Venice – The Islands Of S. Michele And Murano

TO leave Venice behind, with all its curious bustle and air of business, its rushing steamers and pushing tourists, becomes, I think, ever more and more the need of the traveler who has lingered with her perhaps too long, perhaps not long enough, for his content. But you will not leave her behind if you go to the Giudecca, and certainly you will not do so by going to the Lido ; to be free of her, to possess the true lagoon, your road lies northward towards Murano, or, better still, to far Burano and Torcello.

I know of few more delicious ways of spending a summer evening than to order your gondola about four or five o’clock, and after passing quite across Venice to come out by the Fondamenta Nuova and so to pass slowly, slowly, in the lowering sunlight across those bright and silent waters that lie between S. Michele and Venice, between S. Michele and Murano. For it is the lagoon that remains still to us. All else has suffered an immeasurable change. Venice, let us make no mistake about it, is nothing now but make believe ; the steamers that rush and shriek up and down the Grand Canal are as bad as any motor omnibus, and they have utterly changed what was a city of silence and peace into a worse pandemonium than Naples or Rome ; and if one should be so unfashionable as to abhor all this noise, this crushing of the crowd, this rubbing of shoulders, this much ado about nothing, there is but one thing to do, and that is to leave Venice altogether and to escape into the lagoon to discover and to wander among the islands there. Let the traveller, the unfashionable traveller for whom I have always written, remember, and I think he is not likely to forget it that he will not be able to see Venice, to enjoy Venice, and to escape all this horrible business by hiring a gondola and rowing about the city. In a gondola to-day he is actually more at the mercy of the crowd than in a steamboat. In the Grand Canal he will always go at the risk of his life or, at any rate, of his comfort, because the wash of these accursed steamboats is such that when one comes by and one is always coming by, and often two,he will be thrown and hurled about till he is bruised and half sick, and the stench cast up by the churned waters will presently make him heartily sorry he ever set out. Nor will he escape the general beastliness by taking to the side canals; as he passes under the little bridges it will be a miracle if he be not spat upon, and every time he lands to see a church a crowd of wastrels will assault him and demand money not for any reason or service, for they are incapable of either, but because he is a ” tourist ” and they are ” the people.” After trying every way and every cunning and expedient, after being battered for weeks by ” the people,” spat upon, cursed, swamped in the Grand Canal and all but capsized in the Canal della Giudecca, after struggling for my tea every evening for a month in the Piazza, after being awakened every morning at five by the hooters of the factories and the sirens of the steamers, and dazed all day with the all but universal German tongue, I escaped, I escaped to Murano. There at least was the wreck of an old peace, there at least I found a memory of quietness, a shred of decency and politeness, a shadow, something I thought above rubies, of an ancient dignity in human nature, and, above all perhaps, I no longer heard the Piazza di S. Marco referred to on all sides as the “Marcus Platz.” I do not claim far from it that Murano is perfect ; it only seemed to me something to be thankful for, as even a Liberal Government does after the appalling brutality and ignorance revealed by a General Election. As a fact, I soon left Murano, for I found something far better, worth, indeed, its weight in gold; but the ordinary traveller, even though he be unfashionable, has come to see Venice, which he cannot do from my refuge. To see Venice he must live in Venice; but Murano and the way thither offers him a delightful rest from his labour and a real consolation, I think, in the midst of his disillusion.

