VENETIAN TRAITS AND CHARACTERS
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
On a small canal, not far from the railroad station, the gondoliers show you a house, by no means notable (except for the noble statue of a knight, occupying a niche in one corner), as the house of Othello. It was once the palace of the patrician family Moro, a name well known in the annals of the Republic, and one which, it has been suggested, misled Shakespeare into the invention of a Moor of Venice. Whether this is possibly the fact, or whether there is any tradition of a tragic incident in the history of the Moro family similar to that upon which the play is founded, I do not know; but it is certain that the story of Othello, very nearly as Shakespeare tells it, is popularly known in Venice; and the gondoliers have fixed upon the Casa Moro in question as the edifice best calculated to give satisfaction to strangers in search of the True and the Memorable. The statue is happily darkened by time, and thus serves admirably to represent Othello’s complexion, and to place beyond the shadow of a doubt the fact of his residence in the house. Indeed, what can you say to the gondolier, who, in answer to your cavils, points to the knight, with the convincing argument, “There is his statue!”
One day I was taken to see this house, in company with some friends, and when it had been victoriously pointed out, as usual, we asked meekly, “Who was Othello?”
“Othello, Signori,” answered the gondolier, “was a general of the Republic, in the old times. He was an African, and black; but nevertheless the State valued him, and he beat the Turks in many battles. Well, Signori, this general Othello had a very young and beautiful wife, and his wife’s cousin (sic!), Cassio was his major-domo, or, as some say, his lieutenant. But after a while happens along (capita) another soldier of Othello, who wants Cassio’s employment, and so accuses him to the general of corrupting his wife. Very well, Signori! Without thinking an instant, Othello, being made so, flew into a passion (si riscaldò là tèsta), and killed his wife; and then when her innocence came out, he killed himself and that liar; and the State confiscated his goods, he being a very rich man. There has been a tragedy written about all this, you know.”
“But how is it called? Who wrote it?”
“Oh! in regard to that, then, I don’t know. Some Englishman.”
“I don’t know, Signori. But if you doubt what I tell you, go to any bookseller, and say, ‘Favor me with the tragedy of “Othello.”’ He will give it you, and there you will find it all written out just as I tell it.”
This gondolier confirmed the authenticity of his story, by showing us the house of Cassio near the Rialto Bridge, and I have no doubt he would also have pointed out that of Iago if we had wished it.
But as a general thing, the lore of the gondoliers is not rich nor very great. They are a loquacious and a gossiping race, but they love better to have a quiet chat at the tops of their voices, as they loaf idly at the ferries, or to scream repartees across the Grand Canal, than to tell stories. In all history that relates to localities they are sufficiently versed to find the notable places for strangers, but beyond this they trouble themselves as little with the past as with the future. Three tragic legends, however, they know, and will tell with the most amusing effect, namely: Biasio, luganegher; the Innocent Baker-Boy, and Veneranda Porta.
The first of these legends is that of a sausage-maker who flourished in Venice some centuries ago, and who improved the quality of the broth which the luganegheri make of their scraps and sell to the gondoliers, by cutting up into it now and then a child of some neighbor. He was finally detected by a gondolier who discovered a little finger in his broth, and being brought to justice, was dragged through the city at the heels of a wild horse. This most uncomfortable character appears to be the first hero in the romance of the gondoliers, and he certainly deserves to rank with that long line of imaginary personages who have made childhood so wretched and tractable. The second is the Innocent Baker-Boy already named, who was put to death on suspicion of having murdered a noble, because in the dead man’s heart was found a dagger fitting a sheath which the baker had picked up in the street, on the morning of the murder, and kept in his possession. Many years afterwards, a malefactor who died in Padua confessed the murder, and thereupon two lamps were lighted before a shrine in the southern façade of St. Mark’s Church,—one for the murdered nobleman’s soul, and the other for that of the innocent boy. Such is the gondoliers’ story, and the lamps still burn every night before the shrine from dark till dawn, in witness of its truth. The fact of the murder and its guiltless expiation is an incident of Venetian history, and it is said that the Council of the Ten never pronounced a sentence of death thereafter, till they had been solemnly warned by one of their number with “Ricordatevi del povero Fornaretto!” (Remember the poor Baker-Boy!) The poet Dall ‘Ongaro has woven the story into a beautiful and touching tragedy; but I believe the poet is still to be born who shall take from the gondoliers their Veneranda Porta, and place her historic figure in dramatic literature. Veneranda Porta was a lady of the days of the Republic, between whom and her husband existed an incompatibility. This was increased by the course of Signora Porta in taking a lover, and it at last led to the assassination of the husband by the paramours. The head of the murdered man was found in one of the canals, and being exposed, as the old custom was, upon the granite pedestal at the corner of St. Mark’s Church, it was recognized by his brother who found among the papers on which the long hair was curled fragments of a letter he had written to the deceased. The crime was traced to the paramours, and being brought before the Ten, they were both condemned to be hanged between the columns of the Piazzetta. The gondoliers relate that when the sentence was pronounced, Veneranda said to the Chief of the Ten, “But as for me this sentence will never be carried out. You cannot hang a woman. Consider the impropriety!” The Venetian rulers were wise men in their generation, and far from being balked by this question of delicacy, the Chief replied, solving it, “My dear, you shall be hanged in my breeches.”
It is very coarse salt which keeps one of these stories; another is remembered because it concerns one of the people; and another for its abomination and horror. The incidents of Venetian history which take the fancy and touch the sensibility of the world seem hardly known to the gondoliers, the most intelligent and quick-witted of the populace, and themselves the very stuff that some romantic dreams of Venice are made of. However sad the fact, it is undeniable that the stories of the sausage-maker whose broth was flavored with murder, and the baker-boy who suffered guiltlessly, and that savage jest at the expense of the murderess, interest these people more than the high-well-born sorrows of the Foscari, the tragic fate of Carmagnola, or the story of Falier,—which last they know partly, however, because of the scandal about Falier’s wife. Yet after all, though the gondoliers are not the gondoliers of imaginative literature, they have qualities which recommended them to my liking, and I look back upon my acquaintance with two or three of them in a very friendly spirit. Compared with the truculent hackmen, who prey upon the traveling public in all other cities of the civilized world, they are eminently intelligent and amiable. Rogues they are, of course, for small dishonesties are the breath in the nostrils of common carriers by land or water, everywhere; but the trickery of the gondoliers is so good-natured and simple that it can hardly offend. A very ordinary jocular sagacity defeats their profoundest purposes of swindling, and no one enjoys their exposure half so much as themselves, while a faint prospect of future employment purifies them of every trait of dishonesty. I had only one troublesome experience with them, and that was in the case of the old gondolier who taught me to row. He, when I had no longer need of his services, plunged into drunkenness, and came and dismissed me one day with every mark of ignominy. But he afterwards forgave me, and saluted me kindly when we met.
The immediate goal of every gondolier’s ambition is to serve, no matter for how short a time, an Inglese, by which generic title nearly all foreigners except Germans are known to him. The Inglese, whether he be English or American, is apt to make the tour of the whole city in a gondola, and to give handsome drink money at the end, whereas your Tedesco frugally walks to every place accessible by land, or when, in a party of six or eight, he takes a gondola, plants himself upon the letter of the tariff, and will give no more than the rate fixed by law. The gondolier is therefore flowingly polite to the Inglese, and he is even civil to the Tedesco; but he is not at all bound in courtesy to that provincial Italian who comes from the country to Venice, bargains furiously for his boat, and commonly pays under the tariff. The Venetian who does not himself keep a gondola seldom hires one, and even on this rare occasion makes no lavish demand such as “How much do you want for taking me to the rail-way station?” Lest the fervid imagination of the gondolier rise to zwanzigers and florins, and a tedious dispute ensue, he asks: “How many centissimi do you want?” and the contract is made, for a number of soldi.
The number of private gondolas owned in Venice is not very great. The custom is rather to hire a gondolier with his boat. The exclusive use of the gondola is thus secured, and the gondolier gives his services as a domestic when off his special duty. He waits at table, goes marketing, takes the children to school, and serves the ladies as footman, for five francs a day, himself paying the proprietor of the gondola about a franc daily for the boat. In former times, when Venice was rich and prosperous, many noble families kept six or seven gondolas; and what with this service, and the numerous gala-days of the Republic, when the whole city took boat for the Lido, or the Giudecca, or Murano, and the gondoliers were allowed to exact any pay they could, they were a numerous and prosperous class. But these times have passed from Venice forever, and though the gondoliers are still, counting the boatmen of the Giudecca and Lido, some thousands in number, there are comparatively few young men among them, and their gains are meagre.
In the little city of Venice, where the dialect spoken at Canareggio or Castello is a different tongue from that heard under the Procuratie of St. Mark’s Place, the boatmen of the several quarters of the city of course vary greatly in character and appearance; and the gondolier who lounges at the base of the columns of the Piazzetta, and airily invites the Inglesi to tours of the Grand Canal, is of quite a different type from the weather-beaten barcaiuolo, who croaks “Barca!” at the promenaders on the Zattere. But all, as I say, are simple and harmless enough, and however loudly they quarrel among themselves, they never pass from the defamation of their female relatives to blows. As for the game of knives, as it is said to be played at Naples, and as About describes it at Rome, I doubt if it is much known to the populace of Venice. Only the doctors let blood there—though from their lancets it flows pretty freely and constantly.
