IF the journey to Burano and Torcello gives one the best chance of seeing the lagoon and the great marshy islands that together form so characteristic a part of the Veneto and so sure a defence of Venice against any enemy from the mainland, the journey to Chioggia allows one to examine the great lidi and sandbanks that protect the city and the lagoon from the sea and to observe two of the three ports which give access through these sandbanks to Venice herself. The first of the three ports, the Porto di Lido, we have already visited; on the way to Chioggia we shall pass the remaining two, namely, Porto di Malamocco and Porto di Chioggia. We shall also on this journey have the opportunity of examining the murazzi or artificial fortifications, which the Venetians have built from time to time against the rage of the Adriatic, and we shall be able to examine more than one little fishing village along that lean shore, which in the winter, as seen from Venice, appears lost in a mist of foam and the thunder of the great waters.
But if we are to achieve all this, we shall need more time than the daily steamer service properly allows. And, in fact, no one who can spare the necessary time should go by steamer at all. Let such an one give two days to this excursion. Let him take a gondola and two men. Let him start early in the morning and rejoice in the sunrise : he will be repaid fourfold. On the first day he will visit Pelestrina and Chioggia, on the second, returning, Alberoni and Malamocco. This I suppose to be a counsel of perfection, there will doubtless be but few who will free themselves from the steamboat.
But however one goes, whether by steamer or by gondola whether in two days or in one, the way is much the same You start out past S. Servolo and enter there the great road for Malamocco, a broad avenue of Pali marking the deep water. The first island you pass on the right will be Li Grazia, the second S. Clemente, after which to the left come: the island of S. Spirito, and then again on the right the island of Poveglia, not far from the little town of Malamocco on th( Lido.)
The little island of La Grazia was, like so many of the island of the lagoon, inhabited from very early times by religious The ruins that bear witness to their sojourn here are, however very few and scanty : there only remains an ancient hospice o pilgrims, a cloister of hermits whose successors were the monk of the Congregation of S. Girolamo da Fiesole. But about 1439 some fugitives brought hither from besieged Constants nople an image of the Blessed Virgin that was said to be th work of S. Paul, and the island, which had till then bee] known as S. Maria della Cavana, was renamed by the people S. Maria della Grazia. The Gerolamini were, however, sur pressed in 1668 and the Republic entered into their inheritance Not for long, however, for within a year a certain Bianc Spinelli, who was betrothed to Lodovico Contenti, on th eve of her marriage persuaded her lover to release her from her vows in order that she might offer herself to God as a nu: under the Rule of St. Francis. This she did with certain c her friends, and they were allowed to take up their abode is the cloister of the Grazia. In 1810, however, the cloister and the church of the Grazia were ruined, and a little later ther was built in their place a polveriera, a powder magazine, which was blown up in the siege of 1849. Thus was the house c S. Francis turned into a storage for war. But S. Francis ha come to his own after all, for to-day the island of La Grazia a hospital for consumptives.’
We have already spoken of the island of S. Clemente. The next island is passed on the left; it is that of S. Spirito. It too was the home of monks : at first of Augustinians, then in 1409 for a few years of the Cistercians, but in 1429 it came back to the Augustinians and produced that Andrea Bonlumiero who was first Patriarch of Venice. He did not Forget his old home. He began to build, and presently Jacopo Sansovino erected there a very noble church ; Palma Vecchio and Titian painted pictures for it. But in 1656 the monks were suppressed and their treasures taken to Venice and placed in the church of S. Maria della Salute.’ The island remained ruined and desolate till 1672, when the Senate gave it to those Friars Minor who had fled to Venice from Crete and the cruelty of the Turk. All went well then with Santo Spirito till the universal robber, Napoleon, appeared and in 1806 expelled the friars and filled their old convent with marines. Since then it has, like La Grazia, become a powder magazine.
To the left of S. Spirito, under the Lido, stands the little island of Lazzaretto Vecchio. This island was of old the site )f a church dedicated to S. Maria di Nazaret and of a hospice or pilgrims to the Holy Land. Later it was converted by the Republic into a hospital for the plague stricken : this in the thirteenth century, and was probably the first public hospital of the sort established in Europe, and probably gave the name of Nazaretto, which became Lazzaretto, to all similar institutions. On the fall of the Republic the Lazzaretto was transferred to the island of Poveglia, to which we come just before the town of Malamocco on the Lido comes in sight.
