ARRIVAL AND FIRST DAYS IN VENICE
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
I think it does not matter just when I first came to Venice. Yesterday and to-day are the same here. I arrived one winter morning about five o’clock, and was not so full of Soul as I might have been in warmer weather. Yet I was resolved not to go to my hotel in the omnibus (the large, many-seated boat so called), but to have a gondola solely for myself and my luggage. The porter who seized my valise in the station, inferred from some very polyglottic Italian of mine the nature of my wish, and ran out and threw that slender piece of luggage into a gondola. I followed, lighted to my seat by a beggar in picturesque and desultory costume. He was one of a class of mendicants whom I came, for my sins, to know better in Venice, and whom I dare say every traveler recollects,—the merciless tribe who hold your gondola to shore, and affect to do you a service and not a displeasure, and pretend not to be abandoned swindlers. The Venetians call them gransieri, or crab-catchers; but as yet I did not know the name or the purpose of this poverino1 at the station, but merely saw that he had the Venetian eye for color: in the distribution and arrangement of his fragments of dress he had produced some miraculous effects of red, and he was altogether as infamous a figure as any friend of brigands would like to meet in a lonely place. He did not offer to stab me and sink my body in the Grand Canal, as, in all Venetian keeping, I felt that he ought to have done; but he implored an alms, and I hardly know now whether to exult or regret that I did not understand him, and left him empty-handed. I suppose that he withdrew again the blessings which he had advanced me, as we pushed out into the canal; but I heard nothing, for the wonder of the city was already upon me. All my nether-spirit, so to speak, was dulled and jaded by the long, cold, railway journey from Vienna, while every surface-sense was taken and tangled in the bewildering brilliancy and novelty of Venice. For I think there can be nothing else in the world so full of glittering and exquisite surprise, as that first glimpse of Venice which the traveler catches as he issues from the railway station by night, and looks upon her peerless strangeness. There is something in the blessed breath of Italy (how quickly, coming south, you know it, and how bland it is, after the harsh, transalpine air!) which prepares you for your nocturnal advent into the place; and O you! whoever you are, that journey toward this enchanted city for the first time, let me tell you how happy I count you! There lies before you for your pleasure, the spectacle of such singular beauty as no picture can ever show you nor book tell you,—beauty which you shall feel perfectly but once, and regret forever.
For my own part, as the gondola slipped away from the blaze and bustle of the station down the gloom and silence of the broad canal, I forgot that I had been freezing two days and nights; that I was at that moment very cold and a little homesick. I could at first feel nothing but that beautiful silence, broken only by the star-silvered dip of the oars. Then on either hand I saw stately palaces rise gray and lofty from the dark waters, holding here and there a lamp against their faces, which brought balconies, and columns, and carven arches into momentary relief, and threw long streams of crimson into the canal. I could see by that uncertain glimmer how fair was all, but not how sad and old; and so, unhaunted by any pang for the decay that afterward saddened me amid the forlorn beauty of Venice, I glided on. I have no doubt it was a proper time to think all the fantastic things in the world, and I thought them; but they passed vaguely through my mind, without at all interrupting the sensations of sight and sound. Indeed, the past and present mixed there, and the moral and material were blent in the sentiment of utter novelty and surprise. The quick boat slid through old troubles of mine, and unlooked-for events gave it the impulse that carried it beyond, and safely around sharp corners of life. And all the while I knew that this was a progress through narrow and crooked canals, and past marble angles of palaces. But I did not know then that this fine confusion of sense and spirit was the first faint impression of the charm of life in Venice.
Dark, funereal barges like my own had flitted by, and the gondoliers had warned each other at every turning with hoarse, lugubrious cries; the lines of balconied palaces had never ended;—here and there at their doors larger craft were moored, with dim figures of men moving uncertainly about on them. At last we had passed abruptly out of the Grand Canal into one of the smaller channels, and from comparative light into a darkness only remotely affected by some far-streaming corner lamp. But always the pallid, stately palaces; always the dark heaven with its trembling stars above, and the dark water with its trembling stars below; but now innumerable bridges, and an utter lonesomeness, and ceaseless sudden turns and windings. One could not resist a vague feeling of anxiety, in these strait and solitary passages, which was part of the strange enjoyment of the time, and which was referable to the novelty, the hush, the darkness, and the piratical appearance and unaccountable pauses of the gondoliers. Was not this Venice, and is not Venice forever associated with bravoes and unexpected dagger-thrusts? That valise of mine might represent fabulous wealth to the uncultivated imagination. Who, if I made an outcry, could understand the Facts of the Situation—(as we say in the journals)? To move on was relief; to pause was regret for past transgressions mingled with good resolutions for the future. But I felt the liveliest mixture of all these emotions, when, slipping from the cover of a bridge, the gondola suddenly rested at the foot of a stairway before a closely-barred door. The gondoliers rang and rang again, while their passenger
“Divided the swift mind,”
in the wonder whether a door so grimly bolted and austerely barred could possibly open into a hotel, with cheerful overcharges for candles and service. But as soon as the door opened, and he beheld the honest swindling countenance of a hotel portier, he felt secure against every thing but imposture, and all wild absurdities of doubt and conjecture at once faded from his thought, when the portier suffered the gondoliers to make him pay a florin too much.
