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but very obviously they did not succeed. In the
evening they went to the opera, endeavouring to
spread out and make more of themselves ; but the
large house was practically empty. The day after
that, Venetian life flowed back again into its ac-
customed channels. The people were laughing
and chatting and filling all the eating-houses, as
though making up for lost time. One wondered
what the antagonism would all end in.

There was in Venice a committee which looked
after Venetian interests. On all the public anni-
versaries bombs were fired and flags were flown.
In all the Government Departments the committee
placed spies, who were so clever that they were
seldom detected by the Austrians. Even in the
cathedrals those men would sometimes explode
bombs. The antagonism between the Venetian
and the Austrian was shown in the piazza, per-
haps, more than elsewhere. The military band


played there three times a week, winter and
summer, played gloriously all the best Italian
airs. Much as they loved music, the Venetians
walked up and down the quay, or in the arcades.
They would not enter the square until the music
was finished. Such was their pride ! The cafes had
no longer their gay and lively reputation. Only
at Florian's did the Austrians and the Venetians
sometimes intermingle and that was because of
the foreigners. Usually the Venetians had their
separate cafe's, and the Austrians theirs the
Quadri and the Specchi.

The piazza of St. Mark's seems to be the very
heart of Venice, the very core, from which every-
thing radiates, only to return. If you lose your-
self in Venice, and go on walking, you will be sure
to find your way back to the piazza sooner or later.
At eight o'clock the piazza was at its very gayest.
Nothing could be more lively, more amusing. It
was lined with cafe's the cafes " Suttil," " Quadri,"
" Costanza," and " Florian " ; which last reminds one
very much of the " Cafd Royal " in Paris, and was
certainly quite as famous. The old proprietor of this
restaurant was greatly patronised by the Venetian
nobility, who were loud in their praises both of
himself and of his viands. The first Florian lived



in the time of the Empire. There is a charming
story told of him and the artist Canova. The old
hotel-keeper was very much troubled with gout,
and Canova, to whom Florian had rendered many
services, modelled the affected leg in plaster, in
order that he might have a shoe made which would
fit exactly, and so ease the pain. No doubt (but
this is pure surmise) Florian favoured the artist,
in return for his kindness, with a dish of his famous
" sorbet au raisins."

Street vendors of all kinds swarmed in the piazza
at night flower-girls of the most obliging natures,
who, if you would not buy their wares, would thrust
a bouquet into your hand gratis (you were, of
course, supposed to repay them at some other
time). There were musicians of every sort and
kind some with guitars ; others with mandolines ;
some playing selections from the operas ; others
singing " Funiculi " and " Santa Lucia " in high
tenor voices ; deep-chested, bronze-faced men who
explained that they were once operatic stars, but
were now reduced, by the injustice of managers
and the villainous tempers of the prima donnas, to
street singing. There were men who went about
selling frosted fruits on long sticks, crying
" Caramel, caramel ! " and giving descriptions of


their wares in almost every European language.
People of all races were there red-faced English-
men and fair women, with their rosy daughters
in sailor hats, on the way from Switzerland, the
respectable English father explaining St. Mark's
with a comprehensive wave of the hand. There
were Frenchmen, Americans, Austrians, Italians,
either talking volubly or deadly quiet ; Greeks,
with long bluish-black hair floating out behind
them, and caps with silk top-knots (these were
captains of small vessels coming from Cyprus and
Syria, and they went to the Cafd della Costanza,
where they could procure mocha and the pipe they
loved best) ; and young Venetian gentlemen who
spent their lives for the most part in drifting from
one cafe to another, generally handsome, well-
dressed men with immaculate linen and pointed
beards carefully cut, carrying long canes, and the
lightest of kid gloves (their main object seemed to
be to stare at all the pretty women) ; and Austrians,
smart, good-natured people, who frequented their
own cafes, with much talk and laughter and rattling
of swords. Now and then one saw Venetian
women of the upper classes on the piazza, but very
rarely. They were extremely indolent and lazy,
and seldom went out. The weather, they would


tell you, was never sufficiently fine : there was too
much sun, or a sirocco was coming, or a cloud
threatened rain : the slightest thing deterred them.
Often the utmost exertion a Venetian woman
would allow herself in the day was to pass from
her sofa to her balcony to breathe the freshness of
the flowers. Consequently, she had a complexion
which was extremely delicate, a sort of pearly
whiteness. Sometimes she would take a turn or
two in the piazza with her husband or brother as
cavalier, and languidly sip anise and water at the
Cafe" Florian.

