THE BALCONY ON THE GRAND CANAL
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
The history of Venice reads like a romance; the place seems a fantastic vision at the best, from which the world must at last awake some morning, and find that after all it has only been dreaming, and that there never was any such city. There our race seems to be in earnest in nothing. People sometimes work, but as if without any aim; they suffer, and you fancy them playing at wretchedness. The Church of St. Mark, standing so solidly, with a thousand years under the feet of its innumerable pillars, is not in the least gray with time—no grayer than a Greek lyric.
“All has suffered a sea-change
Into something rich and strange,”
in this fantastic city. The prose of earth has risen poetry from its baptism in the sea.
And if, living constantly in Venice, you sometimes for a little while forget how marvelous she is, at any moment you may be startled into vivid remembrance. The cunning city beguiles you street by street, and step by step, into some old court, where a flight of marble stairs leads high up to the pillared gallery of an empty palace, with a climbing vine green and purple on its old decay, and one or two gaunt trees stretching their heads to look into the lofty windows,—blind long ago to their leafy tenderness,—while at their feet is some sumptuously carven well, with the beauty of the sculptor’s soul wrought forever into the stone. Or Venice lures you in a gondola into one of her remote canals, where you glide through an avenue as secret and as still as if sea-deep under our work-day world; where the grim heads carven over the water-gates of the palaces stare at you in austere surprise, where the innumerable balconies are full of the Absences of gay cavaliers and gentle dames, gossiping and making love to one another, from their airy perches. Or if the city’s mood is one of bolder charm, she fascinates you in the very places where you think her power is the weakest, and as if impatient of your forgetfulness, dares a wilder beauty, and enthralls with a yet more unearthly and incredible enchantment. It is in the Piazza, and the Austrian band is playing, and the promenaders pace solemnly up and down to the music, and the gentle Italian loafers at Florian’s brood vacantly over their little cups of coffee, and nothing can be more stupid; when suddenly every thing is changed, and a memorable tournament flashes up in many-glittering action upon the scene, and there upon the gallery of the church, before the horses of bronze, sit the Senators, bright-robed, and in the midst the bonneted Doge with his guest Petrarch at his side. Or the old Carnival, which had six months of every year to riot in, comes back and throngs the place with motley company,—dominoes, harlequins, pantaloni, illustrissimi and illustrissime, and perhaps even the Doge himself, who has the right of incognito when he wears a little mask of wax at his button-hole. Or may be the grander day revisits Venice when Doria has sent word from his fleet of Genoese at Chioggia that he will listen to the Senate when he has bridled the horses of Saint Mark,—and the whole Republic of rich and poor crowds the square, demanding the release of Pisani, who comes forth from his prison to create victory from the dust of the crumbling commonwealth.
But whatever surprise of memorable or beautiful Venice may prepare for your forgetfulness, be sure it will be complete and resistless. Nay, what potenter magic needs my Venice to revivify her past whenever she will, than the serpent cunning of her Grand Canal? Launched upon this great S have I not seen hardened travelers grow sentimental, and has not this prodigious sybillant, in my hearing, inspired white-haired Puritan ministers of the gospel to attempt to quote out of the guide-book “that line from Byron”? Upon my word, I have sat beside wandering editors in their gondolas, and witnessed the expulsion of the newspaper from their nature, while, lulled by the fascination of the place, they were powerless to take their own journals from their pockets, and instead of politics talked some bewildered nonsense about coming back with their families next summer. For myself, I must count as half-lost the year spent in Venice before I took a house upon the Grand Canal. There alone can existence have the perfect local flavor. But by what witchery touched one’s being suffers the common sea-change, till life at last seems to ebb and flow with the tide in that wonder-avenue of palaces, it would be idle to attempt to tell. I can only take you to our dear little balcony at Casa Falier, and comment not very coherently on the scene upon the water under us.
