It seems weeks since, in the cool of this very morning, out at the little island of Burano, I lunched under shady locusts in the quiet garden of “The Crowned Lion.” It was a pleasant stop on the way to deserted old Torcello – Torcello that mothered Venice, but now sleeps, a clutter of grass-grown ruins, in the appalling stillness of her weedy canals and thickets of blackberry hedges. Within a cable length of where our gondola is now resting a black, tarry fishing-bark tugs at anchor. If it were day and her sails were set, one could not help being delighted over the oranges and reds and blues of her patched and weathered canvas, the curve of the elaborately painted bow, and the spirited air of the curious figurehead. Unchanged survivors of the fading Past are these sturdy old bragozzi of Chioggia, and one could not ask for a braver show than they present when they hoist their painted sails to dry in one long line from the Public Gardens to the Doge’s Palace.
It was at Chioggia that we loitered, a few days back, and fed on picturesqueness to satiety. We have but to close our eyes – and there are the grizzled old fellows in red berrettas, trousers rolled to their wiry brown knees and great hoops of yellow gold in their ears. When the midday sun was hottest we found them sitting in the shade of their fishing-boats’ sails, mending their nets with wooden bodkins and brown twine. In the old days, when the hand of Venice was all-powerful in this part of the world, the Chioggians were the gayest and most picturesque people of these islands. Artists still consider them the purest types of Venetians, but they are a sad and melancholy lot now, as if burdened with the heritage of glorious memories. It seemed to me that the old men were the happiest living things in Chioggia; then, perhaps, came the boys, then the girls, and last of all the women – and the older the women the gloomier. The flirt of a sober mantilla is the nearest they ever come nowadays to gayety.
We shall never forget, nor ever want to, that wonderful sail back from Chioggia to Venice. Listening to the music on the Canal to-night the memory of it seems compact of dreams, or as the florid cloister-fancy of a Middle-Ages monk that we had read in some illuminated old volume bound in vellum and clasped with gold. There was all the vitalizing pageantry of sunset about us, all the immensity of sky and sea, and many a bright little island rising out of the rippling lagoon this side the marshy wastes. The yellow strips of Pellestrina and Malamocco topped the waves in two long lines, like half-submerged reefs of gold. Above was a vast dome of turquoise glinted with pinks and grays, and with here and there a little heap of snowy clouds. Every phase of the wonderful sky was reproduced in the water. The sun reflected a second sun of no less ruddy fire which burned across the sea in a broad highway of shaking light that rolled to our very feet. The piled and fleecy clouds were steeped in gold, and bands of purple mists across Shelley’s Euganean Hills were pierced by it through and through. Venice, a mirage of the azure sea, rose slowly as we drew nearer, a witchery of towers, campaniles, palaces, painted sails, and drifting gondolas. As the dimming beauty faded with the brief Eastern twilight and we were gazing in awe on the enchanting panorama, there suddenly loomed a fresh and added glory, for just above the topmost pinnacle of stately San Giorgio floated a young summer moon!
Beauty has here an abiding-place. Venice is doubtless a fairer vision now, with its myriad lights, than when the only illumination was from flickering tapers before the corner shrines of the Virgin. More comfortable it surely is than when St. Roche himself was baffled by more than seventy plagues. The jaunty boatman and his peerless gondola still charm us, and dustless and noiseless the city continues musical with the cheery hum of voices and the soft shuffle of feet. In the cool twilight of the churches marvels of sculpture and immortal canvases still inspire and enthrall. Time has added new charms to the marbles of bell tower, church, and palace, and nature still employs a witchery scarce equaled elsewhere in decking the Sea City with flowers. From the water-lilies of the Brenta, the flaming begonia trumpets of the Giudecca, the pale sea-lavender of the Dead Lagoon, the rose-pergolas and oleander-cloisters of San Lazzaro, the primroses and sea-holly of the Lido wooded with odorous acacias and white-flowered catalpas, and carpeted with crimson poppies and the snowy Star of Bethlehem, away out to the sand dunes and lush grasses of Triporti, there continually rises an inexhaustible incense of fragrance and beauty.
The serenade is nearly ended. Anticipating the coming rush at the San Marco Piazza, a word to Paolo starts us laboriously toward the outskirts of the flotilla. From the Royal Gardens to the molo is a matter of only a dozen plunges or so of the stout oar, spurred by an offer of extra lire for extra speed. Off flies our gondola, frowning as superbly as ever did swan in the eye of Keats. We dart alongside the wet quay beyond the Bridge of Sighs and one of those superannuated old gondoliers called rampini earns a pourboire by steadying the prow as we jump ashore at the base of the column of San Marco’s winged lion. St. Theodore looks down placidly from the vantage-point above his crocodile as we pass between these storied pillars – “fra Marco e Todaro,” as the Venetians say when they mean “between pillar and post.” The piazzetta is already crowded and our hope of a table at Florian’s is dwindling. Never did the stately Sansovino Library or the airy colonnades and warm Moorish marbles of the Palace of the Doges look finer, but past them we speed with no time for the scantiest of glances at the famous quatrefoils and the thirty-six pillars with the renowned capitals, and in we hurry to the broad and glorious piazza and its flooding of light and life. Florian’s is in a state of siege. Every table seems taken and hungry people by hundreds are clamoring for places. The Quadri, across the square, would probably have had to content us had not the efficacy of frequent past tips saved the day, and my nightly waiter welcomes us with his dry and mirthless smile and slips us into a snug harbor under the very guns of the enemy. My companions are officers of the American squadron now lying at Triest and they pass their professional opinion that the strategy was capital. But though officers, they are young officers, and Venice has captured them hand and foot. Scarcely have we completed our supper-order when the flowing strains of the Coronation March from “The Prophet” roll in from the molo in the barca’s good night, and, as if it were riding in on that splendid musical tide, the noisy, jubilant host of the festa comes pouring upon us.
