(navigation image)
Home American Libraries | Canadian Libraries | Universal Library | Community Texts | Project Gutenberg | Children's Library | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Additional Collections
Search: Advanced Search
Anonymous User (login or join us)
Upload
See other formats

Full text of "THE WORLD OF VENICE"




inal; 



9^5.3 

Morris 

The world of Venice 



61-01532 



M87W 
Iforris $5.00 
The world of Venice 



61-01532 



Kansas city f||f public library 

"1 kansas city, missouri 

Books will be issued only 

on presentation of, library card. 
Please report lost cards and 

change of residence promptly. 
Card holders are responsible for 

all books, records, films, pictures 
or other library materials 
checked out on their cards. 



THE WORLD OF VENICE 



DATE DUE 



JalG 









. by t jhe jame. i 



AS I SAW THE- U.S.A. 

SULTAN IN OMAN *-*" 

j 

] ^ISLAMJNFLAMED,, _. 
SOUTH AFRICAN WINTER 
"^ KINGS 



THE WORLD OF 

VENICE 

BY 
JAMES MORRIS 



PANTHEON BOOKS 



1960 by James Morris 

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce 
this book, or portions thereof, in any form. 

Published by Pantheon Books, Inc. 

333 Sixth Avenue, New York 14, N.Y, 

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 60-11763 

Manufactured in the U. S. A. 



For 
VIRGINIA MORRIS 

a Venetian baby 



/ rH 



FOREWORD 

I am a reporter, and this is primarily a report on contemporary 
Venice. 

It is not a history book, but it necessarily contains many 
passages of history. These I have used magpie-style, embedding 
them in the text where they seem to me to glitter most effec 
tively: but for those who prefer their history in chronological 
order, at the back of the book there is a historical index, with 
dates and page numbers. 

It is not a guide book, either: but in Chapter 21 1 have listed 
the Venetian sights that seem to me most worth seeing, arranged 
for the most part topographically, and only occasionally con 
fused by brief purple passages. The index contains map refer 
ences as well as page numbers, and any building mentioned in 
the book can thus be at least roughly located on the plan of the 
city. 

I like to think, in moments of pretentious fancy, that my 
connection with Venice began with my maternal ancestor 
Philippe de Commynes, who wrote his report on the city in 
1495; but the British Army actually introduced me to the place, 
and philanthropists in Russell Square, Sixth Avenue, and Cross 
Street, Manchester, kindly enabled me to go and live there. 

J.M. 



CONTENTS 

FOREWORD page 9 

LANDFALL 23 

THE PEOPLE 

1. Islanders 29 

2. The Venetian Way 34 

3. Strong Men 41 

4. The Truth Not to Everyone 58 

5. On "Women 65 

6. Minor Venetians 70 

7. Pageantries and Panaceas 82 

8. *Poi Cristiani 92 

9. Minorities 105 

10. Melancholia 115 

THE CITY 

11. Ex-Island 125 

12. Streets Full of Water 130 

13. Stones of Venice 145 

14. City Services 158 

15. Age 170 

16. The Bestiary 179 

17. Arabesques 190 

1 8. The Seasons 203 

19. New on the Rialto 216 

20. Curiosities 222 

21. To the Prodigies 236 

22. Purposes 245 

ii 



Contents 

THE LAGOON 

23. Seventh Sea 

24. The Office of a Moat " 359 

25. Navigation 269 

26. On the Edge 275 

27. Island Towns 280 

2.8. Holy Waters 392, 

2.9. Dead and Alive 299 

30. The Sacred Bulwarks 307 

31. Lost 315 

EMBARKATION 321 

INDEX OF HISTORICAL EVENTS 327 

INDEX OF PROPER NAMES 32,9 



ILLUSTRATIONS 



Venetian, boats frontispiece 

between pages 34 and 35 

Inside the Basilica 

The horses of St. Mark s 

The lions of the Arsenal 

Festa on the Grand Canal 

Traghetto station, Grand Canal 

In the Protestant cemetery, San Michele 

Signor Antonio Rioba , Campo dei Mori 

between pages 114 and 115 

Venice from the west 

St. Mark s 

The Grand Canal I 

The Grand Canal II 

The Grand Canal III 

The Basin of St. Mark 

A Venetian campo: Santa Maria Formosa 

The Arsenal 

between pages 194 and 195 

"Wall of the Liberian Consulate, Venice 

The Piazza of St. Mark 

Gondola station, Riva degli Schiavoni 

In the Basin of St. Mark 

Football, courtyard of the Palazzo Pisani 

Boy with cat, Venice 

Cat, pump and pigeon, Venice 

13 



Illustrations 

between pages 274 and 275 
Fishing boat in the Basin of St. Mark 
Murano 
Burano 
Torcello 
Pellestrina 
Chioggia 
The Murazzi 
Littorale di Pellestrina 

MAPS 

Map of the Lagoon and the Lido 17 

General Map of Venice 18-19 



A NOTE ON THE PICTURES 

The frontispiece to this book, by Mr. Gerry Facey, illustrates 
the maritime variety of Venice. The craft in the top left corner is 
the hulking job-barge of the Venetian canals, and to the right of 
it is the car ferry that runs acrois the inner lagoon to the Lido. 
Below them, left, is a vaporetto of the kind that links the city 
with the islands of the northern lagoon. The elaborate oared 
galley is the budntoro, the ceremonial flagship of Venice, succes 
sor to the legendary State vessels of the Doges. The motor- 
launch is a Venetian water-taxi, and below it, with its six- 
pronged steel prow, is that prime symbol of Venice, the gondola. 
The motor-craft to the left, with its complicated superstructure, 
is a dustbin barge; the tall sailing-ship in the middle is a bragozzo, 
a sea-going fishing-boat of the lagoons; the heavy rowing-boat 
on the right is the humdrum cargo carrier of the city canals. An 
exquisite little black sandolo occupies the bottom left-hand 
corner of the picture, and to the right of it sails the humblest, 
most maligned, busiest and most useful of all the Venetian ships: 
the water-bus. 

The device on the cover of the book reproduces the celebrated 
crab-lion of Sant* Aponal as the Venetians like to call the 
church of Sant Apollinare. The creature is carved upon the base 
of the church s campanile, beneath a shadowy portico, and is 
thought to be thirteenth-century work. It is one of the earliest 
surviving images of St. Mark s winged lion, the patron beast of 
the Venetian Republic, and is remarkable not only for its age 
and awfulness, but also for its wavy fish-like tail. 

Of the photographs, Festa on the Grand Canal, In the Basin of 
St. Mark, and Pelkstrina are by Mr. Cas Oorthuys, and Signor 
Antonio Rioba* is by Mr. Ian Skeet. The aerial photographs were 
kindly provided by the Venice Municipality. 

Mr. Denis Baker drew the maps, and the chart on the end 
papers is reproduced by permission of the Admiralty. 

15 



LANDFALL 



At 45i4 / N., i2i8 E., the navigator, sailing up the Adriatic 
coast of Italy, discovers an opening in the long low line of the 
shore: and turning westward, with the race of the tide, he enters 
a lagoon. Instantly the boisterous sting of the sea is lost. The 
water around him is shallow but opaque, the atmosphere curi 
ously translucent, the colours pallid, and over the whole wide 
bowl of mudbank and water there hangs a suggestion of melan 
choly. It is like an albino lagoon. 

It is encircled with illusory reflections, like mirages in the 
desert wavering trees and blurred hillocks, ships without hulls, 
imaginary marshes: and among these hallucinations the water 
reclines in a kind of trance. Along the eastern reef strings of 
straggling fishing villages lie empty and unkempt. Away in the 
wastes there stand the sails of fishing boats, orange, yellow and 
magenta, with cabalistic signs or heraldic symbols, a rampant 
red horse, an all-seeing eye. The shallows are littered with intri 
cate shambling palisades of sticks and basket-work, and among 
them solitary men, knee-deep in sludge and water, prod in the 
mud for shellfish. A motor boat chugs by with a stench of fish 
or oil. A woman on the shore shouts to a friend, and her voice 
eddies away strangely, muffled and distorted across the flats. 

Silent islands lie all about, lapped in marsh and mud-bank. 
Here is a glowering octagonal fort, here a gaunt abandoned 
lighthouse. A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fishermen s 
islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate. From 
the ramparts of an island barracks a listless soldier with his cap 
over his eyes waves half-heartedly out of his sentry-box. Two 
savage dogs bark and rage from a broken villa. There is a flicker 
of lizards on a wall. Sometimes a country smell steals across the 
water, of cows or hay or fertilizer: and sometimes there flutters 
in the wake of the boat, not an albatross, but a butterfly. 

23 



Landfall 

Presently this desolate place quickens, and smart white villas 
appear upon the reef. The hump of a great hotel protrudes above 
the trees, gay parasols ornament a caf6. A trim passenger steamer 
flurries southwards, loaded deep. A fishing flotilla streams 
workmanlike towards the open sea. To the west, beneath a 
smudge of mountains, there is a thin silver gleam of oil drums, 
and a suggestion of smoke. A yellow barge, piled high with pop 
bottles, springs from a landing-sta^e like a cheerful dove from 
an ark. A white yacht sidles indolently by. Three small boys 
have grounded their boat on a sand-bank, and are throwing 
slobbery mud at each other. There is a flash of oxy-acetylene 
from a dark shed, and a barge stands on stilts outside a boat 
yard. A hooter sounds; a bell booms nobly; a big white sea- 
bird settles heavily upon a post; and thus the navigator, round 
ing a promontory, sees before him a city. 

It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers 
survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, 
some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, 
pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccen 
tric chimneys and a big red grain elevator. There are glimpses of 
flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An 
incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place; a 
great white liner slips towards its port; a multitude of tottering 
palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses towards its water 
front like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a 
gnarled but gorgeous city: and as the boat approaches through 
the last church-crowned islands, and a jet fighter screams splen 
didly out of the sun, so the whole scene seems to shimmer 
with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, 
with delight. 

The navigator stows away his charts and puts on a gay straw 
hat: for he has reached that paragon among landfalls, Venice. 



The estuaries of three virile rivers first formed the Venetian 
lagoon, rushing down from the Alps with their sediments of 
sand, shale and mud, and falling into the north-western corner 
of the Adriatic. For many centuries, sheltered from the open sea 
by a bulwark of sandy reefs, it remained obscure and anony 
mous, on the edge of the Pax Romana. Scattered communities 

24 



Landfall 

of fishermen and salt-gatherers lived among its marshes. Traders 
sometimes wandered through it. A few of the Roman sporting 
rich built villas, picnicked, idled or hunted duck on its islands. 
Some historians say the people of Padua maintained a port upon 
its outer reefs; others believe it was much less watery then, and 
that half of it was under the plough. Around its perimeter, on 
the mainland of Roman Veneto, celebrated cities flourished 
Aquileia, Concordia, Padua, Altinum, all rich in the imperial 
civilization: but the lagoon itself stood aside from history, and 
remained shrouded in myth and malaria. 

Then in the fifth and sixth centuries there fell out of the north, 
in successive waves, the Goths, Huns, Avars, Herulians and 
Lombards who were the scavengers of empire. The hinterland 
was lost in fire and vengeance. Driven by barbarism, brutality 
and even the threat of Christian heresy, the peoples of the 
Veneto cities abandoned their comforts and fled into their ob 
vious refuge the lagoon. Sometimes, when a phase of barbaric 
invasion had passed, they went home again: but gradually, over 
the years, their exodus became an emigration. They became 
Venetians in fits and starts. Some were ordered into the lagoon 
by direct divine command, and were led by their formidable 
bishops, clutching vestments and chalices. Some saw guiding 
omens, of birds, stars or saints. Some took the tools of their 
trades with them, even the stones of their churches. Some were 
destitute but they would receive no man of servile condition , 
so the traditions assure us, *or a murderer, or of wicked life*. 

Many of these people went to the northern islands of the 
lagoon, fringed in reeds and soggy grass (where St. Peter him 
self, for example, assigned one fertile estate to the citizens of 
Altinum). Others went to the outer perimeter, as far as possible 
from the fires of Attila. Gradually, in a movement sanctified by 
innumerable miracles and saintly interventions, the original 
humble islanders were overwhelmed, rights of property were 
established, the first council chambers were built, the first aus 
tere churches. Venice was founded in misfortune, by refugees 
driven from their old ways and forced to learn new ones. 
Scattered colonies of city people, nurtured in all the ease of 
Rome, now struggled among the dank miasmas of the fenlands 
(their malarious exhalations , as Baedeker was to call them, 
fussily adjusting his mosquito-net 1,400 years later). They learnt 

25 



Landfall 

to build and sail small boats, to master tlie treacherous tides and 
shallows of the lagoon, to live on fish and rain-water. They 
built houses of wattles and osiers, thatched and mounted on 
piles. 

Guided by priests and patricians of the old order, they devised 
new institutions based upon Roman precedents: there were 
governing tribunes in each settlement, slowly uniting, with 
bickering and bloodshed, into a single administration under the 
presidency of a non-hereditary Doge, elected for life rich and 
poor under equal laws , said the first of Venice s innumerable 
sycophants, and envy, that curse of all the world, hath no place 
there . The lagoon people were pioneers, like settlers in the 
early West, or colonials on the Veldt. Cr&vecoeur once wrote of 
this new man, the American : but Goethe used precisely the 
same phrase to describe the first of the Venetians, whose old 
world had died around them. 

Their beginnings are distinctly blurred, and were certainly not 
so uniformly edifying as their early apologists would have us 
believe. It took many years for the lagoon to spring into life and 
vigour; and several centuries for these new men to stop quarrel 
ling with each other, develop into nationhood, and build the 
great city of Venice proper, until they could say of themselves 
(as they said haughtily to the Byzantine kings) : This Venice, 
which we have raised in the lagoons, is our mighty habitation, 
and no power of Emperor or Prince can touch us! The early 
chronology of Venice is hazy and debatable, and nobody really 
knows what happened when, if at all. 

Legend, though, is always precise, and if we are to believe the 
old chronicles, the foundation of Venice occurred on 25th 
March 421, at midday exactly. It was, according to my perpetual 
calendar, a Friday. 



26 



THE PEOPLE 



ISLANDERS 

So the Venetians became islanders, and islanders they remain, 
still a people apart, still tinged with the sadness of refugees. The 
squelchy islands of their lagoon, welded over the centuries into 
a glittering Republic, became the greatest of trading States, 
mistress of the eastern commerce and the supreme naval power 
of the day. For more than a thousand years Venice was some 
thing unique among the nations, half eastern, half western, half 
land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between 
Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling 
in the pearls of Asia. She called herself the Serenissima, she 
decked herself in cloth of gold, and she even had her own 
calendar, in which the years began on March 1st, and the days 
began in the evening. This lonely hauteur, exerted from the 
fastnesses of the lagoon, gave to the old Venetians a queer sense 
of isolation. As their Republic grew in grandeur and prosperity, 
and their political arteries hardened, and a flow of dazzling 
booty enriched their palaces and churches, so Venice became 
entrammelled in mystery and wonder. She stood, in the imagin 
ation of the world, somewhere between a freak and a fairy tale. 
She remained, first of all, uncompromisingly a city of the 
waters. In the early days the Venetians made rough roads in 
their islands, and rode about on mules and horses : but presently 
they evolved the system of canals, based on existing water- 
channels and rivulets, that is to this day one of the piquant 
wonders of the world. Their capital, the city of Venice proper, 
was built upon an archipelago in the heart of the lagoon. Their 
esplanade was the Grand Canal, the central highway of this city, 
which swung in a regal curve through a parade of palaces. Their 
Cheapside or Wall Street was the Rialto, first an island, then a 
district, then the most famous bridge in Europe. Their Doges 
rode in fantastic golden barges, and outside each patrician s house 

29 



The People 

the gondolas lay gracefully at their moorings. Venice evolved 
an amphibious society peculiar to herself, and the ornate front 
doors of her mansions opened directly upon the water. 

Against this extraordinary physical background, the Vene 
tians erected a no less remarkable kind of State. At first a kind of 
patriarchal democracy, it became an aristocratic oligarchy of 
the tightest kind, in which (after 1297) power was strictly re 
served to a group of patrician families. Executive authority passed 
first to this aristocracy; then to the inner Council of Ten; and 
later, more and more, to the still more reclusive and reticent 
Council of Three, which was elected in rotation, a month at a 
time. To maintain this supremacy, and to prevent both popular 
risings and personal dictatorship s, the structure of the. State was 
buttressed with tyranny, ruthless, impersonal, bland and care 
fully mysterious. Sometimes the stranger, passing by the Doge s 
Palace, would find a pair of anonymous conspirators hanging 
mangled from a gibbet, or hear a whisper of appalling torture 
in the dungeons of the Ten. Once the Venetians awoke to dis 
cover three convicted traitors buried alive, head downwards, 
among the flagstones of the Piazzetta, their feet protruding be 
tween the pillars. Time and again they learnt that some cele 
brated national leader, admiral or condottiere, had grown too big 
for his buskins, and had been strangled or thrown into gaol. 
Venice was a sort of police State, except that instead of 
worshipping power, she was terrified of it, and refused it 
to any single one of her citizens : and by these means, at once 
fair and ferocious, she outlived all her rivals, and preserved her 
republican independence until the very end of the eighteenth 
century. 

All this was wonderful, but no less marvellous was the wealth 
and strength of Venice which was, so the Venetians assiduously 
let it be known, divinely granted. First St. Theodore, then St. 
Mark the Evangelist supervised the destinies of the Republic, 
and all kinds of sacred relics and allusions gave power to the 
Venetian elbow. Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista Meus! So said a 
heavenly messenger to St. Mark, when the Evangelist was once 
stranded on an apocryphal sand-bank in this very lagoon: and 
the words became the national slogan of the Venetian Republic, 
a divine writ of recommendation. 

She was the greatest sea-power of her day, unrivalled in ton- 

30 



Islanders 

nage, fire-power and efficiency. Her great Arsenal was the 
supreme shipyard of the world, its secrets as jealously guarded 
as any nuclear armoury; its walls were two miles round, its pay 
roll numbered 16,000, and in the sixteenth-century wars against 
the Turks a new galley left its yards every morning for 100 days. 
The Venetian Navy, manned by free men until the slavers 
seventeenth-century heyday, was a most formidable instrument 
of war, and long after the rise of Genoa and Spain as naval 
powers, Venetian gunnery remained incomparable. 

Venice stood at the mouth of the great Po valley, facing east 
wards, protected in the north by the Alps. She was a natural 
funnel of intercourse between east and west, and her greatness 
was built upon her geography. She was hazily subject first to 
Ravenna and then to Byzantium, but she established herself as 
independent both of east and of west. She became mistress of 
the Adriatic, of the eastern Mediterranean, and finally of the 
trade routes to the Orient Persia, India and the rich mysteries 
of China. She lived by the eastern commerce. She had her own 
caravanserai in the cities of the Levant: and all the gold in 
Christendom , as one mediaeval chronicler querulously ob 
served, passes through the hands of the Venetians . 

In Venice the Orient began. Marco Polo was a Venetian, and 
Venetian merchants, searching for new and profitable lines of 
commerce, travelled widely throughout central Asia. Decked in 
Oriental fineries, Venice became the most flamboyant of all 
cities the most triumphant Citie I ever set eyes on , wrote 
de Commynes in 1495. She was a place of silks, emeralds, 
marbles, brocades, velvets, cloth of gold, porphyry, ivory, 
spices, scents, apes, ebony, indigo, slaves, great galleons, Jews, 
mosaics, shining domes, rubies, and all the gorgeous commodi 
ties of Arabia, China and the Indies. She was a treasure-box. 
Venice was ruined, in the long run, by the Muslim capture of 
Constantinople in 1453, which ended her supremacy in the 
Levant; and by da Gama s voyage to India in 1498, which broke 
her monopoly of the Oriental trade: but for another three cen 
turies she retained her panache and her pageantry, and she keeps 
her gilded reputation still. 

She was never loved. She was always the outsider, always 
envied, always suspected, always feared. She fitted into no con 
venient category of nations. She was the lion who walked by 



The People 

herself. She traded indiscriminately with Christian and Muslim, 
in defiance of ghastly Papal penalties (she is the only Christian 
city marked on Ibn Khaldun s celebrated fourteenth-century 
map, together with such places as Gog, Oman, Stinking Land, 
Waste Country, Soghd, Tughuzghuz and Empty in the North 
Because of the Cold). She was the most expert and unscrupu 
lous of money-makers, frankly dedicated to profit, even treating 
the Holy "Wars as promising investments, and cheerfully accom 
modating the Emperor Baldwin of Jerusalem, when he wished 
to pawn his Crown of Thorns. 

Venice s prices were high, her terms were unyielding, and 
her political motives were so distrusted that in the League of 
Cambrai most of the sixteenth-century Great Powers united to 
suppress "the insatiable cupidity of the Venetians and their 
thirst for domination (and so perversely efficient was she that 
the news of their resolution was brought by her couriers from 
Blois to Venice in eight days flat). Even when, in the seventeenth 
and eighteenth centuries, she stood almost alone for Christen 
dom against the triumphant Turks, Venice was never embraced 
by the nations. She was like a griffin or a phoenix, on the outside 
of a rookery. 

And as the centuries passed, and she lost her supremacies, and 
the strain of the merchant princes was weakened, and she sapped 
her energies in endless Italian squabbles and embroilments, and 
became a mainland Power as she sank into her eighteenth- 
century degeneracy, she became another kind of prodigy. Dur 
ing her last century of independence she was the gayest and 
worldliest of all cities, a perpetual masque and revelry, where 
nothing was too daring, too shameful or too licentious. Her 
carnivals were protracted and uninhibited. Her courtesans were 
honoured. The domino and the Ace of Spades were her reign 
ing symbols. The dissolute of the western world, the salacious 
and the mere fun-loving flocked to her theatres and gaming 
tables, and respectable people all over Europe looked towards 
her as they might, from a safe distance, deplore the goings-on 
of a Sodom or a Gomorrah. No other nation ever died in such 
feverish hedonism. Venice whirled towards her fall, in the reign 
of the I20th Doge, in a fandango of high living and enjoyment, 
until at last Napoleon, brusquely deposing her ineffective 
Government, ended the Republic and handed the Serenissima 

32 



Islanders 

contemptuously to the Austrians. Dust and ashes, dead and done 
with, Venice spent what Venice earned! 

This peculiar national history lasted a millennium, and the 
constitution of Venice was unchanged between 1310 and 1796. 
Nothing in the story of Venice is ordinary. She was born 
dangerously, lived grandly, and never abandoned her brazen 
individualism. Those pantaloons! is how a gentleman of the 
sixteenth-century French Court referred to the Venetians in an 
unguarded moment, and he was promptly slapped hard in the 
face by His Excellency the Venetian Ambassador. His contempt, 
anyway, was forced. You could not feel disdainful towards the 
Venetians, only resentful. Their system of government, for all 
its cruelties, was a brilliant success, and fostered in citizens of all 
classes an unparalleled love of country. Their navies were in 
comparable. The noblest artists of the day embellished Venice 
with their genius; the highest paid mercenaries competed for 
her commissions; the greatest Powers borrowed her money and 
rented her ships; and for two centuries the Venetians, at least in 
a commercial sense, held the gorgeous east in fee*. Venice has 
preserved her independence during eleven centuries , wrote 
Voltaire just thirty years before the fall of the Republic, and I 
flatter myself will preserve it for ever : so special was the Vene 
tian position in the world, so strange but familiar, like Simeon 
Stylites on top of his pillar, in the days when Popes and Em 
perors sent their envoys to Syria to consult him. 

Venice is still odd. Since Napoleon s arrival, despite moments 
of heroism and sacrifice, she has been chiefly a museum, through 
whose clicking turnstiles the armies of tourism endlessly pass. 
When the Risorgimento triumphed in Italy, she joined the new 
Kingdom, and since 1866 has been just another Italian provincial 
capital: but she remains, as always, a phenomenon. She remains 
a city without wheels, a metropolis of waterways. She is still 
gilded and agate-eyed. Travellers still find her astonishing, 
exasperating, overwhelming, ruinously expensive, gaudy, and 
what one sixteenth-century Englishman called decantated in 
majestie . The Venetians have long since become Italian citizens, 
but are still a race sui generis, comparable only, as Goethe said, 
to themselves. In essence, Venice was always a city-State, for all 
her periods of colonial expansion. There have perhaps been no 
more than three million true Venetians in all the history of the 

33 



The People 

place: and this grand insularity, this isolation, this sense of 
queerness and crookedness has preserved the Venetian character 
uncannily, as though it were pickled like a rare intestine, or 
mummified in lotions. 



THE VENETIAN WAY 

You can tell a Venetian by his face. Thousands of other 
Italians now live in Venice, but the true-born Venetian is often 
instantly recognizable. He probably has Slav blood in him, per 
haps Austrian, possibly Oriental tinctures from the distant past, 
and he is very far indeed from the stock music-hall Latin. 
Morose but calculating is the look in his limpid eye, and his 
mouth is enigmatical. His nose is very prominent, like the nose 
of a Renaissance grandee, and there is to his manner an air of 
home-spun guile and complacency, as of a man who has made a 
large fortune out of slightly shady dealings in artichokes. He is 
often bow-legged (but not from too much riding) and often 
pale (but not from lack of sunshine). Occasionally his glance 
contains a glint of sly contempt, and his smile is distant: usually 
he is a man of gentle reserve, courteous, ceremonious, his jacket 
neatly buttoned and his itchy palm discreetly gloved. The 
Venetians often remind me of Welshmen, and often of Jews, and 
sometimes of Icelanders, and occasionally of Afrikaners, for they 
have the introspective melancholy pride of people on their own, 
excluded from the fold of ordinary nations. They feel at once 
aloof, suspicious and kind. They are seldom boisterous or 
swashbuckling, and when you hear a Venetian say Buona sera, 
lellissima Signorina! he says it without flourish or flattery, with 
a casual inclination of the head. The Venetian in the street can be 
uncompromising, and cheerfully butts you in the stomach with 
the tip of her loaf, or drops her laundry-basket agonizingly on 
your toe. The Venetian in the shop has a special muffled 
politesse, a restrained but regretful decorum that is part of the 
ambience of the city. 

Observe a pair of Venetian housewives meeting, and you will 
see reflected in all their gestures the pungent character of 

34 




1 



H . 

"r-i 4-> 
H GQ 




c/i c 

a 3 




Festa on the Grand Canal 



The Venetian Way 

Venice. They approach each other hard-faced and intent, for 
they are doing their shopping, and carry in their baskets the 
morning s purchases which seem to consist so far, this being a 
thrifty city, of an ounce of shrimps, a gramme of sugar, two 
eggs and a sample-size tube of tooth-paste: but as they catch 
sight of each other a sudden soft gleam of commiseration crosses 
their faces, as though they are about to barter sympathies over 
some irreparable loss, or share an unusually tender confidence. 
Their expressions instantly relax, and they welcome each other 
with a protracted exchange of greetings, rather like the benign 
grace-notes and benedictions with which old-school Arabs 
encounter their friends. Their tone of voice is surprised but in 
timate, falling and rising with penetration through the din of 
the market: and they sound as though they are simultaneously 
sympathetic about something, and mournful about something, 
and a little peevish, and resigned, and reluctantly amused. 
( Poor Venice! the housewife sometimes sighs, leaning from 
her balcony window: but it is little more than a wry slogan, like 
a commuter s exorcism upon the weather, or one of those 
general complaints, common to us all, about the universal 
decline of everything.) 

