THE WINTER IN VENICE
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
It was winter, as I said, when I first came to Venice, and my experiences of the city were not all purely aesthetic. There was, indeed, an every-day roughness and discomfort in the weather, which travelers passing their first winter in Italy find it hard to reconcile with the habitual ideas of the season’s clemency in the South. But winter is apt to be very severe in mild climates. People do not acknowledge it, making a wretched pretense that it is summer only a little out of humor.
The Germans have introduced stoves at Venice, but they are not in much favor with the Italians, who think their heat unwholesome, and endure a degree of cold, in their wish to dispense with fire, which we of the winter-lands know nothing of in our houses. They pay for their absurd prejudice with terrible chilblains; and their hands, which suffer equally with their feet, are, in the case of those most exposed to the cold, objects pitiable and revolting to behold when the itching and the effort to allay it has turned them into bloated masses of sores. It is not a pleasant thing to speak of; and the constant sight of the affliction among people who bring you bread, cut you cheese, and weigh you out sugar, by no means reconciles the Northern stomach to its prevalence. I have observed that priests, and those who have much to do in the frigid churches, are the worst sufferers in this way; and I think no one can help noting in the harsh, raw winter-complexion (for in summer the tone is quite different) of the women of all classes, the protest of systems cruelly starved of the warmth which health demands.
The houses are, naturally enough in this climate, where there are eight months of summer in the year, all built with a view to coolness in summer, and the rooms which are not upon the ground-floor are very large, lofty, and cold. In the palaces, indeed, there are two suites of apartments—the smaller and cozier suite upon the first floor for the winter, and the grander and airier chambers and saloons above, for defence against the insidious heats of the sirocco. But, for the most part, people must occupy the same room summer and winter, the sole change being in the strip of carpet laid meagrely before the sofa during the latter season. In the comparatively few houses where carpets are the rule and not the exception, they are always removed during the summer—for the triple purpose of sparing them some months’ wear, banishing fleas and other domestic insects, and showing off the beauty of the oiled and shining pavement, which in the meanest houses is tasteful, and in many of the better sort is often in-wrought with figures and designs of mosaic work.
All the floors in Venice are of stone, and whether of marble flags, or of that species of composition formed of dark cement, with fragments of colored marble imbedded and smoothed and polished to the most glassy and even surface, and the general effect and complexion of petrified plum-pudding, all the floors are death-cold in winter. People sit with their feet upon cushions, and their bodies muffled in furs and wadded gowns. When one goes out into the sun, one often finds an overcoat too heavy, but it never gives warmth enough in the house, where the Venetian sometimes wears it. Indeed, the sun is recognized by Venetians as the only legitimate source of heat, and they sell his favor at fabulous prices to such foreigners as take the lodgings into which he shines.
It is those who remain in-doors, therefore, who are exposed to the utmost rigor of the winter, and people spend as much of their time as possible in the open air. The Riva degli Schiavoni catches the warm afternoon sun in its whole extent, and is then thronged with promenaders of every class, condition, age, and sex; and whenever the sun shines in the Piazza, shivering fashion eagerly courts its favor. At night men crowd the close little caffè, where they reciprocate smoke, respiration, and animal heat, and thus temper the inclemency of the weather, and beguile the time with solemn loafing1, and the perusal of dingy little journals, drinking small cups of black coffee, and playing long games of chess,—an evening that seemed to me as torpid and lifeless as a Lap’s, and intolerable when I remembered the bright, social winter evenings of another and happier land and civilization.
Sometimes you find a heated stove—that is to say, one in which there has been a fire during the day—in a Venetian house; but the stove seems usually to be placed in the room for ornament, or else to be engaged only in diffusing a very acrid smoke,—as if the Venetian preferred to take warmth, as other people do snuff, by inhalation. The stove itself is a curious structure, and built commonly of bricks and plastering,—whitewashed and painted outside. It is a great consumer of fuel, and radiates but little heat. By dint of constant wooding I contrived to warm mine; but my Italian friends always avoided its vicinity when they came to see me, and most amusingly regarded my determination to be comfortable as part of the eccentricity inseparable from the Anglo-Saxon character.
