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eyes, and sometimes a touch of colour in their red
flannel caps and their multicoloured patches of
garments. There is something barbaric and fine
and graceful about them, half-encircled, as they
are, by the filmy blue smoke from the ovens. A
Venetian Good Friday celebrated in a poor and
populous part of Venice at night is most pictur-
esque. The people of the quarter the coffee-
roasters, the cook-shop men, the footmen, and the
wine-sellers arrange to sing a chant in twenty-
four verses, a grave and sombre chant following
the life of our Lord in His Passion. Each verse
takes about five minutes to sing, and there is a
pause of equal length between each two verses.
During every interval the crowd, who have been
quiet, begin to chatter, the men smoke, and the
boys rush and tumble. Directly the precentor
begins, silence falls upon them once more. Most
of the people in that particular quarter subscribe
to the erection of a shrine with plenty of candles
and little glass lamps. It is a picturesque sight
the yellow light from the altar lamps falling on
the group of men and women gathered round the


singers and the many heads thrust out of windows
and balconies, on the fair, devout, and serious faces
of the children, on the handsome women and the
bronze-faced men.

All the world in Venice lives out of doors : they
breakfast and lunch and dine, all in the open air.
All of them live in lodgings or hotels, and princi-
pally in the bedrooms, which are for the most part
comfortless and dreary, their only merits are a
frescoed ceiling, sometimes really fine and old, and
a balcony. One can procure a marvel of a palace
in Venice for the cost of a garret in London.
There is no real home-life in Venice. Rich and
poor, mothers, fathers, children, and servants, all
take their food in the open air. There are restaur-
ants and cafe's for the well-to-do, endless eating-
houses for the poorer classes, and sausage-makers
for the gondoliers. Cookshops swarm. There you
see great piles of fish and garlic, bowls of broth,
polenta, and stewed snails, roast apples, boiled
beans, cabbages, and potatoes. Every holiday,
every saint's day, has its special dish. Carnival time
sets the fashion for beaten cream or panamonlata ;
at San Martino gingerbread soldiers are popular;
and for Christmas time there is candy made with
honey and almonds. A certain broth consumed by


the very humblest is made from scraps of meat
which even the sausage-makers will not use : as may
be imagined, the soup is highly flavoured. In the
midst of all these stalls and eating-houses it is
extraordinary how little there is eaten in Venice,
merely a mouthful here and there, a kind of light
running meal. A Venetian, no matter how rich
he might be, would never dream of inviting you
to a set meal. There is no heavy food, no cut from
the joint. If a Venetian invites you to an enter-
tainment, he will give you a cup of coffee perhaps,
or a glass of wine and a biscuit, rarely more. He
will never invite you to eat a great meal ; he never
takes it himself. The eating-house and the stall
appear to be more or less of an excuse for gossip
and the meeting of neighbours.

If the streets of Venice are bewitching by night,
they are certainly delightful in the early morning.
It is then that one receives the most vivid impres-
sions. There is a certain freshness in one's percep-
tions at the dawn. The poor wretches who make
their beds in the streets, or on the steps, or at the
base of columns, shake themselves and shamble off.
Troops of ragged "facchini" fill the streets, and
quarrel noisily over their work. The great cisterns
in the market-place are open, and the water is


brought round to your house by dealers, stout
young girls with broad backs and rosy cheeks ;
they carry it in two brass buckets attached to a
pole, and empty it into large earthenware pots
placed ready for its reception in the kitchen.
These girls, called "bigolanti," supply the place
of water- works. At this hour you see the shops
opening like so many flowers before the sun.
Butchers set forth their meat ; fruit shops, crockery
shops, bakers', cheap-clothing, and felt-hat shops,
show their various wares. You see peasants at
work among vegetables, building cabbages and
carrots into picturesque piles, and decorating them
with garlic and onions, while their masters are still
sleeping on sacks of potatoes. Great barges arrive
from Mestre, Chioggia, and Torcello, laden with
vegetables and fruit. Eating-houses begin their
trade. You see men and women taking their
breakfast, and a savoury smell of spagettis and eels
on gridirons fills the air. Gondoliers begin to wash
their gondolas, brush their felces, polish the iron of
their prows, shake their cushions, and put everything
in order for business. Picturesque old women,
carrying milk in fat squat bottles, make the round
of the hotels and restaurants at this early hour.
They are good to look at, with their dark nut-