It is true that the gondolier loves best of everything a clamorous quarrel, carried on with the canal between him and his antagonist; but next to this, he loves to spend his leisure at the ferry in talking of eating and of money, and he does not differ from many of his fellow-citizens in choice of topics. I have seldom caught a casual expression from passers in the streets of Venice which did not relate in some way to gold Napoleons, zwanzigers, florins, or soldi, or else to wine and polenta. I note this trait in the Venetians, which Goldoni observed in the Milanese a hundred years ago, and which I incline to believe is common to all Italians. The gondoliers talk a great deal in figure and hyperbole, and their jocose chaff is quite inscrutable even to some classes of Venetians. With foreigners, to whom the silence and easy progress of the gondola gives them the opportunity to talk, they are fond of using a word or two of French. They are quick at repartee, and have a clever answer ready for most occasions. I was one day bargaining for a boat to the Lido, whither I refused to be taken in a shabby gondola, or at a rate higher than seventy-five soldi for the trip. At last the patience of the gondoliers was exhausted, and one of them called out, “Somebody fetch the Bucintoro, and take this gentleman to the Lido for seventy-five soldi!” (The Bucintoro being the magnificent barge in which the Doge went to wed the Adriatic.)
The skill with which the gondoliers manage their graceful craft is always admired by strangers, and is certainly remarkable. The gondola is very long and slender, and rises high from the water at either end. Both bow and stern are sharp, the former being ornamented with that deeply serrated blade of steel, which it is the pride of the gondolier to keep bright is silver, and the poop having a small platform, not far behind the cabin, on which he stands when he rows. The danger of collision has always obliged Venetian boatmen to face the bow, and the stroke with the oar (for the gondolier uses only a single oar) is made by pushing, and not by pulling. No small degree of art (as I learnt from experience) is thus required to keep the gondola’s head straight,—all the strokes being made on one side,—and the sculling return of the oar-blade, preparatory for each new stroke, is extremely difficult to effect. Under the hands of the gondolier, however, the gondola seems a living thing, full of grace and winning movement. The wood-work of the little cabin is elaborately carved, and it is usually furnished with mirrors and seats luxuriously cushioned. The sensation of the gondola’s progress, felt by the occupant of the cabin, as he falls back upon these cushions, may be described, to the female apprehension at least, as “too divine.” The cabin is removable at pleasure, and is generally taken off and replaced by awnings in summer. But in the evening, when the fair Venetians go out in their gondolas to take the air, even this awning is dispensed with, and the long slender boat glides darkly down the Grand Canal, bearing its dazzling freight of white tulle, pale-faced, black-eyed beauty, and flashing jewels, in full view.
As for the singing of the gondoliers, they are the only class of Venetians who have not good voices, and I am scarcely inclined to regret the silence which long ago fell upon them. I am quite satisfied with the peculiar note of warning which they utter as they approach the corner of a canal, and which meaning simply, “To the Right,” or “To the Left,” is the most pathetic and melancholy sound in the world. If, putting aside my own comfort, I have sometimes wished for the sake of a dear, sentimental old friend at home, who loves such idle illusions with an ardor unbecoming his years, that I might hear the voice
“of Adria’s gondolier,
By distance mellowed, o’er the waters sweep,”
I must still confess that I never did hear it under similar circumstances, except in conversation across half a mile of lagoon, when, as usual, the burden of the lay was polenta or soldi.
A recent Venetian writer, describing the character of the lower classes of Venice, says: “No one can deny that our populace is loquacious and quickwitted; but, on the other hand, no one can deny that it is regardless of improvement. Venice, a city exceptional in its construction, its customs, and its habits, has also an exceptional populace. It still feels, although sixty-eight years have passed, the influence of the system of the fallen Republic, of that oligarchic government, which, affording almost every day some amusement to the people, left them no time to think of their offended rights…. Since 1859 Venice has resembled a sepulchre of the living,—squalor and beggary gaining ground with each day, and commerce, with few exceptions, converted into monopoly; yet the populace remains attached to its old habits, and will have its pleasure. If the earnings are little, what then? Must one die of ennui? The caffè is depopulated: not so the drinking-house. The last day before the drawing of the lottery, the offices are thronged with fathers and mothers of families, who stint their children of bread to buy dearly a few hours of golden illusion…. At the worst, there is the Monte di Pietà, as a last resort.”
