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Venice - The Grand Canal

( Originally Published 1913 )



The Grand Canal is in Venice what the Strand is in London, the Rue Saint Honore in Paris, and the Calle d'Alcala in Madrid-the principal artery of the city's circulation. It is in the form of an S, the top curve of which sweeps through the city at St. Mark's, terminating at the island of St. Chiara, while the lower curve ends at the Custom House near the Giudecca canal. About the middle, this S is cut by the Rialto Bridge.

The Grand Canal of Venice is the most wonderful thing in the world. No other town can afford such a beautiful, strange and fairy-like spectacle; perhaps equally remarkable specimens of architecture may be found elsewhere, but they never occur under such picturesque conditions. There every palace has a mirror to admire its beauty in, like a coquettish woman. The superb reality is doubled by a charming reflection. The waters lovingly caress the feet of those beautiful facades whose brows are kissed by white sunlight, and cradle them in a double sky. The little buildings and the big ships that can get so far seem to be moored expressly as a set-off, or as foregrounds for the convenience of decorators and water-colourists. . . .

Every stretch of wall tells a story; every house is a palace; every palace is a masterpiece and a legend. With every stroke of his oar, the gondolier mentions a name that was as well known at the time of the Crusades as it is today; and this is true both on the right and left for more than half a league. We wrote down a list of these palaces, not all, but the most noteworthy of them; and we dare not copy it on account of its length. It fills five or six pages: Pietro Lombardi, Scamozzi, Vittoria, Longhena, Andrea Tremignano, Giorgio Massari, Sansovino, Sebastino Mazzoni; Sammichelli the great Veronese architect, Selva, Domenico Rossi, and Visentini drew the designs and directed the construction of these princely dwellings, without counting the wonderful unknown Mediaeval artists who built the most romantic and picturesque ones, those that set the seal of originality upon Venice.

On both banks altogether charming facades of diversified beauty follow one another uninterruptedly. After one of Renaissance architecture, with its columns and superimposed orders, comes a mediaeval palace of Arabian-gothic style, the prototype of which is the Ducal Palace, with its open balconies, its ogives, its trefoils, and its indented acroterium. Farther on is a facade plated with colored marbles, and ornamented with medallions and consoles; then comes a great rose wall pierced with a wide window with little columns. Everything is to be found here: Byzantine, Saracen, Lombard, Gothic, Roman, Greek and even Rococo; the column large and small, the ogive and the round arch, the capricious capital full of birds and flowers that has been brought from Acre or Jaffa; the Greek capital that was found among the ruins of Athens; the mosaic and bas-relief, classical severity and the elegant fancies of the Renaissance. It is an immense gallery open to the sky wherein one may study the art of seven or eight centuries from the interior of one's gondola. What genius, talent and money have been expended in this space that we traverse in less than an hour! What prodigious artists, but also what intelligent and magnificent lords! What a pity it is that the patricians who knew how to get such beautiful things executed only exist now on the canvases of Titian, Tintoretto and Il Moro!

Before even arriving at the Rialto, you have on your left, going up the canal, the Dario palace, in the Gothic style; the Venier palace, which stands at angle, with its ornaments, its precious marbles and its medallions, in the Lombard style; the Fine Arts, a classical facade coupled to the ancient Scuola della Carita surmounted by a Venice riding a lion; the Contarini palace, the architect of which was Scamozzi; the Rezzonico palace, with three superimposed orders; the triple Giustiniani palace in the mediaeval taste; the F oscari palace, which is recognizable by its low door, two stages of little columns supporting ogives and trefoils, in which the sovereigns who visited Venice were formerly lodged; the Balbi palace, over the balcony of which princes leaned to watch the regattas held on the Grand Canal with much pomp and splendor in the halcyon days of the Republic; the Pisani palace, in the German style of the beginning of the fifteenth century; and the Tiepolo palace, which is relatively quite spruce and modern, with its two elegant pyramidions. On the right, close to the Hotel de l'Europe, between two big buildings, is a delicious little palace which is chiefly composed of a window and a balcony; but what a window and what a balcony! A gimp of stonework, scrolls, guilloches and pierced work that one would think impossible to produce except with a punch on one of those pieces of paper that are placed over lamp-globes. . . .

The Rialto, which is the finest bridge in Venice, has a very grandiose and monumental appearance; it spans the canal with a single arch of an elegant and bold curve. It was built by Antonio da Ponte, in 169 I, when Pasquale Cigogna was Doge, and replaces the ancient wooden drawbridge in Albert Durer's plan of the city. Two rows of shops, separated in the middle by an arcaded portico, giving a glimpse of the sky, occupy the sides of the bridge that may be crossed by three ways: a central one and two outside pathways adorned with marble balustrades. About the Rialto Bridge, which is one of the most picturesque points of the Grand Canal, are piled the oldest houses in Venice, with their flat roofs with poles for awnings, their tall chimneys, their bulging balconies, their staircases with disjointed steps, and their wide space of red plaster that have scaled off in places and left bare the brick wall, and the foundations that are green from the contact of the water. Near the Rialto, there is always a tumult of shipping and gondolas, and stagnant islets of moored small crafts drying their tawny sails that sometimes bear a great cross.

