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Venice - First Impressions

[Venice - First Impressions]  [The Story Of Venice]  [The Stones Of Venice]  [The Painters Of Venice]  [The Heart Of Venice]  [St Mark's Church]  [The Doges' Palace]  [The Grand Canal]  [Some Venetian Churches]  [Venetian Islands]  [More Articles About Venice] 

( Originally Published Mid-1900's )

I remember feeling vaguely apprehensive as the train which was transporting us to Venice for our first visit steamed out of Padua. How far would the Venice of fact approximate to the Venice of Canaletto, of Turner, and of Whistler? Those who have yet to see Venice are in much the same position as those who have yet to see Paradise. They may believe in Venice as an act of faith, but faith differs from experience much as the stuffed specimens in a natural history museum differ from a tropical forest palpitating with life.

I reminded myself firmly that in Venice one takes gondolas where in London one takes taxis, that there are many Venetians who have never seen a horse, and that we should be met not by a station bus, but by a steam-launch. I was sound on all these points, but deep down in my subconscious mind doubt was whispering, "There must be a catch somewhere."

The train crawled with maddening deliberation out of Mestre, ran on to the long bridge which connects Venice with the mainland, and buried itself in a noisy terminus. Gesticulating porters, a crush at the barrier, all the normal phenomena which one associates with the tube during rush hours, roused a vague sense of disillusionment.

We gave up our tickets and followed our porter with a quickened sense of anticipation. Suddenly we emerged from the commonplace station to find the blue Adriatic washing the station steps and a merry mob of gondoliers waiting for our patronage. The twentieth century fell away. The man with `American Express' on his hat, who was shepherding a party into gondolas, seemed out of place.Clearly he had stepped by accident into the middle of a Canaletto picture. We waited impatiently till he vanished back again into his own century. The scene before us had changed very little since Canaletto painted a wellknown picture from this precise spot. The bridge was new, and the copper dome of San Simeone had darkened a little since 1740, but in all essentials the setting was the same.

We stepped into a launch, which had one advantage, and one advantage only, over the gondolas. A gondola will take you by short cuts through the fascinating side-canals, but one should begin one's Venetian pilgrimage by following the Grand Canal from the station to the sea. The Grand Canal is the overture to the Venetian opera, an overture to which the Renaissance palaces supply the bass and the lively Venetian Gothic the tenor; an overture to which the slow, legato movement of the Salute is a wholly satisfying conclusion.

I shall not readily forget the moment when the canal broadened out into the sea, revealing the diaper surface of the Ducal Palace rose-red in the molten glow of a late September afternoon.

In all experience of travel there is nothing to match this first view of Venice, nothing at least so far as the works of man are concerned. And among the works of man Venice alone can challenge that miracle of beauty,the distant view as the train sweeps out of the gorges of the Jura.

I remember as if it had been yesterday the white gleam of the Acropolis beyond the blue of the Phaleron Bay. I remember sleeping on deck in order to see the minarets of Constantinople etched against the eastern sky at dawn. I first saw Jerusalem, caught up in a web of twilight, from a corner of the old carriage road from Nablus; and I had not been in Rome an hour before I saw the sun set from the Janiculum. Great memories; but alone and unique in the hierarchy of remembered beauty is the recollection of that first impact of Venice from the steps of the station, the incredible, fantastic surprise of the sea-washed street and the sun-washed sea.

On our first visit we stayed on the Lido. The Lido consists of a low-lying bank which acts as the eastern barrier to the Venetian lagoon. The famous bathing beach is on the east shore of the Lido, fac ing the Adriatic. The hotels alongside this beach are admirably adapted to the needs of those who wish to spend more of their time in the water than in Venice, but are less convenient for those who wish to spend the morning and the afternoon in Venice. As a base for exploring Venice the hotels on the west shore of the Lido are more convenient than those on the east, and are also less fashionable and less expensive.