Poveglia stands forth as very valorous in the defeat of the Frankish attempt on Venice under Pepin in 809. Pepin, the Son of Charlemagne, who had jealously watched the rise of the lagoon communities from the mainland, at last resolved to attack them and to make good his claim of allegiance as king of Italy. He got a fleet together at Ravenna, and sailing up the coast took Chioggia and Pelestrina and approached Malamocco, then the capital, to overthrow it also. But before he could do so the Doge and the Venetian people transferred themselves and their government to the Rialto, so that when Pepin took Malamocco he found it deserted, save for an old woman who had refused on any consideration to leave her cottage, and was resolved to save Venice. This she is said to have done by counselling Pepin to build a wooden bridge all the way from Malamocco to Rialto. This Pepin achieved, but when he took his army across it the horses, fearful of the water, cast them all into the sea. The more trustworthy account of the affair, however, shows us the heavy Frankish boats aground in the shallow lagoon and the people of Poveglia cutting throats at their ease. Nothing, however, remains that is ancient on the island of Poveglia, for during the war of Chioggia, when Genoa so nearly caught Venice napping, everything was destroyed by order of the Republic and the inhabitants were transported to the contrada di S. Agnese in Venice. All that we see today on this green island is rows of Lazar huts.
We now slowly approach the town of Malamocco. The vast sandbank of which it is the capital, and which I call the Lido, is now one long, lean island washed on the east by the Adriatic and on the west by the green, sluggish, shallow waters of the lagoon. It stretches from the Porto di Lido without a break to the Porto di Malamocco, some miles south of the town of that name. I call this sandbank the Lido, for that is what it is ; but officially it is only the northern part of it, from the Porto di Lido to the Forte Quattro Fontane, which bears that name, the southern part from the Fort to the Porto di Malamocco being called Littorale di Malamocco. This part is, in fact, only about a quarter of a mile wide till it swells into the headland of Alberoni. This island from Porto di Lido to Porto di Malamocco is the first of the three vast sand-banks which guard the lagoon ; it is also naturally the strongest and firmest. To the south of it lies another long, narrow sandbank called Littorale di Pelestrina, but this like the third, Littorale di Sotto Marina, is guarded from the inroads of the sea artificially by vast murazzi, great terraces of boulders erected in the end of the eighteenth century at a cost of near a million sterling.
But to return to Malamocco. The name is very familiar to us in early Venetian history,’ but the town we see, has very little to do with the island which then bore its name. That island has been swallowed by the sea. It met with this fate in the midst of an earthquake in the first years of the twelfth century, and then its bishopric perished together with its famous monasteries and churches of S. Rocco, S. Leo, SS. Leonardo ed Erasmo, and S. Cipriano. The new Malamocco, the town we see today, and of which we have mention in 1107, was self-governed by its own Doge, and after 1139 by a Podestà. Today it makes a part of the Commune of Venice and has about 3,000 inhabitants, three churches, S. Antonio, S. Vito, and the parish church of Ognissanti. The Palazzo del Podestà still remains on the Piazza, a building of the fifteenth century, and all that even Molmenti can find to say of a place which has inherited a name so glorious is that it is famous for its vegetables and especially for its melons!
It is after leaving Malamocco that one generally comes upon a fleet of those fishing boats which, with their golden sails, blazoned with the Lion and the Book, are the pride and joy of the lagoons, and the only proper means for their exploration. Many a happy day, many a quiet star enraptured night have I spent aboard them in the company I love best in all Venetia.
After leaving Malamocco one soon finds oneself off Forte Alberone, and it is here in the road of Porto di Malamocco that the great battleships and cruisers of Italy lie when they are in these waters for manoeuvres. Beyond the Porto lies the Littorale di Pelestrina, the second of those long but lean islands that keep out the sea. The capital is Pelestrina, and there and in the two hamlets of Portosecco and S. Pietro live some 7,000 people. Pelestrina is a poor place with almost nothing to recommend it, save its facilities for bathing, which are here to be had at far less cost than at the Lido. The old monastery of S. Antonio has been turned into a sort of bathing establishment, and here in summer the poorer sort of tourist comes to enjoy himself.
Pelestrina has decayed with the decay of the Republic, to whom of old she furnished many sailors. Her sons now are wholly given up to fishing a hard life or to agriculture, a harder almost in a spot so barren as this. The women are engaged in lace-making as they sit in their doorways talking and keeping a mother’s eye upon the games of the children, as splendid and joyful a little people as is to be found anywhere in Italy. And altogether they with their dear, tousled heads, bright eyes, and flashing teeth, their exaggerated small gestures, and their vivid torn clothes, make a picture more joyful than one might suppose.
The only work of art worth seeing on the Littorale di Pelestrina is not the Church of Ognissanti, though that is gay enough any Sunday morning, but that part of the sea coast which stretches away for four chilometri behind the church and which was strengthened and rebuilt in 1618 for the protection of Venice, the last great work of the Republic, called I Murazzi. This vast work, renewed from time to time, boulder laid upon boulder, to defend the unstable sand that the city might not be overwhelmed by her husband the Adriatic, bears the following inscription: UT SACRA AESTUARIA URBIS ET LIBERALIS SEDES PERPETUUM ,ONSERVENTUR COLOSSLAS MOLES EX SOLIDO MARMORE CONTRA MARE POSUERE CURATORES AQUARUM AN. SAL. MDCCLI AB URBE COND. MCCLXXX.
And so setting out from Pelestrina and sailing across the deep mouth of the Porto we come to Chioggia.