For the most part the ancient aristocracy of
Venice lived in retirement and were very poor.
They dwelt in palaces whose walls were covered
with priceless paintings by great masters, with
which they would not part. They dined off a dish
of polenta or fried fish, which a valet brought from
a tavern near by. Their poverty and the fear of
spies and informers combined in making society in
Venice extremely reserved. It was impossible for
a stranger to penetrate into the midst.

In summer, in the months of the dog-star, those
few among the patricians who were well-to-do
flew to their villas on the banks of the Brenta, on
the mainland. They returned to Venice in winter,


only because, they said, the odours from the
lagoons at that time were unhealthy and caused
fever. Those who had no country houses, and
could not afford to travel, shut themselves up in
their palaces and drew down their blinds until it
was the fashionable time to appear. In the dead
season there were no lamps lit in the great
entrances, and the palaces were silent. The
family lived in the back rooms on the top story.
The rest of the house was let. Most of the
palaces were built round courtyards, and the
contessa might go thither as often as she pleased to
interview tradesmen and bargain for fish there
at least she would be free from espionage.

As a matter of fact, it was pleasant to be in
Venice at that season. The heat was less: the sun
did not bake the ground as it did on the mainland.
Owing to the sirocco which blew across the water,
the air was cool and sweet. Human beings, how-
ever, are ever the slaves of custom, and it was the
fashion for Venetian noblemen to spend the summer
months on the Brenta. The river scenery had a
fascination for them, just as the Thames has for
Londoners. All along the banks were rows of
little, bright, stuccoed villas, somewhat flimsy, each
with its patch of garden and its shrubbery at the



back, where the family sat all day. Now and then
one saw a nobleman's palace breaking the line of
somewhat uninteresting houses. Such was the
magnificent villa at Stra, belonging to a princely
Venetian family, with its great sweeps of green
lawns, its orangeries, its alleys, and quaintly cut
yews. Venetians love nature when it has been
trimmed by man. Certainly the banks of the
Brenta are very beautiful, especially in spring,
when the water is covered with lilies of yellow and
white, and the banks are lined with scented flags,
and the larks tip the surface of the water with
violet wings and sing as they mount against the
sun. It is not unlike the scenery of some quiet
English stream.

This custom of spending the summer months in
the suburbs of Venice was called " villeggiatura."
It was one of the gayest times of the year for the
Venetians. They lived by night. All day long
they lay behind closed blinds, while the sun
parched and baked the ground. Only from five
o'clock in the afternoon until four in the morning
could they be said to live. Then they held dances,
card-parties, and flirtations. During these hours,
when the temperature was low, amusement and
pleasure reigned supreme ; but no sooner did the


sun begin to rise than, as surely as Cinderella
disappeared at the stroke of twelve, the gay
society of the Brenta vanished, and the place
lay dead and silent once more under the intoler-
able glare.

How different society in Venice was in the
early days ! Then the houses were marvels of
luxury ; the finest wit, the most brilliant conversa-
tion, and the most delightful music were to be
heard in Venice. It was not in the houses of the
old aristocracy that the most brilliant people
painters, writers, poets, and politicians assembled.
It was in the houses of women who were looked
upon as more or less shady persons, whom no
Venetian gentleman would dream of introducing
to his wife. The wives of the aristocracy were
seldom seen except at public functions. They
took much the same position in society as the
" honoured interior " takes in Japan at the present
day. (The geisha, although she is infinitely more
entertaining, has no social status whatever.) The
Venetian lady of quality, unlike the " honoured
interior," dressed in the most magnificent style.
In the estimate of her husband nothing was too
gorgeous or too costly for her to wear. Among
all those of the larger towns of northern Italy,


Venetian women of the sixteenth century were
the first to wear needle-point.