I daresay they would not trifle with winter, thus, if they knew him in his northern moods. But the only voluntary concession they make to his severity is the scaldino, and this is made chiefly by the yielding sex, who are denied the warmth of the caffè. The use of the scaldino is known to all ranks, but it is the women of the poorer orders who are most addicted to it. The scaldino is a small pot of glazed earthen-ware, having an earthen bale: and with this handle passed over the arm, and the pot full of bristling charcoal, the Veneziana’s defense against cold is complete. She carries her scaldino with her in the house from room to room, and takes it with her into the street; and it has often been my fortune in the churches to divide my admiration between the painting over the altar and the poor old crone kneeling before it, who, while she sniffed and whispered a gelid prayer, and warmed her heart with religion, baked her dirty palms in the carbonic fumes of the scaldino. In one of the public bathhouses in Venice there are four prints upon the walls, intended to convey to the minds of the bathers a poetical idea of the four seasons. There is nothing remarkable in the symbolization of Spring, Summer, and Autumn; but Winter is nationally represented by a fine lady dressed in furred robes, with her feet upon a cushioned foot-stool, and a scaldino in her lap! When we talk of being invaded in the north, we poetize the idea of defense by the figure of defending our hearthstones. Alas! could we fight for our sacred scaldini?
Happy are the men who bake chestnuts, and sell hot pumpkins and pears, for they can unite pleasure and profit. There are some degrees of poverty below the standard of the scaldino, and the beggars and the wretcheder poor keep themselves warm, I think, by sultry recollections of summer, as Don Quixote proposed to subsist upon savory remembrances, during one of his periods of fast. One mendicant whom I know, and who always sits upon the steps of a certain bridge, succeeds, I believe, as the season advances, in heating the marble beneath him by firm and unswerving adhesion, and establishes a reciprocity of warmth with it. I have no reason to suppose that he ever deserts his seat for a moment during the whole winter; and indeed, it would be a vicious waste of comfort to do so.
In the winter, the whole city sniffs, and if the Pipchin theory of the effect of sniffing upon the eternal interests of the soul be true, few people go to heaven from Venice. I sometimes wildly wondered if Desdemona, in her time, sniffed, and found little comfort in the reflection that Shylock must have had a cold in his head. There is comparative warmth in the broad squares before the churches, but the narrow streets are bitter thorough-draughts, and fell influenza lies in wait for its prey in all those picturesque, seducing little courts of which I have spoken.
It is, however, in the churches, whose cool twilight and airy height one finds so grateful in summer, that the sharpest malice of the winter is felt; and having visited a score of them soon after my arrival, I deferred the remaining seventy-five or eighty, together with the gallery of the Academy, until advancing spring should, in some degree, have mitigated the severity of their temperature. As far as my imagination affected me, I thought the Gothic churches much more tolerable than the temples of Renaissance art. The empty bareness of these, with their huge marbles, and their soulless splendors of theatrical sculpture, their frescoed roofs and broken arches, was insufferable. The arid grace of Palladio’s architecture was especially grievous to the sense in cold weather; and I warn the traveler who goes to see the lovely Madonnas of Bellini to beware how he trusts himself in winter to the gusty, arctic magnificence of the church of the Redentore. But by all means the coldest church in the city is that of the Jesuits, which those who have seen it will remember for its famous marble drapery. This base, mechanical surprise (for it is a trick and not art) is effected by inlaying the white marble of columns and pulpits and altars with a certain pattern of verd-antique. The workmanship is marvelously skillful, and the material costly, but it only gives the church the effect of being draped in damask linen; and even where the marble is carven in vast and heavy folds over a pulpit to simulate a curtain, or wrought in figures on the steps of the high-altar to represent a carpet, it has no richness of effect, but a poverty, a coldness, a harshness indescribably table-clothy. I think all this has tended to chill the soul of the sacristan, who is the feeblest and thinnest sacristan conceivable, with a frost of white hair on his temples quite incapable of thawing. In this dreary sanctuary is one of Titian’s great paintings, The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, to which (though it is so cunningly disposed as to light that no one ever yet saw the whole picture at once) you turn involuntarily, envious of the Saint toasting so comfortably on his gridiron amid all that frigidity.