Chioggia is an island, a small island entirely covered by the town on the verge of the mainland where the now canalized Brenta pours into the sea. It may be said to be the capital of the fishing towns of the lagoon, for it is certainly the largest, and the whole of its energy might seem to be given entirely to the business of the sea. Its picturesque fishing boats crowd the molo and the little harbour and, packed like herrings in a barrel, stretch quite through the little town from end to end of it, for it is traversed, as Venice is, by a grand canal, only here it is full of boats, so that one may cross it almost anywhere dry-shod. The structure of Chioggia is indeed simplicity itself. Here is an island traversed from end to end by a great, wide and half deserted street, called since 1866 Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Parallel to it runs the grand canal of which I have spoken, called I1 Canale Vena, and this is covered by nine bridges of stone. From these nine bridges either way run the smaller streets across the island to the lagoon on the east, called Canale di S. Domenico, to that on the west, called Canale Lombardo. So regular a plan seems astonishing in so old and so dilapidated a place as Chioggia, and, in fact, it robs it of a certain picturesqueness which one certainly expects to find. But what Chioggia lacks in the way of winding streets and shadowy palaces is wholly made up to her by the fishing boats, which with their many coloured sails, their tall masts, and singing ropes seem to bring the sea itself into the place and to make of it nothing more than a large ship floating on the basin of the port and about to set out for Alexandria on some quest of the Middle Age. Indeed, the fishermen, the fishing boats, the fish market along the Vena are by far the most interesting people and things in Chioggia.
Of old Chioggia depended very largely on her salt industry for a living. She depends still upon the sea, but her salt business has gone, while her fish markets remain. And since the revival of lace-making at Burano the Chioggiotte have been largely employed in this craft also. These women are often of very considerable beauty, and seem rather than their sisters at Venice to have preserved the Venetian type and the Venetian character. And it is much the same with the men, who appear taller and stronger than the modern Venetians. Perhaps this was always so. Certain it is that we hear that the great masters of the Venetian school of painting used often to come to Chioggia to choose their models, as the Italian and foreign painters do today.
But there are other sights to be had in Chioggia beside the people and the fishing boats and the town at large. In the Church of S. Domenico, across the Vigo Bridge, there is a fine picture by Carpaccio of S. Paul, his drawn sword in his right hand, the book of his Epistles open in his left, the last work, as is supposed, of the great painter. The picture is signed Victor Carpathius Vendus pinxit MDXX. In the same church, over the High Altar, is a poor work by Tintoretto of Christ with S. Thomas Aquinas and other saints.
In the Church of S. Andrea, in the Corso, is a fine work by Palma Vecchio of Christ Crucified, while about the Cross stand the Blessed Virgin, S. John, S. Luke, and S. Daniele.
The Duomo of S. Maria was rebuilt in 1633 by Longhena. It, however, contains nothing of much interest, unless it be three reliquaries of the fourteenth century.
But what delighted me most among the treasures of Chioggia was an ancient altarpiece conserved in the Church of S. Martino, a fine old brick building with an octagonal lantern and mighty campanile standing before a dilapidated piazza in the Corso. This ancona stands over the High Altar, and consists of ten panels with three predella panels. In the midst is set Our Lady, enthroned with her little Son, and on either side two saints, above S. Martin divides his cloak with a beggar, and on either side are set four scenes from his life, while higher still we see the Crucifixion with Our Lady and S. John beside the cross, and, above all, a half figure of a saint with a book in his hand. In the side panels here are two angels with censers and four more scenes fro, m the life of S. Martin. In the predella are five half figures of saints. This fine work by some unknown painter is dated 1349.
S. Martino must have been built about the time of or not long after the war of Chioggia, which, as we have seen, was brought to an end by the victory of Venice over the Genoese fleet in 1392. Unhappily, the Palazzo Vecchio we see, replaced a building dating a hundred and sixty years before that war. But the huge granary of Chioggia, built in 1322, still remains in the midst of the Piazza, though it has suffered restoration, and is now the main fish market.
To the tourist I feel sure Chioggia will seem a very poor place. He will probably grudge the day he has spent in going to see her; but to an artist, or even to a more leisurely traveller, though no one will compare her with Torcello, the best of all, she will seem, nevertheless, something to be thankful for. Happy is he who finds himself content with her and in a mood to remain. For him there remain many pleasant and consoling sights : in spring the procession of the Crocefisso that passes over the Ponte di Vigo. In summer the Benediction before the Church of S. Andrea, when all the Chioggiotti and Chioggiotte are dressed in their best, in dresses peculiar to Chioggia, and the old days and the old ways seem still to be with us ; and, indeed, when the wind of evening pours over the lagoon, blue as a cold sapphire in the twilight, when the girls are singing on the molo and the fishermen answer from their boats coming in from the sea, and the sky is trembling with the few summer stars, I, for one, could wish to remain in Chioggia always amid these simple and human folk who have been my friends.