The Lido, S. Lazzaro, S. Servolo, And S. Elena

IF there be one excursion which is invariably made by all visitors to Venice, it is that to the Lido, which, however, as it is generally undertaken by steamboat and for the purpose either of bathing or of watching others bathe, is scarcely worth the trouble of the journey. Yet the Lido, as it is called, is very well worth a visit if it be rightly seen, and the way thither, if made in a gondola, is as interesting and as pleasant as another. But how many are there among the many thousands who visit Venice annually who know how to put this journey and visit to their proper uses ?

As I see it there are but two ways of going to the Lido, and both of these should, if possible, be undertaken by the traveller. The first is by gondola, and should occupy an afternoon, the return being made at evening. During this visit the church, fort, and cemetery of S. ,Niccolô should be visited, and a sight obtained of the Porto di Lido. As for the bathing, after our English seas the sluggish Adriatic might seem but a poor substitute.

The second way in which the Lido should be visited is an affair of the journey only. It should be undertaken at night about nine o’clock, and the best way to get the utmost out of it is to embark on one of the little steamers at the Piazzetta station and to go and return in her without landing. Nothing the traveller will see elsewhere by daylight will impress him half so much with the true character of Venice and the wonderful night beauty of the city as this. It is one of the things the easiest to do and the best worth doing while one is in Venice, and not one in a thousand tourists ever dreams of doing it. Yet it is only on such a dim voyage as this that Venice, the real Venice, can be found, for in such an hour she seems to be risen from the dead.

But whether the Lido be visited after all by daylight or dark, the best of the excursion is always the voyage, the journey, say, by gondola in the afternoon past S. Giorgio, down the beautiful crescent of the Riva lined with ships out past the Public Gardens to the far away strip of seashore we call the Lido. The islands one passes on the way, S. Lazzaro and S. Servolo, it is best to take on the way home; on the way out we give ourselves wholly to the glittering, dancing joy of the great sea lane down which we pass in the shadow of the great ships, till at last we drift ashore where that lane turns south and land at the Lido.

But what, after all, we may well ask ourselves, is the Lido, and why is it so called ? If it be an island, like S. Lazzaro, S. Servolo, and S. Giorgio Maggiore, why, remembering the great church which stands upon it, is it not called S. Niccolô ; and if it be. not an island, what is it ?

The Lido, as all the world unites to call it, is, as we shall soon see if we take the trouble to examine it in its entire length of some ten miles, certainly an island, since it is surrounded by water, but it differs in this from the true island of the lagoon, that it is surrounded on one side by the waters of the lagoon and on the other by the sea. It is, then, as its name tells us, the true shore of Venice, and a voyage which took in the whole of the lagoon would show us that of all the Lidi, those long and narrow sandbanks which shut in the lagoon from the sea, and between which at the various Poroi the tide rushes so swiftly, it is this which is most truly Venetian, for in its whole length from S. Niccoiô and the Porto di Lido on the north to the Forte Rocchetta and the Porto di Malamocco on the south, it completely defends Venice from the sea, and shuts her into the lagoon. Thus it is that from Venice there are but two ways out to sea, but two gates by which the Venetian fleet might sail to meet its enemy : the one was the Porto di Malamocco and the other the Porto di Lido. These two gates are set, as has been said, at the southern and northern extremities of the great sandbank we call the Lido, and they are now, as they always have been, the true gates of Venice, built and kept largely by the labour of man. But the Porto di Malamocco is some ten miles from the city at the end of a long and difficult channel ; it has thus always been the lesser in importance of the two. For the Porto di Lido opposite the Castello and the arsenal of the city, is so close at hand that a fishing-boat sailing out from Veneta Marina can by this gate in less than half an hour gain the open sea. Thus it is that the Porto di Lido has always been, and remains today, the great sea gate of Venice; and though scarcely a tourist among the thousands who visit the Lido ever goes so far as S. Niccolô or gets a sight of the Porto, this is the chief reason for a journey thither, and for me, at least, the sole reason why I ever go there.

