Venice Canals, Wells And Squares
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IT would be impossible to conceive any street in the world more stately or more full of exquisite and varied loveliness than this of the Grand Canal as it was in the days of Venetian greatness. Even today we feel, in Mr. Ruskin's words, how utterly impossible it is for any man " unless on terms of work like Albert Dürer's to express adequately the mere contents of architectural beauty in any general view on the Grand Canal." Its beautiful sweep and fascinating surroundings always attract artists who, like Mr. Ruskin himself, can overcome the difficulties of any subject by the force of his love, as he has sufficiently proved in his own Venetian drawings. But it is not only on the Canalazzo that we must seek for the examples of the architectural wealth in which Venice abounds. Some of the finest palaces, as well as of some of the choicest specimens of Lombardi and Sansovino's art, are to be found in narrow bye-canals or in obscure campi in the less visited quarters.
Sometimes, as in the little canals of St. Bernado or the Campo S. Stefano, you have four or five palaces with richly worked doorways and windows close together; elsewhere you come upon a Gothic portal upon which the Massegne or the Buoni have lavished all the luxuriance of their wonderful invention. The beautiful gabled relief of Madonnas and saints on the Bridge of Paradise will be familiar to most of us, and there is a door with an angel raising his hand in blessing out near S. Margherita that is worth remembering. Some of the older houses, where fragments of Byzantine work remain, have crosses let in between the windows or emblems of the four Evangelists in the spandrils of the arches. A wall in the little Campiello S. Angaran still retains the medallion of a Byzantine Caesar of the Ninth Century, and on the Corte Sabbionera, close to the favourite Teatro Malibran, is a quaint horseshoe arch, patterned over with plants and animals, curious by reason of its Arabic form, and still more interesting as having belonged to the house in which Marco Polo was born.
It is no uncommon thing to stumble upon a row of Byzantine windows in a dilapidated palace inhabited by five or six of the poorest families, and even to see clothes hung out to dry on the parapet of a balcony ornamented with delicate flower-work, cornices and sculptured dragons or birds. A few years ago there was a balcony on a palace in a narrow lane somewhere near the Shrine of the Seave, traditionally ascribed to Sansovino, and adorned with the most exquisite heads of fauns and satyrs, with a character and expression of its own. Let no one seek to find it there, for, like so many other rare things in Venice, it has vanished ; and the best hope we can cherish is that it may be one of those rescued from destruction by the care of Mr. J. C. Robinson, and preserved at South Kensingston or Birmingham.
Many of the dark and dirty courtyards at the back of these old palaces are well worth visiting for the sake of the ancient staircases and wells they contain. Some of the stair-cases are open to the sky, and are supported by Gothic arches and twisted pillars, others are in the style of the late Renaissance, ornamented with white marble statues that still throw long lines of light into the water below. Strangers are sure to be shown the lovely spiral staircases of Palazzo Minelli, enclosed in a turret, in the dark little Corte del Maltese, which in form so closely resembles the Tower of Pisa, and that other scarcely less picturesque at the corner of the house where Goldoni was born.
No less interesting are the old wells, bocche and cinte di pozzi, which you find in every camp) and in almost every courtyard of Venice. Next to the windows, balconies, door-ways, and tombs, these were the most favourite subjects on which the Venetian sculptors lavished their skill, and those still remaining are shaped and adorned with infinite variety. They are so beautiful in themselves, and so closely connected with the history of Venice, that they have always seemed to me deserving of greater attention than has been usually paid them.
From the earliest times the supply of water received the especial attention of the State, and there are said to be no less than two thousand public cisterns in Venice at the present time. In the year 1130 the Paduans, who were then at war with Venice, tried to dam up the Brenta, and thus cut off the chief water-supply of Venice. The alarm which this step excited led to the opening of a number of new wells in the city, and several of those which still exist date back to that period. Some are even older, and probably belong to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. These are generally made of Greek marble, while later ones are of the white Istrian stone so common in Venice, or else of red Verona marble. A complete study of these wells would include the whole history of Venetian sculpture, which we find reflected in all its different phases in the specimens to be found at Venice and its neighbouring islands. At Torcello and Murano and in some parts of Venice we may still see wells of Byzantine date, carved with Greek crosses and stars and peacocks, with inter-laced circles and other patterns delicately worked in the flat relief common in pavements and tombs of this epoch in Ravenna. Next we have the Gothic wells of which splendid specimens are to be seen in the Corte Bressana, amongst other places. The earlier of these are shaped like the huge capital of a pillar, and are severe and simple in design, while others are enriched with all the luxuriant foliage and variety of heads, lions, griffins and birds, in which the later Venetian sculptors delighted. Finally, there are the wells which belong, by their form and decoration, to the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The more elaborate specimens of this period are profusely adorned with flowers and leaves, medallions, rosettes, bead and scroll-work—in short, with every kind of Renaissance ornament. The finest examples of this numerous and well-preserved class are the octagonal bronze wells in the court of the Ducal Palace, designed after Vittoria's style by Alberghetti of Ferrara and Niccolo de Conti in the middle of the Sixteenth Century.
It would be unjust to the dry land if we did not acknowledge the picturesqueness of the calle where the high roofs shut out all but the narrowest strip of blue sky, and where swinging shutters and jutting balconies and window-sills with crimson and yellow stuffs hanging over them, and little shrines of Virgin and saints, each with their lamp burning, and shops and wares and laces are crowded together in the most inextricable confusion.
Out of these crooked and bewildering streets, with their bright medley of form and colour, we emerge on to the campi, or squares, in front of the churches, to which they were originally attached as burial-grounds. Each of these squares is now a little centre of life, and has its farmacia and grocery and fruiterer's shop, perhaps a palazzo with the upper stories to let, sometimes a tree or two swaying leafy boughs against the balconies. Each has its well generally raised on steps, round which the gossips of the place collect and where you may glean many a characteristic and amusing incident of Venetian life. Every morning at eight o'clock the iron lid which closes its mouth is unlocked, and then there is a clanking of heels on the stone pavement and a brisk chattering of tongues, as the water-carriers, stout-built peasant maidens from Friuli, each wearing the same high-crowned hat and short skirts, come to fill their copper buckets at the well. Many of the campi in front of the wellknown churches have furnished subjects to our painters, such as the square in front of San Giovanni e Paolo, the burial-place of the Doges, which is further adorned by the presence of Colleoni's glorious statue and that masterpiece of the Lombard's art, the Scuola di San Marco. Another favourite bit is the little Campiello di San Rocco with the back of the church of the Frari towering over the roofs and some trefoil windows in a house on the right which formed the subject of one of Prout's pictures.
Less familiar, but quite as well worth knowing, is the still grassy square in front of the remote church of the Madonna dell' Orto, where the tall Gothic windows and traceries of red and white marble with which Bartolommeo Buoni adorned that fair shrine look down on the sunny turf. This is the very edge of the lagoon. A few steps further on you have a splendid view over the wide expanse from the creek or Sacca della Misericorda.