HOUSEKEEPING IN VENICE
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
I hope that it is by a not unnatural progress I pass from speaking of dinners and diners to the kindred subject of the present chapter, and I trust the reader will not disdain the lowly-minded muse that sings this mild domestic lay. I was resolved in writing this book to tell what I had found most books of travel very slow to tell,—as much as possible of the everyday life of a people whose habits are so different from our own; endeavoring to develop a just notion of their character, not only from the show-traits which strangers are most likely to see, but also from experience of such things as strangers are most likely to miss.
The absolute want of society of my own nation in Venice would have thrown me upon study of the people for my amusement, even if I had cared to learn nothing of them; and the necessity of economical housekeeping would have caused me to live in the frugal Venetian fashion, even if I had been disposed to remain a foreigner in every thing. Of bachelor lodgings I had sufficient experience during my first year; but as most prudent travelers who visit the city for a week take lodgings, I need not describe my own particularly. You can tell the houses in which there are rooms to let, by the squares of white paper fastened to the window-shutters; and a casual glance as you pass through the streets, gives you the idea that the chief income of the place is derived from letting lodgings. Carpetless, dreary barracks the rooms usually are, with an uncompromising squareness of prints upon the wall, an appalling breadth of husk-bed, a niggardness of wash-bowl, and an obduracy of sofa, never, never to be dissociated in their victim’s mind from the idea of the villanous hard bread of Venice on which the gloomy landlady sustains her life with its immutable purposes of plunder. Flabbiness without softness is the tone of these discouraging chambers, which are dear or not according to the season and the situation. On the sunlit Riva during winter, and on the Grand Canal in summer, they are costly enough, but they are to be found on nearly all the squares at reasonable rates. On the narrow streets, where most native bachelors have them, they are absurdly cheap.
As in nearly all places on the Continent, a house in Venice means a number of rooms, including a whole story in a building, or part of it only, but always completely separated from the story above and below, or from the other rooms on the same floor. Every house has its own entrance from the street, or by a common hall and stairway from the ground-floor, where are the cellars or store-rooms, while each kitchen is usually on a level with the other rooms of the house to which it belongs. The isolation of the different families is secured (as perfectly as where a building is solely appropriated to each), either by the exclusive possession of a streetdoor1, or by the unsocial domestic habits of Europe. You bow and give good-day to the people whom you meet in the common hall and on the common stairway, but you rarely know more of them than their names, and you certainly care nothing about them. The sociability of Europe, and more especially of Southern Europe, is shown abroad; under the domestic roof it dwindles and disappears. And indeed it is no wonder, considering how dispiriting and comfortless most of the houses are. The lower windows are heavily barred with iron; the wood-work is rude, even in many palaces in Venice; the rest is stone and stucco; the walls are not often papered, though they are sometimes painted: the most pleasing and inviting feature of the interior is the frescoed ceiling of the better rooms. The windows shut imperfectly, the heavy wooden blinds imperviously (is it worth while to observe that there are no Venetian blinds in Venice?); the doors lift slantingly from the floor, in which their lower hinges are imbedded; the stoves are of plaster, and consume fuel without just return of heat; the balconies alone are always charming, whether they hang high over the streets, or look out upon the canals, and, with the gayly painted ceilings, go far to make the houses habitable.
It happens in the case of houses, as with nearly every thing else in Italy, that you pay about the same price for half the comfort that you get in America. In Venice, most of the desirable situations are on the Grand Canal; but here the rents are something absurdly high, when taken in consideration with the fact that the city is not made a place of residence by foreigners like Florence, and that it has no commercial activity to enhance the cost of living. Househunting, under these circumstances, becomes an office of constant surprise and disconcertment to the stranger. You look, for example, at a suite of rooms in a tumble-down old palace, where the walls, shamelessly smarted up with coarse paper, crumble at your touch; where the floor rises and falls like the sea, and the door-frames and window-cases have long lost all recollection of the plumb. Madama la Baronessa is at present occupying these pleasant apartments, and you only gain admission to them after an embassy to procure her permission. Madama la Baronessa receives you courteously, and you pass through her rooms, which are a little in disorder, the Baronessa being on the point of removal. Madama la Baronessa’s hoop-skirts prevail upon the floors; and at the side of the couch which her form lately pressed in slumber, you observe a French novel and a wasted candle in the society of a half-bottle of the wine of the country. A bedroomy smell pervades the whole suite, and through the open window comes a curious stench explained as the odor of Madama la Baronessa’s guinea-pigs, of which she is so fond that she has had their sty placed immediately under her window in the garden. It is this garden which has first taken your heart, with a glimpse caught through the great open door of the palace. It is disordered and wild, but so much the better; its firs are very thick and dark, and there are certain statues, fauns and nymphs, which weather stains and mosses have made much decenter than the sculptor intended. You think that for this garden’s sake you could put up with the house, which must be very cheap. What is the price of the rooms? you ask of the smiling landlord. He answers, without winking, “If taken for several years, a thousand florins a year.” At which you suppress the whistle of disdainful surprise, and say you think it will not suit. He calls your attention to the sun, which comes in at every side, which will roast you in summer, and will not (as he would have you think) warm you in winter. “But there is another apartment,”—through which you drag languidly. It is empty now, being last inhabited by an English Ledi,—and her stove-pipes went out of the windows, and blackened the shabby stucco front of the villanous old palace.
