Amazing articles on just about every subject...

A Venetian Day

( Originally Published 1912 )

WHEN we open our blinds in the early morning a gray fog envelops all Venice. We can just see the gondoliers at the boat landing beneath us busily polishing the steel prows and the brass sea horses that brighten their craft. Then little by little the fog grows transparent, and the two pale domes of the "Salute," shimmering in the early sunlight, define themselves on the pale sky. The Venetian day has begun.

If any single building in Venice is conspicuous as a beautiful and characteristic landmark it is this twin-domed church. Many neighboring cities possess towers resembling those of Venice. In fact there are one or two others here in Venice that are confusingly like the great Campanile, and except for its great size we can-not reckon its towering mass as peculiar to Venice alone. St. Mark's Church is too hidden to be a prominent landmark in a general view. The Ducal Palace is too simple in outline to count from a distance as a noticeable feature. But from every side of approach the coupled domes of Santa Maria della Salute mark nobly the entrance to the Grand Canal. Its general scheme is fantastic and unusual. Its details, though classic, are exuberant and not remarkable for delicacy or purity; yet both on the canal side, where it rises above a spreading flight of steps and a deserted piazza, and on the side of the Giudecca, where its domes and slender towers overtop a green grove of trees, it forms a graceful composition. Its general mass is perhaps the most pleasing that any Renaissance church can offer.

As is fitting in Venice, the Salute's white walls rise visibly from the sea and its domes are reflected upon a mile or two-of green waters. Venice would doubtless be beautiful if it did not thus mirror itself in these broad expanses; but what an added charm this gives to it! Though it may be that our errand in Venice is to study architecture, the sparkling lagoon and its craft quickly entice us away from buildings. As the sun mounts high and the breeze freshens, we leave the Riva and gradually the city fades into the haze. The green waters are flecked with white caps. Fishing "burchios," with dragnets spread and sails half raised, drift broadside with the wind. Up the wandering channel that is. marked by long lines of piles come huge "trabaccoli," their bellying sails banded and starred with red and yellow. Although they and the "bragozzi" of Chioggia are boxlike, flat-bottomed structures with no centre- or weather-boards, yet these great boats tack and go to windward very handily. The secret of their power lies in the great rudder which goes far below the boat's bottom and forms an effective centreboard that can be raised in shallow waters. Their rounded bows end in involved curves. On each side of the bow is carved and painted an immense eye. Because the Adriatic boats have always been thus adorned, the trabaccolo must have its useless eyes, and has had them since in somewhat similar craft the Greeks rowed from Athens to Syracuse or Romans cruised off the Carthaginian shore.

A wealth of color — orange, or red, or brown, or pale blue — is given to the views of the lagoon by the sails of all these vessels. They are seen in every variety as they cruise outside of Chioggia or along the coast by Rimini and Ancona. When the fishermen come to Venice very early on Sunday morning to mass and to market, their boats, draped with loose-hanging sails and drying nets, are moored in picturesque masses along the Riva and against the wooded banks of the Public Gardens. They look Iike a row of brilliant butterflies sunning their outspread wings. On one sail is drawn in bright colors a huge Madonna. On another is a flying horse. Still others have crosses, circles, or bands rudely. sponged upon the canvas. The forecastle is adorned with sacred paintings and carvings and an angel is painted on either side of the stern. A handsome crew, looking and talking like pirates and cut-throats, thus dwell amid holy pictures and images. Each sailor wears an amulet around his neck. At the masthead swings a tangled flag-vane decked with pious emblems and surmounted by the cross.

When we leave the broad and silvery stretches of the lagoon, the gondola glides in shallow, smooth waters by the white dome and turrets of the church at the Campo Santo. Through the dull canals of Murano amid heavy-laden barges and by deserted houses we come to the lonely tower of Torcello keeping its watch over wide expanses of flat and marsh. Remembering that we are architects, we hastily look at the Byzantine capitals and ambones in the chill, death-stricken church, but come back, shuddering at the damp and the cold, to find the azure sky, the fresh greensward, the distant snow-clad Alps, and the far-stretching luminous waters of the lagoon more beautiful and enchanting than ever.