They talk for five or ten minutes, sometimes shaking their 
heads anxiously or shifting their weight from one foot to an 
other, and when they part they wave good-bye to each other in 
a manner all their own, holding their right hands vertically 
beside their shoulders, and slightly wagging the tips of all five 
fingers. In a flash their expressions are earnestly mercantile 
again, and they are disputing the price of beans with a spry but 
knowing greengrocer. 



The modern Venetians are not a stately people. They are 
homely, provincial, fond, complacent. At heart this is a very 
bourgeois city. The Venetians have lost the unassertive confi 
dence of power, and love to be thought well of. There was a 
time when kings and pontiffs bowed before the Doge of Venice, 
and Titian, the most lordly of the Venetian painters, once 
graciously allowed the Emperor Charles V of Spain and Aus 
tria to pick up the paint brush he had accidentally dropped. 
But by the end of the eighteenth century the Venetians were 

35 



Signor Antonio Robia , Campo dei Mori 



The People 

already becoming testy of criticism, like Americans before their 
time of power, or Englishmen after theirs. Parochial to a Middle- 
Western degree was the reply sent by Giustina Renier Michiel, 
the last great lady of the Republic, when Chateaubriand dared 
to write an article unflattering to Venice (*a city against nature 
one cannot take a step without being obliged to get into a 
boat! ). Frigid is the disapproval of the contemporary Venetian 
grande dame, if you venture to suggest that some of the city s 
gardens might be the better for a pair of shears. 

The Venetian way is the right way, and the Venetian nearly 
always knows best. In the church of San Salvatore there is an 
Annunciation by Titian which, being a little unconventional in 
style, so surprised its monastic sponsors that they flatly declared 
it to be unfinished, or perhaps not really by Titian at all; the old 
artist was understandably annoyed, and wrote on the bottom of 
the picture, where you may see it still, the irritated double 
inscription Titianus Fecit. Fecit. I have often sympathized with 
him, faced with the know-all Venetians, for the true son of 
Venice (and even more, the daughter) is convinced that the 
skills, arts and sciences of the world ripple outwards, in ever- 
weakening circles, from the Piazza of St. Mark. If you want to 
write a book, consult a Venetian professor. If you want to tie a 
knot in a rope, ask a Venetian how. If you want to know how a 
bridge is built, look at the Rialto. To learn how to make a cup 
of coffee, frame a picture, stuff a peacock, phrase a treaty, clean 
your shoes, sew a button on a blouse, consult the appropriate 
Venetian authority. 

*The Venetian custom is the criterion of good sense and 
propriety. Pitying, lofty but condescending is the smile on 
the Venetian face, when you suggest frying the fish in bread 
crumbs, instead of in flour. Paternal is the man in the camera 
shop, as he demonstrates to you the only correct way to focus 
your Leica. It is our custom by which the Venetian means not 
merely that Venetian things are best, but that they are probably 
unique. Often and again you will be kindly told, as you step 
from the quayside into your boat, that Venetian seaweed is 
slippery: and I have even heard it said that Venetian water is 
inclined to be wet. 

These are the harmless conceits of the parish pump. For 
eigners who have lived in Venice for years have told me how 

36 



The Venetian Way 

detached they have grown to feel from the affairs of the world 
at large, as though they are mere onlookers : and this sense of 
separateness, which once contributed to the invincibility of the 
Republic, now bolsters Venetian complacencies. Like poor rela 
tions or provincial bigwigs, the Venetians love to ponder the 
glories of their pedigree, tracing their splendours ever further 
back, beyond the great Doges and the Tribunes to Rome her 
self (the Giustinian family claims descent from the Emperor 
Justinian) and even into the mists of pre-history, when the 
original Venetians are variously supposed to have come from 
Paphlagonia, from the Baltic, from Babylon, from Illyria, from 
the coast of Brittany, or directly, like nymphs, out of the morn 
ing dew. Venetians love to tell you about my grandfather, a 
man of much cultural and intellectual distinction ; or invite you 
to share the assumption that the opera at the Fenice is, on the 
whole, the best and most cultural on earth; or point out the 
Venetian artist Vedova as the greatest of his generation ( But 
perhaps you re not, shall we say, aufait with the tendencies of 
contemporary art, such as are demonstrated here in Venice at 
our Biennale? ). Every Venetian is a connoisseur, with a strong 
bias towards the local product. The guides at the Doge s Palace 
rarely bother to mention the startling paintings by Hieronymus 
Bosch that hang near the Bridge of Sighs he was not, after all, 
a Venetian. The Venetian libraries concern themselves assidu 
ously with Venice. The pictures that hang in Venetian houses 
are nearly always of Venetian scenes. Venice is a shamelessly self- 
centred place, in a constant glow of elderly narcissism. 

There is nothing offensive to this local pride, for the Vene 
tians are not exactly boastful, only convinced. Indeed, there is 
sometimes real pathos to it. Modern Venice is not so pre 
eminent, by a half, as they like to suppose. Its glitter and sparkle 
nearly all comes with the summer visitors, and its private intel 
lectual life is sluggish. Its opera audiences (except in the galleries) 
are coarse and inattentive, and few indeed are the fairy motor 
boats that arrive, in the dismal winter evenings, at the once 
brilliant water-gate of the Fenice. There is not one genuine full- 
time theatre in the city. Concerts, except in the tourist season, 
are generally second-rate and expensive. The university is a 
mere appendage of Padua. The celebrated printing houses of 
Venice, once the finest in Europe, have nearly all gone. Venetian 

37 



The People 

cooking is undistinguished, Venetian workmanship is variable. 
The old robust seafaring habits have long been dissipated, so 
that the average Venetian never goes too near the water, and 
makes a terrible fuss if a storm blows up. In many ways Venice 
is a backwater. Some people say she is dead on her feet. Mem 
phis, Leeds and Leopoldville are all bigger, and all livelier. 
Genoa handles twice as much shipping. There is a better orches 
tra in Cincinnati, a better newspaper in Manchester, a better 
university in Capetown; and any week-end yachtswoman, 
sailing her dinghy at Chichester or Newport, will tie you as 
practical a knot as a gondolier. 

But there, love is blind, especially if there is sadness in the 
family. The Venetians love and admire their Venice with a 
curious fervency. The Republic was a family, with the Doge as 
grandpapa , and Venetians still view the city possessively. 
Passers-by will recommend a trattoria to you as though they 
actually owned the place, and the beadle at the door of St. 
Mark s Basilica is at least as proud as the Patriarch. Some Vene 
tians, especially poorer people, also see the fun of their situation, 
and laugh at the notion of traffic lights on a canal, or a garage 
for a gondola. 

The Venetian, no less than the tourist, likes to walk about his 
city. "Where are you off to? you may ask an acquaintance. To 
the Piazza , he replies: but he can give you no reason, if you ask 
him why. He goes to St. Mark s for no definite purpose, to meet 
nobody specific, to admire no particular spectacle. He simply 
likes to button his coat, and sleek his hair a little, assume an air 
of rather portentous melancholy and stroll for an hour or two 
among the sumptuous trophies of his heritage. Hardly a true 
Venetian crosses the Grand Canal without the hint of a pause, 
however vestigial, to breathe its beauties. Our housekeeper 
grumbles sometimes about the narrowness of Venice, its 
cramped and difficult nature; but never was a lover more subtly 
devoted to her protector, or an idealist to his flaming cause. 
Venice is a sensual city, and there is something physiological 
about the devotion she inspires, as though the very fact of her 
presence can stimulate the bloodstream. 

I was once in Venice on the day of the Festival of the Salute, 
in November, when the Venetians, to celebrate the ending of a 
seventeenth-century plague, erect a temporary bridge across 

38 



The Venetian Way 

the Grand Canal and process to tlie great church of Santa 
Maria della Salute. In the evening I posted myself at the end of 
the bridge, a rickety structure of barges and timber. (It was 
designed, so I was reassuringly told, according to an immemorial 
pattern , but one November in the 1930$ it collapsed, just as 
Sir Osbert Sitwell was crossing it.) There, turning up my collar 
against the bitter sea wind, I watched the Venetians walking to 
evening Mass, in twos or threes or youth groups, cosily wrapped. 
There was a curiously proprietorial feeling to their progress: 
and as each little group of people turned the corner to the 
bridge, and saw the lights of the quay before them, and the huge 
dome of the Salute floodlit in the dusk, Ah! they said, clicking 
their tongues with affection, how beautiful she looks tonight ! 
for all the world as though some frail but favourite aunt were 
wearing her best lacy bed-jacket for visitors. 

This self-esteem makes for narrow horizons and short focuses. 
Many poor Venetians, even in 1960, have never been to the 
mainland of Italy. Thousands have never visited the outer islands 
of the lagoon. You sometimes hear stories of people who have 
never crossed the Grand Canal or set eyes on the Piazza of St. 
Mark. Simple Venetians are often extraordinarily ignorant 
about geography and world affairs, and even educated people 
(like most islanders) are frequently poor linguists. 

The Venetians indeed have a language of their own, a rich 
and original dialect, only now beginning to lose its vigour 
under the impact of cinema and television. It is a slurred but 
breezy affair, lively enough for Goldoni to write some of his 
best plays in it, formal enough to be the official language of the 
Venetian Republic. Byron called it a sweet bastard Latin . 
Dazed are the faces of visiting linguists, confronted by this 
hairy hybrid, for its derivation is partly French, and partly 
Greek, and partly Arabic, and partly German, and probably 
partly Paphlagonian too the whole given a fine extra blur by a 
queer helter-skelter, sing-song manner of delivery. Often the 
Venetian seems to be mouthing no particular words, only a 
buttery succession of half-enunciated consonants. The Venetian 
language is very fond of Xs and Zs, and as far as possible ignores 
the letter L altogether, so that the Italian bello, for example, 
comes out beo. There are at least four Italian-Venetian diction- 

39 



The People 

aries, and from these you can see that sometimes the Venetian 
word bears no resemblance to the Italian. A fork isforchetta in 
Italian, but piron in Venetian. The Venetian baker is pistor, not 
fornaio. A watch is relozo, not orologio. The Venetian pronouns 
are mi, ti, /, nu, vu, lori. When we say *thou art , and the Italians 
tu set 9 , the Venetians say *ti ti xe. The Venetian word lovo 
means first a wolf, and secondly a stock-fish. 

This distinctive and attractive language also specializes in 
queer contractions and distortions, and the street signs of the 
city, still often expressed in the vernacular, can be very confus 
ing. You may look, consulting your guide book, for the church 
of Santi Giovanni e Paolo; but the street sign will call it San 
Zanipolo. The church of Sant* Alvise was originally dedicated 
to St. Louis. What the Venetians call San Stae is really Sant Eus- 
tachio. San Stin is Santo Stefano. Sant Aponal is Sant Apol- 
linare. The convent of Santa Maria di Nazareth, used as a leper 
colony, was so long ago blurred into San Lazzaretto that it has 
given its corruption to almost all the languages of the earth. What 
holy man is commemorated by the Fondamenta Sangiantoffetti I 
have never been able to discover, and it took me some time to 
realize that the titular saint of San Zan Degola was San Giovanni 
Decollate, St. John the Beheaded. Most inexplicable of aU, the 
church of the Saints Ermagora and Fortunato is known to the 
Venetians as San Marcuola, a usage which they toss at you with 
every appearance of casual logic, but never a word of explana 
tion. It is, as they would say, their custom. 

Venice itself, compact though the city is, remains criss 
crossed with local flavours and loyalties. Each district, each 
clamorous market square has its own recognizable atmosphere 
here harsh, here kindly, here simple, here sophisticated. Even 
more than London, Venice remains a collection of villages. La 
one you may be sure of kindly treatment, courteous shopmen 
and friendly women: in another, experience will teach you to 
be hard-skinned, for its manners may be gruff and its prices un 
yielding. Even the dialect varies from quarter to quarter, though 
only half a mile may separate them, and there are words in use 
at one end of Venice that are quite unfamiliar at the other. 
Street names appear over and over again, so independent is each 
section of the city: there are a dozen lanes called Forno in Venice, 
and thirteen named for the Madonna. 



40 



Strong Men 

Until modern times the city was divided into two implacably 
rival factions, the Nicolotti and the Castellani, based upon long- 
forgotten animosities in the early days of settlement; and so 
riotous were the brawls between the two parties that the old 
Rialto bridge had a drawbridge in the middle, enabling the 
authorities to separate the mobs, by a swift tug of a rope, 
leaving them glaring at each other impotently across the void. 
This deep-rooted hostility gradually lost its venom, and de 
generated into mock combats, regattas and athletic competi 
tions, until in 1848 the old rivals were reconciled in a secret 
dawn ceremony at the Salute, as a gesture of unity against 
Austrian rule. Today the factions are dead and almost forgotten 
(though you might not think so from the more imaginative 
guide books) ; but there remains an element of prickly parochial 
pride, based upon a parish or a square, and sometimes boister 
ously expressed. 

None of this is surprising. Venice is a maze of waterways and 
alleys, crooked and unpredictable, following the courses of 
antique channels in the mud, and unimproved by town planners. 
Until the last century only one bridge, the Rialto, spanned the 
Grand Canal. In the days before motor boats and tarred pave 
ments it must have been a fearfully tiresome process to move 
about Venice, let alone take ship to the mainland: and who can 
wonder if the people of Santa Margherita, satisfied with their 
own shops and taverns, rarely bothered to trudge all the way to 
Santa Maria Formosa? Sometimes a Venetian housewife an 
nounces conclusively that there are no cabbages in the city today : 
but what she means is that the greengrocer at the corner of 
Campo San Barnaba, with whom her family custom has been 
traditionally associated since the days of the early Crusades, has 
sold out of the vegetable this morning. 

3 
STRONG MEN 

From this small city, though, from this very people sprang the 
glories of the Serenissima. It is said that at the time of the 
Fourth Crusade, in which Venice played a prominent and quite 

41 



The People 

unprincipled part, the population of the city was only 40,000. 
In all the thirteen centuries of the Republic it was probably 
never more than 170,000. Venice was therefore a State of 
severely specialized talents. She produced fine administrators, 
seamen, merchants, bankers, artists, architects, musicians, 
printers, diplomatists. She produced virtually no poets, only one 
great dramatist, hardly a novelist, scarcely a philosopher. Her 
only eminent thinker was Paolo Sarpi, the monk who con 
ducted the Venetian case in the worst of the Republic s quarrels 
with the Papacy, and who discovered the contraction of the iris. 
Her boldest generals were condottieri. She was pre-eminently an 
adapter rather than an innovator. Her vocation was commerce; 
her countryside was the sea; her tastes were voluptuous; her 
function was that of a bridge between east and west; her obses 
sion was political stability; her consolation, when she needed it, 
was self-indulgence; and it is remarkable how closely her talents 
fitted her needs. For many centuries Venice was never short of 
the leaders, craftsmen, entertainers and business men she re 
quired, from astute ambassadors to diligent shipwrights, from 
financiers to architects, from Marco Polo to Titian to Goldoni, 
the merriest of minor geniuses. 

The Venetians always had an eager eye for a monopoly or a 
quick return, and enjoyed the reputation of being willing to sell 
anything they possessed, if offered enough for it (though in the 
sixteenth century a Duke of Mantua, coveting Rizzo s famous 
statue of Eve in the Doge s Palace, unsuccessfully offered its 
own weight in gold for it). They first ventured out of the 
lagoon as carriers, conveying other people s produce from 
source to consumer, and throughout the period of the Crusades 
they shamelessly milched both sides. When the Fourth Crusade 
was launched in 1202, the Venetians were asked to ship the 
Prankish armies to Palestine. We come in the name of the 
noblest barons of France, said the emissaries to the Doge Enrico 
Dandolo. No other power on earth can aid us as you can; 
therefore they implore you, in God s name, to have compassion 
on the Holy Land, and to join them in avenging the contempt 
of Jesus Christ by furnishing them with ships and other neces 
saries, so that they may pass the seas. The Doge returned a 
classic Venetian reply. On what terms? he asked. 

42 



Strong Men 

Nor did he allow any soft Christian scruples to affect the con 
duct of the campaign. The agreed fee for the job was 85,000 
silver marks (perhaps ^3 00,000, or $840,000), payable in four 
instalments, plus a half of all booty: and for this the Venetians 
were to ship 33>500 men to the Holy Land, with their horses, 
keep them in provisions for nine months, and contribute their 
own quota of soldiers and warships to the war. The Prankish 
army duly arrived in Venice, and was encamped upon the island 
of the Lido. The ships and supplies were ready as promised. The 
Venetians, who had some doubts about actually taking part in 
the holy enterprise, were encouraged in their enthusiasms by a 
round of liturgy and pageantry. The imperturbable old Dan- 
dolo, practically blind and almost ninety, declared his intention 
of leading the fleet in person. But when it came to the crucial 
point, the Crusaders had not the money to pay. 

Old hands at unfulfilled contracts, the Venetians were undis 
mayed. They first set a watch upon all the approaches to the 
Lido, to ensure that the knights-at-arms did not slip away, and 
they then made a proposition of their own. The Crusaders could 
still be shipped to the Holy Land, they said, if they would agree 
to stop on the way and subdue one or two rebellious Venetian 
colonies on the Dalmatian coast, thus securing the Republic s 
trade routes through the Adriatic. The Franks accepted these 
unorthodox terms, the great fleet sailed at last, and the Dalma 
tian ports were subdued one by one: but the Venetians still had 
further profits to exact. Dandolo next agreed with the adaptable 
Crusaders to make another diversion, postpone the humiliation 
of the infidel, and capture the Greek Christian bastion of Con 
stantinople, with whose Emperor the Venetians were, for one 
reason and another, angrily at odds. Led by the old blind Doge 
himself, they stormed the 400 towers of the city, deposed the 
Emperor, loaded their ships with booty, and divided the Empire 
among themselves. The Crusade never did reach the Holy Land, 
and the temporary fall of Byzantium only strengthened the 
cause of Islam. But from a simple breach of contract, brilliantly 
exploited, the Venetians became Lords and Masters of a Quarter 
and a Half-quarter of the Roman Empire ; they acquired sover 
eignty over Lacedaemon, Durazzo, the Cyclades, the Sporades 
and Crete; they sailed home with cargoes of treasure, gold, 
precious gems, sacred relics, that were to make their city an 

43 



The People 

enduring marvel; and they consolidated the commercial suprem 
acy in the Levant that was to keep them comfortably in their 
palaces for many a long century to come. 



They are sharp business men still. Venetian merchants, con 
tractors and shippers retain a reputation for hard-headedness, if 
not cussedness. ( A stiff-necked and rebellious people is how one 
administrator from Rome recently described the Venetians.) 
The Bourse of Venice, near the Piazza of St. Mark, is conducted 
with grave and Doge-like precision: not a breath of wild specu 
lation ruffles its notice-boards, but a strong sense of opportunism 
leaks from the doors of its telephone booths. The Venetian 
banks, whose offices still cluster evocatively about the Rialto, 
that old hub of fortune, are impeccably organized. The shipping 
offices along the Zattere, though mostly subsidized by the 
Italian Government, exude mercantile confidence. The holiday 
industry sucks its last dollar, shilling, franc, pfennig from the 
visiting crowds with exquisite impartiality. 

The Venetians remain hard but wise bargainers. When their 
forebears undertook to transport an army or equip a fleet, their 
prices were high and their terms inflexible, but they did it in 
style. Their ships were the best, their trappings the most gor 
geous, they fulfilled their agreements scrupulously. *Noi siamo 
calculator?, the Venetians have always cheerfully admitted 
We are a calculating people/ So it is today. The Venetians will 
always let you pay another time, will seldom cheat you over the 
odd lira, are never disgruntled if you break off a negotiation. 
They are business men of finesse. Nor is the old high-vaulted 
enterprise altogether dead. There is at least one hotelier in the 
city who would undoubtedly storm the walls of Byzantium, or 
navigate a galley around the meridian, if guaranteed a suitable 
commission. The Venetians believe in self-dependence. On the 
Accademia bridge one day a boy was hawking horoscopes, 
wrapped up in little yellow paper packages. A passing business 
man of my acquaintance paused to ask what they were, gave a 
toss of his head to me, and slapped his right arm (genteelly 
draped, as it happened, in a nice herring-bone tweed). * That s my 
horoscope! he said grandly, and stalked off towards the bank. 

Such Venetian men of action, martial or commercial, have 

44 



Strong Men 

always been supported by a class of devoted administrators and 
functionaries, in the old days mostly patricians. The prestige of 
the civil servants declined with the rot of the Republic, and 
their morality weakened, so that at the end the administration 
of Venice was rancid with corruption: but the best of the old 
aristocrats, adapting themselves to changing times, maintained 
the old traditions of thoughtful integrity, and became merged 
with the professional classes. Their successors, the lawyers, 
doctors and engineers of today, are still formidable: handsome 
and serious people, long-boned and soberly dressed, with a cool 
look of Rome to their features, and scarcely a trace of southern 
passion. The fuddy-duddy bureaucracy of Italy has long since 
invaded Venice: but the true Ven etian servants of the State still 
serenely circumvent it, and conduct their affairs with all the 
logic, lucidity and unflustered sense of the old Republic. 

To see such people at their best, you should visit the criminal 
law courts of Venice, in an old palace beside the Rialto bridge, 
overlooking the markets. Outside the windows there is a clamour 
of market-men and shrill-voiced women; a housemaid singing 
adenoidally at her chores; a roar of boat-engines on the Grand 
Canal; sometimes the wet thud of a steam-hammer driving a 
pile into the mud. The building is crumbling a little, but is still 
sombrely dignified, with high shaded passages, and heavy dark 
doors, and a smell of wax, age and documents. At the back of 
the panelled court-room a few spectators stand respectfully, 
holding their hats and whispering. Beside the door the usher, in 
a dark grey suit, meditatively toys with a pencil at his desk, as 
the clerk to the council might have played ominously with a 
quill, before the grimmer tribunals of the Republic. And high 
at the dark mahogany dais, beneath a carved slogan of justice 
La Legge E Uguale Per Tuttisit the Venetian magistrates. Their 
robes are gloomy and the tabs of their collars very white. Their 
faces are clever and cryptic. They sit there at the bench in atti 
tudes of indolent but potentially menacing attention, sprawling 
a little like parliamentarians, some young, some middle-aged; 
and as they examine the next witness, a cross-eyed laundry- 
woman who sits crookedly on the edge of her chair, squirming 
mendaciously, every inch a liar, from Paisley head-scarf to 
grubby high heels as they put their points, in turn, with a cold 
piercing courtesy, they seem the very essence of the old Venice, 

45 



The People 

a hard but brilliant organism, whose disciplines were known to 
all, and applied without favouritism. (And you can see plausible 
portraits of all those jurists, painted 300 years before their time, 
in the pictures of the Magistrates and Supervisors of the Mint 
that hang in the Ca d Oro.) 



The Republic was sustained, too, by a stout company of 
artisans, denied all political responsibility, but never without 
self-respect. The rulers of Venice, though they held the working 
classes well under control, did their cunning best to keep them 
contented, partly by feeding them upon a diet of ceremonial, 
partly by fostering their sense of craft and guild. When the 
fishermen of the Nicolotti faction elected their leader each year, 
the Doge himself was represented at the ceremony first by a 
mere doorkeeper of the Doge s Palace, later by a more senior 
official. So important to the State were the sixteenth-century 
glass-blowers, masters of one of the Venetian monopolies, that 
they were given a patrician status of their own, and excused all 
kinds of impositions. (As a cold corollary, it was publicly an 
nounced that if any glass-blower emigrated with his secrets, 
emissaries of the State would instantly be dispatched to murder 
him: legend has it that the two men who made the famous clock 
in the Piazza of St. Mark, with its intricate zodiacal devices, 
were later officially blinded, to prevent them making another 
for somebody else.) The great Venetian artists and architects 
were nearly all of the craftsman class, rich and celebrated though 
they became, and the painters usually subscribed to the Guild of 
House Painters. Hale old characters they were, living robustly 
and dying late Venice was a State of Grand Old Men: Tinto 
retto died at 76, Guardi at 81, Longhi and Vittoria at 83, Lon- 
ghena at 84, Giovanni Bellini at 86, Titian and da Ponte at 88, 
Sansovino at 91. Above all, Venice depended upon her men of 
the sea. The city Venetians soon gave up crewing their own 
ships, relying upon Dalmatians and people of the outer lagoon: 
but the Republic was always well supplied with sea captains, 
fishermen, boatbuilders, and artisans at the great naval base of 
the Arsenal, the first dockyard of the world. 
^ By and large it is still true. Modern Venice is rich in conscien 
tious craftsmen, people of strong and loyal simplicity, such as 

46 



Strong Men 

one imagines in the sea-ports of early Victorian England. The 
specialist workmen of Venice are still impressive, from the men 
at the garage at the Piazzale Roma, who skilfully steer cars by 
manipulating the two front wheels, to the myriad picture- 
framers of the city, whose hearts must sink at the very thought 
of another sunset Rialto. Splendid horny craftsmen work in the 
sawdust shambles of the boat-yards in Venetian, squeri where 
the tar cauldrons bubble and stink, and they caulk the boats with 
flaming faggots. Crusty old men like London cabbies, holding 
antique hooks, stand beside the canals in long flapping great 
coats looking rheumily for gondolas to help alongside. On the 
Riva degli Schiavoni you can usually find a fishing-boat tied up, 
while its jolly unshaven crew reprovision or mend their nets, 
and a man in oilskin waders sells crabs out of a big basket to a 
hubbub of black-shawled housewives; and sometimes in the 
winter you may see a boat-load of inshore fishermen moored 
for the night beneath a bridge, almost black with sun and salt, 
festooned in corks and ropes, and looking so strange, wild and 
cheerful, amid the December melancholy, that they might be 
seamen from an unsuspected continent, reconnoitring with 
their caravels. Even the drivers of grand motor boats sometimes 
hide an agreeable heart behind a pompous exterior: and there 
are few kindlier policemen than those who patrol the canals in 
their little speedboats, or solemnly potter about, buttoned in 
blue greatcoats, in flat-bottomed skiffs (an activity dramatically 
described in one guide book as controlling the water-ways from 
swiftly moving punts ). 

And among them al], the very image of Venice, straight- 
descended from Carpaccio, moves the gondolier. He is not a 
popular figure among the tourists, who think his prices high and 
his manner sometimes overbearing: and indeed he is frequently 
a Communist, and no respecter of persons, and he often shame 
lessly pumps the innocent foreigner with inaccurate informa 
tion, and sometimes unfairly induces him to disregard the tariff 
( Ah, but today is the feast of San Marcuola, signer, and it is 
traditional to charge double fares on this holy day ). I have grown 
to like and admire him, though, and I can forgive a few pecca 
dillos among men who live on a four-months tourist season, 
and scrape the winter through as part-time fishermen and odd- 
job workers. The gondoliers are usually highly intelligent: they 

47 



The People 

are also tolerant, sardonic, and, with some grumpy and usually 
elderly exceptions, humorous. They are often very good-look 
ing, too, fair and loose-limbed many of their forebears came 
from the Slav coasts of Istria and Dalmatia and they sometimes 
have a cultivated, worldly look to them, like undergraduates 
punting on the Cherwell, naval officers amusing themselves, or 
perhaps fashionable ski instructors. 

