OUR LAST YEAR IN VENICE
(As it seems Seven Years after)
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
The last of four years which it was our fortune to live in the city of Venice was passed under the roof of one of her most beautiful and memorable palaces, namely, the Palazzo Giustiniani, whither we went, as has been told in an earlier chapter of this book, to escape the encroaching nepotism of Giovanna, the flower of serving-women. The experience now, in Cambridge, Mass., refuses to consort with ordinary remembrances, and has such a fantastic preference for the company of rather vivid and circumstantial dreams, that it is with no very strong hope of making it seem real that I shall venture to speak of it.
The Giustiniani were a family of patricians very famous during the times of a Republic that gave so many splendid names to history, and the race was preserved to the honor and service of Saint Mark by one of the most romantic facts of his annals. During a war with the Greek Emperor in the twelfth century every known Giustiniani was slain, and the heroic strain seemed lost forever. But the state that mourned them bethought itself of a half forgotten monk of their house, who was wasting his life in the Convent of San Nicolò; he was drawn forth from this seclusion, and, the permission of Rome being won, he was married to the daughter of the reigning doge. From them descended the Giustiniani of aftertimes, who still exist; in deed, in the year 1865 there came one day a gentleman of the family, and tried to buy from our landlord that part of the palace which we so humbly and insufficiently inhabited. It is said that as the unfrocked friar and his wife declined in life they separated, and, as if in doubt of what had been done for the state through them, retired each into a convent, Giustiniani going back to San Nicolò, and dying at last to the murmur of the Adriatic waves along the Lido’s sands.
Next after this Giustiniani I like best to think of that latest hero of the family, who had the sad fortune to live when the ancient Republic fell at a threat of Napoleon, and who alone among her nobles had the courage to meet with a manly spirit the insolent menaces of the conqueror. The Giustiniani governed Treviso for the Senate; he refused, when Napoleon ordered him from his presence, to quit Treviso without the command of the Senate; he flung back the taunts of bad faith cast upon the Venetians; and when Napoleon changed his tone from that of disdain to one of compliment, and promised that in the general disaster he was preparing for Venice, Giustiniani should be spared, the latter generously replied that he had been a friend of the French only because the Senate was so; as to the immunity offered, all was lost to him in the loss of his country, and he should blush for his wealth if it remained intact amidst the ruin of his countrymen.
The family grew in riches and renown from age to age, and, some four centuries after the marriage of the monk, they reared the three beautiful Gothic palaces, in the noblest site on the Grand Canal, whence on one hand you can look down to the Rialto Bridge, and on the other far up towards the church of the Salute, and the Basin of Saint Mark. The architects were those Buoni, father and son, who did some of the most beautiful work on the Ducal Palace, and who wrought in an equal inspiration upon these homes of the Giustiniani, building the delicate Gothic arches of the windows, with their slender columns and their graceful balconies, and crowning all with the airy battlements.
The largest of the three palaces became later the property of the Foscari family, and here dwelt with his father that unhappy Jacopo Foscari, who after thrice suffering torture by the state for a murder he never did, at last died in exile; hither came the old Doge Foscari, who had consented to this cruel error of the state, and who after a life spent in its service was deposed and disgraced before his death; and whither when he lay dead, came remorseful Venice, and claimed for sumptuous obsequies the dust which his widow yielded with bitter reproaches. Here the family faded away generation by generation, till, (according to the tale told us) early in this century, when the ultimate male survivor of the line had died, under a false name, in London, where he had been some sort of obscure actor, there were but two old maiden sisters left, who, lapsing into imbecility, were shown to strangers by the rascal servants as the last of the Foscari; and here in our time was quartered a regiment of Austrian troops, whose neatly pipe-clayed belts decorated the balconies on which the princely ladies of the house had rested their jewelled arms in other days.
The Foscari added a story to the palace to distinguish it from the two other palaces Giustiniani, but these remain to the present day as they were originally planned. That in which we lived was called Palazzo Giustiniani of the Bishops, because one of the family was the first patriarch of Venice. After his death he was made a saint by the Pope; and it is related that he was not only a very pious, but a very good man. In his last hours he admitted his beloved people to his chamber, where he meekly lay upon a pallet of straw, and at the moment he expired, two monks in the solitude of their cloister, heard an angelical harmony in the air: the clergy performed his obsequies not in black, funereal robes, but in white garments, and crowned with laurel, and bearing gilded torches, and although the patriarch had died of a malignant fever, his body was miraculously preserved incorrupt during the sixty-five days that the obsequies lasted. The other branch of the family was called the Giustiniani of the Jewels, from the splendor of their dress; but neither palace now shelters any of their magnificent race. The edifice on our right was exclusively occupied by a noble Viennese lady, who as we heard,—vaguely, in the right Venetian fashion,—had been a ballet-dancer in her youth, and who now in her matronly days dwelt apart from her husband, the Russian count, and had gondoliers in blue silk, and the finest gondola on the Grand Canal, but was a plump, florid lady, looking long past beauty, even as we saw her from our balcony.
