To most ears the words seems synonymous with much heat, bad odours, and mosquitoes innumerable. These are there, it is true, yet may all be escaped. Venice is the one city of Italy where summer days need not be spent in darkened rooms, where heat may be defied, and evening glories and the cool salt breath of the lagoon bring delights far outweighing the chance discomfort of fervid noons. But to enjoy your summer is essential to live in private lodgings. Then, and then only, you feel the full charm of Venetian magic. No tourist talk breaks the spell, no dinner-bell curtails your study of sea and sky, and every door can be left open to invite full draughts of air.
Instead of the irksome glare and chatter of a crowded table d’hote, you have the choice of quiet meals in your own dim dining-room, of frugal repasts beneath the vines of the artist-haunted restaurant, on the Zattere beside the Giudecca Canal, or of set dinners at the Lido Baths, where courses of changing effects on waves and sky, and distant strip of tree-fringed coast feast your eyes better than the too-dilatory dishes nourish your body.
As for the dreaded mosquitoes, their numbers are few until the hungry swallows have flown, and they are too well engaged on fresh English blood in the hotels near the Salute and along the Riva to make any raids on private houses.
The ideal Venetian lodging should be, of course, in some palace of historic name, with carven balconies, painted arches, and lofty echoing halls. Such lodgings, however, are seldom to be found, and you usually have to content yourself with more plebeian surroundings, and satisfy your soul with local colour of a humbler sort.
Fate led us to San Samuele, and gave us a modest dwelling, shrinking back on a little campo on the Grand Canal, placed between Ca’Malipiero and Ca’Grassi, opposite the massive Rezzonico Palace, for which even Renaissance,hating Mr. Ruskin can find no word of blame. Thus we commanded a space of the great highway, and had a perfect Venetian view across the water, down winding Rio San Barnaba, with its bridge and brown tower, tall grey campanile, irregular patches of roof, and fan-shaped chimneys. The vine-trellis, shading our traghetto, or gondola-stand, was a pleasant object in the foreground. There was a sculptured well in the Campo beside us, and the belfry of St. Samuel was built into our house, and bounded our scrap of roof-terrace to the rear. Viewed by moonlight from the canal, it seemed a fit scene for operatic love and crime.
Knowing that every inch of Venetian ground, every street and square and bridge, every Campo and Rio and Calle, Salizzada and Fondamenta, has some historic associations to compare with those of the arched and pillared palaces that are better known to fame, we made haste to inquire into the past of our own humble campo, and the humbler network of devious lanes in its rear. Putting aside one or two ugly tales of crime, the following were all the particulars we were able to glean.
The Church of San Samuele, only open for early morning service, pending repairs, dates from the beginning of the Eleventh Century; but, having been twice partly destroyed by fire, was almost entirely rebuilt in the Seventeenth Century, and our noisy belfry is probably all that remains of the original structure. The church contains no works of art worthy of mention, but the parish is rich in artistic memories.
Titian once possessed a studio hard by in the house of the architect Bartolommeo Buono. The sculptors Giulio, Tullio and Antonio Lombardo lived at San Samuele, and it was the birthplace of Madesta da Pozzo, a learned lady of much repute in the Sixteenth Century. Paolo Veronese spent his last years in the Casa Zecchini, and died there in 1588 of a fever caught by taking part in a grand Easter pro-cession. His sons and grandsons, painters all, continued to live there; and in their days the house was enriched by many of the elder Caliari’s works. Girolamo Campagna, too, had once plied his chisel and fused his bronze in the same building. Several artists of lesser note, like Giralomo Pilotti, the follower of Palma Vecchio, Ridolfi, the painter and biographer of painters, and Pietro Literi, whose profitable brush enabled him to build himself the palace now known as Casa Morolin, also lived within sound of our bells. Here at San Samuele, the notorious adventurer, Giacomo Casannova, first opened his audacious eyes, and may have passed his early years in squabbling on the campo with other ragamuffins, hooking gondolas for a copper coin, and diving in the canal on summer nights, much after the manner of the Nineteenth Century imps, whose shrill voices made a frequent treble to the deeper tones of our gondoliers, and here, in later and comparatively respectable days, when employed as a spy of the Inquisition, he may perhaps have penned the famous report in which he denounced the possession of many impious and prohibited works. The list is curious, and includes the works of Voltaire and Rousseau, the Esprit of Helvetius, the Belisarius of Marmontel, sundry productions of Crebillon and Diderot, the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius, Bolingbroke’s Examination, the writings of Machiavelli, Spinoza, etc. The pious criticisms of the white-washed rogue were somewhat sweeping in their range. His white-wash, however, had rubbed off by the time he composed his scandalous memoires and miraculous escapes from the Piombi, in the Bohemian castle of his last patron.
