The Piazza – Venice

WE find ourselves on the Piazza itself, which we are to study under the different aspects of different hours of the day on the Piazza, with the encircling arcades, locally called the Procuratie, in which shelter from the sun or the rain can always be obtained. The Piazza was cut across by a canal until the beginning of the Twelfth Century, from the banks of which rose the first Church of San Geminiano, and on the site of the Loggie of the Ducal Palazzo flourished a vegetable garden belonging to the nuns of San Zaccaria. At that remote period, the Senate, which then only meant the elders, when Puritanical simplicity reigned amongst the island community, liked to retire there to meditate quietly on the State necessities of the rapidly growing state. In the Twelfth Century the canal was filled in and the church mentioned above pulled down, only for another to rise up, to which the same name was given, but which was destroyed by order of Napoleon in 1810. In 1260 the first block was laid of the Piazza di San Marco, after the designs of Andrea Tirali, and from the same time may be said to date its rise to the glorious position it was to occupy as the nucleus of the life of Venice.

The central portion of the Piazza is 192 yards long by 90 broad on the eastern or San Marco, and 61 on the western or Palazzo Reale end.

What the Piazza di San Marco is to the Venetians can only be understood by those who are intimately acquainted with the inner life of the town. According to the time at which it is visited, it is the forum for the transaction of civil and political business, the market for buying and selling all manner of goods, the exchange, the place for the drawing of lotteries, the gondola station, the scene of church or secular fetes, the promenade of all classes, the summer rendezvous of the upper ten, the open-air tribunal, at the time of the carnival the ballroom the spot where artists of all kinds meet to discuss their affairs, the stage for religious ceremonies, the place to secure seats at the theatre, or to have your boots blacked—” La pattina, la pattina lucido! ” rings the cry, reminding us that well polished shoes often make up for worn out costumes the place where the latest news is to be had by every one from all parts of the world; in a word, the meeting-point of all Venice especially of those who have any interest in common—from porters and factory girls to the elite of society.

Every article of dress can be bought alike by ladies and gentlemen in the Piazza, and things are very chic there, too. Jewels and art fabrics, antique and modem, of every variety, are there displayed to suit every taste and purse; and at any hour of the day or night, without leaving the square, you can get a hot or a cold meal, anything you fancy to drink and sweetmeats to toy with; or you can have your hair cut or dressed; and last, not least, you can thoroughly steep yourself in an atmosphere of art, for from whatever point of view you look at this nucleus of all that is best in the whole world, your eyes will rest upon some scene of satisfying beauty.

This noble marble-paved square, where dust and the noise of carriages, with the barking of dogs, are alike unknown, where the rain sinks away as soon as it has fallen, leaving the stones as clean and fresh as ever, is not alone the focus of the grandeur of Venezia, it is her very heart; it is herself, for in it is contained all that her citizens can need.

Differences of rank cease to exist face to face with this stone Ninon de L’Enclos, as a witty Frenchman dubbed the Piazza, and the unique square loses not one iota of its grandeur thereby, as we can well understand when we remember that the banner of the Republic was set up in Venice in the Fourteenth Century.

We saunter slowly up and down the Piazza, now sitting down outside some cafe, first one side and then another, meeting at every turn fresh details of the highest artistic value.

But let us pause a moment to look up at the Clock Tower, with its big dial-plate visible from a long distance off. This tower is one of the curiosities of Venice, and was erected by Pietro Lombardo, one of the Lombardi family, with whose name so much of the best architecture in Venice is associated. La Torre dell’ Orologio dates from 1496, and is remarkable for two black giants on a platform, which strike the hours with their hammers, and are called by the Venetians ” I Mari. ” From the Feast of the Epiphany to the beginning of Lent, and during the week between Ascension Day and Whit Sunday, the figures of the three kings who came to worship the Infant Christ may be seen to issue every hour from one of the two doors leading to the gallery of the tower where the Madonna sits enthroned, and passing in front of her they remove their crowns, bow low before her, and walk off to the second door on the other side, through which they disappear. This pretty little puppet-show caused an immense amount of excitement at the time of its erection, and even now, especially at Whitsuntide, crowds of country-folk collect to stare up at it.

The general effect we mean of the tower itself is highly decorative, and is quite inseparable from our thoughts of Venice, for it rises up in our memories in connection with so many characteristic scenes. Truly a typical bit of local colouring is this trusty old Torre dell’ Orologio, which greets us directly we set foot in Venice from the waterside and come in sight of the Piazzetta.

The device of the noble Venetian lion with outstretched paws upon the cover of the Gospels, with the background of star-flecked azure blue sky, gave rise to a clever bon mot. In 1797, when novelty was the rage, the motto of the lion of San Marco, ” Pax tibi Marce Evangelista meus,” was converted into the formula ” Droits de l’homme et du citoyen “; and a gondolier—the gondoliers of Venice are noted for their wit and ready repartee—cried, ” Il leone gha volta pagina” (the lion has turned over a new leaf). It was not long, however, before the lion of the Clock Tower, with all his winged comrades returned to the old “Pax tibi Marce Evangelista meus.”