For once out beyond the Fondamenta Nuova all is peace. The steamers are few and very far between and their route is not yours. In your gondola you are free, you may go where you will if the tide be not very low, and the whole of that wide and beautiful world is yours. And how wide it is ! In the foreground and very near, it is true, lies the island of S. Michele, the cemetery island, to which you may see, perhaps, a gondola with a black flag, a priest in the stern, and a flower covered burden in the bows making its way;; and beyond, but still not very far off, lies Murano with its two beautiful Campanili. But to the east there is so wide an expanse of still water, out of which here and there emerge shadowy Campanili or the faintest mirage of a church or a town, that it seems as indeed it is a quiet world of dreams. At first all the west is blocked by the great bridge by which the railroad reaches Venice, but presently as you pass further on your way this sinks into its proper insignificance and the world stretches away under the gold of the sun to those blue, far off, islanded hills that are the Euganean. Here and there in the soft summer sky a great white cloud loiters on its way, and these, like the lovely scene over which they cast so deep a shadow, are eternal things. A flutter of smoke, maybe, hovers over the chimneys of the glass factories at Murano, but even that is very old and has appeared in this landscape for very many centuries. You will meet here no strangers ; you may forget what fools call progress and criminals “progressive politics” and “social movements,” for the one is made of noise and lies, and here is quietness and honesty, and the other is all of discontent and hatred, and here is happiness and charity. For where will you find more love than in the heart of Death, who notes all these poor people in Venice and, however noisy and noxious and wicked they be, gives them all quietness at last and establishes them according to their hearts’ desire, making them landowners of six foot or so in this island of S. Michele, which, small though it be, has yet room in it for all Venice ? What satisfaction there is in that !

The island of S. Michele, until the year 1810, had been for some six hundred years in the occupation of the Order of the Camaldolesi. In those days the present S. Michele consisted of two islands, S. Michele and S. Cristoforo della Pace ; but in 1810 the canal which divided them was filled up and the whole became a cemetery, the convent of the Camaldolesi passing to the Friars Minor Riformati. The Church of S. Cristoforo, a fine work by Pietro Lombardo, was destroyed, and the precious works of art which it contained either perished with it or were carried and sold out of Italy. Among those destroyed were an altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini and another by Francesco Guardi ; but a beautiful Madonna and Child by Alvise Vivarini and a triptych by some followers of Basaiti are now in Berlin. The only work once in S. Cristoforo that still remains in Italy is, I think, the Madonna with Saints, a work by Basaiti, now in S. Pietro Martire at Murano.

Then in 1872 a new cemetery embracing the old was built on the island, and is reached from the beautiful fifteenth-century church of S. Michele, where the Cappella Emiliana is the work of Guglielmo Bergamesco. Here are some fine reliefs in the manner of Sansovino. The church was once full of fine paintings. Here of old was the Santa Margherita of Giulio Romano, now in Vienna, a triptych and a Resurrection by Giovanni Bellini, and a work by Cima. All three are now in the Berlin Gallery.

From the church we pass into the beautiful cloister of the Camaldolesi, where Gnegory XVI, who was a monk here, must often have walked. It was rebuilt in 1469, and is a work of the Lombardi.

But S. Michele will not keep us long, for the true goal of our journey is Murano, if indeed we have a goal, if the beauty and silence of the way be not in themselves worth all the rest beside.

In the days of the greatness and splendour of Venice Murano was one of the most famous and one of the most beautiful islands in the lagoon. ” In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,” the Abate Vincenzo Zanelli tells us, ” Murano had thirty thousand inhabitants, while today it boasts but five thousand.” It was chiefly given over to the manufacture of that famous Venetian glass, a craft which in our own time has once more been revived. But it was also full of vineyards and olive gardens, and supported a happy as well as an industrious population. And in those days there were gardens there, on that red and green island, gardens as famous as their owners—Andrea Navagero, Bembo, Aretino, Aldo. Where are they gone, what has become of the luxurious convents where Ancilla Soranzo walked in her laces, where Cipriana Morosini smiled, and Beatrice Falier, Eugenia Muschiera, and Zanetta Balbi listened to the secret love of many a licentious patrician, while the waters lapped the walls of the gardens where they wandered and the wind passed like a ghost through the olives ? They are all gone, their beautiful names are forgotten. Murano knows them no more. Today all her old life is gone out. Only the flame of her furnaces roars as of old, and the blowing irons are still busy, and her sons still shape harmonious vases in the shadow and glow of the workshops. Murano is still the island of glass. You may see them there beside the furnace, the men of Murano, the heirs of the great craftsmen, handling their tools even to-day with something of the old mastery. At the end of the blowing irons, inspired by their breath, the molten glass swells, twists, becomes silvery in a little cloud, shines like a moon, crackles, divides into a thousand fine glittering fragments, finer than the webs of the finest dew sprinkled at dawn. The apprentices still place the pear shaped mass of burning waste in the spot appointed by the master, and the mass at his will still lengthens out, twists, and transforms itself into some lovely and useful shape a perfect vase, or a handle or rim, a spout or a foot or a fragile stem till you wonder to see it, for in that craft there is no gesture that is not noble, mysterious, delicate, and full of mastery. It is an old art that the machine has not yet spoiled, that still lies in the hands of man. And its home is this melancholy, half forgotten island, where the green opalescent water floats over the long weeds in the broad waterways in the midst of the lagoon where the landscape stretches far away, in long lines of silence.