The gondoliers still have a strong sense of guild unity. Their 
co-operative is a powerful force in Venice, and in the past they 
even had their own communal banks, run on a system of mutual 
risk. Not long ago each tmghetto, or gondola ferry-station, was 
organized in its own assertive guild (they still maintain the pro 
tocol, though the officials are now municipally appointed). 
Nowadays, though nearly every gondolier is still affiliated to a 
traghetto, they are all members of one co-operative. Each gon 
dola is privately owned your gondolier is not necessarily the 
owner, possession often running in families and profits go to 
the proprietor, the co-operative being merely a negotiating 
agency, a system of social security, and a common-convenience 
and sometimes a political organ too. Competition between 
gondoliers is, nevertheless, strictly governed, and the celebrated 
gondoliers quarrels, dear to generations of travel writers, often 
have a distinctly stagy air to them. Nor are other classes of water 
men welcomed at their stands. Only 25 sandoli, the smaller 
passenger boats of Venice, are officially licensed: all the others 
you see, blandly stealing custom from the gondolas, are darkly 
described as being outside the law . 

Yet for all this protectionism, an old Venetian practice, the 
gondoliers are generally broad-minded men, and are unexpec 
tedly sympathetic to amateurs and aliens. Never a testy word 
will you hear from them, when your craft zigzags in a flurry of 
indecision across their path: and when at last you stagger to the 
quayside, wet from the lagoon, with your ropes trailing and 
your engine seized, a broken gunwale and a torn trouser-leg, 
they will welcome you with amusement, explain to you again 
(for they are whole-hog Venetians) about salt getting into the 
carburettor, and send their kind regards to the children. 

Now and then they have regattas, partly impelled by the 
power of tradition, partly by the Tourist Office. In many a 
smoky trattoria you will see, carefully preserved behind glass, the 

48 



Strong Men 

trophies and banners of a regatta champion, or even his portrait 
in oils it is customary to commission one: and there is still a 
lingering trace of popular enthusiasm to these races, a faint 
anthropological echo of folk rivalries and ancestral feuds. 
Fiercely and intently the competitors, sweat-bands to match 
their colourful oars, pound down the Grand Canal, or swing 
around the marker buoy beside the Public Gardens. A raggle- 
taggle fleet of small craft follows their progress, speedboats and 
rowing-boats and tumble-down skiffs, half-naked boys in 
canoes, big market barges, elegant launches, yachts, all tumbling 
hilariously along beside the gondolas, with their ferry steamers 
swerving precariously towards the quay, and a fine surge of 
foam and clatter of engines, as in some nightmare University 
Boat Race, half-way to a lunatic Putney. 

But the best moment of the regatta comes later, in the even 
ing. Then the new champions, pocketing their prize-money or 
grappling with their sucking-pig (the traditional fourth prize) 
are feted by their fellow-gondoliers: and you will see them, 
gaily-hatted and singing jovially, parading down the Grand 
Canal in a large grey barge, with a row of bottles on a neatly- 
spread table, a cheerful impresario playing an accordion, a string 
of fluttering pennants, and a radiation of fun, bonhomie and 
satisfaction. 

Under the Republic none of these working men had any 
share in the running of the State. A small hereditary aristocracy, 
enumerated loftily in the Golden Book, preserved all power for 
itself. Only occasionally was the Book opened for the inclusion 
of a newly-elevated patrician, honoured for prowess in war, for 
particular fidelity to the State, or for a suitable (but of course 
purely symbolic) fee. Thirty families were ennobled for service 
in the wars against Genoa, and sometimes rich commoners from 
the mainland bought their way into the Venetian aristocracy, as 
you might buy yourself membership at Lloyd s. It took genera 
tions, though, for such parvenus to be accepted by the old 
aristocrats, who often thought so highly of themselves, not 
without reason, that they shuddered at the very thought of going 
abroad and being treated like ordinary folk. 

The working people, in return for their labour and loyalty, 
were governed fairly and often generously, but they had not one 

49 



The People 

iota of political privilege, and could only occasionally alter the 
course of events by a riot or a threatened mutiny. Generally 
they remained astonishingly faithful to the system. There were 
only three serious revolutions in the history of the Serenissima, 
all in the fourteenth century, and none of them was a proletarian 
eruption. The most serious, the Tiepolo rising of 1310, was 
mounted by aristocrats : and it was baulked, so tradition tells us, 
by an old woman of the people , who dropped a stone mortar 
smack on the head of the rebellious standard-bearer, and plunged 
the rest into confusion (she is still doing it, in stone, in a plaque 
on the site of her house in the Merceria, the principal shopping 
street of Venice, while a tablet inserted in the pavement below 
marks the exact point of impact). Throughout the protracted 
decline of Venice the people remained pathetically proud of 
their Republic, and when at last the leveller Napoleon arrived, 
it was liberal patricians, not disgruntled plebs, who were his 
most vociferous supporters the Countess Querini-Benzoni, 
Byron s celebrated blonde in a gondola , danced round a Tree 
of Liberty in the Piazza of St. Mark, wearing only an Athenian 
tunic, and hand-in-hand with a handsome revolutionary poet. 

Like England, another marine oligarchy, Venice was given 
stability and cohesion by a sense of common purpose. The Eng 
lish felt themselves *a happy breed of men , a band of brothers , 
for all the disparities between earl and labourer: and the Vene 
tians, too, in their great days, had this sense of shared fortune, 
and considered themselves to be first of all, not rich men or poor 
men, privileged or powerless, but citizens of Venice. Since 
Venice was never feudal, she was never hamstrung by private 
armies or serfly obligations, like the cities of the Italian main 
land. Beneath the patrician crust, the merchant classes and work 
ing men had carefully defined rights of their own, and the 
Venetian aristocrats, though terribly complacent, do not seem to 
have treated their social inferiors with crudity or contempt. 
Venetians of all kinds revelled in the wild days of Carnival, and 
the young blades of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 
with their riotous clubs and fanciful costumes, appear to have 
been regarded with the same kind of half-envious tolerance that 
readers of the London newspapers now reserve for the soda- 
syphon gallants of the West End. 

Some observers consider that the Venetians complete depen- 

50 



Strong Men 

dency upon, aristocratic condescensions bred a servility still 
apparent in the city. I do not find this to be so. There is, it is 
true, a degree of social sycophancy in Venice. Venetians are 
considered more docile than most Italians, and used to be more 
easily exploited abroad, in the days when Italy provided cheap 
labour for half Europe. Royalism is still strong, as you will 
detect from the slogans in favour of the ex-Royal House that 
are scrawled on walls and bridges. Sometimes a retainer will 
speak to you of his employers in a hushed and respectful whine, 
as though he were talking in church. An art dealer in Venice, 
recently coming across a copy of Queen Alexandras Gift Book, 

Eromptly sent it to the Duke of Windsor, whose charming 
jtter of thanks is now displayed outside the picture shop. 
Venetians now, as always, have a healthy respect for the 
moneyed more, perhaps, than for the well-bred. 

But generally a sturdy sense of equality pervades Venetian 
life. It is still, like the rest of Italy, a place of domestic servants, 
trim-uniformed housemaids, motherly cooks, soft-footed men- 
servants : but they have a sensible hail-fellow-well-met approach 
to the problems of the household, with few traces of oily subser 
vience. With a friendly familiarity your housekeeper sits down 
beside you at the breakfast table, for a rambling discussion of the 
day s prospects, or a kind word of correction about how to 
bring up the children. Many, beaming, and unidentified are the 
friends and relatives who may appear on your terrace, when a 
regatta or a serenade goes by: and there is no nicer welcome in 
the world than the one the baby-sitter gives you, with her sister 
beside her at the wireless, when you come home at midnight 
from a Venetian celebration, blurred but apologetic. A certain 
child-like simplicity may have been fostered by the old system, 
and is still evident among the Venetians; there is a suggestion of 
submissiveness to their character still; but they never feel in the 
least down-trodden. 

Times change, nevertheless, and values shift. There is little 
desperate poverty in Venice now, but the social and economic 
fissures of Italy are always apparent, and the Communist Party 
has a large following. The best of the post-war mayors of Venice, 
it is generally agreed, was a Communist. This is not, however, a 
city of ferocious political temper, and Venetian Communism 
seems to be a relatively innocuous version of the creed. I once 



The People 

went to a Communist meeting in the square of Santa Margherita, 
addressed by the party secretary, Signor TogliattL It was com 
plete with bands, loudspeakers, banners, slogans, watchful 
policemen, party lackeys, balcony speeches, toughs and earnest 
dirndl-skirted girls, and Togliatti drove off in his motor boat 
with a true revolutionary flourish: but there was a sort of jolly 
pathos on the faces of the poor people as they streamed away 
from the meeting, as though they had seen a transcendent vision 
of stewed beef and dumplings. 



At the other end of the scale there remain the aristocrats and 
plutocrats of Venice. Some are the descendants of the old Vene 
tian patricians, a few families still inhabiting their ancestral 
palaces on the Grand Canal, just as they maintain their estates on 
the mainland. One dowager, I have been told, recently over 
heard a gondolier pointing her out as the widow of the last 
Doge a suggestion which, though possibly flattering to her 
Venetian pride, assumed her to be rather more than 170 years 
old. Most of the families of the Golden Book, though, have 
vanished. There were 1,218 names in it at the fall of the Repub 
lic, but many of the old houses were in mortgage to the monas 
teries, and when Napoleon abolished the Orders he effectively 
abolished the families too. The ancient oligarchy disintegrated: 
a community of feckless and indigent patricians, called the 
Barnabotti, already existed in the quarter of San Barnaba, and 
by 1840 more than a thousand members of the old nobility were 
receiving State charity. 

The modern Venetian aristocracy is thus of mixed origins. 
Some of its members are rich merchants, who long ago crossed 
the gulf between impotence and privilege. Most are not Vene 
tians by blood at all, but are Romans or Milanese who have 
houses in the city, and who spend the summer commuting be 
tween Harry s Bar and the Lido beaches. A few are foreigners. 
Tides are no longer awarded by the Italian Republic, but there 
are still many Counts in Venice, permitted by custom to retain 
their rather forlorn distinctions; and not a few Princesses or 
Baronesses, with Slavonic names, or Russian coronets upon 
their visiting cards; and many whose names are preceded by the 
honorific NotileHomine N.HJ for short. There is also much 

52 



Strong Men 

money in the city, supported largely by land ownership. Its 
grandest apartments are still very, very grand. Its most luxurious 
motor boats are palatial. Its opera audiences, though thick-set, 
are sumptuously dressed. A few families still maintain their 
private gondolas, and are to be seen sweeping down the Grand 
Canal in a glitter of brasswork, rowed by two oarsmen in 
blazing livery. 

I once passed an idle breakfast looking through the Venice 
telephone directory to see which of the names of the Doges 
were still represented in the city. Most of the early incumbents 
have understandably vanished into the mists of legend. Of the 
first twenty-five, according to the chroniclers, three were mur 
dered, one was executed for treason, three were judicially 
blinded, four were deposed, one was exiled, four abdicated, one 
became a saint and one was killed in a battle with pirates. 
(Seventy-five of the first seventy-six, all the same, are confi 
dently portrayed in the Great Council Chamber of the Doge s 
Palace.) The later names are still mostly on the telephone. There 
were 120 Doges in aU, between the years 697 and 1797. They 
bore sixty-seven different names, the honour often running in 
families, and thirty-nine of these appear in the book. Some 
times there are two or three representatives of the name. Some 
times there are ten or twelve. A surprising number seem to be 
either Countesses or horse-butchers. A good many are probably 
descended from servants of the old families, rather than from the 
families themselves. The name of the first Doge does not appear; 
nor does the name of the last; but there is one impressive sub 
scriber, Count Dottore Giovanni JMarceUo Grimani Giustinian, 
who bears three ducal names at a go. 

Family pride was immensely strong among the old Venetian 
aristocrats, as you may see from a visit to the museum in the 
Ca Rezzonico: there somebody has gone to the trouble of pro 
ducing a family tree in which every member is represented by a 
little wax portrait, mounted behind glass. The Venetians were so 
keen on genealogy that in the Basilica of St. Mark s there is even 
a family tree, done all in mosaic, of the Virgin Mary. "Whole 
quarters of the city were named for the major clans, and it was 
considered a public tragedy when one of the great names died 
out. The story is still told with regret of the extinction of the 
Foscaris, the family whose ill-fated forebear, the Doge Francesco 

53 



The People 

Foscari, was the subject of Byron s tragedy. Their name still 
appears in the telephone book, but they are supposed to have 
petered out at the beginning of the last century: the last male 
representative died an obscure actor in London, and his two 
surviving sisters both went mad, and were exhibited to tourists 
by unscrupulous servants as the very last of the Foscaris. 

One of the greatest of all the Venetian houses was the family 
of Giustinian; but during the twelfth-century wars every male 
member of the family, bar one, was killed in battle or died of 
the plague. The one exception was a Giustinian youth who had 
become a monk, and lived an austere celibate life in a convent 
on the Lido. All Venice was distressed at the possible extinction 
of the Giustinians, and a public petition was sent to the Pope, 
asking him to release the monk from his vows. Permission was 
granted, the reluctant layman was hastily married to a daughter 
of the day s Doge, and they dutifully produced nine boys and 
three girls. When their job was done, and the children were 
grown up, the father returned to his monastery and the mother 
founded a convent of her own, in a distant island of the lagoon. 
As for the House of Giustinian, it flourished ever after. A 
Giustinian was almost the only Venetian to maintain the dignity 
of the Republic in the face of Napoleon s bullying; and today 
there are still eleven Giustinian palaces in Venice, a striking 
memorial to monkly self-denial. 

The purposes of aristocracy were firmly defined in the iron 
days of the Republic, and all these patrician families had their 
duties to perform. There were no orders of nobility. You were 
either a patrician, with your name in the Golden Book, or you 
were not (when the Austrians took over, any patrician who 
wished could become a Count). Every Venetian nobleman was 
in effect an unpaid servant of the State. His life was circum 
scribed by strict rules even ordaining, for example, what he 
might wear, so that impoverished aristocrats were sometimes to 
be seen begging for alms in tattered crimson silk. Voltaire was 
shocked to discover that Venetian noblemen might not travel 
abroad without official permission. If a Venetian was chosen to 
be an Ambassador, he must maintain his embassy largely at his 
own expense, sometimes ruining himself in the process one old 
gentleman served the Serenissima in this way for eleven years 
without a penny s recompense, and asked as his sole reward the 

54 



Strong Men 

particular privilege of keeping a gold chain presented to him by 
one of the European monarchs, a gift which would in the 
ordinary way have gone instantly into the coffers of the State. 

The patrician was not allowed to refuse an appointment: and 
at the same time it was essential to the Venetian system that any 
citizen showing signs of self-importance or dangerous popularity 
should at once be humiliated, to prevent the emergence of dic 
tators and pour encourager les autres. If you refused a command, 
you were disgraced. If you lost a battle, you were impeached for 
treason. If you won it, and became a public hero, you would 
probably be charged, sooner or later, with some trumped-up 
offence against the State. The fifteenth-century general Antonio 
da Lezze, for example, defended Scutari for nearly a year against 
Turkish assaults so ferocious that a cat, stealing out one day 
across an exposed roof-top, was instantly transfixed by eleven 
arrows at once, and so sustained that afterwards the expended 
arrow-shafts kept the place in firewood for several months: but 
when at last he surrendered the city to overwhelmingly superior 
forces, and returned honourably to Venice, he was immediately 
charged with treason, imprisoned for a year and banished for ten 
more. In Venice a great commander was always a bad risk, and 
he was seldom left for long to enjoy his gouty retirement. 

"Worse still, ignominy was usually immortalized in stone. 
Above the central arch of the Basilica there is an unhappy tur- 
baned figure on crutches, biting his finger-nails. He is said to 
be the architect of the great church, condemned to perpetual 
contempt because he boasted that his work would be absolutely 
perfect, when it wasn t. He is only the first of such victims. A 
tablet in the pavement of the Campo Sant Agostin permanently 
commemorates the punishment of Bajamonte Tiepolo, the 
aristocratic rebel of 1310. An iron lion clamped to a house in the 
Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini signifies that the place was 
sequestered by the State when its owner was thrown into prison. 
Beneath the arcade of the Doge s Palace there is a plaque 
recording the banishment of Girolamo Loredan and Giovanni 
Contarini, members of two famous Venetian clans, for having 
abandoned the fortress of Tenedos to the Turks, *with grievous 
injury to Christianity and their country . The one Doge whose 
face does not appear among his fellows in the Great Council 
Chamber is Marin Faliero, who was beheaded after a conspiracy 

55 



The People 

to make him absolute ruler. His place there is a black vacancy, 
and beneath it is the cold inscription: Hie est locus Marini 
Falethri decapitati pro criminibus. 

Once the Venetian Government did erect a tablet of remorse, 
exonerating the patrician Antonio Foscarini from the charge of 
treason for which he had been executed: but it is tucked away 
so high among the family monuments in the church of San Stae 
that hardly anybody notices it. Generally, though shame was 
perpetuated, distinction was muffled. Historians complain about 
the dearth of personal information on prominent Venetians, and 
until 1866 and the florid enthusiasms of the Risorgimento the 
only outdoor public monument in Venice was the statue of the 
condottiere Colleoni at San Zanipolo. Amends are sometimes 
made nowadays there is a steamboat named for the brave 
general Bragadino, and a dredger for the dashing admiral Moro- 
sino: but ask any educated Londoner to name a distinguished 
Venetian, and he may perhaps murmur Marco Polo, Cabot, 
Goldoni, Sarpi, or a tentative Foscari, but he will probably stick 
fast at Titian and Tintoretto. 

All these rules applied most forcibly to the Doge himself, the 
unhappiest of the Venetian patricians. He was the most obvious 
aspirant for dictatorial glory, so to keep him helpless his powers 
were so persistently whittled away, over the centuries, that in 
the end he was almost a parody of a constitutional monarch, a 
gilded puppet, who was forbidden to talk to foreigners without 
supervision, and could not even write an uncensored letter to 
his wife. The only presents he might legally accept were rose- 
water, flowers, sweet-smelling herbs and balsam, than which it 
is difficult to conceive a more milk-sop selection; and after 1494 
the Doge of Venice might only be represented on his own coin 
age kneeling humbly at the feet of St. Mark. The most elaborate 
methods were devised to keep him impotent methods, as the 
British Ambassador Sir Henry Wotton once observed, that did 
much savour of the cloister . The Doge was elected by his 
fellow-members of the Great Council, the general assembly of 
aristocrats, but choosing him was a tortuous process. First nine 
members of the council were picked by lot to elect forty electors, 
who had to be approved by a majority of at least seven. Twelve 
of the forty were then chosen by lot to elect twenty-five more, 
again by a majority of seven. Nine of the twenty-five were 

56 



Strong Men 

chosen by lot to elect forty-five by a majority of seven. Eleven 
of the forty-five were chosen by lot to elect another forty-one; 
and these forty-one, thus sifted in four stages from the entire 
Venetian aristocracy, had to elect a doge by a majority of at 
least twenty-five. 

Yet despite all these disciplines, restrictions, penalties and 
expenses, leaders of quality were always available to the Vene 
tian Republic in its great days, and the patricians were, by and 
large, wonderfully conscientious in performing their duties 
one man whose life has been carefully recorded only missed a 
single weekly meeting of the Grand Council in thirty years of 
membership. Proud, romantic and often honourable were the 
names that sprang at me across the cornflakes, as I thumbed the 
telephone directory that morning Grimani and Morosini, 
Pisano and Mocenigo, Bembo, Barbarigo and Gradenigo: but I 
saved the best of all till last. 

The great-heart of the Doges was Enrico Dandolo, a rascally 
giant, who stormed the bastions of Constantinople at the age of 
88, and held those Prankish grandees in the palm of his wrinkled 
hand. He was one of four Dandolo Doges, and you may see the 
remains of his palace, a smallish Gothic house, standing among 
the coffee-shops near the Rialto bridge. Oh for an hour of old 
blind Dandolo! Byron wrote of him, *tti octogenarian chief, 
Byzantium s conquering foe! His figure stumps through the 
chronicles like a Venetian Churchill, and when he died they 
buried him as magnificently as he lived, in the basilica of Santa 
Sofia above the Golden Horn. (The Sultan Mohamet II destroyed 
his tomb: but Gentile Bellini, who spent some years in Con 
stantinople as court painter to His Sublimity, brought home to 
Venice the old warrior s sword, helmet and breastplate.) Dan 
dolo gave his name, slightly corrupted, to the most famous 
hotel in Venice, the Danieli: but there is only one Dandolo left 
in the telephone directory, and hastily finishing my coffee and 
rolls, I set off that morning to visit him. 

He is not, I should judge, a rich man, and he works in the 
municipal department called the Magistracy of the Water, 
which supervises the canals and waterways of Venice. His wife 
and daughter (he has no son) are fresh-faced, kindly women, like 
a country vicar s family in England. His apartment near San 
Zanipolo is pleasantly unpretentious. But when Andrea Dandolo 

57 



The People 

leans from Ms window to wave you good-bye, across the dark 
water of the side-canal, a gleam, of old battles seems to enter his 
eye, his deep voice echoes down the centuries, and all the sad 
pride of Venice is in his smile. 

4 
THE TRUTH NOT TO EVERYONE 

Venice is a complicated place, physically and spiritually, and it 
is extraordinarily difficult to establish Venetian facts. Nothing is 
ever quite certain. Life is enmeshed in contradictions and excep 
tions, and the most painstaking and persistent inquirers, the ones 
who always know what time the trains go, are often hopelessly 
misled. 

The past of Venice, like the present, is thus shrouded in dubious 
fancies and deceits, and there are several alternative versions of 
almost every tradition. No guide book will make clear to you 
the significance of St. Theodore and the crocodile, who stand 
together, one on top of the other, upon a pillar in the Piazzetta 
beside St. Mark s for the good reason that nobody is quite 
certain what their significance is: most writers hazard a brief 
conjectural biography of the saint, but evade the crocodile 
altogether. The body of St. Mark, which was seized by two 
Venetian adventurers from its tomb in Alexandria in the ninth 
century (they covered the mummified corpse with pickled pork, 
to keep curious Muslims away), is always said to be preserved 
beneath the High Altar of the Basilica: but all the odds are that 
it was destroyed in a fire in 976, and was artificially resuscitated 
for reasons of prestige. Why is the Campo dei Mori so called? 
Because the warehouse of the Moors was near by, because of the 
Moorish figures that stand upon its walls, because its presiding 
family came from Morea, because their name was Moro take 
your choice, nobody can contradict you. There are several 
different authoritative versions of the capture of Venice by the 
Allies in 1945, as you will discover by comparing the various 
unimpeachably official reports in the War Office library. Five 
modern reference books I have consulted give five different 
figures for the area of the Venetian lagoon. Napoleon, when he 

58 



The Truth Not to Everyone 

seized Venice, ordered an inquiry to be made into the character 
of the Venetians, rather on his Egyptian pattern what were 
their prejudices, their political views, their tastes, their manners? 
The report was never completed, for the scholars assigned to the 
task confessed themselves incapable of establishing the truth. 

No wonder the books seem inconsistent. In Venice you can 
never be quite sure. The odd thing is that though the informa 
tion may be distinctly uncertain, the informants are usually dog 
matic: for there is to Venetian manners something of the spurious 
conviction of the outsider. The Welshman tells a half-truth with 
insuperable assurance. The Afrikaner explains his preposterous 
principles with an air that is positively statistical. The Israeli 
finds it painful indeed to admit an error. The Venetian s weak 
ness is that he hates to confess ignorance. He always has an 
answer. You can never stump him, and hardly ever disconcert 
him, and if you ask him the way somewhere, through the 
tangled wilderness of the Venetian back-streets, he will summon 
a wise and helpful look, consider the situation carefully, take you 
kindly by the arm and usher you to the nearest vantage-point; 
and pointing a finger through the labyrinth of mediaeval lanes 
that lies before you, entangled in canals, archways, dead ends, 
unexpected squares and delusive passages, Sempre diretto! 9 he 
will say courteously Straight ahead! 



This is no more than politesse, but sometimes the imprecision 
of the Venetians is deliberate. Sarpi once remarked to a friend: 
1 never, never tell a lie, but the truth not to everyone/ There is 
little serious crime in Venice, and practically no violence, but 
there runs through the affairs of the place a niggling note of 
amorahty. It is rarely blatant. The hotels are expensive, the gon 
dolas and water-taxis ruinous, the porters, shouldering your 
fibre-glass bag from one alley-way to the next, extortionate: 
but they generally work to a legal tariff, and are all too ready to 
discomfort the quibbler by producing it. The Venetians are 
never crude. They are a meditative people, who know just how 
far they can squeeze a victim without sending him away to the 
Cote d Azur, and their charm often outweighs their cupidity. 
The system of the Venetian Republic presupposed the worst in 
everyone, from the Doge downwards during the last decades of 

59 



The People 

independence, when corruption was rampant, enough bundles 
of wood disappeared annually from the Arsenal to build ten 
complete warships). The modern Venetian is similarly cynical, 
and assumes that you are too. We Venetians/ they say, we re 
just like anyone else: some of us are honest, and some of us 
are not. On a dungeon wall In the Doge s Palace somebody 
has scratched, in dialect, the sad tag: From the man I trust may 
God defend me. From the man I trust not I will defend myself. 

This is a city of petty thieves. In the eighteenth century pick 
pockets who took their haul to the city guards were allowed to 
keep a percentage of its value: a traveller who inquired the pur 
pose of this iniquitous system was told that it encouraged an 
ingenious, intelligent, sagacious activity among the people*. 
When Titian was dying of the plague in 1576, robbers entered 
his house and pillaged it while he was still on his death-bed, 
some say before his very eyes. In the fifteenth century a house 
breaker even succeeded in boring a hole into the Treasury of the 
Basilica, and getting away with an immense booty (he was 
hanged, at his own wry request, with a golden noose). Venetian 
burglars are sometimes equally impudent today. They are 
skilled at climbing through the windows of canal-side houses, 
stealing a handbag or a necklace, and drifting away in a silent 
boat, so that the big hotels have watchmen on the canals, the 
private houses are heavily shuttered, and the summer news 
papers are full of burgled Finns, disillusioned Americans and 
spluttering Englishmen. What can you expect , say the Vene 
tians cheerfully, *if they will sleep with their windows open? 

More casual pilferers haunt the water-buses or patrol the side- 
canals, picking up what they can. Everything movable was 
filched piece by piece from my own boat, lying in the Rio della 
Toletta (the Canal of the Toilet) : first a bollard, then a seat, then 
the ropes, then the very floorboards, until at last she rode there, 
chained to the wall, stripped, ravaged and forlorn. The front 
doors of Venice are secured with an extraordinary variety of 
locks, triple-turn Yales, antique padlocks, bolts, chains and bars: 
and if you are a little amused by this assortment when you first 
come to live in the city, after a few months you begin to see the 
point. 

There is often a taste of sharp practice to the everyday tran 
sactions of the Venetians. This is perhaps a historical pheno- 

60 



The Truth Not to Everyone 

menon. There were ulterior motives behind nearly everything 
the old Venetians did. Venus and Venice are Great Queens in 
their degree/ sang a seventeenth-century English poet; Venus 
is Queen of Love, Venice of policy. In particular the Venetians, 
like the Afrikaners, presented themselves as the chosen and 
guided of God, and skilfully adapted religious symbolisms to 
their own gauntly secular purposes. When the first leaders of 
the lagoon announced that St. Peter had personally granted 
them the island of Torcello, with instructions to build a church 
upon it, theirs was no mere pious fancy: the divine gift of land 
established the rights of the Venetians over the hapless fishermen 
who lived in the island already, and the command to build a 
church was an earnest of permanence, a political declaration. 

