Venice: A July moon over, a gondola under, a tenor lilting a barcarolle

A July moon over, a gondola under, a tenor lilting a barcarolle, thousands with you on the Grand Canal – Venice a festa! From a near-by belfry, a clock booms eleven. Eleven! and we are only to the Foscari Palace. An hour ago we started at the Rialto, a thousand gay gondolas with bunting, lanterns, and greens, everybody jostling, singing, and shouting, and in the centre, like the queen-jewel of a tiara, the brilliant barca filled with orchestra and singers and ablaze in a myriad of colored lights. This is a great occasion, the serenata ufficiale. The festa of the Redentore is near its close. Church portals hang with mulberry branches begged by the monks of St. Francis, and the people have feasted royally on the luscious black fruit bought at the little stands on the Giudecca quays. Last Sunday the priestly procession in full canonicals crossed the bridge of boats to the Giudecca on its annual pilgrimage to the church of the Redentore. Venice thus sustains her reputation as a reverencer of traditions; they are burning lamps still in San Marco Cathedral for an innocent man who was put to death hundreds of years ago. And so the church of the Redentore is packed to suffocation at least one day of the year, and after that, with the religious rites off her mind, Venice suddenly gives up trying to look solemn and bursts out into the joy and tumult of the “Official Serenade.”

This year it is splendid. Every moment belated gondolas are arriving like flocks of black swans, with fresh quotas of enthusiasm and an increase of gayety and confusion. What laughter and fun! The Canal is a hopeless jam. Dancing lanterns play light and shade on thousands of bright faces, and the gondoliers, in fresh white blouses and blue sailor collars, look like shadows as they lean silently on their long oars. In the intervals of the music there is something weird and frantic to both their labor and their language as they agonize to protect their beloved boats from scratches and smashes and at the same time retain positions of vantage in this ice-floe of a tangle as the barca struggles forward a few difficult yards to its next point of serenade. There are ten or a dozen of these serenade-points, and at each the writhing flotilla pauses, and singers and orchestra provide the entertainment. It is finest to be afloat, but, oh, the land! Red-and-green fire throws into enormous relief fairylike towers and turrets that have figured in song and story for a thousand years; and in windows, terraces, balconies, and tops there throngs a multitude that none of us may number. Every face is turned toward the barca; every handkerchief waves our way. An occasional searchlight darts impartially over them and us, picks out a spot in sudden brilliance and as suddenly drops it back into blacker obscurity. But in that brief flashing, scattered friends have discovered friends, and gondolas are started inching toward each other, and presently parties are joined and ice boxes uncovered. After covertly studying the apparently aimless movements of our own gondola I finally unearthed a dark conspiracy in the reunion line that interested only Paolo, our gondolier, and an occasional crony at a neighboring oar. Paolo’s face and manners are innocence itself, but his guile is fathoms deep. We could not understand why he did not get us nearer to the barca, the universal objective, until we saw the bottle pass between him and a raven-haired, flashingtoothed athlete at the nearest oar and surprised the quick greeting and low, musical laugh of congratulation and content. But who minds, with Venice a festa ! And Venice is Paolo’s – not ours, alas!

Night on the Grand Canal! What a realm of witchery! “The horns of elfland faintly blowing.” What lullaby could soothe more sweetly than the dip of the oar or the soft plash of the dark water under the gondola’s prow! The charm of unreality invests the shadowy, spiritualized palaces rising like silver wraiths from the quivering stream. The summer moon touches each carven arch and column, each stone-lace balcony, each fretted embrasure, each delicate ogive window and sculptured capital, and lo, a magician’s wand has reared a dreamland of unearthly beauty!

In the soft and odorous darkness the birds that love this Venice are securely nesting – the gulls, that in winter whirl up the canals with harsh clamors of the coming storms, are now at rest along the beaches of their blue Adriatic; the swallows and pigeons are sleeping among the red tiles of the crooked gables; the sparrows are aloft among the mulberry-trees of the Giudecca and the sycamores of the Public Gardens; the canaries are dim spots in fragrant magnolia-trees or in spreading beds of purple oleander; and the ortolans, robins, and blackbirds nestle among azaleas and the heavy festoons of banksias. All their music now is hushed, and they are as mute and soundless to-night as were their awestruck sires, long centuries since, when gentle St. Francis read them his offices under the cypresses of Del Deserto.

