NO one to whom Venice means something more than a merely unique city because of its water-ways, a place of resort because to go there is one of the things to do, could spend any length of time within its magic influence without visiting, or at least endeavouring to visit, two places that once rivalled the ” sea-queen ” herself in stir of life and natural beauty. One of these is Chioggia, many miles to the south, past the islands of S. Lazzaro and S. Spirito, past La Grazia and Poveglia, past Malamocco and low lying Pelestrina, past those three miles of great walls of Istrain stone, those murazzi which, like the dykes of Holland, offer an unvanquished front to the tidal rush and ceaseless wash of the sea. Venice is discrowned, if not of all her beauty, at least of her ancient power, her long surviving splendour; but Chioggia is more than discrowned she is humbled like a slave that can never again escape from the slough of long degradation. The fate of Tyre is better: no longer to see the galleys of the East and the Phoenician ships pass by in disdain, but to have perished and be as utterly unknown as the golden Ophir of still more ancient days. Visiting Chioggia, one sees a deserted and decayed town, a listless fisherfolk, indolent women who have yet, here and there, something of that typical Venetian beauty beloved of Titian and Paul Veronese; and one cannot well refrain from thinking that that terrible six months’ duel, that life-and-death struggle between the Republics of St. George and St. Mark, which took place five hundred years ago, exhausted for ever the vital energy of this southern Venice. The conquering foot of Daria, and the relentless grip of Pisani, must between them have left Chioggia with small remnant of its pristine power.
But six miles north of the Lion of St. Mark, amid shallow and sluggish lagoons, lies the dead body of a city greater than Chioggia,Torcello, the ” mother of Venice.” Scarcely, indeed, can it be said that even the dead body of what was once a populous town still rests here; it is as though only a few bleached bones yet lay exposed to the scorching sun of summer, to the salt and bitter sea-winds of winter, to the miasmic mists of desolate autumn. Habitations there are none : only the deserted fanes of Santa Fosca and the Duomo, a lifeless Palazzo Pubblico, a lonely and silent Campanile. In the words of Ruskin, these ” lie like a little company of ships becalmed on a far away sea.”
The day was an exceptionally bright one, warm, but not oppressive, with a cool wind that blew joyously without becoming too fresh for pleasant sailing in the open lagoons to the north; then we had gone by a longer way for the sake of the pleasure of such voyaging eastward past S. Maria della Salute, and close under the shadows of the great church upon the Isola di S. Giorgio Maggiore, with the busy Riva degli Schiavoni on our left reaching on to the green and ractically deserted promontory of the Public Gardens. Then rounding the Punta della Motta, our gondolier rowed us swiftly northward amid the unique loveliness of the Venetian lagoons.
A soft sirocco blew, not indeed with that virulent breath from the south-east, which the term is apt to suggest, but still with such enervating mildness as to determine us to reach our destination by the shortest way possible. We soon found ourselves gliding past the Campo S. Angelo, then into the Grand Canal once more by the timeworn Palazzo Corner Spinelli, past the Palazzi Grimani, Bembo, and Manin, under the Rialto, and so out again into the open after gliding through many narrow canals, and rounding in some magic way seemingly impossible corners out beyond the Fondamenta Nuova, with the great square opening of the Lucca della Misericordia on our left. On the right we leave behind us a square white house, as lovely in appearance, and as deserted in actual fact, as though it stood in the midst of the rank swamps of the Laguna Morta to the south of Fusina. This is the Casa degli Spiriti, a place of ghostly repute, where no Italian would rest overnight on any consideration. For in this ” House of Spirits,” it was once the custom to leave the coffined dead over night, interment taking place next day at the neighbouring island of San Michele. No wonder this halfway house between the living and the dead should remain uninhabited, retaining as it does in the imagination of the Venetians an unpleasant savour of the supernatural.
As we were swiftly urged upon our way, had it not been for the stalwart figure of Luigi in the forepart of the gondola, we might have imagined we were drifting through the Sea of the Magic Isles, that all before us was as unreal as the mirage that with its illusive beauty haunts at times the weary gaze upon inland seas of sand. More fair, indeed, than any mirage was the scene that we beheld; yet wonder-fully mirage like was it by reason of the palpitating haze that dwelt like the visible breath of the sirocco upon mainland, isle and lagoon.
Far to the right some thickly clustered and windless trees rose from the quivering sea-line, or rather seemed to hover just above the lagoon, the acacias, namely, in whose shadowy mist the Fort of S. Nicolo guards the ” Gates of the Lido.” Northwest of this dimly defined island wood we espied Sant’ Elena and San Michele; in the lee of the latter three funeral gondolas skirting the high wall that protects the graves from the imperative tides; while before us lay Murano, a denser and darker mist above it from the furnaces of the glass manufactories, for which it is so famous. Northwestward we looked towards Mestre, and south ward from thence along the Laguna Morta towards Fusina a long line of shadowy trees apparently rising from the sea, with spaces here and there between as though a slow tide were imperceptibly rising and flooding a long strip of land, at intervals dinted with hollows already washed over by the grey-green water. The silvery sirocco mist hid from us the shapes of Alps to the north, or Euganeans to the west. We could just descry, indeed, that part of the Laguna Morta which stretches from beneath the long railway bridge towards Fusina those low banks of slimy ooze or mud, which collectively are called the ” Dead Lagoon,” a strange and desolate region haunted only by the sea-mew, the wild snipe, and the bittern, the newt that loves the slimy ooze, and the sea-adder amongst the rank grasses that rise from the shallow brackish water clarified by no urgent tide.