And when those brave Venetians stole the body of St. Mark, * 
in 829, they almost certainly did so under State orders. The 
Venetians, till then under the patronage of the obscure St. 
Theodore and his crocodile, urgently needed the particular care 
of some more eminent divine they were busy freeing them 
selves from the overlordships of the Eastern and "Western Em 
pires, and wanted an overpowering talisman of independence. 
The legend of St. Mark s shipwreck in the lagoon was invented; 
the body was stolen; and from that day to this Venice and the 
great Evangelist have been inseparable. The glittering Basilica 
was, to begin with, no more than a reliquary for the corpse, and 
for many centuries Venice went to war beneath the banners of 
St. Mark, shouting Viva San Marco! , holding aloft his open 
book, and emblazoning everything with his winged lion (who 
ought to have, according to the Book of Revelation, six wings 
about him, and be full of eyes before, behind and within). 

When the Basilica was burnt, and the precious body lost, a 
special miracle was devised: for it was put about that the where 
abouts of the corpse had been forgotten , and during a service of 
intercession to ask for divine guidance, there was a crumbling 
noise from a nearby pillar, a flaking of stone, a shaking, and first 
the hand, then the arm, then the entire saintly body was miracu 
lously revealed ! Heartfelt were the songs of praise and thanks 
giving, as priests and people crowded around the relic; com 
placent the smile on the face of the Doge, we may reasonably 
conjecture, as he swept out of the great church into his palace. 
The people of Ban, who had acquired the body of St. Nicholas 

61 



The People 

and were becoming distinctly uppity, were instantly discomfited 
by the news: and a little red tablet on the pillar in the Basilica, 
beside the Altar of the Holy Sacrament, still commemorates the 
point of emergence. 

The old Venetians could be very sly. When Antonio Grimani 
was impeached for treason in 1500 (he had lost a battle) he put 
forward one touching ground for clemency: had not his son, 
Cardinal Grimani, faithfully revealed to the Republic all secret 
matters dealt with at Papal Consistories, so that the Venetians 
"with their accustomed prudence might provide for their own 
needs ? Even Tintoretto, entering a competition for the decora 
tion of the Scuola di San Rocco, cheated by bringing a com 
pleted panel to the contest, when the rules demanded cartoons. 
The great pageantries of State, religious and secular, were in 
tended largely to muffle the grievances of the working people. 
The Venetians were the first to organize pilgrimages to the 
Holy Land on a strictly commercial basis. The carnivals of the 
Venetian decadence were seen from the start as a useful tourist 
attraction and the more decadent they became, the more people 
flocked to enjoy them. "When the great mercenary Colleoni died 
in 1484, he left his entire fortune of nearly half a million ducats 
to the State (which badly needed it) on condition that a statue 
was erected to him in the Piazza before St. Mark s . The signory 
gratefully accepted the cash, but could not stomach the notion 
of a monument in the great Piazza, so reached a characteristic 
compromise with the truth. They commissioned the statue all 
right, and erected it in a piazza before St. Mark s but it was 
the School of St. Mark s, not the Basilica, and the memorial 
stands there still in the square outside San Zanipolo. 

So the Venetian moves through history surrounded by a thin 
miasma of dishonesty, like a cricketer with an odd tendency 
towards no balls, or a golfer who can find no partners. Today 
the agreement of a rent is similarly tinged with chicanery, de 
signed to delude the tax inspectors, or keep the truth from a 
sister-in-law. Ludicrous are the statements you will be invited 
to approve, assuring the authorities that you are (for example) 
accepting your new refrigerator as a gift from the dealer; or 
that you have promised the Signora to lend her your cottage in 
Kingston Seymour for the winter, with use of the neighbour s 
bathroom, in return for the absolutely free use of her apart- 

62 



The Truth Not to Everyone 

ment on the Grand Canal throughout the summer season. 
But nowadays there is something rather innocent and touch 
ing to these subterfuges, for the Venetian is usually quite trans 
parent in his small deceits, and is endearingly delighted when he 
has misled you. He cherishes no grudges, and he never minds 
losing. An air of child-like mystery surrounds his dealings, much 
concerned with dark and nameless go-betweens, off-stage confi 
dants, grandmothers funerals. There is a wood-carving by the 
seventeenth-century sculptor Francesco Pianta, in the Scuola di 
San Rocco, which beautifully illustrates these tendencies. It is 
called The Spy, Or Curiosity, and it represents a conspirator so 
theatrically shrouded in cloaks, so hungrily peering between his 
slouch hat and his raised forearm, so slung with bombs and 
secret documents that the kindest old lady in Cheltenham or 
New Hampshire, finding him destitute on her doorstep, might 
be tempted to refuse him a cookie. I often think of this beguiling 
image, when my insurance agent telephones me with a little 
proposition about the premium. 

He might also represent the Venetian Nosey Parker, an 
ubiquitous character. The Venetians were encouraged to be busy- 
bodies by the system of denunciations which supported the 
autocracy of their Republic. In several parts of the city you may 
still see the stone boxes or lions* mouths bocche di leone that 
received citizens complaints. Some, like the one on the Zattere, 
were merely for grumbles about the neighbours sanitary habits, 
or charges of blasphemy and foul language. ( Bestemmiate non pi&\ 
says an inscription near the Campo dei Mori, *e date gloria a Dio* 
Swear no more, and give glory to God .) Some were for 
more terrible accusations, of treason or conspiracy, that might 
well lead to a man s execution. In the later days of the Republic 
a note in one of these boxes could result in immediate punish 
ment without trial, and nothing is more evocative of the ruth- 
lessness of old Venice than these benign stone figures : the lions, 
whiskered and smiling, do not look at all ferocious, and the 
eeriest receptacle of all was a box beside a comical statue, known 
as Signor Antonio Rioba, which still stands, heavily patched 
with ironwork, at the corner of Campo dei Mori. There was a 
period when the bravos or bandits of Venice could buy immunity 

63 



The People 

from the law simply by murdering one of their colleagues and 
producing satisfactory evidence: and it is no coincidence that the 
Venetians invented income-tax. 

Perhaps it is not fanciful to imagine two surviving conse 
quences of the system, which indeed had a new lease of life 
under the Fascists. One is that Venetians like to preserve their 
privacy, shuttering their flats and locking their back doors, so 
that you can live on one floor of a palace for weeks without 
catching a glimpse of the people downstairs. Nowadays they 
have warning mirrors attached to their window-sills; in earlier 
times there used to be grilles in the drawing-room floor, 
enabling the householder to see in good time what monumental 
bore was ^arriving at the water-gate (there is still one in Gol- 
doni s house, near the church of th*e Frari). 

The second consequence, a corollary, is that the Venetians 
have a habit of minding other people s business. Many a fussy 
citizen loves to interfere, if you let your children wander down 
the water-steps. Many a know-all will give you the benefit of 
his advice, if you carry more passengers in your boat than the 
law allows. The Venetians have an insatiable interest in your 
movements and purposes, and can never resist telling you how 
mistaken you are, or advising you how to do it better. If the 
luggage is stolen from your car, as it stands in the Piazzale 
Roma, the first reaction of Venetians is not to find the missing 
suitcase, or apprehend the thief, but to give you a short lecture 
on the evils of carelessness and the next is to say, with a judi 
cious raising of the eyes, Ah, these Italians, they ll do anything !* 
as if to make it absolutely clear that no proper Venetian ever 
stole a hat-box. 

For all the blank doors of its apartments (distorted television 
voices seeping through their hinges, as you toil up the echoing 
stairs) Venice is a gossipy provincial city, where your move 
ments are eagerly observed and your visitors adroitly analysed. 
If you take a picnic lunch to a far corner of the lagoon, some 
body is sure to have seen your boat steal out, and when you 
come home at night through the empty garden a surreptitious 
chink of light, momentarily appearing in the shuttered mass of 
the palace, testifies to the alertness of the second floor. Some 
body once told me that Venice used to be an important clearing- 
station for the British Secret Service. Certainly its ear-to-the- 

64 



On Women 

ground propensities are catching, and nobody is a better Vene 
tian than I am myself, when it comes to curiosity. 



ON WOMEN 

The women of Venice are very handsome, and very vain. 
They are tall, they walk beautifully, and they are often fair (in 
the sixteenth century Venetian ladies used to bleach their hair in 
the sunshine, training it through crownless hats like vines 
through a trellis). Their eyes are sometimes a heavy-lidded 
greenish-blue, like the eyes of rather despondent armadillos. 
Rare indeed is a dishevelled Venetian woman, and even the 
Madonnas and female saints of the old masters are usually 
elegantly dressed. The most slovenly people to be seen in the 
city are nearly always tourists cranks and water-colour artists 
apart. 

The Venetians are not, by and large, rich: but they have 
always spent a large proportion of their money on clothes and 
ornaments, and you will hardly ever see a girl dressed for pot 
tering, in a sloppy sweater and a patched skirt, or in that un- 
pressed dishabille that marks the utter emancipation of the 
Englishwoman. Women may not, here as elsewhere in Italy, 
enter a church in slacks : but most Venetian ladies would shudder 
at the very notion of trousers, if compelled to join a snake-hunt 
up the Amazon river. The girls at the University, who are 
either studying languages, or learning about Economics and 
Industrial Practices, look more like models than academics: and 
the housemaids, when they walk off in scented couples for their 
week-end pleasures, would hardly seem out of place at Ascot, or 
at a gala convention of the "Women Lawyers Association. 

This love of dress is deep-rooted in the Venetian nature. The 
men are very dapper, too, and until quite recently used to 
cool themselves with little fans and parasols in the Public 
Gardens curious , as Augustus Hare observed austerely in 
1896, to English eyes . As early as 1299 the Republic intro 
duced laws restricting ostentation, and later the famous sumptu- 

65 



The People 

ary laws were decreed, strictly governing what people might 
wear, with a special magistracy to enforce them. They were 
never a success. When the Patriarch of Venice forbade the use 
of excessive "ornaments , a group of women appealed directly 
to the Pope, who promptly restored them their jewellery. 
When the Republic prohibited long gowns, the Venetian 
women caught up their trains in intricate and delicious folds, 
fastened with sumptuous clasps. When it was announced that 
only a single row of pearls might be worn, with a maximum 
value of 200 ducats, the evasions of the law were so universal, so 
ingenious and so brazen that the magistracy gave up, and turned 
its disapproving eyes elsewhere. In the eighteenth century 
Venetian women were the most richly dressed in Europe, and it 
took an Englishwoman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, to ob 
serve that since everybody wore masks at the opera anyway, 
there was consequently no trouble in dressing . 

Among the patrician ladies of old Venice, as among the 
women of Arabian harems, there was nothing much to think 
about but clothes and babies. Venetian mores were bred out of 
Byzantium, and respectable women were closely guarded and 
carefully circumscribed. Clamped in their houses out of harm s 
way, they were little more than tools or playthings, western 
odalisques: even the Doge s wife had no official position. No 
item of dress was more popular among Venetian aristocrats than 
the absurd towering clogs, sometimes twenty inches high, which 
obliged their wives to totter about with the help of two servants 
(and which, since they made great height socially desirable, have 
perhaps left a legacy in the unshakeable determination of modern 
Venetian women to wear the highest possible heels in all circum 
stances). 

Only two women have played parts of any prominence in 
Venetian history. The first was Caterina Cornaro, who married 
the King of Cyprus in 1472 and was officially adopted as a 
daughter of the Republic in order to ensure Venetian control 
of the island: her husband died a year after their marriage, the 
Venetians took over, and poor Caterina languished away in 
gilded exile at Asolo, signing herself to the last as Queen of 
Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia, Lady of Asolo . The second 
was Bianca Cappello, daughter of a noble house, who ran away 
with a Florentine clerk in 1564: she was condemned to death in 

66 



On Women 

absentia, such was the disgrace of it all, but presently rose in the 
world to become Grand Duchess of Tuscany, and was promptly 
re-clasped to the Venetian bosom as another daughter of the 
Republic . She died of poisoning in 1587, but the Republic did 
not go into mourning, just in case it was the Grand Duke who 
had poisoned her. 

It was only in the eighteenth century that the upper-class 
Venetian woman came into her own, and even now a cloistered 
feeling of anachronism often surrounds her. Sometimes a beau 
tiful young blonde is to be seen in Venice, gracefully rowing her 
own boat: but the gondoliers do not even consider the possi 
bility that she might be Venetian, and airily point her out as 
English, American or German, according to the nationality of 
their passengers. With her maids, her always exquisite clothes, 
her waiting gondolier, and the almost insuperable difficulty she 
has in getting out of one cushioned gondola and into another, 
the Venetian lady is scarcely the kind to go messing about in 
boats. She is often rich and often influential ( the flat down- 
stairs , I was once told by a house agent, is occupied by a lady, 
with her husband ) : but there are few professional women in the 
city, and one sometimes pines, in an ambience so perfumed and 
cosseted, for a hard-boiled New York career girl, with her heart 
or part of it, anyway deep in the propagation of soap flakes. 

Other classes of Venetian women were not so sheltered under 
the Republic. Burghers wives and daughters were always freer 
and often better educated. Poor women lived a life of rugged 
equality, and Venetian working women today are often jolly 
gregarious characters, like figures from a Goldoni comedy, 
throwing hilarious ribaldries across the post-office counter, or 
sitting plumply at their knitting on the quaysides. Courtesans, 
in sixteenth-century Venice, were not only celebrated and 
honoured, but often people of cultivation, with a taste for art 
and poetry (though the law at one time decreed that each such 
girl must carry a red light at the prow of her gondola). In earlier 
centuries there was a celebrated brothel, the Casteletto, at the 
end of the Rialto bridge, famous throughout Europe for the 
beauty and skill of its girls. Later, when Venice was beginning 
her decline, the prostitutes became courtesans, increased in 
wealth and respectability, burst the confines of the bordels, and 
gave the city its lasting reputation for lascivious charm. At the 

67 



The People 

end of tke sixteenth century there are said to have been 2,889 
patrician ladies in Venice, and 2,508 nuns, and 1,936 burgher 
women: but there were 11,654 courtesans, of whom 210 were 
carefully registered in a catalogue by a public-spirited citizen of 
the day, together with their addresses and prices or, as the 
compiler delicately put it, the amount of money to be paid by 
noblemen and others desirous of entering their good graces . 
The cheapest charged one scudo, the most expensive thirty, and 
the catalogue reckons that the enjoyment of them all would cost 
the intemperate visitor 1,200 gold scudi. 

A scholarly Venetian once remarked that his city had fostered 
three bad practices hitherto unknown in Italy adulation, 
Lutheranism and debauchery: but he did not sound altogether 
censorious. Venice in her heyday, despite a streak of salty 
puritanism in her character, was tolerant about sex. A favourite 
subject of the Venetian masters, it has been observed, was 
Christ Defending the Woman Taken in Adultery, and even the 
established church was fairly easy-going with libertines: it was 
only with reluctance and after long delay that the administration 
of the Basilica, in the seventeenth century, closed the chapel of 
San Clemente because of the scandalous things that were known 
to go on behind the altar. Gay young nuns were seen on visiting 
days in habits distinctly decolletes, and with clusters of pearls in 
their virginal hair. In the wildest days of carnival even the Papal 
Nuncio used to wear a domino. Family chaplains looked 
benignly upon the Venetian institution of the cicisbeo, the hand 
some young man who, in the dying years of the Republic, used 
to stand in constant attendance upon each great lady of Venice, 
even sometimes helping her maids to dress her. The only 
honest woman in Venice , a wry husband remarked to a friend 
one day, is that one there and he pointed to a little stone 
figure carved on a wall above a bridge: Venice took his point, 
and to this day the bridge, near the Frari church, is called The 
Bridge of the Honest Woman. 

Today all is changed. Except at the more sophisticated levels 
of hotel society, sin is hard to come by in modern Venice. 
Brothels houses of toleration* are no longer permitted by 
Italian law, and the police deal severely with harlots. When 
some modest bordel is uncovered, the newspapers make a great 
fuss about it an operation brilliant, delicate and complete , 

68 



On Women 

glowed the Gazzettino when the police recently pounced upon 
a backstairs stews in Dorsoduro. One distinguished foreign 
diplomat, it is true, discovered not long ago that his cook had 
been running a small but profitable brothel on the third floor of 
his consulate; but there is no red-light district in Venice. The 
sailors who wander through the city from their ships often look 
uncharacteristically lost and ill at ease, and you sometimes over 
hear disgruntled American business men trying to obtain 
guidance from reticent barmen. ( My score so far is precisely 
zero, and I don t like it that way, see? Comprenez, amico ? Hey? ) 
One such lost soul, so a bookseller told me, recently bought a 
copy of that sixteenth-century catalogue, and was quite annoyed 
to find it out of date. 

Venice nowadays is a regenerate city, free of public vice and 
aberrations, where a politic eye is still winked at the idiosyn 
crasies of foreigners, but where men are generally men, and 
women usually marry. Girls are carefully guarded and circum 
scribed, and are rarely allowed out alone with young men, un 
less they are engaged; the milk-bar minxes of London, Paris and 
New York are almost unknown in Venice. The convent of the 
Penitents, reserved for remorseful harlots, has long since closed 
its doors it stands on the Cannaregio, nearly opposite the 
slaughter-house, and offered a five-year reform course for its 
inmates. So has the home for fallen women, near San Sebas- 
tiano, that was founded by the most famous and cultured of all 
the courtesans, the prostitute-poetess Veronica Franco. This is 
not one of your smoky, hole-in-corner, juke-box cities, and 
here the Italo- American culture, that garish cross-breed, is kept 
at bay by water and tradition. A notice appeared on the walls of 
the city one recent summer day, sponsored by the Society for 
the Protection of Youth in Venice, begging citizens and visitors 
to wear garments in accordance with the propriety of our city, 
which, being proud of its traditional standard of high morality, 
cannot approve of scanty or unbecoming clothes . I thought of 
the whoopee days of carnival as I read this sober appeal, of the 
masked Nuncio and the simpering cicisbei, the harlots and the 
hedonists, and *O Tempora, I breathed as I hitched my trousers 
up, * O Mores! 

Family life flourishes in Venice, as you may see any summer 
Sunday afternoon, when the people take their boats cautiously 



The People 

into the lagoon, father shirt-sleeved at one oar, small boys 
labouring at the other, with a tumbled complement of females 
amidships, swathed in sun-shades, scarves and holiday satis 
faction, but keeping an anxious eye upon the water. The birth 
rate in Venice is high, families are large and patriarchal. If you 
take a steamer to the station at about seven o clock any evening, 
you may chance to see a touching sight at the Rialto stop. A 
workman catches this boat each night on his way home, keeping 
the seat beside him vacant: and every evening, when the 
steamer stops at the Rialto, his wife, who works nearby, hurries 
on board to join him. They have evidently been doing it for 
years, for she knows exactly where to find him, walks to her 
seat with calm and smiling certainty, and sits down beside him, 
instantly taking his hand in hers, without finding it necessary to 
say a word. They might be benign stone figures from a column 
of the Doge s Palace, representing Bliss. 

But for all its reformation, Venice remains a sexy city still, as 
many a ravished alien has discovered. It is a city of seduction. 
There is sex and susceptibility in the very air of the place, in the 
mellow sunshine stones of its pavements, the shadows of its 
courtyards, the discretion of its silent black gondolas (which 
sometimes, as Byron remarked, contain a deal of fun, like 
mourning coaches when the funeral s done ). In the summer 
evenings symmetrical pairs of lovers, neatly balanced, occupy 
each water-side seat of the public gardens : and the steps that 
lead down to the Grand Canal from the Courtyard of the Duke 
Sforza, almost opposite my window, are worn with moonlight 
ecstasies. A Venetian woman I know keeps her adolescent 
daughter strictly in thick black stockings, to discourage precipi 
tate admirers: but wonderfully adept is the way that girl exploits 
or circumvents the maternal intention, by a knowledgeable 
contrast in extremities, or a shine in her wary eye. 



MINOR VENETIANS 

The Venetians love their children, sometimes with a sickly 

70 



Minor Venetians 

intensity. Venetian fathers carry their babies with unashamed 
delight, and Venetian mothers show signs of instant cardiac 
crisis if little Giorgio ventures within six feet of the water. 
Venetian children are exquisitely, if sometimes rather ludicrously 
dressed: the minutest little baby girls have pocket handkerchiefs 
tied under their chins, as head-scarves, and even the waxen 
Christ-children of the churches, lapped in tinsel tawdry, some 
times wear lace-embroidered drawers. There are few more 
superb nannies left in the world than the magnificent creatures 
still to be seen with their charges on sunny afternoons in the 
Piazza, starched, frilled and many-petticoated, like family re 
tainers from a forgotten England, before the repeal of the Corn 
Laws. 

It is not altogether an easy city for children to live in. It has 
no dangerous traffic, few unspeakable rascals, hardly a corrupting 
teddy-boy in the place: but Venice is inescapably urban, and 
only lucky children with gardens, or with parents indulgent 
enough to take them to the distant park, have somewhere green 
to play. Blithe but pathetic are the groups of urchins to be found 
entertaining themselves, in hot dry squares or dripping alley 
ways, with their inexplicable Venetian games the most popular 
is governed by the accuracy with which a child can throw the 
old rubber heel of a shoe, but is so hedged about with subtleties 
and qualifications that for the life of me I have never been able 
to master the rules. The State schools of Venice are excellent 
and lavishly staffed, but they generally occupy tall, dark, over 
heated buildings, heavily decorated with potted plants. There 
are no playing fields or yards, and even the mid-morning break 
(or so my own children lugubriously assure me) is celebrated 
indoors, with a biscuit or an orange at a blank brown desk. 

And in the afternoons, when school is over children under 
ten only go in the mornings and their mothers take them for a 
breath of air along the quayside, dauntingly spotless are those 
infants clothes, unscuffled their polished shoes, neat their gloves 
and impeccable their hair, as they stroll sedately along the quay, 
beside the dancing lagoon. In the winter months there is a fair 
on the Riva degli Schiavoni, near St. Mark s, with the usual 
assembly of roundabouts, bumper-cars, swings and candy-floss 
men, revolving colourfully against a background of ships 
funnels and riggings. All the apparatus of gaiety is there, with a 



The People 

tang of the sea as well, but I have never wandered through that 
fairground without being struck by the pathos of it all, so 
restrained do the children seem to be, so ardently delighted by 
every bump of the merry-go-round. Many Venetians seem to 
work their children very hard, loading them with homework, 
foreign languages and mathematics, to sustain the family honour, 
or get them into universities, and keeping them up late at night. 
Little Venetians often seem old beyond their years, and fright- 
eningly well-informed. When the Doge s Palace was burnt in 
1479, the only record left of Petrarch s inscriptions upon the 
walls was the notebook of Marin Sanudo, who had taken the 
trouble to copy them down when inspecting the palace at the 
age of 8. (He went on to write a history of the world in fifty- 
five volumes.) 

But not all Venetian children are solemn or scholastic, and 
many are unusually attractive. Venetian working-class women 
often raise their children with bluff common sense : a single open- 
handed smack on the face from a benevolent washer-woman 
instantly and permanently cured my elder son of the unpleasant 
habit of spitting. In the summer dog-days a stream of mud 
larks, as in an old-fashioned Hollywood musical, throw them 
selves contrapuntally across your path into the canals, and some 
beguiling tomboys can be seen most afternoons up to their 
thighs in the mud-flats of the inner lagoon. Rumbustious gangs 
of boys parade the Zattere, fighting each other with great 
wooden bludgeons or rapiers, or racing about on wooden 
roller-skates; and I remember with affection a group of children 
who climbed one afternoon to the canvas roof of a water-bus 
stop on the Grand Canal, and who were tumbling about in the 
sunshine on its taut elastic surface like so many small acrobats, 
to the bewilderment and consternation of the passengers waiting 
underneath. The little girls of Venice are over-dressed but often 
adorable; and the more bedraggled the urchin, the more fami 
liar he will be to the English visitor, for as you clamber down the 
social ladder, away from the grand palaces towards the tene 
ments, so the children get scruffier, and more at ease, and less 
subdued, and more rough-and-tumble, until at last, among the 
shabby homes of the poor districts, you find boys and girls so 
blue-eyed, fair-haired, cocky, friendly and unkempt that you 
may imagine yourself home in your own garden, hopelessly 

72 



Minor Venetians 

summoning Henry to wash his hands for tea, or disengaging 
Mark from his collection of earth-worms. 



Even more, I sometimes think, do the Venetians love their 
animals. I have never seen one ill-treated in Venice. Even in 
Roman days the people of the Veneto were so kindly to their 
beasts that they were repelled by the bloody circus spectacles of 
their day, and preferred chariot races. There are very few mortal 
children in the pictures of the Venetian masters, but nearly every 
painter has portrayed birds and beasts, from the budgerigars 
of Carpaccio s Two Courtesans to the fine big retriever who 
stands in the foreground of Veronese s Feast in the House ofLevi. 
A multitude of little dogs prances through Venetian art, a 
menagerie of lions, camels, dragons, peacocks, horses and rare 
reptiles. I once went to an exhibition in Venice that consisted of 
some fifty portraits, all by the same artist, all meticulously 
executed, all very expensive, and all of the same cat. 

Venice is one of the world s supreme cat-cities, comparable in 
my experience only with London and Aleppo. It is a metropolis 
of cats. Now and again the sanitary authorities have conducted a 
cat-hunt, to sweep away vagrants and scavengers: but so fond 
are the Venetians of their cats, even the mangiest and scabbiest of 
them, that these drives have always ended in ignominious failure, 
and the animals, spitting and scratching, have been hidden away 
in back yards and boxes until the hygiene men have gone. The 
population of cats thus increases each year. Some lead an eerily 
sheltered existence, and are rarely allowed out of doors, only 
appearing occasionally, like nuns, upon confined and inaccessible 
balconies. Many more are only half-domesticated, and live on 
charity, in old drain-pipes from which sympathetic citizens have 
removed the grilles, under the seats of laid-up gondolas, or in 
the tangled recesses of overgrown gardens. You may see them 
any morning wolfing the indigestible entrails, fish-tails andp&sfa, 
wrapped in newspapers, which householders have laid down for 
them: and on most winter afternoons an old lady arrives to feed 
the cats of the Royal Gardens, near St. Mark s, while a man in a 
sweeping overcoat so manipulates the flow of a nearby drinking 
fountain that a jet of water is projected into a declivity among 
the paving-stones, forming a cat s basin, or a cat-bath. 

73 



The People 

They are odd and sometimes eccentric animals. Although they 
are constantly eating, and often turn up their whiskers fastidi 
ously at a mess of spaghetti lying on a doorstep, they seldom 
grow fat: the only fat cats in Venice (except at Christmas, when 
they all seasonably swell) are the rat-catchers of the churches. 
They are never harshly treated, and are often positively molly 
coddled, but they are usually very timid. They hardly ever 
climb trees. They do not answer to puss, puss , but if you go to 
the statue of Giuliano Oberdan, at the end of the Public Gar 
dens, and make a noise something like chwirk, chwirk , there 
will be a threshing of tails among the shrubbery, as of fishes 
flailing in a net, and a small multitude of cats will bound out of 
the bushes to greet you. At a trattoria on the Rio del Ponte 
Lungo, on Giudecca, there is a small white cat with one yellow 
eye, and one blue: this may remind otologists, so I learnt from 
a letter in The Lancet, of the white forelock and heterochromia 
of Wardenburg s syndrome, and the cat is probably deaf, and a 
reluctant hunter. It is very probably of Saracen descent, born of 
a Crusader s booty, for such asymmetrical cats are particularly 
common in Turkey. 