A huge chimney on the outside of one house near the canal attracts us. We land, and a whole family welcomes us to a table where steaming polenta is served for the midday meal. This great chimney is like many others at Burano and Chioggia. It serves a fireplace large enough to have windows in it and a seat all around the hearth. You can walk all about in these fireplaces, and they make us think of winter evenings and Northern climes.

But, after all, an architect does not visit Venice to find cozy nooks, and it would seem as if even the enticing green lagoons should not call him away from such a city of palaces. Sooner or later the palaces do assert their right to admiration. Then one remarks at once their essentially modern character. This is true even of the façades of the Gothic buildings, for they are free and open, with rows of windows and airy galleries, — really modern fronts. The great groups of windows are framed in with broad bands enriched with dogtooth or carving. Colored materials, such as serpentine and porphyry, toned by time, also lend them their hues and the mouldings of arch and balcony and cornice have elegant profiles. There is no rudeness or coarse picturesqueness such as often characterizes Northern Gothic work. A front like that of Desdemona's house would not look rough or uncouth nor out of keeping with life in any city of today. We see in it the Northern Gothic detail become polished and re-fined and modern. No wonder that when the English Gothic revival was at its height, fifty years ago, its disciples drew inspiration from Venice. Without such help they found it a difficult problem to translate an English or French mediæval façade, with great wall surfaces and a few pointed windows, into a modern front where the essential thing is to permit floods of light to penetrate a deep building.

But, floating down the Grand Canal, we also pass one by one the great Renaissance palaces. Again we are struck, as in the case of those of the Gothic period, with their modern spirit. There are good models for the great buildings of to-day among these rich, well-lighted, stately fronts. Yet to any one who has been studying Renaissance detail at Urbino or Rome or among the tombs of Florence, and who has recognized Donatello and Mino da Fiesole as the masters of such work, the carving even on the purest and best Renaissance work in Venice, beautiful though it be, is yet a disappointment. We can say this even remembering the dainty work that covers the church of the Miracoli. It may be the material in which it is wrought, or it may be the touch of the workman, but despite its amount and richness there is some-thing hard and mechanical about even the Early Renaissance carving in Venice. It falls far short of the Florentine and Roman standard. Perhaps, as the Venetian architecture is so largely one of incrustation and of applied and inlaid marbles, we unconsciously miss in it the serious solid stonework of Florence and

Rome, or the rugged qualities of the terra cotta found in more northern cities. To be sure, the great later palaces of Venice are built of solid stone, but in them the carving is distinctly bad. We should be glad to find there what we criticise in the earlier buildings. Except at Sansovino's stately library the carvings and the details of the late work are clumsy and out of scale. We wish that their superb masses were marked by such mouldings and carvings as adorn the Cancelleria or the Farnese palaces in Rome, or the Pandolfini and Rucellai palaces in Florence. We look in vain for the dainty architectural details that Bramante and Alberti and Peruzzi would have used.

Then after wondering, as we pass along the Grand Canal, how the architects of these imposing piles were satisfied with such clumsy detail, we enter the grand apartments in the Doge's Palace. Here Scamozzi and Palladio and Sansovino worked hand in hand with Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, and Bonifazio, to record the victories and the glory of their country. All over the walls are paintings of the naval combats of Venice. Galleys with many banks of oars bear down upon Saracens or Genoese. Amid the golden frames and azure skies of the ceilings Venice sits enthroned, and the heroes and heroines both of Parnassus and of the Old Testament lend their vigorous presence to give color and life to the decorations. Nowhere have painter, carver, and architect worked in better accord, and nowhere with more brilliant results. What a stately series of chambers ! What combinations of dark paneling and gorgeous gold frames and decorative coloring! They are the most splendid and sumptuous rooms in Europe.