So, I had arrived in Venice, and I had felt the influence of that complex spell which she lays upon the stranger. I had caught the most alluring glimpses of the beauty which cannot wholly perish while any fragment of her sculptured walls nods to its shadow in the canal; I had been penetrated by a deep sense of the mystery of the place, and I had been touched already by the anomaly of modern life amid scenes where its presence offers, according to the humor in which it is studied, constant occasion for annoyance or delight, enthusiasm or sadness.
I fancy that the ignorant impressions of the earlier days after my arrival need scarcely be set down even in this perishable record; but I would not wholly forget how, though isolated from all acquaintance and alien to the place, I yet felt curiously at home in Venice from the first. I believe it was because I had, after my own fashion, loved the beautiful that I here found the beautiful, where it is supreme, full of society and friendship, speaking a language which, even in its unfamiliar forms, I could partly understand, and at once making me citizen of that Venice from which I shall never be exiled. It was not in the presence of the great and famous monuments of art alone that I felt at home—indeed, I could as yet understand their excellence and grandeur only very imperfectly—but wherever I wandered through the quaint and marvelous city, I found the good company of
“The fair, the old;”
and to tell the truth, I think it is the best society in Venice, and I learned to turn to it later from other companionship with a kind of relief.
My first rambles, moreover, had a peculiar charm which knowledge of locality has since taken away. They began commonly with some purpose or destination, and ended by losing me in the intricacies of the narrowest, crookedest, and most inconsequent little streets in the world, or left me cast-away upon the unfamiliar waters of some canal as far as possible from the point aimed at. Dark and secret little courts lay in wait for my blundering steps, and I was incessantly surprised and brought to surrender by paths that beguiled me up to dead walls, or the sudden brinks of canals. The wide and open squares before the innumerable churches of the city were equally victorious, and continually took me prisoner. But all places had something rare and worthy to be seen: if not loveliness of sculpture or architecture, at least interesting squalor and picturesque wretchedness: and I believe I had less delight in proper Objects of Interest than in the dirty neighborhoods that reeked with unwholesome winter damps below, and peered curiously out with frowzy heads and beautiful eyes from the high, heavy-shuttered casements above. Every court had its carven well to show me, in the noisy keeping of the water-carriers and the slatternly, statuesque gossips of the place. The remote and noisome canals were pathetic with empty old palaces peopled by herds of poor, that decorated the sculptured balconies with the tatters of epicene linen, and patched the lofty windows with obsolete hats.
I found the night as full of beauty as the day, when caprice led me from the brilliancy of St. Mark’s and the glittering streets of shops that branch away from the Piazza, and lost me in the quaint recesses of the courts, or the tangles of the distant alleys, where the dull little oil-lamps vied with the tapers burning before the street-corner shrines of the Virgin2, in making the way obscure, and deepening the shadows about the doorways and under the frequent arches. I remember distinctly among the beautiful nights of that time, the soft night of late winter which first showed me the scene you may behold from the Public Gardens at the end of the long concave line of the Riva degli Schiavoni. Lounging there upon the southern parapet of the Gardens, I turned from the dim bell-towers of the evanescent islands in the east (a solitary gondola gliding across the calm of the water, and striking its moonlight silver into multitudinous ripples), and glanced athwart the vague shipping in the basin of St. Mark, and saw all the lights from the Piazzetta to the Giudecca, making a crescent of flame in the air, and casting deep into the water under them a crimson glory that sank also down and down in my own heart, and illumined all its memories of beauty and delight. Behind these lamps rose the shadowy masses of church and palace; the moon stood bright and full in the heavens; the gondola drifted away to the northward; the islands of the lagoons seemed to rise and sink with the light palpitations of the waves like pictures on the undulating fields of banners; the stark rigging of a ship showed black against the sky, the Lido sank from sight upon the east, as if the shore had composed itself to sleep by the side of its beloved sea to the music of the surge that gently beat its sands; the yet leafless boughs of the trees above me stirred themselves together, and out of one of those trembling towers in the lagoons, one rich, full sob burst from the heart of a bell, too deeply stricken with the glory of the scene, and suffused the languid night with the murmur of luxurious, ineffable sadness.