There is little strictly to be seen in Murano. One wanders about the half-deserted streets in a town that is shrunken into itself, that is evidently very old, but with only a few marks here and there of the nobility of age in the Church of S. Pietro Martire, in the gaunt Duomo of S. Donato. Only everywhere the silence and loneliness of the lagoon seem to be at home there; the space of those wide horizons, the dome of that clear sky, like a clear globe of glass, surround it with an immense quietness that nothing would seem able to break.

In S. Pietro Martire, a large and simple basilica built in 1507, is a large altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini of the Madonna and Child enthroned under a canopy about which twelve seraphim are floating and beside which two angels make music. Before Madonna the Doge Barbarigo II kneels in his robes of state, introduced by S. Andrea, while on the other side S. Augustine stands holding his book and his crosier; and far away through the gardens and over the hills stretches a delicious landscape in which a little city appears. Here, too, is a fine picture of the Madonna in glory with eight saints, by Marco Basaiti. Madonna is standing on a little cloud that has brought her from Heaven close to the earth, and the eight saints stand in a half-circle beneath her, and all about her, hiding at her feet or in the rosy clouds, are cherubim, and the whole scene is set in a delicious landscape, the hills crowned by towers strangely like those of Castelfranco Close by is a Madonna and Child enthroned with five saints by the pseudo-Boccaccino, and not far away a fine picture of S. Jerome in the desert from the hand of Paolo Veronese.

But interesting and charming in its quietness though S. Pietro may be, it will not keep us long from S. Donato—SS. Maria e Donato as I think it should rightly be called. This church is of very ancient origin. According to the legend,and why should we doubt it ? the church was founded by Otho the Great, to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared, bidding him build her a church in this three cornered meadow, scattered then with scarlet lilies. That a church existed here in the tenth century we cannot doubt, for its incumbent the incumbent of the Basilica di Santa Maria Plebania di Murano took an oath of obedience to the Bishop of the Altinat church, and engaged to give the said Bishop his dinner on the Domenica in Albis, the Sunday, that is, next after Easter Day, when the Bishop was used to hold a confirmation in this the “mother church,” as it was called, of Murano. So much is history. Thus the church was first S. Maria di Murano; but in 1125 the Doge Domenico Michiel brought hither from Cephalonia the body of S. Donato and the bones of the dragon he had slain, and rebuilt the church, which was thenceforth known as SS. Maria e Donato. The greater part of the church remains of the twelfth century, and in its beauty and antiquity, apart from S. Mark’s itself, is not to be rivalled even in Venice.

Ruskin, not always to be followed implicitly, but always a rigid upholder of such facts as he possessed, tells us that he believes the mosaic floor of S. Donato, which is dated 1140, to be the latest thing in it. ” I believe,” he says, ” that no part of the ancient church can be shown to be of more recent date than this ; and I shall not occupy the reader’s time by any inquiry respecting the epochs or the authors of the destructive modern restorations; the wreck of the old fabric, breaking out beneath them here and there, is generally distinguishable from them at a glance ; and it is enough for the reader to know that none of these truly ancient fragments can be assigned to a more recent date than 1140, and that some of them may with probability be looked upon as remains of the shell of the first church erected in the course of the latter half of the tenth century.”