And what a fascinating spectacle does this grand, unrivaled old square then present! Were Byron here tonight he would still have to call it “the pleasant place of all festivity.” No chance now to study the designs in this vast flooring of marble or to coax a halfpersuaded pigeon on to your shoulder. In every part of its two hundred yards of arcaded length, set with storied architecture so inspiring by beauty and association that it moved even the self-contained Mr. Howells to exclaim, “It makes you glad to be living in this world,” and under the blaze of its rimming of clustered lights and shops and thronged cafes, there storms and chatters a vigorous, cheery, light-hearted multitude fresh from the stimulus of the glittering water pageant. It comes in through the piazzetta with such a rush that one looks for the band and band-stand, too, to be swept the full length of the square and out under the arches of the Royal Palace. Such laughing and uproar! Such a sirocco of gestures and hailstorm of crackling exclamations! This human tidal wave of the Adriatic pours down the middle, seethes along the edges, and swirls and eddies in the remotest corners. One sees in it happy, voluntary exiles from almost every part of the world, but to-night the festa-loving Venetians predominate. Every local type is here; from the languid patrician, come in from her country estate and now sipping anise-water here at Florian’s, and thewapid and scented fashionable youths with carnations in their buttonholes, to the flashing, black-eyed shop-girls with red roses in their crisp black hair and graceful mantilla shawls dropping back from their tossing heads, and the vigorous, smiling artisans, easy and jaunty of gait, with soft hats pushed back at every rakish angle on their curly heads. How happy and transported Maria is tonight, in her new black skirt and crimson bodice, and how the sultry red smoulders through the olive of her cheeks as her little hands whirl in a tempest of gestures and the lightnings of excitement play in her midnight eyes! And no less carried away is Giovanni, beside her, – proud as Colleoni on the big bronze horse, – though he lets her do most of the talking and contents himself with approving in quick, expressive shrugs. All classes of society are with us – “rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief”; and old Shylock himself, who was most of these, “dreaming of moneybags.” Scraps of gay, slurring song are continually bubbling over and flashes of wit and snappy repartees go flying to and fro. Flower-girls thread the press and insist upon pinning boutonnieres on the men, and street merchants move about offering everything from curios to caramel-on-a-stick. A crowd gathers about a blind old troubadour thrumming a dirty guitar and struggling to force his rusty voice along the melodious course of some popular villotte, and presently he will be led among the tables before the cafe’s and centesimi and silver lire will jingle into his ragged hat.
It is little enough to say that no scene ever had a more romantic setting. The quaint old Venetian quatrain does this famed spot scant justice: –
“In St. Mark’s Place three standards you descry, And chargers four that seem about to fly; There is a timepiece which appears a tower, And there are twelve black men who strike the hour.”
In the moonlight the sculptured and arcaded old buildings glow like mellow ivory around three sides of it, and it is warmed and vitalized by bustling cafes and brilliant shop windows set with tempting snares of artful jewelry and cunningly wrought glass. Strong and proud the great Campanile towers upward into the clear night, away above the tops of the three tall flagstaffs. The sumptuous Cathedral, in its wealth of glowing color and lavish adornment, makes one think of a vast heap of glittering treasure piled up by returning Venetian pirates in answer to the accustomed question, “What have you brought back for Marco?” One can scarcely take his eyes off its lofty, yawning portals, its gates of bronze, its forest of columns, its sweeping arches glowing in every color of brilliant mosaics, its profusion of creamy sculptures, its canopied saints and statued pinnacles and its great Byzantine domes billowing into the purple sky. On the ancient clock tower of the Merceria the fierce winged lion of St. Mark’s holds a resolute paw on the open Gospels, and the bronze bellringers swing twelve ponderous blows and hang up the hour of midnight on a dial of blue and gold. As they pause at the completion of their labors and look down on the sea of faces turned toward them from the Piazza they seem so nearly galvanized into life that it would scarcely surprise one to hear them shout, ” What news of the argosies of Antonio?”
With the sparkling beauty of Venice so irresistible it is a terrible temptation to my companions to hurry straight back to Triest and come over with their battleship and, like dashing naval Lochinvars, force an espousal of this incomparable Bride of the Sea. Vain thought! It is Venice herself who has always done the espousing; fully to possess her it must be on her own conditions of complete surrender.
How inevitable it seems at night that you must take the step; must cry out, once and for all, to fellow voyagers on the Dead Lagoons of Life: “Ho, brothers! No more of the drab and wretched wastes for me! I am for beauty and romance – in Venice, all golden, to dream!’ I shall dwell in this enchanted realm of dolce far niente and float with my gondola into the final Sunset. Companions on Life’s waters, ` All, Stall’! “