For, to tell the bare truth, there is nothing particularly Venetian, nothing charming at all in the modern Bagni del Lido and the large and vulgar hotel and Casino, which are all most tourists ever see. The bathing, as I have said, is mediocre, and must be indulged in the company of a host of strange folk from the Germanies and I know not where else, which makes it rather curious than pleasant. A kind of barbarism I have met with nowhere else seems here to be merely the custom. The sight of overfed, fat, and disgusting figures in bathing dresses that fit like a glove can never be a pretty sight. Here all German women of the middle class of forty and upwards use such costumes. We know they have no claim to good taste, but watching them one might think they had never indulged in sea bathing before. As for the men, only less appalling in appearance than the women, their costume consists for the most part of a pair of small drawers which would scarcely pass on the loneliest Cornish beach. Yet it is the mere barbarism of these people and their ugliness which appals one, till the pathos of it is lost in disgust. I find bathing as delightful as most healthy people, but this mixed crowd of more than naked people of all shapes, sizes, and deformities is so pathetically indecent that one presently finds it only horrible.

All this, however, serves our purpose well enough. We could not, if we would, linger over this ugliness, and since there is but little else to do but to bathe and to eat at the Lido, we are compelled in fear of bonedom to set out for Forte di S. Niccolô and the Porto di Lido.

That is a good way that takes one along the shore beside the sea, but if it seems too tiring there is the road be-hind the theatre. Nevertheless the way by the shore should be taken, for it is not only the more pleasant, but has memories for us of two of our countrymen, Shelley and Byron, who, as the former tells us, would often ride here together: —

I rode one evening with Count Maddalo Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow Of Adria towards Venice. A bare strand Of hillocks heaped from ever-shifting sand, Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds Such as from earth’s embrace the salt ooze breeds, Is this ; an uninhabited sea side, Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried, Abandons. And no other object breaks The waste, but one dwarf tree, and some few stakes Broken and unrepaired ; and the tide makes A narrow space of level sand thereon, Where ’twas our wont to ride while day went down. This ride was my delight. I love all waste And solitary places ; where we taste The pleasure of believing what we see Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be : And such was this wide ocean, and this shore More barren than its billows. And, yet more Than all, with a remembered friend I love To ride as then I rode ; for the winds drove The living spray along the sunny air Into our faces ; the blue heavens were bare, Stripped to their depths by the awakening north ; And from the waves sound like delight broke forth, Harmonizing with solitude, and sent Into our hearts aërial merriment.”

The Forte S. Niccolô, to which one presently comes along this lean shore, guards the Porto di Lido. Within it is the old Protestant cemetery, where Sir Francis Vincent, almost the last ambassador Great Britain sent to the Republic, lies buried. It is not his grave, however, that has brought us on this long pilgrimage, but the Porto di Lido itself. Here for more than eight hundred years the Doge upon Ascension Day, in the name of Venice, wedded the Adriatic. The ceremony arose in this fashion. As we have seen, before the end of the tenth century Venetian commerce had already grown to be of considerable importance, but it was always at the mercy, sea borne as it was, of the Dalmatian pirates. This Venice suffered till the great Doge, Pietro Orseolo II, arose in 991, and began to make preparations to stop the pirate raids once and for all. He first of all got a Golden Bull from the Emperor Basil of Constantinople, which conferred extra-ordinary privileges upon the Venetian merchants in the East, and in return the Venetian fleet was to be at the service of Constantinople for the transport of troops. Having thus made treaty with the suzerain power, the Doge decided, with the approval of the people, to suppress the pirates. This was the first war Venice had ever undertaken; On Ascension Day, in the year 998, the fleet, under the command of the Doge, set sail out of Porto di Lido, took Curzola and Lagosta by assault, and was, indeed, entirely successful, the Doge returning with the title Duke of Dalmatia, conferred upon him by the grateful Dalmatian towns which the pirates had continually spoilt. For a hundred and eighty years thereafter it was the custom of the Doge, the Bishop, and the officers of the Republic, accompanied by the people in a great crowd, to go out by water to the Porto di Lido on Ascension Day, and there to perform a great ceremony in memory of the victory. Such in its origin and beginning was the Wedding of the Adriatic. Then in 1177, in the time of Doge Ziani, when Alexander III was Pope, Frederic Barbarossa, the Emperor, who hated him, proclaimed an antipope, banished Alexander from Italy, and threatened all who gave him shelter. The Pope came to Venice incognito, and is said to have lived as a beggar, or, as others have it, to have taken service with the religious there for some time. When he was recognized the Doge received him with every honour, and since the advantage of Venice seemed to jump that way, took his part against Frederic, sent envoys and orators to Pavia to remonstrate with him in the name of the Republic, and to suggest that a meeting betwixt Pope and Emperor should take place in Venice. The popular Venetian account is that the Emperor refused to acknowledge Alexander. Then the Doge, when he learned this, determined on war and made it, and defeated the Imperialists at the battle of Salvore, where the Emperor’s son was taken prisoner. This, however, is a myth, there was no such battle; but after a time the Emperor agreed to come to Venice, and was there received in the atrium of St. Mark’s by the Pope, supported by the Doge. He knelt humbly and asked forgiveness. Yet it is said he murmured too, ” Not to you do I kneel but to Peter”; but the Pope answered, “Both to me and to Peter.” And Frederic said no more. Then the Venetian legend tells how the Doge escorted the Pope and Emperor so far as Ancona on the way to Rome, and there the Pope in gratitude presented to the Doge the ring, the symbol of supremacy in and over the Adriatic, which he thus conferred upon them. From that time forth the Doge when he went out to Porto di Lido on Ascension Day wedded the sea with this ring, for the legend tells us that this in turn the Pope required, that the Doge should wed the sea in the name of Venice as one weds a wife. Thus the ceremony which endured till Napoleon’s time was begotten. The Doge and his suite in a great vessel, later called the Bucentoro, were rowed by many banks of oars out to the Porto di Lido, followed by the whole concourse of the people. Arrived at the mouth of the Porto, the vessel was turned with its poop to the sea, the Bishop blessed the nuptial ring and presented it to the Doge, then he poured holy water into the sea, where the Doge forthwith cast in the ring, saying : ” Mare, noi ti sposiamo in segno del nostro vero e perpetuo dominio ” (” O sea, we wed thee in sign of our true and everlasting dominion “). Such was the ritual, and thus was built up in the hearts of men a tradition of sea power and sea dominion which endured for so many hundred years.