The church is a large basilica of yellow brick, and both from within and from without its most remarkable feature is its semicircular apse. Without, it consists of two beautiful arcaded stories, the upper balustrated, intersected by a double band of coloured marbles sculptured with exquisite delicacy. Of these bands Ruskin says : ” The feature which is most to be noted in this apse is a band of ornament which runs round it like a silver girdle, composed of sharp wedges of marble preciously inlaid and set like jewels in the brickwork; above It there is another band of triangular recesses in the bricks of nearly similar shape, and it seems equally strange that all the marbles should have fallen from it or that it should have been originally destitute of them. . . . The lower band is fortunately left in its original state, as is sufficiently proved by the curious niceties in the arrangement of its colours, which are assuredly to be attributed to the care of the first builder.” He adds that ” the subtlety and perfection of artistic feeling in all this are so redundant, that in the building itself the eye can rest upon this coloured chain with the same kind of delight that it has in a piece of the embroidery of Paul Veronese.” There can be little doubt that this apse is, apart from the balustrade, part of the original earliest church.

Within, the church is vastly disappointing. It is obvious at once that it has suffered from innumerable restorations at all sorts of different times, and that as an architectural monument with any sort of unity it has long since ceased to exist. It has, however, several beautiful and many interesting details. The pavement, irregular as the surface of the sea itself, is still left almost entire, though grievously defaced. It is of very great interest, and dates, as has been said, from 1140. But it is obvious that what was once a complete and perfect work of art, richer than any Eastern carpet, has been broken up in too many places, and at too many different periods, for us to be able to get more than a vision of what it once was from what remains. It might seem that whenever a new chapel was to be built or a new altar erected the pavement there was ruthlessly destroyed, for men will never understand that in art especially all “progress” is not only impossible of achievement, but impossible of conception. A work of art is complete and perfect, finished from the beginning, or it does not exist. If one tries to better it, the result is spoliation, for in “bettering ” it one has either made a new thing or one has done nothing. It is only in the futile and mortal things of life that there can be progress, and it is perhaps that which gives us so profound a disgust, so scornful a contempt of them. There is no progress in the soul of man. There is only revelation of what was there from the beginning. There is no progress in nature. What we see today our fathers saw, or might have seen. But we are enthralled by the clap-trap of fools, and ” progress ” is now their favourite self deception. So it is here, as we see, in the wreck of what was once a very beautiful building of the tenth century. The men of the twelfth century, in the pride of their ignorance, thought they could better it, and they set about this hopeless task instead of devoting themselves to a creation of their own. Then came in the Renaissance, with all the confidence of a nouveau riche, and decorated the arches with much self-approval, precisely as some vulgarian of today redecorates an old Tudor house that we in our folly have allowed him to buy and he in his thinks he can make his own. Though he were as rich as all the children of his house of Israel he can do nothing there, where he will remain an alien, if he remain at all, til Doomsday. In just the same way, and indeed with no less vulgarity either, the Renaissance appears here as alien as the Jew in Hampshire or Kent. We smile at this upholstery, and, though in so doing we doubtless forget our own, we do right. The stucco roses in squares under the soffits, the egg and arrow mouldings in the architraves, gilded, on a ground of spotty green and black, with pink-faced cherubs on every keystone what are they but ridiculous, ridiculous and a shame ?

Yet, as many a church up and down Italy can bear witness, as many a church in Venice will assure us, I hope, always, when it began to create anew the Renaissance could achieve things as marvellous as the work of the Middle Age.

It is with joy, then, we discover at last that the fussy and vulgar work of the Renaissance here in S. Donato has not overwhelmed quite all its original beauty and delight. In the shadow of the apse, on a dim field of gold, slowly, gradually, we discern a marvellous figure, the Blessed Virgin, who, with uplifted, delicate hands, blesses us from very long ago. Her robe is deep blue fringed with gold ; for as Sansovino tells us, and Ruskin reminds us, ” The women, even as far back as 1100, wore dresses of blue with mantles on the shoulder, which clothed them before and behind.” Round the semi-dome runs a finely coloured mosaic border; and there in great letters all may read —-

“QUOS EVA CONTRIVIT, PIA VIRGO MARIA REDEMIT; HANC CUNCTI LAUDENT, QUI CHRISTI MUNERE GAUDENT.”