It is true, as this writer says, that the pleasure-loving populace still looks back fondly to the old Republican times of feasting and holidays; but there is certainly no truth any more in the old idea that any part of Italy is a place where people may be “idle with impunity,” or make amusement the serious business of life. I can remember that the book from which I received my first impressions of geography was illuminated with a picture professing to represent Italian customs. The spirit of inquiry had long before caused me to doubt the exact fidelity of this representation; but it cost me a pang to learn that the picture was utterly delusive. It has been no part of my experience in Venice to see an Italian sitting upon the ground, and strumming the guitar, while two gayly dressed peasants danced to the music. Indeed, the indolence of Venetians is listless and silent, not playful or joyous; and as I learned to know their life more intimately, I came to understand that in many cases they are idle from despair of finding work, and that indolence is as much their fate as their fault. Any diligence of theirs is surprising to us of northern and free lands, because their climate subdues and enervates us, and because we can see before them no career open to intelligent industry. With the poorest, work is necessarily a hand-to-hand struggle against hunger; with those who would not absolutely starve without it, work is an inexplicable passion.
Partly because the ways of these people are so childlike and simple in many things, and partly from one’s own swindling tendency to take one’s self in (a tendency really fatal to all sincerity of judgment, and incalculably mischievous to such downfallen peoples as have felt the baleful effects of the world’s sentimental, impotent sympathy), there is something pathetic in the patient content with which Italians work. They have naturally so large a capacity for enjoyment, that the degree of selfdenial involved in labor seems exorbitant, and one feels that these children, so loved of Nature, and so gifted by her, are harshly dealt with by their stepmother Circumstance. No doubt there ought to be truth in the silly old picture, if there is none, and I would willingly make-believe to credit it, if I could. I am glad that they at least work in old-world, awkward, picturesque ways, and not in commonplace, handy, modern fashion. Neither the habits nor the implements of labor are changed since the progress of the Republic ceased, and her heart began to die within her. All sorts of mechanics’ tools are clumsy and inconvenient: the turner’s lathe moves by broken impulses; door-hinges are made to order, and lift the door from the ground as it opens upon them; all nails and tacks we hand-made; window-sashes are contrived to be glazed without putty, and the panes are put in from the top, so that to repair a broken glass the whole sash is taken apart; cooking-stoves are unknown to the native cooks, who work at an open fire, with crane and dangling pot-hooks; furniture is put together with wooden pegs instead of screws; you do not buy a door-lock at a hardware store,—you get a fabbro to make it, and he comes with a leathern satchel full of tools to fit and finish it on the door. The wheelbarrow of this civilization is peculiarly wonderful in construction, with a prodigious wooden wheel, and a ponderous, incapable body. The canals are dredged with scoops mounted on long poles, and manned each by three or four Chiozzotti. There never was a pile-driving machine known in Venice; nor a steam-tug in all the channels of the lagoons, through which the largest craft are towed to and from the ports by row-boats. In the model of the sea-going vessels there has apparently been little change from the first. Yet in spite of all this backwardness in invention, the city is full of beautiful workmanship in every branch of artificing, and the Venetians are still the best sailors in the Adriatic.
I do not offer the idea as a contribution to statistics, but it seems to me that the most active branch of industry in Venice is plucking fowls. In summer the people all work on their thresholds, and in their windows, and as nearly out of doors as the narrowness of the streets will let them,—and it is hard to pass through any part of the city without coming to a poulterer’s shop, in the door of which inevitably sits a boy, tugging at the plumage of some wretched bird. He is seldom to be seen except in that crisis of plucking when he seems to have all but finished; yet he seems never to accomplish the fact perfectly. Perhaps it is part of his hard fate that the feathers shall grow again under his hand as fast as he plucks them away: at the restaurants, I know, the quantity of plumage one devours in consuming roast chicken is surprising—at first. The birds are always very lean, too, and have but a languid and weary look, in spite of the ardent manner in which the boy clasps them while at work. It may be that the Venetians do not like fat poultry. Their turkeys, especially, are of that emaciation which is attributed among ourselves only to the turkey of Job; and as for the geese and ducks, they can only interest anatomists. It is as if the long ages of incursion and oppression which have impoverished and devastated Italy had at last taken effect upon the poultry, and made it as poor as the population.
I do not want to give too exclusive an impression of Venetian industry, however, for now I remember the Venetian lasagnoni, whom I never saw doing any thing, and who certainly abound in respectable numbers.