Our own palace—as we absurdly grew to call it—was owned and inhabited in a manner much more proper to modern Venice, the proprietorship being about equally divided between our own landlord and a very well known Venetian painter, son of a painter still more famous. This artist was a very courteous old gentleman, who went with Italian and clock-like regularity every evening in summer to a certain caffè, where he seemed to make it a point of conscience to sip one sherbet, and to read the “Journal des Débats.” In his coming and going we met him so often that we became friends, and he asked us many times to visit him, and see his father’s pictures, and some famous frescos with which his part of the palace was adorned. It was a characteristic trait of our life, that though we constantly meant to avail ourselves of this kindness, we never did so. But we continued in the enjoyment of the beautiful garden, which this gentleman owned at the rear of the palace and on which our chamber windows looked. It was full of oleanders and roses, and other bright and odorous blooms, which we could enjoy perfectly well without knowing their names; and I could hardly say whether the garden was more charming when it was in its summer glory, or when, on some rare winter day, a breath from the mountains had clothed its tender boughs and sprays with a light and evanescent flowering of snow. At any season the lofty palace walls rose over it, and shut it in a pensive seclusion which was loved by the old mother of the painter and by his elderly maiden sister. These often walked on its moss-grown paths, silent as the roses and oleanders to which one could have fancied the blossom of their youth had flown; and sometimes there came to them there, grave, black-gowned priests,—for the painter’s was a devout family,—and talked with them in tones almost as tranquil as the silence was, save when one of the ecclesiastics placidly took snuff,—it is a dogma of the Church for priests to take snuff in Italy,—and thereafter, upon a prolonged search for his handkerchief, blew a resounding nose. So far as we knew, the garden walls circumscribed the whole life of these ladies; and I am afraid that such topics of this world as they touched upon with their priests must have been deplorably small.
Their kinsman owned part of the story under us, and both of the stories above us; he had the advantage of the garden over our landlord; but he had not so grand a gondola-gate as we, and in some other respects I incline to think that our part of the edifice was the finer. It is certain that no mention is made of any such beautiful hall in the property of the painter as is noted in that of our landlord, by the historian of a “Hundred Palaces of Venice,”—a work for which I subscribed, and then for my merit was honored by a visit from the author, who read aloud to me in a deep and sonorous voice the annals of our temporary home. This hall occupied half the space of the whole floor; but it was altogether surrounded by rooms of various shapes and sizes, except upon one side of its length, where it gave through Gothic windows of vari-colored glass, upon a small court below,—a green-mouldy little court, further dampened by a cistern, which had the usual curb of a single carven block of marble. The roof of this stately sala was traversed by a long series of painted rafters, which in the halls of nearly all Venetian palaces are left exposed, and painted or carved and gilded. A suite of stately rooms closed the hall from the Grand Canal, and one of these formed our parlor; on the side opposite the Gothic windows was a vast aristocratic kitchen, which, with its rows of shining coppers, its great chimney-place well advanced toward the middle of the floor, and its tall gloomy windows, still affects my imagination as one of the most patrician rooms which I ever saw; at the back of the hall were those chambers of ours overlooking the garden of which I have already spoken, and another kitchen, less noble than the first, but still sufficiently grandiose to make most New World kitchens seem very meekly minute and unimpressive. Between the two kitchens was another court, with another cistern, from which the painter’s family drew water with a bucket on a long rope, which, when let down from the fourth story, appeared to be dropped from the clouds, and descended with a noise little less alarming than thunder.
Altogether the most surprising object in the great sala was a sewing-machine, and we should have been inconsolably outraged by its presence there, amid so much that was merely venerable and beautiful, but for the fact that it was in a state of harmonious and hopeless disrepair, and, from its general contrivance, gave us the idea that it had never been of any use. It was, in fact, kept as a sort of curiosity by the landlord, who exhibited it to the admiration of his Venetian friends.
The reader will doubtless have imagined, from what I have been saying, that the Palazzo Giustiniani had not all that machinery which we know in our houses here as modern improvements. It had nothing of the kind, and life there was, as in most houses in Italy, a kind of permanent camping out. When I remember the small amount of carpeting, of furniture, and of upholstery we enjoyed, it appears to me pathetic; and yet, I am not sure that it was not the wisest way to live. I know that we had compensation in things not purchasable here for money. If the furniture of the principal bedroom was somewhat scanty, its dimensions were unstinted the ceiling was fifteen feet high, and was divided into rich and heavy panels, adorned each with a mighty rosette of carved and gilded wood, two feet across. The parlor had not its original decorations in our time, but it had once had so noble a carved ceiling that it was found worth while to take it down and sell it into England; and it still had two grand Venetian mirrors, a vast and very good painting of a miracle of St. Anthony, and imitation-antique tables and arm-chairs. The last were frolicked all over with carven nymphs and cupids; but they were of such frail construction that they were not meant to be sat in, much less to be removed from the wall against which they stood; and more than one of our American visitors was dismayed at having these proud articles of furniture go to pieces upon his attempt to use them like mere arm-chairs of ordinary life. Scarcely less impressive or useless than these was a monumental plaster-stove, surmounted by a bust of Æsculapius; when this was broken by accident, we cheaply repaired the loss with a bust of Homer (the dealer in the next campo being out of Æsculapiuses) which no one could have told from the bust it replaced; and this and the other artistic glories of the room made us quite forget all possible blemishes and defects. And will the reader mention any house with modern improvements in America which has also windows, with pointed arches of marble, opening upon balconies that overhang the Grand Canal?
