Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
It was natural that the Venetians, whose State lay upon the borders of the Greek Empire, and whose greatest commerce was with the Orient, should be influenced by the Constantinopolitan civilization. Mutinelli records that in the twelfth century they had many religious offices and observances in common with the Greeks, especially the homily or sermon, which formed a very prominent part of the service of worship. At this time, also, when the rupture of the Lombard League had left other Italian cities to fall back into incessant local wars, and barbarized their customs, the people of Venice dressed richly and delicately, after the Greek fashion. They combed and dressed their hair, and wore the long, pointed Greek beard1; and though these Byzantine modes fell, for the most part, into disuse, in after-time, there is still a peculiarity of dress among the women of the Venetian poor which is said to have been inherited from the oriental costumes of Constantinople; namely, that high-heeled, sharp-toed slipper, or sandal, which covers the front of the foot, and drops from the heel at every step, requiring no slight art in the wearer to keep it on at all.
The philosophic vision, accustomed to relate trifling particulars to important generalities, may perhaps see another relic of Byzantine civilization among the Venetians, in that jealous restraint which they put upon all the social movements of young girls, and the great liberty which they allow to married women. It is true that their damsels are now no longer imprisoned under the parental roof, as they were in times when they never left its shelter but to go, closely veiled, to communion in the church, on Christmas and Easter; but it is still quite impossible that any young lady should go out alone. Indeed, she would scarcely be secure from insult in broad day if she did so. She goes out with her governess, and, even with this protection, she cannot be too guarded and circumspect in her bearing; for in Venice a woman has to encounter upon the public street a rude license of glance, from men of all ages and conditions, which falls little short of outrage. They stare at her as she approaches; and I have seen them turn and contemplate ladies as they passed them, keeping a few paces in advance, with a leisurely sidelong gait. Something of this insolence might be forgiven to thoughtless, hot-blooded youth; but the gross and knowing leer that the elders of the Piazza and the caffè put on at the approach of a pretty girl is an ordeal which few women, not as thoroughly inured to it as the Venetians, would care to encounter. However, as I never heard the trial complained of by any but foreigners, I suppose it is not regarded by Italians as intolerable; and it is certain that an audible compliment, upon the street, to a pretty girl of the poor, is by no means an affront.
The arts of pleasing and of coquetry come by nature to the gentler sex; and if in Italy they add to them a habit of intrigue, I wonder how much they are to blame, never being in anywise trusted? They do not differ from persons of any age or sex in that country, if the world has been as justly, as it has always been firmly, persuaded that the people of Italy are effete in point of good faith. I have seen much to justify this opinion, and something also to confute it; and as long as Garibaldi lives, I shall not let myself believe that a race which could produce a man so signally truthful and single-hearted is a race of liars and cheats. I think the student of their character should also be slow to upbraid Italians for their duplicity, without admitting, in palliation of the fault, facts of long ages of alien and domestic oppression, in politics and religion, which must account for a vast deal of every kind of evil in Italy. Yet after exception and palliation has been duly made, it must be confessed that in Italy it does not seem to be thought shameful to tell lies, and that there the standard of sincerity, compared with that of the English or American, is low, as the Italian standard of morality in ether respects is also comparatively low. With the women, bred in idleness and ignorance, the imputed national untruthfulness takes the form naturally to be expected, and contributes to a state of things which must be examined with the greatest caution and reservation by every one but the Italians themselves. Goethe says that there is no society so corrupt that a man may not live virtuously in it; and I think the immorality of any people will not be directly and wholly seen by the stranger who does not seek it. Certainly, the experience and acquaintance of a foreigner in Italy must have been most unfortunate, if they confirm all the stories of corruption told by Italians themselves. A little generous distrust is best in matters of this kind; but while I strengthen my incredulity concerning the utter depravation of Venetian society in one respect, I am not disposed to deal so leniently with it in others. The state of things is bad in Venice, not because all women in society are impure, but because the Italian theory of morals does not admit the existence of opportunity without sin. It is by rare chance that a young girl makes acquaintance with young men in society; she seldom talks with them at the parties to which she is sometimes taken by her mother, and they do not call upon her at her home; while for her to walk alone with a young man would be vastly more scandalous than much worse things, and is, consequently, unheard of. The Italians say freely they cannot trust their women as northern women are trusted; and some Italian women frankly confess that their sex would be worse if it were trusted more. But the truth does not appear in this shallow suspicion and this shallow self-conviction; and one who cares to have a just estimate of this matter must by no means believe all the evil he hears. There may be much corruption in society, but there is infinitely more wrong in the habits of idle gossip and guilty scandal, which eat all sense of shame and pity out of the heart of Venice. There is no parallel to the prying, tattling, backbiting littleness of the place elsewhere in the world. A small country village in America or England has its meddlesomeness, but not its worldly, wicked sharpness. Figure the meanness of a chimney-corner gossip, added to the bitter shrewdness and witty penetration of a gifted roué, and you have some idea of Venetian scandal. In that city, where all the nobler organs of expression are closed by political conditions, the viler channels run continual filth and poison, and the people, shut out from public and free discussion of religious and political themes, occupy themselves with private slander, and rend each other in their abject desperation. As it is part of the existing political demonstration to avoid the opera and theatre, the Venetians are deprived of these harmless distractions; balls and evening parties, at which people, in other countries, do nothing worse than bore each other, are almost unknown, for the same reason; and when persons meet in society, it is too often to retail personalities, or Italian politics made as unintelligible and as like local gossip as possible. The talk which is small and noxious in private circles is the same thing at the caffè, when the dread of spies does not reduce the talkers to a dreary silence. Not permitted to feel the currents of literature and the great world’s thought in religion freshly and directly, they seldom speak of these things, except in that tone of obsolete superiority which Italians are still prone to affect, as the monopolists of culture. As to Art, the Venetians are insensible to it and ignorant of it, here in the very atmosphere of Art, to a degree absolutely amusing. I would as soon think of asking a fish’s opinion of water as of asking a Venetian’s notion of architecture or painting, unless he were himself a professed artist or critic.
