Venice – Campanile, Doge’s Palace and Prison

As you gaze upon this splendid city, rising so beautifully out of the sea, you will certainly agree that we have kept ” the best wine until now,” for the surprise of the traveler who beholds Venice for the first time, even after having seen the rest of Italy, is beyond all description ; and he finds it hard to convince himself that the stately palaces and magnificent churches that rise above the water, sparkling in sunlight like mountains of jewels, are a substantial reality and not the gorgeous but ephemeral creations of his most extravagant dreams.

The city originally was settled by fugitives who fled hither from different parts of Italy when it was invaded by Attila. The date of the founding of the city as generally given, is March 25th, 421. Here were a hundred small islands separated by shallow water from the mainland and protected from the waves of the sea by long, low strips of land, and accessible through secret and narrow channels known only to settlers on the islands. The city is built upon these islands, and the most convincing proof of the wealth and splendid genius of its citizens is not found in the walls and decorations of its matchless structures, but in what lies out of sight, the massive foundations that rest on great piles driven far down into the shifting sands. Remarkable as are these beautiful structures that you see at the water’s edge bathed in sunlight, still more remarkable is the portion of them that you do not see, and that lies beneath the surface. It is a comparatively easy task to build in the light when you have some spot upon which to place the building, but when you must first make the spot, make it firm and immovable through the centuries, and that, too, in the very tides of the sea, the difficulty is well-nigh insurmountable. Sitting out here in the gondola, beholding all this glory and splendor of architecture, it is well for us to pause and think of the labor, the skill and the almost inexhaustible wealth that must have entered into the construction of the city.

An immediate object of attention here is that gondola, which is, as you perceive, a long boat tapering toward each end where it rises considerably out of the water. It is nearly flat-bottomed and contains well-cushioned seats a little back of the center of the boat, which can accommodate four persons. The craft, as you observe, is managed by means of an oar working on a crooked row-lock, the canals being too narrow to admit of the use of ordinary oars. When there is only one rower he stands upright in the stern behind the seat and faces in the direction the boat is going. He propels the gondola by pushing the oar from him, keeping the oar deep in the water on the backward stroke for the purpose of stopping it or steering, the whole performance suggesting a similarity to Charon’s boats on the River Styx as represented by Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel at Rome. If the boat is a large one, the second rower stands in the bow of the boat and rows in the same manner as the other. The dexterity with which the gondolier propels this strange funereal-looking craft through the intricate network of small canals is most marvelous. Notice that halberd-like piece of iron with projecting teeth that is carried at the prow. It acts as a counterpoise to the rower at the stern and tests the height of the bridges.

This system of locomotion renders Venice a delightful place as a residence for those persons whose worn and sensitive nerves are affected by the sharp ring of horses’ shoes or the constant rumbling of heavy wagons and loaded carts over the hard and oft-times uneven pavements of our city streets. Here not a horse is to be seen, not even the agile stair-climbing goats that form such a picturesque feature of Neapolitain street life. What a heaven on earth it would have been to Carlyle, who exclaims most bitterly : ” That which the warld torments me in most is the awful confusion of noise. It is the devil’s own infernal din all the blessed day long, confounding God’s warks and his creatures – a truly awfu’ hell-like con-catenation, and the warst of a’ is a railway whistle, like the screech of ten thousand cats and ivery cat of them as big as a cathedral.”

Gazing over the placid waters, broken into new fantasies of rich tesselation by the passing breeze, our eyes rest upon the tall and graceful campanile which rises so majestically in the left-hand portion of our range of vision. It was begun in 888 and re-built in 1329 and provided with a marble top in 1417.

From its summit Galileo discerned that the earth was not motionless but swift moving. When it was built the Straits of Gibraltar, the Pillars of Hercules, as they were then called, represented the limits of the earth. The loggetta or vestibule on the east side of the Campanile was once a rendezvous of the nobility, and afterward a waiting-room for the guards during the sessions of the Great Council. Observe that it had a marble summit which contained the belfry, an open loggia of four arches on each side, above which was a lofty pyramid crowned in 1517 with the figure of an angel sixteen feet high. It was customary to station a watchman in the tower whose duty it was to strike the great bell every quarter of an hour day and night ; and a fireman, who scanned the city with a telescope constantly on the lookout for the first signs of a conflagration. This Campanile was three hundred and twenty-two feet in height and was ascended by an inclined plane of thirty-eight bends. The view from the top, especially at sunset, was exceedingly fine, including innumerable islands dotting a silvery sea, and far beyond the chain of the Alps, a glistening line of snowy peaks.