We meant only just to look at the time, but the stones of Venice have all such a lot to say for themselves that it is very difficult to tear ourselves away from them. It is eleven o’clock now, and at twelve o’clock we expect an acquaintance to have di collazione with us.

But we will just turn into the Procuratie Vecchie first, to which a path leads direct from the Clock Tower. It is always pleasant to stroll about in these arcades, for they are well protected from the heat and dust. We pass jeweller’s shop after jeweller’s shop beneath this porticus with its fifty arches and the electric light almost deceives us into fancying we are looking at the gems by starlight. It is the same with the unrivalled verroterie, or glassware, which, with the crimson plush setting, presents quite a fairy-like appearance. The only thing, however, which we really cannot pass without stopping to examine it, is a very lovely Venetian necklace of thirty strings or fill as they are technically called, such as Venice is famed for all the world over. This wonderful collar is made of niello, or enamel beads, of about the size of a thaler, and the clasp consists of a many-coloured representation of the old arms of Venice or of the winged lion. The necklace is worn so that the clasp comes in front on the centre of the throat. A celebrated ornament of this kind, coveted by all foreign ladies, is that made by Angelo Missiaglia, and as it consists of ducats of the finest gold, not one of which had ever been used, it must have cost a very large sum.

It is really marvellous how many jewellers work and thrive in Venice. All Italians, especially the Venetians, who have more affinity with Orientals than their sisters of the rest of the peninsula delight as much in decking themselves out with jewels as the women of the Orient, and in spite of their love of economy in other respects, squander large sums upon their ornaments.

Seated in front of the cafes, Trattorie, German Birrerie, and drinking-saloons called ” American bars ” and resembling those on the other side of the Atlantic, may be seen at this hour of the day many a daintily-dressed and befrizzled fop, with the inevitable flower, bought from the equally inevitable flower-girl, in his button-hole, gazing into the blue, or, to be strictly accurate, up at the greyish-blue curtains which hang down from the roofing of the arcades, and flutter in the soft sea-breeze which always comes in to freshen the atmosphere about noon.

As we stroll along in the cool stone grove, we pass yet more shops full of costly products of Venetian industry : glass mosaics, filigree-work, point lace, and antique silken textures, quaint life-sized figures carved in wood, furniture ornamented with iron filigree-work or carved and inlaid, all of truly artistic design and workmanship; all manner of reproductions of masterpieces of pictorial art; antique and modern Venetian mirrors, memorial mosaics and other examples of monumental art, all Venetian specialties, peculiarly fascinating to the foreigner. The thought is first borne in upon us that in the inner labyrinths of this town, where at first sight life seems to be one long dream of pleasure, there must be many important industries and many skilled artisans.

And now for a rapid glance at the Procuratie Nuove, that colonnade which is always cool even on the hottest June day. Here things appear very much the same in the early part of the day as they do over in the Procuratie Vecchie. Tripping about amongst the aristocrats, officials, and the privileged idlers so cleverly dubbed Disperati, are the flower-girls in their fresh youth and the middle-aged seller of wild flowers from the country, who reminds us, with his two baskets full of floral treasures, of some kitchen garden in late autumn. A group of painters always appear at Florian’s about this time to take their collazione or dejeuner a la fourchette together.

In this classical colonnade, with its thirty-six arches, there reigns a kind of hush, for here business never makes itself obtrusive, for though there are a good many old curiosity shops and other art warehouses, their owners have no need to advertise their wares those who want them know well where to find them. The fact that we can go up from here to the regal apartments on the first floor, which every foreigner ought to visit, is yet another attraction of these Procuratie; and there, too, we can enjoy absolute quiet. And the “voile” once gone through, as they say in the breaking in of horses, we shall come in due course to the permanent art exhibitions, housed in rooms on the same floor in the last wing of the colonnade, which every one ought to see, for they form a kind of monthly record of the art industries of Venice.

Nearer the Piazzetta all is changed, and trade takes the place of art. Agents of ship-brokers, consignors of merchandise, offices of steamship companies, storehouses, etc., occupy this wing, and the frequenters of the neighbouring cafes are all busy people. The bank buildings, once the old Zecca or mint, the newly built well situated Cafe alla Borsa, looking out towards the Molo, occupying three arcades of the Zecca, form the finest point of view of the Procuratie Nuove, of which Sansovino drew the plans, carried out in 1582, unfortunately with certain alterations, by Vincenzo Scamozzi.

