This is the most remarkable of all the renowned palaces of the fifteenth century here in Venice. Other cities are made illustrious by the possession of a few structures that incite the wonder and admiration of men, but here on the Grand Canal there are a hundred of such structures, and the one we are now viewing is the crown and glory of them all. It was built by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Buon in 1425, the same architects that built the Piazzetta in front of the Doge’s Palace. The name of the structure came from the fact that originally the ornamentation of the façade was gilded. Notice that it is a Gothic building, but all the severity of that noble and stately style of architecture is softened and beautified in the amazing wealth of artistic loveliness which makes up the front of the palace. To one who loves the beautiful, what a joy and inspiration is the sight here afforded us. Study it little by little, as though you put it bit by bit under a microscope, and you will find that its artistic perfection reaches down to the minutest details.
Observe the noble columns on the first floor with their finely carved capitals. Notice also the rounded arches of the lower story – that the central arch is larger than the others and that all of them are splendidly carved and have medallions over the columns. Also examine the superb Gothic windows, and the slender and graceful balustrades of their balconies. The columns of the second story you perceive are equally distant from each other and are smaller and more numerous than those below. The ornamentation above them is exquisite. That cornice under the roof will repay our closest attention, as will the string-course just above it, and the curiously pointed parapet extending along the edge of the roof. Notice, too, how the sharp angles of the corners of the structure are softened and rounded by three twisted columns of most delicate workmanship. The flat spaces about the grated windows were originally covered with rich paintings, all aflame with colors and gold, but these have disappeared. It seems a pity that they did not use mosaics instead – those stone pictures that never fade and never wear away.
By looking through the lower arches you may see ladders and scaffolding, which show that repairs are going on in the palace. The interior is being extensively restored by Count Monzini, the present owner.
No doubt you have already cast a glance at that gondola which lies so gracefully between us and the palace, and, if so, you have seen that it is no ordinary craft. If we look at it carefully we shall be struck by its decorations, especially by those of the sides and top of the feize, or covering for seats, which forms a little cabin whose quaint door stands open. There is the small white card, such as we saw on the gondola near the Rialto, and, what we did not see there, the number of the gondola upon it. The ” felze ” is painted black in conformity to a law passed in the fifteenth century. The place in the stern where the rower stands is called the ” poppa,” and from this the rower himself is called ” Poppe.”
To the right of the Palazzo Cà d’Oro is a little garden, a Naboth’s Vineyard that a king might covet here in Venice. Observe how luxuriantly the vines overflow the walls. In front of this garden is a steamboat landing-place or station, with its little waiting shed, in front of which is an awning on a roller which may be let down to exclude the rays of the sun and to protect the passengers in rainy weather.
The structure to the right of the garden is the Sag-redo, a palace of the fourteenth century, whose variegated slabs of marble and forked battlements, while not exactly similar, suggest a resemblance to the Doge’s Palace.
To the left of the Palazzo Cà d’Oro — only a small part of which structure we see, is the palace of Fontana, constructed in the Renaissance style. There, in 1759, Pope Clement XIII was born. The building is now used as a business college.
When the owner of one of these palaces dies, if he has several children, he often wills each of them a floor or flat in the palace, which becomes their own property, as distinct from the rest of the house as if it were a separate building. The Navarro flats in New York City are owned on the same principle.
As we turn our attention once more to the beautiful façades of these ancient and splendid structures, we are reminded of how the Venetians say that the ghosts of the palaces of this Grand Canal rise at night out of the dark waters at their base and stand in the deep shadows of their portals. We may not accept their belief, but certainly about any habitation of man that has endured through the centuries, there can but gather clouds as well as sunshine.
Perhaps the saddest of these memories cling about the old palace of the Foscari, in which at one time lived the Doge Foscari, whose son, Giacopo, was accused to the Council of Ten by a nobleman named Loredano of having received presents from foreign princes (a crime against the State in those days). This nobleman suspected that the death of two of his relatives was due to the influence of the Doge, and he wrote in his book of accounts “Francesco Foscari, debtor for the deaths of my father and uncle.” The young man, thus accused, was put to fearful torture on the rack, after which he was condemned by the Council of Ten, and his father was forced to pronounce the sentence of banishment upon him. For five years he languished in exile at Treviso, at the end of which time he was further accused of having caused the death of Donato, a Venetian Senator, and the only proof offered was that his servant was seen near the scene of the murder. He was brought to Venice in chains, again stretched on the rack and his arms and limbs nearly torn from his body, after which he was banished for life to Candia. In his desperation, Giacopo wrote entreating the help of the Duke of Milan, who sent the letter immediately to the Council of Ten in order to ingratiate himself with them. Once more the poor fellow was dragged back to Venice in chains and publicly flogged and tortured; yet he rejoiced, even in his agony, that he was permitted once more to breathe the same air with his father, wife and children. Again he was condemned to banishment, this time to solitary confinement. One farewell interview was allowed him with his father and mother, his wife Marina and his children. “Ah, my lord, plead for me,” he cried, throwing himself upon his knees and holding out his hands entreatingly to his father, who replied, grim old patriarch that he was, ” O Giacopo, obey what thy country demands and seek nothing else.” But when his son was led away the aged father burst into tears. On reaching his prison Giacopo died of a broken heart, crying in wild delirium for his wife and children and calling piteously for his father’s help and presence. Soon afterwards his innocence was established by the confession of Erizzo, a Venetian nobleman, who had killed Donato with his own hands. But even all this suffering and sorrow did not satisfy the hatred of Loredano, and so he proceeded to accuse the Doge of mental incapacity, since sometimes the tears were seen trickling down the old man’s cheeks when he thought of his broken-hearted boy. An order deposing the Doge was issued by the Council of Ten, and Loredano had the pleasure of carrying it to him, who, upon reading it, said, sadly, but quietly, “I little thought that my old age would be injurious to the State I have loved too well, but I yield to the decree.” Laying aside his robes of office, he walked out of the Ducal Palace, where for thirty-five years he had been the head of the State. On the very day when his successor was elected, just as the sound of the great bell announcing the fact crashed on the air, he burst a blood vessel and died almost instantaneously; and the dark, terrible shadows that long ago fell athwart the Foscari Palace have not yet lifted, and the boatmen on the Canal affirm that sometimes at night two white faces, one that of a young and handsome man and the other benevolent and aged, appear on the tessellated surface of the Canal at the foot of the marble steps of the palace.