The night is fragrant with the breath of roses, carnations, and camellias from palace gardens and with spicy honeysuckle from the neighboring Zattere. Visions of stirring romance and adventure crowd in on the mind. Down the pebbly paths of yonder garden surely some lover has just passed, brave in velvet doublet and silken hose, from laying his roses at the satin-slippered feet of his lady! Presently he will drift this way in his cushioned gondola and the soft night winds will bear her the mellow throb of his guitar and many a plaintive sigh of love and Venice. But hush! from out that old black watergate, in bravo’s cloak and with muffled oar, who bears the helpless lady away through the deep shadows under the garden wall ? Hard with your oar, my gondolier! A purse of golden ducats if you speed me to San Marco! I shall slip this scribbled note into the Lion’s Mouth! Ho, for the vengeance of The Ten!

If it were day, what a different scene we should have on this twisting sea-serpent of a Grand Canal. Venice would then be a sparkling vision resplendent with every sea charm, tinted with pinks and opals and pearls, and as changeful and full of caprice as any other coquette. Instead of this spangle of stars above, we should have a vast expanse of pale-blue sky, cloudless and glittering, and the misty reflections that now sink faintly deep down into these dark waters would vanish before a stream so azure and brilliant that it would seem as if a portion of the sky above had been cut and fitted between the palace fronts below. And how these mellow old churches and houses would glow and their wavering shadows shake in the stream! The exquisite traceries on balcony, arch, and column would seem carven of ivory, and from under the red-tiled eaves grim heads of stone would stare down over sculptured cornices and peep out through delicate quatrefoils and creamy foliations. And into these wonder-palaces the eager sun would peer to see the lofty ceilings all frescoed and gilded, the floors of colored marbles, the carven furniture and faded rich hangings, and the deep and arched recesses that overlook the gardens in the rear. And what gardens! Mellow brick walls festooned in pale-blue wistaria and lined with hedges of white thorn, a solemn cypress in either corner, clumps of fig-trees and mulberry and golden magnolia, airy grapevine pergolas of slender, osier-bound willow, little paths snugly bordered with box, trellises of gorgeous roses, and here and there some antique statue or rude stone urn half hidden in color masses of scarlet pomegranates and snowy lilies.

The day-life of this famed waterway is very gay and picturesque. Here is both energy and idleness, and jolly friendships and laughter and light-heartedness. Deepladen market scows pass ponderously by, piled high with fruits and vegetables, the rowers singing at their oars or shouting voluble greetings. Fishermen step slowly along, balancing baskets on their heads. Swarthy, blackeyed women, in dark skirts and gay neckerchiefs and with mauve-colored shawls falling gracefully from head to waist, throng the riva shops and bargain over purchases with violent gestures and eager earnestness. Priests returning from mass in rusty black cassocks loiter among the noisy groups and are received with profound bows and reverent touches of the cap. Husky, barefooted girl water-carriers, known as the bigolanti, stride by with copper vessels hanging from the yoke across their shoulders and offer you a supply for a soldo. Up the intersecting canals endless processions are passing over the arching bridges, and you pause, perhaps, to observe the varied life from a place by the rail: girl bead-stringers with wooden trays full of turquoise bits; garrulous pleasure parties off for the Lido; laboring boatmen, breaking out into song; old men and women shuffling along to gossip and quarrel around the carven well-heads of the little campi; and now and then some withered old aristocrat on his way to have coffee and chess at Florian’s and then a solemn smoke over the “Gazetta di Venezia” before the Caffe Orientale in the warm morning sun of the riva of the Schiavoni.

How well the Foscari Palace, there, looks by night. The Foscari Palace – poor old Foscari! It is a sad but glowing chapter his name recalls. Here lived the great Doge, the least serene of all their Serenities. Grown old in power and worn with foreign wars, his heart broke over the treason of his worthless son, and the helpless, sobbing old man, no longer of use, was deposed by The Ten in his tottering age. The very next day he died – and there, in that palace. Just now, when the red-fire glowed, a pale campanile stood out of the gloom to the right and beyond the palace; that is where they buried him, in the church of the Frari. With belated reverence and remorseful at having dishonored him a few hours since, they proceeded to make history in Venice with the splendor of his obsequies. They clothed him in cloth of gold, set his ducal cap upon his head, buckled on his golden spurs, and laid his great sword by his side. And thus in solemn pomp, attended by nobles and lighted by countless tapers, the pageant passed out of San Marco, crossed the Rialto, and came at last to the church of the Frari. And there what is left of Doge Foscari lies to this day. It is not a poor place to be in, either. The bones of Titian and Canova are beside him, a Titian masterpiece glorifies the choir, and on the opposite wall are two altar pieces of Bellini’s so lovely as to mark the very zenith of Venetian art.

