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Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

The makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters online

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of ancient hatred having closed the way." The letter in
which Petrarch repeats this fruitless attempt at mediation
was written in May, 1354, a year after, and still with the
same object. The Venetians had been conquerers on
the first occasion, but the fortune of war had now turned,



MEN OF LETTERS. 289

and in September of the same year Doge Andrea died,
just before one of those final and crushing defeats which
Venice over and over again had to submit to from Genoa,
without ever ceasing to seize the first opportunity of
beginning again.

It was not, however, till several years after that it
occurred to the much-wandering poet to fix his habitation
in Venice. This was in the latter portion of Petrarch's
life. Romance and Laura had long departed out of it.
He was already the crowned poet, acknowledged the
greatest, and, save for an occasional sonnet or two, cul-
tivated divine poetry no more. He was a person of ease
and leisure, much courted by the most eminent persons
in Europe, accustomed to princely tables and to familiar
intercourse with every magnate within reach ; accustomed,
too, to consider his own comfort and keep danger and
trouble at a distance. Disorder and war and pestilence
drove him from one place to another from Milan to Padua,
from Padua to Venice. He had fulfilled many dignified
missions as ambassador to various courts, and he was
not a man who could transfer himself from one city to
another without observation. It would seem that when,
driven by the fear of the plague, and by the horror of
those continued conflicts which were rending Italy from
day to day that Italy which he was almost alone in con-
sidering as one country he turned his eyes toward Venice,
it was with some intention of making it his permanent
home; for the preliminary negotiations into which he
entered show a desire to establish himself for which he
does not seem to have taken any such precautions before.
One of the best known of all facts in the history of litera-
ture is that the poet left his library to the republic, and
the unworthy manner in which that precious bequest was
received. But it has not been noted with equal distinct-
ness that the prudent poet made this gift, not as a legacy
because of his love for Venice, which is the light in which
it has generally been regarded, but as an offer of eventual
advantage in order to procure from the authorities a fit
lodging and reception for himself. This, however, is
the true state of the case. He puts it forth in a letter
to his friend and agent Benintendi, the chancellor of the
republic, in whose hands it would seem he had placed his
cause. A certain plausible and bland insistence upon



290 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

the great benefit to Venice of a public library, of which
the poet's books should be the foundation, discreetly
veils the important condition that the poet's own interests
should be served in the meantime.

If the effort succeeds [he says] , I am of opinion that your posterity
and your republic will owe to you, if not their glory, yet at least the
opening of the way to glory. And oh [he adds piously] ! if it had but
been thought of when the commonwealth was governed by that most
holy spirit to whom, as you who knew him well will understand, it would
have afforded so much delight. For my part, I do not doubt that even
in the heavens he is glad of our design, and anxiously awaits its success.
I believe also that, looking down lovingly without a grudge, it will
greatly please him, having himself earned such glory and honor as no
other Venetian doge did before him, that the glory of instituting a public
library should have been reserved for the fourth of his successors, a man
also so excellent, a noble doge and zealous of the public good.

This invocation of the sainted shade of Andrea Dan-
dolo, the much-lamented doge, to sanctify an effort the
immediate object of which was the acquisition of a hand-
some house for Dom Francesco the poet, has a flavor of
Tartuffe, or at least of Pecksniff, which may make the
reader smile. It was, however, a perfectly legitimate
desire, and no doubt Petrarch's books were valuable, and
the suggestion of a public library an admirable thing;
and it was to the credit of the republic that the bargain
was at once made, and the poet got his house, a palace
upon the Riva degli Schiavoni the Palazzo delle due
Torri, now no longer in existence, but which is com-
memorated by an inscription upon the house which
replaces it. It was situated at the corner of the Ponte
del Sepolcro. In a curious illumination, taken from a
manuscript in the Bodleian Library, the two towers are
visible, rising from among the picturesque roofs, over
the quay from which the Eastern merchants, the Poli,
are to be seen setting out upon their voyage.