(Whom Eve destroyed, the pious Virgin Mary redeemed ; all praise Her who rejoice in the Grace of Christ.) Thus is the church signed as Her own. As for our S. Donato, there is an old wooden tablet carved into a rude effigy of him in the lower part of the tribune.

That exquisitely lovely mosaic is the last thing of much interest in the church : the frescoes beneath it are of the fifteenth century and uninteresting ; but in the left aisle there is a fine altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with saints and angels by Lorenzo Bastiani ; yet I, for one, though there were nothing else in Murano and it were a desert, would be glad to visit it so that I might gaze upon that mosaic of the twelfth century, might look into that sad face and feel the benediction of those uplifted hands.

And in truth there is little else to see. Murano, once, we hear, ” a terrestrial paradise a place of nymphs and demigods,” is now, in fact, nothing more than a rather dreary little island full of glass-makers. The decline and fall of the Venetian Republic, the decay of Venice herself, has been felt more in these outlying places than in the city ; only they have largely escaped her vulgarisation and are still the poor dwelling-places of the poor who in a certain quietness and sincerity live here as best they may. And I think they are fortunate and happy. The revival of the glass making has assured them of food and clothing; and if they would be content and refrain from the more glaring absurdities of that Socialistic anarchy which threatens all of us so wilfully, I think there are even many everywhere who might well envy them. For their industry is not a newfangled business thrust upon them by the pity of the charitable : it is in their bones—they are in accord with their ancestors. An Englishman, James Howell, writes thus of Murano in a letter dated from Venice 30 May, 1621 : ” I was, since I came hither, in Murano, a little Island about the distance of Lambeth from London, where Crystal-Glass is made ; and ’tis a rare sight to see a whole Street, where on the one side there are twenty Furnaces together at work. They say here that altho’ one should transplant a Glass-Founder from Murano to Venice herself, or to any of the little Assembly of Islands about her, or to any other part of the Earth besides and use the same Materials, the same Workmen, the same Fuel, the self same Ingredients every way, yet they cannot make Crystal-Glass in that perfection, for beauty and lustre, as in Murano : Some impute it to the quality of the circumambient Air that hangs o’er the Place which is purify’d and attenuated by the concurrence of so many Fires that are in those Furnaces Night and Day perpetually, for they are like Vestal fire which never goes out. And it is well known, that some Airs make more gratifying Impressions than others.”

That letter was written about sixteen years after Girolamo Magnati di Murano had discovered how to colour glass and yet to keep its lustre and transparency. But it is the true art of the Murano workmen to which Howell refers in another letter of the same year.

“The art of Glass-making,” he tells his brother, “is here highly valued ; for whosoever be of that Profession are Gentle-men ipso facto. . . . When I saw so many sorts of curious Glasses made here I thought upon the Compliment which a Gentleman put upon a Lady in England, who having five or six unruly Daughters, said He never saw in his life such a dainty cupboard of Crystal Glasses. The Compliment proceeds, it seems, from a Saying they have here, That the first handsome Woman that ever was made, was made of Venice Glass which implies Beauty, but Brittalness withal, and Venice is not unfurnish’d with some of that Mould, for no place abounds more with Lasses and Glasses . . . But when I pry’d into the Materials and observ’d the Furnaces and Calcinations, the Transubstantiations, the Liquefactions that are incident to this Art, my thoughts were raised to a higher Speculation; that if this small Furnace fire hath virtue to convert such a small lump of dark Dust and Sand into such a precious clear Body as Crystal, surely that Grand Universal Fire which shall happen at the Day of Judgment may by its violent ardour vitrify and turn to one lump of Crystal the whole Body of the Earth ; nor am I the first that fell upon this Conceit.”