forget man altogether in a sudden apparition of God Himself. The Son of Man is transfigured indeed, and something for once in the passionate gesture of those who make up that little company impresses us almost with the unction of a Christian hymn. Nor is the Annunciation less profound in conception or less wonderful in achievement. These are works of Titian’s age, when maybe the glamour of the world was beginning to be a burden. At any rate they seem to have astonished the Venetians ; the good monks of S. Salvatore even were dissatisfied, for, as they said, the picture seemed to be unfinished. Therefore, so the tale goes, Titian signed it twice. ” Titian fait fait” we read on the canvas ” Titian made it indeed.” That city, already so full of levity, failed to understand the master when at last he turned to express the solitude that fills the soul and cries for some apprehension of the eternal.
One other important picture the church possesses. I mean the Supper at Emmaus, attributed to Giovanni Bellini, but really the work of some unknown painter which seems to have fixed, or at least to represent, the type of composition accepted in Venice for those religious subjects in which sacred and profane are mingled.
Nor do these three pictures sum up the treasures of the church. The beautiful organ shutters are the work of Francesco Vecelli, Titian’s brother, and in their Giorgionesque loveliness are worthy of all attention, though their author seems to have been so little content with his achievement that he gave up the career of an artist for the nobler business of a soldier.
And then over the second altar on the right is one of Campagna’s Madonnas surrounded by angels, while close by is the monument of Doge Francesco Venier, who died in 1556. In the right transept is the tomb of that Queen of Cyprus, Catharine Cornaro, who in 1489 ceded her island to the Republic in which after all she was born. The bronze monument of the Doges Girolamo and Lorenzo Priuli, who were brothers, is in the left aisle.
We come out of the quiet church into the narrow and busy way and pass on to the Campo di S. Bartolommeo with its statue of Carlo Goldoni, placed here in 1883. At the corner is the Church of S. Bartolommeo, which on its foundation in 840 was called S. Demetrio, and only came to S, Bartholomew in 1170 As we see it, however, it is a work of the eighteenth century, and its only possession is the charming work Sebastiano del Piombo did here in his youth under the influence of Giorgione. His two pictures, two saints in each, SS. Sinibald and Louis on the right, SS. Bartholomew and Sebastian on the left, hang on either side of the organ.
If we turn out of the Campo di S. Bartolommeo sharp to the right and cross a small canal, we shall find ourselves in the Campiello di S. Lio. The little Church of S. Lio here, was, it is said, founded by the Badoer ; it was rebuilt, however, in the eleventh century, when it was dedicated to S. Leo IX. The church we see, however, dates from the seventeenth century, and was restored in the end of the eighteenth. It possesses one precious thing a picture of St. James the Apostle by Titian. The picture is dirty, but can be fairly well seen in the early morning. It is a work of Titian’s late period, painted about 1565 to 1570, and is, according to Dr. Gronau, the most neglected work by the master in Venice.
We leave the Campiello by the continuation of the street by which we entered it, and where it ends we turn to the left, cross a canal and come into the Campo di S. Maria Formosa, where stands the church of that name, which is said to have been founded in the seventh century by S. Magno. It was entirely rebuilt in the end of the fifteenth century. S. Maria Formosa was the church of the fruitsellers and casemakers and gunners, whose scuole were close by under the Campanile. It was the casemakers who were chiefly responsible for the rescue of the brides carried off by the pirates from S. Pietro di Castello in the tenth century,’ and for this cause on 2 February, the Feast of the Purification or Candlemas, the Doge used to visit this church. For us, however, the church is chiefly remarkable I suppose, as possessing Palma Vecchio’s lovely altarpiece, in the chapel of the gunners in the right aisle. Here we see their patron saint, S. Barbara, with four attendant saints, while above is a Pieta. This picture, which has won the admiration of mankind, was painted under the influence of Giorgione, and is in many ways, I suppose, Palma’s loveliest achievement. It is divided into four compartments. In the midst stands S. Barbara crowned,. the palm of martyrdom in her hand. Beside the pedestal on which she stands are two cannon of the gunners. And indeed she is worthy to inspire any soldier. On her right are SS. Sebastian and John Baptist, on her left S. Anthony and Dominic, painted in full length but on a smaller scale than the central figure. Above in the lunette over all lies the dead Christ.
There are other fine works in the church, as that altarpiece by Bartolommeo Vivarini, in which we see the Birth of Our Lady, and, again, the Mater Misericordiae, and, again, S. Joachim and Anne : this over the second altar on the right. In the south transept we find a Last Supper by Leandro Bassano, and in â chapel reached by a staircase a Madonna and Child by Sassoferrato, and, far better, a Madonna and Child by Pietro da Messina.
From S. Maria Formosa we make our way back past S. Lio to the Campo di S. Bartolommeo. Following the Merceria here onward, we pass the back of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, and crossing a side canal presently come to the Church of S. Giovanni Crisostomo, which really stands in the Sestiere di Cannaregio.