The Venetians pretend that many of the late winters have been much severer than those of former years, but I think this pretense has less support in fact than in the custom of mankind everywhere, to claim that such weather as the present, whatever it happens to be, was never seen before. In fine, the winter climate of north Italy is really very harsh, and though the season is not so severe in Venice as in Milan, or even Florence, it is still so sharp as to make foreigners regret the generous fires and warmly-built houses of the north. There was snow but once during my first Venetian winter, 1861-62; the second there was none at all; but the third, which was last winter, it fell repeatedly to considerable depth, and lay unmelted for many weeks in the shade. The lagoons were frozen for miles in every direction; and under our windows on the Grand Canal, great sheets of ice went up and down with the rising and the falling tide for nearly a whole month. The visible misery throughout the fireless city was great; and it was a problem I never could solve, whether people in-doors were greater sufferers from the cold than those who weathered the cruel winds sweeping the squares and the canals, and whistling through the streets of stone and brine. The boys had an unwonted season of sliding on the frozen lagoons, though a good deal persecuted by the police, who must have looked upon such a tremendous innovation as little better than revolution; and it was said that there were card-parties on the ice; but the only creatures which seemed really to enjoy the weather were the seagulls. These birds, which flock into the city in vast numbers at the first approach of cold, and, sailing up and down the canals between the palaces, bring to the dwellers in the city a full sense of mid-ocean forlornness and desolation, now rioted on the savage winds, with harsh cries, and danced upon the waves of the bitter brine, with a clamorous joy that had something eldritch and unearthly in it.
A place so much given to gossip as Venice did not fail to produce many memorable incidents of the cold; but the most singular adventure was that of the old man employed at the Armenian Convent to bring milk from the island of San Lazzaro to the city. One night, shortly after the coldest weather set in, he lost his oar as he was returning to the island. The wind, which is particularly furious in that part of the lagoon, blew his boat away into the night, and the good brothers at the convent naturally gave up their milkman for lost. The winds and waters drifted him eight miles from the city into the northern lagoon, and there lodged his boat in the marshes, where it froze fast in the stiffening mud. The luckless occupant had nothing to eat or drink in his boat, where he remained five days and nights, exposed to the inclemency of cold many degrees below friendship in severity. He made continual signs of distress, but no boat came near enough to discover him. At last, when the whole marsh was frozen solid, he was taken off by some fishermen, and carried to the convent, where he remains in perfectly recovered health, and where no doubt he will be preserved alive many years in an atmosphere which renders dying a San Lazzaro a matter of no small difficulty. During the whole time of his imprisonment, he sustained life against hunger and cold by smoking. I suppose no one will be surprised to learn that he was rescued by the fishermen through the miraculous interposition of the Madonna—as any one might have seen by the votive picture hung up at her shrine on a bridge of the Riva degli Schiavoni, wherein the Virgin was represented breaking through the clouds in one corner of the sky, and unmistakably directing the operations of the fishermen.
It is said that no such winter as that of 1863-4 has been known in Venice since the famous Anno del Ghiaccio (Year of the Ice), which fell about the beginning of the last century. This year is celebrated in the local literature; the play which commemorates it always draws full houses at the people’s theatre, Malibran; and the often-copied picture, by a painter of the time, representing Lustrissime and Lustrissimi in hoops and bag-wigs on the ice, never fails to block up the street before the shop-window in which it is exposed. The King of Denmark was then the guest of the Republic, and as the unprecedented cold defeated all the plans arranged for his diversion, the pleasure-loving government turned the cold itself to account, and made the ice occasion of novel brilliancy in its festivities. The duties on commerce between the city and the mainland were suspended for as long time as the lagoon should remain frozen, and the ice became a scene of the liveliest traffic, and was everywhere covered with sledges, bringing the produce of the country to the capital, and carrying away its stuffs in return. The Venetians of every class amused themselves in visiting this free mart, and the gentler and more delicate sex pressed eagerly forward to traverse with their feet a space hitherto passable only in gondolas2. The lagoon remained frozen, and these pleasures lasted eighteen days, a period of cold unequaled till last winter. A popular song now declares that the present generation has known a winter quite as marvelous as that of the Year of the Ice, and celebrates the wonder of walking on the water:—
Che bell’ affar!
Che patetico affar!
Che immenso affar!
Sora l’acqua camminar!