Venice is indeed rich in buildings the first sight of which sends a thrill through the frame and which become indelibly impressed on the memory. True, such moving architecture is to be found elsewhere. One does not forget the nave of Amiens Cathedral, as the host is raised and solemn stillness broods over the crowd of worshipers; or St. Paul's dome in London, looming above bridge and river and city into the murky sky; or Saint-Ouen's "crown of Normandy," shooting its tangled traceries high above roof and pinnacle out of the green treetops in the little wooded park at Rouen; or the stately grandeur of the Farnese Palace; or the awe-inspiring size of the mighty Coliseum. Scenes made thus effective by architecture are to be met with throughout Europe, but they are more abundant in Venice than in any other city. For here the church of St. Mark, within and without, is unique, and cannot be compared with any other Christian church; the Salute and San Giorgio, the Ducal Palace and the Piazzetta, are certainly objects of wonderful grace; and possibly, to the architect, the interior of the Ducal Palace yields to none of them for the impression it leaves of grandeur and stateliness.

They let us wander at will around the lofts and galleries of San Marco. All through those "dim caves of beaten gold" we can keep close company with the gaunt long-robed prophets, the white-winged angels, the martyrs, and the patriarchs set in that golden firmament. Below we see the worshipers kneeling in crowds on that intricate pavement, and our eyes try to pierce the gloom where, under the baldacchino, rest in splendor the much-traveled remains of St. Mark.

We emerge upon the outer galleries amid the forest of marble vegetation and the statues of angels, prophets, and saints. We touch the Greek horses that were modeled perhaps in the days of Pericles. Then we look down with a momentary surprise on the sunlit piazza bright with the world of today, the smart Italian officers, the eager tourists, and the happy children from beyond sea feeding the fluttering doves.

Today there is festa in San Marco, and an unusual vesper service at the high altar; so we descend, and from a dark corner watch the solemn evening pageant. In the deep shadows of the sanctuary blaze countless lights. The aged dignitaries, in rich and sparkling vestments, move here and there, and kneel, and read. Younger attendants serve the incense and reverently bear the great books, while white-robed men in the high balcony sing the vesper music. As the loud organ begins to grow a little wearisome there is a sudden hush. Then on the stillness, from far aloft above the sanctuary's gloom, is heard the sweet treble of a boys' choir. The harmony floats through the golden vaults; simple, innocent, solemn; "trauncing the soul with chaunting choirs."

The organ notes cease. The day dies. We grope our way through the darkly glittering church, and come out upon the Piazzetta to find the outer world also golden. The white churches and palaces set against a sky of gold are repeated in the golden waters, and the last rays of the setting sun permeate and glorify this other golden miracle.

Later, when darkness falls over the city, we turn the corner of Sansovino's library and wander across the Piazzetta. The blackness of the sky is studded with stars, and above San Giorgio is the moon, showering light on the surrounding waters and defining in dark masses the island church. The slender tower shoots high above that long line of nave and dome. The buildings of the port and the convent bring down the composition to the water-line. Yes, perhaps the interior of San Giorgio, though correct and refined, is cold. Possibly there exists in the obvious faults of the façade some feeble justification for Mr. Ruskin when he says, "It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more severe in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard." Yet most observers must avow that, whether you call it scenic effect or architecture, a great thing was done when the architect turned this wonderful site to such advantage and gave to the world such a beautiful and graceful church. Poised between the sky and the wide waters of the lagoon, it is one of the few groups of buildings in this wide world which most appeals to the traveler and which no visitor to Venice can ever forget.

The night advances. Tattoo is sounded. Across the moonlit waters we hear the bugles respond to the band as the patrol marches merrily down the Riva. We look over to San Giorgio from beneath the awnings of our balcony. The reflection of its tower comes in a long line to our feet across the rippling water. Gondolas flit here and there and cross the track of the moonlight. Tinkling guitars sound from the barges. A tenor on the steps of the Salute sings. From far up the canal the guitars and chorus send an answering refrain. Our day in Venice closes !

"Venezia benedetta non te vogio più lasar."

So sings the chorus as it floats away into the night; and then all is silence, save for the sound of lapping waves and the distant warning cry of a belated gondolier.

Home | More Articles | Email: