The Columns Of The Piazzetta - Venice
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Go first into the Piazzetta, and stand anywhere in the shade, where you can well see its granite pillars. Your Murray tells you that they are " famous," and that the one is "surmounted by the bronze lion of St. Mark, the other by the statue of St. Theodore, the Protector of the Republic."
It does not, however, tell you why, or for what the pillars are " famous." Nor, in reply to a question which might conceivably occur to the curious, why St. Theodore should protect the Republic by standing on a crocodile; nor whether the " bronze lion of St. Mark " was cast by Sir Edwin Landseer, or some more ancient and ignorant person; nor what these rugged corners of limestone rock, at the bases of the granite, were perhaps once in the shape of. Have you any idea why, for the sake of any such things, these pillars were once, or should yet be, more renowned than the Monument, or the column of the Place Vendome, both of which are much bigger Well, they are famous, first, in memorial of something which is better worth remembering than the fire of London, or the achievements of the great Napoleon. And they are famous, or used to be, among artists, because they are beautiful columns; nay, as far as we old artists know, the most beautiful columns at present extant and erect in the conveniently visitable world.
Each of these causes of their fame I will try in some dim degree to set before you.
I said they were set there in memory of things, not of the man who did the things. They are to Venice, in fact, what the Nelson column would be to London if, instead of a statue of Nelson and a coil of rope, on the top of it, we had put one of the four Evangelists, and a saint, for the praise of the Gospel and of Holiness; trusting to the memory of Nelson to our own souls.
However, the memory of the Nelson of Venice, being now seven hundred years old, has more or less faded from the heart of Venice herself, and seldom finds its way into the heart of a stranger. Somewhat concerning him, though a stranger, you may care to hear, but you must hear it in quiet ; so let your boatman take you across to San Giorgio Maggiore; there you can moor your gondola under the steps in the shade, and read in peace, looking up at the pillars when you like.
In the year 1117, when the Doge Ordelafo Falier had been killed under the walls of Zara, Venice chose, for his successor, Domenico Michiel, Michael of the Lord, " Cattolico nomo e audace," a Catholic and brave man, the servant of God and of St. Michael.
Venice was sincerely pious, and intensely covetous. But not covetous merely of money. She was covetous first of fame; secondly, of kingdom; thirdly, of pillars of marble and granite, such as these that you see; lastly, and quite principally, of the relics of good people.
To the nation in this religiously covetous hunger, Bald-win appealed, a captive to the Saracen. The Pope sent letters to press his suit, and the Doge Michael called the State to Council in the Church of St. Mark. There he, and the Primate of Venice, and her nobles, and such of the people as had due entrance with them, by way of beginning the business, celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit. Then the Primate read the Pope's letters aloud to the assembly; then the Doge made the assembly a speech. And there was no opposition party in that parliament to make opposition speeches; and there were no reports of the speech next morning in any Times or Daily Telegraph. And there were no plenipotentiaries sent to the East, and back again. But the vote passed for war.
The Doge left his son in charge of the State, and sailed for the Holy Land, with forty galleys and twenty-eight beaked ships of battle "ships which were painted with divers colours," far seen in pleasant splendour. Some faded likeness of them, twenty years ago, might be seen in the painted sails of the fishing-boats which lay crowded, in lowly lustre, where the development of civilisation now only brings black steam-tugs, to bear the people of Venice to the bathing-machines of Lido, covering their Ducal Palace with soot, and consuming its sculptures with sulphurous acid.
The beaked ships of the Doge Michael had each a hundred oars; each oar pulled by two men, not accommodated with sliding seats, but breathed well for their great boat-race between the shores of Greece and Italy ; whose names, alas, with the names of their trainers, are noteless in the journals of the barbarous time.
They beat their way across the waves, nevertheless,) to the place where Dorcas worked for the poor, and St. Peter lodged with his namesake tanner. There, showing first but a squadron of a few ships, they drew the Saracen fleet out to sea, and so set upon them.