This church was founded in the eleventh century, but was completely rebuilt at the end of the fifteenth by Moro Lombardo. Its greatest treasure is an altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini. This stands over the second altar on the right, and represents a beautiful country side in which we see S. Jerome seated, his great book resting on the bough of a fig tree, while beside him stand S. Augustine and S. Christopher. This work, one of the loveliest by the master in all Venice, where his works are so plentiful, was painted in 1513, when he was eighty-seven years old. The most serene and dear of all Venetian masters seems to have turned to landscape in his old age with a sudden and new found joy, as though only when he must leave the world at last had he found how close the hills, the sunshine, and the sea were to his heart. They are like a new thought in all the work of his last period, and they give to his work something of that musical quality which we find in the paintings of Giorgione and the young Titian. Something serene, too 1 What can be more full of peace and reconciliation than this quiet valley at sunset where these three have fore-gathered as though by chance and are discussing, doubtless, the infinite ways of life, that lead to a common end, as serene, one might dare to hope, as this, while the sun sets over hill and valley ? It is surely in the serenity of such work as this that the soul of Europe is most truly expressed, her faith in God and in herself. I seem to see in such a work the very simplicity and courage of that old Venice, the true city of the sea, which was a stranger to superstition and whom no one could make afraid.
S. Giovanni Crisostomo possesses another fine picture in the S. Chrysostom with SS. Augustine, John Baptist, Liberale, Catherine, Agnes, and Mary Magdalen over the High Altar, by Sebastiano del Piombo. This painter had been a pupil of Bellini, but, attracted by the new work of Giorgione, he left his old master to study under the new painter. This splendid altarpiece is the result of that change. There enthroned under a vast portico, through which we see the country-side and the hills with a little town upon one of them, is S. Chrysostorn writing in his book. About him the saints I have named are grouped, the men before him, the women behind. Here, too, some wonderful serenity seems to be expressed, almost in spite of the painter, by that far-away glimpse of the world through the open loggia. Here, too, we see something new in Venetian painting, something living and yet without violence. The genius of Giorgione has suddenly revealed to all men just for a moment a new charm, a new beatitude in life and in the world.
Close by S. Crisostomo, as I said, stands the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the façade of which towards the canal was painted by Giorgione with frescoes whose last colours still stain the waters of the Canalazzo in the shadow of the Ponte di Rialto. Before 1180 there was only a traghetto here, but in that year a bridge of boats was made, and in the middle of the thirteenth century a bridge was built on wooden piles. This was destroyed in the Tiepolo conspiracy, and though it was rebuilt it broke down again in 1450, during the marriage festa of the Marquis of Ferrara. The present stone bridge was begun by Antonio da Ponte in 1588.
From the Ponte di Rialto it is well to proceed by gondola or by steamboat to the Accademia Station. After crossing the iron bridge there into the Campo di S. Vitale, we come to the Church of S. Vitale, which was founded in 1084 by the Doge Vitale Falier, rebuilt in 1105, and again, as we see it, in the seventeenth century. It contains behind the High Altar a precious work by Carpaccio of S. Vitale on horseback. There we see the Saint in full armour mounted, with S. Valeria, his wife, and S. George, on one side, and S. James and S. John Baptist on the other. Above, on a balcony over a fine arcade through which we see again a fair country-side, stand S. Vitale’s two sons with their guardians, S. Peter and S. Andrew ; in the sky appear in glory the Virgin and Child.
Beyond S. Vitale the Campo Morosini opens. It is named after the famous Francesco Morosini, but was of old called and is still better known as Campo di S. Stefano, for S Stephen’s Church stands within it. The bullfights were held in this Piazza in Carnival, the last in 1802.
The first Church of S. Stephen, with its Augustinian convent, was built here in 1294, but not finished till the earlier years of the fourteenth century, when the lovely door of the façade was made. The interior is charming and spacious. Over the beautiful doorway is the equestrian statue of the Doge Contarini, a work of the seventeenth century; far finer, however, is the sixteenth-century tomb of Jacopo Suriano the physician close by. Another seventeenth-century Doge, the famous general who now names the Campo, lies beneath the pavement of the nave. In the choir are two saints by Bartolommeo Vivarini, exquisite fair works. There, too, are some admirable statues by some pupil of Pietro Lombardo, fifteenth-century work.
More delightful, however, than anything in the church are the cloisters, which are contemporary with the church and convent, but were restored in 1532.
From S. Stefano we pass back into the piazza and then to the left to the Campo di S. Maurizio, with its church of very ancient foundation, which, however, contains nothing to interest us. Thence we proceed straight on past S. Maria Zobenigo, a church founded in 900 and rebuilt by Sardi in 1680 at the expense of Rome, Corfu, Padua, Candia, Spalatro, and Pavia, whose plans we see on the façade. Continuing on our way across the bridges, we come to the Campo di S. Moisè, where that church of most ancient foundation, formerly dedicated to S. Vittore, offends the critical with its hideous façade. The old church was built by Moisè Venier in the tenth century ; the façade, however, is the work of Alessandro Tremignan, and was rebuilt at a cost of 30,000 ducats. A Scotsman lies within, John Law by name, the famous financier, who died in Venice in some poverty in 1729.
From S. Moisè we pass into the narrow way that brings us immediately back into the Piazza di S. Marco.