As we left Murano behind us, and glided along the grey-green of the open lagoon between it and Burano, still more did the fancy grow upon us that we were adrift upon dreamland waters, and it was difficult to tell, looking around and beyond us, where the sea-line and skyline met, for the breath of the sirocco made sea and sky, islands and shadowy trees and dim mainland outlines alike unsubstantial. That a change was more or less imminent, even if we had not heard Luigi draw Francesco’s attention to the fact, we both ere long perceived, for at frequent intervals a sudden but transitory shimmer quivered in the misty atmosphere to the north, seemingly, as though behind a veil of silvery gauze a current of air were passing by. Now and again the shrouded sun seemed to gather fresh power, and to lighten for a few minutes with its dimly diffused gleams the strange scene, wholly aerial in appearance that met our gaze. It was in some such vivifying interval as this that we passed the islands of Burano and Mazzorbo, and saw before us the dreary and desolate shores of Torcello. Looking backward we saw the lagoons shining with a dull metallic glitter, and the intense heat brooding in haze upon distant Venice, and,like a mirage within a mirage, the islanded coastline of the Laguna Morta from Mestre to Fusina shining dimly blue above the intensely bright but sparkless silver of the inflowing tide.
When our gondola glided alongside of the wave worn and irregular stones that form the pier, and we stepped from it on to the salt grasses that lead up to the so-called piazza, we again realised to the full the absoluteness of the sense of desolation. When we had last been at Torcello, there had been some cattle in the green meadow beyond the Duomo, tended by a dark-haired shepherd youth, who seemed something between a water-god, a faun, and a young David; but now no living thing met our gaze, save a sea-bird that screamed harshly as it rose from a reedy morass and sailed round and round the lonely square tower of the Campanile. The soft lapping of the water against the gondola and faint rustle of the tide against the numerous marshy inlets accentuated instead of relieving the deathly stillness.
We ascended the Campanile, though as far as my friend was concerned there was no longer any necessity to sketch elsewhere than in the meadows at our feet. But neither by words nor the painter’s brush could the ever varying and ever wonderful beauty and strangeness of the scene be adquately rendered, nor would it be easy to say what times and seasons surpass each other in supreme fascination probably in the hour of sunset in summer with a breeze from the north, and the atmosphere intensely clear; or at moonrise in August or September, when the skies above are of deepest purple, and the planets and stars are like gold lamps and silver-shining globes, and over the stagnant morasses wandering marsh-lights flit to-and-fro like the ghosts of those deadly fires which so long ago embraced in a long death-agony the cities of Altinum and Aquileia, whose neighbouring sites now abide in the same desolation as Torcello.
But even in the misty noon of this day of our visit, the beauty was at once memorable and strangely impressive. Below us were the salt creeks and dreary morasses of the Torcellan shore, the Duomo, the ancient church of Santa Fosca, and the anything but palatial Palazzo Pubblico; beyond these, occasional short meadows of brilliant green, with purple orchis and tall gamboge tinted hellebore, and even some sprays of pink gladiolus interspersed among the seeded grasses, and at frequent intervals upon the sandy ridges small bands of poppies; beyond these ridges again the misty blue of the Adriatic washing onward past the long line of Malamocco. To the north and west we could just descry the dim outlines of the Friulian Alps and the shadowy Euganeans; while southward in every direction the wings of the sirocco spread a silvery haze, through whose shifting veil glimpses only at intervals were to be caught of the domes and palaces of Venice, the islands of Burano, Murano, San Michele, Sant’ Elena, and the wooded promontory of San Nicoletto to the west, Mestre and the unreal islands beyond the Canale di Brenta.
Later on we sought that rough stone seat which legend declares, on very dubious grounds, to have been the throne of Attila when he watched the blaze of burning Altinum reddening the sky. Here my friend sketched, and so the pleasant and dreamy hours passed on till late in the afternoon. Suddenly a lark’s song rose clear and strong, like a swift uprising fountain in a desert place; and, looking up to descry the welcome singer, I noticed that the wind had fallen wholly from its previous slight breath to absolute stillness.
“And skyward yearning from the sea there rose, And seaward yearning from the sky there fell, A spirit of deep content unspeakable.” In a few minutes, like a mist before sunrise, the silvery gauze of the sirocco gradually dispelled or retreated, first leaving Venice clear in the golden sunlight, then the blue waters of the lagoon to the west of the Lido of Sant’ Elisabetta, and then finally passed away by the sea-washed Malamocco, along the distant narrow strand of Pelestrina, and onwards towards unseen Chioggia thirty miles or more away to the south.
As we left Torcello, already looking far more desolate, and almost as though it were awakening from a dream, a cool slight wind from the far off Carnic Alps stole forth, and by the time that Burano was passed the deep blue waters were here and there curled with white foam, lightly tossed from short wave to wave. As Murano came under our lee, about half a mile to the east, we saw Venice as she can only be seen half a dozen times in a year. Each dome and palace and fretted spire was outlined in purple-black against a circumambient halo of wild-rose pink, shading to a gorgeous carmine, and thence to an undescribably soft and beautiful crimson; through these, great streaks and innumerable islets of translucent amethyst spread and shone, while every here and there bars and narrow shafts of absolute gold pierced the azure and purple and crimson, like promontories in a rainbow coloured sea. As these again, like fronds of a gigantic fan, six or seven great streamers of pale saffron stretched from the setting sun to the depths of the sky, and it seemed for a moment as though the whole visible world, without motion, without sound, were dissolving away in a glory and splendour of light and ineffable colour.