The lasagnone is a loafer, as an Italian can be a loafer, without the admixture of ruffianism, which blemishes most loafers of northern race. He may be quite worthless, and even impertinent, but he cannot be a rowdy,—that pleasing blossom on the nose of our fast, high-fed, thick-blooded civilization. In Venice he must not be confounded with other loiterers at the caffè; not with the natty people who talk politics interminably over little cups of black coffee; not with those old habitués, who sit forever under the Procuratie, their hands folded upon the tops of their sticks, and staring at the ladies who pass with a curious steadfastness and knowing skepticism of gaze, not pleasing in the dim eyes of age; certainly, the last persons who bear any likeness to the lasagnone are the Germans, with their honest, heavy faces comically anglicized by leg-of-mutton whiskers. The truth is, the lasagnone does not flourish in the best caffè; he comes to perfection in cheaper resorts, for he is commonly not rich. It often happens that a glass of water, flavored with a little anisette, is the order over which he sits a whole evening. He knows the waiter intimately, and does not call him “Shop!” (Bottega,) as less familiar people do, but Gigi, or Beppi, as the waiter is pretty sure to be named. “Behold!” he says, when the servant places his modest drink before him, “who is that loveliest blonde there?” Or to his fellow-lasagnone: “She regards me! I have broken her the heart!” This is his sole business and mission, the cruel lasagnone—to break ladies the heart. He spares no condition,—neither rank nor wealth is any defense against him. I often wonder what is in that note he continually shows to his friend. The confession of some broken heart, I think. When he has folded it, and put it away, he chuckles “Ah, cara!” and sucks at his long, slender Virginia cigar. It is unlighted, for fire consumes cigars. I never see him read the papers,—neither the Italian papers nor the Parisian journals, though if he can get “Galignani” he is glad, and he likes to pretend to a knowledge of English, uttering upon occasion, with great relish, such distinctively English words as “Yes” and “Not,” and to the waiter, “A-little-fire-if-you-please.” He sits very late in the caffè, and he touches his hat—his curly French hat—to the company as he goes out with a mild swagger, his cane held lightly in his left hand, his coat cut snugly to show his hips, and genteelly swaying with the motion of his body. He is a dandy, of course,—all Italians are dandies,—but his vanity is perfectly harmless, and his heart is not bad. He would go half an hour out of his way to put you in the direction of the Piazza. A little thing can make him happy,—to stand in the pit at the opera, and gaze at the ladies in the lower boxes—to attend the Marionette, or the Malibran Theatre, and imperil the peace of pretty seamstresses and contadinas—to stand at the church doors and ogle the fair saints as they pass out. Go, harmless lasagnone, to thy lodging in some mysterious height, and break hearts if thou wilt. They are quickly mended.
Of other vagabonds in Venice, if I had my choice, I think I must select a certain ruffian who deals in dog-flesh, as the nearest my ideal of what a vagabond should be in all respects. He stands habitually under the Old Procuratie, beside a basket of small puppies in that snuffling and quivering state which appears to be the favorite condition of very young dogs, and occupies himself in conversation with an adjacent dealer in grapes and peaches, or sometimes fastidiously engages in trimming the hair upon the closely shaven bodies of the dogs; for in Venice it is the ambition of every dog to look as much like the Lion of St. Mark as the nature of the case will permit. My vagabond at times makes expeditions to the groups of travelers always seated in summer before the Caffè Florian, appearing at such times with a very small puppy,—neatly poised upon the palm of his hand, and winking pensively,—which he advertises to the company as a “Beautiful Beast,” or a “Lovely Babe,” according to the inspiration of his light and pleasant fancy. I think the latter term is used generally as a means of ingratiation with the ladies, to whom my vagabond always shows a demeanor of agreeable gallantry. I never saw him sell any of these dogs, nor ever in the least cast down by his failure to do so. His air is grave, but not severe; there is even, at times, a certain playfulness in his manner, possibly attributable to sciampagnin. His curling black locks, together with his velveteen jacket and pantaloons, are oiled and glossy, and his beard is cut in the French-imperial mode. His personal presence is unwholesome, and it is chiefly his moral perfection as a vagabond that makes him fascinating. One is so confident, however, of his fitness for his position and business, and of his entire contentment with it, that it is impossible not to exult in him.
He is not without self-respect. I doubt, it would be hard to find any Venetian of any vocation, however base, who forgets that he too is a man and a brother. There is enough servility in the language,—it is the fashion of the Italian tongue, with its Tu for inferiors, Voi for intimates and friendly equals, and Lei for superiors,—but in the manner there is none, and there is a sense of equality in the ordinary intercourse of the Venetians, at once apparent to foreigners.
All ranks are orderly; the spirit of aggression seems not to exist among them, and the very boys and dogs in Venice are so well-behaved, that I have never seen the slightest disposition in them to quarrel. Of course, it is of the street-boy—the biricchino, the boy in his natural, unreclaimed state—that I speak. This state is here, in winter, marked by a clouded countenance, bare head, tatters, and wooden-soled shoes open at the heels; in summer by a preternatural purity of person, by abandon to the amphibious pleasure of leaping off the bridges into the canals, and by an insatiable appetite for polenta, fried minnows, and water-melons.
