A sudden great and universal hush has fallen on canal and shore. Another tenor, sweet and vibrant as a bell, breathes that tenderest of all serenades, the one from “Don Pasquale.” At all times irresistible, it seems doubly so now. The faces that you see are grave and eager and transported. The silence and rapt attention is a tribute beyond words to composer and singer; and where else but in Italy would a multitude hush to a whisper when music sounds, and break into wild tumult when it ceases? A few weeks here, and one comes to understand that music is the very breath and life of these people. The vagabond Venetian, penniless but happy, comes out of his doze in a corner of a sunny riva and before his mouth has settled from its yawn it is rounded into a song. A bottle of cheap wine, a loaf of bread, and a guitar provide joy enough for an army in the family parties of the poor that float out on to the lagoon in rough market gondolas at sunset. Verdi and Rossini make work light for women, walk to business with the men, and hum comfort and courage all day. And so one needs to be discreet and silent when a solo begins or be prepared for an instant and tempestuous rebuke. But there seems little need for a warning to-night, with the hand of Venice so strong upon us.
Between serenades one takes his ease on the cushions and looks about on the people around him. Some one begins to whistle the jolly old “Carnival of Venice,” and it is promptly taken up on all sides, bolder spirits even venturing upon the variations. A German gives us the Fatherland’s version, about the hat that had three corners. An enormous Spaniard near at hand bellows a fragment of “I Pagliacci,” and is thunderously applauded. His friends, embarrassed but elated, urge him on to a second effort, which is received with indifference. On his third attempt he is hissed. Such is the caprice of an open-air audience in Italy.
The jolly stag party in the gondola to the right presses upon us the hospitality of the capacious hamper, which we decline with a thousand thanks and in gestures more intelligible than our pidgin-Italian. At our elbow two slender American women in black provide excellent eavesdropping entertainment. Here is talk to our liking, thrilling with the names of men of fame who knew and loved this Venice. “Just over there, Helen, is the palace where Browning lived and died. What an elaborate place for a poet! Howells lived”next door, you know, when he wrote his `Venetian Life.’ These places are ever so much finer than the one farther down where Goldoni wrote his comedies. Oh, don’t you know the Goldoni house? It is this side the Rialto, just opposite the Byron Palace with the blue-striped gondola posts.” “I think,” says the other, “that the memories are quite as rich farther on. At the Hotel Europa, you remember, Chateaubriand once lived, and so did George Eliot; and from there you can see the Danieli where George Sand and Alfred de Musset sought happiness but only found misery.” At mention of the Europa the face of her friend is transfigured and our own hearts beat high in sympathy with the reverence of the lowered voice: “Wagner wrote `Tristan und Isolde’ at the Europa. He died in the palace where the three trees stand, away down beyond the Rialto.” Oh, deathless Venice! Oh, universal Love! They marvel at this elfin world -the English father, mother, and son in the gondola ahead.
“It is a mode of mind.”
“Or a form of hypnosis; a psychological phase.” The boy turns from the distant fairy candles of San Marco and regards them with amaze and disapproval. His enthusiasms are keen and a-quiver and the freshness of life’s morning is on his face. “Don’t analyze,” he says. “Just breathe it and feel it.” The parents exchange amused glances and smile indulgently. “`Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,”‘ quotes the father under his breath; but we know, and they know, that they have been answered.
Gorgeous silks and priceless tapestries and rare Oriental stuffs have doubtless often hung from the balconies of the palace on the right in the great gala days of the wonderful past when the Carnival lasted half a year. The law had not yet ruled that all gondolas must be a uniform solemn black, and the cradle-like boat of today, for all its brass dolphins and carven scenes from the “Gerusalemme Liberata,” would have cut a sorry figure beside the sumptuous ones of an earlier time, with their mountings of silver and gold, profusion of rich colors, upholstery of enormous value, and bearing owners of fabulous wealth whose names were written in the city’s Book of Gold. Ah, those were the triumphant days when foreign princes waited, half a hundred at a time, to have the judgment of the Venetian Senate on the affairs of their states; when royalty was no unusual spectacle on the Piazza of San Marco; when the argosies of the world, “with portly sail,” came to anchor in these waters; when Dante and Petrarch were received as ambassadors; when the Admirable Crichton would be tossed a hundred ducats for amusing the Senate with an extemporized Latin oration; and when his Serenity, the Doge, on Ascension Day fared forth in dazzling splendor to espouse the sea from the throne of his sumptuous Bucentoro. The glory of that old and powerful Venice can never pass from the memory of men. Whole libraries preserve it in imperishable record. It is interesting, too, to note how it affected bygone visitors just as it does us today – as when one turns the pages of John Evelyn’s “Diary” and smiles to see how soon it was after his “portmanteau” had been “visited” at the Dogana customs-offices that he pronounced the Merceria to be “one of the most delicious streets in the world for the sweetness of it,” and learned with amaze of the skill and rapidity of Venetian artisans who, while King Henry III of England was one day visiting the Arsenal, built a galley, rigged, and finished it for launching, and cast a cannon of sixteen thousand pounds and put it on board, – and all while his Majesty was having luncheon. There was, indeed, a great deal of the marvelous about men who could contrive glass goblets so sensitive as to betray the presence of poison, or who could at so early an age make such exquisite books as the Aldine classics, to the despair of publishers for hundreds of years to follow.