But there is a perfect democracy in the realm of the beautiful, and whatsoever pleases is equal to any other thing there, no matter how low its origin or humble its composition; and the magnificence of that moonlight scene gave me no deeper joy than I won from the fine spectacle of an old man whom I saw burning coffee one night in the little court behind my lodgings, and whom I recollect now as one of the most interesting people I saw in my first days at Venice. All day long the air of that neighbourhood had reeked with the odors of the fragrant berry, and all day long this patient old man—sage, let me call him—had turned the sheet-iron cylinder in which it was roasting over an open fire after the picturesque fashion of roasting coffee in Venice. Now that the night had fallen, and the stars shone down upon him, and the red of the flame luridly illumined him, he showed more grand and venerable than ever. Simple, abstract humanity, has its own grandeur in Italy; and it is not hard here for the artist to find the primitive types with which genius loves best to deal. As for this old man, he had the beard of a saint, and the dignity of a senator, harmonized with the squalor of a beggar, superior to which shone his abstract, unconscious grandeur of humanity. A vast and calm melancholy, which had nothing to do with burning coffee, dwelt in his aspect and attitude; and if he had been some dread supernatural agency, turning the wheel of fortune, and doing men, instead of coffee, brown, he could not have looked more sadly and weirdly impressive. When, presently, he rose from his seat, and lifted the cylinder from its place, and the clinging flames leaped after it, and he shook it, and a volume of luminous smoke enveloped him and glorified him—then I felt with secret anguish that he was beyond art, and turned sadly from the spectacle of that sublime and hopeless magnificence.
At other times (but this was in broad daylight) I was troubled by the aesthetic perfection of a certain ruffian boy, who sold cakes of baked Indian-meal to the soldiers in the military station near the Piazza, and whom I often noted from the windows of the little caffè there, where you get an excellent caffè bianco (coffee with milk) for ten soldi and one to the waiter. I have reason to fear that this boy dealt over shrewdly with the Austrians, for a pitiless war raged between him and one of the sergeants. His hair was dark, his cheek was of a bronze better than olive; and he wore a brave cap of red flannel, drawn down to eyes of lustrous black. For the rest, he gave unity and coherence to a jacket and pantaloons of heterogeneous elements, and, such was the elasticity of his spirit, a buoyant grace to feet encased in wooden shoes. Habitually came a barrel-organist, and ground before the barracks, and
“Took the soul
Of that waste place with joy;”
and ever, when this organist came to a certain lively waltz, and threw his whole soul, as it were, into the crank of his instrument, my beloved ragamuffin failed not to seize another cake-boy in his arms, and thus embraced, to whirl through a wild inspiration of figures, in which there was something grotesquely rhythmic, something of indescribable barbaric magnificence, spiritualized into a grace of movement superior to the energy of the North and the extravagant fervor of the East. It was coffee and not wine that I drank, but I fable all the same that I saw reflected in this superb and artistic superation of the difficulties of dancing in that unfriendly foot-gear, something of the same genius that combated and vanquished the elements, to build its home upon sea-washed sands in marble structures of airy and stately splendor, and gave to architecture new glories full of eternal surprise.
So, I say, I grew early into sympathy and friendship with Venice, and being newly from a land where every thing, morally and materially, was in good repair, I rioted sentimentally on the picturesque ruin, the pleasant discomfort and hopelessness of every thing about me here. It was not yet the season to behold all the delight of the lazy, out-door life of the place; but nevertheless I could not help seeing that great part of the people, both rich and poor, seemed to have nothing to do, and that nobody seemed to be driven by any inward or outward impulse. When, however, I ceased (as I must in time) to be merely a spectator of this idleness, and learned that I too must assume my share of the common indolence, I found it a grievous burden. Old habits of work, old habits of hope, made my endless leisure irksome to me, and almost intolerable when I ascertained fairly and finally that in my desire to fulfill long-cherished, but, after all, merely general designs of literary study, I had forsaken wholesome struggle in the currents where I felt the motion of the age, only to drift into a lifeless eddy of the world, remote from incentive and sensation.
For such is Venice, and the will must be strong and the faith indomitable in him who can long retain, amid the influences of her stagnant quiet, a practical belief in God’s purpose of a great moving, anxious, toiling, aspiring world outside. When you have yielded, as after a while I yielded, to these influences, a gentle incredulity possesses you, and if you consent that such a thing is as earnest and useful life, you cannot help wondering why it need be. The charm of the place sweetens your temper, but corrupts you; and I found it a sad condition of my perception of the beauty of Venice and friendship with it, that I came in some unconscious way to regard her fate as my own; and when I began to write the sketches which go to form this book, it was as hard to speak of any ugliness in her, or of the doom written against her in the hieroglyphic seams and fissures of her crumbling masonry, as if the fault and penalty were mine. I do not so greatly blame, therefore, the writers who have committed so many sins of omission concerning her, and made her all light, color, canals, and palaces. One’s conscience, more or less uncomfortably vigilant elsewhere, drowses here, and it is difficult to remember that fact is more virtuous than fiction. In other years, when there was life in the city, and this sad ebb of prosperity was full tide in her canals, there might have been some incentive to keep one’s thoughts and words from lapsing into habits of luxurious dishonesty, some reason for telling the whole hard truth of things, some policy to serve, some end to gain. But now, what matter?