Although the ideal woman of that time had to
be tall, a Venetian mother never troubled herself
about the height of her daughter. At any moment
she could transform the girl's dwarfish stature to
that of a splendid giantess by the use of a pair of
high pattens, which were unnoticed beneath the
long stiff dress. Neither was the colour of the hair
a source of inconvenience. Should a girl's locks be
of a mousey nondescript shade, her mother, instead
of using injurious dyes, made her daughter sit
every day for three hours in the front balcony
where the sun shone the brightest, dressed in a
crownless hat, so that her tresses might be pulled
through it, and a very broad brim, in order that
her face should not be tanned. Then the damsel's
maid would sit and comb her mistress's hair,
bleaching in the sun. Girls were never dressed so
richly as their mothers. In fact, the uniform dress
was very simple, generally plain black or white.
When they went to church they wore long white
veils, or falzulo, and on ordinary occasions long
gauzy silk ones, through which they could see, yet
not be seen. On her marriage day the girl was
first introduced into society, and saw the bride-


groom for the first time. After marriage the
rules which ordered her life were not nearly so

In 1614 certain regulations were passed with
regard to dress and household extravagances the
amount of money to be spent on dress, liveries,
gondolas, jewellery, feasts and entertainments,
gold and silver plate, and even the dishes and the
menus of dinner-parties. All these were limited.

The earliest nobility consisted of twenty -four
families who ruled as tribunes over the twelve
islands of the lagoons that formed the Venetian
State. Some of these families are still represented
in Venice. In the year 1296 a rigid and definite
aristocracy was formed. Those who held chief
places in the management of the State, whether
they were noble or they had gained importance
through their riches, determined to establish them-
selves as the permanent rulers of Venice, and to
close the doors of office against all parvenus.
Thenceforward only near relations of those who
sat in the Great Council could be recognised as
members of the caste. The twenty-four families,
nevertheless, had distinction, and were called the
" old houses." Admission to the Venetian nobility
was rarely conferred on anyone save foreign princes


or distinguished generals. Now and then, when
the State was sorely in need of money, a Venetian
family was ennobled; but for the most part the
aristocracy guarded their privileges most zealously.

In the days of her decadence, in the eighteenth
century, the tightly-laced, lackadaisical men and the
hooped and brocaded women of Venetian society
lived a curious, aimless, artificial life. Their
greatest pleasure seems to have lain in gossiping,
eating, drinking, and generally struggling to kill
time. It was an inane life, frigid, without free-
dom, without heart, without strong emotion. All
pleasures seem to have been carried out by rule.
Even the laughter and the jokes were artificial.
There can be but small wonder that society fell
into broken fortunes.

The ideal nobleman of to-day is a stronger, more
active, finer person altogether than his senatorial
ancestor. His character is healthier. He adopts
more or less a country life. He owns property on
the mainland, and is very much occupied in trying
to make it pay. He rears cattle, grows crops,
makes wine on his own premises, is interested in
silk-growing and in model farms, and competes for
agricultural prizes offered by the Government.
His Venetian palace does not interest him greatly.


He spends a few months there in the season, gives
one or two large entertainments, and is constantly
making alterations and improvements ; but his heart
is in the country, and he leaves Venice for his rural
palazzo on the slightest pretext. This Venetian
noble of to-day thinks a great deal of himself. His
temper is haughty, and there is no softness or
geniality about him. Nevertheless, he is a decided

What society there is still to be found in Venice
is constituted by foreigners, mainly English and
American. One of the great things to be done is
to take a gondola and go to the Canal of the Slaves,
beyond the public gardens on the island of St.
Peter to the home of an old fisherman celebrated
for his fish dinners. This fisherman's cottage is
just as celebrated in Venice as the Trafalgar Hotel
in London, or the Ship Tavern at Greenwich, or
La Rapee in Paris. Here, however, is a more
picturesque environment boats drawn up on the
yellow sand, nets stretched to dry in the sun, planks
forming a landing-place in front of the houses all
is very simple. One eats the fish dinner in a garden,
under an arbour shaded by vines, where flowers
and edible vegetables grow in charming but ill-
kept confusion. The host is jovial ; his wife, a



great authority, is the cheerful mother of many

One finds on one's travels that each city has its
local and peculiar dish Marseilles its "bouille k
baisse " ; Venice its " soupe au pidocchi " mussels,
gathered in the lagoons and canals, flavoured with
spices and aromatic herbs. Personally, I would
rather this Venetian viand were not so classical ;
but you would touch the people to the quick if you
refused their offering. After it come oysters from
the arsenal, eels and mullet from Chioggia, fried
sardines, white wine of Policella, and fruits from
the hills of Este, Marselice, and Montagnana. At
the end of the repast one is presented with a
bouquet from the garden.