Admitting, however, that a great part of the corruption of society is imputed, there still remains, no doubt, a great deal of real immorality to be accounted for. This, I think, is often to be attributed to the bad system of female education, and the habits of idleness in which women are bred. Indeed, to Americans, the whole system of Italian education seems calculated to reduce women to a state of imbecile captivity before marriage; and I have no fault to find with the Italians that they are jealous in guarding those whom they have unfitted to protect themselves, but have rather to blame them that, after marriage, their women are thrown at once upon society, when worse than helpless against its temptations. Except with those people who attempt to maintain a certain appearance in public upon insufficient means (and there are too many of these in Venice as everywhere else), and who spare in every other way that they may spend on dress, it does not often happen that Venetian ladies are housekeepers. Servants are cheap and numerous, as they are uncleanly and untrustworthy, and the Venetians prefer to keep them2 rather than take part in housewifely duties; and, since they must lavish upon dress and show, to suffer from cold and hunger in their fireless houses and at their meagre boards. In this way the young girls, kept imprisoned from the world, instead of learning cookery and other domestic arts, have the grievous burden of idleness added to that of their solitary confinement, not only among the rich and noble, but among that large class which is neither and wishes to appear both3. Their idle thoughts, not drilled by study nor occupied with work, run upon the freedom which marriage shall bring them, and form a distorted image of the world, of which they know as little as of their own undisciplined selves. Denied the just and wholesome amusements of society during their girlhood, it is scarcely a matter of surprise that they should throw themselves into the giddiest whirl of its excitement when marriage sets them free to do so.
I have said I do not think Venetians who give each other bad names are always to be credited, and I have no doubt that many a reputation in Venice is stained while the victim remains without guilt. A questioned reputation is, however, no great social calamity. It forms no bar to society, and few people are so cruel as to blame it, though all discuss it. And it is here that the harshness of American and English society toward the erring woman (harshness which is not injustice, but half-justice only) contrasts visibly to our advantage over the bad naïveté and lenity of the Italians. The carefully secluded Italian girl is accustomed to hear of things and speak of things which, with us, parents strive in every way to keep from their daughters’ knowledge; and while her sense of delicacy is thus early blunted, while she is thus used to know good and evil, she hears her father and mother comment on the sinful errors of a friend or neighbor, who visits them and meets them every day in society. How can the impunity of the guilt which she believes to exist around her but sometimes have its effect, and ripen, with opportunity, into wrong? Nay, if the girl reveres her parents at all, how can she think the sin, which they caress in the sinner, is so very bad? If, however, she escape all these early influences of depravation; if her idleness, and solitude and precocious knowledge leave her unvitiated, if, when she goes into society, it is by marriage with a man who is neither a dotard nor a fortune-seeker, and who remains constant and does not tempt her, by neglect, to forbode offense and to inflict anticipative reprisals—yet her purity goes uncredited, as her guilt would go unpunished; scandal makes haste to blacken her name to the prevailing hue; and whether she has sin or not, those with sin will cast, not the stone that breaks and kills, but the filth that sticks and stinks. The wife must continue the long social exile of her girlhood if she would not be the prey of scandal. The cavaliere servente no longer exists, but gossip now attributes often more than one lover in his place, and society has the cruel clemency to wink at the license. Nothing is in worse taste than jealousy, and, consequently, though intrigue sometimes causes stabbing, and the like, among low people, it is rarely noticed by persons of good breeding. It seems to me that in Venetian society the reform must begin, not with dissolute life, but with the social toleration of the impure, and with the wanton habits of scandal, which make all other life incredible, and deny to virtue the triumph of fair fame.
I confess that what I saw of the innocent amusements of this society was not enough to convince me of their brilliancy and attractiveness; but I doubt if a foreigner can be a trustworthy judge of these things, and perhaps a sketch drawn by an alien hand, in the best faith, might have an air of caricature. I would not, therefore, like to trust my own impression of social diversions. They were, very probably, much more lively and brilliant than I thought them. But Italians assembled anywhere, except at the theatre or the caffè, have a certain stiffness, all the more surprising, because tradition has always led one to expect exactly the reverse of them. I have seen nothing equal to the formality of this people, who deride colder nations for inflexible manners; and I have certainly never seen society in any small town in America so ill at ease as I have seen society in Venice, writhing under self-imposed restraints. At a musical soirée, attended by the class of people who at home would have been chatty and sociable, given to making acquaintance and to keeping up acquaintance,—the young men harmlessly talking and walking with the young ladies, and the old people listening together, while constant movement and intercourse kept life in the assembly, and there was some real pleasure felt amidst a good deal of unavoidable suffering,—I say, I found such a soirée in Venice to be a spectacle of ladies planted in formal rows of low-necks and white dresses around the four sides of one room, and of gentlemen restively imprisoned in dress-coats and white gloves in another. During the music all these devoted people listened attentively, and at the end, the ladies lapsed back into their chairs and fanned themselves, while the gentlemen walked up and down the floor of their cell, and stopped, two by two, at the door of the ladies’ room, glanced mournfully athwart the moral barrier which divided them, and sadly and dejectedly turned away. Amazed at this singular species of social enjoyment, I inquired afterward, of a Venetian lady, if evening parties in Venice were usually such ordeals, and was discouraged to learn that what I had seen was scarcely an exaggeration of prevailing torments. Commonly people do not know each other, and it is difficult for the younger to procure introductions; and when there is previous acquaintance, the presence of some commanding spirit is necessary to break the ice of propriety, and substitute enjoyment for correctness of behavior. Even at dancing parties, where it would seem that the poetry of motion might do something to soften the rigid bosom of Venetian deportment, the poor young people separate after each dance, and take each sex its appointed prison, till the next quadrille offers them a temporary liberation. For my own part, I cannot wonder that young men fly these virtuous scenes, and throng the rooms of those pleasant women of the demi-monde, who only exact from them that they shall be natural and agreeable; I cannot wonder that their fair partners in wretchedness seize the first opportunity to revenge themselves upon the propriety which has so cruelly used them. It is said that the assemblies of the Jews, while quite as unexceptionable in character, are far more sociable and lively than those of the Christians. The young Hebrews are frequently intelligent, well-bred, and witty, with a savoir faire which their Christian brethren lack. But, indeed, the young Venetian is, at that age when all men are owlish, ignorant, and vapid, the most owlish, ignorant, and vapid man in the world. He talks, not milk-and-water, but warm water alone, a little sweetened; and, until he has grown wicked, has very little good in him.