brown faces and dangling gold earrings under their
large straw hats. Their figures are much the shape
of their bottles ; and they bring a pleasant atmo-
sphere into Venice, an atmosphere of fields and
clover -scented earth, and milk drawn from the
cream-coloured cows. Fishermen, a handsome
class, with weather-beaten faces, in blue clothing,
come striding down the calle, shallow baskets of
fish on their heads. They set up their stalls and
display their soles and mackerel, chopping up their
eels into sections and crying, "Beautiful, and all
alive ! " At this hour everyone is making bargains,
and the result is a continual buzz ; but there is
nothing discordant about the street cries of Venice.
A peculiarly beautiful cry is that of the man who
comes round every morning with wood for your
kitchen fire. The fuel-men cut their wood on the
shores of the Adriatic, and anchor their barges at
the Custom House, leaving them in charge of
mongrel yellow dogs, who guard so vigilantly and
are so extremely aggressive that never a splinter
is taken from the barges.

The street cries are full of individuality, and
the tradesman brings a little art to bear on the
description of his wares. The song of the sweep,
exquisitely sad, quite befits the warning, " Beware



of your chimney ! " There is nothing gay about
the sweep : he is a very melancholy person, and
his expression is in sympathy with his music.
The pumpkin-vendor is coy, and his cry has a
winning pathos; his is not an easy vegetable to
launch on the market, and he has developed into
a very bashful person. His cry is cooing and
subtle : he almost caresses you into buying, which
is necessary, as no one in his right senses really
desires a pumpkin. The fruiterer is different.
He is handsome, fat-cheeked, and has scarlet lips,
strong black hah* curling in ringlets, and gold
rings in his ears. His adjuration is a round, full,
resonant roar, like a triumphant hymn ; and there
is altogether a certain Oriental splendour about his
demeanour. It is not necessary for him to be
subtle : there is always a sale for melons and pears,
chestnuts and pomegranates. He uses colour as
a stimulant to his customers, and dwells upon the
hue of his fruit. " Melons with hearts of fire ! "
he cries. Also he flatters. To a dear old gentle-
man passing by he will hold up a clump of melons,
some of them sliced, or a group of richly coloured
pomegranates, and say, " Now, you as a man of
taste will appreciate this marvellous colour; you
are young enough to understand the fire and beauty


of these melons " ; and the old gentleman will go
on his way feeling quite pleased and youthful.
Some of the cries are quaint. I once heard a man
say, " Juicy pears that bathe your beard ! " and
another said his peaches were " ugly but good,"
they certainly were not beautiful to look upon.
Almost the most melodious salesmen are the
countrymen who pace the streets with larks and
finches in cages, and roses and pinks in pots.

At mid-day the streets are enveloped in a warm
golden light ; there are rich old browns, orange
yellows, and burnt siennas all the tints of a gor-
geous wall-flower. A ray of sun in a bric-a-brac
shop attracts your attention ; and you get a peep
through a window with cobwebbed panes, high
up in a flesh-coloured wall, at some of the objects
within, brass pots and pans gleam from the walls,
bits of china and porcelain, strings of glass beads,
some quaint old bookcases with saints carved in
ivory, fragments of old brocade woven with gold and
gorgeous, all kinds of strange curiosities, looking
crisp and brilliant in the sunlight. Suddenly you
are bunded by a patch of golden yellow. It is an
orange-stall placed before a pink palace flecked
with the delicate tracery of luminous violet shadow.
Away down hi the ulterior of the stall, where the


sun does not shine, it appears almost purple by
contrast to the brilliant mass of golden fruit. The
background of all these shops is neutral: the
objects for sale form the only brilliant and positive