For our new apartment, which consisted of six rooms, furnished with every article necessary for Venetian housekeeping, we paid one dollar a day which, in the innocence of our hearts we thought rather dear, though we were somewhat consoled by reflecting that this extravagant outlay secured us the finest position on the Grand Canal. We did not mean to keep house as we had in Casa Falier, and perhaps a sketch of our easier ménage may not be out of place. Breakfast was prepared in the house, for in that blessed climate all you care for in the morning is a cup of coffee, with a little bread and butter, a musk-melon, and some clusters of white grapes, more or less. Then we had our dinners sent in warm from a cook’s who had learned his noble art in France; he furnished a dinner of five courses for three persons at a cost of about eighty cents; and they were dinners so happily conceived and so justly executed, that I cannot accuse myself of an excess of sentiment when I confess that I sigh for them to this day. Then as for our immaterial tea, we always took that at the Caffè Florian in the Piazza of Saint Mark, where we drank a cup of black coffee and ate an ice, while all the world promenaded by, and the Austrian bands made heavenly music.
Those bands no longer play in Venice, and I believe that they are not the only charm which she has lost in exchanging Austrian servitude for Italian freedom; though I should be sorry to think that freedom was not worth all other charms. The poor Venetians used to be very rigorous (as I have elsewhere related), about the music of their oppressors, and would not come into the Piazza until it had ceased and the Austrian promenaders had disappeared, when they sat down at Florian’s, and listened to such bands of strolling singers and minstrels as chose to give them a concord of sweet sounds, without foreign admixture. We, in our neutrality, were wont to sit out both entertainments, and then go home well toward midnight, through the sleepy little streets, and over the bridges that spanned the narrow canals, dreaming in the shadows of the palaces.
We moved with half-conscious steps till we came to the silver expanse of the Grand Canal, where, at the ferry, darkled a little brood of black gondolas, into one of which we got, and were rowed noiselessly to the thither side, where we took our way toward the land-gate of our palace through the narrow streets of the parish of San Barnabà, and the campo before the ugly façade of the church; or else we were rowed directly to the water-gate, where we got out on the steps worn by the feet of the Giustiniani of old, and wandered upward through the darkness of the stairway, which gave them a far different welcome of servants and lights when they returned from an evening’s pleasure in the Piazza. It seemed scarcely just; but then, those Giustiniani were dead, and we were alive, and that was one advantage; and, besides, the loneliness and desolation of the palace had a peculiar charm, and were at any rate cheaper than its former splendor could have been. I am afraid that people who live abroad in the palaces of extinct nobles do not keep this important fact sufficiently in mind; and as the Palazzo Giustiniani is still let in furnished lodgings, and it is quite possible that some of my readers may be going to spend next summer in it, I venture to remind them that if they have to draw somewhat upon their fancy for patrician accommodations there, it will cost them far less in money than it did the original proprietors, who contributed to our selfish pleasure by the very thought of their romantic absence and picturesque decay. In fact, the Past is everywhere like the cake of proverb: you cannot enjoy it and have it.
And here I am reminded of another pleasure of modern dwellers in Venetian palaces, which could hardly have been indulged by the patricians of old, and which is hardly imaginable by people of this day, whose front doors open upon dry land: I mean to say the privilege of sea-bathing from one’s own threshold. From the beginning of June till far into September all the canals of Venice are populated by the amphibious boys, who clamor about in the brine, or poise themselves for a leap from the tops of bridges, or show their fine, statuesque figures, bronzed by the ardent sun, against the façades of empty palaces, where they hover among the marble sculptures, and meditate a headlong plunge. It is only the Venetian ladies, in fact, who do not share this healthful amusement. Fathers of families, like so many plump, domestic drakes, lead forth their aquatic broods, teaching the little ones to swim by the aid of various floats, and delighting in the gambols of the larger ducklings. When the tide comes in fresh and strong from the sea the water in the Grand Canal is pure and refreshing; and at these times it is a singular pleasure to leap from one’s door-step into the swift current, and spend a half-hour, very informally, among one’s neighbors there. The Venetian bathing-dress is a mere sketch of the pantaloons of ordinary life; and when I used to stand upon our balcony, and see some bearded head ducking me a polite salutation from a pair of broad, brown shoulders that showed above the water, I was not always able to recognize my acquaintance, deprived of his factitious identity of clothes. But I always knew a certain stately consul-general by a vast expanse of baldness upon the top of his head; and it must be owned, I think, that this form of social assembly was, with all its disadvantages, a novel and vivacious spectacle. The Venetian ladies, when they bathed, went to the Lido, or else to the bath-houses in front of the Ducal Palace, where they saturated themselves a good part of the day, and drank coffee, and, possibly, gossiped.