Most ladies of fashion receive calls on a certain day of each week, when it is made a matter of pride to receive as many calls as possible. The number sometimes reaches three hundred, when nobody sits down, and few exchange more than a word with the hostess. In winter, the stove is heated on these reception days, and little cups of black coffee are passed round to the company; in summer lemonade is substituted for the coffee; but in all seasons a thin, waferish slice of toasted rusk (the Venetian baicolo) is offered to each guest with the drink. At receptions where the sparsity of the company permits the lady of the house to be seen, she is commonly visible on a sofa, surrounded by visitors in a half-circle. Nobody stays more than ten or fifteen minutes, and I have sometimes found even this brief time of much greater apparent length, and apt to produce a low state of nerves, from which one seldom recovers before dinner. Gentlemen, however, do not much frequent these receptions; and I assert again the diffidence I should feel in offering this glance at Venetian social enjoyment as conveying a just and full idea of it. There is no doubt that the Venetians find delight in their assemblies, where a stranger seeks it in vain. I dare say they would not think our own reunions brilliant, and that, looking obliquely (as a foreigner must) on the most sensible faces at one of our evening parties, they might mistake the look of pathetic dejection, visible in them, as the expression of people rather bored by their pleasure than otherwise.
The conversazioni are of all sorts, from the conversazioni of the rigid proprietarians, where people sit down to a kind of hopeless whist, at a soldo the point, and say nothing, to the conversazioni of the demi-monde where they say any thing. There are persons in Venice, as well as everywhere else, of new-fashioned modes of thinking, and these strive to give a greater life and ease to their assemblies, by attracting as many young men as possible; and in their families, gentlemen are welcome to visit, and to talk with the young ladies in the presence of their mothers. But though such people are no more accused of impropriety than the straitest of the old-fashioned, they are not regarded with the greatest esteem, and their daughters do not so readily find husbands. The Italians are fickle, the women say; they get soon tired of their wives after marriage, and when they see much of ladies before marriage, they get tired of them then, and never make them their wives. So it is much better to see nothing of a possible husband till you actually have him. I do not think conversazioni of any kind are popular with young men, however; they like better to go to the caffè, and the people you meet at private houses are none the less interesting for being old, or middle-aged. A great many of the best families, at present, receive no company at all, and see their friends only in the most private manner; though there are still cultivated circles to which proper introduction gives the stranger (who has no Austrian acquaintance) access. But unless he have thorough knowledge of Italian politics localized to apply to Venice, an interest in the affairs, fortunes, and misfortunes of his neighbors, and an acquaintance with the Venetian dialect, I doubt if he will be able to enjoy himself in the places so cautiously opened to him. Even in the most cultivated society, the dialect is habitually spoken; and if Italian is used, it is only in compliment to some foreigner present, for whose sake, also, topics of general interest are sometimes chosen.
The best society is now composed of the families of professional men, such as the advocates, the physicians, and the richer sort of merchants. The shopkeepers, master-artisans, and others, whom industry and thrift distinguish from the populace, seem not to have any social life, in the American sense. They are wholly devoted to affairs, and partly from choice, and partly from necessity, are sordid and grasping. It is their class which has to fight hardest for life in Europe, and they give no quarter to those above or below them. The shop is their sole thought and interest, and they never, never sink it. But, since they have habits of diligence, and, as far as they are permitted, of enterprise, they seem to be in great part the stuff from which a prosperous State is to be rebuilt in Venice, if ever the fallen edifice rise again. They have sometimes a certain independence of character, which a better condition of things, and further education, would perhaps lift into honesty; though as yet they seem not to scruple to take any unfair advantage, and not to know that commercial success can never rest permanently on a system of bad faith. Below this class is the populace, between which and the patrician order a relation something like Roman clientage existed, contributing greatly to the maintenance of exclusively aristocratic power in the State. The greatest conspiracy (that of Marin Falier) which the commons ever moved against the oligarchy was revealed to one of the nobility by his plebeian creature, or client; and the government rewarded by every species of indulgence a class in which it had extinguished even the desire of popular liberty. The heirs of the servile baseness which such a system as this must create are not yet extinct. There is still a helplessness in many of the servant class, and a disposition to look for largess as well as wages, which are the traits naturally resulting from a state of voluntary submission to others. The nobles, as the government, enervated and debauched the character of the poor by public shows and countless holidays; as individuals, they taught them to depend upon patrician favor, and not upon their own plebeian industry, for support. The lesson was an evil one, hard to be unlearned, and it is yet to be forgotten in Venice. Certain traits of soft and familiar dependence give great charm to the populace; but their existence makes the student doubtful of a future to which the plebeians themselves look forward with perfect hope and confidence. It may be that they are right, and will really rise to the dignity of men, when free government shall have taught them that the laborer is worthy of his hire—after he has earned it. This has been the result, to some degree, in the kingdom of Italy, where the people have found that freedom, like happiness, means work.
Undoubtedly the best people in the best society of Venice are the advocates, an order of consequence even in the times of the Republic, though then shut out from participation in public affairs by a native government, as now by a foreign one. Acquaintance with several members of this profession impressed me with a sense of its liberality of thought and feeling, where all liberal thinking and feeling must be done by stealth, and where the common intelligence of the world sheds its light through multiplied barriers. Daniele Manin, the President of the Republic of 1848, was of this class, which, by virtue of its learning, enlightenment, and talent, occupies a place in the esteem and regard of the Venetian people far above that held by the effete aristocracy. The better part of the nobility, indeed, is merged in the professional class, and some of the most historic names are now preceded by the learned titles of Doctor and Advocate, rather than the cheap dignity of Count, offered by the Austrian government to all the patricians who chose to ask for it, when Austrian rule was extended over their country.