And the Doge, in his true Duke's place, first in his beaked ship, led for the Saracen admiral's, struck her and sunk her. And his host of falcons followed to the slaughter; and to the prey also, for the battle was not without gratification of the commercial appetite. The Venetians took a number of ships containing precious silks and " a quantity of drugs and pepper."
After which battle, the Doge went up to Jerusalem, there to take further counsel concerning the use of his Venetian power; and, being received there with honour, kept his Christmas in the mountain of the Lord.
In the council of war that followed, debate became stern whether to undertake the siege of Tyre or Ascalon. The judgments of men being at pause, the matter was given to the judgment of God. They put the names of the two cities in an urn, on the altar of the Church of the Sepulchre. An
Oars, of course, for calm and adverse winds, only; bright sails full to the helpful breeze which name you may have heard before, and read perhaps words concerning her fall careless always when the fall took place, or whose sword smote her.
She was still a glorious city, still queen of the treasures of the sea; chiefly renowned for her work in glass and in purple; set in command of a rich plain, " irrigated with plentiful and perfect waters, famous for its sugar-canes; `fortissima,' she herself, upon her rock, double walled towards the sea, treble walled to the land; and, to all seeming, unconquerable but by famine."
You will not expect me here, at St. George's steps, to give an account of the various mischief done on each other with the dart, the stone, and the fire, by the Christian and Saracen, day by day. The steady siege went on, till the Tyrians lost hope, and asked terms of surrender. They obtained security of person and property, to the indignation of the Christian soldiery, who had expected the sack of Tyre. The city was divided into three parts, of which two were given to the King of Jerusalem, the third to the Venetians.
While the Doge Michael fought for the Christian King at Jerusalem, the Christian Emperor at Byzantium attacked the defenceless states of Venice, on the mainland of Dalmatia, and seized their cities. Whereupon the Doge set sail homewards, fell on the Greek islands of the Aegean, and took the spoil of them ; seized Cephalonia; recovered the lost cities of Dalmatia; compelled the Greek Emperor to sue for peace, gave it, in angry scorn ; and set his sails at last for his own Rialto, with the sceptres of Tyre and Byzantium to lay at the feet of Venice. Spoil he also brought, enough, of such commercial kind as Venice valued. These pillars that you look upon, of rosy and grey rock; and the dead bodies of St. Donato and St. Isidore. He thus returned in 1126.
Of these things, then, the two pillars before you are " famous " in memorial. What in themselves they possess deserving honour, we will next try to discern. But you must row a little nearer to the pillars, so as to see them clearly.
I said these pillars were the most beautiful known to me:—but you must understand this saying to be of the whole pillar-group of base, shaft, and capital,—not only of their shafts.
You know so much of architecture, perhaps, as that an " order " of it is the system connecting a shaft with its capital and cornice. And you can surely feel so much of architecture, as that if you took the heads off these pillars, and set the granite shaft simply upright on the pavement, they would perhaps remind you of ninepins or rolling-pins, but would in no wise contribute either to respectful memory of the Doge Michael, or to the beauty of the Piazzetta.
Their beauty which has been so long instinctively felt by artists, consists then first in the proportion, and then in the propriety of their several parts. Do not confuse proportion with propriety. An elephant is as properly made as a stag; but it is not so gracefully proportioned. In fine architecture, and all other fine arts, grace and propriety meet.
I will take the fitness first. You see that both these pillars have wide bases of successive steps.' You can feel that these would be " improper " round the pillars of an arcade in which people walked, because they would be in the way. But they are proper here, because they tell us the pillar is to be isolated, and that it is a monument of importance. Look from these shafts to the arcade of the Ducal Palace. Its pillars have been found fault with for wanting bases. But they were meant to be walked beside without stumbling.
Next you see the tops of the capitals of the great pillars spread wide, into flat tables. You can feel, surely, that these are entirely " proper," to afford room for the statues they are to receive, and that the edges, which bear no weight, may " properly " extend widely. But suppose a weight of superincumbent wall were to be laid on these pillars? The extent of capital which is now graceful, would then be weak and ridiculous.