On our left, not far from where we now are, is the Palace Vendramin Calergi, the property of the Duke of Bordeaux. On this palace is the motto ” Non nobis, Domine, non nobis ” (Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us). There Wagner, the great musical composer, lived, and here he died in 1883.
Some distance to our right is the Palace Mocenigo, once the residence of Canova. Here also Byron lived, and many curious stories are told of his life in this palace. It was his habit every evening to attend the receptions of a certain countess who had a palace on the Grand Canal, a most beautiful woman, and the original of ” La Biondina in Gondoletta,” where he arrived at midnight and stayed two hours. Punctually at two o’clock in the morning, his servant would arrive with a lantern and a board. Then Byron would come down stairs, undress, give his clothes to the servant and, placing the lighted lantern on the board (which he used as a rest), he would swim home with it, affirming that the exercise and the cold water bath cleared his mind and refreshed him more than hours of sleep would have done. In this palace Byron wrote some of his most celebrated poems, and his writing desk is still shown.
A more glorious picture than that which images itself in the mind at this point on the Grand Canal cannot be imagined. The domes and towers of the city stand out in the brilliant sunlight and repeat themselves in the clear waters. It is still, as Byron called it, “The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy,” the masque in England being a dramatic entertainment, a sort of compromise between a pageant and a play. ” It combined dancing and music with lyric poetry and declamation in a spectacle characterized by magnificence of presentation.”
A moonlight ride on this far-famed canal is one of the supernal experiences of life, a sort of strange and silent rapture into which the soul glides almost unconsciously as, beneath the measured sweep of the long oars, you are borne over the liquid pathway all agleam with twinkling stars and tremulous palace-fronts, the thrilling silence broken only by the cry of the gondolier as he answers that of an approaching comrade, and the. splash and wash of countless ripples as they lap the marble walls of the splendid structures on either hand, and the gurgle of the returning waters as they swirl about the wake of your swiftly moving boat ; except that, now and then, there is wafted over the tranquil waters, like far-off music from some celestial sphere, the soft and melodious voices of a boatload of singers, tourists invariably, who cannot resist the temptation to give way to the fervor of their emotions by singing the songs of the homeland, which never seems so far away as on such a night in this city of marble paved with emerald.
“How light we move, how softly; Ah, Were life but as the gondola ! ”
It was in the Palace Mocenigo that Lord Byron received his friend, the sweet singer of Ireland, Tom Moore, whose poems express so much of the emotion and philosophy of life. At the close of the visit, which Moore affirmed to contain ” the jeweled days ” of his existence, he was taking his departure in the gondola and gliding down the Grand Canal between the lines of beautiful palaces, upon which he gazed admiringly for the last time. Turning to his friend Byron, who was seated beside him – with that outflashing of poetic genius which he frequently exhibited – he repeated in his deep, musical voice, eloquent with fare-well, the words : -
“Let’s take the world as some wide scene Through which in frail but buoyant boat, ‘Neath skies now dark and now serene, Together you and I must float; Beholding oft on either shore Bright spots where we would love to stay, But Time plies swift his flying oar, And we must away, away, away!”
Thirty years ago a tourist went to Venice to stay there over night. He is there yet, and when the Campanile fell he wrote, ” I am thankful that Venice still subsists.” We too may be thankful, for though her sins and much of her pre-eminence have departed, her charm endures. In and about the Grand Canal and the still lagoons, there are ghosts and enchantments, colors and silences, which through the long. years can-not fail to fascinate and enthrall the hearts of men.
We have seen fair Italy, you and I together, but in the days fast coming we may return and look upon its delightful scenes again and again. And when we do, it will be but natural if we linger most and longest where the splendor shines the brightest and deepest, upon this Grand Canal with its broad pathway of quivering gold framed by palaces of alabaster whose traceried windows and pillared façades gleam with rosy light; and after every such visit we shall come back again to the work-a-day world of paved streets and ceaseless clatter, stronger, calmer, better, as though a bit of Heaven’s glory had broken off and fallen in lustrous fragments at our feet.
“There is a glorious city in the sea. The sea is in the broad, the narrow streets, Ebbing and flowing; and the salt sea-weed Clings to the marble of her palaces. No track of men, no footsteps to and fro, Lead to her gates. The path. lies over the sea, Invincible; and from the land we went As to a floating city-steering in, And gliding up her streets as in a dream, So smoothly, silently-by many a dome, Mosque-like, and many a stately portico, The statues range along an azure sky; By many a pile, in more than eastern pride, Of old the residence of merchant-kings; The fronts of some, tho’ Time had shattered them, Still glowing with the richest hues of art, As though the wealth within them had run over.”