But after all the disagreeable winter, which hardly commences before Christmas, and which ends about the middle of March, is but a small part of the glorious Venetian year; and even this ungracious season has a loveliness, at times, which it can have nowhere but in Venice. What summer-delight of other lands could match the beauty of the first Venetian snow-fall which I saw? It had snowed overnight, and in the morning when I woke it was still snowing. The flakes fell softly and vertically through the motionless air, and all the senses were full of languor and repose. It was rapture to lie still, and after a faint glimpse of the golden-winged angel on the bell-tower of St. Mark’s, to give indolent eye solely to the contemplation of the roof opposite, where the snow lay half an inch deep upon the brown tiles. The little scene—a few square yards of roof, a chimney-pot, and a dormer-window—was all that the most covetous spirit could demand; and I lazily lorded it over that domain of pleasure, while the lingering mists of a dream of new-world events blent themselves with the luxurious humor of the moment and the calm of the snow-fall, and made my reverie one of the perfectest things in the world. When I was lost the deepest in it, I was inexpressibly touched and gratified by the appearance of a black cat at the dormer-window. In Venice, roofs commanding pleasant exposures seem to be chiefly devoted to the cultivation of this animal, and there are many cats in Venice. My black cat looked wonderingly upon the snow for a moment, and then ran across the roof. Nothing could have been better. Any creature less silent, or in point of movement less soothing to the eye than a cat, would have been torture of the spirit. As it was, this little piece of action contented me so well, that I left every thing else out of my reverie, and could only think how deliciously the cat harmonized with the snow-covered tiles, the chimney-pot, and the dormer-window. I began to long for her reappearance, but when she did come forth and repeat her maneuver, I ceased to have the slightest interest in the matter, and experienced only the disgust of satiety. I had felt ennui—nothing remained but to get up and change my relations with the world.
In Venetian streets they give the fallen snow no rest. It is at once shoveled into the canals by hundreds of half-naked facchini3; and now in St. Mark’s Place the music of innumerable shovels smote upon my ear; and I saw the shivering legion of poverty as it engaged the elements in a struggle for the possession of the Piazza. But the snow continued to fall, and through the twilight of the descending flakes all this toil and encounter looked like that weary kind of effort in dreams, when the most determined industry seems only to renew the task. The lofty crest of the bell-tower was hidden in the folds of falling snow, and I could no longer see the golden angel upon its summit. But looked at across the Piazza, the beautiful outline of St. Mark’s Church was perfectly penciled in the air, and the shifting threads of the snow-fall were woven into a spell of novel enchantment around a structure that always seemed to me too exquisite in its fantastic loveliness to be any thing but the creation of magic. The tender snow had compassionated the beautiful edifice for all the wrongs of time, and so hid the stains and ugliness of decay that it looked as if just from the hand of the builder—or, better said, just from the brain of the architect. There was marvelous freshness in the colors of the mosaics in the great arches of the façade, and all that gracious harmony into which the temple rises, of marble scrolls and leafy exuberance airily supporting the statues of the saints, was a hundred times etherealized by the purity and whiteness of the drifting flakes. The snow lay lightly on the golden globes that tremble like peacock-crests above the vast domes, and plumed them with softest white; it robed the saints in ermine; and it danced over all its work, as if exulting in its beauty—beauty which filled me with subtle, selfish yearning to keep such evanescent loveliness for the little-while-longer of my whole life, and with despair to think that even the poor lifeless shadow of it could never be fairly reflected in picture or poem.
Through the wavering snow-fall, the Saint Theodore upon one of the granite pillars of the Piazzetta did not show so grim as his wont is, and the winged lion on the other might have been a winged lamb, so mild and gentle he looked by the tender light of the storm4. The towers of the island churches loomed faint and far away in the dimness; the sailors in the rigging of the ships that lay in the Basin wrought like phantoms among the shrouds; the gondolas stole in and out of the opaque distance more noiselessly and dreamily than ever; and a silence, almost palpable, lay upon the mutest city in the world.
- I permit myself, throughout this book, the use of the expressive American words loaf and loafer, as the only terms adequate to the description of professional idling in Venice.
- Origine delle Feste Veneziane, di Giustina Renier-Michiel.
- The term for those idle people in Italian cities who relieve long seasons of repose by occasionally acting as messengers, porters and day-laborers.
- St. Theodore was the first patron of Venice, but he was deposed and St. Mark adopted, when the bones of the latter were brought from Alexandria. The Venetians seem to have felt some compunctions for this desertion of an early friend, and they have given St. Theodore a place on one of the granite pillars, while the other is surmounted by the Lion, representing St. Mark. Fra Marco e Todaro, is a Venetian proverb expressing the state of perplexity which we indicate by the figure of an ass between two bundles of hay.