SOME MEMORABLE PLACES
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
We came away from the Ghetto, as we had arrived, in a gentle fall of goose-down, and winding crookedly through a dirty canal, glided into purer air and cleaner waters. I cannot well say how it was we came upon the old Servite Convent, which I had often looked for in vain, and which, associated with the great name of Paolo Sarpi, is to me one of the most memorable places in Venice. We reached it, after passing by that old, old palace, which was appointed in the early ages of Venetian commerce for the reception of oriental traffic and traffickers, and where it is said the Moorish merchants resided till the later time of the Fondaco dei Turchi on the Grand Canal. The façade of the palace is richly sculptured; and near one corner is the bass-relief of a camel and his turbaned driver,—in token, perhaps, that man and beast (as orientals would understand them) were here entertained.
We had lived long enough in Venice to know that it was by no means worth while to explore the interior of this old palace because the outside was attractive, and so we left it; and turning a corner, found ourselves in a shallow canal, with houses on one side, and a grassy bank on the other. The bank sloped gently from the water up to the walls of some edifice, on which ruin seemed to have fastened soon after the architect had begun his work. The vast walls, embracing several acres in their close, rose only some thirty or forty feet from the ground—only high enough, indeed, to join over the top of the great Gothic gates, which pierced them on two façades. There must have been barracks near; for on the sward, under the walls, muskets were stacked, and Austrian soldiers were practicing the bayonet-exercise with long poles padded at the point. “Ein, zwei, drei,—vorwärts! Ein, zwei, drei,—ruckwärts!”
snarled the drill-sergeant, and the dark-faced Hungarian soldiers—who may have soon afterward prodded their Danish fellow-beings all the more effectively for that day’s training—stooped, writhed, and leaped obedient. I, who had already caught sight of a little tablet in the wall bearing the name of Paolo Sarpi, could not feel the propriety of the military performance on that scene; yet I was very glad, dismounting from the gondola, to get by the soldiers without being forced back at the padded point of a pole, and offered no audible objection to their presence.
So passing to the other side, I found entrance through a disused chapel to the interior of the convent. The gates on the outside were richly sculptured, and were reverend and clean; tufts of harsh grass grew from their arches, and hung down like the “overwhelming brows” of age. Within, at first light, I saw nothing but heaps of rubbish, piles of stone, and here and there a mutilated statue. I remember two pathetic caryatides, that seemed to have broken and sunk under too heavy a weight for their gentle beauty—and everywhere the unnamable filth with which ruin is always dishonored in Italy, and which makes the most picturesque and historic places inaccessible to the foot, and intolerable to the senses and the soul. I was thinking with a savage indignation on this incurable porcheria, of the Italian poor (who are guilty of such desecrations), when my eye fell upon an enclosed space in one corner, where some odd-looking boulders were heaped together. It was a space about six feet in depth, and twenty feet square; and the boulders, on closer inspection, turned out to be human skulls, nestling on piles of human bones. In any other land than Italy I think I should have turned from the grisly sight with a cowardly sickness and shuddering; but here!—Why, heaven and earth seem to take the loss of men so good-naturedly,—so many men have died and passed away with their difficult, ambitious, and troublesome little schemes,—and the great mass of mankind is taken so small account of in the course of destiny, that the idea of death does not appear so alien and repulsive as elsewhere, and the presence of such evidences of our poor mortality can scarcely offend sensibility. These were doubtless the bones of the good Servite friars who had been buried in their convent, and had been digged up to make way for certain improvements now taking place within its walls. I have no doubt that their deaths were a rest to their bodies, to say nothing of their souls. If they were at all in their lives like those who have come after them, the sun baked their bald brows in Summer, and their naked feet—poor feet! clapping round in wooden-soled sandals over the frozen stones of Venice—were swollen and gnawed with chilblains in winter; and no doubt some fat friar of their number, looking all the droller in his bare feet for the spectacles on his nose, came down Calle Falier then, as now, to collect the charity of bread and fuel, far oftener than the dwellers in that aristocratic precinct wished to see him.