At twenty minutes to eleven Monday morning, July the fourteenth, 1902, this famous Campanile of St. Marks collapsed and fell with a great crash into the piazza. The ruins were piled up to a height of one hundred feet, and the piazza di San Marco was covered with dèbris and dust. The first intimation of danger was the sudden appearance, on the day previous, of a longitudinal crack in the corner of the wall facing the large piazza and the breaking of two windows. A concert, which had been arranged for on the piazza, was immediately stopped by the order of the prefect, with the object of preventing a con-course of, people.

The masonry of the Campanile averaged about one hundred and five pounds to the cubic foot, and allowing for bells, trusses, etc., the weight of the tower could not have been far from thirteen thousand tons. Hence the load on the piling must have been about six tons per square foot.

The Campanile in falling carried away the celebrated Sansovino Loggetta and part of the library of the Royal Palace. Four of Sansovino’s statues in the Loggetta were demolished, while a beautiful example of a Paul Veronese painting was destroyed in the Palace. The wing of an angel from the top of the bell tower was thrown down to the front door of the Cathedral, smashing the bando column, which was hurled five feet, just escaping the column supporting the south angle of the Cathedral, and thus averting a more serious catastrophe. Few persons were injured, but the disaster caused an immense sensation.

Generations of tourists had mounted to its summit to gaze upon one of the world’s fairest views. The Campanile was a prolific author, for all over Italy are towers built after the pattern of St. Mark. None of them, however, are the equal of their illustrious progenitor. Its rebuilding will necessarily require much money and a long period of time.

The theory that the fall of the tower is due to the dredging of the canal, cannot be seriously considered. The cause of the disaster is easily found. The Campanile, like all Venetian buildings, was built on wooden piles driven deep into the mud. These piles, in the case of the Campanile, lasted nearly a thousand years, and then some of them gave way and the tower fell.

The same sad fate must inevitably overtake the other famous buildings of Venice, the peerless structures which Venetians had come to think of as immortal. It is only a question of time when St. Mark’s itself, probably the world’s most priceless structure, will share the fate of the Campanile. Any morning the telegraph may click the mournful tidings of its collapse.

The subsidence and crumbling of Venice are a literal and astonishing fulfilment of the prophecy more than once uttered by Byron :

“0! Venice ! Venice ! When thy marble walls Are level with the waters, there shall be A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls, A loud lament along the sweeping sea.”

“-Venice lost and won, Her thirteen hundred years of freedom done, Sinks, like a seaweed, into whence she rose.”

Between the Campanile and the water front is the Royal Palace, which was formerly the library, containing among other valuable manuscripts the celebrated Grimani Breviary, the most beautiful illuminated work in existence. That palace is a magnificent structure, one of the finest in Italy ; the long building farther back and to the left, behind a garden, is also a part of it. Notice the double colonnade, one above the other, with arches and pilasters, the arches of the upper story being the smaller.

To the right of the Royal Palace are two granite columns which were brought to Venice by the Doge Michiel from Syria in 1120 and erected here in 1179. The left-hand column is surmounted by a statue of St. Theodore, on a crocodile, who was one of the patron saints of the ancient republic, and erected here in 1329. The right-hand column represents the Winged Lion of St. Mark, the tutelary saint of the city. This latter statue we shall see to better advantage from our next position.

The superb structure seen over the bow of the gondola and to the right of the open square is the Palace of the Doges, sometimes called the Ducal Palace, the delicacy and beauty of whose architecture tend to mislead the observer as to the massiveness of its proportions.

In The Queen of the Adriatic, Clara Erskine Clement says : ” From the tower, in the great days of the Venetian Republic, the first glimpse of home-coming war vessels was seen and signalled. In 1518 there hung, half way up the tower, a wooden cage, in which prisoners were kept until they starved to death. In the olden days there were four bells sounded for different purposes : La marangola was sounded at dawn to call the laboring classes ; la sestamezzana opened the official bureaus ; la trotterar called the councils to duty, and the bell del malefizio tolled out the requiem for those who were to be put to death. A fifth bell later was brought from Candia and was tolled only on Ascension Day.”