Venetian cats often lead a kind of communal life, uncharac 
teristic of the species, lazing about in each other s company, and 
sometimes dashing down a back-alley with four or five com 
panions, like soft grey wolves, or greyhounds. Sometimes a 
brave nonconformist, swept off his feet by such a pack, dares 
to express the opinion that the hygiene men were right there 
are too many cats in Venice. In 1947 Daniele Vare, the laughing 
diplomat , put a complaint about them into one of the old 
denunciation boxes. There Are (so said his deposition) Too 
Many Cats in the Sestiere of Dorsoduro : but there the paper 
remains, for nowadays those old receptacles are not emptied 
from one century to another. 

One Venetian cat became an international celebrity. He lived 
in the 18905 at a coffee-shop opposite the main door of the 
Frari church, and if you go there today, and have a cup of coffee 
among the frescoes of its front room, you will find that he is 
still not forgotten. Nini was a white torn who was so skilfully 
exploited by his owner, partly in the interests of trade, partly of 
charity, that it became the smart thing for visitors to Venice to 
call upon him: and if you ask the barman nicely he will bring 

74 



Minor Venetians 

out a big album from beneath his espresso machine, dust it 
reverently down, and let you look at Mini s visitors book. 
Among his callers were Pope Leo XIII, the Czar Alexander 
III, the King and Queen of Italy, Prince Paul Metternich, the 
Negus Menelik Salamen, and Verdi, who scribbled a few notes 
from Act III of La Traviata (first performed, disastrously, at 
the Fenice). When Nini died, in 1894, poets, musicians and artists 
all offered their fulsome condolences, now stuck in the book, and 
a sculptor did a figure of the animal, which until lately stood on 
the wall beside the shop. Nini! says one obituary tribute. A 
rare gem, most honest of creatures! Another speaks of an 
infinite necessity for tears . He was a gentleman, white of fur, 
says a third, affable with great and small . There is a gloomy 
funeral march in the book, and a long Ode on the Death of 
Nini: and Horatio Brown, the English historian of Venice, who 
spent much of his time in the State Archives of the Frari, 
around the corner, ends a poem with the lines : 

Yours was indeed a happy plight, 

For down the Frari corridors. 

The ghosts of ancient senators 

Conversed with you the livelong night. 

It is all done in a spirit of dead-pan satirism that is essentially 
Venetian, and you have to look very hard in the eye of the bar 
man, as he wraps the book in brown paper and puts it carefully 
away, to detect a distant thin flicker of amusement. 

For myself, I love the cats of Venice, peering from their 
pedestals, sunning themselves on the feet of statues, crouching 
on dark staircases to escape the rain, or gingerly emerging into 
the daylight from their fetid subterranean lairs. Shylock defined 
them as necessary and harmless , and Francesco Morosini, one 
of the great fighting Doges, thought so highly of them that he 
took one with him on his victorious campaigns in the Pelopon- 
nese. There are few more soothing places of refuge than a Vene 
tian garden on a blazing summer morning, when the trees are 
thick with green, the air is heavy with honeysuckle, and the 
tremulous water-reflections of the canals are thrown mysteri 
ously upon the walls. The rear facade of the palace before you, 
with its confusion of windows, is alive with gentle activity. On 
the top floor an elderly housekeeper lowers her basket on a 

75 



The People 

string, in preparation for the morning mail. From a lower win 
dow there issues the harsh melody of a housemaid s song as she 
scrubs the bathroom floor. In the door of the ground-floor flat a 
girl sits sewing, in a black dress and a demure white apron, with 
a shine of polished pans from the kitchen lighting her hair like a 
halo. From the canal outside comes a pleasant buzz of boats, and 
sometimes the throaty warning cry of a bargee. On a neigh 
bouring roof-garden an artist stands before his easel, brush in 
one hand, coffee-cup in the other. 

And dotted all about you in the grass, in attitudes statuesque 
and contented, with their tails tucked around them and their 
eyes narrowed in the sunshine, one licking his haunches, one 
biting a blade of grass, one intermittently growling, one twitch 
ing his whiskers all around you sit the cats of the garden, black, 
grey or obscurely tabby, like bland but scrawny guardians. 



There used to be many horses and mules in Venice so many 
in the fourteenth century that they were compelled by law to 
wear warning bells. In the fifteenth century Michel Steno, a rip- 
roaring playboy Doge, had 400 horses, their coats all dyed 
yellow: it is said that one ingenuous foreign diplomat asked him 
from what region of Italy this distinctive breed sprang. One of 
the bells of St. Mark s Campanile was called the Trattoria, be 
cause when it sounded the patricians used to trot to the Council 
Chamber on their mules. According to some theorists the 
Bridge of Straw, beside the Doge s Palace, is where they used 
to tether their mounts with a comforting nosebag during legis 
lative sessions. Later there was a celebrated riding-school near 
the church of San Zanipolo, with stabling for seventy-five 
horses: and beside the Frari there was a successful coach-builder, 
whose firm went on building carriages so long after the dis 
appearance of the Venetian horse, shipping them to customers 
on the mainland, that most eighteenth-century pictures of the 
Campo dei Frari show a specimen outside the workshop. 

The advent of the arched bridge in Venice turned the canals 
into highways, and ousted the horse. The last man to ride along 
the Merceria is said to have been a convicted procurer, con 
demned to be dressed up in yellow clothes and driven through 
the streets on a donkey, with a huge pair of horns on his head. 

76 



Minor Venetians 

By the eighteenth century a horse was such a rarity that Mrs. 
Thrale reported seeing a queue of poor people paying to 
examine a stuffed carcase in a sideshow. The horselessness of 
Venice became an international joke, and the Venetians became 
notorious as appalling horsemen, just as they have a reputation 
for atrocious driving today. One old tale tells of a Venetian who 
kept his spurs in his pocket, instead of on his heels, and who was 
once heard murmuring to his mare: Ah, if you only knew 
what I had in my pocket, you would soon change your 
step ! Another Venetian, having trouble with a cantankerous 
horse, is said to have produced his handkerchief and spread 
it in the wind. So that s why he goes so slowly, he exclaimed. 
He s got the wind against him! A century ago, though 
you could still go riding in the Public Gardens, a contem 
porary observer noted the curious fact that the only people 
who did so seemed to be young persons of the Hebrew per 
suasion . Fifty years ago one old horse still spent the summer 
months in the gardens, pulling a rake and a lawn-mower: and 
I am told that when, each autumn, he was floated away in a 
scow to Mestre the children jeered him on his way, the gon 
doliers reviled him, and even the passengers on the passing fer 
ries threw their cat-calls and cigar-butts in his wake. Today 
there is not a single live horse left in the city of Venice, and if 
you feel like a canter you must go to the resort island of the 
Lido, and take a turn along the sands. 

There are, however, six gorgeous artificial horses. The 
equestrian statue of the condottiere Sforza, which figures in 
Diirer s The Knight and Death, has long since vanished from 
Venice. There remain the excellent horseback figure of King 
Victor Emmanuel, on the Riva degli Schiavoni; the incompar 
able Colleoni statue at San Zanipolo ; and the four bronze horses 
on the fa$ade of the Basilica, which so impressed Goethe that he 
wanted to get the opinion of a good judge of horseflesh on 
them. No pampered thoroughbred, no scarred war-horse has 
enjoyed so romantic a career as these. Their origins are lost 
some say they are Greek, some Roman: but we know that they 
were taken from Trajan s Arch in Rome to Constantinople, 
where they were mounted on the tower of the Hippodrome. 
There Enrico Dandolo found them, and shipped them home to 
Venice: a hoof of one was broken on the way, and the ship s 

77 



The People 

captain, named Morosini, kept it as a souvenir, later mounting it 
above the door of his house in Campo Sant Agostin. The horses 
were repaired in Venice, and mounted at first outside the 
Arsenal: but presently they were elevated to their grand emin 
ence upon St. Mark s, and became so symbolic of Venetian pride 
and glory that the Genoese, when they were at war with Venice, 
used to boast that they were going to bridle the horses of St. 
Mark as much as to say that they intended, before very long, 
to hang out their washing on the Siegfried Line. Napoleon s 
engineers removed them laboriously from the Basilica (they 
weigh 1,700 Ib. each) and took them to Paris, where they stood 
for thirteen years in the Place du Carrousel. The Austrians re 
moved them again, after Waterloo, and restored them to St. 
Mark s in a grand ceremony which, owing to the political fevers 
of the time, the Venetians themselves silently boycotted. In the 
first world war they were shipped away in a barge for safety: 
through the lagoon and down the dismal tributaries of the Po, 
watched all along the route by sad groups of villagers, and 
eventually to the garden of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, once 
the seat of Venetian Ambassadors (where they were joined by 
the Colleoni, and by Donatello s great Gattamelata from Padua). 
In the second world war they were taken down from their 
gallery again, and packed away safely in a warehouse. 

Yet for all their wanderings they remain ageless and untired. 
The gold that once covered them has almost all gone, but their 
muscles still ripple with vigour. I have often seen them paw the 
stonework, at starlit Venetian midnights, and once I heard a 
whinny from the second horse on the right, so old, brave and 
metallic that St. Theodore s crocodile, raising its head from 
beneath the saintly buskins, answered with a kind of grunt. 



There are many dogs in Venice. You will often meet examples 
of that fluffy white breed, all wispy tail and alertness, immor 
talized in the paintings of Carpaccio (the most famous of them 
all gazes, with an appealing mixture of impatience and affection, 
at the preoccupied St. Jerome in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli 
Schiavoni). There are many poodles, and many rather nasty 
Alsatians, whose muzzling, compulsory under Italian law, makes 
them figures of impotent fun to the more impertinent cats of 

78 



Minor Venetians 

the place. There is a pair of Tibetan terriers in a palace on the 
Grand Canal, and I once saw a young business man, sitting on 
his haunches in the Via 22 Marzo, fanning an exhausted bull 
terrier with his brief-case. Best of all, there are countless dogs of 
indeterminate "breed, tough, black, self-reliant animals, who 
guard the boats and boatyards of Venice, and are often to be 
seen riding down the Grand Canal on the prows of barges, tails 
streaming, heads held high, in attitudes marvellously virile and 
conceited. 

Thousands of crabs scuttle about the water-lines of Venice. 
Millions of ants exude from its paving-stones. Mice proliferate, 
and their beastly black silhouettes often scurry away from your 
feet down the crumbling corridors of a palace, dart from the 
stagnant water of a gutter, or disappear beneath the refrigerator. 
More than once, according to the records of St. Mark s, the 
nibblings of mice have silenced the great organ of the Basilica. 
I once found a mouse on my pillow in the middle of the night, 
and another was once fool enough to immure itself in my bath. 
The Venetians seal up mouse-holes with cement, hopelessly 
moving from room to room, like Dame Parkington with her 
broom: and they call mice by their diminutive, topolini, as if to 
demonstrate that they aren t scared; but the mice of Venice are a 
scourge and a horror, all the same, and are no doubt one reason 
why Shylock, who hardly sounds an animal-lover, tolerated the 
cats. There are also rats, as in every port. They sometimes eat 
the breadcrumbs we put out for the pigeons, on the balcony of 
our third-floor apartment: but generally they keep to the edges 
of the canals, or slink, grim and emaciated, from one stinking 
cavity to another, or end their ghastly lives floating pink-bellied 
down the Grand Canal. 

At one time people kept lions as pets in Venice; fifty years 
ago a well-known hawker used to tow a floundering dolphin up 
and down the Grand Canal, while people threw coins from their 
windows; and in 1819 an elephant, escaping from a visiting 
menagerie, took refuge in the church of Sant Antonin, and was 
only despatched , so contemporary records inform us respect 
fully, by a shot from a piece of ordnance . 



Most people, though, will remember Venice as a city of 

79 



The People 

birds. Birds are inextricably entangled in her legend, as they are 
pictured everywhere in her art. It was a flight of birds, so we are 
told, that inspired the people of Aitinum to move into the 
lagoon; and birds played a picturesque part in the series of 
visions that inspired the founding fathers to build the first 
churches in the city one must be built where they should find 
a number of birds together , another where twelve cranes 
should be in company . Birds are still conspicuous in Venetian 
lore, from the swallows which arrive with a flourish in the 
middle of June (and which used to be, before the new antidotes, 
the principal destroyers of mosquitoes) to the big white seagulls 
of the lagoon (which are often driven into the city canals by bad 
weather, and are even to be seen, humiliatingly plucked, hung 
up for sale in the Rialto market excellent boiled, I am told, 
but only in the winter season). Sometimes you see a homely 
sparrow looking lost among the rooftops, or pecking among 
the green water-growths at low tide. In a few secluded gardens 
of the city a vivid goose struts exotically, or a bright tame 
pheasant preens itself Thousands of canaries sing in the houses 
of Venice, their massed cages sometimes blocking entire win 
dows: and there is a shop near the Frari church, a dark and 
cavernous place, through the shuttered doors of which you can 
always hear, even in the depth of the night, the rustle of small 
caged wings and the clicking of beaks. Sometimes a wild swan 
flies over, with an imperial rhythm, towards the fastnesses of 
the lagoon or the marshes of Ravenna and in a fifteenth-century 
miniature from The Book of Marco Polo lordly white swans are 
swimming past St. Mark s itself. 

Finally there are the pigeons, most celebrated of the Venetian 
fauna. They are, by tradition, honoured and protected, and to 
have a roast pigeon lunch you must go down the road to Padua, 
or better still find yourself a musty trattoria among the Euganean 
Hills. Some say this is because Dandolo, when he stormed 
Constantinople, sent back the news of victory by carrier pigeon. 
Others believe that it arises from an old Palm Sunday custom, 
when a flock of pigeons was released in the Piazza, those that 
were caught by the populace being promptly eaten, those that 
escaped guaranteed permanent immunity a ceremony that led 
in the long run, one pigeon looking very like another, to a safe 
conduct for them aU. Whatever the truth, the pigeons have 

80 



Minor Venetians 

prospered. They survived some violent epidemics 0f pigeon- 
plague, picked up from carrion crows in the Levant, and nowa 
days never actually die, but merely go out into the lagoon and 
sink themselves. 

They are fed twice daily at the public expense, besides being 
stuffed to excess by indulgent tourists ( those whose ambitions 
lean in that direction , as Baedeker loftily observes, may have 
themselves photographed covered with the birds ). They are 
mostly a drab grey colour, only occasionally relieved by a semi- 
albino with a white head, and they seem to me to have a ver 
minous flavour to them. Their headquarters is the Piazza. There 
the stones of the Basilica are thick with generations of their 
droppings, and near the porphyry lions of the northern Piaz- 
zetta star ds their private bird-bath, beside an antique well-head. 
There, at the right time of day, they assemble in their shiftless 
thousands, gobbling and regurgitating on the pavement, a 
heaving mass of grey, riding on each others backs, pushing and 
swelling and rustling in an obscene frenzy to get at the maize 
and bread-crumbs. Sometimes they even go inside the Basilica, 
and you meet them processing pompously up the nave. 

You may observe them at their most terrible (for there is 
something nightmarish about so many mindless grey parasites) 
at nine o clock on a foggy winter morning, when the official 
responsible for their municipal feeding turns up his coat collar, 
puts on his cap, and carries his tins of grain into the square. The 
Campanile is lost in mist. The Piazza is deserted. Venice is cold. 
grey, damp and silent. High above you, in the fog, beyond the 
hidden terraces and balustrades, there is an expectant stirring of 
feathers, a muted cooing, as of mutilated birds: and as the feed 
ing time approaches, and the clocks of the city set up a pre 
liminary whirr, this queer secret rustle grows more purposeful 
and intense. The maize-man, holding his two bins, does not 
move. The pigeons know that he will not distribute a grain 
until the bell of St. Mark s Campanile itself strikes the hour, so 
that when the other clocks sound, with an ill-tuned jangle, not a 
bird flies down into the Piazza. There is only a louder rustle, 
and the first beat of wings, and a sort of mass shudder up there 
in the gloom: until at last the first noble stroke of the Cam 
panile sounds, the man tilts his bins, and a sudden huge phalanx 
of pigeons, swift and predatory, swoops over the parapet above 

81 



The People 

you with a deafening roar of wings, like a column of huge bats 
out of the fog. 

In a moment they are no more than a struggling mound of 
feathers, writhing and quivering, as they snatch the maize from 
the pavement: but when the mist begins to clear you can some 
times see, wedged among the pillars, or propped cynically 
beside a chimney-pot, a few old world-weary doves who prefer 
to watch this gluttony from a fastidious distance. 



PAGEANTRIES AND PANACEAS 

The Venetians grew rich on silks, spices and the other exotics 
conveyed by their merchant ships from eastern bazaars: and just 
as they love fineries, so they have an Oriental taste for pageantry 
and display. This was encouraged by the wise men of the 
Republic, on the old assumption about bread and circuses. The 
Venetian calendar was lavish with feasts, shows and exhibitions, 
from the grand ceremony of the Doge Wedding the Adriatic to 
the manifestations of St. Mark s Day, when every husband gave 
his wife a red rose of undying loyalty. Brilliant were the 
pageant-fleets that used to escort the Doge on his ceremonial 
duties, and the Carnival which became, in the end, the prime 
fact of Venetian life was one long gaudy night. 

Until 1802 there used to be bull-baitings in the Venetian 
squares, in which snarling dogs were pitted against tethered 
bulls: they were astonishingly ill-organized, if we are to go by 
one seventeenth-century painting, which depicts the entire 
square of San Polo in a condition of chaos, bulls charging in all 
directions, women scattering, hats flying, dogs barking, and only 
a few masked beauties, in virginal satins, stalking through the 
turmoil disdainfully serene. There were hilarious public fist 
fights, sublimating the old vendettas between factions, and 
degenerating into glorious free-for-alls : you can still see on the 
Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists), or on the bridge beside the 
church of Santa Fosca, the footprints, cemented in the pave 
ment, that formed the touchline of the game. There were 

82 



Pageantries and Panaceas 

magnificent regattas, and gymnastic competitions, and religious 
processions, and even, in earlier times, knightly jousts. There 
were ceremonial gun salutes in the Piazza, until it was found 
that their vibrations were loosening the precious mosaics of the 
Basilica. Sometimes the Republic mounted an official display of 
whole-hog extravagance, to celebrate some distant and often 
illusory victory, forestall an incipient subversion, or impress a 
visiting dignitary: and it was these chimerical affairs that gave 
Venice her legendary aura of gold and grotesquerie. 

The most memorable of all such galas was arranged for the 
visit of Henry III of France, in 1574 an event which, though it 
had no particular political consequences, so engraved itself upon 
the Venetian memory that it is included in most lists of signi 
ficant Venetian dates. Triumphal arches of welcome were 
designed by Palladio and decorated by Tintoretto and Veronese, 
and Henry (aged 23) was conveyed to the city in a ship rowed 
by 400 Slav oarsmen, with an escort of fourteen galleys. As this 
fleet sailed across the lagoon, glass-blowers on a huge accom 
panying raft blew objects for the King s amusement, their fur 
nace a gigantic marine monster that belched flame from its 
jaws and nostrils: and presently it was met by a second armada 
of curiously-decorated boats, fanciful or symbolic, elaborate 
with dolphins and sea gods, or draped in rich tapestries. At 
Venice the palace called Ca Foscari, on the Grand Canal, had 
been especially prepared for the visitor. It was embellished with 
cloth of gold, carpets from the East, rare marbles, silks, velvets 
and porphyry. The bed-sheets were embroidered in crimson silk. 
The pictures, specially acquired or commissioned, were by Gio 
vanni Bellini, Titian, Paris Bordone, Tintoretto and Veronese. 
For the principal banquet, in the gigantic Great Council Cham 
ber of the Doge s Palace, the sumptuary laws were temporarily 
suspended, and the most beautiful women of Venice appeared 
all in dazzling white, adorned , as one historian tells us, with 
jewels and pearls of great size, not only in strings on their necks, 
but covering their head-dresses and the cloaks on their shoulders . 
There were 1,200 dishes on the bill of fare, the 3,000 guests all 
ate off silver plate, and the tables were decorated with sugar 
figures of Popes, Doges, Gods, Virtues, animals and trees, all 
designed by an eminent architect and fashioned by a pharmacist 
of talent. When Henry picked up his elaborately folded napkin, 

83 



The People 

he found that it was made of sugar, too. Three hundred different 
kinds of bonbon were distributed, as the meal sank to a conclusion, 
and after dinner the King saw the first opera ever performed in 
Italy. When at last he went out into the night, he found that a 
galley, shown to him earlier in the evening in its component 
parts, had been put together during the banquet on the quay 
outside: it was launched into the lagoon as he emerged from 
the palace, complete with a i6,ooo4b. cannon that had been 
cast between the soup and the souffle. 

According to some historians the poor young King, who 
dressed very simply himself, and liked to wander around cities 
incognito, was never quite the same again, and lived the rest of 
his life in a perpetual daze. Many other visitors were similarly 
staggered by the colour and luxury of Venice. Thomas Coryat 
from Somerset wrote wildly in 1610 that he would deny him 
self four of the richest manors in his county, rather than go 
through life without seeing the city. A fifteenth-century Milan 
ese priest was shown the bedroom of an eminent Venetian lady, 
decorated with blue and gold to the value of 11,000 ducats, and 
attended by twenty-five maids, loaded with jewellery : but when 
he was asked what he thought of it, I knew not how to answer 
(says he convincingly) save by the raising of my shoulders/ 
1 have oftentimes observed many strangers , wrote one old 
Englishman, men wise and learned, who arriving newly at 
Venice, and beholding the beautie and magnificence thereof, 
were stricken with so great an admiration and amazement, that 
they woulde, and that with open mouth, confesse, never any 
thing which before time they had seene, to be thereunto com 
parable/ 

Venice is not quite so sumptuous nowadays, but she still 
enjoys her round of pageants, her almanac of festivals. Some are 
natural and popular, some blatantly touristic, but none are with 
out fun or beauty. There is the great feast of the Redentore, 
when a bridge is thrown across the wide canal of the Giudecca 
to the church of the Redemption on the other side, and the 
night is loud and bright with fireworks. There are starlight 
concerts in the courtyard of the Doge s Palace, and band per 
formances in the Piazza. There are regattas still, and candle-lit 
sacred processions, and the great art festival of the Biermale. 

84 



Pageantries and Panaceas 

There is the annual Film Festival, a thing of minks and speed 
boats, to which the world s exhibitionists flock as dazzled moths 
to lamplight. Every night in summer there are serenades on the 
Grand Canal, when tremulous sopranos and chesty tenors, en 
throned in fairy-lit barges, lurch uncomfortably down the 
water-way among the steamboats, introduced over a loud 
speaker in unctuous American English, and sometimes closely 
pursued, in a dissonance of arias, by a rival fleet of troubadours. 

The municipal department of tourism, which pleasantly de 
fines one of its activities as organizing traditional festivals , 
diligently maintains the old celebrations and sometimes launches 
new ones: and there seems scarcely a day in the Venetian sum 
mer without its own ceremonial, a procession of clergy "around 
St. Mark s, a Festival of Lights, a Traditional Custom or An Old 
Venetian Fete, the Century Regatta (for elderly gondoliers), an 
Artistic Floodlighting of the Palaces, a Romantic Moonlight 
Serenade. When the image of Our Lady of Fatima was brought 
to Venice in 1959, it was landed at St. Mark s by helicopter. 
Modern Venetian ceremonies usually begin half an hour late, 
and there is a strong taste of the travel agency to their arrange 
ments ( and this, you see, is the very same traditional festival 
followed by the ancient Doges, from time immemorial, accord 
ing to old-hallowed custom ): but somewhere among their 
sham and tinsel glitter you can still sometimes fancy a glow of 
old glory, and imagine King Henry watching, with his guard of 
sixty silk-dressed halberdiers, through the taffeta hangings of his 
palace. 

The Venetians still love a show, and do not care about its 
stage management they used to be enthusiastic followers of 
that most frankly artificial art, puppetry. When that ghastly 
serenade floats by each evening, there are always Venetians lean 
ing tenderly from their balconies to hear the music, and watch 
the undeniably romantic bobbing of the gondola prows in the 
half-light. Given half a chance, they would climb aboard the 
barge and join in the chorus themselves. I once helped to make 
a television film in Venice, and it was wonderful with what ease 
and pleasure the Venetians in the street performed before our 
cameras (except those who, following an irrepressible instinct, 
asked us how much we were planning to pay them). Beside the 
Riva degli Schiavoni, away from the hotels, there are two long 

85 



The People 

tunnel-like tenements, strung with washing, which run away 
from the sea into a huddle of houses. Here our Roman camera 
man deployed the local inhabitants for the scene we wanted, 
poised beside their washing-boards, frozen in gossip, precari 
ously balanced on doorsteps, immobilized in archways, static in 
windows. There they stood for two or three minutes, patiently 
waiting. The exposure was estimated; the producer approved 
the arrangements; the script-writer had a look through the view- 
finder; the sun shifted satisfactorily; the steamer in the back 
ground was nicely framed through the washing; and suddenly 
the camera-man, pressing his key, bawled Via! 9 In an instant 
that tenement was plunged in frantic activity, the housewives 
scrubbing furiously, the gossips jabbering, the passers-by vigor 
ously passing, the old ladies leaning energetically from their 
windows, and a multitude of unsuspected extras, never seen 
before, precipitately emerging from back-doors and alley-ways 
an old man in a black hat, sudden coveys of youths, and a 
clown of a boy who, abruptly appearing out of a passage, 
shambled across our field of vision like a camel, till the tears ran 
down the script-writer s face, and the whole community dis 
solved in laughter. The Venetians are not an exuberant people, 
but they have a long comical tradition, and they love acting. 
Eleanora Duse herself was born in a third-class railway carriage 
as her father s Venetian dialect troupe puffed from one perfor 
mance to the next, and Harlequin, like Pantaloon, was invented 
in Venice. The very word *zany\ as the camera-man reminded 
me that morning, comes from a Venetian theatrical character 
his name was Giovanni, and he acted crazy. 

Now and then the Venetians still arrange a grand spectacle 
outside the usual tourist round, and recapture some of the old 
spontaneity. In 1959 there was returned to the city, to lie in 
state for one month, the body of Pope Pius X, one of the few 
canonized pontiffs of recent times. This holy man had been 
Patriarch of Venice for seven years, until his elevation to the 
papacy in 1903, and he is still venerated in the city. Scores of 
churches contain his effigy, and many an elderly lady will tell 
you, with a look of respectful affection in her eye, tales of his 
simplicity and goodness. He was a man of poverty he wore his 
predecessor s robes, to save buying new ones, and towards the 
end of the month he sometimes had to make a visit to the Monte 

86 



Pageantries and Panaceas 

di Pieta, the pawnshop of Venice. He scorned convention, pre 
tence and stuffiness, and was thus more popular among the 
common people than among the aristocrats. He once demon 
strated to a lady, in private audience at the Vatican, the steps of 
a Venetian dance. When a nun asked for a pair of his old stock 
ings, as a remedy for her rheumatism, and later pronounced 
herself entirely cured, the Pope declared it very odd *I wore 
them myself far longer than she did, and they never did me any 
good! 