The friars’ skulls looked contented enough, and smiled after the hearty manner of skulls; and some of the leg-bones were thrust through the enclosing fence, and hung rakishly over the top. As to their spirits, I suppose they must have found out by this time that these confused and shattered tabernacles which they left behind them are not nearly so corrupt and dead as the monastic system which still cumbers the earth. People are building on the site of the old convent a hospital for indigent and decrepit women, where a religious sisterhood will have care of the inmates. It is a good end enough, but I think it would be the true compensation if all the rubbish of the old cloister were cleared from the area of those walls, and a great garden planted in the space, where lovers might whisper their wise nonsense, and children might romp and frolic, till the crumbling, masonry forgot its old office of imprisonment and the memory of its prisoners. For here, one could only think of the moping and mumming herd of monks, who were certainly not worth remembering, while the fame of Paolo Sarpi, and the good which he did, refused to be localized. That good is an inheritance which has enriched the world; but the share of Venice has been comparatively small in it, and that of this old convent ground still less. I rather wondered, indeed, that I should have taken the trouble to look up the place; but it is a harmless, if even a very foolish, pastime to go seeking for the sublime secret of the glory of the palm in the earth where it struck root and flourished. So far as the lifelong presence and the death of a man of clear brain and true heart could hallow any scene, this ground was holy; for here Sarpi lived, and here in his cell he died, a simple Servite friar—he who had caught the bolts of excommunication launched against the Republic from Rome, and broken them in his hand,—who had breathed upon the mighty arm of the temporal power, and withered it to the juiceless stock it now remains. And yet I could not feel that the ground was holy, and it did not make me think of Sarpi; and I believe that only those travelers who invent in cold blood their impressions of memorable places ever have remarkable impressions to record.
Once, before the time of Sarpi, an excommunication was pronounced against the Republic with a result as terrible as that of the later interdict was absurd. Venice took possession, early in the fourteenth century, of Ferrara, by virtue of a bargain which the high contracting parties—the Republic and an exiled claimant to the ducal crown of Ferrara—had no right to make. The father of the banished prince had displeased him by marrying late in life, when the thoughts of a good man should be turned on other things, and the son compassed the sire’s death. For this the Ferrarese drove him away, and as they would not take him back to reign over them at the suggestion of Venice, he resigned his rights in favor of the Republic, and the Republic at once annexed the city to its territories. The Ferrarese appealed to the pope for his protection, and Clement V., supporting an ancient but long quiescent claim to Ferrara on the part of the Church, called upon the Venetians to surrender the city, and, on their refusal, excommunicated them. All Christian peoples were commanded “to arm against the Venetians, to spoil them of their goods, as separated from the union of Christians, and as enemies of the Roman Church.” They were driven out of Ferrara, but their troubles did not end with their loss of the city. Giustina Renier-Michiel says the nations, under the shelter of the pope’s permission and command, “exercised against them every species of cruelty; there was no wrong or violence of which they were not victims. All the rich merchandise which they had in France, in Flanders, and in other places, was confiscated; their merchants were arrested, maltreated, and some of them killed. Woe to us, if the Saracens had been baptized Christians! our nation would have been utterly destroyed.” Such was the ruin brought upon us by this excommunication that to this day it is a popular saying, concerning a man of gloomy aspect, “He looks as if he were bringing the excommunication of Ferrara.”
No proverb, sprung from the popular terror, commemorates the interdict of the Republic which took place in 1606, and which, I believe, does not survive in popular recollection at Venice. It was at first a collision of the Venetian and Papal authorities at Ferrara, and then an interference of the pope to prevent the execution of secular justice upon certain ecclesiastical offenders in Venetia, which resulted in the excommunication of the Republic, and finally in the defeat of St. Peter and the triumph of St. Mark. Chief among the ecclesiastical offenders mentioned were the worthy Abbate Brandolino of Narvesa, who was accused, among other things, of poisoning his own father; and the good Canonico Saraceni of Vicenza, who was repulsed in overtures made to his beautiful cousin, and who revenged himself by defaming her character, and “filthily defacing” the doors of her palace. The abbate was arrested, and the canon, on this lady’s complaint to the Ten at Venice, was thrown into prison, and the weak and furious Pope Paul V., being refused their release by the Ten, excommunicated the whole Republic.
In the same year, that is to say 1552, the bane and antidote, Paul the Pope and Paul Sarpi the friar, were sent into the world. The latter grew in piety, fame, and learning, and at the time the former began his quarrel with the Republic, there was none in Venice so fit and prompt as Sarpi to stand forth in her defense. He was at once taken into the service of St. Mark, and his clear, acute mind fashioned the spiritual weapons of the Republic, and helped to shape the secular measures taken to annul the interdict. As soon as the bull of excommunication was issued, the Republic instructed her officers to stop every copy of it at the frontier, and it was never read in any church in the Venetian dominions. The Senate refused to receive it from the Papal Nuncio. All priests, monks, and other servants of the Church, as well as all secular persons, were commanded to disregard it; and refractory ecclesiastics were forced to open their churches on pain of death. The Jesuits and Capuchins were banished; and clerical intriguers, whom Rome sent in swarms to corrupt social and family relations, by declaring an end of civil government in Venice, and preaching among women disobedience to patriotic husbands and fathers, were severely punished. With internal safety thus provided for, the Republic intrusted her moral, religious, and political defense entirely to Sarpi, who devoted himself to his trust with fidelity, zeal, and power.