The palaces and houses are mostly pink and
white. There are pinks, and greys, and blues,
and so on. It is not the painted, coloured city
that one had imagined it to be: Venice is very
grey. But its greyness is that of the opal and
the pearl. I have often heard people say how
strange it is that the colours always seem brighter
in Venice than hi any other city the shutters and
the doors and the shops. The answer is not far
to seek. It is because the background and the
general colouring is neutral. There are no large
patches of positive colour : even St. Mark's, choke-
full of colour as it is, has no positive colour in its
composition. Take a peep into a carpenter's shop.
Through the iron grating, rusty and red with age,
you see the quaint old craftsman at work, his flesh
tone very much the colour of the wood he is
planing; piercing black eyes look through and
over the large bone-framed glasses that he wears ;
he suggests the carpenter of Japan ; and, judging
from the amount of shavings you see about the


floor, you gather that he is a dignified, not what
may be called a feverish, worker. He is, however,
evidently an artist : you see dainty specimens of
wood-carving hung round on the walls. Most of
the carpenters of Venice seem to be old men.
There appear to be very few middle-aged people
at all. They seem to be either young boys and
girls or ancient men and women. Whether it is
that Venetians age quickly, I do not know. The
old women are extraordinary. You can scarcely
imagine how anything so crooked and foul and
old and frowsy, with so little hair, so few teeth,
so many protruding bones, and such parchment-
like skin, can be human. Their faces seem to be
shrunken like old fruit : I have seen women with
noses shrivelled and with dents in them like
strawberries. It is extraordinary to watch these
women on their shopping excursions. How they
bargain 1 They think nothing of starting the day
before to buy a piece of steak, and sometimes
spend a whole day haggling over it. Some of the
shopmen are swindlers, fat, greasy men, very fresh
and brisk, who have reduced cheating to a fine art.
It is only after living in Venice for some months
that one begins to understand the bargaining in
the streets. You will see two men talking one



the shopman, the other the purchaser and if you
know anything of the language, and watch care-
fully, you will find it the most marvellous bit of
acting imaginable. They bargain ; the customer
turns in scorn, and goes ; he is called back ; the
goods are displayed once more, and their merits
expatiated upon. The customer laughs incredu-
lously and moves away. The seller then tries other
tactics to fog his client. Eventually he makes a
low offer, which is accepted ; but even then the
shopman gets the best of it, for he has a whole
battery of the arts of measurement in reserve.
There is really no end to the various possibilities
of "doing" a man out of a halfpenny.

Beggars are a great trial in the streets. The
lame, the halt, and the blind breathe woe and
pestilence under your window, and long mono-
tonous whines of sorrow. Fat friars in spectacles
and bare feet come round once a month begging
bread and fuel for the convents. Old troubadours
serenade you with zithers, strumming feebly with
fingers that seem to be all bone, and in thin
quavering voices pipe out old ditties of youth
and love.

There are lottery offices everywhere. Around
them there is always a great excitement. The


missing number, printed on a card framed in
flowers and ribands, is placed in the windows daily.
Some say that the system of lottery should be
done away with ; but it might be cruel to deprive
the poor wretches of hope. The lottery brings
joy to many despairing people.

Venetian women are good-looking. One sees
them continually about the streets. Nothing can
surpass the grace of the shawl-clad figures seen
down the perspective of the long streets, or about
some old stone well in a campiello. They are for
the most part smart and clean. You see them
coming home from the factories, nearly always
dressed in black, simple and well-behaved. Their
hah* is of a crisp black, and well tended ; their
manner is sedate and demure. There is no bois-
terousness about the Venetian girls, no turning
round in the streets, no coarseness. Many of them
are very beautiful. You see a woman crossing an
open space with the sunlight gleaming on the
amber beads about her throat and making the rich
colour glow brighter beneath her olive skin. A
shawl is thrown round her shoulders, and her jet-
black hair is fastened by a silver pin. She wears a
deep crimson bodice. The choice of colour of these
women is unerring in taste. Their shawls are


seldom gaudy, generally of blue or pale mauve ;
vivid colours are reserved for the bodices.

Then, there are the bead-stringers. You see
them everywhere : handsome girls with a richness of
southern colour flushing beneath warm-toned skins,
eyes large and dark, with heavy black lashes, the
hair twisted in knots low on their necks, and swept
back in large waves from square foreheads, a string
of coloured beads round their necks, and flowered
linen blouses with open collars. You see them
with their wooden trays full of beads. The bead-
stringers are nearly always gay. They laugh and
chat as they run the beads on the strings. They
often form a very pretty picture, as they bend
over their work and thread turquoise beads from
wooden trays.