In a back court, upon a filthy canal, you chance on a house, the curiously frescoed front of which tempts you within. A building which has a lady and gentleman painted in fresco, and making love from balcony to balcony, on the façade, as well as Arlecchino depicted in the act of leaping from the second to the third story, promises something. Promises something, but does not fulfill the promise. The interior is fresh, clean, and new, and cold and dark as a cellar. This house—that is to say, a floor of the house—you may have for four hundred florins a year; and then farewell the world and the light of the sun! for neither will ever find you in that back court, and you will never see any body but the neighboring laundresses and their children, who cannot enough admire the front of your house.
E via in seguito! This is of house keeping, not house-hunting. There are pleasant and habitable houses in Venice—but they are not cheap, as many of the uninhabitable houses also are not. Here, discomfort and ruin have their price, and the tumble-down is patched up and sold at rates astonishing to innocent strangers who come from countries in good repair, where the tumble-down is worth nothing. If I were not ashamed of the idle and foolish old superstitions in which I once believed concerning life in Italy, I would tell how I came gradually to expect very little for a great deal; and how a knowledge of many houses to let, made me more and more contented with the house we had taken.
It was in one corner of an old palace on the Grand Canal, and the window of the little parlor looked down upon the water, which had made friends with its painted ceiling, and bestowed tremulous, golden smiles upon it when the sun shone. The dining-room was not so much favored by the water, but it gave upon some green and ever-rustling tree-tops, that rose to it from a tiny garden-ground, no bigger than a pocket handkerchief. Through this window, also, we could see the quaint, picturesque life of the canal; and from another room we could reach a little terrace above the water. We were not in the appartamento signorile2,—that was above,—but we were more snugly quartered on the first story from the ground-floor, commonly used as a winter apartment in the old times. But it had been cut up, and suites of rooms had been broken according to the caprice of successive landlords, till it was not at all palatial any more. The upper stories still retained something of former grandeur, and had acquired with time more than former discomfort. We were not envious of them, for they were humbly let at a price less than we paid; though we could not quite repress a covetous yearning for their arched and carven windows, which we saw sometimes from the canal, above the tops of the garden trees.
The gondoliers used always to point out our palace (which was called Casa Falier) as the house in which Marino Faliero was born; and for a long time we clung to the hope that it might be so. But however pleasant it was, we were forced, on reading up the subject a little, to relinquish our illusion, and accredit an old palace at Santi Apostoli with the distinction we would fain have claimed for ours. I am rather at a loss to explain how it made our lives in Casa Falier any pleasanter to think that a beheaded traitor had been born in it, but we relished the superstition amazingly as long as we could possibly believe in it. What went far to confirm us at first in our credulity was the residence, in another part of the palace, of the Canonico Falier, a lineal descendant of the unhappy doge. He was a very mild-faced old priest, with a white head, which he carried downcast, and crimson legs, on which he moved but feebly. He owned the rooms in which he lived, and the apartment in the front of the palace just above our own. The rest of the house belonged to another, for in Venice many of the palaces are divided up and sold among different purchasers, floor by floor, and sometimes even room by room.
But the tenantry of Casa Falier was far more various than its proprietorship. Over our heads dwelt a Dalmatian family; below our feet a Frenchwoman; at our right, upon the same floor, an English gentleman; under him a French family; and over him the family of a marquis in exile from Modena. Except with Mr. —, the Englishman, who was at once our friend and landlord (impossible as this may appear to those who know any thing of landlords in Italy), we had no acquaintance, beyond that of salutation, with the many nations represented in our house. We could not help holding the French people in some sort responsible for the invasion of Mexico; and, though opportunity offered for cultivating the acquaintance of the Modenese, we did not improve it.
As for our Dalmatian friends, we met them and bowed to them a great deal, and we heard them overhead in frequent athletic games, involving noise as of the maneuvering of cavalry; and as they stood a good deal on their balcony, and looked down upon us on ours, we sometimes enjoyed seeing them admirably foreshortened like figures in a frescoed ceiling. The father of this family was a little man of a solemn and impressive demeanor, who had no other occupation but to walk up and down the city and view its monuments, for which purpose he one day informed us he had left his native place in Dalmatia, after forty years’ study of Venetian history. He further told us that this was by no means worth the time given it; that whereas the streets of Venice were sepulchres in point of narrowness and obscurity, he had a house in Zara, from the windows of which you might see for miles uninterruptedly! This little gentleman wore a black hat, in the last vivid polish of respectability, and I think fortune was not his friend. The hat was too large for him, as the hats of Italians always are; it came down to his eyes, and he carried a cane. Every evening he marched solemnly at the head of a procession of his handsome young children, who went to hear the military music in St. Mark’s Square.