It might have been expected that the friend of Galileo, and the most learned and enlightened man of his country, would have taken the short and decisive method of discarding all allegiance to Rome as the most logical resistance to the unjust interdict. But the Venetians have ever been faithful Catholics1, and Sarpi was (or, according to the papal writers, seemed to be) a sincere and obedient Servite friar, believing in the spiritual supremacy of the pope, and revering the religion of Rome. He therefore fought Paul inside of the Church, and his writings on the interdict remain the monument of his polemical success. He was the heart and brain of the Republic’s whole resistance,—he supplied her with inexhaustible reasons and answers,—and, though tempted, accused, and threatened, he never swerved from his fidelity to her.
As he was the means of her triumph2, remained the object of her love. He could never be persuaded to desert his cell in the Minorite Convent for the apartments appointed him by the State; and even when his busy days were spent in council at the Ducal Palace, he returned each night to sleep in the cloister. After the harmless interdict had been removed by Paul, and the unyielding Republic forgiven, the wrath of Rome remained kindled against the friar whose logic had been too keen for the last reason of popes. He had been tried for heresy in his youth at Milan, and acquitted; again, during the progress of St. Mark’s quarrel with Rome, his orthodoxy had been questioned; and now that all was over, and Rome could turn her attention to one particular offender, he was entreated, coaxed, commanded to come to her, and put her heart at rest concerning these old accusations. But Sarpi was very well in Venice. He had been appointed Consultor in Theology to the Republic, and had received free admission to the secret archives of the State,—a favor, till then, never bestowed on any. So he would not go to Rome, and Rome sent assassins to take his life. One evening, as he was returning from the Ducal Palace in company with a lay-brother of the convent, and an old patrician, very infirm and helpless, he was attacked by these nuncios of the papal court: one of them seized the lay-brother, and another the patrician, while a third dealt Sarpi innumerable dagger thrusts. He fell as if dead, and the ruffians made off in the confusion.
Sarpi had been fearfully wounded, but he recovered. The action of the Republic in this affair is a comforting refutation of the saying that Republics are ungrateful, and the common belief that Venice was particularly so. The most strenuous and unprecedented efforts were made to take the assassins, and the most terrific penalties were denounced against them. What was much better, new honors were showered upon Sarpi, and extraordinary and affectionate measures were taken to provide for his safety.
And, in fine, he lived in the service of the Republic, revered and beloved, till his seventieth year, when he died with zeal for her good shaping his last utterance: “I must go to St. Mark, for it is late, and I have much to do.”
Brave Sarpi, and brave Republic! Men cannot honor them enough. For though the terrors of the interdict were doubted to be harmless even at that time, it had remained for them to prove the interdict, then and forever, an instrument as obsolete as the catapult.
I was so curious as to make some inquiry among the workmen on the old convent ground, whether any stone or other record commemorative of Sarpi had been found in the demolished cells. I hoped, not very confidently, to gather some trace of his presence there—to have, perhaps, the spot on which he died shown me. To a man, they were utterly ignorant of Sarpi, while affecting, in the Italian manner, to be perfectly informed on the subject. I was passed, with my curiosity, from one to another, till I fell into the hands of a kind of foreman, to whom I put my questions anew. He was a man of Napoleonic beard, and such fair red-and-white complexion that he impressed me as having escaped from a show of wax-works, and I was not at all surprised to find him a wax figure in point of intelligence. He seemed to think my questions the greatest misfortunes which had ever befallen him, and to regard each suggestion of Sarpi—tempo della Repubblica—scomunica di Paolo Quinto—as an intolerable oppression. He could only tell me that on a certain spot (which he pointed out with his foot) in the demolished church, there had been found a stone with Sarpi’s name upon it. The padrone, who had the contract for building the new convent, had said,—“Truly, I have heard speak of this Sarpi;” but the stone had been broken, and he did not know what had become of it.
