A DAY-BREAK RAMBLE
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
One summer morning the mosquitoes played for me with sleep, and won. It was half-past four, and as it had often been my humor to see Venice at that hour, I got up and sallied forth for a stroll through the city.
This morning walk did not lay the foundation of a habit of early rising in me, but I nevertheless advise people always to get up at half-past four, if they wish to receive the most vivid impressions, and to take the most absorbing interest in every thing in the world. It was with a feeling absolutely novel that I looked about me that morning, and there was a breezy freshness and clearness in my perceptions altogether delightful, and I fraternized so cordially with Nature that I do not think, if I had sat down immediately after to write out the experience, I should have at all patronized her, as I am afraid scribbling people have sometimes the custom to do. I know that my feeling of brotherhood in the case of two sparrows, which obliged me by hopping down from a garden wall at the end of Calle Falier and promenading on the pavement, was quite humble and sincere; and that I resented the ill-nature of a cat,
“Whom love kept wakeful and the muse,”
and who at that hour was spitefully reviling the morn from a window grating. As I went by the gate of the Canonico’s little garden, the flowers saluted me with a breath of perfume,—I think the white honey-suckle was first to offer me this politeness,—and the dumpy little statues looked far more engaging than usual.
After passing the bridge, the first thing to do was to drink a cup of coffee at the Caffè Ponte di Ferro, where the eyebrows of the waiter expressed a mild surprise at my early presence. There was no one else in the place but an old gentleman talking thoughtfully to himself on the subject of two florins, while he poured his coffee into a glass of water, before drinking it. As I lingered a moment over my cup, I was reinforced by the appearance of a company of soldiers, marching to parade in the Campo di Marte. Their officers went at their head, laughing and chatting, and one of the lieutenants smoking a long pipe, gave me a feeling of satisfaction only comparable to that which I experienced shortly afterward in beholding a stoutly built small dog on the Ponte di San Moisè. The creature was only a few inches high, and it must have been through some mist of dreams yet hanging about me that he impressed me as having something elephantine in his manner. When I stooped down and patted him on the head, I felt colossal.
On my way to the Piazza, I stopped in the church of Saint Mary of the Lily, where, in company with one other sinner, I found a relish in the early sacristan’s deliberate manner of lighting the candles on the altar. Saint Mary of the Lily has a façade in the taste of the declining Renaissance. The interior is in perfect keeping, and all is hideous, abominable, and abandoned. My fellow-sinner was kneeling, and repeating his prayers. He now and then tapped himself absent-mindedly on the breast and forehead, and gave a good deal of his attention to me as I stood at the door, hat in hand. The hour and the place invested him with so much interest, that I parted from him with emotion. My feelings were next involved by an abrupt separation from a young English East-Indian, whom I overheard asking the keeper of a caffè his way to the Campo di Marte. He was a claret-colored young fellow, tall, and wearing folds of white muslin around his hat. In another world I trust to know how he liked the parade that morning.
I discovered that Piazza San Marco is every morning swept by troops of ragged facchini, who gossip noisily and quarrelsomely together over their work. Boot-blacks, also, were in attendance, and several followed my progress through the square, in the vague hope that I would relent and have my boots blacked. One peerless waiter stood alone amid the desert elegance of Caffè Florian, which is never shut, day or night, from year to year. At the Caffè of the Greeks, two individuals of the Greek nation were drinking coffee.
I went upon the Molo, passing between the pillars of the Lion and the Saint, and walked freely back and forth, taking in the glory of that prospect of water and of vague islands breaking the silver of the lagoons, like those scenes cunningly wrought in apparent relief on old Venetian mirrors. I walked there freely, for though there were already many gondoliers at the station, not one took me for a foreigner or offered me a boat. At that hour, I was in myself so improbable, that if they saw me at all, I must have appeared to them as a dream. My sense of security was sweet, but it was false, for on going into the church of St. Mark, the keener eye of the sacristan detected me. He instantly offered to show me the Zeno Chapel; but I declined, preferring the church, where I found the space before the high altar filled with market-people come to hear the early mass. As I passed out of the church, I witnessed the partial awaking of a Venetian gentleman who had spent the night in a sitting posture, between the columns of the main entrance. He looked puffy, scornful, and uncomfortable, and at the moment of falling back to slumber, tried to smoke an unlighted cigarette, which he held between his lips. I found none of the shops open as I passed through the Merceria, and but for myself, and here and there a laborer going to work, the busy thoroughfare seemed deserted. In the mere wantonness of power, and the security of solitude, I indulged myself in snapping several door-latches, which gave me a pleasure as keen as that enjoyed in boyhood from passing a stick along the pickets of a fence. I was in nowise abashed to be discovered in this amusement by an old peasant-woman, bearing at either end of a yoke the usual basket with bottles of milk packed in straw.
Entering Campo San Bartolomeo, I found trade already astir in that noisy place; the voice of cheap bargains, which by noonday swells into an intolerable uproar, was beginning to be heard. Having lived in Campo San Bartolomeo, I recognized several familiar faces there, and particularly noted among them that of a certain fruit-vender, who frequently swindled me in my small dealings with him. He now sat before his stand, and for a man of a fat and greasy presence, looked very fresh and brisk, and as if he had passed a pleasant night.
On the other side of the Rialto Bridge, the market was preparing for the purchasers. Butchers were arranging their shops; fruit-stands, and stands for the sale of crockery, and—as I must say for want of a better word, if there is any—notions, were in a state of tasteful readiness. The person on the steps of the bridge who had exposed his stock of cheap clothing and coarse felt hats on the parapet, had so far completed his preparations as to have leisure to be talking himself hot and hoarse with the neighboring barber. He was in a perfectly good humor, and was merely giving a dramatic flavor to some question of six soldi.
At the landings of the market-place squadrons of boats loaded with vegetables were arriving and unloading. Peasants were building cabbages into pyramids; collective squashes and cucumbers were taking a picturesque shape; wreaths of garlic and garlands of onions graced the scene. All the people were clamoring at the tops of their voices; and in the midst of the tumult and confusion, resting on heaps of cabbage-leaves and garbage, men lay on their bellies sweetly sleeping. Numbers of eating-houses were sending forth a savory smell, and everywhere were breakfasters with bowls of sguassetto. In one of the shops, somewhat prouder than the rest, a heated brunette was turning sections of eel on a gridiron, and hurriedly coqueting with the purchasers. Singularly calm amid all this bustle was the countenance of the statue called the Gobbo, as I looked at it in the centre of the market-place. The Gobbo (who is not a hunchback, either) was patiently supporting his burden, and looking with a quiet, thoughtful frown upon the ground, as if pondering some dream of change that had come to him since the statutes of the haughty Republic were read aloud to the people from the stone tribune on his shoulders.
Indeed, it was a morning for thoughtful meditation; and as I sat at the feet of the four granite kings shortly after, waiting for the gate of the ducal palace to be opened, that I might see the girls drawing the water, I studied the group of the Judgment of Solomon, on the corner of the palace, and arrived at an entirely new interpretation of that Bible story, which I have now wholly forgotten.
The gate remained closed too long for my patience, and I turned away from a scene momently losing its interest. The brilliant little shops opened like hollyhocks as I went home; the swelling tide of life filled the streets, and brought Venice back to my day-time remembrance, robbing her of that keen, delightful charm with which she greeted my early morning sense.