As one makes one’s way back along that desolate shore, thinking of Venice then and now, maybe towards sunset, we shall console ourselves only with the lines Shelley wrote, remembering this very place:–

” As those who pause on some delightful way, Though bent on pleasant pilgrimage, we stood Looking upon the evening, and the flood Which lay between the city and the shore, Paved with the image of the sky. The hoar And airy Alps, towards the north, appeared Through mist an heaven sustaining bulwark reared Between the east and west ; and half the sky Was roofed with clouds of rich emblazonry, Dark purple at the zenith, which still grew Down the steep west into a wondrous hue Brighter than burning gold, even to the rent Where the swift sun yet paused in his descent Among the many folded hills. They were Those famous Euganean hills, which bear, As seen from Lido through the harbour piles, The likeness of a clump of peaked isles. And then, as if the earth and sea had been Dissolved into one lake of fire, were seen Those mountains towering, as from waves of flame, Around the vaporous sun ; from which there came The inmost purple spirit of light, and made Their very peaks transparent.”

All the way back to Venice from the Lido at sunset those mountains, like ” a clump of peaked isles,” stand like a vision on the horizon to the south over the limitless lagoon, but it is from the quiet garden of S. Lazzaro that I have most often seen them.

The island of S. Lazzaro is close to the Lido landing place, and there is set an Armenian convent which is famous by reason of the fact that Byron studied Armenian there for some months during his long stay in Venice in 1816-17.

” By way of divertissement,” he writes to Moore in December, 1816, “I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon ; and this, as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement, I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would well repay anyone the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on ; but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success. There are some very curious MSS. in the monastery, as well as books ; translations also from great originals now lost, and from Persian and Syriac, etc., besides works of their own people. Four years ago the French instituted an Armenian professorship. Twenty pupils presented themselves on Monday morning, full of noble ardour, ingenuous youth, and impregnable industry. They persevered, with a courage worthy of the nation and of universal conquest, till Thursday, when fifteen of the twenty succumbed to the six-and-twentieth letter of the alphabet. It is, to be sure, a Waterloo of an alphabet—that must be said for them.”