The Grand Hotel, at which we stayed on our first visit, is comfortable and unpretentious, and has the great advantage of overlooking the landing-stage. You can dawdle over your coffee and watch the little steamer from Venice puffing its way across the lagoon, and then stroll across to the landing-stage at your leisure just before it arrives. These steamers run every quarter of an hour in winter and every seven minutes or so in summer. The trip to Venice takes only a few minutes, and a ticket is a matter of a few pence.

The day after we arrived I woke early, and, looking out from my bedroom window, I could see, beyond the Campanile of St Mark's and the domes of Venice, the low line of the Alps. The snows of an early autumn glowed in the light of a newly risen sun. It was an unforgettable experience to see at one and the same time two of the most beautiful things in the world, the Queen of the Adriatic and snows at dawn.

If you stop in a hotel on the Adriatic shore of the Lido try to engage a room at the very top and at the back of the hotel. The top back rooms at the Excelsior, for instance, command this glorious view of the Venetian lagoons with the Alps behind them.

But it is only in the hotels on the western shore that you can sit out on little balconies and watch the evening light stealing across the lagoon, with the domes of the Salute etched against a molten background of sunset clouds. And there are many things less pleasant than to dine out on a warm evening on a balcony from which one can see beyond the dark waters the illuminated front of the Ducal Palace.

Such are the advantages of the Lido, but there is a great deal to be said for staying in Venice itself. It is delightful to stroll out after dinner into the Piazza di San Marco without the bother of catching steamers, and if one is spending only a few days in Venice one will grudge the time, however little, which is spent in getting to and from the Lido.

So far as Venetian hotels are concerned, I can only speak from personal experience of Danieli's, a hotel which has all the charm of historic association, for it was a great Venetian palace before it was transformed into a hotel. It is one of the oldest hotels in Venice, and has counted among its clients Balzac, George Sand, De Musset, and Ruskin.

There are many excellent hotels along the Grand Canal, such as the Europe, the Grunwald, and the Britannia, and many more in other parts of the city.

Venice may be explored by gondola, by steamer, or on foot. The steamers, against which Ruskin inveighed with fine fury, are useful, cheap, and inoffensive. They are the motor-buses of Venice, and, like our own motor-buses, leave the side-streets, which in Venice are side-canals, severely alone. They ply between the station and the public gardens, and they link Venice with the surrounding islands.

The gondola, which is first mentioned in an eleventh. century document, is an integral part of Venetian life. In accordance with a law, passed in the sixteenth century and never rescinded, gondolas must be painted black. This regulation was brought into force to prevent competitive display, and was not, I fear, inspired by a keen appreciation of the aesthetic value of black as a basis for the Venetian colour scheme.

The indented iron prow of the stern helps to balance the weight of the gondolier, and also serves to prevent careless gondoliers from trying to glide under bridges too low for the little cabin, put up at the back when it rains, which is approximately the same height as the prow in front.

Byron wrote two very poor stanzas about gondoliers, stanzas which have already been quoted far too often. I far prefer Shelley's description in a letter to Peacock.

The silent streets are paved with water, and you hear nothing but the dashing of the oars, and the occasional cries of the gondolieri. . . . The gondolas themselves are things of a most romantic and picturesque appearance ; I can only compare them to moths of which a coffin might have been the chrysalis. They are hung with black, and painted black, and carpeted with grey; they curl at the prow and stern, and at the former there is a nondescript beak of shining steel, which glitters at the end of its long black mass.

The side-canal is the happy hunting-ground of the gondola. On the Grand Canal the gondola is out of place. The wash from the steamers transforms the easy, rhythmic glide into an undignified, choppy movement. When contrasted with the relatively rapid motor-boat the gondola seems to labour along at a sluggard's pace. But once you turn into the side-canal all is changed. The gondola recovers its self-respect as it dives into the watery lane out of sight and sound of its vulgar modern rivals. The noise of motor-horn and steam-whistle die away in the distance, and the only sounds that compete with the splash of water are the cries of the gondolier as he swings round an abrupt corner and warns approaching craft of his arrival: "Aoel ... sia stali " - not unmusical with a rhythm of their own are these long-drawn, traditional cries of the gondolier.