The entrance to the house of the Dalmatians—we never knew their names—gave access also to a house in the story above them, which belonged to some mysterious person described on his door-plate as “Co. Prata.” I think we never saw Co. Prata himself, and only by chance some members of his family when they came back from their summer in the country to spend the winter in the city. Prata’s “Co.,” we gradually learnt, meant “Conte,” and the little counts and countesses, his children, immediately on their arrival took an active part in the exercises of the Dalmatian cavalry. Later in the fall, certain of the count’s vassals came to the riva3 in one of the great boats of the Po, with a load of brush and corncobs for fuel—and this is all we ever knew of our neighbors on the fourth floor. As long as he remained “Co.” we yearned to know who and what he was; being interpreted as Conte Prata, he ceased to interest us.
Such, then, was the house, and such the neighborhood in which two little people, just married, came to live in Venice.
They were by nature of the order of shorn lambs, and Providence, tempering the inclemency of the domestic situation, gave them Giovanna.
The house was furnished throughout, and Giovanna had been furnished with it. She was at hand to greet the new-comers, and “This is my wife, the new mistress,” said the young Paron4 with the bashful pride proper to the time and place. Giovanna glowed welcome, and said, with adventurous politeness, she was very glad of it.
The Parona, not knowing Italian, laughed in English.
So Giovanna took possession of us, and acting upon the great truth that handsome is that handsome does, began at once to make herself a thing of beauty.
As a measure of convenience and of deference to her feelings, we immediately resolved to call her G., merely, when speaking of her in English, instead of Giovanna, which would have troubled her with conjecture concerning what was said of her. And as G. thus became the centre around which our domestic life revolved, she must be somewhat particularly treated of in this account of our housekeeping. I suppose that, given certain temperaments and certain circumstances, this would have been much like keeping play-house anywhere; in Venice it had, but for the unmistakable florins it cost, a curious property of unreality and impermanency. It is sufficiently bad to live in a rented house; in a house which you have hired ready-furnished, it is long till your life takes root, and Home blossoms up in the alien place. For a great while we regarded our house merely as very pleasant lodgings, and we were slow to form any relations which could take from our residence its temporary character. Had we but thought to get in debt to the butcher, the baker, and the grocer, we might have gone far to establish ourselves at once; but we imprudently paid our way, and consequently had no ties to bind us to our fellow-creatures. In Venice provisions are bought by housekeepers on a scale surprisingly small to one accustomed to wholesale American ways, and G., having the purse, made our little purchases in cash, never buying more than enough for one meal at a time. Every morning, the fruits and vegetables are distributed from the great market at the Rialto among a hundred greengrocers’ stalls in all parts of the city; bread (which is never made at home) is found fresh at the baker’s; there is a butcher’s stall in each campo with fresh meat. These shops are therefore resorted to for family supplies day by day; and the poor lay in provisions there in portions graduated to a soldo of their ready means. A great Bostonian whom I remember to have heard speculate on the superiority of a state of civilization in which you could buy two cents’ worth of beef to that in which so small a quantity was unpurchasable, would find the system perfected here, where you can buy half a cent’s worth. It is a system friendly to poverty, and the small retail prices approximate very closely the real value of the stuff sold, as we sometimes proved by offering to purchase in quantity. Usually no reduction would be made from the retail rate, and it was sufficiently amusing to have the dealer figure up the cost of the quantity we proposed to buy, and then exhibit an exact multiplication of his retail rate by our twenty or fifty. Say an orange is worth a soldo: you get no more than a hundred for a florin, though the dealer will cheerfully go under that number if he can cheat you in the count. So in most things we found it better to let G. do the marketing in her own small Venetian fashion, and “guard our strangeness.”
But there were some things which must be brought to the house by the dealers, such as water for drinking and cooking, which is drawn from public cisterns in the squares, and carried by stout young girls to all the houses. These bigolanti all come from the mountains of Friuli; they all have rosy cheeks, white teeth, bright eyes, and no waists whatever (in the fashionable sense), but abundance of back. The cisterns are opened about eight o’clock in the morning, and then their day’s work begins with chatter, and splashing, and drawing up buckets from the wells; and each sturdy little maiden in turn trots off under a burden of two buckets,—one appended from either end of a bow resting upon the right shoulder. The water is very good, for it is the rain which falls on the shelving surface of the campo, and soaks through a bed of sea-sand around the cisterns into the cool depths below. The bigolante comes every morning and empties her brazen buckets into the great picturesque jars of porous earthenware which ornament Venetian kitchens; and the daily supply of water costs a moderate family about a florin a month.