No conveyance in this world is more delightful
than the gondola. In appearance it is undoubtedly
the most beautiful vessel in the world. Like most
characteristic objects appertaining to Venice, it is
suitable to the place : in fact, it is the outcome of
the place. There is nothing strange or unnatural
about Venice. Everything there seems to have
come about through force of necessity, and is
therefore perfectly beautiful. Even as the hansom
cab suits London, or the 'rickshaw suits Japan, or
the jaunting-car suits Ireland, so the gondola is
the vessel for Venice. You cannot separate the
lagoon from the gondola. One completes the
other. Without either Venice would be impos-
sible. The gondola alone can wend its way
through the intricate water-streets of the Queen
of the Adriatic.



There is no indication of movement whatever
in a gondola. The craft has no springs, no cogs,
no jarring wheels or oily machinery, no vibration.
Simply one sees the palaces glide by in front of
one, and hears the water making a lapping noise
under the bows. The gondolier is out of sight.
Nothing blocks your view of sea and sky, save
the slender steel ferro at the prow. The gondola
is built for leisure : one cannot quite imagine it,
let us say, in America. It is a historic vessel,
with a flavour of sentiment and antiquity about
it, built by a leisured people for idleness, not for
business or for hurry. It is long and slender,
flat-bottomed, and tapers towards each end, where
it rises considerably above the water. It draws
but little water, and has much the form of a skate.
The felce (cabin), placed somewhat astern, is draped
with black cloth, which can be removed in the
summer-time to make room for a striped awning.
This, however, the true Venetian loathes : rather
than use it, I am sure, he would be willing to
swelter under the felce. On each side of the cabin
there is a window, which can be closed in three
separate ways by a bevelled Venetian glass let
down ; by a blind with movable blades ; by a
strip of cloth dropped over.



The gondola is made to hold four people. There
are morocco cushions on either side. As the seats
are very low, you are supplied with two silken
cords with handles, to assist you to rise. As the
cabin is too small to turn in, one must enter a
gondola backwards. The woodwork is carved
according to the wealth of the owner or the taste
of the gondolier. Sometimes it is very elaborate.
Above the door is generally a copper shield on
which the coat-of-arms of the owner is engraved,
surmounted by a crown ; on the felce there hangs,
in a small frame, an image of the Holy Virgin, or
of St. Mark, or of St. Theodore, or of St. George,
or of some saint for whom the gondolier has a
special devotion. The lantern also hangs here
a custom which, as the gondolas sometimes run
without the star in front, is gradually dying out.
On account of the coat-of-arms, the saint, and
the lantern, the left is the place of honour : there
the ladies are placed, or any aged or distinguished
person. There is in the felce a sliding panel,
through which one can communicate with the
gondolier on emergency. At the prow there is a
halberd-like piece of iron, smooth and polished,
called "the ferro," much like the finger-board of
a violin. This serves for decoration, for defence,


for counterpoise to the rower in the stern, and to
test the height of the bridges. It is the pride of
the gondolier to keep this always as bright as
silver. Often when a crowd of gondolas are
moored thickly about the landing-stage, the ferro
is used as a wedge, by the aid of which boats
can be divided. The rower plies his oar standing
on a small platform on the poop, not far behind
the cabin, and facing the direction in which the
gondola is to move.