The physicians rank next to the advocates, and are usually men learned in their profession, however erroneous and old-fashioned some of their theories of practice may be. Like the advocates, they are often men of letters: they write for the journals, and publish little pamphlets on those topics of local history which it is so much the fashion to treat in Venice. No one makes a profession of authorship. The returns of an author’s work would be too uncertain, and its restrictions and penalties would be too vexatious and serious; and so literary topics are only occasionally treated by those whose main energies are bent in another direction.
The doctors are very numerous, and a considerable number of them are Hebrews, who, even in the old jealous times, exercised the noble art of medicine, and who now rank very highly among their professional brethren. These physicians haunt the neat and tasteful apothecary shops, where they sit upon the benching that passes round the interior, read the newspapers, and discuss the politics of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, with all the zest that you may observe to characterize their discussions in Goldoni’s plays. There they spend their evenings, and many hours of every day, and thither the sick send to call them,—each physician resorting to a particular apothecary’s, and keeping his name inscribed on a brass plate against the wall, above the head of the druggist, who presides over the reunions of the doctors, while his apprentice pestles away at their prescriptions.
In 1786 there were, what with priests, monks, and nuns, a multitude of persons of ecclesiastical profession in Venice; and though many convents and monasteries were abolished by Napoleon, the priests are still very numerous, and some monastic establishments have been revived under Austrian rule. The high officers of the Church are, of course, well paid, but most of the priesthood live miserably enough. They receive from the government a daily stipend of about thirty-five soldi, and they celebrate mass when they can get something to do in that way, for forty soldi. Unless, then, they have private income from their own family, or have pay for the education of some rich man’s son or daughter, they must fare slenderly.
There is much said, in and out of Venice, about their influence in society; but this is greatly modified, and I think is chiefly exercised upon the women of the old-fashioned families4. I need hardly repeat the wellknown fact that all the moral power of the Roman Church over the younger men is gone; these seldom attend mass, and almost never go to confession, and the priests are their scorn and by-word. Their example, in some degree, must be much followed also by women; and though women must everywhere make more public professions of religion than men, in order to retain social standing, I doubt if the priests have a very firm hold upon the fears or reverence of the sisters and wives of liberal Venetians.
If, however, they contribute in anywise to keep down the people, they are themselves enslaved to their superiors and to each other. No priest can leave the city of Venice without permission of the Patriarch. He is cut off as much as possible from his own kinspeople, and subjected to the constant surveillance of his class. Obliged to maintain a respectable appearance on twenty cents a day,—hampered and hindered from all personal liberty and private friendship, and hated by the great mass of the people,—I hardly think the Venetian priest is to be envied in his life. For my own part, knowing these things, I was not able to cherish toward the priests those feelings of scornful severity which swell many Protestant bosoms; and so far as I made their acquaintance, I found them kind and amiable. One ecclesiastic, at least, I may describe as one of the most agreeable and cultivated gentlemen I ever met.
Those who fare best among the priests are the Jesuits, who returned from repeated banishment with the Austrians in this century. Their influence is very extended, and the confessional is their forte. Venetians say that with the old and the old-fashioned these crafty priests suggest remorse and impose penances; that with the young men and the latter-day thinkers they are men of the world, and pass off pleasant sins as trifles. All the students of the government schools are obliged by law to confess twice a month, and are given printed certificates of confession, in blank, which the confessor fills up and stamps with the seal of the Church. Most of them go to confess at the church of the Jesuits, who are glad to hear the cock-and-bull story invented by the student, and to cultivate his friendship by an easy penance and a liberal tone. This ingenuous young man of course despises the confessional. He goes to confess because the law obliges him to do so; but the law cannot dictate what he must confess. Therefore, he ventures as near downright burlesque as he dares, and (if the account he gives of the matter be true) puts off his confessor with some well-known fact, as that he has blasphemed. Of course he has blasphemed, blasphemy being as common as the forms of salutation in Venice. So the priest, who wishes him to come again, and to found some sort of influence over him, says,—“Oh dear, dear! This is very bad. Blasphemy is deadly sin. If you must swear, swear by the heathen gods: say Body of Diana, instead of Body of God; Presence of the Devil, instead of Blood of Mary. Then there is no harm done.” The students laugh over the pleasant absurdity together, and usually agree upon the matter of their semimonthly confessions beforehand.
As I have hinted, the young men do not love the government or the Church, and though I account for the loss of much high hope and generous sympathy in growth from youth to middle age, I cannot see how, when they have replaced their fathers, the present religious and political discontent is to be modified. Nay, I believe it must become worse. The middle-aged men of Venice grew up in times of comparative quiet, when she did not so much care who ruled over her, and negatively, at least, they honored the Church. They may now hate the foreign rule, but there are many considerations of timidity, and many effects of education, to temper their hate. They may dislike the priests, but they revere the Church. The young men of to-day are bred in a different school, and all their thoughts are of opposition to the government and of war upon the Church, which they detest and ridicule. The fact that their education is still in the hands of the priests in some measure, does not render them more tractable. They have no fears to be wrought upon by their clerical professors, who seldom have sought to act upon their nobler qualities. The influence of the priesthood is again limited by the fact that the teachers in the free schools of the city, to which the poor send their children, are generally not priests; and ecclesiastics are no longer so commonly the private tutors of the children of the rich, as they once were when they lived with the family, and exercised a direct and important influence on it. Express permission from the pope is now necessary to the maintenance of a family chaplain, and the office is nearly disused5.
