Nothing could be finer than this group of islands in the midst of this wide expanse of water; and no better place could be found in which to call to mind the early history of Venice than our present position. It will be well for us to bear constantly in mind that the name Venezia, or Venice, was originally the name, not of the city, but of the district of country lying between Verona and the sea; and a clear comprehension of much that you read in Venetian history and see in the modern city, depends upon a constant realization of this fact.
Several great rivers, of which the Po and the Adige are the chief, flow into the Gulf of Venice and bring down to the sea a mass of silt which forms deltas, or sand bars, inclosing vast lagoons of shallow water (one of them twenty-five miles long and nine miles wide), in which is the group of islands on which modern Venice now stands. Originally these islands bore the name of Rivo Alto or Rialto, which means the Deep Channel. They are situated two and a half miles from the mainland. In the beginning, the town founded here was called Rialto, and by this name it is known to its inhabitants at the present day, but gradually the name Venezia – Venice – became the name by which the city was known to the outer world.
Another fact must not be forgotten, and that is that the Venetian Republic down to the French Revolution was never at any time a part of any Teutonic, Gothic, Lombard, Frank or Saxon dominion, but that it was long in intimate relation with, and continually under the influence of Byzantium, which gave an Oriental coloring to its early buildings and their adornments. The plan of St. Mark’s was taken from St. Sophia at Constantinople, and its brilliant coloring is an imitation of Eastern magnificence. Venice also confiscated Greek treasures of architecture wherever she found them, so that its structures became Greek and Byzantine rather than Italian.
It has been well said that he who arrives by rail in Venice at the present time, enters the city at the back door. The front door is the one that opens so superbly before us here, and was designed for those who came by sea ; and here Venice arrayed herself most gloriously, so as to receive these visitors with proper splendor. The ambassadors or merchants who approached the city across these placid waters saw first the noble domes of the churches, the lofty Campanile from. which we are viewing this scene, and the two great columns in the Piazzetta. Then, as they drew still nearer, the imposing façade of the Doge’s Palace and the snowy front of S. Giorgio Maggiore and of S. Maria della Salute appeared, and they landed at the Piazzetta dazzled and bewildered by the glories of the city.
Let us now direct our attention to the details in the scene before us. The handsome and spacious church, with its two unequal domes and its picturesque Campanile, seen to the right, is the church of S. Maria della Salute. It was erected in 1631 by Longhena, as a votive offering for the cessation of a fearful pestilence which had ravaged the city and the islands of the lagoons, in which almost one hundred and fifty thousand persons perished (forty-six thousand in the city, ninety-four thousand in the lagoons), and hence it was dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance, and almost every object of art it contains, although many of them came from earlier structures, refers to pestilence. The situation of the church is superb, and its approach from the canal by means of a broad and gleaming flight of marble steps adds greatly to the impressiveness of the structure.
As you see, it is a domed octagonal church, out of which opens a deep recess forming the choir. Observe that the dome rests upon pillars, and has, as a further support, twisted buttresses, scroll-like, which are surmounted by figures representing prophets, evangelists and saints ; and beneath this dome and clustered about these buttresses are eight chapels. Around the outside of the buttresses ex-tends a passage way. You may see its encircling balustrade, and above, at the base of the dome, is a similar gallery. Over the dome is an open lantern, cupola-crowned, surmounted by a statue. At the apex of the pediment, above the principal entrance to the church, there is a statue of the Virgin, who thus takes the place of pre-eminence on the structure which was erected in her honor. The church is built in florid, classical style, and while, externally, it may be over-decorated, it is a singularly attractive structure whose excellencies, however, are not apt to be appreciated, since it has the misfortune of being overshadowed by the magnificence of the cathedral of St. Mark.
The pillars of the church were brought from the amphitheater of Pola, and in front of the altar is a fine candelabrum by Brescia. Many of the female figures in this church have golden hair, the favorite color, not only in ancient Rome, but also here in medieval Venice. The city belles were in the habit of steeping their raven locks in a special preparation and then sitting for hours on the balconies which overhung the canals, wearing broad straw hats, and with a wealth of golden hair falling over their shoulders in order to dry it.
This church contains the heads of apostles and evangelists, the work of the immortal Titian, who painted himself as Matthew. Other fine works by the same great artist are St. Mark seated on a throne with SS. Cosima, Damiano and Sebastian; and the Descent of the Holy Ghost ; besides fine ceiling paintings by other celebrated artists, among whom are Tintoretto, Fra Bartolommeo and Paolo Veronese.