As for the convent today, it is one of the quietest and most delightful places in all the Venetian islands. The monks are busy, cheerful, and most courteous ; they still possess a fine library, for, seeing that the convent is under the protection of Turkey, Italy has not dared to rob them. They also have now a printing press, which in Byron’s day they did not possess, if one may judge by the trouble he took to get the Armenian grammar, composed by one of the Fathers, set up and printed in England. It was his design that the faithful Murray, who sent him his tooth powder and his magnesia and published his poems, should publish this work also. This, I think, never came to pass. But among Lord Byron’s papers there was discovered the Preface he wrote for the work. There he speaks of this convent.

” The society of the Convent of S. Lazarus appears to unite,” he says, “all the advantages of the monastic institution without any of its vices. The neatness, the comfort, the gentleness, the unaffected devotion, the accomplishments, and the virtues of the brethren of the Order are well fitted to strike a man of the world with the conviction that `there is another and a better’ even in this life.

“The men are the priesthood of an oppressed and noble nation which has partaken of the proscription and bondage of the Jews and of the Greeks, without the sullenness of the former and the servility of the latter. The people have attained riches without usury and all the honours that can be awarded to slavery without intrigue. But they have long occupied, nevertheless, a part of ‘the House of Bondage’ which has lately multiplied her many mansions. It would be difficult, perhaps, to find the annals of a nation less stained with crimes than those of the Armenians, whose virtues have been those of peace and their vices those of compulsion….”

Perhaps we know more of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Armenians today than Byron did. At any rate, we are, I hope, less likely to be moved by their “misfortunes”; but, however that may be, no one who finds himself in Venice should fail to visit the island monastery of S. Lazzaro. Byron, with all his eloquence and his almost daily visits to the convent, does not speak of what for most of us always remains, I think, the most charming memory of our visit I mean the garden of the monks, which is planted with vines, figs, oleanders, almonds, and cypresses, and is one of the quietest and most beautiful places within reach of the city.

Thence we see not far away across the lagoon the island of S. Servolo, where the Emperor Otho III stayed in hiding when he came to see the city in 998. He had heard, it seems, of the Venetian treaty with the Eastern Emperor and of the great fleet that Venice was preparing against the Dalmatian pirates that was soon’ to give her the sovereignty of the Adriatic, and, pondering on these things, half in mere curiosity and half with a political intention, he determined to visit Venice and the great Doge, Pietro Orseolo. One night in the moonlight a boat with eight rowers might have been seen approaching the island of S. Servolo, which at that time was occupied by a half ruined Benedictine monastery. At the island they landed, and on knocking at the door of the monastery two of them were admitted by a man of great stature. Presently three came out where two had gone in, and, taking a smaller boat that lay in the shadow, they set out with two rowers for the city. Quite through the city they went, ” wherever there was anything worthy to be seen,” but no one noticed them, or if they did, guessed that the three sitting in the stern were the Emperor Otho III, the Doge Pietro Orseolo, and his secretary, Paul the Deacon, who tells the tale.

The island of S. Servolo today is occupied by the Lunatic Asylum of Venice, built in 1725.

“‘Look, Julian, on the west, and listen well If you hear not a deep and heavy bell.’ I looked, and saw between us and the sun A building on an island ; such an one As age to age might add, for uses vile A windowless, deformed, and dreary pile; And on the top an open tower, where hung A bell, which in the radiance swayed and swung ; We could just hear its hoarse and iron tongue. The broad sun sank behind it and it tolled In strong and black relief. ‘What we behold Shall be the madhouse and its belfry tower,’ Said Maddalo, ‘and even at this hour Those who may cross the water hear that bell Which calls the maniacs, each one from his cell To vespers.'”

Further away beyond S. Servolo towards the Public Gardens is the island of S. Elena, once lovely and occupied by a great convent, now a ruin, an island of graves where the Giustiniani and the Loredani sleep in peace. Till the year 1880, indeed, the island of S. Elena, where S. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, a British woman born at Colchester, was buried, was one of the loveliest of the Venetian islands : “A beautiful Gothic cloister where roses and jessamine poured their masses of blossom over the parapets and a large garden with exquisite views towards S. Pietro and Murano ” called every traveller in Venice to this shrine. In that year, however, the cloister was delivered over to an iron foundry, and the whole place has become one with the modern vileness of the world. This same sort of thing is going on with an ever increasing horror all over Italy, and indeed all over the world. Yet any protest against it seems to excite all the villainy latent in human nature, as though indeed, as one is often tempted to think, before destroying us the gods had made us mad.