The Republic was extremely jealous of the political power of the priests, who could not hold secular office in its time. A curious punishment was inflicted upon the priest who proved false to his own vows of chastity, and there is a most amusing old ballad—by no means cleanly in its language—purporting to be the lament of a priest suspended in the iron cage, appointed for the purpose, from the belfry of the Campanile San Marco, and enduring the jeers and insults of the mob below. We may suppose that with advancing corruption (if corruption has indeed advanced from remote to later times) this punishment was disused for want of room to hang out the delinquents. In the last century, especially, the nuns and monks led a pleasant life. You may see in the old pictures of Pietro Longhi and his school, how at the aristocratic and fashionable convent of San Zaccaria, the lady nuns received their friends and acquaintances of this world in the anteroom, where the dames and their cavaliers flirted and drank coffee, and the gentlemen coquetted with the brides of heaven through their grated windows.
Among other privileges of the Church, abolished in Venice long ago, was that ancient right of the monks of St. Anthony, Abbot, by which their herds of swine were made free of the whole city. These animals, enveloped in an odor of sanctity, wandered here and there, and were piously fed by devout people, until the year 1409, when, being found dangerous to children and inconvenient to every body, they were made the subject of a special decree, which deprived them of their freedom of movement. The Republic was always limiting the privileges of the Church! It is known how when the holy inquisition was established in its dominions in 1249, the State stipulated that great part of the process against heresy should be conducted by secular functionaries, and that the sentence should rest with the Doge and his councillors,—a kind of inquisition with claws clipped and teeth filed, as one may say, and the only sort ever permitted in Venice. At present there is no absolute disfavor shown to the clergy; but, as we have seen, many a pleasant island, which the monks of old reclaimed from the salty marshes, and planted with gardens and vineyards, now bears only the ruins of their convents, or else, converted into a fortress or government dépôt, is all thistly with bayonets. Anciently, moreover, there were many little groves in different parts of the city, where the pleasant clergy, of what Mr. Ruskin would have us believe the pure and religious days of Venice, met and made merry so riotously together by night that the higher officers of the Church were forced to prohibit their little soirées.
An old custom of rejoicing over the installation of a new parish priest is still to be seen in almost primitive quaintness. The people of each parish—nobles, citizens, and plebeians alike—formerly elected their own priest, and, till the year 1576, they used to perambulate the city to the sound of drums, with banners flying, after an election, and proclaim the name of their favorite. On the day of the parroco’s induction his portrait was placed over the church door and after the celebration of the morning mass, a breakfast was given, which grew to be so splendid in time, that in the fifteenth century a statute limited its profusion. In the afternoon the new parroco, preceded by a band of military music, visited all the streets and courts of his parish, and then, as now, all the windows of the parish were decorated with brilliant tapestries, and other gay-colored cloths and pictures. In those times as in these, there was an illumination at night, throngs of people in the campo of the church, and booths for traffic in cakes of flour and raisins,—fried in lard upon the spot, and sold smoking hot, with immense uproar on the part of the merchant; and for three days afterward the parish bells were sounded in concert.
The difficulty of ascertaining any thing with certainty in Venice attends in a degree peculiarly great the effort to learn exactly the present influence and standing of the nobility as a class. One is tempted, on observing the free and unembarrassed bearing of all ranks of people toward each other, to say that no sense of difference exists,—and I do not think there is ever shown, among Italians, either the aggressive pride or the abject meanness which marks the intercourse of people and nobles elsewhere in Europe, and I have not seen the distinction of rich and poor made so brutally in Italy as sometimes in our own soi-disant democratic society at home. There is, indeed, that equality in Italian fibre which I believe fits the nation for democratic institutions better than any other, and which is perhaps partly the result of their ancient civilization. At any rate, it fascinates a stranger to see people so mutually gentle and deferential; and must often be a matter of surprise to the Anglo-Saxon, in whose race, reclaimed from barbarism more recently, the native wild-beast is still so strong as to sometimes inform the manner. The uneducated Anglo-Saxon is a savage; the Italian, though born to utter ignorance, poverty, and depravity, is a civilized man. I do not say that his civilization is of a high order, or that the civilization of the most cultivated Italian is at all comparable to that of a gentleman among ourselves. The Italian’s education, however profound, has left his passions undisciplined, while it has carefully polished his manner; he yields lightly to temptation, he loses his self-control, he blasphemes habitually; his gentleness is conventional, his civilization not individual. With us the education of a gentleman (I do not mean a person born to wealth or station, but any man who has trained himself in morals or religion, in letters, and in the world) disciplines the impulses, and leaves the good manner to grow naturally out of habits of self-command and consequent habitual self-respect.
The natural equality of the Italians is visible in their community of good looks as well as good manners. They have never, perhaps, that high beauty of sensitive expression which is found among Englishmen and Americans (preferably among the latter), but it very rarely happens that they are brutally ugly; and the man of low rank and mean vocation has often a beauty of as fine sort as the man of education and refinement. If they changed clothes, and the poor man could be persuaded to wash himself, they might successfully masquerade, one for another. The plebeian Italian, inspired by the national vanity, bears himself as proudly as the noble, without at all aggressing in his manner. His beauty, like that of the women of his class, is world-old,—the beauty of the pictures and the statues: the ideal types of loveliness are realized in Italy; the saints and heroes, the madonnas and nymphs, come true to the stranger at every encounter with living faces. In Venice, particularly, the carriage of the women, of whatever rank, is very free and noble, and the servant is sometimes to be distinguished from the mistress only by her dress and by her labor-coarsened hands; certainly not always by her dirty finger-nails and foul teeth, for though the clean shirt is now generally in Italy, some lesser virtues are still unknown: the nail-brush and tooth-brush are of but infrequent use; the four-pronged fork is still imperfectly understood, and as a nation the Italians may be said to eat with their knives.
The Venetian, then, seeing so little difference between himself and others, whatever his rank may be, has, as I said, little temptation to arrogance or servility. The effects of the old relationship of patron and client are amusingly noticeable in the superior as well as the inferior; a rich man’s dependents are perfectly free with advice and comment, and it sometimes happens that he likes to hear their lively talk, and at home secretly consorts with his servants. The former social differences between commoners and patricians (which, I think, judging from the natural temper of the race, must have been greatly modified at all times by concession and exception) may be said to have quite disappeared in point of fact; the nobility is now almost as effete socially as it is politically. There is still a number of historic families, which are in a certain degree exclusive; but rich parvenus have admission to their friendship, and commoners in good circumstances are permitted their acquaintance; the ladies of this patrician society visit ladies of less rank, and receive them at their great parties, though not at more sacred assemblies, where they see only each other.