In the courtyards, some women are hanging
white clothes on a line before a yellow wall ; others
are leaning out of their windows, gossiping with
neighbours. Never was there a more gossiping set
of women : every window, every balcony, seems to
be thronged with heads thrust out to chatter.

Venice is divided up into campi or squares.
Each campo has a church, a butcher, a baker,
a candlestick-maker, and everything else that is

necessary to life, including a cafe' and a market.



Venetian children, as a rule, are very badly
reared, and many of them die at an early age. It
is a belief and a consolation that the little ones go
straight to heaven, there to plead their parents'
cause and to arrange for their reception.

May is the best month in which to see the
streets. The intoxication of spring is in the air,
and in the bright sunlight the colours burn and
glow. Although you cannot see them, you are
constantly reminded that there are gardens in
Venice. Suddenly over the red brickwork of a
high wall you will see clumps of tamarisk, hanging
mauve wisteria, or the scarlet buds of a pome-
granate, while the scent of syringa and banksia
roses fills the air, the birds sing in the enclosure,
and the perfume of honeysuckle trails over the
wall of a garden of a foreign prince. Few crowds
are more cheerful or better ordered than a Venetian
crowd. There is a light-heartedness about these
people that is very engaging ; they have a
marvellous frankness of manner, a sublime in-
difference to truth. The smallest Venetian child
is a born flatterer, and will tell you, not what he
thinks, but what he imagines you wish to hear.
The people are the most engaging in the world,
free from care or doubt as to right or wrong.


This carelessness is characteristic of the whole
Italian race. Venetians give the impression of
being always determined to enjoy life to the full.
They are continually coming together, for the
purpose of pleasure, on one pretence or another,
and the flashes of wit in the street are sometimes
very amusing. The Venetians have always been,
and still are, a great festa-loving people. When
the Republic fell, the brave ceremonies came
to an end ; but the original passion is still kept
alive. The festa in Venice are chiefly of religious
character. For example, once a year each parish
church honours the feast of its patron saint by
processions to all shrines within that particular
parish. Very picturesque are the streams of priests
and people crossing the bridges and passing along
the fondanta of some small canal, a brilliant
ribbon of vermilion and gold winding through the
grey-toned city : porters of the church (in blouses of
white, red, and blue) bearing candles, pictures, and
banners ; bands playing the gayest operatic tunes ;
priests and the parocco carrying the Host under a
canopy of cloth of gold ; long files of the devout
holding candles ; and boys with crackers and guns.
At night there is dancing in the largest campo of
the parish. On Good Friday the streets resemble


a feast rather than a fast. The people are in their
best and gaudiest clothes ; children are rushing and
romping and turning somersaults, whirling their
rattles, fitting up shrines and then appealing to the
crowd for coppers, human mites of six or seven
constructing " Santo Sepolcro," or Holy Graves,
from old bottles, sprigs of bay stuck in, and odd
candle-ends. One may witness touches of senti-
ment in a Venetian crowd ; but the depths are
seldom stirred. Sometimes sentiment finds ex-
pression in the rilotti popular Venetian songs.




THERE is no piece of water more extraordinary
than the lagoons of Venice. They cover an area of
184 square miles of water, shut off from the sea by
a narrow strip of sandy islands, which are called the
Lidi. The form of the lagoons is, roughly, that of
a bent bow. How did they happen to be formed
thus ? That is a difficult question, and there are
various opinions. Certainly the lagoons are a great
feature of the city. They gave shelter to the
founders flying from the Huns on the mainland,
and the health of the community depends on their
regular ebb and flow. A lagoon is not a lake ;
neither is it a swamp, nor open sea. It is a strange
piece of natural engineering. There are really,
although we cannot see them at high tide, four
distinct water systems, with separate watersheds
and confluent streams. The sea comes in once a



day as from a great heart, pulsing in through the
four breaks in the Lido barrier, cleaning and
purifying the lagoon, and afterwards bearing away
the refuse of the city. At low tide one can see
these channels distinctly winding in and out of
the mud-banks. In the spring they are bare, with
long trails of sea-grass. In autumn they are brown
and bare, and at high tide the whole surface is
flooded. On the mainland shore of the lagoon
there is a certain territory, called Laguna Morta,
where the sea and the land fight a continual battle.
It is the home of the wildfowl. Here salt sea-
grasses grow, tamarisk, samphire, and, in the
autumn, sea lavender. Farther, the ground
becomes solid, and the Venetian plain begins, with
its villas, poplars, vineyards, and mulberry groves.