And I am sure (since it is either in the spring or the fall) you will not be surprised to see, the first thing, a boat-load of those English, who go by from the station to their hotels, every day, in well-freighted gondolas. These parties of traveling Englishry are all singularly alike, from the “Pa’ty” traveling alone with his opera-glass and satchel, to the party which fills a gondola with well-cushioned English middle age, ruddy English youth, and substantial English baggage. We have learnt to know them all very well: the father and the mother sit upon the back seat, and their comely girls at the sides and front. These girls all have the honest cabbage-roses of English health upon their cheeks; they all wear little rowdy English hats, and invariable waterfalls of hair tumble upon their broad English backs. They are coming from Switzerland and Germany, and they are going south to Rome and to Naples, and they always pause at Venice a few days. To-morrow we shall see them in the Piazza, and at Florian’s, and St. Mark’s, and the Ducal Palace; and the young ladies will cross the Bridge of Sighs, and will sentimentally feed the vagabond pigeons of St. Mark which loaf about the Piazza and defile the sculptures. But now our travelers are themselves very hungry, and are more anxious than Americans can understand about the table-d’hôte of their hotel. It is perfectly certain that if they fall into talk there with any of our nation, the respectable English father will remark that this war in America is a very sad war, and will ask to know when it will all end. The truth is, Americans do not like these people, and I believe there is no love lost on the other side. But, in many things, they are travelers to be honored, if not liked: they voyage through all countries, and without awaking fervent affection in any land through which they pass; but their sterling honesty and truth have made the English tongue a draft upon the unlimited confidence of the continental peoples, and French, Germans, and Italians trust and respect private English faith as cordially as they hate public English perfidy.
They come to Venice chiefly in the autumn, and October is the month of the Sunsets and the English. The former are best seen from the Public Gardens, whence one looks westward, and beholds them glorious behind the domes and towers of San Giorgio Maggiore and the church of the Redentore. Sometimes, when the sky is clear, your sunset on the lagoon is a fine thing; for then the sun goes down into the water with a broad trail of bloody red behind him, as if, wounded far out at sea, he had dragged himself landward across the crimsoning expanses, and fallen and died as he reached the land. But we (upon whom the idleness of Venice grows daily, and from whom the Gardens, therefore, grow farther and farther) are commonly content to take our bit of sunset as we get it from our balcony, through the avenue opened by the narrow canal opposite. We like the earlier afternoon to have been a little rainy, when we have our sunset splendid as the fury of a passionate beauty—all tears and fire. There is a pretty but impertinent little palace on the corner which is formed by this canal as it enters the Canalazzo, and from the palace, high over the smaller channel, hangs an airy balcony. When the sunset sky, under and over the balcony, is of that pathetic and angry red which I have tried to figure, we think ourselves rich in the neighborhood of that part of the “Palace of Art,” whereon
“The light aerial gallery, golden railed,
Burnt like a fringe of fire.”
And so, after all, we do not think we have lost any greater thing in not seeing the sunset from the Gardens, where half a dozen artists are always painting it, or from the quay of the Zattere, where it is splendid over and under the island church of San Giorgio in Alga.
It is only the English and the other tourist strangers who go by upon the Grand Canal during the day. But in the hours just before the summer twilight the gondolas of the citizens appear, and then you may see whatever is left of Venetian gayety and looking down upon the groups in the open gondolas may witness something of the home-life of the Italians, who live out-of-doors.
