A Tour Of The Grand Canal
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Grand Canal of Venice is the most wonderful thing in the world. No other city affords a spectacle so fine, so bizarre, so fairy-like. As remarkable bits of architecture, perhaps, can be found elsewhere, but nowhere located under such picturesque conditions.
There each palace has a mirror in which to gaze at its beauty, like a coquettish woman. The superb reality is doubled by a charming reflection. The water lovingly caresses the feet of these beautiful facades, which a white light kisses on the forehead, and cradles them in a double sky. The small boats and big ships which are able to ascend it seem to be made fast for the express purpose of serving as set-offs or ground-plans for the convenience of the decorators.
Each bit of wall narrates a story; every house is a palace; at each stroke of the oars the gondolier mentions a name which was as well known in the times of the Crusades as it is to-day; and this continues both to left and right for a distance of more than half a league. We have made a list of these palaces, not of all, but the most remarkable, and we do not dare to transcribe it here on account of its length. It covers five or six pages : Pierre Lombard, Scamozzi, Sansovino, Sebastiano Mazzoni, Sammichelli, the great architect of Verona; Selva, Domenico Rossi, Visentini, have drawn the plans and directed the construction of these princely dwellings, without reckoning the unknown artists of the Middle Ages who built the most picturesque and most romantic of them—those which give Venice its stamp and its originality.
On both banks, facades altogether charming and beautifully diversified succeed one another with-out interruption. After an architecture of the Renaissance with its columns comes a palace of the Middle Ages in Gothic Arab style, of which the Ducal Palace is the prototype, with its balconies, lancet windows, trefoils, and acroteria. Further along is a facade adorned with marble placques of various colors, garnished with medallions and consoles; then a great rose-colored wall in which is cut a large window with columnets; all styles are found there—the Byzantine, the Saracen, the Lombard, the Gothic, the Roman, the Greek, and even the Rococo; the column and the columnet; the lancet and the semicircle; the fanciful capital, full of birds and of flowers, brought from Acre or from Jaffa; the Greek capital found in Athenian ruins; the mosaic and the bas-relief; the classic severity and elegant fantasy of the Renaissance. It is an immense gallery open to the sky, where one can study from the bottom of his gondola the art of seven or eight centuries. What treasures of genius, talent, and money have been expended on this space which may be traversed in less than a quarter of an hour ! What tremendous artists, but also what intelligent and munificent patrons! What a pity that the patricians who knew how to achieve such beautiful things no longer exist save on the can-vases of Titian, of Tintoretto, and du Moro !
Even before reaching the Rialto, you have, on the left, in ascending the Canal, the Palace Dario, in Gothic style; the Palace Venier, which presents itself by an angle, with its ornamentation, its precious marbles and medallions, in the Lombard style; the Fine Arts, a classic facade joined to the old Ecole de la Charité and surmounted by a figure riding upon a lion; the Contarini Palace, in architectural style of Scamozzi; the Rezzonico Palace with three superimposed orders; the triple Giustiniani Palace, in the style of the Middle Ages, in which resides M. Natale Schiavoni, a descendant of the celebrated painter Schiavoni, who possesses a gallery of pictures and a beautiful daughter, the living reproduction of a canvas painted by her ancestor; The Foscari Palace, recognizable by its low door, by its two stories of columnets supporting lancets and trefoils, where in other days were lodged the sovereigns who visited Venice, but now abandoned; the Balbi Palace, from the balcony of which the princes leaned to watch the regattas which took place upon the Grand Canal with so much pomp and splendor, in the palmy days of the Republic; the Pisani Palace, in the German style of the beginning of the fifteenth century; and the Tiepolo Palace, very smart and relatively modern. On the right, there nestles between two big buildings, a delicious little palace which is composed of a window and a balcony; but such a window and balcony ! A guipure of stone, of scrolls, of guillochages, and of open-work, which would seem possible of execution only with a punching machine upon one of those sheets of paper which cover baptismal sugar-plums, or are placed upon globes of lamps. We greatly regretted not having twenty-five thousand francs about us to buy it, since that was all that was demanded for it.
The Rialto, which is the most beautiful bridge in Venice, with a very grandiose and monumental air, bestrides the canal by a single span with a powerful and graceful curve. It was built in 1691, under the Dogeship of Pasquale Cigogna, by Antonio da Ponte, and replaced the ancient wooden drawbridge. Two rows of shops, separated in the middle by a portico in the form of an arcade and permitting a glimpse of the sky, bur-den the sides of the bridge, which can be crossed by three paths; that in the center and the exterior passageways furnished with balustrades of marble.
Around the Bridge of the Rialto, one of the most picturesque spots of the Grand Canal, are gathered the oldest houses in Venice, with plat-formed roofs, on which poles are planted to hang banners; their long chimneys, their bulging balconies, their stairways with disjointed steps, and their plaques of red coating, the fallen flakes of which lay bare the brick walls and the foundations made green by contact with the water. There is always near the Rialto a tumult of boats and gondolas and of stagnant islets of tied-up craft drying their tawny sails, which are sometimes traversed by a large cross.
Below and beyond the Rialto are grouped on both banks the ancient Fondaco dei Tedeschi, upon the colored walls of which, in uncertain tints, may be divined some frescoes of Titian and Tintoretto, like dreams which come only to vanish; the fish-market, the vegetable market, and the old and new buildings of Scarpagnino and of Sansovino, almost fallen in ruins, in which are installed various courts.
On the right rises the Palace della Ca, d'Oro, one of the most charming on the Grand Canal. It belongs to Mademoiselle Taglioni,* who has re-stored it with most intelligent care. It is all embroidered, fringed, carved in a Greek, Gothic, barbaric style, so fantastic, so light, so aerial, that it might be fancied to have been built expressly for the nest of a sylph. Mlle. Taglioni has pity for these poor, abandoned palaces. She has several of them en pension, which she maintains out of pure commiseration for their beauty; we were told of three or four upon which she has bestowed this charity of repair.
In going to a distance from the heart of the city, life is extinct. Many windows are closed or barred with boards; but this sadness has its beauty; it is more perceptible to the soul than to the eyes, regaled without cessation by the most unforeseen accidents of light and shade, by buildings so varied that even their dilapidation only renders them more picturesque, by the perpetual movement of the waters, and that blue and rose tint which composes the atmosphere of Venice.