When one of these boys takes to beggary, as a great many of them do, out of a spirit of adventure and wish to pass the time, he carries out the enterprise with splendid daring. A favorite artifice is to approach Charity with a slice of polenta in one hand, and, with the other extended, implore a soldo to buy cheese to eat with the polenta. The street-boys also often perform the duties of the gransieri, who draw your gondola to shore, and keep it firm with a hook. To this order of beggar I usually gave; but one day at the railway station I had no soldi, and as I did not wish to render my friend discontented with future alms by giving silver, I deliberately apologized, praying him to excuse me, and promising him for another time. I cannot forget the lofty courtesy with which he returned,—“S’accomodi pur, Signor!” They have sometimes a sense of humor, these poor swindlers, and can enjoy the exposure of their own enormities. An amiable rogue drew our gondola to land one evening when we went too late to see the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. The sacristan made us free of a perfectly dark church, and we rewarded him as if it had been noonday. On our return to the gondola, the same beggar whom we had just feed held out his hat for another alms. “But we have just paid you,” we cried in an agony of grief and desperation. “Sì, signori!” he admitted with an air of argument, “è vero. Ma, la chiesa!” (Yes, gentlemen, it is true. But the church!) he added with confidential insinuation, and a patronizing wave of the hand toward the edifice, as if he had been San Giorgio himself, and held the church as a source of revenue. This was too much, and we laughed him to scorn; at which, beholding the amusing abomination of his conduct, he himself joined in our laugh with a cheerfulness that won our hearts.
Beggary is attended by no disgrace in Italy, and it therefore comes that no mendicant is without a proper degree of the self-respect common to all classes. Indeed, the habit of taking gifts of money is so general and shameless that the street beggars must be diffident souls indeed if they hesitated to ask for it. A perfectly well-dressed and well-mannered man will take ten soldi from you for a trifling service, and not consider himself in the least abased. The detestable custom of largess, instead of wages, still obtains in so great degree in Venice that a physician, when asked for his account, replies: “What you please to give.” Knowing these customs, I hope I have never acted discourteously to the street beggars of Venice even when I gave them nothing, and I know that only one of them ever so far forgot himself as to curse me for not giving. Him, however, I think to have been out of his right mind at the time.
There were two mad beggars in the parish of San Stefano, whom I should be sorry to leave unmentioned here. One, who presided chiefly over the Campo San Stefano, professed to be also a facchino, but I never saw him employed, except in addressing select circles of idlers whom a brawling noise always draws together in Venice. He had been a soldier, and he sometimes put himself at the head of a file of Croats passing through the campo, and gave them the word of command, to the great amusement of those swarthy barbarians. He was a good deal in drink, and when in this state was proud to go before any ladies who might be passing, and clear away the boys and idlers, to make room for them. When not occupied in any of these ways, he commonly slept in the arcades of the old convent.
But the mad beggar of Campo Sant’ Angelo seemed to have a finer sense of what became him as a madman and a beggar, and never made himself obnoxious by his noise. He was, in fact, very fat and amiable, and in the summer lay asleep, for the most part, at a certain street corner which belonged to him. When awake he was a man of extremely complaisant presence, and suffered no lady to go by without a compliment to her complexion, her blond hair, or her beautiful eyes, whichever it might be. He got money for these attentions, and people paid him for any sort of witticism. One day he said to the richest young dandy of the city,—“Pah! you stomach me with your perfumes and fine airs;” for which he received half a florin. His remarks to gentlemen had usually this sarcastic flavor. I am sorry to say that so excellent a madman was often drunk and unable to fulfill his duties to society.
There are, of course, laws against mendicancy in Venice, and they are, of course, never enforced. Beggars abound everywhere, and nobody molests them. There was long a troop of weird sisters in Campo San Stefano, who picked up a livelihood from the foreigners passing to and from the Academy of Fine Arts. They addressed people with the title of Count, and no doubt gained something by this sort of heraldry, though there are counts in Venice almost as poor as themselves, and titles are not distinctions. The Venetian seldom gives to beggars; he says deliberately, “No go” (I have nothing), or “Quando ritornerò” (when I return), and never comes back that way. I noticed that professional hunger and cold took this sort of denial very patiently, as they did every other; but I confess I had never the heart to practice it. In my walks to the Public Gardens there was a venerable old man, with the beard and bearing of a patriarch, whom I encountered on the last bridge of the Riva, and who there asked alms of me. When I gave him a soldo, he returned me a blessing which I would be ashamed to take in the United States for half a dollar; and when the soldo was in some inaccessible pocket, and I begged him to await my coming back, he said sweetly,—“Very well, Signor, I will be here.” And I must say, to his credit, that he never broke his promise, nor suffered me, for shame’s sake, to break mine. He was quite a treasure to me in this respect, and assisted me to form habits of punctuality.
