Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
The national character of the Venetians was so largely influenced by the display and dissipation of the frequent festivals of the Republic, that it cannot be fairly estimated without taking them into consideration, nor can the disuse of these holidays (of which I have heretofore spoken) be appreciated in all its import, without particular allusion to their number and nature. They formed part of the aristocratic polity of the old commonwealth, which substituted popular indulgence for popular liberty, and gave the people costly pleasures in return for the priceless rights of which they had been robbed, set up national pride in the place of patriotism, and was as well satisfied with a drunken joy in its subjects as if they had possessed a true content.
Full notice of these holidays would be history1 of Venice, for each one had its origin in some great event of her existence, and they were so numerous as to commemorate nearly every notable incident in her annals. Though, as has been before observed, they had nearly all a general religious character, the Church, as usual in Venice, only seemed to direct the ceremonies in its own honor, while it really ministered to the political glory of the oligarchy, which knew how to manage its priests as well as its prince and people. Nay, it happened in one case, at least, that a religious anniversary was selected by the Republic as the day on which to put to shame before the populace certain of the highest and reverendest dignitaries of the Church. In 1162, Ulrich, the Patriarch of Aquileja, seized, by a treacherous stratagem, the city of Grado, then subject to Venice. The Venetians immediately besieged and took the city, with the patriarch and twelve of his canons in it, and carried them prisoners to the lagoons. The turbulent patriarchs of Aquileja had long been disturbers of the Republic’s dominion, and the people now determined to make an end of these displeasures. They refused, therefore, to release the patriarch, except on condition that he should bind himself to send them annually a bull and twelve fat hogs. It is not known what meaning the patriarch attached to this singular ceremony; but with the Venetians the bull was typical of himself, and the swine of his canons, and they yearly suffered death in these animals, which were slaughtered during Shrovetide in the Piazza San Marco amid a great concourse of the people, in the presence of the Doge and Signory. The locksmiths, and other workers in iron, had distinguished themselves in the recapture of Grado, and to their guild was allotted the honor of putting to death the bull and swine. Great art was shown in striking off the bull’s head at one blow, without suffering the sword to touch the ground after passing through the animal’s neck; the swine were slain with lances. Athletic games among the people succeeded, and the Doge and his Senators attacked and destroyed, with staves, several lightly built wooden castles, to symbolize the abasement of the feudal power before the Republic. As the centuries advanced this part of the ceremony, together with the slaughter of the swine, was disused; in which fact Mr. Ruskin sees evidence of a corrupt disdain of simple and healthy allegory on the part of the proud doges, but in which I think most people will discern only a natural wish to discontinue in more civilized times a puerile barbarity. Mr. Ruskin himself finds no evidence of “state pride” in the abolition of the slaughter of the swine. The festival was very popular, and continued a long time, though I believe not till the fall of the Republic.
Another tribute, equally humiliating to those who paid it, was imposed upon the Paduans for an insult offered to St. Mark, and gave occasion for a national holiday, some fifty years after the Patriarch of Aquileja began atonement for his outrage. In the year 1214, the citizens of Treviso made an entertainment to which they invited the noble youth of the surrounding cities. In the chief piazza of the town a castle of wood exquisitely decorated was held against all comers by a garrison of the fairest Trevisan damsels. The weapons of defense were flowers, fruits, bonbons, and the bright eyes of the besieged; while the missiles of attack were much the same, with whatever added virtue might lie in tender prayers and sugared supplications. Padua, Vicenza, Bassano, and Venice sent their gallantest youths, under their municipal banners, to take part in this famous enterprise; and the attack was carried on by the leagued forces with great vigor, but with no effect on the Castle of Love, as it was called, till the Venetians made a breach at a weak point. These young men were better skilled in the arts of war than their allies; they were richer, and had come to Treviso decked in the spoils of the recent sack of Constantinople, and at the moment they neared the castle it is reported that they corrupted the besieged by throwing handfuls of gold into the tower. Whether this be true or not, it is certain that the conduct of the Venetians in some manner roused the Paduans to insult, and that the hot youths came to blows. In an instant the standard of St. Mark was thrown down and trampled under the feet of the furious Paduans; blood flowed, and the indignant Trevisans drove the combatants out of their city. The spark of war spreading to the rival cities, the Paduans were soon worsted, and three hundred of their number were made prisoners. These they would willingly have ransomed at any price, but their enemies would not release them except on the payment of two white pullets for each warrior. The shameful ransom was paid in the Piazza, to the inextinguishable delight of the Venetians, who, never wanting in sharp and biting wit, abandoned themselves to sarcastic exultation. They demanded that the Paduans should, like the patriarch, repeat the tribute annually; but the prudent Doge Ziani judged the single humiliation sufficient, and refused to establish a yearly celebration of the feast.
One of the most famous occasional festivals of Venice is described by Petrarch in a Latin letter to his friend Pietro Bolognese. It was in celebration of the reduction of the Greeks of Candia, an island which in 1361 had recently been ceded to the Republic. The Candiotes rose in general rebellion, but were so promptly subdued that the news of the outbreak scarcely anticipated the announcement of its suppression in Venice. Petrarch was at this time the guest of the Republic, and from his seat at the right of the Doge on the gallery of St. Mark’s Church, in front of the bronze horses, he witnessed the chivalric shows given in the Piazza below, which was then unpaved, and admirably adapted for equestrian feats of arms. It is curious to read the poet’s account of these in a city where there is now no four-footed beast larger than a dog. But in the age of chivalry even the Venetians were mounted, and rode up and down their narrow streets, and jousted in their great campos.
Speaking of twenty-four noble and handsome youths, whose feats formed a chief part of a show of which he “does not know if in the whole world there has been seen the equal,” Petrarch says: “It was a gentle sight to see so many youths decked in purple and gold, as they ruled with the rein and urged with the spur their coursers, moving in glittering harness, with iron-shod feet which scarcely seemed to touch the ground.”