The skill with which the gondolier manages his
graceful craft is extraordinary. He stands quite
upright on the poop, one foot placed firmly in front
of him, and throws the weight of his body forward
on his oar to such an extent that one fears he may
follow it into the water. It is only by long habit
that he can procure the necessary balance. The
gondola is sensitive to the least impression, and
the downward stroke has the effect of sending the
boat round. It is only by turning the blade in
the water, and raising it gradually upward, that
the gondola can be kept straight. The oar rests
in a fork, beautifully designed to allow free move-
ment. The gondolier, sole director of his craft,
uses the oar sometimes as a paddle, and sometimes
as a boathook. He rows always on one side.


Under the hands of an efficient man, the gondola
glides over the water like a living thing, turning
the corners of canals with great precision.

Sometimes on festa days the gondoliers practise
feats, such as setting the vessel full-tilt and with
all their might against the stone wall of a quay,
going with such rapidity that you expect man and
boat to be dashed to pieces. Just at the last
moment, with a powerful turn of the oar that
is interesting to watch, he stops dead at the base
of the quay, sometimes nearly grazing it. In much
the same way, in the At Maidan of Constantinople,
long ago, Arab and Turkish horsemen charged
against stone walls and suddenly pulled up.

Very different is the gondola in the hands of an
amateur. Many are the duckings that ensue.
Some of the young patricians, however, occasionally
don the traditional jacket, cap, and girdle of a
gondolier, and guide their own craft in a remarkably
graceful manner.

Few people have any knowledge of the real
meanings of the gondoliers' cries, some of which are
peculiarly sweet and characteristic. When a man
wants to pass on the left, and does not intend to
use the backward stroke, he cries, " Premi ! " If,
on the other hand, he wishes to pass on the right,


he cries, " Stall 1 " Sometimes, if when turning
a dangerous corner he wishes to be especially
emphatic, he cries, " Premi ! Premi ! " and " Stali !
ah, Stali ! " The gondola can be stopped immedi-
ately, however great the rate at which it is travel-
ling, by placing the blade in front of the fork. If
a man is really expert he stops his gondola very
suddenly, making a great deal of foam with his oar.
When stopping a gondola thus the gondolier cries,
" Sciar 1 " As you approach the landing-stage a
crowd of ragamuffins, old and young, called " crab-
catchers," come forward, holding in their hands
staffs, with bent nails attached, with which to
secure your gondola as you place your foot on

The gondolier is a voluble, gossiping person.
He loves to have a chat at the top of his voice
with another of his kind, and to scream repartee
across the water. He enjoys nothing more than
a quarrel, especially with a man who is across the
canal. Invariably they pass from pertinent ob-
servations on their personal appearances to defama-
tion of their women. If such language were used
at close quarters on either bank they would come
to blows. I once saw two gondolas hook on to
each other by mistake with their iron axes, and I



shall never forget the discussion that ensued. It
made one's blood literally curdle! The men looked
like two angry sea-birds pecking at each other as
they pulled and pulled in their endeavour to release
themselves. When this had been accomplished
they stood upright, each on his own poop, brand-
ishing their oars as though they longed to kill.
As a matter of fact, there is rarely any violence
among Venetians except in language. " Body
of Bacchus ! " one shouts. " Blood of David ! " the
adversary answers. These mythological oaths
being not sufficiently comforting, they continue :
" Low crab ! " " Sea-lion ! " "Dog ! " " Son of a cow ! "
" Ass ! " " Son of a sow ! " " Assassin ! " " Ruffian ! "
" Spy ! " Having reached the worst taunt in their
vocabulary, they take to cursing the rival saints.
" The Madonna of thy landing is a street- walker
who is not worth two candles ! " one will cry. " Thy
saint is a rascal who does not know how to make
a decent miracle 1 " the other will rejoin. The
profanity becomes more terrible as the distance
between them increases. Possibly next time they
meet they will drink a glass of wine together
without remembering the quarrel.

The gondolier is a more intelligent person than

the ordinary hackman. He knows all the histories

13 A


of the different places of interest, and relates them
for the benefit of foreigners. He has a few words
of French and English. Of course, he is a rogue
by nature, and will cheat you on every possible
occasion ; but that conduct is common to the
carriers of all countries. And there is something
very frank and amusing about the way in which
they commit their petty thefts. A gondolier likes

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Online LibraryMortimer MenpesVenice → online text (page 9 of 11)