Time flies fast when you are talking about the past. Why, it is twelve o’clock already; we hear the twelve long-drawn-out strokes from the Clock Tower of San Marco, and at the same moment rings out a cannon-shot from San Giorgio, the signal for all Venice that lunch time has arrived. In a moment the scene is changed. The Piazza is at once full of people eager for their mid-day meal; and at the same time appear hundreds of winged beggars whom nobody dreams of driving away, for their privileges have been secured to them for many long years. The pigeons of San Marco, which nest in great numbers amongst the arches and decorations of the various buildings, come down in flocks, circling about the church and Piazza as if, pensioners of the Republic as they are, they knew full well that they have a right to the food so amply provided for them by their many patrons and friends. A very beautiful picture is this daily gathering on the Piazza of the pigeons at noon and at two o’clock, a poetic picture which never loses its charm. Foreigners, especially, are very fond of feeding them, and ladies and children are lavish with corn which their favourites eat out of their hands. So tame and confiding have the gentle creatures become, through a long course of indulgence and petting, that they often settle on the hands, arms or shoulders of their friends.

The cannon-shot was not only the signal for the birds to fly down from their sheltered niches behind the cornice, but also for all the clerks in the various offices to lay down their pens as if at the word of command from their chiefs, and hurry through the Procuratie to take their second breakfast, and enjoy their one short hour of rest during the day in one or another restaurant hard by. As a result, the Piazza is for some ten minutes full of life and animation, and even the late risers, who do not think it good form to appear before the mid-day cannon signal has been heard, may be seen gathering together now.

All about the flagstaffs with their winged lions are charming groups pausing to exchange greetings or to make up little luncheon parties. Though from these flagstaffs no longer float the silken banners of the Morea, Cyprus and Candia, symbolising the vast possessions of the Republic, the far stretching influence of Venice is still illustrated by the many different nationalities represented here. It is at such a time as this that the Piazza appears at its best at least, at its best during the hours of broad daylight, for of course at midday there is none of the glamour or mystery which have so much to do with the fascination exercised on all corners by the unrivalled Venezia. As in all works of art, every picture in Venice gains by something being left to the imagination of the spectator. It was this secret which Turner most successful of all the exponents of Venetian efforts of colour and chiaroscuro so completely fathomed in his many exquisite water-colour views of the fair city of his admiration ; and we may perhaps add that it was this same secret which Canaletto, in his more prosaic renderings of the same scenes, to a certain extent missed.

But we are again wandering off into side issues and must return to the Piazza itself. From November to April, the fashionable world congregates to bask in the sunshine on the Piazza from two to four, or according to the new Italian form from the hour of fourteen to that of sixteen, and four times a week to listen to the civic or military band.

On a bright clear autumn, or even winter day, the beautiful buildings on the Piazza, especially the facade of San Marco with its marvellous wealth of architectural ornaments, are seen to the very greatest advantage. The atmosphere is so transparent, that every detail, however minute, can be distinctly recognised, and there is about the whole a repose which in other lights is rather wanting to this very complex structure. It is, in fact, a marked peculiarity of the whole of Venice, especially of the fine architectural groups on the Piazza di San Marco, that they appear totally different under different conditions, whether of atmosphere or of light, and affect the spectator in a number of different ways.

We tear ourselves away from our contemplation of the inanimate stone beauties on every side, to give due attention to the many lovely and fascinating women in costly costumes who take eye and heart by storm. With faces half hidden by big white or rose-coloured silk sunshades, giving to them a touch of mystery, they are seated in the same Piazza where Shakespeare’s Othello first saw his Desdemona, and where Bianca Cappello—this we know for very certain—gave Bonaventurini the sign which preceded her flight from her father’s house. Each one of these Venetian women is in herself a poem.

Women little know how wonderfully the beautiful Piazza di San Marco sets off their charms especially in the mild sun-shine of a winter or early spring day, when the old church literally radiates golden beams reflected from the fair young faces gazing up at its time honoured glories, and borrowing from it something of its triumphant elation of expression. And when the sun sinks lower, and the shadows lengthen, the capricious beauties in stone and gold become transformed in appearance, their features gradually grow paler one is almost tempted to say more diaphanous—these marvellous creations in stone which affect us much as do the Thousand and One Nights in fiction, as the sunshine imprints on them the hurried farewell kiss of the short winter twilight, and day is suddenly converted into night, soft, soothing gentle night, reminding us of the smile of some young mother, or of the rapt ecstasy of some devotee before the figure of the Redeemer in a quiet village church. How different does the whole scene appear on a hot summer’s day, when it resembles more the dream of some Oriental potentate, with the medley of turrets and chapels, the golden cupolas, the crosses, the weather-cocks, the angels and saints, in which blue and gold pre-dominate, standing out darkly, yet distinctly and imposingly, from beneath their pale gold garlands of stone, whilst the greenish grey of the main material looks leaden by contrast. Or again at night what a change is there, when everything around is steeped in darkness, and there is no light in heaven but the pale light of stars; when all styles are blended into one harmonious whole, and the whole mighty mass of buildings glows as with the white heat of a conflagration before everything falls to pieces in ashes; when the great lunettes gleam like huge diamonds, and the general effect is of some mysterious unfathomable choas, the very spires and towers resembling hieroglyphic writing traced upon the night sky by the invisible hand of some cyclops.