Fuel is likewise brought to your house, but this arrives in boats. It is cut upon the eastern shore of the Adriatic, and comes to Venice in small coasting vessels, each of which has a plump captain in command, whose red face is so cunningly blended with his cap of scarlet flannel that it is hard on a breezy day to tell where the one begins and the other ends. These vessels anchor off the Custom House in the Guidecca Canal in the fall, and lie there all winter (or until their cargo of fuel is sold), a great part of the time under the charge solely of a small yellow dog of the irascible breed common to the boats of the Po. Thither the smaller dealers in firewood resort, and carry thence supplies of fuel to all parts of the city, melodiously crying their wares up and down the canals, and penetrating the land on foot with specimen bundles of fagots in their arms. They are not, as a class, imaginative, I think—their fancy seldom rising beyond the invention that their fagots are beautiful and sound and dry. But our particular woodman was, in his way, a gifted man. Long before I had dealings with him, I knew him by the superb song, or rather incantation, with which he announced his coming on the Grand Canal. The purport of this was merely that his bark was called the Beautiful Caroline, and that his fagots were fine; but he so dwelt upon the hidden beauties of this idea, and so prolonged their effect upon the mind by artful repetition, and the full, round, and resonant roar with which he closed his triumphal hymn, that the spirit was taken with the charm, and held in breathless admiration. By all odds, this woodman’s cry was the most impressive of all the street cries of Venice. There may have been an exquisite sadness and sweetness in the wail of the chimney-sweep; a winning pathos in the voice of the vender of roast pumpkin; an oriental fancy and splendor in the fruiterers who cried “Melons with hearts of fire!” and “Juicy pears that bathe your beard!”—there may have been something peculiarly effective in the song of the chestnut-man who shouted “Fat chestnuts,” and added, after a lapse in which you got almost beyond hearing, “and well cooked!”—I do not deny that there was a seductive sincerity in the proclamation of one whose peaches could not be called beautiful to look upon, and were consequently advertised as “Ugly, but good!”—I say nothing to detract from the merits of harmonious chair-menders;—to my ears the shout of the melodious fisherman was delectable music, and all the birds of summer sang in the voices of the countrymen who sold finches and larks in cages, and roses and pinks in pots;—but I say, after all, none of these people combined the vocal power, the sonorous movement, the delicate grace, and the vast compass of our woodman. Yet this man, as far as virtue went, was vox et praeterea nihil. He was a vagabond of the most abandoned; he was habitually in drink, and I think his sins had gone near to make him mad—at any rate he was of a most lunatical deportment. In other lands, the man of whom you are a regular purchaser, serves you well; in Italy he conceives that his long service gives him the right to plunder you if possible. I felt in every fibre that this woodman invariably cheated me in measurement, and, indeed, he scarcely denied it on accusation. But my single experience of the more magnificent scoundrels of whom he bought the wood originally, contented me with the swindle with which I had become familiarized. On this occasion I took a boat and went to the Custom House, to get my fuel at first hand. The captain of the ship which I boarded wished me to pay more than I gave for fuel delivered at my door, and thereupon ensued the tragic scene of bargaining, as these things are conducted in Italy. We stood up and bargained, we sat down and bargained; the captain turned his back upon me in indignation; I parted from him and took to my boat in scorn; he called me back and displayed the wood—good, sound, dryer than bones; he pointed to the threatening heavens, and declared that it would snow that night, and on the morrow I could not get wood for twice the present price; but I laughed incredulously. Then my captain took another tack, and tried to make the contract in obsolete currencies, in Austrian pounds, in Venetian pounds, but as I inexorably reduced these into familiar money, he paused desperately, and made me an offer which I accepted with mistaken exultation. For my captain was shrewder than I, and held arts of measurement in reserve against me. He agreed that the measurement and transportation should not cost me the value of his tooth-pick—quite an old and worthless one—which he showed me. Yet I was surprised into the payment of a youth whom this man called to assist at the measurement, and I had to give the boatman drink-money at the end. He promised that the measure should be just: yet if I lifted my eye from the work he placed the logs slantingly on the measure, and threw in knotty chunks that crowded wholesome fuel out, and let the daylight through and through the pile. I protested, and he admitted the wrong when I pointed it out: “Ga razon, lu!” (He’s right!) he said to his fellows in infamy, and throwing aside the objectionable pieces, proceeded to evade justice by new artifices. When I had this memorable load of wood housed at home, I found that it had cost just what I paid my woodman, and that I had additionally lost my self-respect in being plundered before my face, and I resolved thereafter to be cheated in quiet dignity behind my back. The woodman exulted in his restored sovereignty, and I lost nothing in penalty for my revolt.