That exuberance of manner which one notes, the first thing, in his intercourse with Venetians, characterizes all classes, but is most excessive and relishing in the poor. There is a vast deal of ceremony with every order, and one hardly knows what to do with the numbers of compliments it is necessary to respond to. A Venetian does not come to see you, he comes to revere you; he not only asks if you be well when he meets you, but he bids you remain well at parting, and desires you to salute for him all common friends; he reverences you at leave-taking; he will sometimes consent to incommode you with a visit; he will relieve you of the disturbance when he rises to go. All spontaneous wishes which must, with us, take original forms, for lack of the complimentary phrase, are formally expressed by him,—good appetite to you, when you go to dinner much enjoyment, when you go to the theatre; a pleasant walk, if you meet in promenade. He is your servant at meeting and parting; he begs to be commanded when he has misunderstood you. But courtesy takes its highest flights, as I hinted, from the poorest company. Acquaintances of this sort, when not on the Ciò ciappa footing, or that of the familiar thee and thou, always address each other in Lei (lordship), or Elo, as the Venetians have it; and their compliment-making at encounter and separation is endless: I salute you! Remain well! Master! Mistress! (Paron! parona!) being repeated as long as the polite persons are within hearing.
One day, as we passed through the crowded Merceria, an old Venetian friend of mine, who trod upon the dress of a young person before us, called out, “Scusate, bella giovane!” (Pardon, beautiful girl!) She was not so fair nor so young as I have seen women; but she half turned her face with a forgiving smile, and seemed pleased with the accident that had won her the amiable apology. The waiter of the caffè frequented by the people, says to the ladies for whom he places seats,—“Take this place, beautiful blonde;” or, “Sit here, lovely brunette,” as it happens.
A Venetian who enters or leaves any place of public resort touches his hat to the company, and one day at the restaurant some ladies, who had been dining there, said “Complimenti!” on going out, with a grace that went near to make the beefsteak tender. It is this uncostly gentleness of bearing which gives a winning impression of the whole people, whatever selfishness or real discourtesy lie beneath it. At home it sometimes seems that we are in such haste to live and be done with it, we have no time to be polite. Or is popular politeness merely a vice of servile peoples? And is it altogether better to be rude? I wish it were not. If you are lost in his city (and you are pretty sure to be lost there, continually), a Venetian will go with you wherever you wish. And he will do this amiable little service out of what one may say old civilization has established in place of goodness of heart, but which is perhaps not so different from it.
You hear people in the streets bless each other in the most dramatic fashion. I once caught these parting words between an old man and a young girl;
Giovanetta. Revered sir! (Patron riverito!)
Vecchio. (With that peculiar backward wave and beneficent wag of the hand, only possible to Italians.) Blessed child! (Benedetta!)
It was in a crowd, but no one turned round at the utterance of terms which Anglo-Saxons would scarcely use in their most emotional moments. The old gentleman who sells boxes for the theatre in the Old Procuratie always gave me his benediction when I took a box.
There is equal exuberance of invective, and I have heard many fine maledictions on the Venetian streets, but I recollect none more elaborate than that of a gondolier who, after listening peacefully to a quarrel between two other boatmen, suddenly took part against one of them, and saluted him with,—“Ah! baptized son of a dog! And if I had been present at thy baptism, I would have dashed thy brains out against the baptismal font!”
All the theatrical forms of passion were visible in a scene I witnessed in a little street near San Samuele, where I found the neighborhood assembled at doors and windows in honor of a wordy battle between two poor women. One of these had been forced in-doors by her prudent husband, and the other upbraided her across the marital barrier. The assailant was washing, and twenty times she left her tub to revile the besieged, who thrust her long arms out over those of her husband, and turned each reproach back upon her who uttered it, thus:—
E via in seguito! At last the assailant, beating her breast with both hands, and tempestuously swaying her person back and forth, wreaked her scorn in one wild outburst of vituperation, and returned finally to her tub, wisely saying, on the purple verge of asphyxiation, “O, non discorre più con gente.”
I returned half an hour later, and she was laughing and playing sweetly with her babe.
It suits the passionate nature of the Italians to have incredible ado about buying and selling, and a day’s shopping is a sort of campaign, from which the shopper returns plundered and discomfited, or laden with the spoil of vanquished shopmen.
The embattled commercial transaction is conducted in this wise:
The shopper enters, and prices a given article. The shopman names a sum of which only the fervid imagination of the South could conceive as corresponding to the value of the goods.
The purchaser instantly starts back with a wail of horror and indignation, and the shopman throws himself forward over the counter with a protest that, far from being dear, the article is ruinously cheap at the price stated, though they may nevertheless agree for something less.
What, then, is the very most ultimate price?
Properly, the very most ultimate price is so much. (Say, the smallest trifle under the price first asked.)