And, in fact, the only thing that remembered Sarpi, on the site of the convent where he spent his life, died, and was buried, was the little tablet on the outside of the wall, of which the abbreviated Latin announced that he had been Theologue to the Republic, and that his dust was now removed to the island of San Michele. After this failure, I had no humor to make researches for the bridge on which the friar was attacked by his assassins. But, indeed, why should I look for it? Finding it, could I have kept in my mind the fine dramatic picture I now have, of Sarpi returning to his convent on a mild October evening, weary with his long walk from St. Mark’s, and pacing with downcast eyes,—the old patrician and the lay-brother at his side, and the masked and stealthy assassins, with uplifted daggers, behind him? Nay, I fear I should have found the bridge with some scene of modern life upon it, and brought away in my remembrance an old woman with an oil-bottle, or a straggling boy with a tumbler, and a very little wine in it.
On our way home from the Servite Convent, we stopped again near the corner and bridge of Sior Antonio Rioba,—this time to go into the house of Tintoretto, which stands close at the right hand, on the same quay. The house, indeed, might make some pretensions to be called a palace: it is large, and has a carved and balconied front, in which are set a now illegible tablet describing it as the painter’s dwelling, and a medallion portrait of Robusti. It would have been well if I had contented myself with this goodly outside; for penetrating, by a long narrow passage and complicated stairway, to the interior of the house, I found that it had nothing to offer me but the usual number of commonplace rooms in the usual blighting state of restoration. I must say that the people of the house, considering they had nothing in the world to show me, were kind and patient under the intrusion, and answered with very polite affirmation my discouraged inquiry if this were really Tintoretto’s house.
Their conduct was different from that of the present inmates of Titian’s house, near the Fondamenta Nuove, in a little court at the left of the church of the Jesuits. These unreasonable persons think it an intolerable bore that the enlightened traveling public should break in upon their privacy. They put their heads out of the upper windows, and assure the strangers that the house is as utterly restored within as they behold it without (and it is extremely restored), that it merely occupies the site of the painter’s dwelling, and that there is nothing whatever to see in it. I never myself had the heart to force an entrance after these protests; but an acquaintance of the more obdurate sex, whom I had the honor to accompany thither, once did so, and came out with a story of rafters of the original Titianic kitchen being still visible in the new one. After a lapse of two years I revisited the house, and found that so far from having learned patience by frequent trial, the inmates had been apparently goaded into madness during the interval. They seemed to know of our approach by instinct, and thrust their heads out, ready for protest, before we were near enough to speak. The lazy, frowzy women, the worthless men, and idle, loafing boys of the neighborhood, gathered round to witness the encounter; but though repeatedly commanded to ring (I was again in company with ladies), and try to force the place, I refused decidedly to do so. The garrison were strengthening their position by plastering and renewed renovation, and I doubt that by this time the original rafters are no longer to be seen. A plasterer’s boy, with a fine sense of humor, stood clapping his trowel on his board, inside the house, while we debated retreat, and derisively invited us to enter: “Suoni pure, O signore! Questa e la famosa casa del gran pittore, l’immortale Tiziano,—suoni, signore!” (Ring, by all means, sir. This is the famous house of the great painter, the immortal Titian. Ring!) Da capo. We retired amid the scorn of the populace. But indeed I could not blame the inhabitants of Titian’s house; and were I condemned to live in a place so famous as to attract idle curiosity, flushed and insolent with travel, I should go to the verge of man-traps and shot-guns to protect myself.
This house, which is now hemmed in by larger buildings of later date, had in the painter’s time an incomparably “lovely and delightful situation.” Standing near the northern boundary of the city, it looked out over the lagoon,—across the quiet isle of sepulchres, San Michele,—across the smoking chimneys of the Murano glass-works, and the bell-towers of her churches,—to the long line of the sea-shore on the right and to the mainland on the left; and beyond the nearer lagoon islands and the faintly penciled outlines of Torcello and Burano in front, to the sublime distance of the Alps, shining in silver and purple, and resting their snowy heads against the clouds. It had a pleasant garden of flowers and trees, into which the painter descended by an open stairway, and in which he is said to have studied the famous tree in The Death of Peter Martyr. Here he entertained the great and noble of his day, and here he feasted and made merry with the gentle sculptor Sansovino, and with their common friend, the rascal-poet Aretino. The painter’s and the sculptor’s wives knew each other, and Sansovino’s Paola was often in the house of Cecilia Vecellio3; and any one who is wise enough not to visit the place, can easily think of those ladies there, talking at an open window that gives upon the pleasant garden, where their husbands walk up and down together in the purple evening light.