I think that our balconies at Palazzo Giustiniani were even better places to see the life of the Grand Canal from than the balcony of Casa Falier, which we had just left. Here at least we had a greater stretch of the Canal, looking, as we could, up either side of its angle. Here, too, we had more gondola stations in sight, and as we were nearer the Rialto, there was more picturesque passing of the market-boats. But if we saw more of this life, we did not see it in greater variety, for I think we had already exhausted this. There was a movement all night long. If I woke at three or four o’clock, and offered myself the novel spectacle of the Canal at that hour, I saw the heavy-laden barges go by to the Rialto, with now and then also a good-sized coasting schooner making lazily for the lagoons, with its ruddy fire already kindled for cooking the morning’s meal, and looking very enviably cosey. After our own breakfast we began to watch for the gondolas of the tourists of different nations, whom we came to distinguish at a glance. Then the boats of the various artisans went by, the carpenter’s, the mason’s, the plasterer’s, with those that sold fuel, and vegetables, and fruit, and fish, to any household that arrested them. From noon till three or four o’clock the Canal was comparatively deserted; but before twilight it was thronged again by people riding out in their open gondolas to take the air after the day’s fervor. After nightfall they ceased, till only at long intervals a solitary lamp, stealing over the dark surface, gave token of the movement of some gondola bent upon an errand that could not fail to seem mysterious or fail to be matter of fact. We never wearied of this oft-repeated variety, nor of our balcony in any way; and when the moon shone in through the lovely arched window and sketched its exquisite outline on the floor, we were as happy as moonshine could make us.
Were we otherwise content? As concerns Venice, it is very hard to say, and I do not know that I shall ever be able to say with certainty. For all the entertainment it afforded us, it was a very lonely life, and we felt the sadness of the city in many fine and not instantly recognizable ways. Englishmen who lived there bade us beware of spending the whole year in Venice, which they declared apt to result in a morbid depression of the spirits. I believe they attributed this to the air of the place, but I think it was more than half owing to her mood, to her old, ghostly, aimless life. She was, indeed, a phantom of the past, haunting our modern world,—serene, inexpressibly beautiful, yet inscrutably and unspeakably sad. Remembering the charm that was in her, we often sigh for the renewal of our own vague life there,—a shadow within the shadow; but remembering also her deep melancholy, an involuntary shiver creeps over us, and we are glad not to be there. Perhaps some of you who have spent a summer day or a summer week in Venice do not recognize this feeling; but if you will remain there, not four years as we did, but a year or six months even, it will ever afterwards be only too plain. All changes, all events, were affected by the inevitable local melancholy; the day was as pensive amidst that populous silence as the night; the winter not more pathetic than the long, tranquil, lovely summer. We rarely sentimentalized consciously, and still more seldom openly, about the present state of Venice as contrasted with her past glory.
I am glad to say that we despised the conventional poetastery about her; but I believe that we had so far lived into sympathy with her, that, whether we realized it or not, we took the tone of her dispiritedness, and assumed a part of the common experience of loss and of hopelessness. History, if you live where it was created, is a far subtler influence than you suspect; and I would not say how much Venetian history, amidst the monuments of her glory and the witnesses of her fall, had to do in secret and tacit ways with the prevailing sentiment of existence, which I now distinctly recognize to have been a melancholy one. No doubt this sentiment was deepened by every freshly added association with memorable places; and each fact, each great name and career, each strange tradition as it rose out of the past for us and shed its pale lustre upon the present, touched us with a pathos which we could neither trace nor analyze.
I do not know how much the modern Venetians had to do with this impression, but something I have no question. They were then under Austrian rule; and in spite of much that was puerile and theatrical in it, there was something very affecting in their attitude of what may best be described as passive defiance. This alone made them heroic, but it also made them tedious. They rarely talked of anything but politics; and as I have elsewhere said, they were very jealous to have every one declare himself of their opinion. Hemmed in by this jealousy on one side, and by a heavy and rebellious sense of the wrongful presence of the Austrian troops and the Austrian spies on the other, we forever felt dimly constrained by something, we could not say precisely what, and we only knew what, when we went sometimes on a journey into free Italy, and threw off the irksome caution we had maintained both as to patriotic and alien tyrants. This political misery circumscribed our acquaintance very much, and reduced the circle of our friendship to three or four families, who were content to know our sympathies without exacting constant expression of them. So we learned to depend mainly upon passing Americans for our society; we hailed with rapture the arrival of a gondola distinguished by the easy hats of our countrymen and the pretty faces and pretty dresses of our countrywomen. It was in the days of our war; and talking together over its events, we felt a brotherhood with every other American.
Of course, in these circumstances, we made thorough acquaintance with the people about us in the palace. The landlord had come somehow into a profitable knowledge of Anglo-Saxon foibles and susceptibilities; but his lodgings were charming, and I recognize the principle that it is not for literature to make its prey of any possibly conscious object. For this reason, I am likewise mostly silent concerning a certain attaché of the palace, the right-hand man and intimate associate of the landlord. He was the descendant of one of the most ancient and noble families of Italy,—a family of popes and cardinals, of princes and ministers, which in him was diminished and tarnished in an almost inexplicable degree. He was not at all worldly-wise, but he was a man of great learning, and of a capacity for acquiring knowledge that I have never seen surpassed. He possessed, I think, not many shirts on earth; but he spoke three or four languages, and wrote very pretty sonnets in Italian and German. He was one of the friendliest and willingest souls living, and as generous as utter destitution can make a man; yet he had a proper spirit, and valued himself upon his name. Sometimes he brought his great-grandfather to the palace; a brisk old gentleman in his nineties, who had seen the fall of the Republic and three other revolutions in Venice, but had contrived to keep a government pension through all, and now smiled with unabated cheerfulness upon a world which he seemed likely never to leave.