Nothing is more delightful than to spend a whole
long day upon the lagoon when the air is sweet and
the breeze is fresh from the Lido. There are fishing-
boats coming in from their long night, with spoil
for the Rialto market, crossing and recrossing one
another as they tack. The bows are painted, and
the nets are hung mast-high to be mended and
dried in the sun. Their sails are folded close
together, like the wings of great vermilion moths.
These sails, which are picturesque in the Venetian


landscape, are of the deepest oranges and reds, rich
red browns, orange yellows, and burnt siennas,
contrasting strangely with the cool grey waters of
the lagoon upon which they float.

One can wander for miles along the Lido on
the Adriatic side. The lizards bask in the hot
sand ; the delicate, pale sea-holly mingles with the
yellow of the evening primrose. From the Lido
you can see right away to the south-east, and in
the horizon can discern the faint blue hills above
Trieste and the top of Monte Maggiore. From
there the city looks well : one sees the Ducal Palace,
faintly pink, the green woods of the public gardens,
and the vast blue Venetian sky. The true native
seems to have a strange affection for the Lido.
One cannot tell why or wherefore ; but it is so
" Lido " has ever been a name to conjure with.
One cannot tell what associations and sensations of
pleasure and charm are connected with it. At the
present day it is a flat piece of somewhat marshy
ground, with large gardens intersected by canals.

The woods of the Favorita, on the shore of San
Elizabetta, are delightful, with their groves of
acacia and catalpas, where the ground is carpeted
with wild flowers, and the grass is greener than
elsewhere in Venice, and the nodding violets grow.



Behind the acacia grove there is a Protestant burial-
ground where rest the bones of many Englishmen
who came to Venice for pleasure and stayed to die.
The tomb of our ambassador, Sir Francis Vincent,
is here. A beautiful walk is towards the ramparts
of San Nicolo, where the blackbirds sing in the old
convent garden, and in summer crimson poppies,
purple salvias, and vivid green grass are luxuriant.
San Nicolo di Bari is the patron saint of sailors.
They have erected a magnificent church dedicated
to his memory on the most beautiful point of the
Lido. Here the crews of the merchantmen and
warships of the Republic would linger for a while
before sailing, to ask a blessing on their voyage.
The saint's remains do not really rest here. Venice
failed in her endeavour to obtain them by force
from the people of Bari ; but she spread the fiction
among the people. To this day the sailors of the
lagoon firmly believe that San Nicolo still watches
over and protects them, and when in doubt or
danger are enabled by the campanile of his church
to find the direct course to the Lido port. At the
Lido is the cemetery of the Jews. The graves are
covered with sand and vegetation, and children
never hesitate to dance on them, in fact, to do so
is a favourite pastime. If one remonstrates, they



will look at you with wide-open eyes, and explain
that these are only graves of Jews, a Jew with
the Venetians being no better than a dog. The
grave of a Christian is treated with the greatest
reverence : even the children and the gondoliers
salute it as they pass. There is something pathetic
about the Jewish graves, from the stones over which
the inscriptions have been effaced.

Chioggia is one of the greater islands. It has a
large town with an immensely broad street and a
wide canal. Here is the most famous and most
picturesque fish -market of all suburban Venice.
In it one comes across the finest Venetian types,
magnificent models for painters, bronzed Giorgione
figures and black -eyed swarthy women. Their
dialect is beautiful, far more so than that of Venice
proper ; and at night Ariosto is read publicly in
the streets by a musical sweet-voiced Chiozzotto.
Here the dramatist Goldoni lived, and the painter
Rosalba Carrera, and the composer Giuseppe
Zarlino. Chioggia reminds one of the Jewish
quarter in the east end of London. The people,
mostly fishermen, are extremely poor.

This is the place for colour. There is colour
everywhere in the sails of the boats, in the
costume of the people, and even in the red cotton


curtains of the churches. Unfortunately, one's

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Online LibraryMortimer MenpesVenice → online text (page 7 of 11)