In the palace where Goldoni was born a servant showed me an entirely new room near the roof, in which he said the great dramatist had composed his immortal comedies. As I knew, however, that Goldoni had left the house when a child, I could scarcely believe what the cicerone said, though I was glad he said it, and that he knew any thing at all of Goldoni. It is a fine old Gothic palace on a small canal near the Frari, and on the Calle del Nomboli, just across from a shop of indigestible pastry. It is known by an inscription, and by the medallion of the dramatist above the land-door; and there is no harm in looking in at the court on the ground-floor, where you may be pleased with the picturesque old stairway, wandering upward I hardly know how high, and adorned with many little heads of lions.
Several palaces dispute the honor of being Bianca Cappello’s birthplace, but Mutinelli awards the distinction to the palace at Sant’ Appollinare near the Ponte Storto. One day a gondolier vaingloriously rowed us to the water-gate of the edifice through a very narrow, damp, and uncleanly canal, pretending that there was a beautiful staircase in its court. At the moment of our arrival, however, Bianca happened to be hanging out clothes from a window, and shrilly disclaimed the staircase, attributing this merit to another Palazzo Cappello. We were less pleased with her appearance here, than with that portrait of her which we saw on another occasion in the palace of a lady of her name and blood. This lady has since been married, and the name of Cappello is now extinct.
The Palazzo Mocenigo, in which Byron lived, is galvanized into ghastly newness by recent repairs, and as it is one of the ugliest palaces on the Grand Canal, it has less claim than ever upon one’s interest. The custodian shows people the rooms where the poet wrote, dined, and slept, and I suppose it was from the hideous basket-balcony over the main door that one of his mistresses threw herself into the canal. Another of these interesting relicts is pointed out in the small butter-and-cheese shop which she keeps in the street leading from Campo Sant’ Angelo to San Paterinan: she is a fat sinner, long past beauty, bald, and somewhat melancholy to behold. Indeed, Byron’s memory is not a presence which I approach with pleasure, and I had most enjoyment in his palace when I thought of good-natured little Thomas Moore, who once visited his lordship there. Byron himself hated the recollection of his life in Venice, and I am sure no one else need like it. But he is become a cosa di Venezia, and you cannot pass his palace without having it pointed out to you by the gondoliers. Early after my arrival in the city I made the acquaintance of an old smooth-shaven, smooth-mannered Venetian, who said he had known Byron, and who told me that he once swam with him from the Port of San Nicolò to his palace-door. The distance is something over three miles, but if the swimmers came in with the sea the feat was not so great as it seems, for the tide is as swift and strong as a mill-race. I think it would be impossible to make the distance against the tide.
- It is convenient here to attest the truth of certain views of religious sentiment in Italy, which Mr. Trollope, in his Paul the Pope and Paul the Friar, quotes from an “Italian author, by no means friendly to Catholicism, and very well qualified to speak of the progress of opinions and tendencies among his fellow-countrymen.” This author is Bianchi Giovini, who, speaking of modern Catholicism as the heir of the old materialistic paganism, says: “The Italians have identified themselves with this mode of religion. Cultivated men find in it the truth there is in it, and the people find what is agreeable to them. But both the former and the latter approve it as conformable to the national character. And whatever may be the religious system which shall govern our descendants twenty centuries hence, I venture to affirm that the exterior forms of it will be pretty nearly the same as those which prevail at present, and which did prevail twenty centuries ago. Mr. Trollope generously dissents from the “pessimism” of these views. The views are discouraging for some reasons; but, with considerable disposition and fair opportunity to observe Italian character in this respect, I had arrived at precisely these conclusions. I wish here to state that in my slight sketch of Sarpi and his times I have availed myself freely of Mr. Trollope’s delightful book—it is near being too much of a good thing—named above.
- The triumph was such only so far as the successful resistance to the interdict was concerned; for at the intercession of the Catholic powers the Republic gave up the ecclesiastical prisoners, and he allowed all the banished priests except the Jesuits to return. The Venetians utterly refused to perform any act of humiliation or penance. The interdict had been defied, and it remained despised.
- The wife of Titian’s youth was, according to Ticozzi, named Lucia. It is in Mutinelli that I find allusion to Cecilia. The author of the Annali Urbani, speaking of the friendship and frequent meetings of Titian and Sansovino, says,—“Vivevano … allora ambedue di un amore fatto sacro dalle leggi divine, essendo moglie di Tiziano una Cecilia.” I would not advise the reader to place too fond a trust in any thing concerning the house of Titian. Mutinelli refers to but one house of the painter, while Ticozzi makes him proprietor of two.