The palace-servants were two, the gondolier and a sort of housekeeper,—a handsome, swarthy woman, with beautiful white teeth and liquid black eyes. She was the mother of a pretty little boy, who was going to bring himself up for a priest, and whose chief amusement was saying mimic masses to an imaginary congregation. She was perfectly statuesque and obliging, and we had no right, as lovers of the beautiful or as lodgers, to complain of her, whatever her faults might have been. As to the gondolier, who was a very important personage in our palatial household, he was a handsome bashful, well-mannered fellow, with a good-natured blue eye and a neatly waxed mustache. He had been ten years a soldier in the Austrian army, and was, from his own account and from all I saw of him, one of the least courageous men in the world; but then no part of the Austrian system tends to make men brave, and I could easily imagine that before it had done with one it might give him reasons enough to be timid all the rest of his life. Piero had not very much to do, and he spent the greater part of his leisure in a sort of lazy flirtation with the women about the kitchen-fire, or in the gondola, in which he sometimes gave them the air. We always liked him; I should have trusted him in any sort of way, except one that involved danger. It once happened that burglars attempted to enter our rooms, and Piero declared to us that he knew the men; but before the police, he swore that he knew nothing about them. Afterwards he returned privately to his first assertion, and accounted for his conduct by saying that if he had borne witness against the burglars, he was afraid that their friends would jump on his back (saltarmi adosso), as he phrased it, in the dark; for by this sort of terrorism the poor and the wicked have long been bound together in Italy. Piero was a humorist in his dry way, and made a jest of his own caution; but his favorite joke was, when he dressed himself with particular care, to tell the women that he was going to pay a visit to the Princess Clary, then the star of Austrian society. This mild pleasantry was repeated indefinitely with never-failing effect.
More interesting to us than all the rest was our own servant, Bettina, who came to us from a village on the mainland. She was very dark, so dark and so Southern in appearance as almost to verge upon the negro type; yet she bore the English-sounding name of Scarbro, and how she ever came by it remains a puzzle to this day, for she was one of the most pure and entire of Italians. I mean this was her maiden name; she was married to a trumpeter in the Austrian service, whose Bohemian name she was unable to pronounce, and consequently never gave us. She was a woman of very few ideas indeed, but perfectly honest and good-hearted. She was pious, in her peasant fashion, and in her walks about the city did not fail to bless the baby before every picture of the Madonna. She provided it with an engraved portrait of that Holy Nail which was venerated in the neighboring church of San Pantaleon; and she apparently aimed to supply it with playthings of a religious and saving character like that piece of ivory, which resembled a small torso, and which Bettina described as “A bit of the Lord, Signor,”—and it was, in fact, a fragment of an ivory crucifix, which she had somewhere picked up. To Bettina’s mind, mankind broadly divided themselves into two races, Italians and Germans, to which latter she held that we Americans in some sort belonged. She believed that America lay a little to the south of Vienna and in her heart I think she was persuaded that the real national complexion was black, and that the innumerable white Americans she saw at our house were merely a multitude of exceptions. But with all her ignorance, she had no superstitions of a gloomy kind: the only ghost she seemed ever to have heard of was the spectre of an American ship captain which a friend of Piero’s had seen at the Lido. She was perfectly kind and obedient, and was deeply attached in an inarticulate way to the baby, which was indeed the pet of the whole palace. This young lady ruled arbitrarily over them all, and was forever being kissed and adored. When Piero went out to the wine-shop for a little temperate dissipation, he took her with him on his shoulder, and exhibited her to the admiring gondoliers of his acquaintance; there was no puppetshow, no church festival, in that region to which she was not carried; and when Bettina, and Giulia, and all the idle women of the neighborhood assembled on a Saturday afternoon in the narrow alley behind the palace (where they dressed one another’s thick black hair in fine braids soaked in milk, and built it up to last the whole of the next week), the baby was the cynosure of all hearts and eyes. But her supremacy was yet more distinguished when, late at night, the household gave itself a feast of snails stewed in oil and garlic, in the vast kitchen. There her anxious parents have found her seated in the middle of the table with the bowl of snails before her, and armed with a great spoon, while her vassals sat round, and grinned their fondness and delight in her small tyrannies; and the immense room, dimly lit, with the mystical implements of cookery glimmering from the wall, showed like some witch’s cavern, where a particularly small sorceress was presiding over the concoction of an evil potion or the weaving of a powerful spell.
From time to time we had fellow-lodgers, who were always more or less interesting and mysterious. Among the rest there was once a French lady, who languished, during her stay, under the disfavor of the police, and for whose sake there was a sentinel with a fixed bayonet stationed day and night at the palace gate. At last, one night, this French lady escaped by a rope-ladder from her chamber window, and thus no doubt satisfied alike the female instinct for intrigue and elopement and the political agitator’s love of a mysterious disappearance. It was understood dimly that she was an author, and had written a book displeasing to the police.
Then there was the German baroness and her son and daughter, the last very beautiful and much courted by handsome Austrian officers; the son rather weak-minded, and a great care to his sister and mother, from his propensity to fall in love and marry below his station; the mother very red-faced and fat, a good-natured old creature who gambled the summer months away at Hombourg and Baden and in the winter resorted to Venice to make a match for her pretty daughter. Then, moreover, there was that English family, between whom and ourselves there was the reluctance and antipathy, personal and national, which exists between all right-minded Englishmen and Americans. No Italian can understand this just and natural condition, and it was the constant aim of our landlord to make us acquainted. So one day when he found a member of each of these unfriendly families on the neutral ground of the grand sala, he introduced them. They had, happily, the piano-forte between them, and I flatter myself that the insulting coldness and indifference with which they received each other’s names carried to our landlord’s bosom a dismay never before felt by a good-natured and well-meaning man.