Among other provisioners who come to your house in Venice, are those ancient peasant-women, who bring fresh milk in bottles carefully packed in baskets filled with straw. They set off the whiteness of their wares by the brownness of their sunburnt hands and faces, and bear in their general stoutness and burliness of presence, a curious resemblance to their own comfortable bottles. They wear broad straw hats, and dangling ear-rings of yellow gold, and are the pleasantest sight of the morning streets of Venice, to the stoniness of which they bring a sense of the country’s clovery pasturage, in the milk just drawn from the great cream-colored cows.
Fishermen, also, come down the little calli—with shallow baskets of fish upon their heads and under either arm, and cry their soles and mackerel to the neighborhood, stopping now and then at some door to bargain away the eels which they chop into sections as the thrilling drama proceeds, and hand over as a denouement at the purchaser’s own price. “Beautiful and all alive!” is the engaging cry with which they hawk their fish.
Besides these daily purveyors, there are men of divers arts who come to exercise their crafts at your house: not chimney-sweeps merely, but glaziers, and that sort of workmen, and, best of all, chair-menders,—who bear a mended chair upon their shoulders for a sign, with pieces of white wood for further mending, a drawing-knife, a hammer, and a sheaf of rushes, and who sit down at your door, and plait the rush bottoms of your kitchen-chairs anew, and make heaps of fragrant whittlings with their knives, and gossip with your serving-woman.
But in the mean time our own serving-woman Giovanna, the great central principle of our housekeeping, is waiting to be personally presented to the company. In Italy, there are old crones so haggard, that it is hard not to believe them created just as crooked, and foul, and full of fluff and years as you behold them, and you cannot understand how so much frowziness and so little hair, so great show of fangs and so few teeth, are growths from any ordinary human birth. G. is no longer young, but she is not after the likeness of these old women. It is of a middle age, unbeginning, interminable, of which she gives you the impression. She has brown apple-cheeks, just touched with frost; her nose is of a strawberry formation abounding in small dints, and having the slightly shrunken effect observable in tardy perfections of the fruit mentioned. A tough, pleasant, indestructible woman—for use, we thought, not ornament—the mother of a family, a good Catholic, and the flower of serving-women.
I do not think that Venetian servants are, as a class, given to pilfering; but knowing ourselves subject by nature to pillage, we cannot repress a feeling of gratitude to G. that she does not prey upon us. She strictly accounts for all money given her at the close of each week, and to this end keeps a kind of account-book, which I cannot help regarding as in some sort an inspired volume, being privy to the fact, confirmed by her own confession, that G. is not good for reading and writing. On settling with her I have been permitted to look into this book, which is all in capital letters,—each the evident result of serious labor,—with figures representing combinations of the pot-hook according to bold and original conceptions. The spelling is also a remarkable effort of creative genius. The only difficulty under which the author labors in regard to the book is the confusion naturally resulting from the effort to get literature right side up when it has got upside down. The writing is a kind of pugilism—the strokes being made straight out from the shoulder. The account-book is always carried about with her in a fathomless pocket overflowing with the aggregations of a housekeeper who can throw nothing away, to wit: matchboxes, now appointed to hold buttons and hooks-and-eyes; beeswax in the lump; the door-key (which in Venice takes a formidable size, and impresses you at first sight as ordnance); a patch-bag; a porte-monnaie; many lead-pencils in the stump; scissors, pincushions, and the Beata Vergine in a frame. Indeed, this incapability of throwing things away is made to bear rather severely upon us in some things, such as the continual reappearance of familiar dishes at table—particularly veteran bifsteca. But we fancy that the same frugal instinct is exercised to our advantage and comfort in other things, for G. makes a great show and merit of denying our charity to those bold and adventurous children of sorrow, who do not scruple to ring your door-bell, and demand alms. It is true that with G., as with every Italian, almsgiving enters into the theory and practice of Christian life, but she will not suffer misery to abuse its privileges. She has no hesitation, however, in bringing certain objects of compassion to our notice, and she procures small services to be done for us by many lame and halt of her acquaintance. Having bought my boat (I come, in time, to be willing to sell it again for half its cost to me), I require a menial to clean it now and then, and Giovanna first calls me a youthful Gobbo for the work,—a festive hunchback, a bright-hearted whistler of comic opera. Whether this blithe humor is not considered decent, I do not know, but though the Gobbo serves me faithfully, I find him one day replaced by a venerable old man, whom—from his personal resemblance to Time—I should think much better occupied with an hourglass, or engaged with a scythe in mowing me and other mortals down, than in cleaning my boat. But all day long he sits on my riva in the sun, when it shines, gazing fixedly at my boat; and when the day is dark, he lurks about the street, accessible to my slightest boating impulse. He salutes my going out and coming in with grave reverence, and I think he has no work to do but that which G.’s wise compassion has given him from me. Suddenly, like the Gobbo, the Veccio also disappears, and I hear vaguely—for in Venice you never know any thing with precision—that he has found a regular employment in Padua, and again that he is dead. While he lasts, G. has a pleasant, even a sportive manner with this poor old man, calculated to cheer his declining years; but, as I say, cases of insolent and aggressive misery fail to touch her. The kind of wretchedness that comes breathing woe and sciampagnin5 under our window, and there spends a leisure hour in the rehearsal of distress, establishes no claim either upon her pity or her weakness. She is deaf to the voice of that sorrow, and the monotonous whine of that dolor cannot move her to the purchase of a guilty tranquillity. I imagine, however, that she is afraid to deny charity to the fat Capuchin friar in spectacles and bare feet, who comes twice a month to levy contributions of bread and fuel for his convent, for we hear her declare from the window that the master is not at home, whenever the good brother rings; and at last, as this excuse gives out, she ceases to respond to his ring at all.
