Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
It often happens, even after the cold has announced itself in Venice, that the hesitating winter lingers in the Tyrol, and a mellow Indian-summer weather has possession of the first weeks of December. There was nothing in the December weather of 1863 to remind us Northerners that Christmas was coming. The skies were as blue as those of June, the sun was warm, and the air was bland, with only now and then a trenchant breath from the Alps, coming like a delicate sarcasm from loveliness unwilling to be thought insipidly amiable. But if there was no warning in the weather, there were other signs of Christmas-time not to be mistaken: a certain foolish leaping of the heart in one’s own breast, as if the dead raptures of childhood were stirred in their graves by the return of the happy season; and in Venice, in weary, forlorn Venice, there was the half-unconscious tumult, the expectant bustle which cities feel at the approach of holidays. The little shops put on their gayest airs; there was a great clapping and hammering on the stalls and booths which were building in the campos; the street-cries were more shrill and resonant than ever, and the air was shaken with the continual clangor of the church bells. All this note of preparation is rather bewildering to strangers, and is apt to disorder the best-disciplined intentions of seeing Christmas as the Venetians keep it. The public observance of the holiday in the churches and on the streets is evident and accessible to the most transient sojourner; but it is curious proof of the difficulty of knowledge concerning the in-door life and usages of the Italians, that I had already spent two Christmases in Venice without learning any thing of their home celebration of the day. Perhaps a degree of like difficulty attends like inquiry everywhere, for the happiness of Christmas contracts the family circle more exclusively than ever around the home hearth, or the domestic scaldino, as the case may be. But, at any rate, I was quite ready to say that the observance of Christmas in Venice was altogether public, when I thought it a measure of far-sighted prudence to consult my barber.
In all Latin countries the barber is a source of information, which, skillfully tapped, pours forth in a stream of endless gossip and local intelligence. Every man talks with his barber; and perhaps a lingering dignity clings to this artist from his former profession of surgeon: it is certain the barber here prattles on with a freedom and importance perfectly admitted and respected by the interlocutory count under his razor. Those who care to know how things passed in an Italian barber shop three hundred years ago, may read it in Miss Evans’s “Romola;”
those who are willing to see Nello alive and carrying on his art in Venice at this day, must go to be shaved at his shop in the Frezzaria. Here there is a continual exchange of gossip, and I have often listened with profit to the sage and piquant remarks of the head barber and chief ciarlone, on the different events of human life brought to his notice. His shop is well known as a centre of scandal, and I have heard a fair Venetian declare that she had cut from her list all acquaintance who go there, as persons likely to become infected with the worst habits of gossip.
To this Nello, however, I used to go only when in the most brilliant humor for listening, and my authority on Christmas observances is another and humbler barber, but not less a babbler, than the first. By birth, I believe, he is a Mantuan, and he prides himself on speaking Italian instead of Venetian. He has a defective eye, which obliges him to tack before bringing his razor to bear, but which is all the more favorable to conversation. On the whole, he is flattered to be asked about Christmas in Venice, and he first tells me that it is one of the chief holidays of the year:—
“It is then, Signore, that the Venetians have the custom to make three sorts of peculiar presents: Mustard, Fish, and Mandorlato. You must have seen the mustard in the shop windows: it is a thick conserve of fruits, flavored with mustard; and the mandorlato is a candy made of honey, and filled with almonds. Well, they buy fish, as many as they will, and a vase of mustard, and a box of mandorlato, and make presents of them, one family to another, the day before Christmas. It is not too much for a rich family to present a hundred boxes of mandorlato and as many pots of mustard. These are exchanged between friends in the city, and Venetians also send them to acquaintance in the country, whence the gift is returned in cakes and eggs at Easter. Christmas Eve people invite each other to great dinners, and eat and drink, and make merry; but there are only fish and vegetables, for it is a meagre day, and meats are forbidden. This dinner lasts so long that, when it is over, it is almost time to so to midnight mass, which all must attend, or else hear three masses on the morrow; and no doubt it was some delinquent who made our saying,—‘Long as a Christmas mass.’ On Christmas Day people dine at home, keeping the day with family reunions. But the day after! Ah-heigh! That is the first of Carnival, and all the theatres are opened, and there is no end to the amusements—or was not, in the old time. Now, they never begin. A week later comes the day of the Lord’s Circumcision, and then the next holiday is Easter. The Nativity, the Circumcision, and the Resurrection—behold! these are the three mysteries of the Christian faith. Of what religion are the Americans, Signore?”
I think I was justified in answering that we were Christians. My barber was politely surprised. “But there are so many different religions,” he said, in excuse.