The piano-forte which I have mentioned belonged to the landlord, who was fond of music and of all fine and beautiful things; and now and then he gave a musical soirée, which was attended, more or less surreptitiously, by the young people of his acquaintance. I do not think he was always quite candid in giving his invitations, for on one occasion a certain count, who had taken refuge from the glare of the sala in our parlor for the purpose of concealing the very loud-plaided pantaloons he wore, explained pathetically that he had no idea it was a party, and that he had been so long out of society, for patriotic reasons, that he had no longer a dress suit. But to us they were very delightful entertainments, no less from the great variety of character they afforded than from the really charming and excellent music which the different amateurs made; for we had airs from all the famous operas, and the instrumentation was by a gifted young composer. Besides, the gayety seemed to recall in some degree the old, brilliant life of the palace, and at least showed us how well it was adapted to social magnificence and display.
We enjoyed our whole year in Palazzo Giustiniani, though some of the days were too long and some too short, as everywhere. From heat we hardly suffered at all, so perfectly did the vast and lofty rooms answer to the purpose of their builders in this respect. A current of sea air drew through to the painter’s garden by day; and by night there was scarcely a mosquito of the myriads that infested some parts of Venice. In winter it was not so well. Then we shuffled about in wadded gowns and boots lined with sheep-skin,—the woolly side in, as in the song. The passage of the sala, was something to be dreaded, and we shivered as fleetly through it as we could, and were all the colder for the deceitful warmth of the colors which the sun cast upon the stone floor from the window opening on the court.
I do not remember any one event of our life more exciting than that attempted burglary of which I have spoken. In a city where the police gave their best attention to political offenders, there were naturally a great many rogues, and the Venetian rogues, if not distinguished for the more heroic crimes, were very skillful in what I may call the genre branch of robbing rooms through open windows, and committing all kinds of safe domestic depredations. It was judged best to acquaint Justice (as they call law in Latin countries) with the attempt upon our property, and I found her officers housed in a small room of the Doge’s Palace, clerkly men in velvet skull-caps, driving loath quills over the rough official paper of those regions. After an exchange of diplomatic courtesies, the commissary took my statement of the affair down in writing, pertinent to which were my father’s name, place, and business, with a full and satisfactory personal history of myself down to the period of the attempted burglary. This, I said, occurred one morning about daylight, when I saw the head of the burglar peering above the window-sill, and the hand of the burglar extended to prey upon my wardrobe.
“Excuse me, Signor Console,” interrupted the commissary, “how could you see him?”
“Why, there was nothing in the world to prevent me. The window was open.”
“The window was open!” gasped the commissary. “Do you mean that you sleep with your windows open?”
“Pardon!” said the commissary, suspiciously. “Do all Americans sleep with their windows open?”
“I may venture to say that they all do, in summer,” I answered; “at least, it’s the general custom.”
Such a thing as this indulgence in fresh air seemed altogether foreign to the commissary’s experience; and but for my official dignity, I am sure that I should have been effectually browbeaten by him. As it was, he threw himself back in his armchair and stared at me fixedly for some moments. Then he recovered himself with another “Per-doni!” and, turning to his clerk, said, “Write down that, according to the American custom, they were sleeping with their windows open.” But I know that the commissary, for all his politeness, considered this habit a relic of the times when we Americans all abode in wigwams; and I suppose it paralyzed his energies in the effort to bring the burglars to justice, for I have never heard anything of them from that day to this.
The truth is, it was a very uneventful year; and I am the better satisfied with it as an average Venetian year on that account. We sometimes varied the pensive monotony by a short visit to the cities of the mainland; but we always came back to it willingly, and I think we unconsciously abhorred any interruption of it. The days, as they followed each other, were wonderfully alike, in every respect. For eight months of summer they were alike in their clear-skied, sweet-breathed loveliness; in the autumn, there where the melancholy of the falling leaf could not spread its contagion to the sculptured foliage of Gothic art, the days were alike in their sentiment of tranquil oblivion and resignation which was as autumnal as any aspect of woods or fields could have been; in the winter they were alike in their dreariness and discomfort. As I remember, we spent by far the greater part of our time in going to the Piazza, and we were devoted Florianisti, as the Italians call those that lounge habitually at the Caffè Florian. We went every evening to the Piazza as a matter of course; if the morning was long, we went to the Piazza; if we did not know what to do with the afternoon, we went to the Piazza; if we had friends with us, we went to the Piazza; if we were alone, we went to the Piazza; and there was no mood or circumstances in which it did not seem a natural and fitting thing to go to the Piazza. There were all the prettiest shops; there were all the finest caffès; there was the incomparable Church of St. Mark; there was the whole world of Venice.