All Venice mourned when this good person left the city for 
the consistory that was to elect him Pope. There is a moving 
photograph that shows him stepping into his gondola for the 
last time, to go to the railway station. In the foreground an 
elderly gondolier stands solemn and bareheaded, holding his oar; 
a bald man kneels to kiss the old priest s hand; a small boy, 
clutching a pillar, stares pale-faced from the background; and 
the scene is framed with groups of anxious, silent, sad women. 
It was almost certain that he would be the next Pope: but he 
cheerfully bought a return ticket to Rome, and he said to the 
crowds, in a phrase that has become famous: Never fear, I shall 
come back. Dead or alive, I shall return to Venice! *O vivo o 
morto ritornerb! 9 , 

Haifa century later another Patriarch of Venice became Pope: 
and one of the first acts of Giovanni XXIII, a man of much the 
same kind, was to fulfil his predecessor s promise, and return to 
the city the embalmed body of Saint Pius X. A marvellous pro 
cession conveyed it down the Grand Canal to the Basilica. First 
came the countless gondolas of the clergy, each rowed by a 
white-clad gondolier: a melange of crosses, surplices, purple 
cassocks, stout bishops and stooping monks, Armenians with 
bushy beards, Dominicans in white, rosy country parsons, foxy- 
faced thinkers, tremulous old saints and pallid novices, all smil 
ing and cushioned deep in their seats. Then came the dream-like 
barges of the Venetian tradition, their crews in vivid mediaeval 
liveries, silver or blue castles at their prows and sterns, heavy 
draperies trailing in the water behind (supported by corks, to 
keep them ponderously afloat). The bells of Venice rang. Plain- 
chant issued from a hundred loudspeakers. Flags, bunting and an 
occasional carpet flapped from the windows of the canal-side 
palaces. Thousands of school children, massed upon the quays 

8? 



The People 

and bridges, threw rose petals into the water. Police boats scur 
ried everywhere, and by the Accademia bridge a reporter in a 
speedboat spoke a purple commentary into his walkie-talkie. 

Thus, in a blaze of gold, there appeared beneath the Rialto 
bridge the barge called the Bucintoro, successor to the magni 
ficent State vessels of the Doges (the last of which was turned 
into a prison hulk at the fall of the Republic, and later broken 
up for firewood). A crew of young sailors rowed it, in a slow 
funereal rhythm, each stroke of the oar summoned by a single 
drum-beat from a ferocious major-domo in the well of the ship 
a man who, glaring angrily from oarsman to oarsman, and 
striking his drum with ritual dedication, looked like an old 
slave-driver between decks on a galley. Slowly, heavily, eerily 
this barge approached us along the canal, its gold gleaming, a 
vast crimson textile streaming from its high stern into the water, 
until at last, peering down from our balcony, we could see be 
neath its carved gilded canopy into the ceremonial chamber 
beneath. There lay the corpse of the great Pope, embalmed in a 
crystal coffin, in a splendour of vestments, rings and satin, riding 
calm and silently towards St. Mark s. 

They took Pope Pius to the Basilica, and laid him upon the 
High Altar, and a multitude of pilgrims filed around his coffin, 
touching the glass with reverent fingers, or kissing the panelling. 
But when the ceremonies were over that day I took out my boat 
and followed those rich fantastic barges away from the Piaz- 
zetta. They plunged across the choppy Giudecca Canal, their 
duties done, like so many Viking long-ships. Their high poops 
were engraved against the sunset, their crews sweated in sil 
houette, their pennants fluttered in a rising wind, and their 
draperies trailed heavily against the tide. Past a hulking British 
freighter they laboured, down the shore of the Giudecca; past 
the Lido car-ferry; past the disused flour-mill at the end of the 
island; past the cranes on Sacca Fisola; until as the light began 
to fail they reached their destination, the crews took off their 
brilliant costumes and lit their cigarettes, and those peacock 
craft were pulled from the water, stripped of their fabrics, and 
put away in corrugated-iron sheds until the next festivity. 



Behind all this Renaissance veneer, the splendour of the 



Pageantries and Panaceas 

Venetian fa$ades, the beautifully-dressed women and the pom 
aded men, there remains a layer of squalor. There are still drab 
slums in Venice, despite housing programmes that have trans 
formed whole areas of the city, and there are still many people 
whose simplicity borders upon the primitive. Less than a century 
ago Venice was a city wreathed in folk-lore, as a glance at almost 
any nineteenth-century description will confirm in Venice the 
omens of death are many and various , the belief in witches is 
chiefly confined to women , the different factions of Venice 
each have their bombastic songs , the best place to hear a tradi 
tional story-teller is among the plane trees of the Public Gardens, 
whither the Venetians of the lower orders make, their way for 
the beguilement of their summer evenings . Most of these pic 
turesque beliefs and customs have, so far as I can discover, gone 
with the Hollywood wind. No folksy costumes are worn in 
Venice, and a characteristic demonstration of contemporary 
taste is the silent crowd which, through the dreary winter 
evenings, sits in spellbound rows before the television set in 
every city cafe. 

Occasionally, though, to this very day, a quaint tale or a kit 
chen quirk will remind you of the knotty mediaeval roots of 
Venice, a city of water-peasants. Venetians still point to the 
lamps that burn before the Madonna on the Piazzetta facade of 
the Basilica, and tell you the story of the baker s boy, who was 
wrongly executed for murder, and in whose memory (so they 
have wrongly supposed for several centuries) the lights flicker 
remorsefully night and day. A few Venetians still believe a 
hunchback to be a symbol of good luck. They still paint great 
eyes on the bows of their boats or more often euphemistic 
stars to keep away ill fortune. They still invest their religion 
with a particular aura of magic and necromancy. 

I was once filming inside the courtyard of a disused convent, 
now inhabited by a myriad squatter families. Washing hung 
dismally across the old cloisters, and was draped about the 
ancient well-head (clamped together with wires, to keep it from 
disintegrating); and there were pots and pans in the derelict 
dormitory windows, and ramshackle partitions and privies in 
the remains of the refectory. The place was cold and dirty, and 
a few raggety children played among its debris. A young woman 
was hanging up sheets in the yard, and we asked if we might 

89 



The People 

photograph her, to inject some animation into an otherwise tor 
pid scene: but as she walked obligingly towards our cameras, a 
searing cry came from a window directly above us. There, 
propped witch-like on a window-sill, was a dreadful old woman 
all in black, with a face that was withered and blotchy, and a 
voice of curdling severity. Don t let them do it ! she screeched. 
It s the evil eye ! They did it to my poor husband, only last 
year, the same wicked thing, and within a month he died ! Send 
them away, the evil ones ! Send them away ! The young woman 
paled at these horrific words; the camera-man gaped; and as for 
myself, I was out of the courtyard on the wide free quay before 
the last cracked echoes of her indictment had died away among 
the washing. 

Venice used to be a great place for love potions, alchemists, 
fumigations, salivations of mercury, vapour baths, quacks and 
wise women. Casanova s earliest memory was of a Venetian 
witch, surrounded by black cats, burning drugs and pronoun 
cing incantations over him, for the cure of a nose-bleed. (He 
was inclined that way himself: when the Venetians eventually 
arrested him, it was, so they said, partly for his Voltairean 
notions, and partly because of his interest in sorcery.) In 1649 a 
Venetian doctor offered the State an essence of plague to be 
spread among the Turks by infusing it into textiles sold in 
enemy territory: the Republic did not use his invention, but to 
prevent anyone else getting hold of it, instantly locked the poor 
man up in prison. The well that gave fresh water to the Arsenal, 
we are told, was always pure because two rhinoceros horns had 
been thrown into it. Even now, you sometimes see medical 
mountebanks successfully promoting their cures in Venice. 
Outside the church of San Francesco di Paola I once came 
across a man who claimed to produce miraculous unguents 
from the juices of marmots, two of which animals sat despon 
dently on a table in front of him. He was surrounded by skins, 
bottles and testimonials, like a medicine man. He guaranteed 
instant relief for rheumatism, arthritis, stiffening in the joints, 
colds in the nose, appendicitis, old age, warts, dry skin, falling 
hair and vertigo; and he was doing a brisk trade among the 
morning shoppers. 

In the Middle Ages no sensible visitor to Venice left without 
a bottle of Teriaca, a celebrated potion that cured practically 

90 



Pageantries and Panaceas 

everything (except, its brewers had to admit, the plague). This 
panacea contained gum arabic, pepper, cinnamon, fennel, rose 
petals, opium, amber, aromatic leaves from the East and more 
than sixty kinds of medicinal herbs. It was brewed at certain 
times of the year, under strict State supervision, in great caul 
drons beside the pharmacies outside a chemist s shop in Campo 
Santo Stefano you can still see indentations in the ground, where 
the feet of the cauldrons used to rest. An emasculated version of 
the medicine is still sold in Venice, at the Pharmacy of the 
Golden Head, beside the Rialto bridge. A fine and secretive cat, 
sustaining the spirit of the thing, sits upon the counter of this 
shop, and the Teriaca is kept in a big glass jar on a shelf against 
the wall. The wrapper has a golden head upon it, crowned with 
laurels, and the instructions say that the mixture will be found 
useful in dealing with afflictions intestinal, nervous, verminous 
and stomachic*. A layer of coarse brown paper follows, and the 
Teriaca is contained in a cylindrical metal container, like a fat 
cartridge case. A brown treacly fluid oozes from the lid of this 
box: but whether this is actually the mixture, or whether it is 
merely some sealing substance, I am unable to say; for to tell the 
truth I have never had the courage to take the top off. 

With the primitive goes the filthy. Venice is a dirty city, for 
all its grand facades and its well-swept alleys. There are strict 
laws against the throwing of rubbish into the canals punish 
able, if the offence is repeated, by imprisonment: but a vile mass 
of refuse is thrown in anyway, and the Venetian housewife 
thinks nothing of emptying her rubbish-basket and dust-pan out 
of the open window, where its miscellaneous muck can be 
blown by the winds across the city, into the neighbour s garden, 
up and down the back-alleys. After a night or two in a side- 
canal, my boat is hideous with rubbish, from orange peel to torn 
letters, and odious is the flotsam that swirls and gurgles past you, 
if you sit beside the water for a moment of meditation. This is 
partly because the Venetian drainage system is simplicity itself, 
usually consisting of pipes out of houses into canals; and partly 
because the Venetians have only rudimentary instincts of hy 
giene. For several hundred years Venetian officialdom has wor 
ried itself about the civic sanitation, but the average citizen pours 



The People 

her slops into the canal as blithely as ever she did in the Middle 
Ages. This was, I am told, the last big Italian city to revive the 
Roman practice of baths in houses: and though the poor 
woman s parlour is usually spick and gleaming, her back yard 
is often horrible. The canals of Venice are Hned with accumula 
tions of garbage, and nothing is more strongly worded, in the 
whole range of travel literature, than Herr Baedeker s warning 
against Venetian oysters. 

Dirty, too, is the unsuspected pall of smut which falls through 
this pellucid atmosphere in winter, and keeps the laundry ever a 
little short of perfection. This is, though, the fault not of the 
Venetian housewife, but of the old Venetian architects. Their 
chimneys are charmingly inconsequential in appearance (some 
body once wrote a book about them) and were specifically 
designed to prevent flying sparks in a city that was often ravaged 
by fire. With their complicated double flues and inner chambers, 
however, they are confoundedly difficult to clean. The Venetian 
chimney-sweep works from the top, lowering bundles of twigs 
on cords and then pulling them out again. This entails endless 
scrambles across rickety roof-tops, clutching antique cornices, 
swarming over tottering balconies. I once chanced to look out 
of my bedroom window to see the jet-black face of one of these 
men hanging almost upside-down from the roof above. He had 
a bundle of sticks in his hand, and a rope around his shoulders, 
and behind him were all the pinnacles, towers and curious 
weather-vanes that form the setting of his labours: but there was 
nothing really unfamiliar about him, for when he smiled I 
recognized him instantly as a member of that prime and splen 
did fraternity, the universal brotherhood of sweeps, whose 
cheerful sooty attitudes have so endeared themselves to the 
world that even the most aloofly unsuperstitious of brides, 
swathed in silk and clouded in Chanel, is pleased to see one at 
her wedding. 

8 
POI CRIST I AN I 

The Venetians are not quite so religious as you might suppose 

92 



Poi Cristiani 

from their multitude of churches and their mystical origins. 
About the same as the Romans, 5 an official at the Patriarchate 
once told me, after judicial thought, perhaps a bit better than 
the Milanese* and these were, he seemed to imply, scarcely 
celestial standards of judgement. The great force of popular 
faith, which sustained the Republic through many trials, and 
was apparently still potent half a century ago, has lost its 
dominance. Today the great religious festivals are often ill 
attended, and the supreme summer services at the Basilica 
generally attract more tourists than Venetians. In some parts of 
the city, in the Italian manner, religion is laced with politics, so 
that Catholic and Communist slogans angrily confront each 
other on shop walls : but there is no sense of priestly power in 
Venice, and democratic though its Christian Democrats may be, 
they are not always very profoundly Christian. 

The texture of the city, of course, is shot through with Chris 
tian symbols, and there are well-known miracles for every 
quarter. At the ferry station of Santa Maria Zobenigo a devout 
virgin, denied the use of the ferry to the church, walked across 
the Grand Canal instead. In the Basilica there is a wooden 
crucifix which, struck by a blasphemer, gushed forth blood. An 
angel once broke the fall of a workman who slipped from St. 
Mark s Campanile, catching him in mid-fall and gently restor 
ing him to his scaffolding. From the Riva degli Schiavoni a 
fisherman once sailed on a voyage across the lagoon commis 
sioned by Saints Mark, Nicholas and George, in the course of 
which they exorcised a shipload of demons (the fisherman asked 
anxiously which of the saints was going to pay him). In 1672 an 
old and simple-minded sacristan fell from the campanile of Santi 
Apostoli, but was miraculously caught by the minute hand of 
the clock, which, slowly revolving to six o clock, deposited him 
safely on a parapet. In the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, beside the 
Basilica, a slave was rescued from judicial blinding by the inter 
vention of St. Mark, who projected himself upside down into 
the assembly and, as a famous Tintoretto demonstrates, froze the 
burning brand in mid-air. There are miracle-working Madonnas 
in the churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Madonna dell 
Orto, and the figure of the Virgin in San Marziale came to 
Venice of its own accord by sea from Rimini. 

The celebrated Nicopeia Madonna in the Basilica, one of 

93 



The People 

many such ikons supposed to have been painted by St. Luke, is 
still reverenced; a picture said to be by Giorgione, formerly in 
the church of San Rocco, was long believed to have miraculous 
powers; and in all parts of the city there are curative relics, 
shrines and statues. The silver hearts of votive offerings decorate 
almost every Venetian church. One grateful supplicant to the 
Giorgione picture, whose misery we do not know, had a marble 
cast of the painting made in thanksgiving and this was pro 
phetic, for presently the picture was removed from the church 
and placed in the neighbouring Scuola di San Rocco, and now 
only the votive copy remains. Another grateful worshipper hung 
a rifle beside a picture of the Madonna near the chapel of the 
Mascoli in the Basilica: it hangs there still, but nobody seems to 
know its story. 

There are 107 churches in. the city proper one for every 200 
inhabitants of which 80 are still in use. Venice, including its 
mainland suburbs and its islands, houses 24 men s convents and 
about 30 women s, from at least 13 different Orders. There are 
some 230 priests in Venice, under a Patriarch who is nowadays 
nearly always a Cardinal, and who shares his title, in the Western 
countries, only with the Patriarchs of Lisbon and the West 
Indies. There have been 51 Bishops of Venice, and 144 Patri 
archs, and between them they have produced 3 Popes and 17 
Cardinals. More than 100 saints are represented in the street 
names of the city, from St. Julian the Martyr, who is now 
thought never to have existed at all, to San Giovanni in Olio 
St. John the Evangelist, who is said to have emerged unharmed 
from a vat of boiling oil into which the Emperor Domitian had 
plunged him. There are churches of St. Moses and St. Job, and 
the Madonna is honoured in a series of exquisite eponyms 
St. Mary of the Lily, of Consolation, of Health, of Grace, of 
The Garden, of the Friars; St. Mary the Fragrant, St. Mary the 
Beautiful, St. Mary the Processional, St. Mary the Mother of 
the Lord. 

But it seems a dying order that is represented by these pieties. 
Only the guides speak of the Venetian miracles with much air 
of conviction, and the young Venetians tell the old stories, often 
enough, with a fond but patronizing smile. Rome, indeed, has 
never maintained an easy hold over Venice. Veneziani, poi 
Cristiani, is how her people used to describe themselves Vene- 

94 



Poi Cristiani* 

tians first, Christians afterwards. Redeem us, O Christ! sang 
the choir of St. Mark in the Middle Ages. O Christ, reign! 
O Christ, triumph ! O Christ, command ! The response, though, 
was not so orthodox, for the other half of the cathedral would 
answer: To the Most Serene and Excellent Doge, Health, 
Honour, Life and Victory Perpetual! 

Are you a Venetian? I once asked a saintly Dominican in 
the church of San Zanipolo. No, thank God ! he replied, in a 
genuinely grateful tone of voice. This is a citizenry more hard- 
boiled, sceptical and sophisticated than the peasantry of the 
mainland countryside. The Show Me State is an old sobriquet 
for Missouri, implying a tendency to look gift horses attentively 
in the mouth; it would do equally well for Venice. The Repub 
lic was never feudal, and its political system was never amenable 
to clerical intimidation. There was a time, early in the seven 
teenth century, when Venice hesitated on the brink of Protes 
tantism (with Sir Henry Wotton, the British Ambassador, 
energetically trying to push her over). Several times in her his 
tory she was indicted or excommunicated by the Pope; during 
Paolo Sarpi s period of office as theological adviser to the Doge, 
in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the quarrel with 
the Holy See was so profound that Venice became the champion 
of secular State rights, and two bishops languished in the prisons 
of the Doge s Palace. 

Her painters were sometimes notable for an almost pagan 
profligacy and riot of imagination. Veronese, indeed, was sum 
moned before the Inquisition of the Holy Office for including 
dogs, buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such 
absurdities in a picture he had painted of the Last Supper. He 
replied that he had allowed himself the same licence as poets 
and madmen , and this the inquisitors seemed to accept, not 
without humour. They ordered him to correct his picture, but 
instead he simply altered its title, and today it hangs in the 
Accademia as the Feast at the House ofLevi, dwarfs, Germans, 
dogs and all. ( What signifies the figure of him whose nose is 
bleeding? asked the inquisitors during the hearing. He is a 
servant , replied the artist blandly, who has a nose-bleed from 
some accident. ) 

For in her heyday Venice was subservient to the Papacy only 
when she found it convenient. Her parish priests were elected by 

95 



The People 

a ballot of parishioners, under State direction, and the Pontiff 
was merely notified of their appointment. Bishops were nom 
inated in the Senate, and even the Patriarch could not convene a 
synod without the permission of the Doge. All priests had to be 
of Venetian birth, and they could never be sure of their cus 
tomary privileges : in the fifteenth century clerics convicted of 
various immoralities were hung in cages high on the side of 
St. Mark s Campanile, sometimes living there for a year on 
bread and water, sometimes allegedly starving to death, and 
providing one of the principal tourist attractions of the city. 
The Grand Council of Venice met pointedly on Sundays and 
feast days, and time and again its policies on the slave trade, and 
on intercourse with Muslims, were in direct defiance of Papal 
decrees. A party of fifteenth-century Christian missionaries, lost 
in the Balkan hinterland, eventually turned up for sale in the 
Venetian slave market: and when da Gama found the sea route 
to India, the Venetians openly incited the Sultan of Egypt to 
make war upon the Portuguese, offering to find timber for the 
necessary warships, and to provide shipwrights, caulkers, cannon- 
founders and naval architects. In the Venetian priorities, Venice 
came unmistakably first. 

The true cathedral of the city (until 1797) was San Pietro di 
Castello, on the eastern perimeter: but its practical spiritual 
centre was the Basilica of St. Mark s the Doge s private chapel. 
During the period of the great interdict, in 1606, one priest, 
wary of Venetian pride but not wishing to disobey the Pope, 
announced that he was waiting for the Holy Ghost to tell him 
whether to celebrate Mass or not: the Republican Government 
replied that the Holy Ghost had already inspired them to hang 
anyone who refused. Will you kindly kneel? said an eighteenth- 
century Venetian Senator to a visiting Englishman, as the con 
gregation in the Basilica fell on their knees before the Host. I 
don t believe in transubstantiation, the Englishman replied. 
Neither do I/ said the Senator, but either kneel down or get 
out of the church! 

The churches of Venice have thus had their ups and downs. 
The blackened chapel of the Rosary in the church of San Zani- 
polo, which was burnt in 1867, was deliberately destroyed, so 
the monks tell you darkly, by Anti-Religious . The church of 
San Gerolamo once became a brick factory, and had smoke 

96 



f Poi Cristiani 

belching from its bell-tower. The church of Sant Elena was 
used as an iron-foundry. The church of San Bartolomeo, in the 
fifteenth century, was used as a civil service school. The church 
of Santa Marina, in the nineteenth, was used as a tavern, and a 
visitor reported that its servants, hurrying between customers 
and bar, used to be heard shouting : A jug of white in the Chapel 
of the Madonna ! The same again at the Altar of the Sacrament ! 
Madonna dell Orto has been, in its time, a stables, a straw store 
and a powder magazine. The church of San Vitale is now an 
art gallery, its frenzied abstracts supervised in serene splendour 
by a Carpaccio above the old high altar. The church of San 
Leonardo is the practice-room of the municipal band, heavily 
decorated with photographs of whiskered long-dead maestros. 
There is a church used as a factory on Giudecca, and another 
provides some of the galleries of the Accademia, and a third is a 
cinema in Campo Santa Margherita. San Basso, by St. Mark s, 
is a lecture hall. San Vio, near the Accademia bridge, only opens 
on one day each year its saint s day. Santa Maria Maggiore is 
a ruinous part of the prison. 

Some of the finest Venetian churches San Zanipolo, San 
Marcuola, San Lorenzo, San Pantaleone have never been fin 
ished, as their brick fasades show. Many others have disappeared. 
Four churches were demolished, at Napoleon s orders, to make 
the Public Gardens. One, by Palladio, vanished beneath the 
foundations of the railway station. The remains of one lie be 
neath the great red mills at the western tip of Giudecca, and the 
wreck of another still lingers beside the docks. Sant Aponal was 
once put up for auction; so was San Paternian, but as nobody 
bought it they pulled it down instead to make way for the 
statue in Campo Manin. A Byzantine column near the station 
bridge is all that remains of the church of Santa Croce, which 
still gives its name to one of the Venetian postal districts. As long 
ago as 1173 the Venetians were placed under papal interdict for 
altering the church of San Geminiano without the Pope s per 
mission they wanted to improve the appearance of the Piazza; 
in the end Napoleon demolished it altogether, but it is said to 
have looked, in its final version, exactly like the church of San 
Maurizio, near the Accademia bridge. In the i86os there were 
serious demands for the demolition of St. Mark s Basilica itself, 
made by those Italian iconoclasts who, sick to death of being 

97 



The People 

treated as curators in a national museum, wanted to knock all of 
old Italy down, and start afresh. 

Today the worst is probably over. The priest at the Patriarch 
ate may tell you, with a meaning sigh, that Venice is a religious 
city by tradition: but at least there is not much active hostility to 
the faith. Religious processions are no longer derided, as they 
were, so Wagner tells us, as recently as 1858 (partly, no doubt, 
because many priests collaborated with the Austrian overlords). 
The church suffers no ignominies in Venice. Its buildings are 
usually immaculate, and you will find little of that damp rot 
and neglect so deliciously apparent to the old Protestant guide 
books. At least two disused churches are now being restored, 
and the activities of the church, from youth clubs to magazines, 
are inescapable. The Patriarch is one of the great men of Venice, 
and most citizens, even the agnostic, have strong feelings about 
him. Cardinal Sarto, who became Pope Pius X, is remembered 
with real affection, especially among the poorer people. One of 
his successors is less happily recalled. "We Venetians, we like 
sympathetic people/ you will be told, we like simple people, 
kind people* and here your informant, looking up from her 
washing, will give you a long sickly smile, intended to indicate 
compassion, understanding, humility. But this Cardinal So- 
and-So, he was not at all like that, he was always cosiurgh! 
and with this sharp guttural expletive she will look up again, 
this time her face -congealed in a condition of unutterable 
hauteur, its eyes drooping contemptuously, its chin compressed. 
Ah, no, no, no, we did not like him but then, Signor Mor 
ris, guarda, along came Cardinal Roncalli, who is now // 
Papa, Pope Giovanni XXIII ah, Signor Morris, ah, so differ 
ent ... I And so intense will be the sickly smile this time, so 
brimming the eyes with admiration, so limp the entire body 
under its load of commiseration, that she is quite unable to 
finish the sentence, wipes her face with the corner of her apron, 
and returns to the sink speechless. The Patriarchs of Venice do 
not go unremarked. 

Much of the colour and richness of the city still comes from 
the church its myriad wonderful buildings; its processions and 
festivals and treasures; its incense and organ music, billowing 

98 



f Poi Cristiani* 

through curtained doors into dim-lit squares; its thousands of 
monks, biting their lower lips in self-deprecation as they make 
their rounds of mendicancy, or swarming athletically up dizzy 
wires to attend to the lamps of the Frari. Priests are ubiquitous 
in Venice, and I remember with particular delight walking 
towards the Zattere on the morning of Palm Sunday, and meet 
ing on the quayside a column of cheerful chattering nuns, all 
pink, black and wimpled white, scurrying home to lunch with 
their palms held high and joyful. On Sunday afternoons the 
churches are full of ill-disciplined children s classes, the cracked 
voices of youths, the high tinny catechisms of little girls : and 
almost every Venetian water-bus has a small crucifix on the 
wall of the steersman s cabin. 

The church in Venice, though, is something more than all 
things bright and beautiful. It is descended from Byzantium, by 
faith out of nationalism: and sometimes to its high ritual in the 
Basilica of St. Mark there is a tremendous sense of an eastern 
past, marbled, hazed and silken. St. Mark s itself is a barbaric 
building, like a great Mongolian pleasure pavilion, or a fortress 
in Turkestan: and sometimes there is a suggestion of rich bar 
barism to its services too, devout, reverent and beautiful though 
they are. 

In Easter week each year the Patriarch and his clergy bring 
from the vaults of the church treasury all its most sacred relics, 
and display them ceremonially to the people. This ancient 
function is heavy with reminders of the Orient. It takes place in 
the evening, when the Piazza is dark, and the dim lights of the 
Basilica shine mysteriously on the gold mosaics of its roof. The 
congregation mills about the nave in the half-light, switching 
from side to side, not knowing which way to look. A beadle in 
a cocked hat, with a silver sword and the face of a hereditary 
retainer, stands in a peremptory eighteenth-century attitude 
beside a pillar. The organ plays quietly from its loft, and some 
times there is a chant of male voices, and sometimes a sudden 
hubbub from the square outside when the door of the church is 
opened. All is murmurous, brown and glinting. 

A flash of gold and silver from an aisle, a swish of stiff vest 
ments, the clink of a censer, and presently there advances 
through the crowd, clouded in incense, the patriarchal proces 
sion. Preceded by flurrying vergers, clearing a way through the 

99 



The People 

congregation, it sweeps slowly and rheumatically up the church. 
A golden canopy of old tapestry sways and swings above the 
mitred Patriarch, and around it walk the priests, solemn and 
shuffling, clasping reverently the celebrated relics of St. Mark s 
(enclosed in golden frames, jewelled caskets, crucifixes, mediaeval 
monstrances). You cannot see very well, for the crowd is con 
stantly jostling, and the atmosphere is thick; but as the priests 
pass slowly by you catch a queer glimpse of copes and reli 
quaries, a cross set with some strange sacred souvenir, a frag 
ment of bone in a crystal sphere, weird, ornate, elaborate 
objects, swaying and bobbing above the people as the old men 
carrying them stumble towards the altar. 