Just now, in the fitful glare of red-lights, hundreds of eager Venetian faces, transported as”always by the spirit of Carnival, were seen in excited groupings in every nook and corner of the neighboring fondamente. One thinks how different is the present scene from those these people are accustomed to look upon on other nights. You would find them then in the little family squares whose corners are shrines of the Virgin set with flowers and illumined with candles. Husband and wife will, perhaps, have spent the early evening in gallery seats at the Teatro Goldoni, and Giovanni, weary with a long day at the traghetto, would have finished thumbing the headlines of the day’s “L’ Adriatico” and would now have his friends about him, and Maria would let the bambino stay up a little longer, and all would feast with prodigious merriment and satisfaction on the ever-popular soupe au pidocchi, – which is mussel-broth flavored with spices, – to be followed by Chioggia eels and white wine of Policella. Neighboring women would, of course, drop in for their dearly loved gossip, hatless, with silver pins fastening their blue-black hair, coral beads around their necks, and draping shawls thrown over their bright waists. And presently some withered old coffeeroaster would drag himself in with his fragrant ovens glowing, the bright flames leaping, and, toffee-venders would plead for sales. With the ease of sleight-of-hand a guitar suddenly makes its appearance out of nowhere and everybody enthusiastically joins in some haunting, languorous, dreamy villotte dear to the hearts of Venetians. Just around the corner lounging groups would be scattered before cafe doors and voices would be humming in low, eager talk. The usual wrangling and bargaining would be in progress at the cookingstalls piled,high with fish and garlic, polenta, cabbages, and apples. In near-by trattorie with sanded floors artistic bohemia, with ambition numbed by the latest African sirocco, battens on bowls of macaroni in a turmoil of smoke and confusion. In the dark interior of a neighboring wineshop one would find the wonderful goldenbrowns that Rembrandt loved, as a single oil lamp glows on the weathered faces of a circle of old cronies. And somewhere, just at hand, a gondolier’s weird and fascinating cry of “Ah, Stall!” would be heard; and all about them Venice would be crooning her ancient lullaby in the ceaseless, low lapping of water on stone steps.
All together and forward once more, to opposite the church of the Salute. We have lost our recent neighbors and have an entirely new set. The changes in the grouping are like the shuffling units of a kaleidoscope. A brilliant company is gathered on the balconies of Desdemona’s Palace, but Othello is not among them – another piece of calculated devilty, no doubt, on the part of the crafty Iago! Still, Portia is there from flowery Belmont and with her are Jessica and Lorenzo. The music is now from melodious old “Dinorah,” charmingly rendered and just as soothing as the first time one ever heard it. The Salute stands out impressively in her great domes and elaborate spirals. It is beautiful, of course, by night, but then if it were day we might run inside and revel in Titians and Tintorettos. The fantastic columns fade and flash as the red and green fires smoulder or flame, and the gilded Fortuna on the dome of the adjoining Dogana catches some of the glitter and generously sends it on to the Seminario in the rear.
Some one calls my name from among the oleanders of the Britannia terrace, just opposite. What a delight to be known by name in this charmed city! I look up at the adjoining hotel and there are the windows of my room, and I know that within in the dark my clothing and articles of travel lie about. With secret wonder I whisper to myself that I, after all the years of waiting and hoping, I am actually a part of Venice!
One might think there could not possibly be any more gondolas in all the city outside of to-night’s tremendous gathering; but even now you could find them floating lazily about the lagoons, or away out toward the Lido where the moist winds are ruffling the water and the distant Bride of the Sea seems only some sort of bright exhalation. Theirs is a languorous and listless drifting and their dim lamps waver slowly like glowworms. Little need there for the musical wails of “Ah, Premi ! ” “All, Stall!” Little of such complaint as Byron made that gondoliers are songless, for one could not ask for more plaintive and soothing melody than the low, passionate crooning of the barefooted boy at the oar. And, perhaps, in the musky dark of silent canals more gondolas than one are even now stealing lightly and with love’s devious purposes under the fretted balconies of the star-eyed daughters of Venice, while Beppo muffles his oar to the warning of Tom Moore :
“Row gently here, my gondolier; So softly wake the tide, That not an ear on earth may hear Save hers to whom we glide!”