The Venetians have a habit of saying their best families are in exile, but this is not meant to be taken literally. Many of the best families are yet in the city, living in perfect retirement, or very often merged in the middle class, and become men of professions, and active, useful lives. Of these nobles (they usually belong to the families which did not care to ask nobility of Austria, and are therefore untitled)6 the citizens are affectionately proud, while I have heard from them nothing but contempt and ridicule of the patricians who, upon a wretched pension or meagre government office, attempt to maintain patrician distinction. Such nobles are usually Austriacanti in their politics, and behind the age in every thing; while there are other descendants of patrician families mingled at last with the very populace, sharing their ignorance and degradation, and feeling with them. These sometimes exercise the most menial employments: I knew one noble lord who had been a facchino, and I heard of another who was a street-sweeper. Conte che non conta, non conta niente7, says the sneering Italian proverb; and it would be little less than miraculous if a nobility like that of modern Venice maintained superior state and regard in the eyes of the quick-witted, intelligent, sarcastic commonalty.
The few opulent patricians are by no means the most violent of Italianissimi. They own lands and houses, and as property is unsafe when revolutionary feeling is rife, their patriotism is tempered. The wealth amassed in early times by the vast and enterprising commerce of the country was, when not dissipated in riotous splendor, invested in real estate upon the main-land as the Republic grew in territory, and the income of the nobles is now from the rents of these lands. They reside upon their estates during the season of the villeggiatura, which includes the months of September and October, when every one who can possibly leave the city goes into the country. Then the patricians betake themselves to their villas near Padua, Vicenza, Bassano, and Treviso, and people the sad-colored, weather-worn stucco hermitages, where the mutilated statues, swaggering above the gates, forlornly commemorate days when it was a far finer thing to be a noble than it is now. I say the villas look dreary and lonesome as places can be made to look in Italy, what with their high garden walls, their long, low piles of stabling, and the passée indecency of their nymphs and fauns, foolishly strutting in the attitudes of the silly and sinful old Past; and it must be but a dull life that the noble proprietors lead there.
It is better, no doubt, on the banks of the Brenta, where there are still so many villas as to form a street of these seats of luxury, almost the whole length of the canal, from Fusina to Padua. I am not certain that they have a right to the place which they hold in literature and sentiment, and yet there is something very charming about them, with their gardens, and chapels, and statues, and shaded walks. We went to see them one day early in October, and found them every one, when habitable, inhabited, and wearing a cheerful look, that made their proximity to Venice incredible. As we returned home after dark, we saw the ladies from the villas walking unattended along the road, and giving the scene an air of homelike peace and trustfulness which I had not found before in Italy; while the windows of the houses were brilliantly lighted, as if people lived in them; whereas, you seldom see a light in Venetian palaces. I am not sure that I did not like better, however, the villas that were empty and ruinous, and the gardens that had run wild, and the statues that had lost legs and arms. Some of the ingenious proprietors had enterprisingly whitewashed their statues, and there was a horrible primness about certain of the well-kept gardens which offended me. Most of the houses were not large, but there was here and there a palace as grand as any in the city. Such was the great villa of the Contarini of the Lions, which was in every way superb, with two great lions of stone guarding its portals, and a gravel walk, over-arched with stately trees, stretching a quarter of a mile before it. At the moment I was walking down this aisle I met a cleanshaven old canonico, with red legs and red-tasseled hat, and with a book under his arm, and a meditative look, whom I here thank for being so venerably picturesque. The palace itself was shut up, and I wish I had known, when I saw it, that it had a ghostly underground passage from its cellar to the chapel,—wherein, when you get half way, your light goes out, and you consequently never reach the chapel.
This is at Mira; but the greatest of all the villas is the magnificent country-seat of the family Pisani at Stra, which now, with scarcely any addition to its splendor, serves for the residence of the abdicated Emperor of Austria. There is such pride in the vastness of this edifice and its gardens as impresses you with the material greatness which found expression in it, and never raises a regret that it has utterly passed away. You wander around through the aisles of trim-cut lime-trees, bullied and overborne by the insolent statues, and expect at every turn to come upon intriguing spectres in bag-wigs, immense hoops and patches. How can you feel sympathy for those dull and wicked ghosts of eighteenth-century corruption? There is rottenness enough in the world without digging up old putridity and sentimentalizing on it; and I doubt if you will care to know much of the way in which the noble owner of such a villa ascended the Brenta at the season of the villeggiatura in his great gilded barge, all carven outside with the dumpling loves and loose nymphs of the period, with fruits, and flowers, and what not; and within, luxuriously cushioned and furnished, and stocked with good things for pleasure making in the gross old fashion8. King Cole was not a merrier old soul than Illustrissimo of that day; he outspent princes; and his agent, while he harried the tenants to supply his master’s demands, plundered Illustrissimo frightfully. Illustrissimo never looked at accounts. He said to his steward, “Caro veccio, fè vu. Mi remeto a quel che fè vu.” (Old fellow, you attend to it. I shall be satisfied with what you do.) So the poor agent had no other course but to swindle him, which he did; and Illustrissimo, when he died, died poor, and left his lordly debts and vices to his sons.