It is an eastern ceremonial, a thing of misty and exotic splen 
dour. When you turn to leave the great church, all those holy 
objects are placed on the rim of the pulpit, and all those grave 
priests are crowded together behind, like so many white-haired 
scholarly birds. Incense swirls around them; the church is full of 
slow shining movement; and in the Piazza outside, when you 
open the door, the holiday Venetians stroll from cafe to cafe in 
oblivion, like the men who sell Coca-Cola beneath the sneer of 
the Sphinx. 

If the Venetians are not always devout, they are usually kind. 
They have always had a reputation, like other money-makers, 
for generosity to the poor. The five Great Schools of Venice, of 
which the Scuola di San Rocco is now the most famous, were 
charitable associations set up to perform temporal works of 
mercy : and even Baron Corvo, in his worst years of disillusion 
ment, had to admit that when it came to charitable causes the 
Venetians were extraordinarily generous. The indigenous beg 
gars of the city are treated with indulgence, and are seldom 
moved on by the easy-going police. There is a dear old lady, 
bundled in shawls, who sits in the evenings at the bottom of the 
Accademia bridge, and has many faithful patrons. There is a 
bent old man who haunts the alleys near Santo Stefano, and who 
is often to be seen, pacing from one stand to another, plucking a 
neat little melody upon his guitar. On Sunday mornings a faun- 
like couple of countrymen materialize on the quayside of 
Giudecca with a set of bagpipes and a wooden whistle. A well- 
known comic figure of the Zattere is a man in a cloth cap and a 

100 



c Poi Cristiani 

long blue overcoat who suddenly appears among the tables of 
the outdoor cafes, and planting himself in an uncompromising 
posture on the pavement, legs apart, head thrown back, pro 
duces a sheet of music from his pocket and throws himself into 
a loud and quite incomprehensible aria, tuneless and spasmodic, 
but delivered with such an air of informed authority that there 
are always a few innocents to be seen following the melodic line 
with rapt knowledgeable attention. I once asked this man if I 
could see his music, and discovered it to be a specimen page 
from a score of Beethoven s Ninth Symphony, held upside 
down and close to the stomach. 

I suspect the Venetians, who still have a strong clan feeling, 
may sometimes be less forbearing towards unfamiliar loafers. 
Now and then you see gypsies who have penetrated the city 
from the mainland in their colourful long-skirted dresses, and 
who whine their way from square to square with babies in their 
arms and skinny hands outstretched. I myself have a weakness 
for gypsies, but the Venetians are evidently not addicts, and you 
hardly ever see a Romany beggar rewarded. I was once a beggar 
in Venice myself. One bleak winter evening my boat engine 
broke down, and I needed a shilling to take the ferry-boat home. 
Providence, I assured myself, in a city so divinely founded, 
would certainly provide: and sure enough, presently there 
approached me a monk from one of the mendicant orders, 
whom I had often seen carrying sacks from household to house 
hold, and who was now returning to his nearby convent. I 
stopped him and asked him for the loan of 100 lire until the next 
day: but chill and suspicious was the response I got; and cold 
the doorstep upon which, at the entrance to the monastery, my 
family and I were left in lonely hope; and tortuous were the 
channels through which the consent of the Abbot was vainly 
sought; and gruff was the porter who told us to go and wait in 
the adjacent church; and low-voiced the consultation of friars 
which reached us sibilantly as we stood in the nave; and hasty 
and off-hand were the manners of the monk who at last ap 
proached me sidelong, as if unwilling to come too close, and 
thrust the coin into my hand as you might offer a bone to an 
unreliable terrier; and irritating was my conviction, when I 
returned to repay the loan next morning, that the doorman who 
casually accepted it, beneath the grinning memento mori decor- 

101 



The People 

ating his portal, almost certainly pocketed the money for himself. 

But if I was cynical then, I am less so today, for now I know 
Venice better, and have no doubt that if I had entered some 
slatternly dockside tavern that evening, and put my case to the 
ill-shaved sinner behind the bar, he would have lent me the 
money in a trice, and thrown in a glass of sour white wine as a 
bonus. Compassion really is a powerful emotion among the 
simpler Venetians. In the eighteenth century the idea of pain 
was so insufferable to them that even characters in a play, if they 
happened to be killed, had to take a quick posthumous bow, to 
reassure the anxious audience, and accept its sympathetic cries of 
Bravo i morti! 9 This is a melancholy city at heart, and its in 
habitants are constantly shaking their heads in pity over some 
pathetic new evidence of the world s sadness. When a visitor 
from Bologna was drowned in the Grand Canal one evening, 
my housekeeper was almost in tears about him next day; and 
when a funeral goes by to the cemetery of San Michele, you 
may hear the onlookers muttering to themselves in condolence: 
*Oh, the poor one, oh, dead, dead, poor thing ah, away he 
goes, away to San Michele, il povero ! r 

Bad weather, too, is a subject for tender distress; and the fate 
of poor Venice herself, once so powerful; and sometimes a 
stroke of international ill fortune, a train accident in Uruguay, 
the failure of a conference, a princess unmarried or a sportsman 
discarded, summons a brief gleam of poignancy into the Vene 
tian eye. Searing indeed is the sorrow that lingers for months, 
even years, after the death of a second cousin, so that the very 
mention of the cemetery is enough to send a mask of mourning 
fleeting across the bereaved features: and whenever the Venetian 
woman mentions her dear Uncle Carlo, who passed to a higher 
realm, as you will have long ago discovered, on i8th September 
1936 the mere thought of Uncle Carlo, and the whole business 
of the day must be momentarily suspended. 

There is a trace of the morbid to this soft-heartedness. Vene 
tians are fascinated by dead things, horrors, prisons, freaks and 
malformations. They love to talk, with a mixture of heartburn 
and abhorrence, about the islands of hospitals and lunatic asy 
lums that ring Venice like an incantation, and to demonstrate 
with chilling gestures the violence of some of the poor inmates. 
Fierce was their disappointment when the corpse of their beloved 

102 



( Poi Cristiani* 

Pius X, laid in state in its crystal coffin, turned out to have a 
gilded mask for a face (he had been dead for forty years, and 
they were curious about his condition). 

There is something Oriental, too, about the predictability of 
their emotions. A sort of etiquette or formality summons the 
tears that start so instantaneously into the eyes of Maria, when 
you mention her poor relative, as if her affliction were no more 
than an antique ritual, like the wailing of hired mourners at an 
Egyptian funeral. It is a custom in Venice, as elsewhere in Italy, 
to announce deaths by posting notices in shops and cafes, often 
with a photograph; and elaborate is the sadness of the people 
you may sometimes see distributing these announcements, and 
extraordinary its contagiousness, so that for a few moments 
after their departure the whole cafe is plunged in gloom, and 
the very hiss of the espresso machine is muffled. 

A streak of sentimentality runs through Venetian life, sur 
prising in a city of such stringy fibre. A Venetian crowd usually 
has a soft spot for the under-dog, and the last competitor in the 
regatta always gets a kindly cheer. I once saw the aftermath of a 
fight between two youths, beside the Rialto bridge. One was a 
willowy, handsome young man, who had placed a tray of pack 
ages on the stone steps beside him, and was engulfed in tears; 
the other a bronzed, tough and square-cut fish-boy, a Gothic 
boy, with a stentorian voice and a fist like iron. The slender 
youth was appealing to the crowd for justice, his voice breaking 
with grievances, now and then hoisting his shirt from his 
trousers to exhibit his bruises. The fish-boy was pacing up and 
down like a caged lion, sporadically pushing through the spec 
tators to project an insult, now spitting, now giving his opponent 
a contemptuous shove or a grimace of mockery. My own sym 
pathies were whole-heartedly with this uncouth ruffian, a Vene 
tian of the old school: but the crowd clustered protectively 
about the other, and a woman ushered him tearfully towards 
the Rialto, out of harm s way, amid murmured commiserations 
on all sides. One man only held himself aloof, and seemed to 
share my sympathies. He was a dwarf, a little man dressed all in 
black, with a beret on his head, who stood on tiptoe at the back 
of the crowd, peering between its agitated shoulders: but I was 
mistaken, for when I caught this person s eye, and offered him a 
guilty and conspiratorial smile, he stared back at me balefully, 

103 



The People 

as you might look at an unrepentant matricide, or a man with a 
well-known penchant for cruelty to babies. 

There are many such dwarfs and hunchbacks in Venice, as 
observers have noted for hundreds of years, and they too are 
treated with kindness (though there used to be a superstition to 
the effect that you must keep thirty paces away from a lame 
man, which perhaps contributed to Lord Byron s well-known 
reluctance to appear in the Piazza in daylight). Many are given 
jobs as sacristans or cleaners in churches, and flit like smiling 
gnomes among their shadowy chancels. There are also many 
and varied originals, women a-flutter with scarves and anachron 
istic skirts, men talking angrily into the night from the parapets 
of bridges. Artists are really artists in Venice, and often wear 
floppy cravats and wide-brimmed hats, and meet jovially to eat 
enormous meals in taverns. In the spring evenings a group of 
apparently demented girls used to dance beside the Grand Canal 
outside my window, and sometimes in the middle of the night 
you will near a solitary opera-lover declaiming Tosca into the 
darkness from the poop of a steamboat. Foreigners of blatant 
individualism have always frequented Venice, from George 
Sand in tight trousers at the Danieli to Orson Welles propped 
massively against Harry s Bar: but they have never disconcerted 
the Venetians, long accustomed to the extremes of human 
behaviour. At the height of the Venetian autocracy, in the fif 
teenth century, a well-known exhibitionist used to parade the 
canals in a gondola, shouting abuse at the regime and demand 
ing the instant obliteration of all aristocrats everywhere* He was 
never molested, for even the stern Council of Ten had a soft 
spot for the eccentric. 

You may also be drunk in Venice, oddly enough, without 
antagonizing the town. Though most proper Venetians have 
lost their taste for bawdy, and are a demure conventional people, 
nevertheless their evenings are frequently noisy with drunks. 
Often they are visitors, or seamen from the docks, but their 
clamour echoes indiscriminately through the high walls and 
water-canyons of the place, and sometimes makes the midnight 
hideous. In Venice you may occasionally see a man thrown 
forcibly from a bar, all arms and muddled protests, just as in 
the films ; and rollicking are the songs the Venetian students sing, 
when they have some wine inside them. I once heard a pair ojf 

104 



Minorities 

inebriates passing my window at four o clock on a May morn 
ing, and looking out into the Rio San Trovaso I saw them riding 
by in a gondola. They were sitting on the floor of the boat, 
drumming on its floor-boards, banging its seats, singing and 
shouting incoherently at the tops of their thickened voices: but 
on the poop of the gondola, rowing with an easy, dry, worldly 
stroke, an elderly grey-haired gondolier propelled them aloofly 
towards the dawn. 



9 
MINORITIES 

The practical tolerance of Venice has always made it a cosmo 
politan city, where east and west mingle, and where (as Shake 
speare rightly said) the trade and profit of this State consisteth 
of all nations . Settlers of many races contributed to the power 
and texture of the Republic, as you can see from the paintings 
of the masters, which often picture turbaned Moors and Turks 
among the crowds, and sometimes even Negro gondoliers. 
Venice in its commercial prime was like a bazaar city, or a 
caravanserai, where the Greeks, the Jews, the Armenians and the 
Dalmatians all had their quarters, and the Germans and the 
Turks their great emporia. One of the pillars of the Doge s 
Palace illustrates this diversity: for there, side by side upon a 
column-head, are the faces of a Persian, a Latin, a Tartar, a 
Turk, a Greek, a Hungarian, a bearded Egyptian and a surpris 
ingly innocuous Goth. (We need not suppose, though, that the 
old Venetians had many illusions about equality. Around the 
corner there are eight more faces, on another capital: seven are 
hideous, one is handsome, and this thin, thoughtful and digni 
fied portrait , says Ruskin, thoroughly fine in every way , is 
meant to express the superiority of the Venetian character over 
that of other nations .) 

Of all these alien residents the most resilient have been the 
Jews, who enjoyed a position in mediaeval Venice half-way be 
tween protection and persecution. They first came to the city in 
1373, as refugees from the mainland, and were originally forced 
to live (or so most historians seem to think) on the island of 

105 



The People 

Giudecca, which may be named after them, or may come from 
the word judicato , implying that it was adjudged 5 a suitable 
place for Jews, vagabonds and rogues. In the sixteenth century 
the first of all the Ghettos was instituted for them, in the north 
western part of the city. It was on the site of a disused ironworks 
the word ghetto is thought to have been mediaeval Venetian 
for a foundry and all the Jews, now suddenly supplemented by 
fugitives from the wars of the League of Cambrai, were forced 
to live in it. 

They had to wear a special costume (first a yellow hat, later a 
red) ; they were relentlessly taxed on every conceivable pretext; 
they had to pay through the nose for permission, frequently 
renewable, to remain in the city at all. Their Ghetto was window- 
less on its outside walls, to cut it off entirely from the rest of the 
city, and its gates were locked at sunset. Christian guards (paid, 
of course, by the Jews) prevented all entry or exit after dark. 
Yet though the Jews were so harshly circumscribed, and 
squeezed for all financial advantage, they were physically safer 
in Venice than almost anywhere else in Europe. The Venetians 
found them useful. Once or twice there were the usual canards 
about Jewish baby-burners; in 1735 the official commissioners 
appointed to govern the affairs of the Jews had to report that the 
Ghetto was bankrupt; but over the centuries the Venetian Jews, 
protected against public violence or religious fanaticism, en 
joyed periods of prosperity and prestige. 

In the seventeenth century the ladies of the Ghetto were 
described as gorgeous in their apparel, jewels, chains of gold 
and rings adorned with precious stones . . . having marvellous 
long trains like Princesses that are borne up by waiting women 
serving for the same purpose . Henry VIII consulted a learned 
Venetian Jew when he was planning his divorce suit against 
Catherine of Aragon. Some of the rabbis of Venice were cele 
brated throughout Europe, and it became a fashionable practice 
for visitors to attend a sermon in a Ghetto synagogue. Napoleon 
abolished the Ghetto in 1797: and when, in 1848, the Venetians 
rebelled against their Austrian masters, their leader was half- 
Jewish, and Jewish brain-power gave the revolutionary Republic 
its astonishing financial stability. 

People have often observed an affinity between Venetians and 
Jews a common aptitude for money-making, a similar sense of 

1 06 



Minorities 

wry humour, a shared feeling of national exclusion. One Ed 
wardian visitor wrote of the Hebrew bearing* of the priests of 
St. Mark s. Somebody else has mentioned the conviction with 
which Venetian painters depicted Old Testament patriarchs. 
Today it is very difficult to tell who is a Jew in Venice. Lord 
Fisher, who had British Israelite sympathies, used to say that the 
faces of the Lost Tribes were obviously different from those of 
the other Jews, otherwise they wouldn t be lost : but often the 
male Venetian face, grave and meditative, has a strikingly Jewish 
cast to it, redolent of Venice s Eastern commerce, and the in 
fusions of Oriental culture (and blood, too) that have enriched 
the city down the centuries. 

There are still about a thousand Jews in Venice. Some still 
live in the three sections of the Ghetto, Vecchio, Nuovo, Nuovis- 
simo Old, New and Newest: the story goes that when Napo 
leon s soldiers threw open the gates, the inmates were so 
debilitated that they had not the strength to move, and have 
stayed there ever since. Many more live in other parts of the 
city. They are mostly middle-class citizens and professional men 
only a few are very rich and they retain a strong sense of 
community. The tall teeming houses of the Ghetto are still poor 
and filthy, and the canal behind them, upon which the guards 
used to float watchfully about in scows, is usually thick with 
slime and refuse: but there is a comfortable Jewish old people s 
home, and a well-endowed meeting hall, and an interesting 
little museum of Ancient and Artistic Jewish Objects . The 
Jewish cemetery on the Lido island, once Byron s riding-ground 
and a playing field for ribald adolescents, is now handsomely 
maintained. Of the five Ghetto synagogues one originally for 
Levantine Jews, one for Spaniards, one for Italians and two for 
Germans two are still used for services (another is part of the 
museum, and the rest are high and inaccessible in tenement 
blocks). 

If you visit one on the day of the Passover, you may see how 
trim, bright and gregarious the Venetian Jews are today. The 
Rabbi stands hunched and scholarly on his high dais. The usher 
wears his tall top-hat at a rakish angle. A few well-dressed 
women peer down from the oval gallery, high in the ceiling of 
the synagogue. On the men s side of the floor the congregation 
sits placid or devout: on the women s side there is a flurry of 

107 



The People 

bright dresses and floral hats, a bustle of starched children, a 
cheerful buzz of gossip and a veil of perfume (Ca d Oro, perhaps, 
named for a palace on the Grand Canal, or Evenings in Venice, 
with a blue gondola and a pair of lovers on the package). All 
seems vigorous and uninhibited, and it is moving to remember, 
as the porter at the door ushers you politely into the sunshine, 
that you are standing in the middle of the very first of all the 
sad Ghettos of the world. 

On the walls outside, though, two inscriptions are worth 
reading before you leave the place. One is a sixteenth-century 
notice declaring the intention of the Republican magistrates to 
repress the sin of blasphemy, as committed both by Jews proper 
and by converted Jews. They have therefore ordered this procla 
mation to be carved in stone in the most frequented part of the 
Ghetto, and threaten with the cord, stocks, whip, galleys or 
prisons all who are guilty of blasphemy. Their Excellencies offer 
to receive secret denunciations and to reward informers by a 
sum of a hundred ducats to be taken from the property of the 
offender upon conviction. 

The other inscription is a modern one. It records the fact that 
of the 8,000 Italian Jews who lost their lives in the second world 
war, 200 were Venetians. From the first plaque the Jews, presum 
ably at the fall of the Republic, have roughly removed the 
image of the Lion of St. Mark, symbol of their servitude: but 
the second plaque they put up themselves. 



At the other end of the city, beyond the Piazza of St. Mark, 
stood the Greek quarter of Venice, once thriving, rich and 
assured. Only a century ago the Greek colony lent a familiar 
splash of colour to the city, and had its own meeting-places and 
restaurants, and even its own cafe in the Piazza. Venice once 
paid hazy allegiance to the Byzantine Emperors, and though the 
Venetians later quarrelled violently with Constantinople, and 
engineered the temporary downfall of the Greek Empire, never 
theless the Serenissima was always close to the world of the 
Greeks, and deeply influenced by its ways. The Greeks, grocers 
and money-lenders to the Levant, were money-lenders here too, 
and flourished in many a minor business in the days before visas 
and import licences. For several centuries they fluctuated in reli- 

108 



Minorities 

gious loyalty between Rome and. Constantinople, one bishop 
playing a double game with such conspicuous ineptitude that he 
was simultaneously excommunicated both by the Pope and by 
the Oecumenical Patriarch. The Government did not often 
press the issue, for it welcomed the presence of the prosperous 
Greek merchants, and until 1781 the Greek Church in Venice 
maintained a precarious communion with Rome, only becom 
ing frankly schismatic when Napoleon proclaimed liberty of 
conscience throughout conquered Venetia. 

In the heyday of the colony there were 10,000 Greeks in 
Venice. They established a school, the Phlangineion, which be 
came one of the great centres of Greek culture abroad, when the 
Turks overran the homeland. Longhena designed a building for 
it, which still stands, and Sansovino built the adjacent church of 
San Giorgio dei Greci. Many of the most brilliant Venetian 
courtesans were Greeks. In the sixteenth and seventeenth cen 
turies Greek wines were drunk at all the best Venetian tables. 
Many Greeks of great wealth came to Venice after the fall of 
Constantinople, and Venetians sometimes owned, when the 
political winds were blowing right, villas and gardens in the 
M.orea. 

Even now you are never far from Greece in Venice. Not only 
are there the Byzantine treasures of the city, and the Greek 
overtones to its history and culture: almost any summer day you 
may see a sleek white Greek steamer, a breath of the Aegean, 
sailing in with the morning tide, or embarking its befurred and 
portly passengers for an archaeological cruise. There is a Greek 
Consul in Venice, and a Greek institute of Byzantine studies: 
and sometimes in the season one of the prodigious Greek mag 
nates will land at St. Mark s from the tender of his yacht, with 
his dazzling mistress or his complacent wife, his immaculate 
captain and his sleek secretaries, bringing to these severe porticoes 
a full-blown vision of the merchant-venturers. 

The colony itself survives, though it has dwindled to about 
fifty members. You can see it almost in its entirety, supple 
mented by a few resident Russians, at a feast-day service in San 
Giorgio dei Greci, now unashamedly Orthodox. The cere 
monials there are beautifully calm and mysterious, set against a 
background of dim shimmering ikons and golden crosses. Much 
of the service, in the Greek way, is conducted at an inner altar, 

109 



The People 

invisible to the congregation: but in the body of the church the 
people observe their own devotions with an impressive lack of 
self-consciousness, walking up the nave all alone with elaborate 
crossings and genuflections, to kneel before a crucifix; entering 
the sanctum, apparently unannounced, to receive the personal 
blessing of the priest; singing the canticles in a style by no means 
flippant or irreverent, but oddly detached. When the priest 
emerges from the curtains of the altar, black-hatted and heavily 
bearded, and passes gravely down the nave with his censer, all 
those Greeks bow gracefully at his passing, allowing the incense 
to flow around their heads, as the Arabs use it to sweeten their 
exquisite beards. 

There are still Armenians in Venice, too. They have a famous 
monastery on one of the islands of the lagoon, and they have a 
church, Santa Croce degli Armeni, tucked away in the Alley of 
the Armenians, near San Giuliano. The Armenians formed the 
oldest of the foreign communities in Venice. They were firmly 
established at the beginning of the twelfth century, and their 
position was consolidated when a Doge who had made a fortune 
in their country left part of it to establish an Armenian head 
quarters in Venice. The Armenians were merchants, shop 
keepers, financiers, money-lenders, pawnbrokers (they paid 
depositors partly in money, but partly in watered white wine, 
just as the coloured labourers of the Cape are paid in tots). It is 
said that the plague first came into Venice with Armenian 
immigrants, but they were never harried or victimized: in 
Venice, as a sixteenth-century Englishman observed, it signified 
nothing if a man be a Turk, a Jew, a Gospeller, a Papist or a 
believer in the Devil; nor does anyone challenge you, whether 
you are married or not, and whether you eat flesh and fish in 
your own home . 

A few Armenians still live in the Alley of the Armenians, and 
any Sunday morning you will find seven or eight people, 
mostly women, attending Mass in the church (the Armenian 
Church, the oldest Established church in the world, is nowadays 
split between Catholics and Orthodox: the Armenians in Venice 
are in communion with Rome). It is a strange little building. 
Its campanile, now silent, is so surrounded by tall buildings and 
chimneys that you can hardly see it: its fa$ade is unobtrusively 
hidden away in a row of houses, and only the cross on the door 

no 



Minorities 

shows that it is a church at all. Inside it is shabby but brightly 
decorated, and the floor of the vestibule is covered with memo 
rial slabs, extolling the virtues of eminent Venetian Armenians 
He lived as a Lion , says one, Died as a Swan, and will Rise 
as a Phoenix/ The congregations are usually poorly dressed: and 
though the priest has splendid vestments, and conducts the ser 
vices with lordly grace, his solemn young acolyte will probably 
be wearing blue jeans and a pullover. A sense of ancient con 
tinuity informs the proceedings; for the church of Santa Croce 
stands on the very same site that was given to the Armenian 
community by that indulgent Doge, eight centuries ago. 

The Germans, whose links with Venice are old and profitable, 
also have their church in the city: the chapel of the Lutherans, 
which has, since 1813, occupied a comfortable first-floor room 
near the church of Santi Apostoli. Its congregations are small 
but extremely well dressed; its lighting is discreetly subdued; 
and on the door a notice says: The service is conducted in 
German: do not disturb/ 



For a taste of Venetian Englishry, go on a summer morning 
to the Anglican Church of St. George, which is a converted 
warehouse near the Accademia bridge. Its pews are usually full, 
and the familiar melodies of Ancient and Modern stream away, 
turgid but enthusiastic, across the Grand Canal. The drone of 
the visiting padre blends easily with the hot buzz of the Venetian 
summer, and when the service ends you will see his surplice 
fluttering in the doorway, among the neat hats and tweedy suits, 
the white gloves and prayer-books, the scrubbed children and 
the pink-cheeked, tight-curled, lavender-scented, pearl-neck- 
laced, regimentally brooched ladies that so admirably represent, 
year in, year out, east and west, the perennial spirit of England 
abroad. 

Nowadays they are only summer visitors, and in winter the 
little church is closed, and looks neglected and forgotten. Once, 
though, it was the flourishing chapel of the permanent Anglo- 
American community in Venice, in the days when there was 
such a thing. Around its walls are elegant epitaphs to forgotten 
English gentlewomen, often titled and usually the daughters of 
gallant officers; and sometimes you will find upon your seat a 

in 



The People 

curiously anachronistic appeal for funds, which was evidently 
overprinted when it first appeared half a century ago, and is still 
faithfully distributed although the chaplain, the British and 
American Hospital and the Seamen s Institute for which it 
appeals have all long since disappeared. Baedeker reported in 
1914 that there was a resident Anglican chaplain in Venice, a 
Scottish minister, an Italian Evangelical Methodist church (it 
still exists, behind the Piazza), an English nursing home, two 
English doctors, and a seamen s institute presided over by Mr. 
Fussey. Baron Corvo, in his brilliant but maddening book The 
Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, paints an appalling portrait 
of the English community in Venice in about 1910 *I don t 
know that name: what county are you? Kent? I m a Somerset 
woman meself. Thank you so much we should be quite so too 
much charmed. 

The English have always been familiar to the Venetians (and 
there are astonishing parallels between the histories of the two 
peoples). There was a regular service of fifteenth-century galleys 
between Venice and Southampton; each rower was a business 
man himself, and took a little private merchandise under his 
seat, to peddle in the Hampshire lanes on his own account. 
Venetian ships also put in at Rye, Sandwich, Deal, and the other 
south coast ports of England, now almost as dead as the Serenis- 
sima herself. The private Church of England chapel maintained 
by Sir Henry Wotton, the English Ambassador, was one of the 
causes of Venice s worst quarrels with the Holy See. Petrarch, 
describing a Venetian festival in the fourteenth century, says 
that among the honoured guests were some English noblemen, 
comrades and kinsmen of their King , who had come to Venice 
with their ships on a navigational exercise. English captains and 
soldiers often fought in the Venetian cause, and the English, in 
return, sometimes hired Venetian ships and sailors. 

In the nineteenth century, when Venice was in the doldrums, 
it was the complacent English who founded her romantic cult: 
Browning among the splendours of the Ca Rezzonico (as it 
says in a plaque on the wall: Open my heart and you will see, 
Graven inside of it, Italy] ; Byron swimming home along the 
Grand Canal after a soir&e, with a servant carrying his clothes in 
the gondola behind; Shelley watching the sun go down behind 
the Euganean Hills; Cobden feted at a banquet on Giudecca, 

112 



Minorities 

with an ear of corn in every guest s button-hole; Ruskin, for 
fifty years the arbiter of taste on Venice, and still the author of 
the most splendid descriptions of the city in the English lan 
guage. In Victorian times the English community even had its 
own herd of seventeen cows, kept in a Venetian garden in im 
perial disregard of the rules, and providing every subscribing 
member with a fresh pint daily. 