This was in the year 1362. He had visited Venice in
his youth, when a student at Bologna. He had returned
in the fullness of his fame as the ambassador of the Prince
of Milan to negotiate peace with Genoa, though the
attempt was vain. He was now approaching his sixtieth
year, full of indignation and sorrow for the fate of his
country, denouncing to earth and heaven the horrible
bands of mercenaries who devastated Italy, bringing



MEN OF LETTERS. 2pl

rapine and pestilence and for his own part intent upon
finding a peaceful home, security, and health. His letters
afford us a wonderfully real glimpse of the conditions of
the time. In one of them, written soon after his settle-
ment in Venice, to an old friend, he defends himself for
having fallen into the weakness of age, the laudator tem-
poris acti. He reviews in this epistle the scenes in which
his youth and that of his friend were passed; the peace,
the serenity, the calm of these early days; comparing
them with the universal tumult and misery of the existing
time ; denying that the change was in himself or his ideas,
and painting a dismal picture of the revolution every-
where the wars, the bands of assassins and robbers
let loose on the earth, the universal wretchedness.
"This same city," he adds, "from which I write, this
Venice which, by the far-sightedness of her citizens and
by the advantage of her natural position, appears more
powerful and tranquil than any other part of the world,
though quiet and serene, is no longer festive and gay as
she once was, and wears an aspect very different from
that prosperity and gladness which she presented when
first I came hither with my tutor from Bologna." But
these words are very different from the phrases he em-
ploys in speaking of other cities. Venice, as has been
seen in previous chapters, had trouble enough with the
mercenary armies of the time when they were in her pay;
but she was safe on her sea margin with wide lagoons
around her, unapproachable by the heavy-mailed troopers
who might appear any day under the walls of a rich inland
city and put her to sack or ransom. With all the force
of his soul the poet loathed these barbarous invaders, the
terror of his life and the scourge of Italy, into whose
hands the Italian states themselves had placed weapons
for their own destruction ; and it is with a sense of intense
repose and relief that he settles down in his stately house
looking out upon the wide harbor, upon San Giorgio
among its trees, and the green line of the Lido, and all
the winding watery ways, well defended by fort and
galley, which led to the sea. The bustle of the port
under his windows, the movement of the ships, would
seem at once to have caught, with the charm of their
novelty and wonder, his observant eyes. Shortly after
his settlement on the Riva he wrote a letter full of wise



292 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

and serious advice to another friend, who had been
appointed secretary to the Pope an office not long before
offered to himself. But in the very midst of his counsels,
quoting Aristotle on the question of art, he bursts forth
into comment upon la nautica, to which, he says, "after
justice, is owing the wonderful prosperity of this famous
city, in which, as in a tranquil port, I have taken refuge
from the storms of the world. See," he cries, "the
innumerable vessels which set forth from the Italian
shore in the desolate winter, in the most variable and
stormy spring, one turning its prow to the east, the other
to the west; some carrying our wine to foam in British
cups, our fruits to flatter the palates of the Scythians,
and, still more hard of credence, the wood of our forests
to the ^Egean and the Achaian isles; some to Syria, to
Armenia, to the Arabs and Persians, carrying oil and
linen and saffron, and bringing back all their diverse
goods to us."

Let me persuade you to pass another hour in my company. It was
the depth of night and the heavens were full of storm, and I, already
weary and half asleep, had come to an end of my writing, when suddenly
a burst of shouts from the sailors penetrated my ear. Aware of what
these shouts should mean from former experience, I rose hastily and
went up to the higher windows of this house, which look out upon the
port. Oh, what a spectacle ! mingled with feelings of pity, of wonder,
of fear, and of delight. Resting on their anchors close to the marble
banks which serve as a mole to the vast palace which this free and liberal
city has conceded to me for my dwelling, several vessels have passed the
winter, exceeding with the height of their masts and spars the two towers
which flank my house. The larger of the two was at this moment
though the stars were all hidden by the clouds, the winds shaking the
walls, and the roar of the sea filling the air leaving the quay and setting
out upon its voyage. Jason and Hercules would have been stupefied
with wonder, and Tiphys, seated at the helm, would have been ashamed
of the nothing which won him so much fame. If you had seen it, you
would have said it was no ship but a mountain swimming upon the sea,
although under the weight of its immense wings a great part of it was
hidden in the waves. The end of the voyage was to be the Don, beyond
which nothing can navigate from our seas ; but many of those who were
on board, when they had reached that point, meant to prosecute their
journey ; never pausing till they had reached the Ganges or the Cau-
casus, India and the Eastern Ocean. So far does love of gain stimulate
the human mind ! Pity seized me, I confess, for these unfortunates,
and I perceived how right the poet was who called sailors wretched.
And being able no longer to follow them with my eyes into the dark-
ness, with much emotion I took up my pen again, exclaiming within
myself, " Oh, how dear is life to all men, and in how little account they
hold it ! "