Of course, we had other devices besides going to the Piazza; and sometimes we spent entire weeks in visiting the churches, one after another, and studying their artistic treasures, down to the smallest scrap of an old master in their darkest chapel; their history, their storied tombs, their fictitious associations. Very few churches escaped, I believe, except such as had been turned into barracks, and were guarded by an incorruptible Austrian sentinel. For such churches as did escape, we have a kind of envious longing to this day, and should find it hard to like anybody who had succeeded better in visiting them. There is, for example, the church of San Giobbe, the doors of which we haunted with more patience than that of the titulary saint: now the sacristan was out; now the church was shut up for repairs; now it was Holy Week and the pictures were veiled; we had to leave Venice at last without a sight of San Giobbe’s three Saints by Bordone, and Madonna by Bellini, which, unseen, outvalue all the other Saints and Madonnas that we looked at; and I am sure that life can never become so aimless, but we shall still have the desire of some day going to see the church of San Giobbe. If we read some famous episode of Venetian history, we made it the immediate care of our lives to visit the scene of its occurrence; if Ruskin told us of some recondite beauty of sculpture hid away in some unthought-of palace court, we invaded that palace at once; if in entirely purposeless strolls through the city, we came upon anything that touched the fancy or piqued curiosity, there was no gate or bar proof against our bribes. What strange old nests of ruin, what marvellous homes of solitude and dilapidation, did we not wander into! What boarded-up windows peer through, what gloomy recesses penetrate! I have lumber enough in my memory stored from such rambles to load the nightmares of a generation, and stuff for the dreams of a whole people. Does any gentleman or lady wish to write a romance? Sir or madam, I know just the mouldy and sunless alley for your villain to stalk his victim in, the canal in which to plunge his body, the staircase and the hall for the subsequent wanderings of his ghost; and all these scenes and localities I will sell at half the cost price; as also, balconies for flirtation, gondolas for intrigue and elopement, confessionals for the betrayal of guilty secrets. I have an assortment of bad and beautiful faces and picturesque attitudes and effective tones of voice; and a large stock of sympathetic sculptures and furniture and dresses, with other articles too numerous to mention, all warranted Venetian, and suitable to every style of romance. Who bids? Nay, I cannot sell, nor you buy. Each memory, as I hold it up for inspection, loses its subtle beauty and value, and turns common and poor in my hawker’s fingers.
Yet I must needs try to fix here the remembrance of two or three palaces, of which our fancy took the fondest hold, and to which it yet most fondly clings. It cannot locate them all, and least of all can it place that vast old palace, somewhere near Cannaregio, which faced upon a campo, with lofty windows blinded by rough boards, and empty from top to bottom. It was of the later Renaissance in style, and we imagined it built in the Republic’s declining years by some ruinous noble, whose extravagance forbade his posterity to live in it, for it had that peculiarly forlorn air which belongs to a thing decayed without being worn out. We entered its coolness and dampness, and wandered up the wide marble staircase, past the vacant niches of departed statuary, and came on the third floor to a grand portal which was closed against us by a barrier of lumber. But this could not hinder us from looking within, and we were aware that we stood upon the threshold of our ruinous noble’s great banqueting-hall, where he used to give his magnificent feste da ballo. Lustrissimo was long gone with all his guests; but there in the roof were the amazing frescos of Tiepolo’s school, which had smiled down on them, as now they smiled on us, great piles of architecture, airy tops of palaces, swimming in summer sky, and wantoned over by a joyous populace of divinities of the lovelier sex that had nothing but their loveliness to clothe them and keep them afloat; the whole grandiose and superb beyond the effect of words, and luminous with delicious color. How it all rioted there with its inextinguishable beauty in the solitude and silence, from day to day, from year to year, while men died, and systems passed, and nothing remained unchanged but the instincts of youth and love that inspired it! It was music and wine and wit; it was so warm and glowing that it made the sunlight cold; and it seemed ever after a secret of gladness and beauty that the sad old palace was keeping in its heart against the time to which Venice looks forward when her splendor and opulence shall be indestructibly renewed.
There is a ball-room in the Palazzo Pisani, which some of my readers may have passed through on their way to the studio of the charming old Prussian painter, Nerlÿ; the frescos of this are dim and faded and dusty, and impress you with a sense of irreparable decay, but the noble proportions and the princely air of the place are inalienable, while the palace stands. Here might have danced that Contarini who, when his wife’s necklace of pearls fell upon the floor in the way of her partner, the King of Denmark, advanced and ground it into powder with his foot that the king might not be troubled to avoid treading on it; and here, doubtless, many a gorgeous masquerade had been in the long Venetian carnival; and what passion and intrigue and jealousy, who knows? Now the palace was let in apartments, and was otherwise a barrack, and in the great court, steadfast as any of the marble statues, stood the Austrian sentinel. One of the statues was a figure veiled from head to foot, at the base of which it was hard not to imagine lovers, masked and hooded, and forever hurriedly whispering their secrets in the shadow cast in perpetual moonlight.