Sometimes, during the summer weather, comes down our street a certain tremulous old troubadour with an aged cithern, on which he strums feebly with bones which remain to him from former fingers, and in a thin quivering voice pipes worn-out ditties of youth and love. Sadder music I have never heard, but though it has at times drawn from me the sigh of sensibility without referring sympathy to my pocket, I always hear the compassionate soldo of Giovanna clink reproof to me upon the pavement. Perhaps that slender note touches something finer than habitual charity in her middle-aged bosom, for these were songs she says that they used to sing when she was a girl, and Venice was gay and glad, and different from now—veramente, tutt’ altro, signor!
It is through Giovanna’s charitable disposition that we make the acquaintance of two weird sisters, who live not far from us in Calle Falier, and whom we know to this day merely as the Creatures—creatura being in the vocabulary of Venetian pity the term for a fellow-being somewhat more pitiable than a poveretta. Our Creatures are both well stricken in years, and one of them has some incurable disorder which frequently confines her to the wretched cellar in which they live with the invalid’s husband,—a mild, pleasant-faced man, a tailor by trade, and of batlike habits, who hovers about their dusky doorway in the summer twilight. These people have but one room, and a little nook of kitchen at the side; and not only does the sun never find his way into their habitation, but even the daylight cannot penetrate it. They pay about four florins a month for the place, and I hope their landlord is as happy as his tenants. For though one is sick, and all are wretchedly poor, they are far from being discontented. They are opulent in the possession of a small dog, which they have raised from the cradle, as it were, and adopted into the family. They are never tired of playing with their dog,—the poor old children,—and every slight display of intelligence on his part delights them. They think it fine in him to follow us as we go by, but pretend to beat him; and then they excuse him, and call him ill names, and catch him up, and hug him and kiss him. He feeds upon their slender means and the pickings that G. carefully carries him from our kitchen, and gives to him on our doorstep in spite of us, while she gossips with his mistresses, who chorus our appearance at such times with “I miei rispetti, signori!” We often see them in the street, and at a distance from home, carrying mysterious bundles of clothes; and at last we learn their vocation, which is one not known out of Italian cities, I think. There the state is Uncle to the hard-pressed, and instead of many pawnbrokers’ shops there is one large municipal spout, which is called the Monte di Pietà, where the needy pawn their goods. The system is centuries old in Italy, but there are people who to this day cannot summon courage to repair in person to the Mount of Pity, and, to meet their wants, there has grown up a class of frowzy old women who transact the business for them, and receive a small percentage for their trouble. Our poor old Creatures were of this class, and as there were many persons in impoverished, decaying Venice who had need of the succor they procured, they made out to earn a living when both were well, and to eke out existence by charity when one was ill. They were harmless neighbors, and I believe they regretted our removal, when this took place, for they used to sit down under an arcade opposite our new house, and spend the duller intervals of trade in the contemplation of our windows.
The alarming spirit of nepotism which Giovanna developed at a later day was, I fear, a growth from the encouragement we gave her charitable disposition. But for several months it was merely from the fact of a boy who came and whistled at the door until Giovanna opened it and reproved him in the name of all the saints and powers of darkness, that we knew her to be a mother; and we merely had her word for the existence of a husband, who dealt in poultry. Without seeing Giovanna’s husband, I nevertheless knew him to be a man of downy exterior, wearing a canvas apron, thickly crusted with the gore of fowls, who sat at the door of his shop and plucked chickens forever, as with the tireless hand of Fate. I divined that he lived in an atmosphere of scalded pullet; that three earthen cups of clotted chickens’ blood, placed upon his window-shelf, formed his idea of an attractive display, and that he shadowed forth his conceptions of the beautiful in symmetrical rows of plucked chickens, presenting to the public eye rear views embellished with a single feather erect in the tail of each bird; that he must be, through the ethics of competition, the sworn foe of those illogical peasants who bring dead poultry to town in cages, like singing birds, and equally the friend of those restaurateurs who furnish you a meal of victuals and a feather-bed in the same mezzo-polio arrosto. He turned out on actual appearance to be all I had prefigured him, with the additional merit of having a large red nose, a sidelong, fugitive gait, and a hangdog countenance. He furnished us poultry at rates slightly advanced, I think.
