THE place where we may best commence our inquiry is one renowned in the history of Venice, the space of ground before the Church of Santa Maria Formosa; a spot which, after the Rialto and St. Mark’s Place, ought to possess a peculiar interest in the mind of the traveller, in consequence of its connection with the most touching and true legend of the Brides of Venice. That legend is related at length in every Venetian history, and, finally, has been told by the poet Rogers, in a way which renders it impossible for any one to tell it after him. I have only, therefore, to remind the reader that the capture of the brides took place in the cathedral church, St. Pietro di Castello; and that this of Santa Maria Formosa is connected with the tale, only because it was yearly visited with prayers by the Venetian maidens, on the anniversary of their ancestors’ deliverance. For that deliverance, their thanks were to be rendered to the Virgin; and there was no church then dedicated to the Virgin, in Venice, except this.
Neither of the cathedral church, nor of this dedicated to St. Mary the Beautiful, is one stone left upon another. But, from that which has been raised on the site of the latter, we may receive a most important lesson, if first we glance back to the traditional history of the church which has been destroyed.
No more honourable epithet than ” traditional ” can be attached to what is recorded concerning it, yet I should grieve to lose the legend of its first erection. The Bishop of Uderzo, driven by the Lombards from his bishopric, as he was praying, beheld in a vision the Virgin Mother, who ordered him to found a church in her honour, in the place where he should see a white cloud rest. And when he went out, the white cloud went before him; and on the place where it rested he built a church, and it was called the Church of St. Mary the Beautiful, from the loveliness of the form in which she had appeared in the vision.
The first church stood only for about two centuries. It was rebuilt in 864, and enriched with various relics some fifty years later; relics belonging principally to St. Nicodemus, and much lamented when they and the church were together destroyed by fire in 1105.
It was then rebuilt in ” magnifica forma,” much resembling, according to Corner, the architecture of the chancel of St. Mark.
Thus, by Corner, we are told that this church, resembling St. Mark’s, ” remained untouched for more than four centuries,” until, in 1689, it was thrown down by an earthquake, and restored by the piety of a rich merchant, Turrin Toroni, ” in ornatissima forma “; and that, for the greater beauty of the renewed church, it had added to it two facades of marble. With this information that of the Padre dell’ Oratoria agrees,only he gives the date of the earlier rebuilding of the church in 1175, and ascribes it to an architect of the name of Barbetta. But Quadri, in his usually accurate little guide, tells us that this Barbetta rebuilt the church in the Fourteenth Century; and that, of the two facades, so much admired by Corner, one is of the Sixteenth Century, and its architect unknown; and the rest of the church is of the Seventeenth, ” in the style of Sansovino.”
There is no occasion to examine, or endeavour to reconcile, these conflicting accounts. All that is necessary for the reader to know is, that every vestige of the church in which the ceremony took place was destroyed at least as early as 1689; and that the ceremony itself, having been abolished in the close of the Fourtenth Century, is only to be conceived as taking place in that more ancient church, resembling St. Mark’s, which, even according to Quadri, existed until that period. I would, therefore, endeavour to fix the reader’s mind for a moment, on the contrast between the former and latter aspect of this space of ground; the former, when it had its Byzantine church, and its yearly procession of the Doge and the Brides; and the latter, when it has its Renaissance church ” in the style of Sansovino,” and its yearly honouring is done away.
And, first, let us consider for a little the significance and nobleness of that early custom of the Venetians, which brought about the attack and the rescue of the year 943: that there should be but one marriage day for the nobles of the whole nation, so that all might rejoice together; and that the sympathy might be full, not only of the families who that year beheld the alliance of their children, and prayed for them in one crowd, weeping before the altar, but of all the families of the State, who saw, in the day which brought happiness to others, the anniversary of their own. Imagine the strong bond of brotherhood thus sanctified among them, and consider also the effect on the minds of the youth of the State; the greater deliberation and openness necessarily given to the contemplation of marriage, to which all the people were solemnly to bear testimony; the more lofty and unselfish tone which it would give to all their thoughts. It was the exact contrary of stolen marriage. It was marriage to which God and man were taken for witnesses, and every eye was invoked for its glance, and every tongue for its prayers.
Later historians have delighted themselves in dwelling on the pageantry of the marriage day itself, but I do not find that they have authority for the splendour of their descriptions. I cannot find a word in the older chronicles about the jewels or dress of the brides, and I believe the ceremony to have been more quiet and homely than is usually supposed. The only sentence which gives colour to the usual accounts of it is one of Sansovina’s, in which he says that the magnificent dress of the brides in his day was founded ” on ancient custom.” ” Dressed according to ancient usage in white, and with her hair thrown down upon her shoulders, interwoven with threads of gold.” This was when she was first brought out of her chamber to be seen by the guests invited to the espousals. ” And when the form of the espousal has been gone through, she is led, to the sound of pipes and trumpets, and other musical instruments, round the room, dancing serenely all the time, and bowing herself before the guests; and so she returns to her chamber : and when other guests have arrived, she again comes forth, and makes the circuit of the chamber. And this is repeated for an hour or somewhat more; and then, accompanied by many ladies who wait for her, she enters a gondola without its felze (canopy), and, seated on a somewhat raised seat covered with carpets, with a great number of gondolas following her, she goes to visit the monasteries and convents, wheresoever she has any relations.” However this may have been, the circumstances of the rite were otherwise very simple. Each maiden brought her dowry with her in a small cassetta, or chest; they went first to the cathedral, and waited for the youths, who, having come, they heard mass together, and the bishop preached to them and blessed them; and so each bridegroom took his bride and her dowry and bore her home.