Yet another ball-room in yet another palace opens to memory, but this is all bright and fresh with recent decoration. In the blue vaulted roof shine stars of gold; the walls are gay with dainty frescos; a gallery encircles the whole, and from this drops a light stairway, slim-railed, and guarded at the foot by torch-bearing statues of swarthy Eastern girls; through the glass doors at the other side glimmers the green and red of a garden. It was a place to be young in, to dance in, dream in, make love in; but it was no more a surprise than the whole palace to which it belonged, and which there in that tattered and poverty-stricken old Venice was a vision of untarnished splendor and prosperous fortune. It was richly furnished throughout all its vast extent, adorned with every caprice and delight of art, and appointed with every modern comfort The foot was hushed by costly carpets, the eye was flattered by a thousand beauties and prettinesses. In the grates the fires were laid and ready to be lighted; the candles stood upon the mantles; the toilet-linen was arranged for instant use in the luxurious chambers; but from basement to roof the palace was a solitude; no guest came there, no one dwelt there save the custodian; the eccentric lady of whose possessions it formed a part abode in a little house behind the palace, and on her door-plate had written her vanitas vanitatum in the sarcastic inscription, “John Humdrum, Esquire.”
Of course she was Inglese; and that other lady, who was selling off the furniture of her palace, and was so amiable a guide to its wonders in her curious broken English, was Hungarian. Her great pride and joy, amidst the objects of vertu and the works of art, was a set of “Punch,” which she made us admire, and which she prized the more because she had always been allowed to receive it when the government prohibited it to everybody else. But we were Americans, she said; and had we ever seen this book? She held up the “The Potiphar Papers,” a volume which must have been inexpressibly amused and bewildered to find itself there, in that curious little old lady’s hand.
Shall I go on and tell of the palace in which our strange friend Padre L——— dwelt, and the rooms of which he had filled up with the fruits of his passion for the arts and sciences; the anteroom he had frescoed to represent a grape-arbor with a multitude of clusters overhead; the parlor with his oil-paintings on the walls, and the piano and melodeon arranged so that Padre L——— could play upon them both at once; the oratory turned forge, and harboring the most alchemic-looking apparatus of all kinds; the other rooms in which he had stored his inventions in portable furniture, steam-propulsion, rifled cannon, and perpetual motion; the attic with the camera by which one could photograh one’s self,—shall I tell of this, and yet other palaces? I think there is enough already; and I have begun to doubt somewhat the truth of my reminiscences, as I advise the reader to do.
Besides, I feel that the words fail to give all the truth that is in them; and if I cannot make them serve my purpose as to the palaces, how should I hope to impart through them my sense of the glory and loveliness of Venetian art? I could not give the imagination and the power of Tintoretto as we felt it, nor the serene beauty, the gracious luxury of Titian, nor the opulence, the worldly magnificence of Paolo Veronese. There hang their mighty works forever, high above the reach of any palaverer; they smile their stately welcome from the altars and palace-walls, upon whoever approaches them in the sincerity and love of beauty that produced them; and thither you must thus go if you would know them. Like fragments of dreams, like the fleeting
“Images of glimmering dawn,”
I am from time to time aware, amid the work-day world, of some happiness from them, some face or form, some drift of a princely robe or ethereal drapery, some august shape of painted architecture, some un-namable delight of color; but to describe them more strictly and explicitly, how should I undertake?
There was the exhaustion following every form of intense pleasure, in their contemplation, such a wear of vision and thought, that I could not call the life we led in looking at them an idle one, even if it had no result in after times; so I will not say that it was to severer occupation our minds turned more and more in our growing desire to return home. For my own part personally I felt keenly the fictitious and transitory character of official life. I knew that if I had become fit to serve the government by four years’ residence in Venice, that was a good reason why the government, according to our admirable system, should dismiss me, and send some perfectly unqualified person to take my place; and in my heart also I knew that there was almost nothing for me to do where I was, and I dreaded the easily formed habit of receiving, a salary for no service performed. I reminded myself that, soon or late, I must go back to the old fashion of earning money, and that it had better be sooner than later. Therefore, though for some reasons it was the saddest and strangest thing in the world to do, I was on the whole rejoiced when a leave of absence came, and we prepared to quit Venice.
Never had the city seemed so dream-like and unreal as in this light of farewell,—this tearful glimmer which our love and regret cast upon it. As in a maze, we haunted once more and for the last time the scenes we had known so long, and spent our final, phantasmal evening in the Piazza; looked, through the moonlight, our mute adieu to islands and lagoons, to church and tower; and then returned to our own palace, and stood long upon the balconies that overhung the Grand Canal. There the future became as incredible and improbable as the past; and if we had often felt the incongruity of our coming to live in such a place, now, with tenfold force, we felt the cruel absurdity of proposing to live anywhere else. We had become part of Venice; and how could such atoms of her fantastic personality ever mingle with the alien and unsympathetic world?
The next morning the whole palace household bestirred itself to accompany us to the station: the landlord in his best hat and coat, our noble friend in phenomenal linen, Giulia and her little boy, Bettina shedding bitter tears over the baby, and Piero, sad but firm, bending over the oar and driving us swiftly forward. The first turn of the Canal shut the Palazzo Giustiniani from our lingering gaze, a few more curves and windings brought us to the station. The tickets were bought, the baggage was registered; the little oddly assorted company drew itself up in a line, and received with tears our husky adieux. I feared there might be a remote purpose in the hearts of the landlord and his retainer to embrace and kiss me, after the Italian manner, but if there was, by a final inspiration they spared me the ordeal. Piero turned away to his gondola; the two other men moved aside; Bettina gave one long, hungering, devouring hug to the baby; and as we hurried into the waiting-room, we saw her, as upon a stage, standing without the barrier, supported and sobbing in the arms of Giulia.
It was well to be gone, but I cannot say we were glad to be going.