In Venice, the noble still lives sometimes in his ancestral palace, dimly occupying the halls where his forefathers flourished in so much splendor. I can conceive, indeed, of no state of things more flattering to human pride than that which surrounded the patrician of the old aristocratic Republic. The house in which he dwelt was the palace of a king, in luxury of appointment and magnificence of size. Troops of servants that ministered to his state peopled its vast extent; and the gondolas that carried his grandeur abroad were moored in little fleets to the piles that rose before his palace, painted with the family arms and colors. The palace itself stood usually on the Grand Canal, and rose sheer from the water, giving the noble that haughty inaccessibility which the lord of the main-land achieved only by building lofty walls and multiplying gates. The architecture was as costly in its ornament as wild Gothic fancy, or Renaissance luxury of bad taste, could make it; and when the palace front was not of sculptured marble, the painter’s pencil filled it with the delight of color. The main-land noble’s house was half a fortress, and formed his stronghold in times of popular tumult or family fray; but at Venice the strong arm of St. Mark suppressed all turbulence in a city secure from foreign war; and the peaceful arts rejoiced in undisturbed possession of the palaces, which rose in the most delicate and fantastic beauty, and mirrored in the brine a dream of sea-deep strangeness and richness. You see much of the beauty yet, but the pride and opulence which called it into being are gone forever.
Most palaces, whether of the Gothic or classicistic period, have the same internal arrangement of halls and chambers, and are commonly built of two lofty and two low stories. On the ground floor, or water level, is a hall running back from the gate to a bit of garden at the other side of the palace; and on either side of this hall, which in old times was hung with the family trophies of the chase and war, are the porter’s lodge and gondoliers’ rooms. On the first and second stories are the family apartments, opening on either side from great halls, of the same extent as that below, but with loftier roofs, of heavy rafters gilded or painted. The fourth floor is of the same arrangement, but has a lower roof, and was devoted to the better class of servants. Of the two stories used by the family, the third is the loftier and airier, and was occupied in summer; the second was the winter apartment. On either hand the rooms open in suites.
We have seen something of the ceremonies, public and private, which gave peculiar gayety and brilliance to the life of the Venetians of former days; but in his political character the noble had yet greater consequence. He was part of the proudest, strongest, and securest system of his time. He was a king with the fellowship of kings, flattered with the equality of an aristocracy which was master of itself, and of its nominal head. During the earlier times it was his office to go daily to Rialto and instruct the people in their political rights and duties for four hours; and even when the duties became every thing and the rights nothing (after the Serrar del Consiglio), the friendly habit of daily intercourse between patricians and citizens was still kept up at the same place. Once each week, and on every holiday, the noble took his seat in the Grand Council (the most august assembly in the world, without doubt), or the Ten, or the Three, according to his office in the State,—holding his place in the Council by right of birth, and in the other bodies by election of his peers.
Although the patricians were kept as one family apart from the people, and jealously guarded in their aristocratic purity by the State, they were only equals of the poorest before the laws of their own creation, and their condescension to the people was frequent and great. Indeed, the Venetians of all classes are social creatures, loving talk and gossip, and these constant habits of intercourse must have done much to produce that equality of manner now observable in them. Their amusements were for a long time the same, the nobles taking part in the public holidays, and in the popular exercises of rowing and swimming. In the earlier times, hunting in the lagoons was a favorite diversion; but as the decay of the Republic advanced, and the patrician blossomed into the fine gentleman of the last century, these hearty sports were relinquished, and every thing was voted vulgar but masking in carnival, dancing and gaming at Ridotto, and intriguing everywhere.
The accounts which Venetian writers give of Republican society in the eighteenth century form a chronique scandaleuse which need not be minutely copied here. Much may be learned of Venetian manners of this time from the comedies of Goldoni; and the faithlessness of society may be argued from the fact that in these plays, which contain nothing salacious or indecent, there is scarcely a character of any rank who scruples to tell lies; and the truth is not to be found in works intended to school the public to virtue. The ingenious old playwright’s memoirs are full of gossip concerning that poor old Venice, which is now no more; and the worthy autobiographer, Casanova, also gives much information about things that had best not be known.
As the Republic drew near its fall, in 1797, there was little left in its dominant class worth saving, if we may believe the testimony of Venetians which Mutinelli brings to bear upon the point in his “Annali Urbani,” and his “History of the Last Fifty Years of the Republic.”
Long prosperity and prodigious opulence had done their worst, and the patricians, and the lowest orders of the people, their creatures and dependants, were thoroughly corrupt; while the men of professions began to assume that station which they now hold. The days of a fashionable patrician of those times began at a little before sunset, and ended with the following dawn. Rising from his bed, he dressed himself in dainty linen, and placed himself in the hands of the hairdresser to be combed, oiled, perfumed, and powdered; and then sallied forth for a stroll through the Merceria, where this excellent husband and father made tasteful purchases to be carried to the lady he served. At dinner, which he took about seven or eight, his board was covered with the most tempting viands, and surrounded by needy parasites, who detailed the spicy scandals of the day in payment of their dinner, while the children of the host were confided to the care of the corrupt and negligent servants. After dinner, the father went to the theatre, or to the casino, and spent the night over cards and wine, in the society of dissolute women; and renewed on the morrow the routine of his useful existence. The education of the children of the man of fashion was confided to a priest, who lived in his family, and called himself an abbate, after the mode of the abbés of French society; he had winning manners with the ladies, indulgent habits with his pupils, and dressed his elegant person in silks of Lyons and English broadcloths. In the pleasant old days he flitted from palace to villa, dining and supping, and flattering the ladies, and tapping the lid of his jeweled snuffbox in all fashionable companies. He was the cadet of a patrician family (when not the ambitious son of a low family), with a polite taste for idleness and intrigue, for whom no secular sinecure could be found in the State, and who obliged the Church by accepting orders. Whether in the palace on the Grand Canal, or the villa on the Brenta, this gentle and engaging priest was surely the most agreeable person to be met, and the most dangerous to ladies’ hearts,—with his rich suit of black, and his smug, clean-shaven face, and his jeweled hands, and his sweet, seducing manners. Alas! the world is changed! The priests whom you see playing tre-sette now at the conversazioni are altogether different men, and the delightful abbate is as much out of fashion as the bag-wig or the queue. When in fashion he loved the theatre, and often showed himself there at the side of his noble patron’s wife. Nay, in that time the theatre was so prized by the Church that a popular preacher thought it becoming to declare from his pulpit that to compose well his hearers should study the comedies of Goldoni,—and his hearers were the posterity of that devout old aristocracy which never undertook a journey without first receiving the holy sacrament; which had built the churches and endowed them from private wealth!