It seems that the alarm given by the attack of the pirates put an end to the custom of fixing one day for all marriages: but the main objects of the institution were still attained by the perfect publicity given to the marriages of all the noble families; the bridegroom standing in the Court of the Ducal Palace to receive congratulations on his betrothal, and the whole body of the nobility attending the nuptials, and rejoicing, ” as at some personal good fortune; since, by the constitution of the State, they are for ever incorporated together,as if one and the same family.” But the festival of the 2nd of February, after the year 943, seems to have been observed only in memory of the delivery of the brides, and no longer set apart for public nuptials.
There is much difficulty in reconciling the various ac-counts, or distinguishing the inaccurate ones, of the manner of keeping this memorable festival. Sansovino says that the success of the pursuit of the pirates was owing to the ready help and hard fighting of the men of the district of Sta. Maria Formosa, for the most part trunk-makers; and that they, having been presented after the victory to the Doge and the Senate, were told to ask some favour for their reward. ” The good men then said that they desired the Prince, with his wife and the Signory, to visit every year the church of their district on the day of its feast. And the Prince asking them, ` Suppose it should rain?’ they answered, ` We will give you hats to cover you; and if you are thirsty, we will give you to drink.’ Whence is it that the Vicar, in the name of the people, presents to the Doge, on his visit, two flasks of malvoisie and two oranges; and presents to him two gilded hats, bearing the arms of the Pope, of the Prince, and of the Vicar. And thus was instituted the Feast of the Maries, which was called noble and famous because the people from all round came together to behold it. And it was celebrated in this manner.” The account which follows is somewhat prolix; but its substance is, briefly, that twelve maidens were elected, two for each division of the city; and that it was decided by lot which contrada, or quarter of the town, should provide them with dresses. This was done at enormous expense, one contrada contending with another; and even the jewels of the treasury of St. Mark being lent for the occasion to the ” Maries,” as the twelve damsels were called. They, being thus dressed with gold, and silver, and jewels, went in their galley to St. Mark’s for the Doge, who joined them with the Signory, and went first to San Pietro di Castello to hear mass on St. Mark’s Day, the 31st of January, and to Santa Maria Formosa on the 2nd of February, the intermediate day being spent in passing in procession through the streets of the city, ” and sometimes there arose quarrels about the place they should pass through, for every one wanted them to pass by his house.”
But whatever doubt attaches to the particular circumstances of its origin, there is none respecting the splendour of the, festival itself, as it was celebrated for four centuries after-wards. We find that each contrada spent from 800 to 100 zecchins in the dress of the ” Maries ” entrusted to it; but I cannot find among how many contradas the twelve Maries were divided; it is also to be supposed that most of the accounts given refer to the later periods of the celebration of the festival. In the beginning of the Eleventh Century, the good Doge Pietro Orseolo II. left in his will the third of his entire fortune ” per la Festa della Marie “; and, in the Fourteenth Century, so many people came from the rest of Italy to see it, that special police regulations were made for it, and the Council of Ten was twice summoned before it took place. The expense lavished upon it seems to have increased till the year 1379, when all the resources of the Re-public were required for the terrible war of Chiozza, and all festivity was for that time put an end to. The issue of the war left the Venetians with neither the power nor the disposition to restore the festival on its ancient scale, and they seem to have been ashamed to exhibit it in reduced splendour. It was entirely abolished.
As if to do away even with its memory, every feature of the surrounding scene which was associated with that festival has been in succeeding ages destroyed. With one solitary exception, there is not a house left in the whole Piazza of Santa Maria Formosa from whose windows the festa of the Maries has ever been seen : of the church in which they worshipped, not a stone is left, even the form of the ground and direction of the neighbouring canals are changed ; and there is now but one landmark to guide the steps of the traveller to the place where the white cloud rested, and the shrine was built to St. Mary the Beautiful. Yet the spot is still worth his pilgrimage, for he may receive a lesson upon it, though a painful one. Let him first fill his mind with the fair images of the ancient festival, and then seek that landmark, the tower of the modern church, built upon the place where the daughters of Venice knelt yearly with her noblest lords; and let him look at the head that is carved on the base of the tower, still dedicated to St. Mary the Beautiful.
A head, huge, inhuman, and monstrous,leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant; for in that head is embodied the type of the evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline; and it is well that we should see and feel the full horror of it on this spot, and know what pestilence it was that came and breathed upon her beauty, until it melted away like the white cloud from the ancient fields of Santa Maria Formosa.