“Here Titian, Tintoret and Giambellin, And that strong master of a myriad hues, The Veronese, like flowers with odors keen, Shall smite your brain with splendors ; they confuse The soul that wandering in their world must lose Count of our littleness, and cry that then The gods we dream of walked the earth like men.”
To the right of S. Maria della Salute, and extending down to the waters of the canal, rises a mass of somewhat somber-looking buildings which formerly belonged to the monastery of S. Gregorio, now secularized and let out in tenements. The church of the monastery has a fine Gothic choir which dates from the fourteenth century. The old courtyard is much dilapidated but is still the most picturesque courtyard in Venice, and its quaint gateway, facing the Grand Canal, is surmounted by a statue of St. Gregory.
The building seen to the left of the church of S. Maria della Salute is the Seminario Patriarcale, which is attached to the church and contains a small collection of pictures, also the property of the church.
The low, wedge-like structure to the left of the Seminary is the Dogana or Custom House. It was built in 1667. The small end of the wedge forms the front of the building, surmounted by a large gilded globe, which supports a figure of Navigation holding a sail and turning with the wind,- quite a unique kind of weather-vane.
The water seen between us and the Custom House is the entrance to the Grand Canal, and that beyond the Custom House and Seminary is the Giudecca with the Island of Giudecca beyond, so called because the Jews were permitted to settle there. The church seen on this island, over the roof of the Custom House, is the church of Il Redentore, built by the Republic in 1577 after the staying of the plague of the previous year. It has a splendid position, facing as it does the broad canal, and its dome and campaniles may be seen from afar. The façade of the church faces us, and you may see its flight of broad marble steps leading down to the water. The church presents a finer appearance when viewed from a distance than when seen at close range.
He who lingers long in Venice will come to the conclusion that it is one of the most religious cities in Italy. Prayer never ceases here, and out over its network of canals, that gleam like silver threads, there is constantly floating the ” muezzin ” call of the chimes. In some one of its many churches (and it seems to have been the purpose of the Venetians that every shoal and island should have its mother church), the sacrament is continually exposed and the clergy succeed one another in offering prayer before it night and day.
The four great plague churches in the city bring to mind the fact that in Venice the difficulty had long been that of procuring good water. Drinking water was long brought from the mainland in water-boats, but this made it very expensive. Artesian wells were sunk in 1847 by the city authorities, but it was found that the water obtained in this way is by nature highly charged with inflammable gas, much like the natural gas in America, which forms bubbles upon the surface and which ignites on the application of a lighted match. Not finding these artesian wells altogether desirable, the authorities have been compelled to supply the city with drinking water from the mainland.
The fleet of schooners which you perceive moored the other side of the Custom House are loaded with firewood and lumber which they have brought from Trieste. The captains usually own their boats and sail them. Fuel here, as elsewhere in Italy, is very expensive, coal being scarce, gas but little used, and oil brings a high price. To the eyes of English and Americans, the shipping in the harbor of Venice is a novel and attractive sight, and even more interesting than the strangely shaped craft with their brilliantly colored sails are the Venetian sailors with their large earrings of filigree-work and their sun blackened faces and chests, who, in their strolls on Sun-day afternoons in the public gardens, form a striking contrast to the young dandies who resort hither carrying gaudy fans and gaily colored parasols.
About the church of the Redentore, on the Island of Giudecca, are large bonded warehouses, and on the island still further away you may discern similar structures ; and beyond, in the soft, gray distance, the phantom outlines of other islands may be seen.
The garden directly below us on the right bank of the Grand Canal, and bordered by a marble parapet, is the Giardino Reale, or Royal Garden, now open to the public. The building at the right of the garden, with low spires at each corner of its roof and the dome-like structure in the middle, is the Pavilion, built by Napoleon in classical style and now used as a café. The structure beyond the Pavilion, the Citta di Monaco, is a hotel, while the irregular building still farther to the right is the Hotel Europa (originally the Palazzo Giustiniani).
The large, square building seen between us and the steps of the church of S. Maria della Salute is the Palazzo Emo-Treves, a structure of the seventeenth century and now an art gallery containing some excellent works, the most noted of which are two colossal statues by Canova (Hector and Ajax), and of unusual merit.
The long, tiled roof, which you observe between us and the Royal Garden, belongs to the Procuratie Nuove, now a part of the Royal Palace (bordering the south side of the Piazza and already described), out from which extend wings with cement roofs surrounded by high walls.
We shall now take our stand on the Grand Canal, some distance farther to the right than we can see, and as we shall look back to the entrance to the canal we will recognize some of the buildings we now see before us. The map shows that we shall be looking slightly south of east.