Thus far of propriety, whose simple laws are soon satisfied : next, of proportion.
You see that one of the shafts, the St. Theodore's, is much slenderer than the other.
One general law of proportion is that a slender shaft should have a slender capital, and a ponderous shaft, a ponderous one.
But had this law been here followed, the companion pillars would have instantly become ill-matched. The eye would have discerned in a moment the fat pillar and the lean. They would never have become the fraternal pillars . " the two " of the Piazzetta.
With subtle, scarcely at first traceable, care, the designer varied the curves and weight of his capitals; and gave the massive head to the slender shaft, and the slender capital to the massive shaft. And thus they stand in symmetry, and uncontending equity.
Next, for the form of these capitals themselves, and the date of them.
You will find in the guide-books that though the shafts were brought home by the Doge in 1126, no one could be found able to set them up until the year 1171, when a certain Lombard, called Nicholas of the Barterers, raised them, and for reward of such engineering skill, bargained that he might keep tables for forbidden games of chance between the shafts. Whereupon the Senate ordered that executions should also take place between them.
But now of the capitals themselves. If you are the least interested in architecture, should it not be of some importance to you to note the style of them? Twelfth Century capitals, as fresh as when they came from the chisel, are not to be seen every day, or everywhere; much less capitals like these a fathom or so broad and high ! And if you know the architecture of England and France in the Twelfth Century, you will find these capitals still more interesting from their extreme difference in manner. Not the least like our clumps and humps and cushions, are they? For these are living Greek work, still; not savage Norman or clumsy Northumbrian, these; but of pure Corinthian race; yet, with Venetian practicalness of mind, solidified from the rich clusters of light leafage which were their ancient form. You must find time for a little practical cutting of capitals your-self, before you will discern the beauty of these. There is nothing like a little work with the fingers for teaching the eyes.
What I want you to notice now, is but the form of the block of Istrian stone, usually with a spiral, more or less elaborate, on each of its projecting angles. For there is infinitude of history in that solid angle, prevailing over the light Greek leaf.
That is related to our humps and clumps at Durham and Winchester. Here is, indeed, Norman temper, prevailing over Byzantine; and it means, the outcome of that quarrel of Michael with the Greek Emperor. It means western for eastern life, in the mind of Venice. It means her fellowship with the western chivalry; her triumph in the Crusades, triumph over her own foster nurse, Byzantium.
Which significances of it, and many others with them, if we would follow, we must leave our stone-cutting for a little while and map out the chart of Venetian history from its beginning into such masses as we may remember without confusion.
But since this will take time, and we cannot quite tell how long it may be before we get back to the Twelfth Century again, and to our Piazzetta shafts, let me complete what I can tell you of these at once.
In the first place, the Lion of St. Mark is a splendid piece of Eleventh or Twelfth Century bronze. I know that by the style of him; but have never found out where he came from. I may now chance on it, however, at any moment on other quests. Eleventh or Twelfth Century the lion—Fifteenth, or later, his wings; very delicate in feather workmanship, but with little lift or strike in them; decorative mainly. Without doubt his first wings were thin sheets of beaten bronze, shred in plumage; far wider in their sweep than these.
The statue of St. Theodore, whatever its age, is wholly without merit. I can't make it out myself, nor find record of it: in a stonemason's yard, I should have passed it as modern. But this merit of the statue is here of little consequence.
St. Theodore represents the power of the Spirit of God in all noble and useful animal life, conquering what is venomous, useless, or in decay: he differs from St. George in con-tending with material evil, instead of with sinful passion: the crocodile on which he stands is the Dragon of Egypt; slime begotten of old, worshipped in its malignant power, for a God. St. Theodore's martyrdom was for breaking such idols; and with beautiful instinct Venice took him in her earliest days for her protector and standard-bearer, representing the heavenly life of Christ in men, prevailing over chaos and the deep.