The purchaser moves toward the door. He comes back, and offers one third of the very most ultimate price.
The shopman, with a gentle desperation, declares that the thing cost him as much. He cannot really take the offer. He regrets, but he cannot. That the gentleman would say something more! So much—for example. That he regard the stuff, its quality, fashion, beauty.
The gentleman laughs him to scorn. Ah, heigh! and, coming forward, he picks up the article and reviles it. Out of the mode, old, fragile, ugly of its kind. The shopman defends his wares. There is no such quantity and quality elsewhere in Venice. But if the gentleman will give even so much (still something preposterous), he may have it, though truly its sale for that money is utter ruin.
The shopper walks straight to the door. The shopman calls him back from the threshold, or sends his boy to call him back from the street.
Let him accommodate himself—which is to say, take the thing at his own price.
He takes it.
The shopman says cheerfully, “Servo suo!”
The purchaser responds, “Bon dì! Patron!” (Good day! my Master!)
Thus, as I said, every bargain is a battle, and every purchase a triumph or a defeat. The whole thing is understood; the opposing forces know perfectly well all that is to be done beforehand, and retire after the contest, like the captured knights in “Morgante Maggiore” “calm as oil,”—however furious and deadly their struggle may have appeared to strangers.
Foreigners soon discern, however, that there is no bloodshed in such encounters, and enter into them with a zeal as great as that of natives, though with less skill. I knew one American who prided himself on such matters, and who haughtily closed a certain bargain without words, as he called it. The shopman offered several articles, for which he demanded prices amounting in all to ninety-three francs. His wary customer rapidly computed the total and replied “Without words, now, I’ll give you a hundred francs for the lot.” With a pensive elevation of the eyebrows, and a reluctant shrug of the shoulders, the shopman suffered him to take them.
Your Venetian is simpatico, if he is any thing. He is always ready to feel and to express the deepest concern, and I rather think he likes to have his sensibilities appealed to, as a pleasant and healthful exercise for them. His sympathy begins at home, and he generously pities himself as the victim of a combination of misfortunes, which leave him citizen of a country without liberty, without commerce, without money, without hope. He next pities his fellow-citizens, who are as desperately situated as himself. Then he pities the degradation, corruption, and despair into which the city has fallen. And I think his compassion is the most hopeless thing in his character. That alone is touched; that alone is moved; and when its impulse ceases he and every thing about him remain just as before.
With the poor, this sensibility is amusingly mischievous. They never speak of one of their own class without adding some such ejaculation as “Poor fellow!” or, “Poor little creature!” They pity all wretchedness, no matter from what cause, and the greatest rogue has their compassion when under a cloud. It is all but impossible to punish thieves in Venice, where they are very bold and numerous for the police are too much occupied with political surveillance to give due attention to mere cutpurses and housebreakers, and even when they make an arrest, people can hardly be got to bear witness against their unhappy prisoner. Povareto anca lu! There is no work and no money; people must do something; so they steal. Ci vuol pazienza! Bear witness against an ill-fated fellow-sufferer? God forbid! Stop a thief? I think a burglar might run from Rialto to San Marco, and not one compassionate soul in the Merceria would do aught to arrest him—povareto! Thieves came to the house of a friend of mine at noonday, when his servant was out. They tied their boat to his landing, entered his house, filled their boat with plunder from it, and rowed out into the canal. The neighbors on the floor above saw them, and cried “Thieves! thieves!” It was in the most frequented part of the Grand Canal, where scores of boats passed and repassed; but no one molested the thieves, and these povareti escaped with their booty1.
One night, in a little street through which we passed to our ferry, there came a wild rush before us, of a woman screaming for help, and pursued by her husband with a knife in his hand; their children, shrieking piteously, came after them. The street was crowded with people and soldiers, but no one put out his hand; and the man presently overtook his wife and stabbed her in the back. We only knew of the rush, but what it all meant we could not tell, till we saw the woman bleeding from the stab, which, happily, was slight. Inquiry of the bystanders developed the facts, but, singularly enough, scarcely a word of pity. It was entirely a family affair, it seemed; the man, poor little fellow, had a mistress, and his wife had maddened him with reproaches. Come si fa? He had to stab her. The woman’s case was not one that appealed to popular compassion, and the only words of pity for her which I heard were expressed by the wife of a fruiterer, whom her husband angrily silenced.
- The rogues, it must be confessed, are often very polite. This same friend of mine one day found a man in the act of getting down into a boat with his favorite singing bird in its cage. “What are you doing with that bird?” he thought himself authorized to inquire. The thief looked about him a moment, and perceiving himself detected, handed back the cage with a cool “La scusi!” (“Beg pardon!”) as if its removal had been a trifling inadvertance.