LET us ascend the Campanile. This has its one entrance on the Piazza opposite the Procuratie.
Vecchie. Formerly this entrance was carefully guarded, for the Campanile was to some degree the belfry of the city. The great bells at its summit, which we shall presently see, were charged with calling the citizens to arms, to announce danger to the troops and to inform the arsenalotti to mount guard. The possession of the Campanile was a guarantee of the security of the Ducal government. Therefore, during every conspiracy that broke out in Venice, the conspirators tried to seize it: some, like Querini, Tiepolo and Marino Faliero, so as to ring the bells; others, like the Count of Bedemar, to be assured of their silence. But, it is quite remarkable that neither one nor the other was able to succeed in this plan : the Campanile remained ever faithful to those whom its mission was to protect.
The first platform, the one in which the bells are found, is eighty metres high. But do not be alarmed; the ascent is not very fatiguing. The Campanile in reality is composed of two square towers placed one upon another joined by a flight of stairs of easy slope and which has but one step at each turn. It is a passage of slight inclination upon which you could mount on horseback and climb up to the very top by this means more easily and with less risks than the gondolier Santo. However, let us hasten to remark that it is hardly out of consideration for those quadrupeds almost unknown in Venice, that the Campanile was thus constructed. Neither was it for the poor ecclesiastics who had to expiate their crimes midway up the monument, for they never went by this path to their aerial prison. They were shut up in a wooden cage at the foot of the tower and thence hoisted half way up to the summit. Accustomed to all kinds of intemperance, they now had no provision but bread and water, and were left for long months in this place to meditate upon the fragility of human dignity and to contemplate at their pleasure the splendours of nature. Then they were brought down to receive some fresh provisions and taken back again until they had expiated their transgressions. But while chattering, we have reached the first platform. Attention now !
First we are dazzled ! This is certainly one of the most marvellous panoramas in the whole world that suddenly breaks upon us. Let us first look at the Adriatic side: at our feet is the Ducal Palace, the old Library, the Riva degli Schiavoni, and the Zecca; all these are embraced in one glance, but so small indeed that the buildings look like marble coffers whose covers are plated with lead, and the large columns of the Piazzetta, with the lion and saint surmounting them, appear to be two granite ninepins, or still better two pieces borrowed from a huge chessboard. All around us we perceive restless movement like a swarm of ants, these are the promenaders enjoying the freshness of the morning; then on the water black blots with red centres, these are the barks that are crowding each other the whole length of the Piazzetta. Farther away the gondolas spin over the emerald sea leaving a silvery track behind them, and from this height you would say that they are insects that are skimming over the surface of the water.
Still further away, the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, with its elegant church and its heavy barracks, has the look of ship stranded at the port of entrance. Its marble facade, its round dome, and its rose-coloured walls complacently reflect themselves in the transparent waves which come to leave the print of their wet green kisses upon its white steps.
To the right, the Giudecca winds majestically, displaying its granite quays, its variegated roofs, its houses and its churches. Nearer the Dogana di Mare advances proudly into the sea. Its columns, its statues and its golden dome which glitters in the sunshine gloriously mark the entrance to the Grand Canal; and behind it, the Salute, with its elegant dome, its enormous volutes and its marble steps, seems to watch over the health of the city.
To the left is that marvellous horn that we have admired when coming in from the Adriatic. Formed by the Riva degli Schiavoni and the palaces that border it, then by the Ca di Dio and San Bragio quays, with their picturesque dwellings, it is terminated by the public garden which lifts up its great round masses of foliage and its green cones behind a marble balustrade. This mass of verdure worthily ends this superb promontory and majestically shuts out the horizon; and this great basin, with its girdle of temples and palaces has the appearance of a magic cup filled to the brim with joy and pleasure. Then beyond this enclosure of marble and verdure extends the immense lagoon, with San Lazzaro, and the old Lazaret, Santa Elena, and Santa Elisabetta, the Grazia, San Spirito and San Clemente, gaily situated in the midst of green waves. And farther away, indeed quite far, behind Malamocco and its narrow littrorale, behind Pelestrina, which is lost in the mist, the Adriatic with its tender reflections, with its undecided horizon, the Adriatic of an indescribable sweetness, forms the background of this superb picture.
Let us take a look on the other side now. If the spectacle is less beautiful, less pompous and less splendid, it is not less interesting. Here is a mass of red and grey roofs, a large collection of tiles, slate and lead an inextricable confusion of lines that cross and mingle and cut one another in every sense. To see such a number of houses crowded and heaped together in such a narrow space, it seems that they must have been thrown there at haphazard without any order, systematic plan, or preconceived idea. There are no streets, no canals, no squares. Every now and then there is the facade of a church, the cornice of a palace, or the gallery of a cloister. Then come campaniles, towers, belfries and steeples. Do not try to count them, for this would be a tiresome task. Formerly Venice numbered two hundred churches; today, hardly ninety are in working order. But if the clergy have departed, the steeples remain, and still throw their shadows upon the neighbouring houses. Their leaning spires dominate the confused heap of roofs and ter-races, and these succeed one another without interruption until the sea comes brusquely to interrupt everything with its silver girdle.
At the foot of the Campanile we perceive the square of St. Mark’s with its galleries and promenaders, its white flags that look like a chessboard and its pigeons that blot it with black spots. Then comes the church with its mosaics on a golden background, shining in the sun, with all its columns and its swelling dome. Then the clock-tower, with its golden lion, its starry dial and its bronze giants that seem to be pygmies. Those are tall masts that seem to be rods. Then if we suddenly lift our eyes beyond the houses, palaces, belfries and churches, there are the lagoons and the green sea with its silvery reflections, sprinkled with islands, with Murano, which seems to be a miniature Venice, and with the cemetery which you would take for a flower-garden. To the right, to the left,everywhere, there are batteries and ports to protect the approaches to the city. There are San Giacomo, Tessera and Campalto, which by their crossed fire rendered Venice impregnable. There are the batteries of Rossarol, San Antonio and San Marco which isolated her from the mainland and rendered access impossible.
Beyond the Malghera fort, do you not see Mestre, then Spinea, Zellarino, Tavaro, Gambaraze and their clock-towers? And behind, losing themselves in the transparent mist, the bronzed Alps with their crowns of snow and the bluish peaks of the Vizentine Mountains. If the sky and atmosphere were clearer, we could see the Gulf of Trieste, the coasts of Istria and the Italian coast from the Po di Goro as far as Tagliamento. Perhaps, indeed, with ” the eyes of faith,” we might like the President of the Brosses perceive ” Epirus and Macedonia, Greece, the Archipelago, Constantinople, the sultan’s favourite and His Royal Highness toying with her.” But let us not complain. It is this luminous haze that gives Venice that intensity of colour that charms us. It is that which intercepting the rays of the sun spreads around us that golden dust. Let us bless it then with all our might and be content with the marvels that unfold beneath our eyes.