Islands Of The Giudecca And S. Giorgio Maggiore
( Originally Published 1911 )
THERE is nothing, I think, that is so effectual in luring us back to Venice again and again as the remembrance of those delicious hours in early morning before the sun has southed, in the quiet afternoons that pass so slowly and so noiselessly in a city whose streets are the sea, or in the sultry evenings when through the twilight the far off music of the singers on the Grand Canal comes to us faintly over the water that are spent in a gondola going nowhither, but lazily " poking about," as we say, among the fishing boats and broken quays of the Zattere or the Giudecca, in the forgotten side canals, or in the loveliness and silence of the lagoon, when by chance, and not by arrangement, we come upon some lost and tangled garden, some neglected church, or find where we least expect it for on such expeditions he is wise who leaves his guide-book at home a mosaic of the thirteenth century, a relief of the fifteenth, a picture by some lesser master of the great period.
In Venice itself, in the streets, the piazzas, and the canals, however we go, on foot or in a gondola, there can be no one who has not often been weary. To pass through the great saloons of the Ducal Palace, to wander along the golden aisles of S. Mark's, to trudge through the narrow and ever winding ways of the city, across numberless bridges, must ever bring with them, for all the continually changing vistas, a measure of boredom and fatigue which after the first surprise is not outweighed altogether by the pleasure we are perhaps too eager and too determined in our search to enjoy. But it is different with the islands, which, whether far or near, hold nothing that is so obviously precious that we must perforce, if we are to get our money's worth, search it out. They remain really for the tourist "not worth seeing," and so at last they become for the less eager and more quiet traveller the most precious memory of his voyage, things which seem to have come to him almost by chance in a quiet hour between sleeping and waking, as it were, between a dream and a vision, swimming into his ken as a mirage might do, wonderfully, in the brightness of the day or in the quietness of evening, scarcely real, after all, but something, nevertheless, that he will never forget. Such is certainly the remembrance I shall always retain of Murano, of all the further islands, and if it is in a less tranquil mood maybe that most of us recall the islands of the Giudecca and S. Giorgio Maggiore, it is because we turn them into sights to be seen, rather than pleasures to be enjoyed. They lie, from the Piazza, across the very mouth of the Grand Canal, across the busiest sheet of water in all the Venetian lagoon, where many a great ship lies at anchor busily loading or unloading, and where all day long and far into the night, too, the little steamers from all over the Veneta Marina pass and repass, with much blowing of sirens and shouting amid feathers of steam and what seems to be a general confusion.
This continually changing scene in all its restlessness that lies between the great and noble buildings of the Piazza and the rosy chunches of Palladio upon the two islands is, however, on any spring or summer afternoon redeemed from its mere liveliness and a certain measure of indignity by the impartial sun. On a grey day we see at once that much has been lost since Guardi passed by, and yet it is Guardi, first of all, Guardi and Canaletto, who have painted Venice most faithfully, and have used her least as a mere motive on which to build impossible dreams. But in the spring or summer sunshine there is no other city in the world that has so spark ling, so gay, so sensuous, and so delightful an air as Venice and her islands as seen from the Molo of the Piazzetta. Far away eastward, in an exquisite bow of ivory and blue and gold, stretches the Riva, to the green of the Public Gardens about the blue and green of the lagoon. The countless boats that line that incomparable crescent, their sails hoisted, half hoisted, furled or unfurled, heaped about their gunwales or trailing in the water, seem to be of all colours, from golden red to green and black. A forest of light masts darkens the air. Here and there a great, tall ship, its hull black and red, strains at anchor, meeting the incoming tide. Far away by the Gardens a grey battleship waits on guard, the sunbeams glancing on its brass work, its shadow deep along the sea. Before one the gondolas, beaked and black, pass and repass amid the hurry of the little steamers from the many island ports, from the Lido and the lanes of the city itself. And as one lifts one's eyes, under the sky tranquil and soft, there rises before one the island of S. George with its rosy tower tipped with a golden angel, its great church with the façade of pale stone, and to the right the Giudecca with its line of houses, its deserted, cool churches, and all in front the great sea lane of the Canal della Giudecca with its line of great ships in the midst of it and its air as of a port or harbour of the sea.
In the brilliant heat of the afternoon one is wont to hurry across that great waterway of the Giudecca to the shelter of the narrow canals of the island or the shade of the church of S. George. But at evening, at sunset, it is there rather than anywhere else one should linger watching the twilight come over the city, listening for the Ave bells, passing close under the great ships, talking with some sailor from Istria or the Dalmatian coast, or some sea captain from England, waiting for the sun to dip behind S. Eufemia, to sink behind the Euganean hills ; and then in the twilight one should steal out to the lagoon beyond and listen for the tide and think of the sea. For there, at least, one cannot doubt or question that Venice is a part of the sea; one of those marvellous cities perhaps that are founded there in the depths we may not know, of whose towers and citadels and bells sailors from time to time have brought us word with hushed voices and eyes that no longer light up at a sight of home. Only Venice has risen, yes, with the sun, just to the surface of the sea which still lingers about her feet, in whose arms she is still in some sort inviolate.
