FAR away in the north-eastern lagoon lies the unfrequented islet of San Francisco nel Deserto, with its lonely monastery belted with cypresses to shield it from winter blasts, and with a solitary stone-pine set like a watch-tower at its southern corner towards Venice.
This northern lagoon is of sterner beauty than the crowded water to the south. Far away to the left it is bordered by a narrow strip of plain, backed by the mountain ranges of Friuli and Cadori. These sweep round its waters in noble lines and curves, broken here and there by shadowy peaks. On very clear days the soaring mass of the Pelmo and the snows of Mont’ Antelao are distinctly visible; and the aged Titian in his fine palace near the Fondamenta Nuove must have often cast wistful glances towards the giant guardians of his boyhood’s home. To the right lie numerous verdant islets like loosely-strung emeralds, and the towers and domes of Murano do not long shut out the view of those of Mazzorbo and Burano, overtopped by the taller belfry of Torcello behind. The one repellant feature of the lagoon is the unsightly blank wall of the burial-ground of San Michele.
So small an island,” cries our boatman, ” and yet it can hold all Venice ! ” But why need this place of rest wear the aspect of a dungeon for the dead? Must a memento mori be inevitably as hideous as the death’s head of a penitent’s cell?
At low tide the shallows about Murano shine like burnished mirrors; forests of weed wave unceasingly to and fro beneath their clear surface, and the green blades are studded with the little pearl shells that, when polished, are woven into the wellknown trinkets that fill so many shop-fronts at St. Mark’s.
On the day of our voyage to San Francesco, we ran aground among these shells; for while the veteran rowers of our companion gondola chose the circuitous route by the channel posts, our more daring Antonio attempted a short cut. He had never run aground, he said, and seemed convinced that his gondola could float in a tumbler-depth of water. But the waving weeds came nearer and nearer to the surface, we struck midway; and Antonio and his handsome mate the ideal of a stage brigand had to turn out into the shallows and shove and tug for many minutes before we are again afloat. It was ignominious to have to go round by the channel after all, and be received with broad grins and mild jeers by the cautious rowers of the other boat. But Antonio laughed good-humouredly, shook his curls, and, spreading his sail to the breeze, took us across the lagoon at a grand pace, far ahead of our friends. Past the forlorn islets where gunpowder is stored, and where forlorner sentinels watched our flight with wistful eyes; past huge rafts, long and sinuous as sea-serpents, with little huts upon them, and patches of moss and lichen that spoke to us of the Tyrolese forests, whence they had been torn. Presently our course changed, our sail flapped, and leaving the huddled houses and factories of Burano to the left, we made straight for the ruddy tower of San Francesco nel Deserto. It is no uncheerful desert at this season, though doubtless dreary enough in winter storms and fogs. For its southern windows look over to Venice, and, through the summer haze, walls, towers and domes are faintly seenvague and unsubstantial as a city of air. Far away to the west stretches the soft green line of the mainland, only broken by a few slender bell-towers, mere black lines against the thick cloud-curtains now veiling the mountain world behind. Grass-lands and belts of foliage close in the view to the east.
A narrow causeway through a slip of meadow brings us to the convent porch, where a hale and portly Franciscan bids us a hearty welcome. But we defer our visit to the church; our first duty being clearly to make tea for our thirsty guests. By a gate bowered with flowering oleanders, we enter an orchard close where the gnarled and stunted trees are knee-deep in grass. We wade through it to the en-circling dyke and its double row of cypresses; and having found a sheltered shrine for our spirit-lamp, revel in the wonderful view. Our artist-friends seize their sketchbooks, forgetting both hunger and thirst, for there are subjects on all sides. Fantastic interchange of land and water formed by the scattered weed-flats and flowery meadows ; the long shadows of the cypress trees, the ruddy tower and rounded chancel of the Lombard Church, the fan-shaped chimneys and irregular roof-lines of the straggling convent, the tender tints of the lagoon, and, best of all, the visionary city rising from the sea to the south. The beacon pine-tree is invisible from this side, and, being within the convent garden, may not be approached by female feet.
Time passes quickly; the sun is low. We seek our smiling friar and hasten into the church. It is a dim and shadowy interior at this hour, and little of the clear evening light finds its way through the narrow windows. Behind a grating near the high altar, we are shown San Francesco’s rock-hewn cell, containing a life-size effigy of the saint. We are puzzled by the geological anomaly of a rocky cave on a sandy isle; but perhaps San Francesco brought it with him from Assisi. On turning into the choir, our irreverence was checked by the apparition of a similar figure, equally emaciated and rigid, seated in the darkest corner of the church. This, however, was a living monk wrapt in prayer, and apparently unconscious of our intruding presence. Another haggard form slowly emerged from the shadows and disappeared through the doorway. It was reassuring to glance at our stout Franciscan there was nothing ghostly about him and to follow his substantial tread into the outer court. Here there was nothing to attract the eye, but through a corner door we were allowed a glimpse of the inner cloister with delicate twisted columns, and a fine sculptured well surrounded by radiant beds of carnations and gladioli. Our jovial guide seemed justly proud of his flowers, and instantly bustled in to pick us a handful. He told us that the brethren were twenty in number, but this may have been a pious fiction in honour of his patron saint, for our gondoliers who had frequently entered the convent, assured us there were only eight. Of course by law the community is suppressed, but the law cannot prevent the purchase of the building by some private individual who brings friends to live with him, and chooses to dress in brown woollen robes. Of course, too, by law there is no clausura.
Once, a lady artist, burning to see some famous picture buried in an Italian monastery, presented herself at its gate, and urged her legal right. The case was submitted to the Superior, who blandly acknowledged that the law of the land entitled her to enter; but added, that as by the rules of the Church cloistered ground was desecrated by woman’s step, he was sure she would kindly submit to be carried in by her coachman. The lady went away without seeing the picture.
But now the distant lines of spires and domes, the arsenal walls and soaring tower of San Francesco della Vigna, stood out darkly against the glow of the great red sun ; and the thickening storm-clouds over Burano reminded us that seven miles of water lay between us and our home. We raced the storm and won ; for although its ragged edges threatened to descend upon us, though thunder growled and lightning flashed, a sudden wind presently arose and drove it away to the north. It was high tide by this time, and there was much traffic on the lagoon. Painted sails were flitting in all directions; we passed many Rialto-bound fruit boats and crawling barges with nondescript cargoes, and each and all added to the charm of the scene. We met a fat Franciscan returning to his cloister from a day of business or perhaps pleasure in Venice. He sat enthroned on a chair in a tiny sandalo, was sipping some cordial from a case-bottle, and gave us a very spiteful glance as we exclaimed at his pictorial value.
Reaching the Fondamenta Nuova just as the lamps were lighted, we shot through the city at a splendid pace, and found all the gay world assembling to hear the band at St. Mark’s. The stir and animation of the southern lagoon was almost bewildering in contrast with the silent waters behind us, with the cypress-girdled isle in their midst.