A pause in the music of the serenade brings us suddenly back to the Venice of to-night. A vast scramble is in progress. We jostle and scrape forward another few yards. The barca sends a light hose-spray to right, left, and in front in a desperate effort to clear a passage. Dilatory or helpless gondoliers are lightly sprinkled, and all those of us who a moment since had been envying their good positions now basely give way to howls of joy. No use to struggle: all gondoliers are alike in such a crush. A champion Castellani is no better than Paolo, if he is strong enough to bend copper centesimi pieces between thumb and finger. Presently we stop. The tumult rages, good-naturedly and jolly, as the jockeying goes on for improved positions. And then there falls a sudden silence. A tenor is singing the “Cielo e Mar” of “La Gioconda.” You lie at full length on the cushions, the gondola lifting slowly with an indolent sway, and under the spell of the dreamy, witching music you watch the smoke of your cigar as it drifts up and over and out and away toward the little streets in the dark.

Ah, little streets of Venice; under whatever name of calle or corto or salizzada, you are just the same – bedraggled and delightful! What rare surprises are always reserved for each revisit – an overlooked doorway, a balcony, some sculptured detail! If the housefronts are plastered and patched – still they are picturesquely discolored. If the fantastic windows are out of plumb the gay shutters, nevertheless, are charmingly faded and there are pretty faces behind the bars. The roofs let in the rain – but how rookish and rickety they are. The battered doors are low – but they have knockers that are ponderous and imposing. Name plates are surprisingly large and keyholes deep and cavernous. The stirrup-handled bell-wires run almost to the tiny iron balconies, away up under the oval windows of the eaves – those little balconies that for ages have never refused sympathetic regard for the hum of slippered feet on the stone pavements below. And there are weathered store-fronts with corrugated iron shutters and gilt signs on black boards; and under your feet in the pavement are odd little slits for water to run off in, that remind you of openings in letter-drops at home. There, too, are the shops whose modest output arrays the Venetian poor to such advantage, and there are the stores and markets where they bargain for frittole of white flour and oil, or polenta of ground corn, and personally pick out their sardines at ten for a penny, or indulge in a fine brunrino as large as a trout. There one sees picturesque lanterns and gay little windowboxes full of flowers away up among the chimneys and tin waterpipes. The rooms, perhaps, seem dark and gloomy to us of modern houses, but you stop with a thrill of delight at the happiness in the voice that carols a gay air from “Traviata” somewhere in their depths, and you look up with a smile at the bright bird that loves that dark cage. Some carping and fussy visitors may compare these rude homes to the dungeons under the “Leads” beyond the Bridge of Sighs, but how could they consistently be other than they are, venerable and dirty, with splotches of paint and charcoal markings and halfeffaced pencil-drawings, of cracked plaster full of holes, and all toned down by time and weather to a uniform mellow gray! Of course, such critics accept, with all Italy, the proud ones with the marble tablets that tell that Marco Polo lived there, or Petrarch, or Titian, or Garibaldi, but the nameless and undistinguished many are quite as worth preserving. Thus one appreciates the inspiration of the authorities and applauds their industry in profusely tacking up those little ovals of blue tin with the jealous warning in white letters, “Divieto di Affisione” -that is, “Don’t spoil these walls with placards!” So, peace, harping Philistine, to whom nothing is ever hallowed! Though your emotions are thin and your enthusiasms a-chill, respect these little byways; and if not for themselves, then for where they bring you – to fascinating curiosity shops of the antiquarians up the back courts; to charming camPi where you stand by graven well-heads, wonderwist in the lengthening shadows of historic churches; to lichengrown bridges, themselves pictures, arched over sunny canals overhung by gabled windows and flanked by garden walls pale blue with wistaria; or (could you have forgotten?) to nothing less than the great Piazza itself and glittering San Marco, the supreme jewel-casket of the world.

But the wistful “Cielo e Mar” is ended, and we move along to opposite the Accademia, treasure-temple of Venetian art. You uncovered just then, my comrade of the night, and out of reverence to the Titian Assumption, I dare say. I uncovered, too, but it was to the madonnas and saints of Giovanni Bellini. Do you know them well? No? Not the Santa Conversazione? Ah, then life still holds a delight in reserve for you.