The groups do not vary a great deal one from another: inevitably the pale-faced papa, the fat mamma, the over-dressed handsome young girls. We learned to look for certain gondolas, and grew to feel a fond interest in a very mild young man who took the air in company and contrast with a ferocious bull-dog—boule-dogue he called him, I suppose. He was always smoking languidly, that mild young man, and I fancied I could read in his countenance a gentle, gentle antagonism to life—the proportionate Byronic misanthropy, which might arise from sugar and water taken instead of gin. But we really knew nothing about him, and our conjecture was conjecture. Officers went by in their brilliant uniforms, and gave the scene an alien splendor. Among these we enjoyed best the spectacle of an old major, or perhaps general, in whom the arrogance of youth had stiffened into a chill hauteur, and who frowned above his gray overwhelming moustache upon the passers, like a citadel grim with battle and age. We used to fancy, with a certain luxurious sense of our own safety, that one broadside from those fortressed eyes could blow from the water the slight pleasure-boats in which the young Venetian idlers were innocently disporting. But again this was merely conjecture. The general’s glance may have had no such power. Indeed, the furniture of our apartment sustained no damage from it, even when concentrated through an opera-glass, by which means the brave officer at times perused our humble lodging from the balcony of his own over against us. He may have been no more dangerous in his way than two aged sisters (whom we saw every evening) were in theirs. They represented Beauty in its most implacable and persevering form, and perhaps they had one day been belles and could not forget it. They were very old indeed, but their dresses were new and their paint fresh, and as they glided by in the good-natured twilight, one had no heart to smile at them. We gave our smiles, and now and then our soldi, to the swarthy beggar, who, being short of legs, rowed up and down the canal in a boat, and overhauled Charity in the gondolas. He was a singular compromise, in his vocation and his equipment, between the mendicant and corsair: I fear he would not have hesitated to assume the pirate altogether in lonelier waters; and had I been a heavily laden oyster-boat returning by night through some remote and dark canal, I would have steered clear of that truculent-looking craft, of which the crew must have fought with a desperation proportioned to the lack of legs and the difficulty of running away, in case of defeat.
About nightfall came the market boats on their way to the Rialto market, bringing heaped fruits and vegetables from the main-land; and far into the night the soft dip of the oar, and the gurgling progress of the boats was company and gentlest lullaby. By which time, if we looked out again, we found the moon risen, and the ghost of dead Venice shadowily happy in haunting the lonesome palaces, and the sea, which had so loved Venice, kissing and caressing the tide-worn marble steps where her feet seemed to rest.
At night sometimes we saw from our balcony one of those freschi, which once formed the chief splendor of festive occasions in Venice, and are peculiar to the city, where alone their fine effects are possible. The fresco is a procession of boats with music and lights. Two immense barges, illumined with hundreds of paper lanterns, carry the military bands; the boats of the civil and military dignitaries follow, and then the gondolas of such citizens as choose to take part in the display,—though since 1859 no Italian, unless a government official, has been seen in the procession. No gondola has less than two lanterns, and many have eight or ten, shedding mellow lights of blue, and red, and purple, over uniforms and silken robes. The soldiers of the bands breathe from their instruments music the most perfect and exquisite of its kind in the world; and as the procession takes the width of the Grand Canal in its magnificent course, soft crimson flushes play upon the old, weather-darkened palaces, and die tenderly away, giving to light and then to shadow the opulent sculptures of pillar, and arch, and spandrel, and weirdly illuminating the grim and bearded visages of stone that peer down from doorway and window. It is a sight more gracious and fairy than ever poet dreamed; and I feel that the lights and the music have only got into my description by name, and that you would not know them when you saw and heard them, from any thing I say. In other days, people tell you, the fresco was much more impressive than now. At intervals, rockets used to be sent up, and the Bengal lights, burned during the progress of the boats, threw the gondoliers’ spectral shadows, giant-huge, on the palace-walls. But, for my part, I do not care to have the fresco other than I know it: indeed, for my own selfish pleasure, I should be sorry to have Venice in any way less fallen and forlorn than she is.