Five palaces were erected on this spot, each being destroyed by fire. The first was built in 800, and the present palace, a restoration of an earlier structure, was constructed in 1342, and its elegant façade was completed in 1442. You observe that, like the Royal Palace, it has a double colonnade with pointed vaultings, the moldings of the upper one being remarkably rich and striking. The lower columns are shorter than those above and beautifully decorated with historical and allegorical representations.

That palace was not merely the residence of the head of a State, but, somewhat like our White House at Washington, it was the place where executive business was transacted and councils of state were held, except that these councils were not advisory and subordinate, as is the President’s Cabinet, but co-ordinate, partaking more of the nature of our Congress and Supreme Court. In early times the Doges possessed autocratic power untrammeled by council or any legislative body, but this resulted in unbridled despotism, and the Grand Council was afterward instituted with a sub-council of forty, who acted somewhat like our Supreme Court. Then a council of sixty was added, without whose advice and consent the Doge could not determine financial, political or foreign affairs; and last, a council of ten who had jurisdiction in all crimes against the peace and welfare of the State. Eventually it fell out that the lot of a Doge was by no means all sunshine and glory. Five of the first fifty pre-served their lives by abdicating; five were banished with their eyes burned out; five were deposed; five were assassinated and two perished in battle-twenty-two in all. As for the other twenty-eight, it is not saying too much to affirm that most of them, would have been happier had they never been elected to the office.

Magnificent as the structure appears from without, and glorious as much of it is within, gladness and peace have always been strangers to its walls, and its roof has covered scenes of cruelty and murder such as no pen can adequately describe.

Do you see the small openings in the wall of the palace up there under the battlements of its roof? Well, strange to say, that portion of the fair edifice was a ghastly prison called Scotto Piombi (Under the Leads). In some very essential respects in a climate like this, a prison ” under the leads ” was even more terrible than underground dungeons, for the latter would be cool and moist at least, but in the awful burning heat of a long summer, without light and ventilation, surrounded by the stifling, horrible, mind-reeling and consuming heat, and oft-times deprived of water, the suffering was intense. We have a description of the miseries of this place written by Jacopo Casanova, an escaped prisoner, and which is versified for us by Rogers :

“But let us to the roof, And, when thou hast surveyed the sea, the land, Visit the narrow cells that cluster there, As in a place of tombs. There burning suns, Day after day, beat unrelentingly; Turning all things to dust and scorching up The brain, till Reason fled, and the wild yell And wilder laugh burst out on every side, Answering each other as in mockery.

Few houses of this size were better filled; Though many came and left it in an hour. ` Most nights,’ so said the good old Niccolo (For three and thirty years has uncle kept The water-gate below, but seldom spoke, Though much was on his mind), `most nights arrived The prison-boat, that boat with many oars, And bore away, as to the lower world, Disburdening in the Canal Orfano, That drowning-place, where never net was thrown, Summer or winter, death the penalty; And where a secret, once deposited, Lay till the waters should give up their dead.'”

The cells of this prison were destroyed in 1797.

The prisons mostly used for political offenders were the Pozzi, in the substructure of the palace. Gloomy and awful these cells certainly are, as I can testify, for I went down into them as most travelers do. In one place where I stood, prisoners were often strangled and their bodies carried along the low, narrow stone corridor to the waters of the canal. These cells are dark as perpetual night, and their floors are worn smooth by the ceaseless pacing of restless feet. Altogether it is a dismal place, paint it as brightly as you will, and one from which we were glad to escape into the bright, cool air above ; and when your have stepped into your gondola and been rowed out here on the la-goon and look back upon the beautiful exterior of this building, it seems as though, by very contrast, the thought of those fearful dungeons becomes more terrible than ever.

The bridge seen in front of the right-hand extremity of the Ducal Palace is the Ponte della Paglia, and the one seen over and a little beyond it – extending from the Doge’s Palace to the next right-hand building – is the Bridge of Sighs, which we shall see later from the Ponte della Paglia. The building on the right of this bridge and facing the lagoon is the City Prison. Observe what a fine artistic front this structure has, with rustic arches below and a row of Doric columns on pedestals above. From our present point of view it appears to be anything but a prison, but later on we shall see it on its severe side, where its purpose is expressed in its very architecture.

We will now take our stand in front of the granite column which may be seen near the Ducal Palace. The map gives our position definitely.