Ignorance, as well as vice, was the mode in those elegant days, and it is related that a charming lady of good society once addressed a foreign savant at her conversazione, and begged him to favor the company with a little music, because, having heard that he was virtuous, she had no other association with the word than its technical use in Italy to indicate a professional singer as a virtuoso. A father of a family who kept no abbate for the education of his children ingeniously taught them himself. “Father,” asked one of his children, “what are the stars?” “The stars are stars, and little things that shine as thou seest.” “Then they are candles, perhaps?” “Make thy account that they are candles exactly.”
“Of wax or tallow?” pursues the boy. “What! tallow-candles in heaven? No, certainly—wax, wax!”
These, and many other scandalous stories, the Venetian writers recount of the last days of their Republic, and the picture they produce is one of the most shameless ignorance, the most polite corruption, the most unblushing baseness. I have no doubt that the picture is full of national exaggeration. Indeed, the method of Mutinelli (who I believe intends to tell the truth) in writing social history is altogether too credulous and incautious. It is well enough to study contemporary comedy for light upon past society, but satirical ballads and lampoons, and scurrilous letters, cannot be accepted as historical authority. Still there is no question but Venice was very corrupt. As you read of her people in the last century, one by one the ideas of family faith and domestic purity fade away; one by one the beliefs in public virtue are dissipated; until at last you are glad to fly the study, close the filthy pages, and take refuge in doubt of the writers, who declare that they must needs disgrace Venice with facts since her children have dishonored her in their lives. “Such as we see them,” they say, “were the patricians, such the people of Venice, after the middle of the eighteenth century. The Venetians might be considered as extinguished; the marvelous city, the pomp only of the Venetians, existed.”
Shall we believe this? Let each choose for himself. At that very time the taste and wealth of a Venetian noble fostered the genius of Canova and then, when their captains starved the ragged soldiers of the Republic to feed their own idleness and vice,—when the soldiers dismantled her forts to sell the guns to the Turk,—when her sailors rioted on shore and her ships rotted in her ports, she had still military virtue enough to produce that Emo, who beat back the Algerine corsairs from the commerce of Christendom, and attacked them in their stronghold, as of old her galleys beat back the Turks. Alas! there was not the virtue in her statesmen to respond to this greatness in the hero. One of their last public acts was to break his heart with insult, and to crave peace of the pirates whom he had cowed. It remained for the helpless Doge and the abject patricians, terrified at a threat of war, to declare the Republic at an end, and San Marco was no more.
I love Republics too well to lament the fall of Venice. And yet, Pax tibi, Marce! If I have been slow to praise, I shall not hasten to condemn, a whole nation. Indeed, so much occurs to me to qualify with contrary sense what I have written concerning Venice, that I wonder if, after all, I have not been treating throughout less of the rule than of the exception. It is a doubt which must force itself upon every fair and temperate man who attempts to describe another people’s life and character; and I confess that it troubles me so sorely now, at the end of my work, that I would fain pray the gentle reader to believe much more good and much less evil of the Venetians than I have said. I am glad that it remains for me to express a faith and hope in them for the future, founded upon their present political feeling, which, however tainted with self-interest in the case of many, is no doubt with the great majority a high and true feeling of patriotism. And it is impossible to believe that a people which can maintain the stern and unyielding attitude now maintained by the Venetians toward an alien government disposed to make them any concession short of freedom, in order to win them into voluntary submission, can be wanting in the great qualities which distinguish living peoples from those passed hopelessly into history and sentiment. In truth, glancing back over the whole career of the nation, I can discern in it nothing so admirable, so dignified, so steadfastly brave, as its present sacrifice of all that makes life easy and joyous, to the attainment of a good which shall make life noble.
The Venetians desire now, and first of all things, Liberty, knowing that in slavery men can learn no virtues; and I think them fit, with all their errors and defects, to be free now, because men are never fit to be slaves.
- A. Foscarini, in 1687, was the last patrician who wore the beard.
- A clerk or employé with a salary of fifty cents a day keeps a maid-servant, that his wife may fulfill to society the important duty of doing nothing.
- The poet Gray, genteelly making the grand tour in 1740, wrote to his father from Florence: “The only thing the Italians shine in is their reception of strangers. At such times every thing is magnificence: the more remarkable as in their ordinary course of life they are parsimonious to a degree of nastiness. I saw in one of the vastest palaces of Rome (that of the Prince Pamfilio), the apartment which he himself inhabited, a bed that most servants in England would disdain to lie in, and furniture much like that of a soph at Cambridge. This man is worth 30,000 l. a year.” Italian nature has changed so little in a century, that all this would hold admirably true of Italian life at this time. The goodly outside in religion, in morals, in every thing is too much the ambition of Italy; this achieved, she is content to endure any pang of self-denial, and sell what little comfort she knows—it is mostly imported, like the word, from England—to strangers at fabulous prices. In Italy the luxuries of life are cheap, and the conveniences unknown or excessively dear.
- It is no longer usual for girls to be educated in convents, and most young ladies of the better classes, up to the age of thirteen or fourteen years, receive their schooling in secular establishments, whither they go every day for study, or where they sometimes live as in our boarding-schools, and where they are taught the usual accomplishments, greater attention being paid to French and music than to other things.
- In early days every noble Venetian family had its chaplain, who, on the occasion of great dinners and suppers, remained in the kitchen, and received as one of his perquisites the fragments that came back from the table.
- The only title conferred on any patrician of Venice during the Republic was Cavaliere, and this was conferred by a legislative act in reward of distinguished service. The names of the nobility were written in the Golden Book of the Republic, and they were addressed as Illustrissimo or Eccellenza. They also signed themselves nobile, between the Christian name and surname, as it is still the habit of the untitled nobility to do.
- A count who doesn’t count (money) counts for nothing.
- Mutinelli, Gli Ultimi Cinquant’ Anni della Repubblica di Veneza.