That sense of the sea which is too often absent in the curious and picturesque streets of Venice itself is ever present with us among the islands, and especially so, I always think, on the island of the Giudecca, where so considerable a part of the fisher folk of the Veneto seem to live, in whose side canals is gathered so great a gear of boats, and from whose dear gardens all the horizons are wide and endless.
On the Giudecca itself there is but one church that anyone ever visits, and it must be confessed that it contains nothing, or very little, of any interest. The Redentore was built in 1576 by Palladio to commemorate the deliverance of Venice from the plague of 1571. Yet though that festival be still kept on the third Sunday in July, when a bridge of boats joins the church with the Fondamenta delle Zattere and a great pro-cession passes to and fro, the Redentore is not a plague church like the Salute, and almost nothing now within it reminds you of its genesis but its name, the fact of its dedication to "the Redeemer." The Redentore is a Franciscan church with a Franciscan convent now a barracks attached to it; and whatever may be thought of its architecture, it makes with S. Giorgio Maggiore a more considerable effect in its cold simplicity than any other building outside the city. Within, it must be confessed, it is chilling and empty. Over the first altar in the right aisle is a rather feeble Nativity by Francesco Bassano; over the third altar we find a Tintoretto, Christ bound to the Column ; and opposite is an Ascension by the same master, but without enthusiasm. Nor are the fairly good reliefs of the High Altar likely to win our regard, nor the Crucifixion with S. Mark and S. Francis, over the High Altar itself, by Campagna. The real reason why the tourist visits this church, apart from the fact that it is a work of Palladio, would seem to be that in the sacristy there are three pictures of a great loveliness which of old were ascribed to Giovanni Bellini, but which to-day we assign to Bissolo and to Alvise Vivarini. The first, in which is Madonna with her little Son between S. John and S. Catherine, is by Bissolo, as is the second of Our Lady with the Child between S. Francis and S. Mark. The third, however, the most beautiful and the earliest of the three, is the work of Vivarini. There we see Madonna in a red robe with the Child asleep on her knees, while two angels play softly some heavenly lullaby. Over the green curtain which shuts out the world a goldfinch pipes softly in answer to the soft, strange music, and the whole earth has made an offering of her fruits to Him who in the beauty of the lilies is come to His kingdom.
The Church of S. Giorgio on the island hard by is of much greater antiquity and interest. Once known, in the eighth century, as the Island of Cypresses, about 790 it became the site of a small church, and in 982 Doge Tribune Memmo gave the island to the Benedictines, who there established a monastery, which proved to be the greatest in Venice. This church and monastery were very much damaged in 1223 by an earthquake, but they were rebuilt at the expense of Doge Pietro Ziani, and finally, in the seventeenth century, by Andrea Palladio of Vicenza, the greatest architect of that age. S. Giorgio Maggiore has been the scene of more than one great function, but the conclave which elected Pope Pius VII, which was held in the church in 1800, might seem to be the most celebrated. Six years later the convent was suppressed and turned into a barracks, which it has ever since remained. The story of the church is, however, by no means complete with the account given above. Always dedicated to S. George, in r r 10 it received the body of S. Stephen from Doge Ordelafo Falier, and that gift gave rise to the great festival in which the Doge went in state procession to the church upon S. Stephen's Day and there heard Mass.
The church contains a good many pictures, but nearly all of them are of inferior merit. In the right aisle are a Nativity by Jacopo Bassano and a wooden crucifix by Michelozzo the Florentine. Over the next altar is a Martyrdom of SS. Cosma and Damiano by Tintoretto, who has many pictures in the church, not one of them of any great merit. For instance, there is a Coronation of the Blessed Virgin here in the right transept, a Benedictine picture, and on the right wall of the sanctuary a gloomy Last Supper, and on the left, the best picture in the church, the Gathering of the Manna, by the same master. The choir stalls behind the High Altar are Flemish sixteenth-century work, and are adorned with scenes from the life of S. Benedict.
Tintoretto's work is found again in the chapel near the left transept, where he has a Resurrection in which the donors figure, Doge Vincenzo Morosini and his family ; while in the left transept itself, near the altar and tomb of S. Stephen, is the martyrdom of that Saint, by the same master. In the left aisle there is nothing of interest save perhaps the monument near the door of Doge Marcantonio Memmo.
As for the Campanile, which makes so fine a picture from the Piazzetta, and from which one may have quite the best view of the Veneto, it fell in 1774, killing a monk and injuring others. It was rebuilt as we see it by Benedetto Buratti.