MEN OF LETTERS. 293

It is evident that the beginning of his stay in Venice
was very agreeable to the poet. He had not been long
established in the palace of the two towers when Boc-
caccio, like himself seeking refuge from the plague and
from the wars, came to visit him, and remained three
months, enjoying the calm, the lovely prospect, the
wonderful city, and, what was still more, the learned
society which Petrarch had already gathered around him.
The scholars and the wits of those days were sufficiently
few to be known to each other, and to form a very close
and exclusive little republic of letters in every center of
life. But in Venice even these learned personages
owned the charm of the locality, and met not only in
their libraries among their books, or at the classic feasts,
where the gossip was of Cicero and Cato, of Vergil and
of Ovid, and not of nearer neighbors, where every man
had his classical allusion, his quotations, his talk of
Helicon and Olympus, but on the soft and level waters,
the brimming, wide lagoon, like lesser men. When
Petrarch invites the great story-teller of Florence to
renew his visit, he reminds him of those "elect friends"
with whom he had already made acquaintance, and how
the dignified Benintendi, though devoted to public busi-
ness all day, yet in the falling of the evening, with light-
hearted and friendly countenance, would come in his
gondola to refresh himself with pleasant talk from the
fatigues of the day. "You know by experience," he
says, "how delightful were those nocturnal rambles on
the sea, and that conversation enlightened and sincere."
To think of Boccaccio stepping forth with Petrarch upon
the Riva, taking a boat in those soft summer nights, in
sul far ddla sera, in the making of the evening, when the
swift shadows fell across the glimmering distance, and
the curves of the lagoon caught the first touches of the
moonlight, comes upon us with a delightful contrast, yet
likeness to the scenes more associated with their names.
The fountain of Vaucluse and Laura's radiant image, the
gardens and glades of the "Decameron," with all their
youths and maidens, were less suitable now to the elderly
poets than that talk of all things in earth and heaven,
which in the dusk, upon the glistening levels of the still
water, two friendly gondolas, softly gliding on in time,
would pass from one to another in interchanges sometimes



2p4 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

pensive, sometimes playful, in gentle arguments long
drawn out, and that mutual comparison of the facts of
life and deductions from them which form the conversa-
tion of old men. There were younger companions too,
like that youth of Ravenna of whom Petrarch writes,
"whom you do not know, but who knows you well, hav-
ing seen you in this house of mine, which, like all that be-
longs to me, is yours, and, according to the use of youth,
watched you daily," who would join the poets in their
evening row, and hang about the gondola of the great
men to catch perhaps some word of wisdom, some classical
comparison; while, less reverential, yet not without a
respectful curiosity, the other boats that skimmed across
the lagoon would pause a minute to point out the lover
to his lady, the gondolier to his master the smooth and
urbane looks of him who had been crowned at Rome the
greatest of living poets, and the Florentine at his side,
the romancer of his age two such men as could not be
equaled anywhere, the guests of Venice. No doubt
neither lute nor song was wanting to chime in with the
tinkle of the wave upon the boats and the measured
pulsation of the oars. And as they pushed forth upon
the lagoon, blue against the latest yellow of the sunset,
would rise the separate cones and peaks of the Euganeans,
among which lay little Arqua, still unnoted, where the
laureate of the world was to leave his name forever.
The grave discussions of that moment to come, of the
sunset of life, and how each man endured or took a pen-
sive pleasure in its falling shadows, would be dismissed
with a smile as the silvery ferro glided slowly round like
a swan upon the water, and the pleased companions
turned to where the two towers rose over the bustling
Riva, and the lighted windows shone, and the table was
spread. " Vieni dunque invocato" says the poet, as he
recalls these delights to the mind of his friend. "The
gentle season invites to where no other cares await you
but those pleasant and joyful occupations of the Muses,
to a house most healthful, which I do not describe
because you know it." It is strange, however, to
remember that these thoughtful old men, in the reflective
leisure of their waning years, are the lover of Laura and
the author of the " Decameron."

On another occasion the poet puts before us a picture



MEN OF LETTERS. 295

of a different character, but also full of interest. It is
on the 4th of June, 1364, a memorable day, and he is
seated at his window with a friend, looking out over the
ampio mare, the full sea which spreads before him. The
friend was one of his oldest and dearest companions, his
schoolfellow, and the comrade of his entire life, now
Archbishop of Patras, and on his way to his see, but
pausing to spend the summer in that most healthful
of houses with the happy poet. The two old friends,
newly met, sat together looking out upon that lively and
brilliant scene as they talked and exchanged remem-
brances, when their conversation was disturbed by a
startling incident.

Suddenly and without warning there rose upon our sight one of those
long vessels which are called galleys, crowned with green branches, and
with all the force of its rowers making for the port. At this unexpected
sight we broke off our conversation, and felt a hope springing in our hearts
that such a ship must be the bearer of good news. As the swelling sails
drew near the joyful aspect of the sailors became visible, and a handful
of young men, also crowned with green leaves and with joyous coun-
tenances, standing on the prow, waving flags over their heads, and
saluting the victorious city as yet unaware of her own triumph. Already
from the highest tower the approach of a strange ship had been signaled,
and not by any command, but moved by the most eager curiosity, the
citizens from every part of the town rushed together in a crowd to the
shore. And as the ship came nearer and everything could be seen dis-
tinctly, hanging from the poop we perceived the flag of the enemy, and
there remained no doubt that this was to announce a victory.

A victory it was, one of the greatest which had been
gained by Venetian arms, the recapture of Candia (Crete)
with little bloodshed and great glory to the republic
though it is somewhat difficult to understand Petrarch's
grand assumption that it was the triumph of justice more
than of Venice which intoxicated the city with delight.
He rises into ecstatic strains as he describes the rejoic-
ings of the triumphant state.

What finer, what more magnificent spectacle could be than the just
joy which fills a city, not for damage done to the enemy's possessions or
for the gains of civic rivalry such as are prized elsewhere, but solely for
the triumph of justice? Venice exults; the august city, the sole
shelter, in our days, of liberty, justice, and peace ; the sole refuge
of the good; the only port in which, beaten down everywhere else by
tyranny and war, the ships of those men who seek to lead a tranquil life
may find safety and restoration ; a city rich in gold but more rich in
fame, potent in strength but more in virtue, founded upon solid marble.



296 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

but upon yet more solid foundations of concord and harmony and, even
more than by the sea which girds her, by the prudent wisdom of her
sons defended and made secure. Venice exults, not only over the
regained sovereignty of Crete, which, whosoever great in antique
splendor, is but a small matter to great spirits accustomed to esteem
lightly all that is not virtue ; but she exults in the event with good reason,
and takes pleasure in the thought that the right is victorious that is to
say, not her proper cause alone, but that of justice.

It is clear from this that the triumph in the air had
got into the poet's head, and the great contagion of
popular enthusiasm had carried him away. He proceeds
to relate, as well as "the poverty of my style and my
many occupations " will permit, the joyful progress of
the thanksgivings and national rejoicing.

