The Doves Of St. Marks – Venice

IN Venice the pigeons do not allow you to forget them, even if one desired to forget a bird that is so intimately connected with the city and with a great ceremony of that ancient Republic which has passed away. They belong so entirely to the place, and especially to the great square; they have made their home for so many generations among the carvings of the Basilica, at the feet of the Bronze Horses, and under the massive cornices of the New Procuratie, that the great campanile itself is hardly more essential to the character of the Piazza than are these delicate denizens of St. Mark’s. In the structure of the Ducal Palace the wants of the pigeons have been taken into account, and near the two great wells which stand in the inner courtyard, little cups of Istrian stone have been let into the pavement for the pigeons to drink from. On cold frosty mornings you may see them tapping disconsolately at the ice which covers their drinking troughs, and may win their thanks by breaking it for them. Or if the borin blows hard from the east, the pigeons sit in long rows under the eaves of the Procuratie; their necks drawn into their shoulders, and the neck feathers ruffled round their heads, till they have lost all shape, and look like a row of slate-coloured cannon balls.

They have even found their way to Malamocco and Mazzorbo; so that all Venice in the sea owns and protects its sacred bird. But it is in St. Mark’s that the pigeons ” most do congregate “; and one cannot enter the piazza and stand for a moment at the corner without hearing the sudden rush of wings upon the air, and seeing the white under feathers of their pinions, as the doves strike backward to check their flight, and flutter down at one’s feet in expectation of peas or grain. They are boundlessly greedy, and will stuff themselves till they can hardly walk, and the little red feet stagger under the loaded crop. They are not virtuous, but they are very beautiful.

There is a certain fitness in the fact that the dove should be the sacred bird of the sea city. Both English ” dove ” and Latin columba mean the diver; and the dove uses the air much as the fish uses the sea. It glides, it dives, it shoots through its airy ocean; it hovers against the breeze, or presses its breast against the sirocco storm, as you may see fish poised in their course against the stream; then with a sudden turn it relaxes the strain and sweeps away down the wind. The dove is an airy emblem of the sea upon which Venice and the Venetians live. But more than that; the most permanent quality in the colour of the lagoons, where the lights are always shifting, is the dove-tone of sea and sky; a tone which holds all colours in solution, and out of which they emerge as the water ripples or the cloud flakes pass; just as the colours are shot and varied on a young dove’s neck.

There is some doubt as to the origin of these flocks of pigeons which shelter in St. Mark’s. According to one story, Henry Dandolo, the crusader, was besieging Candia; he received valuable information from the interior of the island by means of carrier-pigeons, and, later on, sent news of his successes home to Venice by the same messengers. In recognition of these services the government resolved to maintain the carriers at the public cost ; and the flocks of to-day are the descendants of the Fourteenth Century pigeons. The more probable tradition, however, is that which connects these pigeons with the antique ceremonies of Palm Sunday. On that festival the Doge made the tour of the Piazza, accompanied by all the officers of state, the Patriarch, the foreign ambassadors, the silver trumpets, all the pomp of the ducal dignity. Among other largess of that day, a number of pigeons, weighted by pieces of paper tied to their legs, used to be let loose from the gallery where the Bronze Horses stand, above the western door of the church. Most of the birds were easily caught by the crowd, and kept for their Easter dinner; but some escaped, and took refuge in the upper parts of the palace and among the domes of Saint Mark’s. The superstition of the people was easily touched, and the birds that sought the protection of the saint were thenceforth dedicated to the patron of Venice. The charge of supporting them was committed to the superintendents of the corn stores, and the usual hour for feeding the pigeons was nine o’clock in the morning. During the revolution of 1797 the birds fared as badly as the aristocracy; but when matters settled down again the feeding of the pigeons was resumed by the municipality, and takes place at two in the afternoon, though the incessant largess of strangers can leave the birds but little appetite for their regular meal.

In spite of the multitudes of pigeons that haunt the squares of the city, a dead pigeon is as rare to see as a dead donkey on the mainland. It is a pious opinion that no Venetian ever kills a pigeon, and apparently they never die; but the fact that they do not increase so rapidly as to become a nuisance instead of a pleasure, lends some colour to the suspicion that pigeon pies are not unknown at certain tables during the proper season.