Beyond the Rialto on the two banks are grouped the old Fondaci dei Tedeschi, the walls of which tinted with uncertain hues enable us to divine the frescoes of Titian and Tintoretto, like dreams that are about to take flight; the Fish Market, the Herb Market and the old and new constructions of Scarpagnino and Sansovino. These reddened and degraded buildings, admirably toned and tinted by time and neglect, must constitute the despair of the municipality and the delight of painters. Beneath their arcades swarms an active and noisy population, that mounts and descends, comes and goes, buys and sells, laughs and bawls. There fresh tunny is sold in red slices; and mussels, oysters, crabs and lobsters are carried away in baskets.

Under the arch of the bridge, where the noisiest echoes resound all around, the gondoliers sleep sheltered from the sun while waiting to be hired...

Although we have taken a long time, we have not yet said all. We notice that we have not spoken of Mocenigo palace, where the great Byron lived. The Barberigo palace also de serves mention. It contains a number of beautiful pictures, and a carved and gilded cradle intended for the heir of the noble family, a cradle that might be made into a tomb, for the Barberigoes are extinct as well as the majority of the old Venetian families. Of nine hundred patrician families inscribed in the Golden Book, scarcely fifty remain.

A few strokes of the oar soon brought into view one of the most marvelous spectacles that were ever given for the human eye to contemplate: the Piazzetta seen from the water. Standing on the prow of the stationary gondola, we looked for some time in mute ecstasy at this picture for which the world has no rival, perhaps the only one that cannot be surpassed by the imagination.

On the left we see first the trees of the Royal Garden that traces a green line above a white terrace; then the Zecca (the Mint) a building of robust architecture; and the old library, (Sansovino's work) with its elegant arcades and crown of mythological statues.

On the right, separated by the space that forms the Piazzetta, the vestibule of St. Mark's Square, the Ducal Palace presents its vermeil facade lozenged with white and rose marble, its massive columns supporting a gallery of little pillars the ribs of which contain quatrefoils, with six ogival windows, and its monumental balcony ornamented with consoles, niches, bell-turrets and statuettes dominated by a Holy Virgin; its acroterium standing out against the blue of the sky in alternate acanthus leaves and points, and -the spiral listel that binds its angles and ends in an open-work pinnacle. " At the end of the Piazzetta, beside the Library, the Campanile rises to a great height; this is an immense brick tower with a pointed roof surmounted by a golden angel. On the Ducal Palace side, St. Mark's, viewed sideways, shows a corner of its porch which faces the Piazzetta. The view is closed by a few arcades of ancient procurators' offices, and the clock tower with its bronze figures for striking the hours, its Lion of St. Mark on a starry blue background and its great blue dial on which the four and twenty hours are inscribed.

In the foreground, facing the gondola landing-place, between the Library and the Ducal Palace are two enormous columns of African granite, each in a single piece, that were formerly rose but have been washed into colder tones by rain and time.

On the one to the left, coming from the sea, stands in a triumphant attitude, with his brow encircled by a metal nimbus, his sword by his side and lance in hand, his hand resting on his shield, a finely proportioned St. Theodore slaying a crocodile.

On the column to the right, the Lion of St. Mark in bronze, with outspread wings, claw on his Gospel, and with scowling face turns his tail on St. Theodore's crocodile with the most scowling and sullen air that can be expressed by heraldic animal.

It is said not to be of good augury to land between these two columns, where executions formerly took place, and so we begged the gondolier to put us ashore at the Zecca stairs or the Paille bridge, as we did not want to end like Marino Faliero, whose misfortune it was to be cast ashore by a tempest at the foot of these dread pillars.

Beyond the Ducal Palace the new prisons are visible, joined to it by the Bridge of Sighs, a sort of cenotaph suspended above the Paille canal, then comes a curved line of palaces, houses, churches and buildings of all kinds that form the Riva dei Schiavoni (the Slave Quay), and is ended by the verdant clump of the public gardens, the point of which juts into the water.

Near the Zecca is the mouth of the Grand Canal and the front of the Custom House, which, with the public gardens, forms the two ends of this panoramic arc over which Venice extends, like a marine Venus drying on the shore the pearls salted by their native element.

We have indicated as exactly as possible the principal lineaments of the picture; but what should be rendered is the effect, the colour, the movement, the shiver in the air and water; life, in fact. How can one express those rose tones of the Ducal Palace that look as lifelike as flesh; those snowy whitenesses of the statues tracing their contours in the azure of Veronese and Titian; those reds of the Campanile caressed by the sun; those gleams of distant gold; those thousand aspects of the sea, sometimes clear as a mirror, sometimes scintillating with spangles, like the skirt of a dancer? Who can paint that vague and luminous atmosphere full of rays and vapours from which the sun does not exclude all shadows; that going and coming of gondolas, barks and galliots; those red or white sails; those boats familiarly leaning their cutwaters against the quay, with their thousand picturesque accidents of flags, ropes and drying nets; the sailors loading and unloading the ships, carrying cases and rolling barrels, and the motley strollers on the wharf? Dalmatians, Greek, Levantines and others whom Canaletto would indicate with a single touch-how can one make it all visible simultaneously as it occurs in Nature, with a successful procedure? For the poet, less fortunate than the painter or the musician, has only a single line at his disposal; the former has a whole palette, the latter an entire orchestra. - Gautier



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