And it must have been a noble sight, indeed, to behold all this before the “golden façade of the temple,” in a place so packed with spectators “that a grain of barley could not have fallen to the ground. The great piazza, the church itself, the towers, the roofs, the arcades, the windows, all were—I will not say full, but running over, walled and paved with people.” At the right of the church was built a great platform, on which sat “four hundred honestest gentlewomen, chosen from the flower of the nobility, and distinguished in their dress and bearing, who, amid the continual homage offered them morning, noon, and night, presented the image of a celestial congress.” Some noblemen, come hither by chance, “from the part of Britain, comrades and kinsmen of their King, were present,” and attracted the notice of the poet. The feasts lasted many days, but on the third day Petrarch excused himself to the Doge, pleading, he says, his “ordinary occupations, already known to all.”
Among remoter feasts in honor of national triumphs, was one on the Day of the Annunciation, commemorative of the removal of the capital of the Venetian isles to Rialto from Malamocco, after King Pepin had burnt the latter city, and when, advancing on Venice, he was met in the lagoons and beaten by the islanders and the tides: these by their recession stranding his boats in the mud, and those falling upon his helpless host with the fury of an insulted and imperiled people. The Doge annually assisted at mass in St. Mark’s in honor of the victory, but not long afterward the celebration of it ceased, as did that of a precisely similar defeat of the Hungarians, who had just descended from Asia into Europe. In 1339 there were great rejoicings in the Piazza for the peace with Mastino della Scala, who, beaten by the Republic, ceded his city of Treviso to her.
Doubtless the most splendid of all the occasional festivals was that held for the Venetian share of the great Christian victory at Lepanto over the Turks. All orders of the State took part in it; but the most remarkable feature of the celebration was the roofing of the Merceria, all the way from St. Mark’s to Rialto, with fine blue cloth, studded with golden stars to represent the firmament, as the shopkeepers imagined it. The pictures of the famous painters of that day, Titian, Tintoretto, Palma, and the rest, were exposed under this canopy, at the end near Rialto. Later, the Venetian victories over the Turks at the Dardanelles were celebrated by a regatta, in 1658; and Morosini’s brilliant reconquest of the Morea, in 1688, was the occasion of other magnificent shows.
The whole world has now adopted, with various modifications, the picturesque and exciting pastime of the regatta, which, according to Mutinelli2, originated among the lagoons at a very early period, from a peculiar feature in the military discipline of the Republic. A target for practice with the bow and cross-bow was set up every week on the beach at the Lido, and nobles and plebeians rowed thither in barges of thirty oars, vying with each other in the speed and skill with which the boats were driven. To divert the popular discontent that followed the Serrar del Consiglio and the suppression of Bajamonte Tiepolo’s conspiracy early in the fourteenth century, the proficiency arising from this rivalry was turned to account, and the spectacle of the regatta was instituted. Agreeably, however, to the aristocratic spirit of the newly established oligarchy, the patricians withdrew from the lists, and the regatta became the affair exclusively of the gondoliers. In other Italian cities, where horse and donkey races were the favorite amusement, the riders were of both sexes; and now at Venice women also entered into the rivalry of the regatta. But in gallant deference to their weakness, they were permitted to begin the course at the mouth of the Grand Canal before the Doganna di Mare, while the men were obliged to start from the Public Gardens. They followed the Grand Canal to its opposite extremity, beyond the present railway station, and there doubling a pole planted in the water near the Ponte della Croce, returned to the common goal before the Palazzo Foscari. Here was erected an ornate scaffolding to which the different prizes were attached. The first boat carried off a red banner; the next received a green flag; the third, a blue; and the fourth, a yellow one. With each of these was given a purse, and with the last was added, by way of gibe, a live pig, a picture of which was painted on the yellow banner. Every regatta included five courses, in which single and double oared boats, and single and double oared gondolas successively competed,—the fifth contest being that in which the women participated with two-oared boats. Four prizes like those described were awarded to the winners in each course.
The regatta was celebrated with all the pomp which the superb city could assume. As soon as the government announced that it was to take place, the preparations of the champions began. “From that time the gondolier ceased to be a servant; he became almost an adoptive son;3” his master giving him every possible assistance and encouragement in the daily exercises by which he trained himself for the contest, and his parish priest visiting him in his own house, to bless his person, his boat, and the image of the Madonna or other saint attached to the gondola. When the great day arrived the Canalazzo swarmed with boats of every kind. “All the trades and callings,” says Giustina Renier-Michiel4, with that pride in the Venetian past which does not always pass from verbosity to eloquence, “had each its boats appropriately mounted and adorned; and private societies filled an hundred more. The chief families among the nobility appeared in their boats, on which they had lavished their taste and wealth.” The rowers were dressed with the most profuse and elaborate luxury, and the barges were made to represent historical and mythological conceptions. “To this end the builders employed carving and sculpture, together with all manner of costly stuffs of silk and velvet, gorgeous fringes and tassels of silver and gold, flowers, fruits, shrubs, mirrors, furs, and plumage of rare birds…. Young patricians, in fleet and narrow craft, propelled by swift rowers, preceded the champions and cleared the way for them, obliging the spectators to withdraw on either side…. They knelt on sumptuous cushions in the prows of their gondolas, cross-bow in hand, and launched little pellets of plaster at the directors of such obstinate boats as failed to obey their orders to retire….
“To augment the brilliancy of the regatta the nature of the place concurred. Let us imagine that superb canal, flanked on either side by a long line of edifices of every sort; with great numbers of marble palaces,—nearly all of noble and majestic structure, some admirable for an antique and Gothic taste, some for the richest Greek and Roman architecture,—their windows and balconies decked with damasks, stuffs of the Levant, tapestries, and velvets, the vivid colors of which were animated still more by borders and fringes of gold, and on which leaned beautiful women richly dressed and wearing tremulous and glittering jewels in their hair. Wherever the eye turned, it beheld a vast multitude at doorways, on the rivas, and even on the roofs. Some of the spectators occupied scaffoldings erected at favorable points along the sides of the canal; and the patrician ladies did not disdain to leave their palaces, and, entering their gondolas, lose themselves among the infinite number of the boats….
“The cannons give the signal of departure. The boats dart over the water with the rapidity of lightning…. They advance and fall behind alternately. One champion who seems to yield the way to a rival suddenly leaves him in the rear. The shouts of his friends and kinsmen hail his advantage, while others already passing him, force him to redouble his efforts. Some weaker ones succumb midway, exhausted…. They withdraw, and the kindly Venetian populace will not aggravate their shame with jeers; the spectators glance at them compassionately, and turn again to those still in the lists. Here and there they encourage them by waving handkerchiefs, and the women toss their shawls in the air. Each patrician following close upon his gondolier’s boat, incites him with his voice, salutes him by name, and flatters his pride and spirit…. The water foams under the repeated strokes of the oars; it leaps up in spray and falls in showers on the backs of the rowers already dripping with their own sweat…. At last behold the dauntless mortal who seizes the red banner! His rival had almost clutched it, but one mighty stroke of the oar gave him the victory…. The air reverberates with a clapping of hands so loud that at the remotest point on the canal the moment of triumph is known. The victors plant on their agile boat the conquered flag, and instead of thinking to rest their weary arms, take up the oars again and retrace their course to receive congratulations and applause.”
The regattas were by no means of frequent occurrence, for only forty-one took place during some five centuries. The first was given in 1315, and the last in 1857, in honor of the luckless Archduke Maximilian’s marriage with Princess Charlotte of Belgium. The most sumptuous and magnificent regatta of all was that given to the city in the year 1686, by Duke Ernest of Brunswick. This excellent prince having sold a great part of his subjects to the Republic for use in its wars against the Turk, generously spent their price in the costly and edifying entertainments of which Venice had already become the scene. The Judgment of Paris, and the Triumph of the Marine Goddesses had been represented at his expense on the Grand Canal, with great acceptance. And now the Triumph of Neptune formed a principal feature in the gayeties of his regatta. Nearly the whole of the salt-water mythology was employed in the ceremony. An immense wooden whale supporting a structure of dolphins and Tritons, surmounted by a statue of Neptune, and drawn by sea-horses, moved from the Piazzetta to the Palazzo Foscari, where numbers of Sirens sported about in every direction till the Regatta began. The whole company of the deities, very splendidly arrayed, then joined them as spectators, and behaved in the manner affected by gods and goddesses on these occasions. Mutinelli5 recounts the story with many sighs and sneers and great exactness; but it is not interesting. The miraculous recovery of the body of St. Mark, in 1094, after it had been lost for nearly two centuries, created a festive anniversary which was celebrated for a while with great religious pomp; but the rejoicings were not separately continued in after years. The festival was consolidated (if one may so speak) with two others in honor of the same saint, and the triple occasions were commemorated by a single holiday. The holidays annually distinguished by civil or ecclesiastical displays were twenty-five in number, of which only eleven were of religious origin, though all were of partly religious observance. One of the most curious and interesting of the former was of the earliest date, and was continued till the last years of the Republic. In 596 Narses, the general of the Greek Emperor, was furnished by the Venetians with means of transport by sea from Aquieja to Ravenna for the army which he was leading against the Ostrogoths; and he made a vow that if successful in his campaign, he would requite their generosity by erecting two churches in Venice. Accordingly, when he had beaten the Ostrogoths, he caused two votive churches to be built,—one to St. Theodore, on the site of the present St. Mark’s Church, and another to San Geminiano, on the opposite bank of the canal which then flowed there. In lapse of time the citizens, desiring to enlarge their Piazza, removed the church of San Geminiano back as far as the present Fabbrica Nuova, which Napoleon built on the site of the demolished temple, between the western ends of the New and Old Procuratie. The removal was effected without the pope’s leave, which had been asked, but was refused in these words,—“The Holy Father cannot sanction the commission of a sacrilege, though he can pardon it afterwards.” The pontiff, therefore, imposed on the Venetians for penance that the Doge should pay an annual visit forever to the church. On the occasion of this visit the parish priest met him at the door, and offered the holy water to him; and then the Doge, having assisted at mass, marched with his Signory and the clergy of the church to its original site, where the clergy demanded that it should be rebuilt, and the Doge replied with the promise,—“Next year.” A red stone was set in the pavement to mark the spot where the Doge renewed this never-fulfilled promise6. The old church was destroyed by fire, and Sansovino built, in 1506, the temple thrown down by Napoleon to make room for his palace.
The 31st of January, on which day in 828 the body of St. Mark was brought from Alexandria to Venice, is still observed, though the festival has lost all the splendor which it received from civil intervention. For a thousand years the day was hallowed by a solemn mass in St. Mark’s, at which the Doge and his Signory assisted.
The chief of the State annually paid a number of festive visits, which were made the occasion of as many holidays. To the convent of San Zaccaria he went in commemoration of the visit paid to that retreat by Pope Benedict III., in 855, when the pontiff was so charmed by the piety and goodness of the fair nuns, that, after his return to Rome, he sent them great store of relics and indulgences. It thus became one of the most popular of the holidays, and the people repaired in great multitude with their Doge to the convent, on each recurrence of the day, that they might see the relics and buy the indulgences. The nuns were of the richest and noblest families of the city, and on the Doge’s first visit, they presented him with that bonnet which became the symbol of his sovereignty. It was wrought of pure gold, and set with precious stones of marvelous great beauty and value; and in order that the State might never seem forgetful of the munificence which bestowed the gift, the bonnet was annually taken from the treasury and shown by the Doge himself to the Sisters of San Zaccaria. The Doge Pietro Tradonico, to whom the bonnet was given, was killed in a popular tumult on this holiday, while going to the convent.
There was likewise a vast concourse of people and traffic in indulgences at the church of Santa Maria della Carita (now the Academy of Fine Arts), on the anniversary of the day when Pope Alexander III., in 1177, flying from the Emperor Barbarossa, found refuge in that monastery7. He bestowed great privileges upon it, and the Venetians honored the event to the end of their national existence.
One of the rare occasions during the year when the Doge appeared officially in public after nightfall, was on St. Stephen’s Day. He then repaired at dusk in his gilded barge, with splendid attendance of nobles and citizens, to the island church of San Giorgio Maggiore, whither, in 1009, the body of St. Stephen was brought from Constantinople. On the first of May the Doge visited the Convent of the Virgins, (the convent building now forms part of the Arsenal,) where the abbess presented him with a bouquet, and graceful and pleasing ceremonies took place in commemoration of the erection and endowment of the church. The head of the State also annually assisted at mass in St. Mark’s, to celebrate the arrival in Venice of St. Isidore’s body, which the Doge Domenico Michiel brought with him from the East, at the end of twenty-six years’ war against the infidels; and, finally, after the year 1485, when the Venetians stole the bones of San Rocco from the Milanese, and deposited them in the newly finished Scuola di San Rocco, a ducal visit was annually paid to that edifice.
Two only of the national religious festivals yet survive the Republic,—that of the church of the Redentore on the Giudecca, and that of the church of the Salute on the Grand Canal,—both votive churches, built in commemoration of the city’s deliverances from the pest in 1578 and 1630. In their general features the celebrations of the two holidays are much alike; but that of the Salute is the less important of the two, and is more entirely religious in its character. A bridge of boats is annually thrown across the Canalazzo, and on the day of the Purification, the people throng to the Virgin’s shrine to express their gratitude for her favor. This gratitude was so strong immediately after the cessation of the pest in 1630, that the Senate, while the architects were preparing their designs for the present church, caused a wooden one to be built on its site, and consecrated with ceremonies of singular splendor. On the Festa del Redentore (the third Sunday of July) a bridge of boats crosses the great canal of the Giudecca, and vast throngs constantly pass it, day and night. But though the small tradesmen who deal in fried cakes, and in apples, peaches, pears, and other fruits, make intolerable uproar behind their booths on the long quay before the church; though the venders of mulberries (for which the gardens of the Giudecca are famous) fill the air with their sweet jargoning (for their cries are like the shrill notes of so many singing-birds); though thousands of people pace up and down, and come and go upon the bridge, yet the Festa del Redentore has now none of the old-time gayety it wore when the Venetians thronged the gardens, and feasted, sang, danced, and flirted the night away, and at dawn went in their fleets of many-lanterned boats, covering the lagoon with fairy light, to behold the sunrise on the Adriatic Sea.
Besides the religious festivals mentioned, there were five banquets annually given by the State on the several days of St. Mark, St. Vitus, St. Jerome, and St. Stephen, and the Day of the Ascension, all of which were attended with religious observances. Good Friday was especially hallowed by church processions in each of the campos; and St. Martha’s Day was occasion for junketings on the Giudecca Canal, when a favorite fish, being in season, was devotionally eaten.
The civil and political holidays which lasted till the fall of the Republic were eleven. One of the earliest was the anniversary of the recapture of the Venetian Brides, who were snatched from their bridegrooms, at the altar of San Pietro di Castello, by Triestine pirates. The class of citizens most distinguished in the punishment of the abductors was the trade of carpenters, who lived chiefly in the parish of Santa Maria Formosa; and when the Doge in his gratitude bade them demand any reasonable grace, the trade asked that he should pay their quarter an annual visit. “But if it rains?” said the Doge. “We will give you a hat to cover you,” answered the carpenters. “And if I am hungry?” “We will give you to eat and drink.” So when the Doge made his visit on the day of the Virgin’s Purification, he was given a hat of gilded straw, a bottle of wine, and loaves of bread. On this occasion the State bestowed dowers upon twelve young girls among the fairest and best of Venice (chosen two from each of the six sections of the city), who marched in procession to the church of Santa Maria Formosa. But as time passed, the custom lost its simplicity and purity: pretty girls were said to make eyes at handsome youths in the crowd, and scandals occurred in public. Twelve wooden figures were then substituted, but the procession in which they were carried was followed by a disgusted and hooting populace, and assailed with a shower of turnips. The festivities, which used to last eight days, with incredible magnificence, fell into discredit, and were finally abolished during the war when the Genoese took Chioggia and threatened Venice, under Doria. This was the famous Festa delle Marie.
In 997 the Venetians beat the Narentines at sea, and annexed all Istria, as far as Dalmatia, to the Republic. On the day of the Ascension, of the same year, the Doge, for the first time, celebrated the dominion of Venice over the Adriatic, though it was not till some two hundred years later that the Pope Alexander III. blessed the famous espousals, and confirmed the Republic in the possession of the sea forever. “What,”
cries Giustina Renier-Michiel, turning to speak of the holiday thus established, and destined to be the proudest in the Venetian calendar,—“what shall I say of the greatest of all our solemnities, that of the Ascension? Alas! I myself saw Frenchmen and Venetians, full of derision and insult, combine to dismantle the Bucintoro and burn it for the gold upon it!8”… (This was the nuptial-ship in which the Doge went to wed the sea, and the patriotic lady tells us concerning the Bucintoro of her day): “It was in the form of a galley, and two hundred feet long, with two decks. The first of these was occupied by an hundred and sixty rowers, the handsomest and strongest of the fleet, who sat four men to each oar, and there awaited their orders; forty other sailors completed the crew. The upper deck was divided lengthwise by a partition, pierced with arched doorways, ornamented with gilded figures, and covered with a roof supported by caryatides—the whole surmounted by a canopy of crimson velvet embroidered with gold. Under this were ninety seats, and at the stern a still richer chamber for the Doge’s throne, over which drooped the banner of St. Mark. The prow was double-beaked, and the sides of the vessel were enriched with figures of Justice, Peace, Sea, Land, and other allegories and ornaments.
“Let me imagine those times—it is the habit of the old. At midday, having heard mass in the chapel of the Collegio, the Doge descends the Giant’s Stairs, issues from the Porta della Carta9, and passes the booths of the mercers and glass-venders erected for the fair beginning that evening. He is preceded by eight standard-bearers with the flags of the Republic,—red, blue, white, and purple,—given by Alexander III. to the Doge Ziani. Six trumpets of silver, borne by as many boys, mix their notes with the clangor of the bells of the city. Behind come the retinues of the ambassadors in sumptuous liveries, and the fifty Comandadori in their flowing blue robes and red caps; then follow musicians, and the squires of the Doge in black velvet; then the guards of the Doge, two chancellors, the secretary of the Pregadi, a deacon clad in purple and bearing a wax taper, six canons, three parish priests in their sacerdotal robes, and the Doge’s chaplain dressed in crimson. The grand chancellor is known by his crimson vesture. Two squires bear the Doge’s chair and the cushion of cloth of gold. And the Doge—the representative, and not the master of his country; the executor, and not the maker of the laws; citizen and prince, revered and guarded, sovereign of individuals, servant of the State—comes clad in a long mantle of ermine, cassock of blue, and vest and hose of tocca d’oro10 with the golden bonnet on his head, under the umbrella borne by a squire, and surrounded by the foreign ambassadors and the papal nuncio, while his drawn sword is carried by a patrician recently destined for some government of land or sea, and soon to depart upon his mission. In the rear comes a throng of personages,—the grand captain of the city, the judges, the three chiefs of the Forty, the Avogodori, the three chiefs of the Council of Ten, the three censors, and the sixty of the Senate with the sixty of the Aggiunta, all in robes of crimson silk.
“On the Bucintoro, each takes the post assigned him, and the prince ascends the throne. The Admiral of the Arsenal and the Lido stands in front as pilot; at the helm is the Admiral of Malamacco, and around him the ship-carpenters of the Arsenal. The Bucintoro, amid redoubled clamor of bells and roar of cannon, quits the riva and majestically plows the lagoon, surrounded by innumerable boats of every form and size.
“The Patriarch, who had already sent several vases of flowers to do courtesy to the company in the Bucintoro, joins them at the island of Sant’ Elena, and sprinkles their course with holy water. So they reach the port of Lido, whence they formerly issued out upon the open sea; but in my time they paused there, turning the stern of the vessel to the sea. Then the Doge, amid the thunders of the artillery of the fort, took the ring blessed by the Patriarch,—who now emptied a cup of holy water into the sea,—and, advancing into a little gallery behind his throne, threw the ring into the waves, pronouncing the words, Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii. Proceeding then to the church of San Nicoletto, they listened to a solemn mass, and returned to Venice, where the dignitaries were entertained at a banquet, while the multitude peacefully dispersed among the labyrinths of the booths erected for the fair.11” This fair, which was established as early as 1180, was an industrial exhibition of the arts and trades peculiar to Venice, and was repeated annually, with increasing ostentation, till the end, in 1796. Indeed, the feasts of the Republic at last grew so numerous that it became necessary, as we have seen before, to make a single holiday pay a double or triple debt of rejoicing. When the Venetians recovered Chioggia after the terrible war of 1380, the Senate refused to yield them another festa, and merely ordered that St. Mark’s Day should be thereafter observed with some added ceremony: there was already one festival commemorative of a triumph over the Genoese (that of San Giovanni Decollate, on whose day, in 1358, the Venetians beat the Genoese at Negroponte), and the Senate declared that this was sufficient. A curious custom, however, on the Sunday after Ascension, celebrated a remoter victory over the same enemies, to which it is hard to attach any historic probability. It is not known exactly when the Genoese in immense force penetrated to Poveglia (one of the small islands of the lagoons), nor why being there they stopped to ask the islanders the best way of getting to Venice. But tradition says that the sly Povegliesi persuaded these silly Genoese that the best method of navigating the lagoons was by means of rafts, which they constructed for them, and on which they sent them afloat. About the time the Venetians came out to meet the armada, the withes binding the members of the rafts gave way, and the Genoese who were not drowned in the tides stuck in the mud, and were cut in pieces like so many melons. No one will be surprised to learn that not a soul of them escaped, and that only the Povegliesi lived to tell the tale. Special and considerable privileges were conferred on them for their part in this exploit, and were annually confirmed by the Doge, when a deputation of the islanders called on him in his palace, and hugged and kissed the devoted prince.
People who will sentimentalize over the pigeons of St. Mark’s, may like to know that they have been settled in the city ever since 877. After the religious services on Palm Sunday, it was anciently the custom of the sacristans of St. Mark’s to release doves fettered with fragments of paper, and thus partly disabled from flight, for the people to scramble for in the Piazza. The people fatted such of the birds as they caught, and ate them at Easter, but those pigeons which escaped took refuge in the roof of the church, where they gradually assumed a certain sacredness of character, and increased to enormous numbers. They were fed by provision of the Republic, and being neglected at the time of its fall, many of them were starved. But they now flourish on a bequest left by a pious lady for their maintenance, and on the largess of grain and polenta constantly bestowed by strangers. Besides the holidays mentioned, the 6th of December was religiously observed in honor of the taking of Constantinople, the Doge assisting at mass in the ducal chapel of St. Nicholas. He also annually visited, with his Signory in the state barges, and with great concourse of people, the church of San Vito on the 15th of June, in memory of the change of the government from a democracy to an oligarchy, and of the suppression of Bajamonte Tiepolo’s conspiracy. On St. Isidore’s Day he went with his Signory, and the religious confraternities, in torchlight procession, to hear mass at St. Mark’s in celebration of the failure of Marin Falier’s plot. On the 17th of January he visited by water the hospital erected for invalid soldiers and sailors, and thus commemorated the famous defence of Scutari against the Turks, in 1413. For the peace of 1516, concluded after the dissolution of the League of Cambray, he went in his barge to the church of Santa Marina, who had potently exerted her influence for the preservation of the Republic against allied France, Austria, Spain, and Rome. On St. Jerome’s Day, when the newly-elected members of the Council of Ten took their seats, the Doge entertained them with a banquet, and there were great popular rejoicings over an affair in which the people had no interest.
It is by a singular caprice of fortune that, while not only all the Venetian holidays in anywise connected with the glory of the Republic, but also those which peculiarly signalized her piety and gratitude, have ceased to be, a festival common to the whole Catholic world should still be observed in Venice with extraordinary display. On the day of Corpus Christi there is a superb ecclesiastical procession in the Piazza.
The great splendor of the solemnization is said to date from the times when Enrico Dandolo and his fellow-Crusaders so far forgot their purpose of taking Palestine from the infidels as to take Constantinople from the schismatics. Up to that period the day of Corpus Christi was honored by a procession from what was then the Cathedral of San Pietro di Castello; but now all the thirty parishes of the city, with their hundred churches, have part in the procession, which is of such great length as to take some two hours in its progress round the Piazza.
Several days before the holiday workmen begin to build, within the Place of St. Mark, the colonnade through which the procession is to pass; they roof it with blue cotton cloth, and adorn it with rolls of pasteboard representing garlands of palm. At last, on the festive morning, the dwellers on the Grand Canal are drawn to their balconies by the apparition of boat-loads of facchini, gorgeous in scarlet robes, and bearing banners, painted candles, and other movable elements of devotion, with which they pass to the Piazzetta, and thence into St. Mark’s. They re-appear presently, and, with a guard of Austrian troops to clear the way before them, begin their march under the canopy of the colonnade.
When you have seen the Place of St. Mark by night your eye has tasted its most delicate delight, but then it is the delight given by a memory only, and it touches you with sadness. You must see the Piazza to-day,—every window fluttering with rich stuffs and vivid colors; the three great flag staffs12 hanging their heavy flags; the brilliant square alive with a holiday population, with resplendent uniforms, with Italian gesture and movement, and that long glittering procession, bearing slowly on the august paraphernalia of the Church—you must see all this before you can enter into the old heart of Venetian magnificence, and feel its life about you.
To-day, the ancient church of San Pietro di Castello comes first in the procession, and, with a proud humility, the Basilica San Marco last. Before each parochial division goes a banner displaying the picture or distinctive device of its titular saint, under the shadow of which chants a priest; there are the hosts of the different churches, and the gorgeous canopies under which they are elevated; then come facchini dressed in scarlet and bearing the painted candles, or the long carved and gilded candlesticks; and again facchini delicately robed in vestments of the purest white linen, with caps of azure, green, and purple, and shod with sandals or white shoes, carrying other apparatus of worship. Each banner and candlestick has a fluttering leaf of tinsel paper attached to it, and the procession makes a soft rustling as it passes. The matter-of-fact character of the external Church walks between those symbolists, the candle-bearers,—in the form of persons who gather the dropping fatness of the candles, and deposit it in a vase carried for that purpose. Citizens march in the procession with candles; and there are charity-schools which also take part, and sing in the harsh, shrill manner, of which I think only little boys who have their heads closely shorn are capable.
On all this we looked down from a window of the Old Procuratie—of course with that calm sense of superiority which people are apt to have in regarding the solemnities of a religion different from their own. But that did not altogether prevent us from enjoying what was really beautiful and charming in the scene. I thought most of the priests, very good and gentle looking,—and in all respects they were much pleasanter to the eye than the monks of the Carmelite order, who, in shaving their heads to simulate the Saviour’s crown of thorns, produce a hideous burlesque of the divine humiliation. Yet many even of these had earnest and sincere faces, and I could not think so much as I ought, perhaps, of their idle life, and the fleas in their coarse brown cloaks. I confess, indeed, I felt rather a sadness than an indignation at all that self-sacrifice to an end of which I could but dimly see the usefulness. With some things in this grand spectacle we were wholly charmed, and doubtless had most delight in the little child who personated John the Baptist, and who was quite naked, but for a fleece folded about him: he bore the cross-headed staff in one small hand, and led with the other a lamb much tied up with blue ribbon. Here and there in the procession little girls, exquisitely dressed, and gifted by fond mothers with wings and aureoles, walked, scattering flowers. I likewise greatly relished the lively holiday air of a company of airy old men, the pensioners of some charity, who, in their white linen trousers and blue coats, formed a prominent feature of the display. Far from being puffed up with their consequence, they gossiped cheerfully with the spectators in the pauses of the march, and made jests to each other in that light-hearted, careless way observable in old men taken care of, and with nothing before them to do worth speaking of but to die. I must own that the honest facchini who bore the candles were equally affable, and even freer with their jokes. But in this they formed a fine contrast to here and there a closely hooded devotee, who, with hidden face and silent lips, was carrying a taper for religion, and not, like them, for money. I liked the great good-natured crowd, so orderly and amiable; and I enjoyed even that old citizen in the procession who, when the Patriarch gave his blessing, found it inconvenient to kneel, and compromised by stretching one leg a great way out behind him. These things, indeed, quite took my mind off of the splendors; and I let the canopy of the Scuola di San Rocco (worth 40,000 ducats) go by with scarce a glance, and did not bestow much more attention upon the brilliant liveries of the Patriarch’s servants,—though the appearance of these ecclesiastical flunkies is far more impressive than that of any of their secular brethren. They went gorgeously before the Patriarch, who was surrounded by the richly dressed clergy of St. Mark’s, and by clouds of incense rising from the smoking censers. He walked under the canopy in his cardinal’s robes, and with his eye fixed upon the Host.
All at once the procession halted, and the Patriarch blessed the crowd, which knelt in a profound silence. Then the military band before him struck up an air from “Un Ballo in Maschera;” the procession moved on to the cathedral, and the crowd melted away.
The once-magnificent day of the Ascension the Venetians now honor by closing all shop-doors behind them and putting all thought of labor out of their minds, and going forth to enjoy themselves in the mild, inexplosive fashion which seems to satisfy Italian nature. It is the same on all the feast-days: then the city sinks into profounder quiet; only bells are noisy, and where their clangor is so common as in Venice, it seems at last to make friends with the general stillness, and disturbs none but people of untranquil minds. We always go to the Piazza San Marco when we seek pleasure, and now, for eight days only of all the year, we have there the great spectacle of the Adoration of the Magi, performed every hour by automata within the little golden-railed gallery on the facade of the Giant’s Clock Tower. There the Virgin sits above the azure circle of the zodiac, all heavily gilded, and holding the Child, equally splendid. Through the doors on either side, usually occupied by the illuminated figures of the hours, appears the procession and disappears. The stately giant on the summit of the tower, at the hither side of the great bell, solemnly strikes the hour—as a giant should who has struck it for centuries—with a grand, whole-arm movement, and a slow, muscular pride. We look up—we tourists of the red-backed books; we peasant-girls radiant with converging darts of silver piercing the masses of our thick black hair; we Austrian soldiers in white coats and blue tights; we voiceful sellers of the cherries of Padua, and we calm loafers about the many-pillared base of the church—we look up and see the Adoration. First, the trumpeter, blowing the world news of the act; then the first king, turning softly to the Virgin, and bowing; then the second, that enthusiastic devotee,—the second who lifts his crown quite from his head; last the Ethiopian prince, gorgeous in green and gold, who, I am sorry to say, burlesques the whole solemnity. His devotion may be equally heart-felt, but it is more jerky than that of the others. He bows well and adequately, but recovers his balance with a prodigious start, altogether too suggestive of springs and wheels. Perhaps there is a touch of the pathetic in this grotesque fatality of the black king, whose suffering race has always held mankind between laughter and tears, and has seldom done a fine thing without leaving somewhere the neutralizing absurdity; but if there is, the sentimental may find it, not I. When the procession has disappeared, we wait till the other giant has struck the hour, and then we disperse.
If it is six o’clock, and the sea has begun to breathe cool across the Basin of St. Mark, we find our account in strolling upon the long Riva degli Schiavoni towards the Public Gardens. One would suppose, at first thought, that here, on this magnificent quay, with its glorious lookout over the lagoons, the patricians would have built their finest palaces; whereas there is hardly any thing but architectural shabbiness from the Ponte della Paglia at one end, to the Ponte Santa Marina at the other. But there need be nothing surprising in the fact, after all. The feudal wealth and nobility of other cities kept the base at a respectful distance by means of lofty stone walls, and so shut in their palaces and gardens. Here equal seclusion could only be achieved by building flush upon the water, and therefore all the finest palaces rise sheer from the canals; and caffè, shops, barracks, and puppet-shows occupy the Riva degli Schiavoni. Nevertheless, it is the favorite promenade of the Venetians for the winter sunshine, and at such times in the summer as when the sun’s rage is tempered. There is always variety in the throng on the Riva, but the fashionable part of it is the least interesting: here and there a magnificent Greek flashes through the crowd, in dazzling white petticoats and gold-embroidered leggings and jacket; now and then a tall Dalmat or a solemn Turk; even the fishermen and the peasants, and the lower orders of the people, are picturesque; but polite Venice is hopelessly given to the pride of the eyes, and commits all the excesses of the French modes. The Venetian dandy, when dressed to his own satisfaction, is the worst-dressed man in the world. His hat curls outrageously in brim and sides; his coatsleeves are extremely full, and the garment pinches him at the waist; his pantaloons flow forth from the hips, and contract narrowly at the boot, which is square-toed and made too long. The whole effect is something not to be seen elsewhere, and is well calculated to move the beholder to desperation13. The Venetian fine lady, also, is prone to be superfine. Her dress is as full of color as a Paolo Veronese; in these narrow streets, where it is hard to expand an umbrella, she exaggerates hoops to the utmost; and she fatally hides her ankles in pantalets.
In the wide thoroughfare leading from the last bridge of the Riva to the gate of the gardens there is always a clapping of wooden shoes on the stones, a braying of hand-organs, a shrieking of people who sell fish and fruit, at once insufferable and indescribable. The street is a rio terrà,—a filled-up canal,—and, as always happens with rii terrai, is abandoned to the poorest classes who manifest themselves, as the poorest classes are apt to do always, in groups of frowzy women, small girls carrying large babies, beggars, of course, and soldiers. I spoke of fruit-sellers; but in this quarter the traffic in pumpkin-seeds is the most popular,—the people finding these an inexpensive and pleasant excess, when taken with a glass of water flavored with anise.
The Gardens were made by Napoleon, who demolished to that end some monasteries once cumbering the ground. They are pleasant enough, and are not gardens at all, but a park of formally-planted trees—sycamores, chiefly. I do not remember to have seen here any Venetians of the better class, except on the Mondays-of-the-Garden, in September. Usually the promenaders are fishermen, Austrian corporals, loutish youth of low degree, and women too old and too poor to have any thing to do. Strangers go there, and the German visitors even drink the exceptionable beer which is sold in the wooden cottage on the little hillock at the end of the Gardens. There is also a stable—where are the only horses in Venice. They are let at a florin an hour, and I do not know why the riders are always persons of the Hebrew faith. In a word, nothing can be drearier than the company in the Gardens, and nothing lovelier than the view they command,—from the sunset on the dome of the church of the Salute, all round the broad sweep of lagoon, to the tower at the port of San Nicolò, where you catch a glimpse of the Adriatic.
The company is commonly stupid, but one evening, as we strolled idly through the walks, we came upon an interesting group—forty or fifty sailors, soldiers, youth of the people, gray-haired fishermen and contadini—sitting and lying on the grass, and listening with rapt attention to an old man reclining against a tree. I never saw a manner of sweeter or easier dignity than the speaker’s. Nature is so lavish of her grace to these people that grow near her heart—the sun! Infinite study could not have taught one northern-born the charm of oratory as this old man displayed it. I listened, and heard that he was speaking Tuscan. Do you guess with what he was enchanting his simple auditors? Nothing less than “Orlando Furioso.” They listened with the hungriest delight, and when Ariosto’s interpreter raised his finger and said, “Disse l’imperatore,” or, “Orlando disse, Carlomano mio,” they hardly breathed.
On the Lunedì dei Giardini, already mentioned, all orders of the people flock thither, and promenade, and banquet on the grass. The trees get back the voices of their dryads, and the children fill the aisles with glancing movement and graceful sport.
Of course, the hand-organ seeks here its proper element, the populace,—but here it brays to a peculiarly beautiful purpose. For no sooner does it sound than the young girls of the people wreathe themselves into dances, and improvise the poetry of motion. Over the grass they whirl, and up and down the broad avenues, and no one of all the gentle and peaceable crowd molests or makes them afraid. It is a scene to make you believe in Miriam dancing with Donatello there in that old garden at Rome, and reveals a simple beauty in the nature of the Italian poor, which shall one day, I hope, be counted in their favor when they are called to answer for lying and swindling.
- “Siccome,” says the editor of Giustina Renier-Michiel’s Origine delle Feste Veneziane,—“Siccome l’illustre Autrice ha voluto applicare al suo lavoro il modesto titolo di Origins delle Feste Veneziane, e siccome questo potrebbe porgere un’ idea assai diversa dell’ opera a chi non ne ha alcuna cognizione, da quello che è sostanzialmente, si espone questo Epitome, perchè ognun regga almeno in parte, che quest’ opera sarebbe del titolo di storia condegna, giacchè essa non è che una costante descrizione degli avvenimenti più importanti e luminosi della Repubblica di Venezia.” The work in question is one of much research and small philosophy, like most books which Venetians have written upon Venice; but it has admirably served my purpose, and I am indebted to it for most of the information contained in this chapter.
- Annali Urbani di Venezia.
- Feste Veneziane.
- Feste Veneziane.
- Annali Urbani.
- As the author of the Feste Veneziane tells this story it is less dramatic and characteristic. The clergy, she says, reminded the Doge of the occasion of his visit, and his obligation to renew it the following year, which he promised to do. I cling to the version in the text, for it seems to me that the Doge’s perpetual promise to rebuild the church was a return in kind for the pope’s astute answer to the petition asking him to allow its removal. So good a thing ought to be history.
- Selvatico and Lazari in their admirable Guida Artistica e Storica di Veneza, say that the pope merely lodged in the monastery on the day when he signed the treaty of peace with Barbarossa.
- That which follows is a translation of the report given by Cesare Cantù, in his Grande Illustrazione del Lombardo-Veneto, of a conversation with the author of Feste Veneziane. It is not necessary to remind readers of Venetian history that Renier and Michiel were of the foremost names in the Golden Book. She who bore them both was born before the fall of the Republic which she so much loved and lamented, and no doubt felt more than the grief she expresses for the fate of the last Bucintoro. It was destroyed, as she describes, in 1796, by the French Republicans and Venetian Democrats after the abdication of the oligarchy; but a fragment of its mast yet remains, and is to be seen in the museum of the Arsenal.
- The gate of the Ducal Palace which opens upon the Piazzetta next St. Mark’s.
- A gauze of gold and silk.
- One of the sops thrown to the populace on this occasion, as we learn from Mutinelli, was the admission to the train of gilded barges following the Bucintoro of a boat bearing the chief of the Nicolotti, one of the factions into which from time immemorial the lower classes of Venice had been divided. The distinction between the two parties seems to have been purely geographical; for there is no apparent reason why a man should have belonged to the Castellani except that he lived in the eastern quarter of the city, or to the Nicolotti, except that he lived in the western quarter. The government encouraged a rivalry not dangerous to itself, and for a long time the champions of the two sections met annually and beat each other with rods. The form of contest was afterwards modified, and became a struggle for the possession of certain bridges, in which the defeated were merely thrown into the canals. I often passed the scene of the fiercest of these curious battles at San Barnaba, where the Ponte de Pugni is adorned with four feet of stone let into the pavement, and defying each other from the four corners of the bridge. Finally, even these contests were given up and the Castellani and Nicolotti spent their rivalry in marvelous acrobatic feats.
- Once bearing the standards of Cyprus, Candia, and Venice.
- These exaggerations of the fashions of 1862 have been succeeded by equal travesties of the present modes.