The side-canals are narrow and overshadowed by tall houses, and yet here, as everywhere in Venice, colour keeps breaking in.

As you glide beneath the stone bridges look upward. If the sun is at the right angle you will see the green shimmering water reflected on the under surface of the bridge.

A few minutes devoted to a careful study of the tariff which every gondolier must carry in his boat is, as Baedeker would say, "very repaying." For the gondolier is a man of unconquerable hopefulness, and if he can once inveigle you into an argument he will not surrender until you have paid him twice his legal fare.

The fare from any point in Venice to any other point is eight lire. If you give him ten he should be, but will not be, satisfied. He is entitled to take you by the shortest possible route. You can engage a gondolier at the rate of ten lire an hour, but if you leave him at any other point but that at which you engaged him you must also pay him for the time spent in returning to the point of departure. The old gentleman who assists you to embark and who pulls in your gondola to the landing-stage expects half a lire. He is a retired gondolier, and is known as a rampino (hooker) or, irreverently, as the crab-catcher.

And, finally, Venice may be explored on foot with the aid of a map, or, better still, with the assistance of that excellent book Venice on Foot, by the late Colonel Hugh Douglas.

Venice is full of traps for the pedestrian. You follow a tempting-looking fondamenta, as those streets which run beside a canal are called, only to find further progress blocked by a wall; or you pursue a calle, as the Venetians call those streets which are bounded on both sides by houses, only to find yourself blocked by a canal at some point where the canal is unbridged. But the exploring instinct dies hard even in the middleaged, and these perplexities add a spice of romance to Venetian wandering. To compare small things with great, walking in Venice reminds me of guideless climbing in the Alps; there is the same fun in working out one's route and picking up small clues, and the same surprise when one's deductions prove correct and the goal comes into sight. Certainly some of my own happiest hours in Venice have been spent wandering along calle and fondamenta. As I write, these Venetian by-ways rebuild themselves from the stuff of memory. I see again those sudden flashes of vivid colour which are such a feature of Venetian streets; flower-bedecked windows; stray slabs of encrusted marble, those mute relics of faded glory; Gothic windows which taper into finials of crumbling stone; Byzantine windows bent beneath the slow pressure of descending time; and the warped pillars on the facade of that which was once a palace and is now a warren of workmen's tenements.

In Venice there are no dead centuries. Elsewhere Time is an officious constable alert to keep the traffic clear, but in Venice his "Move along, please," is not taken seriously."Time which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments."

In London it is the old house which attracts attention, in Venice it is the new. Tudor London has disappeared, and the London of Queen Anne is fast disappearing. In Venice it is the twentieth century which exists on sufferance: there is no city in the world in which it is easier to forget the present and to reconstruct the past.

The first impact of Venice and the first few days of eager exploration are unforgettable, but Venice has even better things to offer than the thrill of discovery. To appreciate Venice you must know when to work and when to be idle. Idleness, of course, must be earned, and Venice will mean far more to a man who has studied her history, her architecture, and her art than to the idle sightseer to whom she means nothing more than gondolas, coffee outside Florian's, and a blaze of uncomprehended colour. You must matriculate by conscientious sightseeing, but however short a time you spend in Venice you must dedicate some portion of that time to pure laziness. Read Ruskin and reread him; study the pictures in the Accademia and the mosaics in St Mark's, but remember that there is much in Venice to which no book provides a clue, and that the best of Venice is that individual impression which every man must discover for himself.

Don't work too hard, and don't be afraid of wasting time. The mornings you spend sipping coffee outside Florian's are not wasted so long as an unclouded sun continues to bewitch the gloriously coloured facade of St Mark's. The quiet hours of effortless, sensuous enjoyment in St Mark's itself are not wasted, even if you resolutely forbear to open your Ruskin or to examine any individual mosaic, so long as the hierarchy of blues and golds are allowed to work their will and to imprint themselves on the canvas of memory.

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