When the orators landed and recounted everything to the Great
Council, every hope and anticipation were found to fall short of the
truth ; the enemy had been overcome, taken, cut to pieces, dispersed in
hopeless flight ; the citizens restored to freedom, the city subdued ;
Crete brought again under the ancient dominion, the victorious arms
laid down, the war finished almost without bloodshed, and glory and
peace secured at one blow. When all these things were made known to
the Doge Lorenzo, to whose greatness his surname of Celso * agrees
perfectly; a man distinguished for magnanimity, for courtesy, and every
fine virtue, but still more for piety toward God and love for his country
well perceiving that nothing is good but that which begins with heaven,
he resolved with all the people to render praise and homage to God;
and accordingly, with magnificent rites through all the city, but specially
in the basilica of San Marco Evangelista, than which I know nothing
in the world more beautiful, were celebrated the most solemn thanks-
givings which have ever taken place within the memory of man; and
around the temple and in the Piazza a magnificent procession, in which
not only the people and all the clergy, but many prelates from foreign
parts, brought here by curiosity, or the great occasion, or the proclama-
tion far and near of these great ceremonies, took part. When these
demonstrations of religion and piety were completed, eveiy soul turned
to games and rejoicings.

Our poet continues at length the record of these festivi-
ties, especially of those with which the great festival
terminated, two exercises of which he cannot, he says,
give the Latin name, but which in Italian are called, one
corsa, a race, the other gwstra, a tournament. In the
first of these, which would seem to have been something
like the ancient riding at the ring, no strangers were
allowed to compete, but only twenty-four Venetian youths
of noble race and magnificently clad, under the direction

* Eccelso, excellent.



MEN OF LETTERS. 297

of a famous actor, Bombasio by name (from whence, we
believe, "Bombast"), who arranged their line in so
delightful a manner that one would have said it was not
men who rode but angels who flew, "so wonderful was
it to see these young men, arrayed in purple and gold,
with bridle and spurs, restraining at once and exciting
their generous steeds, which blazed also in the sun with
the rich ornaments with which their harness was covered."
This noble sight the poet witnessed in bland content and
satisfaction, seated at the right hand of the doge, upon a
splendid balcony shaded with rich and many-tinted awn-
ings, which had been erected over the front of San Marco
behind the four bronze horses. Fortunate poet! thus
throned on high to the admiration of all the beholders,
who crowded every window and roof and portico, and
wherever human footing was to be found, and filled every
corner of the Piazza so that there was not room for a
grain of millet an "incredible, innumerable crowd,"
among which was no tumult or disorder of any kind,
nothing but joy, courtesy, harmony, and love! It is
curious to note that among the audience were certain
"very noble English personages, in office and kindred
near to the King of England," who, " taking pleasure in
wandering on the vast sea," faithful to the instincts of
their race, had been attracted by the news of these great
rejoicings. Among all the splendors of Venice there is
none which is more attractive to the imagination than
this grand tourney in the great Piazza, at which the mild
and learned poet in his black hood and gown, half clerical
and always courtly, accustomed to the best of company,
sat by the side of the doge in his gold-embroidered
mantle, with all that was fairest in Venice around, and
gazed well pleased upon the spectacle, not without a
soothing sense that he himself in the ages to come would
seem amid all the purple and gold the most notable
presence there.

In the year 1366, when Petrarch had been established
for about four years in Venice, an incident of a very
different kind occurred to disturb his peace, and did,
according to all the commentaries, so seriously disturb
it, and offend the poet so deeply, that when he next left
the city it was to return no more. Among the stream
of visitors received by him with his usual bland courtesy



298 THE MAKERS OF VENICE.

in the place of the two towers were certain young men
whom the prevailing fashion of the time had banded
together in a pretense of learning and superior enlighten-
ment, not uncommon to any generation of those youth-
ful heroes whose only wish it is that their fathers were
more wise. Four in particular, who were specially given
to the study of such Greek philosophy as came to them
broken by translators into fragments fit for their capacity,
had been among the visitors of the poet. Deeply
affronted as Petrarch was by the occurrence which fol-
lowed, he was yet too magnanimous to give their names
to any of his correspondents; but he describes them so
as to have made it possible for commentators to hazard
a guess as to who they were. " They are all rich, and
all studious by profession, devouring books, notwith-
standing that the first knows nothing of letters; the
second little; the third not much; the fourth, it is true,
has no small knowledge, but has it confusedly and with-
out order." The first was a soldier, the second a mer-
chant (simplex mercator), the third a noble (simplex



Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 30 of 35)