Being flanked and faced by patrician abodes, our modest campo has had its share of the festive shows for which Venice has at all times been celebrated ; but its noblest pageant must have been that of the wedding of Lucrezia Contarini and Jacopo, son of the Doge Francesco Foscari, on Sunday, the 29th of January, 1441. Then a crowd of patrician guests in festal attire, and mounted on gaily caparisoned steeds, rode to the campo from all quarters of the town, and crossed the canal to San Barnaba on a bridge of boats erected for the occasion. The Serenissimo went in per-son to meet the bride at High Mass in that brown-towered church; and, later an open-air sermon was preached on the campo without to a great concourse of hearers, tanti zenti lomeni e puovola the no se podeva andar in alcun luogoso many nobles and townsfolk that there was no room to stir. And in the evening, the Bucintoro brought a hundred and fifty noble dames to lead the bride, escorted by a fleet of skiffs and gondolas to her new home in the Ducal Palace, where the wedding festivities were prolonged far into the night. Fortunately, no astrologer seems to have dimmed the brightness of the day by foretelling how soon this joy was to be turned into mourning; the gay young bridegroom made the victim of relentless persecution, and his splendid father stripped of his state, and left to die of sheer misery in his family palace at the turn of the Canal ! Foscari’s successor, Doge Malipiero, also abode at San Samuele, and the sculptured archway of his palace in the Salizzada frames a dainty garden scene with fountain and statues in the background.
Never live near a traghetto, say old Venetians: and we might add, never beside a well or in front of a belfry. But although at the cost of quiet, our position had undoubted advantages for insight into local manners and customs. Daily at 5 A. M. St. Samuel’s iron voice reminded us that we were in Venice, its vibrations shaking us in our beds. An hour later, the clang of copper pails, clinking of chains and shrill clatter of housewives’ tongues announced the opening of the well. Soon the ringers were again at work in our belfry, the piercing whistles of the ” tram ” steamers, most disturbing of modern utilities, began to resound from the canal, and the every day business of Venice was fairly begun.
As for the gondoliers of our traghetto, they were never quiet: all hours seemed alike to them. Like the poet’s hackneyed brook, they too ran on forever. They seldom ceased quarrelling with one another excepting to wage a fiercer war of words with their brethren of the opposite stand. Hail-storms of invective were always flying back and forth across the water. The only truce to the undying feud was when both sides joined in volleys of bad language against their common foes, the penny steamers that have so wofully diminished their gains. One day, one of these steamers chanced to foul the nearest landing-stage, and instantly the air was rent by the derisive howls of all the gondoliers within sight.
But if our noisy crew had little work, neither did they take much repose. Towards 11 p. M. there would be a promising lull in their disputes: they would indulge in prolonged and prodigious yawns. Custom was growing scarce, there were fewer footsteps on the pavement, fewer cries of ” Poppi ” the signal for hailing a gondola to ferry you over the canal came to summon them to their oars. Surely they would slumber at last, and allow silence to reign in our campo! Not at all ! ‘Within half an hour they were livelier than ever all fatigue had evaporated in yawns, and they had so much spare energy that they were driven to vent it in sudden bursts of stentorian song, and thus excite the emulation of the San Barnaba rivals. Luckily the air of Venice is soothing to newcomers, so we learnt the art of sleeping through the din, and it was difficult to wake at any hour without hearing it going on almost as briskly as before. The only tranquil time was just towards daybreak. A Venetian dawn in July is well worth the cost of a sleepless night, and its clear-eyed frankness as beautiful in its way as the mysterious fantasies played by moonlight on walls and water. Naturally here at San Samuele, midway up the Grand Canal, you miss the splendour of sunrise on the sea to be enjoyed from the Riva; but lack of horizon is almost balanced by the added suggestiveness of effects within the narrower range of vision. For instance, this is what we saw during the small hours of a July morning. First, the soft twilight that had never been gloom at any period of the brief night, gradually paled to a faint whiteness in which the slender, grey, angel-topped campanile down our favourite opening by the Rezzonico walls seemed to lose all substance and become a cloud structurea mere film instead of a pile of stones. The sturdy brown tower of San Barnaba wore a deeper, warmer tint as the light grew and the stars died out. A few tiny cloudlets began to dapple the clear zenith, slowly expanded and were slowly suffused by a delicate flush that presently deepened to a vivid rose, streaked with grey and backed by darker wool-packs. By this time the swallows were on the wing, circling swiftly in the air, and emitting their sharp sweet note. Pigeons, too, were flitting down from cornice and house top, with much velvety flutter and melodious whirr. Sparrows, pert and well plumed, darted this way and that, and hopped lightly about the deserted pavement. One or two boats appeared on the canal: the eyes of Venice were beginning to open for the day. Soon a great barge lumbers past laden with fresh water from the mainland. It is so full that a bare few inches of woodwork save the ” sweet water ” within from mingling with the brakish element without. How unkempt and sleepy-eyed are the red-capped bargees so patiently trudging the length of their craft with shoulders hard-pressed to their punting poles.
Theirs is no easy trade! With favourable wind and tide they have had at least an eight hours’ sail ! With wind and tide against them, it is sometimes a two days’ journey. Yet this cargo of water only brings them five francs. Having reached its destination, the barge is quickly tackled by a busy little engine, which, with much noise and fuss, distributes its contents into smaller boats, that in their turn fill the public wells by means of far-reaching hose.
The sky was still bright with the freshness of early morn, there were blue spaces still mottled with rose, but the tenderly blushing cloudlets had gone, just as the joyous smiles of in fancy vanish in the gravity of manhood. Storm clouds were now thickening over the lagoon to the south, and although unseen from our San Samuele windows, they had sent their messengers before them. Dark brownish masses began to encroach on the azure overhead, and this was already touched here and there by the tiny brush-strokes of the wind. Morning was full-blown now, and a cool breeze at last brought sleep to nerve us for the coming heat of the day.