As for the boy, he turned up after a while as a constant guest, and took possession of the kitchen. He came near banishment at one time for catching a large number of sea-crabs in the canal, and confining them in a basket in the kitchen, which they left at the dead hour of night, to wander all over our house,—making a mysterious and alarming sound of snapping, like an army of death-watches, and eluding the cunningest efforts at capture. On another occasion, he fell into the canal before our house, and terrified us by going under twice before the arrival of the old gondolier, who called out to him “Petta! petta!” (Wait! wait!) as he placidly pushed his boat to the spot. Developing other disagreeable traits, Beppi was finally driven into exile, from which he nevertheless furtively returned on holidays.
The family of Giovanna thus gradually encroaching upon us, we came also to know her mother,—a dread and loathly old lady, whom we would willingly have seen burned at the stake for a witch. She was commonly encountered at nightfall in our street, where she lay in wait, as it were, to prey upon the fragrance of dinner drifting from the kitchen windows of our neighbor, the Duchess of Parma. Here was heard the voice of cooks and of scullions, and the ecstasies of helpless voracity in which we sometimes beheld this old lady were fearful to witness. Nor did we find her more comfortable in our own kitchen, where we often saw her. The place itself is weird and terrible—low ceiled, with the stone hearth built far out into the room, and the melodramatic implements of Venetian cookery dangling tragically from the wall. Here is no every-day cheerfulness of cooking-range, but grotesque andirons wading into the bristling embers, and a long crane with villanous pots gibbeted upon it. When Giovanna’s mother, then (of the Italian hags, haggard), rises to do us reverence from the darkest corner of this kitchen, and croaks her good wishes for our long life, continued health, and endless happiness, it has the effect upon our spirits of the darkest malediction.
Not more pleasing, though altogether lighter and cheerfuler, was Giovanna’s sister-in-law, whom we knew only as the Cognata. Making her appearance first upon the occasion of Giovanna’s sickness, she slowly but surely established herself as an habitual presence, and threatened at one time, as we fancied, to become our paid servant. But a happy calamity which one night carried off a carpet and the window curtains of an unoccupied room, cast an evil suspicion upon the Cognata, and she never appeared after the discovery of the theft. We suspected her of having invented some dishes of which we were very fond, and we hated her for oppressing us with a sense of many surreptitious favors. Objectively, she was a slim, hoopless little woman, with a tendency to be always at the street-door when we opened it. She had a narrow, narrow face, with eyes of terrible slyness, an applausive smile, and a demeanor of slavish patronage. Our kitchen, after her addition to the household, became the banqueting-hall of Giovanna’s family, who dined there every day upon dishes of fish and garlic, that gave the house the general savor of a low cook-shop.
As for Giovanna herself, she had the natural tendency of excellent people to place others in subjection. Our servitude at first was not hard, and consisted chiefly in the stimulation of appetite to extraordinary efforts when G. had attempted to please us with some novelty in cooking. She held us to a strict account in this respect; but indeed our applause was for the most part willing enough. Her culinary execution, first revealing itself in a noble rendering of our ideas of roast potatoes,—a delicacy foreign to the Venetian kitchen,—culminated at last in the same style of polpetti6 which furnished forth the table of our neighbor, the Duchess, and was a perpetual triumph with us.
But G.’s spirit was not wholly that of the serving-woman. We noted in her the liveliness of wit seldom absent from the Italian poor. She was a great babbler, and talked willingly to herself, and to inanimate things, when there was no other chance for talk. She was profuse in maledictions of bad weather, which she held up to scorn as that dog of a weather. The crookedness of the fuel transported her, and she upbraided the fagots as springing from races of ugly old curs. (The vocabulary of Venetian abuse is inexhaustible, and the Venetians invent and combine terms of opprobrium with endless facility, but all abuse begins and ends with the attribution of doggishness.) The conscription was held in the campo near us, and G. declared the place to have become unendurable—“proprio un campo di sospiri!” (Really a field of sighs.) “Staga comodo!” she said to a guest of ours who would have moved his chair to let her pass between him and the wall. “Don’t move; the way to Paradise is not wider than this.” We sometimes lamented that Giovanna, who did not sleep in the house, should come to us so late in the morning, but we could not deal harshly with her on that account, met, as we always were, with plentiful and admirable excuses. Who were we, indeed, to place our wishes in the balance against the welfare of the sick neighbor with whom Giovanna passed so many nights of vigil? Should we reproach her with tardiness when she had not closed the eye all night for a headache properly of the devil? If she came late in the morning, she stayed late at night; and it sometimes happened that when the Paron and Parona, supposing her gone, made a stealthy expedition to the kitchen for cold chicken, they found her there at midnight in the fell company of the Cognata, bibbing the wine of the country and holding a mild Italian revel with that vinegar and the stony bread of Venice.