Without doubt the most picturesque craft ever seen on the Grand Canal are the great boats of the river Po, which, crossing the lagoons from Chioggia, come up to the city with the swelling sea. They are built with a pointed stern and bow rising with the sweep of a short curve from the water high above the cabin roof, which is always covered with a straw matting. Black is not the color of the gondolas alone, but of all boats in Venetia; and these of the Po are like immense funeral barges, and any one of them might be sent to take King Arthur and bear him to Avilon, whither I think most of them are bound. A path runs along either gunwale, on which the men pace as they pole the boat up the canal,—her great sail folded and lying with the prostrate mast upon the deck. The rudder is a prodigious affair, and the man at the helm is commonly kind enough to wear a red cap with a blue tassel, and to smoke. The other persons on board are no less obliging and picturesque, from the dark-eyed young mother who sits with her child in her arms at the cabin-door, to the bronze boy who figures in play at her feet with a small yellow dog of the race already noticed in charge of the fuel-boats from Dalmatia. The father of the family, whom we take to be the commander of the vessel, occupies himself gracefully in sitting down and gazing at the babe and its mother. It is an old habit of mine, formed in childhood from looking at rafts upon the Ohio, to attribute, with a kind of heart-ache, supreme earthly happiness to the navigators of lazy river craft; and as we glance down upon these people from our balcony, I choose to think them immensely contented, and try, in a feeble, tacit way, to make friends with so much bliss. But I am always repelled in these advances by the small yellow dog, who is rendered extremely irascible by my contemplation of the boat under his care, and who, ruffling his hair as a hen ruffles her feathers, never fails to bark furious resentment of my longing.
Far different from the picture presented by this boat’s progress—the peacefulness of which even the bad temper of the small yellow dog could not mar—was another scene which we witnessed upon the Grand Canal, when one morning we were roused from our breakfast by a wild and lamentable outcry. Two large boats, attempting to enter the small canal opposite at the same time, had struck together with a violence that shook the boatmen to their inmost souls. One barge was laden with lime, and belonged to a plasterer of the city; the other was full of fuel, and commanded by a virulent rustic. These rival captains advanced toward the bows of their boats, with murderous looks,
“Con la test’alta e con rabbiosa fame,
Sì che parea che l’aer ne temesse,”
and there stamped furiously, and beat the wind with hands of deathful challenge, while I looked on with that noble interest which the enlightened mind always feels in people about to punch each other’s heads.
But the storm burst in words.
“Figure of a pig!” shrieked the Venetian, “you have ruined my boat forever!”
“Thou liest, son of an ugly old dog!” returned the countryman, “and it was my right to enter the canal first.”
They then, after this exchange of insult, abandoned the main subject of dispute, and took up the quarrel laterally and in detail. Reciprocally questioning the reputation of all their female relatives to the third and fourth cousins, they defied each other as the offspring of assassins and prostitutes. As the peace-making tide gradually drifted their boats asunder, their anger rose, and they danced back and forth and hurled opprobrium with a foamy volubility that quite left my powers of comprehension behind. At last the townsman, executing a pas seul of uncommon violence, stooped and picked up a bit of lime, while the countryman, taking shelter at the stern of his boat, there attended the shot. To my infinite disappointment it was not fired. The Venetian seemed to have touched the climax of his passion in the mere demonstration of hostility, and gently gathering up his oar gave the countryman the right of way. The courage of the latter rose as the danger passed, and as far as he could be heard, he continued to exult in the wildest excesses of insult: “Ah-heigh! brutal executioner! Ah, hideous headsman!” Da capo. I now know that these people never intended to do more than quarrel, and no doubt they parted as well pleased as if they had actually carried broken heads from the encounter. But at the time I felt affronted and trifled with by the result, for my disappointments arising out of the dramatic manner of the Italians had not yet been frequent enough to teach me to expect nothing from it.
There was some compensation for me—coming, like all compensation, a long while after the loss—in the spectacle of a funeral procession on the Grand Canal, which had a singular and imposing solemnity only possible to the place. It was the funeral of an Austrian general, whose coffin, mounted on a sable catafalco, was borne upon the middle boat of three that moved abreast. The barges on either side bristled with the bayonets of soldiery, but the dead man was alone in his boat, except for one strange figure that stood at the head of the coffin, and rested its glittering hand upon the black fall of the drapery. This was a man clad cap-a-pie in a perfect suit of gleaming mail, with his visor down, and his shoulders swept by the heavy raven plumes of his helm. As at times he moved from side to side, and glanced upward at the old palaces, sad in the yellow morning light, he put out of sight, for me, every thing else upon the Canal, and seemed the ghost of some crusader come back to Venice, in wonder if this city, lying dead under the hoofs of the Croat, were indeed that same haughty Lady of the Sea who had once sent her blind old Doge to beat down the pride of an empire and disdain its crown.