Let no one imagine, however, that when he has seen these two churches he has done with the islands of S. Giorgio and the Giudecca or exhausted all that they have to show. No impression could be more false than this, for the wise traveller will find in their by ways more of the real Venetian life as it must have been lived by the common people for many centuries than he is likely to come upon anywhere else in Venice. And then he who does not know the gardens of the Giudecca, who has not wandered down their deserted alleys along the great sea-wall, or waited there for sunset, looking out over the wide and lonely lagoon to the Lidi and the sea, does not know Venice at all, but has been deceived by a city which more than any other in Italy has become a show place for Germans and the barbarians and sentimentalists of all ages.
For me at least the Giudecca has a charm I find nowhere else; for beautiful though the Riva or the Fondamenta delle Zattere can be in the early dawn and morning or in the evening twilight, neither the one nor the other has the gift of quietness or any garden at all, save the Giardino Pubblico at the Riva's end, which, as one soon finds, is rather a park than a garden. But in the Giudecca all that you miss in Venice today may be found. You cross the often turbulent tide of the great sea lane that divides it from Venice, you creep all up the wonderful great road where the big ships lie at anchor and you may hear on a summer evening so many of the songs of the world, you pass quite by the Redentore and S. Eufemia della Giudecca, which stands up so grandly against the gold of the sky, you come to the Rio di S. Biagio and turn into it, quite full, as it seems, with fishing-boats, its quays laden with sea tackle and nets and baskets and the ropes and gear of ships, among which the children play the games they have always played, dressed in rags of all sorts of colours, their dear tousled heads bending over toys, as we say, the great symbols of life after all and the affairs of men, a tiny ship or a doll, and I know not what else, intent upon their innocent business. In the doorways, in the windows, their mothers gossip and laugh softly, awaiting their men, whom you find everywhere on board those many little vessels, mending nets or sewing at a sail or stepping a new mast or splicing an oar or painting a name.
Your gondola passes quite among these humble folk; their wide eyes of the sea gaze almost shyly into yours, you hear the children's voices, a boy with bare feet runs towards you begging for soldi, a great bare legged girl of sixteen insolently throws you a flower, the women stop their talk to watch you, the sailors give you greeting, till suddenly you pass out from between the houses, the quays and their various life, the noise and tumult are gone, and before you the great grey lagoon stretches away and away for ever, with here a little island, there, but very far off, a tiny tower, you know not where, that arises out of the sea to which this road or that, marked out by the great grey posts of the lagoon, seems to lead, if one might follow it, into the sunset and the far away clear blue hills. The voices of life, the noise of the world, have died away ; here there is only silence and the sigh of the sea rising and falling along these shallow waters. Your gondolier turns east, but it is the same view that meets you, only, still far off, you may see other islands and what looks like a long, low, narrow coast, over which a band of white foam mist seems to be stealing : but the whole world here is caught in a smiling and serene light, a touch of gold is on the blue and grey of the waters that lap softly or impatiently about your boat as it turns in answer to the oar. As in a dream you glide along the seashore of the Giudecca. There are no buildings here or houses at all, only a long rosy wall of brick overhung by vines and great fig tree boughs and the flame like flowers of the pomegranate. In the soft summen wind the olives shade into silver ; far off against the apse of the Redentore two cypresses sway a little and are still. Your gondolier steers to the left, you enter a quite deserted canal between some old houses under a tower and a broken look out. The water is like an emerald under the wall where the vines dip their leaves. Presently you come to a little green door of painted wood set in a wall of plaster and hung with an iron ring for knocker and a rusty bell-pull. Here your man gently comes to rest. The bell is rung, the door opened, and you pass with a quiet welcome not into a house, for there is no house, but into what at first sight seems to be a courtyard set about with ilexes and tall oleanders white and red, and between the olives are broken statues covered with golden lichen and stained by the weather, and between the oleanders are set great pots of oranges and lemons, while all before you stretches a green vista of garden, of vineyard, of olive grove, that ends at last in the sea. It is there you find yourself at last always, at the end of that vista, in a little stone temple like house, with grapes before you on the cool stone table, watching the sun set over the wide and lonely lagoon, waiting for the wind from the sea.
At first what you see is a study in purple and gold—the gold of the sunset, of the towers and cupolas of S. Lazzarô, of the sand of the Lidi, and the purple of the sky and of the sea ; but slowly, so slowly that you try to mark each change, the whole world seems to glow and rather to give light to the sky than to receive light from it. The gold burns into flame, the sea changes, and instead of a great purple flower you see a great opal flaming with every colour in your heart; the wind comes out of the mystery of the east, and the whole world seems to be on fire. Then over those beautiful waters come the bells, brazen tongues galloping and vibrating, from the city and the islands, and the light dies out of the sky. All you see is a study in grey and blue, touched faintly here and there by the pale gold of some half-imagined star. As you turn to find your gondola far away over the Lido you see a great bird silently flying into the night.