I have said G. was the flower of serving-women; and so at first she seemed, and it was long till we doubted her perfection. We knew ourselves to be very young, and weak, and unworthy. The Parona had the rare gift of learning to speak less and less Italian every day, and fell inevitably into subjection. The Paron in a domestic point of view was naturally nothing. It had been strange indeed if Giovanna, beholding the great contrast we presented to herself in many respects, had forborne to abuse her advantage over us. But we trusted her implicitly, and I hardly know how or when it was that we began to waver in our confidence. It is certain that with the lapse of time we came gradually to have breakfast at twelve o’clock, instead of nine, as we had originally appointed it, and that G. grew to consume the greater part of the day in making our small purchases, and to give us our belated dinners at seven o’clock. We protested, and temporary reforms ensued, only to be succeeded by more hopeless lapses; but it was not till all entreaties and threats failed that we began to think seriously it would be well to have done with Giovanna, as an unprofitable servant. I give the result, not all the nice causes from which it came. But the question was, How to get rid of a poor woman and a civil, and the mother of a family dependent in great part upon her labor? We solemnly resolve a hundred times to dismiss G., and we shrink a hundred times from inflicting the blow. At last, somewhat in the spirit of Charles Lamb’s Chinaman who invented roast pig, and discovered that the sole method of roasting it was to burn down a house in order to consume the adjacent pig-sty, and thus cook the roaster in the flames,—we hit upon an artifice by which we could dispense with Giovanna, and keep an easy conscience. We had long ceased to dine at home, in despair; and now we resolved to take another house, in which there were other servants. But even then, it was a sore struggle to part with the flower of serving-women, who was set over the vacated house to put it in order after our flitting, and with whom the imprudent Paron settled the last account in the familiar little dining-room, surrounded by the depressing influences of the empty chambers. The place was peopled after all, though we had left it, and I think the tenants who come after us will be haunted by our spectres, crowding them on the pleasant little balcony, and sitting down with them at table. G. stood there, the genius of the place, and wept six regretful tears, each one of which drew a florin from the purse of the Paron. She had hoped to remain with us always while we lived in Venice; but now that she could no longer look to us for support, the Lord must take care of her. The gush of grief was transient: it relieved her, and she came out sunnily a moment after. The Paron went his way more sorrowfully, taking leave at last with the fine burst of Christian philosophy: “We are none of us masters of ourselves in this world, and cannot do what we wish. Ma! Come si fa? Ci vuol pazienza!” Yet he was undeniably lightened in heart. He had cut adrift from old moorings, and had crossed the Grand Canal. G. did not follow him, nor any of the long line of pensioners who used to come on certain feast-days to levy tribute of eggs at the old house. (The postman was among these, on Christmas and New Year’s, and as he received eggs at every house, it was a problem with us, unsolved to this hour, how he carried them all, and what he did with them.) Not the least among the Paron’s causes for self-gratulation was the non-appearance at his new abode of two local newspapers, for which in an evil hour he subscribed, which were delivered with unsparing regularity, and which, being never read, formed the keenest reproach of his imprudent outlay and his idle neglect of their contents.
- Where the street entrance is in common, every floor has its bell, which being sounded, summons a servant to some upper window with the demand, most formidable to strangers, “Chi xe?” (Who is it?) But you do not answer with your name. You reply, “Amici!” (Friends!) on which comforting reassurance, the servant draws the latch of the door by a wire running upward to her hand, and permits you to enter and wander about at your leisure till you reach her secret height. This is, supposing the master or mistress of the house to be at home. If they are not in, she answers your “Amici!” with “No ghe ne xe!” (Nobody here!) and lets down a basket by a string outside the window, and fishes up your card.
- The noble floor—as the second or third story of the palace is called.
- The gondola landing-stairs which descend to the water before palace-doors and at the ends of streets.
- Padrone in Italian. A salutation with Venetian friends, and the title by which Venetian servants always designate their employers.
- Little champagne,—the name which the Venetian populace gave to a fierce and deadly kind of brandy drunk during the scarcity of wine. After the introduction of coal-oil this liquor came to be jocosely known as petrolio.
- I confess a tenderness for this dish, which is a delicater kind of hash skillfully flavored and baked in rolls of a mellow complexion and fascinating appearance