On the afternoon before Christmas I walked through the thronged Merceria to the Rialto Bridge, where the tumultuous mart which opens at Piazza San Marco culminates in a deafening uproar of bargains. At this time the Merceria, or street of the shops, presents the aspect of a fair, and is arranged with a tastefulness and a cunning ability to make the most of every thing, which are seldom applied to the abundance of our fairs at home. The shops in Venice are all very small, and the streets of lofty houses are so narrow and dark, that whatever goods are not exposed in the shop-windows are brought to the door to be clamored over by purchasers; so that the Merceria is roused by unusual effort to produce a more pronounced effect of traffic and noise than it always wears; but now the effort had been made and the effect produced. The street was choked with the throngs, through which all sorts of peddlers battled their way and cried their wares. In Campo San Bartolomeo, into which the Merceria expands, at the foot of Rialto Bridge, holiday traffic had built enormous barricades of stalls, and entrenched itself behind booths, whence purchasers were assailed with challenges to buy bargains. More than half the campo was paved with crockery from Rovigo and glass-ware from Murano; clothing of every sort, and all kinds of small household wares, were offered for sale; and among the other booths, in the proportion of two to one, were stalls of the inevitable Christmas mustard and mandorlato.
But I cared rather for the crowd than what the crowd cared for. I had been long ago obliged to throw aside my preconceived notions of the Italian character, though they were not, I believe, more absurd than the impressions of others who have never studied Italian character in Italy. I hardly know what of bacchantic joyousness I had not attributed to them on their holidays: a people living in a mild climate under such a lovely sky, with wine cheap and abundant, might not unreasonably have been expected to put on a show of the greatest jollity when enjoying themselves. Venetian crowds are always perfectly gentle and kindly, but they are also as a whole usually serious; and this Christmas procession, moving up and down the Merceria, and to and fro between the markets of Rialto, was in the fullest sense a solemnity. It is true that the scene was dramatic, but the drama was not consciously comic. Whether these people bought or sold, or talked together, or walked up and down in silence, they were all equally in earnest. The crowd, in spite of its noisy bustle and passionate uproar, did not seem to me a blithe or light-hearted crowd. Its sole activity was that of traffic, for, far more dearly than any Yankee, a Venetian loves a bargain, and puts his whole heart into upholding and beating down demands.
Across the Bridge began the vegetable and fruit market, where whole Hollands of cabbage and Spains of onions opened on the view, with every other succulent and toothsome growth; and beyond this we entered the glory of Rialto, the fish-market, which is now more lavishly supplied than at any other season. It was picturesque and full of gorgeous color for the fish of Venice seem all to catch the rainbow hues of the lagoon. There is a certain kind of red mullet, called triglia, which is as rich and tender in its dyes as if it had never swam in water less glorious than that which crimsons under October sunsets. But a fish-market, even at Rialto, with fishermen in scarlet caps and triglie in sunset splendors, is only a fish-market after all: it is wet and slimy under foot, and the innumerable gigantic eels, writhing everywhere, set the soul asquirm, and soon-sated curiosity slides willingly away.
We had an appointment with a young Venetian lady to attend midnight mass at the church of San Moisè, and thither about half-past eleven we went to welcome in Christmas. The church of San Moisè is in the highest style of the Renaissance art, which is, I believe, the lowest style of any other. The richly sculptured façade is divided into stories; the fluted columns are stilted upon pedestals, and their lines are broken by the bands which encircle them like broad barrel-hoops. At every possible point theatrical saints and angels, only sustained from falling to the ground by iron bars let into their backs, start from the niches and cling to the sculpture. The outside of the church is in every way detestable, and the inside is consistently bad. All the side-altars have broken arches, and the high altar is built of rough blocks of marble to represent Mount Sinai, on which a melodramatic statue of Moses receives the tables of the law from God the Father, with frescoed seraphim in the background. For the same reason, I suppose, that the devout prefer a hideous Bambino and a Madonna in crinoline to the most graceful artistic conception of those sacred personages, San Moisè is the most popular church for the midnight mass in Venice, and there is no mass at all in St. Mark’s, where its magnificence would be so peculiarly impressive.
On Christmas Eve, then, this church was crowded, and the door-ways were constantly thronged with people passing in and out. I was puzzled to see so many young men present, for Young Italy is not usually in great number at church; but a friend explained the anomaly: “After the guests at our Christmas Eve dinners have well eaten and drunken, they all go to mass in at least one church, and the younger offer a multiplied devotion by going to all. It is a good thing in some ways, for by this means they manage to see every pretty face in the city, which that night has specially prepared itself to be seen;” and from this slender text my friend began to discourse at large about these Christmas Eve dinners, and chiefly how jollily the priests fared, ending with the devout wish, “Would God had made me nephew of a canonico!” The great dinners of the priests are a favorite theme with Italian talkers; but I doubt it is after all only a habit of speech. The priests are too numerous to feed sumptuously in most cases.
We had a good place to see and hear, sitting in the middle of the main aisle, directly over the dust of John Law, who alighted in Venice when his great Mississippi bubble burst, and died here, and now sleeps peacefully under a marble tablet in the ugly church of San Moisè. The thought of that busy, ambitious life, come to this unscheming repose under our feet,—so far from the scene of its hopes, successes, and defeats,—gave its own touch of solemnity to the time and place, and helped the offended sense of propriety through the bursts of operatic music, which interspersed the mass. But on the whole, the music was good and the function sufficiently impressive,—what with the gloom of the temple everywhere starred with tapers, and the grand altar lighted to the mountain-top. The singing of the priests also was here much better than I had found it elsewhere in Venice.
The equality of all classes in church is a noticeable thing always in Italy, but on this Christmas Eve it was unusually evident. The rags of the beggar brushed the silks of luxury, as the wearers knelt side by side on the marble floor; and on the night when God was born to poverty on earth, the rich seemed to feel that they drew nearer Him in the neighborhood of the poor. In these costly temples of the eldest Christianity, the poor seem to enter upon their inheritance of the future, for it is they who frequent them most and possess them with the deepest sense of ownership. The withered old woman, who creeps into St Mark’s with her scaldino in her hand, takes visible possession of its magnificence as God’s and hers, and Catholic wealth and rank would hardly, if challenged, dispute her claim.
Even the longest mass comes to an end at last, and those of our party who could credit themselves with no gain of masses against the morrow, received the benediction at San Moisè with peculiar unction. We all issued forth, and passing through the lines of young men who draw themselves up on either side of the doors of public places in Venice, to look at the young ladies as they come out, we entered the Place of St. Mark. The Piazza was more gloriously beautiful than ever I saw it before, and the church had a saintly loveliness. The moon was full, and snowed down the mellowest light on the gray domes, which in their soft, elusive outlines, and strange effect of far-withdrawal, rhymed like faint-heard refrains to the bright and vivid arches of the façade. And if the bronze horses had been minded to quit their station before the great window over the central arch, they might have paced around the night’s whole half-world, and found no fairer resting-place.
As for Christmas Day in Venice, it amounted to very little; every thing was closed, and whatever merry-making went on was all within doors. Although the shops and the places of amusement were opened the day following, the city entered very sparingly on the pleasures of Carnival, and Christmas week passed off in every-day fashion. It will be remembered that on St. Stephen’s Day—the first of Carnival—one of the five annual banquets took place at the Ducal Palace in the time of the Republic. A certain number of patricians received invitations to the dinner, and those for whom there was no room were presented with fish and poultry by the Doge. The populace were admitted to look on during the first course, and then, having sated their appetites with this savory observance, were invited to withdraw. The patriotic Giustina Renier-Michiel of course makes much of the courtesy thus extended to the people by the State, but I cannot help thinking it must have been hard to bear. The banquet, however, has passed away with the Republic which gave it, and the only savor of dinner which Venetian poverty now inhales on St. Stephen’s Day, is that which arises from its own proper pot of broth.
New Year’s is the carnival of the beggars in Venice. Their business is carried on briskly throughout the year, but on this day it is pursued with an unusual degree of perseverance, and an enterprise worthy of all disinterested admiration. At every corner, on every bridge, under every door-way, hideous shapes of poverty, mutilation, and deformity stand waiting, and thrust out palms, plates, and pans, and advance good wishes and blessings to all who pass, It is an immemorial custom, and it is one in which all but the quite comfortable classes participate. The facchini in every square take up their collections; the gondoliers have their plates prepared for contribution at every ferry; at every caffè and restaurant begging-boxes appeal to charity. Whoever has lifted hand in your service in any way during the past year expects a reward on New Year’s for the complaisance, and in some cases the shop-keepers send to wish you a bel capo d’anno, with the same practical end in view. On New Year’s Eve and morning bands of facchini and gondoliers go about howling vivas under charitable windows till they open and drop alms. The Piazza is invaded by the legions of beggary, and held in overpowering numbers against all comers; and to traverse it is like a progress through a lazar-house.
Beyond encouraging so gross an abuse as this, I do not know that Venice celebrates New Year’s in a peculiar manner. It is a festa, and there are masses, of course. Presents are exchanged, which consist chiefly of books—printed for the season, and brilliant outside and dull within, like all annuals.