The Americans, too, were soon well known in Venice. 
W. D. Howells wrote a charming book about the place a cen 
tury ago, before he turned to no vel- writing : he was United 
States consul in the city, an agreeable sinecure granted him as a 
reward for writing an effective campaign biography of Abraham 
Lincoln. Another consul, Donald Mitchell, wrote a once- 
popular book called Reveries of a Bachelor, under the pseudonym 
of Ik Marvel . Henry James wrote hauntingly about the city, 
and lived for a time in a house on the Grand Canal. Rich 
Americans, following the English fashion, took to buying or 
renting old palaces for the season, and one generous lady, when 
she died, left a house to each of her gondoliers. In the days (only 
just ending) when Americanism was synonymous with all that 
was free, generous, and sensible, the prestige of the United 
States was very high in Venice. The sculptor Canova was 
honorary President of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, 
and when a team of gondoliers took their craft to the Chicago 
World Fair, so I am told, they came home to Venice as heroes, 
and lived comfortably on the experience for the rest of their lives. 

Nowadays the Anglo-American community has almost van 
ished, and only a handful of residents are quite so too much 
charmed to welcome you to their apartments. The Venetian 
summer blazes with affluent summer visitors, but it is no longer 
the fashion to own a house in Italy, and only a minority of pluto 
crats prefers a rented palace to an air-conditioned hotel suite. 
The flood of English books about Venice has dried up: if you 
look in the British Museum subject catalogue, where the city 
appears between Venezuela and Ventilation, and just up the 
column from Ventriloquism, you will find ninety-two acquisi 
tions recorded between 1881 and 1900, but only seven between 
1946 and 1950 (though to be sure later books include Mary 
McCarthy s magnificent essay Venice Observed, perhaps the best 
of the whole lot). In the winter nowadays there are only about 

113 



The People 

a dozen English people in Venice, and perhaps half a dozen 
Americans. Are they all millionaires? I once asked a consular 
official Mostly/ he replied with a gentle smile. 

They still are not without pungency of character. There is the 
former Indian Army officer whose overriding passion is the 
ballet. There is the American art collector who lives on the 
Grand Canal in an unfinished eighteenth-century mansion, sur 
rounded hy Picassos and aspirant geniuses. The step-grandson 
of the Englishman who invented the modern torpedo has a 
house in Dorsoduro (his forebear, Whitehead, was the manager 
of a factory at Fiume, and based his fortune on the Adriatic). 
In a palace near the Accademia there lives an American com 
poser of violently advanced techniques, and near San Vitale 
you may see, dimly through a palace window, the gondola 
of an American family now in its third Venetian generation. 
On the Zattere a Scottish laird recently opened a school of 
art. There are one or two fortunate ex-soldiers who arrived 
in Venice with the British Army and married Italian wives, 
generally rich and sometimes beautiful. There is a charm 
ing ex-Czarist diplomat, now a British subject, who likes 
to talk about the old Russia. There is a delightful ex-Czech 
business man, now British too, who likes to talk about the new 
Czechoslovakia. The owner of a famous London art gallery 
spends his luxurious summers in Venice, and so does one of the 
best-known English portrait painters. There is a handful of 
American and English artists, writers and general assorted 
dilettantes, and in the high summer season there seems to be, as 
an American once trenchantly observed to me, an Anglo- 
American homosexual convention . One or two well-known 
British names are still woven into the fabric of the place 
Edens, Cunards, Guinnesses (whose money helped to finance one 
of the new hotels). Gondoliers will often tell you, to make you 
feel at home, that the palace you are passing is owned by an 
English lady (very beautiful) or an American diplomat (very 
wealthy) ; but they are generally years out of date with their 
information, and picked it up in childhood from the reminis 
cences of retired predecessors. 

The legend of one ubiquitous Englishman haunted me during 
the first months of my residence in Venice. A most fortunate 
person he sounded, though my informants never seemed to 

114 




y 

^Vti 

rt cu 



8 S S 



. 1) <D <L> .tn 




^ 

rt 





1 

o 



.g 

J^" 



00 

^M 

o 

I 

rt 



72 
O 

2 

<D 

O 
03 

6 
o 

H 




6 



b-tf 

Wl . 

3 p 



>- ; 



O 



H.3- 




The Basin of St. Mark. The Piazza is on the right, the islands of San Giorgio 
Maggiore, La Grazia and Giudecca on the left. 




A Venetian campo: Santa Maria Formosa 




The Arsenal: in the foreground San Pietro di Castello; 
top right, the cemetery island of San Michele 



Melancholia 

have actually set eyes on him, with an apartment on the Grand 
Canal, and a penchant for small boats, a gay young family, a 
delightful wife, pots of money like all the English, Signor 
Morris, ha, ha, deny it though you may ! I rather envied this 
elusive character, until one swart February day I realized him 
to be myself. 

IO 

MELANCHOLIA 

In Venice the past and the present are curiously interwoven, 
as in the minds of very old ladies, who are apt to ask if that 
dullard Mr. Baldwin is still Prime Minister, and sometimes 
complain petulantly about the ill-treatment of cab-horses. The 
Venetians have never quite recovered from their loss of glory, 
and have perhaps never quite accepted it, so that somewhere in 
the backs of their minds their city is still the Serenissima, the 
Bride of the Adriatic, the Eye of Italy, Lord of a Quarter and a 
Half-Quarter of the Roman Empire dignities which seem to 
have varied in gender, but never in magnificence. This com 
bination of resignation and persistence gives the people their 
quality of melancholy, a lagoon-like sadness, unruffled and dry. 
Melancholia contributes strongly to the Venetian atmosphere, 
whether it is expressed in overgrown gardens or nostalgic verse: 
and a Venetian once even wrote a play about the fundamental 
melancholy of sexual passions . 

A century ago, when the Republic was still alive in the world s 
mind, the spectacle of Venice subdued was a good deal more 
poignant than it is now, and Englishmen, in particular, took a 
chill pleasure in examining the ruins of the Serenissima from the 
pinnacle of British success. In the history of mankind , observed 
one Victorian writer, three peoples have been pre-eminently 
great and powerful the Romans in ancient times, the Vene 
tians in the Middle Ages, the English in modern days/ 

Men are we (said Wordsworth magnanimously), and must 

grieve when even the Shade 
Of that which once was great is passed away. 



The People 

The Victorian celebrants of Venice loved to draw sententious 
conclusions from her humiliation, and saw in the downfall of 
the Republic either a vindication of their own political system, 
or an awful portent of things to come. 

Today it is too old a story. The world has forgotten the 
mighty fleets of Venice, her formidable commanders and her 
pitiless inquisitions. The dungeons of the Doge s Palace have 
lost their horror, to the generation of Belsen and Hiroshima; 
and even power itself seems too frail and fickle a commodity to 
waste our lyrics on. The Venetians may still half-mourn their 
vanished empire, but to the foreigner the sadness of Venice is a 
much more nebulous abstraction, a wistful sense of wasted pur 
pose and lost nobility, a suspicion of degradation, a whiff of 
hollow snobbery, the clang of the turnstile and the sing-song 
banalities of the guides, knit together with crumbling mason 
ries, suffused in winter twilight. 



For a time this people constituted the first Power of the 
western world. Such a tremendous experience in the life of a 
community can never be expunged, except by physical destruc 
tion, and everywhere in Venice there are still reminders of her 
political prime, like India Offices in Whitehall, or the great 
Imperial Square of Isfahan. 

The Republic sent its ambassadors to the capitals of the earth, 
and in return the Powers maintained missions of high importance 
in Venice, with elaborate fleets of diplomatic gondolas, and 
splendid crested palaces. The ghosts of these establishments have 
not yet been thoroughly exorcized. The old Austrian Embassy, 
on the Grand Canal, is still called the Palace of the Ambassadors. 
The Spanish Embassy is remembered in the Lista di Spagna, near 
the station (I have been told that any Venetian street called a 
lista has old diplomatic connotations). The palace of the Papal 
Legates, near San Francesco della Vigna, has given its name, 
agreeably corrupted, to the Salizzada delle Gatte the Paved 
Alley of the Female Cats. The English Embassy, in Wotton s 
time, was in a palace near Santa Maria dei Miracoli. The Rus 
sian Embassy was in a house at the junction of Rio San Trovaso 
and the Grand Canal, around which there still hangs (at least to 
the imaginative) a faint evocation of sables and sledges. Rousseau 

116 



Melancholia 

was once secretary to the French Ambassador; Wotton kept an 
ape in his palace, and collected lutes and Titians; the Venetians 
just had time, before their downfall, to exchange letters with the 
infant United States. (One of the earliest American Consulates 
was opened in the city soon afterwards, and wonderfully 
authentic have been the names of its various consuls Sparks, 
Flagg, Corrigan, Gerrity, Ferdinand L. Sarmento and John Q. 
Wood.) In the great days of the Republic appointment to an 
embassy in Venice was one of the most coveted of diplomatic 
promotions. 

All these splendours died with the Republic. The decline of 
Venice had been protracted and painful. It began with Vasco da 
Gama s great voyage, which broke her eastern monopolies : but 
for three more centuries the Serenissima retained her indepen 
dence, sinking, through infinite declensions of emasculation, 
from power to luxury, from luxury to flippancy, from flip 
pancy to impotence. Her wide Mediterranean Empire was lost 
in bits and pieces Negroponte, Rhodes, Cyprus, Crete, Corfu, 
the Ionian islands, the Peloponnese, all to the rampant Turks. 
By the eighteenth century Venice was the most unwarlike State 
in Europe. The English use their powder for their cannon/ 
said a contemporary Italian observer, the French for their mor 
tars. In Venice it is usually damp, and if it is dry they use it for 
fireworks. Venetian soldiers were without honour, without 
discipline, without clothes it is impossible to name one honour 
able action they have performed*. Addison described the pur 
poses of Venetian domestic policy as being to encourage idleness 
and luxury in the nobility, to cherish ignorance and licentious 
ness in the clergy, to keep alive a continual faction in the 
common people, to connive at viciousness and debauchery in 
the convents . Eighteenth-century Venice Was a paradigm of 
degradation. Her population had declined from 170,000 in 
her great days to 96,000 in 1797 (though the Venetian Asso 
ciation of Hairdressers still had 852 members). Her trade had 
vanished, her aristocracy was hopelessly effete, and she depended 
for her existence upon the tenuous good faith of her neighbours. 

No wonder Napoleon swept her aside. The Venetians, tem 
porizing and vacillating, offered him no real resistance, and he 
ended their Republic with a brusque gesture of dismissal: 7o 
non voglio piu Inquisitor^ non voglio piti Senate; saw un Attila per 

117 



The People 

lo stato Veneto* 1 want no more Inquisitors, no more Senate: 
I will be an Attila for the Venetian State/ The last of the Doges, 
limply abdicating, handed his ducal hat to his servant with the 
febrile comment: Take it away, we shan t be needing it again. 
(The servant did what he was told, and kept it as a souvenir.) 
The golden horses of the Basilica, the lion from his pedestal in 
the Piazzetta, many of the treasures of St. Mark s, many of the 
pictures of the Doge s Palace, many precious books and docu 
ments all were taken away to Paris, rather as so many of them 
had been stolen from Constantinople in the first place. Some 
diamonds from St. Mark s Treasury were set in Josephine s 
crown, and a large statue of Napoleon was erected on Sanso- 
vino s library building, opposite the Doge s Palace. The last 
ships of the Venetian Navy were seized to take part in an in 
vasion of Ireland: but when this was cancelled they were sent 
instead to be sunk by Nelson at Aboukir. 

The Great Council itself ended the aristocratic Government of 
Venice, by a vote of 512 yeas to 30 nays and 5 blanks, and for 
the words Pax tibi, Marce , inscribed on the Venetian lion s open 
book, there was substituted the slogan Rights and Duties of 
Men and Citizens . At last, observed a gondolier in a phrase 
that has become proverbial at last he s turned over a new leaf. 
The dungeons of the Doge s Palace were thrown open: but 
according to Shelley only one old man was found inside them, 
and he was dumb. Even the poisons of the Council of Three had 
gone stale, and could hardly kill a fly. 



It was the end of an era : for Venice, for Europe, for the world. 
There was, however, one final resurgence of national fire before 
Venice, united at last with the mainland, became just another 
Italian provincial capital. She was passed by the French to the 
Austrians; by the Austrians back to the French; after Waterloo, 
to the Austrians again: and in 1848, when half Europe rebelled 
against Vienna, the Venetians rose in arms too, proclaimed 
themselves a Republic again, expelled their Austrian occupiers, 
and defied the might of the Empire. 

Times had drastically changed since 1797, and her leaders this 
time were men of the middle classes professional men, lawyers, 
academics, soldiers. The difference in morale was astonishing. 

118 



Melancholia 

The president of the revolutionary republic was Daniele Manin, 
a half-Jewish lawyer who bore the same surname as the last 
of the Doges, and was determined to restore its honour. The 
Government he established was able, honest and popular. It 
was no mere nationalist protest body, but a fully organized 
administration, running Venice as a city-State. The revolution 
aries published their own Official Gazette; opened correspon 
dence with the British and French Governments, without get 
ting any support from them; and printed their own paper 
money, which was widely accepted. The London Times said of 
them : * Venice has again found within her walls men capable of 
governing, and people always worthy to be free/ The citizenry, 
in a last surge of the old spirit, made great personal sacrifices to 
sustain this brave campaign. One man gave a palace on the 
Grand Canal, another an estate on the mainland, a third a paint 
ing by Leonardo da Vinci. Some of the remaining treasure of 
St. Mark s was sold to raise war funds, and more was melted 
down for bullion. Except for Venetian elements of the Austrian 
Navy, which had long since been demoralized, all sections of the 
population seem to have behaved, by and large, with honour: 
and at one period Manin himself was recognized, a bespectacled 
private in the Civic Guard, on sentry-go in the Piazza. 

But the cause was hopeless. The revolution began in March 
1848 Via Marzo 22, the main western approach to the Piazza, 
is named for the day and for a full year Venice was invested by 
the Austrians. The lagoon was vigilantly blockaded. Austrian 
shells, lobbed from the mainland, fell in many parts of the city, 
and are still to be seen, stuck together like glutinous candies, 
decorating war memorials or embedded in the facades of 
churches. Provisions ran desperately short, cholera broke out. 
Without foreign help, the Venetians had hardly a chance, and 
in August 1849 the Austrian General Gorzkowsky accepted 
Manin s surrender and reoccupied the city. Manin was exiled, 
with thirty-nine of his colleagues, to Paris, where he survived 
for the rest of his days by giving Italian lessons to young ladies: 
only to return to the vast, dark, awful tomb that lies beneath 
the northern flank of St. Mark s. 

Venice subsided into sullen thraldom, boycotting everything 
Austrian, even the military band in the Piazza. Long after the 
triumph of the Risorgimento, when all the rest of Italy (bar 

119 



The People 

Rome) was free, she remained subject to Vienna: until in 1866, 
after the Prusso-Austrian war, Bismarck rewarded the new 
Italy for her support by handing her the Serenissima. Venice 
became part of the Italian Kingdom, and was an entity no more. 



Since then she has been a port, an art centre, something of a 
factory: but above all a showplace. In the first world war she 
was a base for the Italian operations against the Austrians: two- 
thirds of her people were removed elsewhere, and from the 
Campanile you could see the observation balloons above the 
front-line trenches. During Mussolini s regime she was an 
obediently Fascist city, her inhabitants soon discovering that 
jobs were easier to get and keep if you toed the party line. In 
the second world war, though there was sporadic and sometimes 
heroic partisan activity in the city, the Venetians only offered 
serious resistance to the Germans in 1945, when the result was a 
foregone conclusion anyway. As for the British, when they took 
Venice in the last days before the Armistice, they found only 
two classes of opposition: one from gondoliers, who demanded 
a higher tariff; the other from motor-boat owners who, reluc 
tant to see their pampered craft requisitioned yet again by the 
rough soldiery, did their best to smuggle them away to Como 
or Lake Garda. 

The Venetians are no longer lordly. They were great a long 
time ago, and nobody expects them to be great again. No 
patriotic diehards writhe in impotence, to see their great Repub 
lic prostituted. The enormous Archives of the State have become 
no more than a scholar s curiosity. The Doge s Palace, the most 
splendid assembly hall on earth, is a museum. The Venetians 
have long since settled in their groove of resignation, and there 
remains only an old essence of power, a pomade of consequence, 
an echo of trumpet-calls (provided by the string orchestra at 
Quadri s, stringing away irrepressibly, its rigid smiles tinged 
with despair, at the rhythms of Colonel Bogey). 

Gone are the great diplomats, the sealed crimson despatch- 
boxes, the secret liaisons, the Austrian Envoy in his box at the 
opera, His Excellency the Ambassador of The Most Christian 
Kingdom presenting his credentials to the Illustrious Signory of 
The Most Serene Republic. There are only Consulates in Venice 

120 



Melancholia 

nowadays. The Americans, the Argentinians, the Brazilians, the 
British, the French, the Greeks, the Panamanians and the Swiss 
all maintain career consuls : the rest are represented by Italians. 
The Americans own a house near San Gregorio. The British 
rent an apartment beside the Accademia (three-quarters of their 
work is concerned with the Commonwealth, rather than the 
United Kingdom). The Argentinians and the Danes live on the 
Grand Canal. The French live elegantly on the Zattere. The 
Panamanians have a villa on the Lido. The Monagesques occupy 
an uncharacteristically tumble-down house behind San Barnaba. 
The others are scattered here and there across the city, in back- 
alleys and cul-de-sacs, or high on second floors. 

Only three Consulates the American, the British and the 
French can afford to run their own motor boats, and when a 
number of Latin- American consuls devised a scheme for sharing 
one, obvious difficulties of temperament and economy killed it. 
Only the Argentinians, the French and the Panamanians main 
tain Consuls-General in Venice, and the Russians maintain 
nobody at all, their old Embassy being converted into an un 
usually comfortable pension. Some of the Consulates have wider 
responsibilities on the mainland: but there is an inescapably 
vacuous, faded flavour to the diplomatic corps of Venice today, 
and the consuls are largely occupied in comforting disconsolate 
tourists, pacifying the Italian authorities after sordid dock-side 
brawls, anxiously living it up with the socialites, or helping 
with cocktail invitations for visiting warships. 



Thus they reflect, as they should, the state of Venice, which 
is a mixture of the very grand and the naggingly pathetic. Just 
before Lent each year the city enjoys a brief season of Carni 
val, last remnants of the city s legendary festivities. Nowadays 
only the children of the place, in a pitiful last fling, buy their 
funny faces and moustaches from the chain stores and emerge to 
saunter through the city in their fancy dress : here a devil, here a 
harlequin, a three-foot-three Red Indian, an infant Spanish 
dancer, matadors and Crusader ladies and gypsy girls, with real 
flowers in their baskets and vivid smudges of lipstick on their 
faces. The costumes are often elaborate, but the general im 
pression is forlorn. Each exotic little figure walks along with 

121 



The People 

its family the matador has no bull, the Spanish princess no 
serenader, the clown no tumbling partner; and they parade 
the Riva degli Schiavoni in prim and anxious demurity (for it 
would never do to crumple the feathers of a Venetian Sioux, 
or dirty a fresh-laundered wimple). 

On the final day of this celebration I was once walking home 
through the spider s web of little lanes and yards that surrounds 
the noble Franciscan church of the Frari; and as I turned a corner 
I saw before me, in a hurried glimpse, three small figures crossing 
a square from one lane to another. In the middle walked a thin 
little man, his overcoat rather too long for him and buttoned 
down the front, his gloves very neat, his hat very precise, his 
shoes very polished. Clutching his right hand was a tiny Pierrot, 
his orange pom-pom waggling in the half-light. Clutching his 
left hand was a minuscule fairy, her legs wobbly in white cotton, 
her skirt infinitesimal, her wand warped a little with the excite 
ment and labour of the day. Quickly, silently and carefully they 
crossed the square and disappeared from view: the fairy had to 
skip a bit to keep up, the Pierrot cherished a sudden determina 
tion to walk only on the lines between the paving-stones, and 
the little man trod a precarious tight-rope between the indulgent 
and the conventional. 

How small they looked, and respectable, I thought to myself! 
How carefully their mother had prepared them, all three, to 
survive the scrutiny of their neighbours ! How dull a time they 
had spent on the quayside, walking self-consciously up and 
down ! How thin a reflection they offered of Venice s rumbus 
tious carnivals of old, her Doges and her masked patricians, her 
grand lovers, her tall warships and her princely artists! How 
touching the little Venetians, tight-buttoned in their alley-ways ! 

But as I meditated in this patronizing way my eyes strayed 
upwards, above the tumbled walls of the courtyard, above the 
gimcrack company of chimneys, above the television aerials and 
the gobbling pigeons in their crannies, to where the great tower 
of the Frari, regal and assured, stood like a red-brick admiral 
against the blue. 



122 



THE CITY 



II 
EX-ISLAND 

Venice stands, as she loves to tell you, on the frontiers of east 
and west, half-way between the setting and the rising sun. 
Goethe calls her the market-place of the Morning and the 
Evening lands . Certainly no city on earth gives a more immedi 
ate impression of symmetry and unity, or seems more patently 
born to greatness. On the map Venice looks like a fish; or a lute, 
Evelyn thought; or perhaps a paij of serpents locked in death- 
struggle; or a kangaroo, head down for a leap. But to under 
stand the modern topography of the place, you must throw the 
street plans away and go to the top of the great Campanile of 
St. Mark, above the bustling Piazza. You can make the ascent 
by lift: but if you prefer to take a horse, like the Emperor 
Frederick III, there is a spiral ramp for your convenience. 

From the bell-chamber of this great tower, once you have 
fought off the itinerant photographers and the picture-postcard 
sellers, you can see how curiously compact and undistracted is 
the shape of Venice. To the north stand the heavenly Alps, 
beyond the Treviso plain, sprinkled with snow and celestially 
silent; to the south is the Adriatic, a grim but handsome sea; 
around you stretches the Venetian lagoon, morose but fascinat 
ing, littered with islands. The horizons are wide, the air is 
crystalline, the wind blows gustily from the south; and in the 
very centre of it all, lapped in mud-banks, awash in history, lies 
the Serenissima. 

By a paradox of perspective, there is not a canal to be seen 
from the bell-chamber, only a jumbled, higgledy-piggledy mass 
of red-tiled roofs, chimneys, towers, television aerials, delectable 
roof gardens, flapping washing, sculptured saints and elaborate 
weather-vanes: and the effect is not one of overwhelming 
grandeur, but of mediaeval intimacy, as though you are eaves 
dropping upon a fourteenth-century housewife, or prying into 

125 



The City 

a thane s back yard. This is not a large city. You can see it all 
easily, from one end to the other. It is about two miles long by 
one mile deep, and you can walk from end to end of it, from 
the slaughter-house in the north-west to the Public Gardens in 
the south-east, in an hour and a half less, if you don t mind 
shoving. The population of Venice is something over 300,000, 
but about a third of these people live in the new mainland 
suburbs the big industrial quarter of Mestre and Porto Mar- 
ghera whose shipyards and shining oil-tanks you can see away to 
the west. 

The city proper shelters perhaps the same number of inhabi 
tants as Portsmouth, or Worcester, Massachusetts a respectable 
municipality of the middling category. It is built, so they say, 
on an archipelago of 117 islets (though where an islet begins and 
a mud-bank ends, the geologists do not seem quite certain); 
and its canals and alley-ways follow the contours of the myriad 
rivulets which complicated these shallows before the arrival of 
the first Venetians. The sub-soil is soft to an average depth of 
105 feet; the mean temperature is 56 Fahrenheit; and the 
altitude of Venice, so one guide book solemnly informs us, is 
seven feet above sea-level. 

If you look beyond the Piazza you will observe a vague 
declivity among the buildings, as you may sometimes see, across 
the plains of the American West, the first distant indications of a 
canyon. This gulf sweeps in three abrupt but majestic curves 
clean through the city, dividing it into two convenient halves. 
It is the Grand Canal, which follows the course of a river known 
to the ancients as Rivo Alto the origin of the Rialto. Three 
bridges cross this tremendous waterway, forty-six side-canals 
enter it, 200 palaces line it, forty-eight alleys run down to it, 
ten churches stand upon its banks, the railway station stands 
gleaming at one end, St. Mark s guards the other. It is at once 
the Seine and the New Jersey Turnpike of Venice, the mirror 
of her beauty and the highway by which the cargo barges, horns 
blaring and engines a-blast, chug towards her markets and 
hotels. The ordinary Venetian canal feels frankly man-made: 
but most people have to stifle an impulse, now and again, to 
call the Grand Canal a river. 

Around its banks, and on the big neighbouring island of 
Giudecca, Venice is tightly packed, in six ancient segments. The 

126 



Ex-Island 

city is a sequence of villages, a mosaic of old communities. Once 
each district was a separate island of the archipelago, but they 
have been jammed together down the centuries, and fused by 
common experience. Wherever you look from your eyrie you 
may discern one of these old local centres, with its fine church 
and its spacious square, its lively market, its homely shops, its 
banks, its taverns, its private tourist attractions. The very centre 
of Venice is said to be the pedestal in the middle of Campo 
San Luca, but the completeness of these various antique set 
tlements means that the city is rich in depth: it has few barren 
quarters or sterile suburbs. No part of the city, wherever you 
look, lacks its great monuments or its pungency of character. 
To the east are the ramparts of the Arsenal, with its frowning 
tower-gates; to the north-west you may fancy, a blur among the 
tenements, the grey desolation of the Ghetto; to the south lies 
the long rib of Giudecca, where the boatmen live; and all 
around the perimeters of the place range the waterside promen 
ades, lined with steamboats and fishing vessels and bobbing 
gondolas, a fine white liner at the Zattere, a timber schooner 
from Istria beside the Fondamenta Nuove, where the lagoon 
sidles away mysteriously to the cemetery-island of San Michele. 
From the top of the campanile the whole Venetian story seems 
simple and self-explanatory, and you may let your eye wander 
directly from the brown sluggish mud-banks that represent the 
first beginnings of the city, to the golden ornaments and fret 
work of St. Mark s, memorials of its resplendent climax. 



Away to the west, beyond the railway station, a noble double 
causeway strides across the water to the mainland. The prime 
fact about twentieth-century Venice is that the city is no longer 
an island. The causeway is a symbol, at once sad and high- 
vaulted, of Venice s lost supremacies. In her heyday Venetian 
communications were entirely maritime, and a highly organized 
system of boats linked the city with the mainland by four prin 
cipal routes: through Fusina and the River Brenta to Padua; 
through Mestre to Udine and Austria; through Pellestrina and 
Chioggia to the Po and Lombardy; through Treviso to Friuli. 
So long as Venice was a city-State, facing the ocean, her diffi 
culties of landward communication were a positive advantage 

127 



The City 

as they say in London, the worse the bus service, the fewer the 
collisions. In the fifteenth century, though, she established a 
mainland empire, setting up the winged lion in Padua, Ravenna, 
Verona, Treviso, Vicenza, Brescia, Bergamo, Belluno half 
way across Italy, to the approaches of Milan. Becoming at 
last a European Power, her outlook slowly changed: and by 
the final days of the Republic, when she was inextricably en 
tangled in Italian affairs, the idea of a bridge to the mainland 
was being earnestly discussed. The Doge Foscarini care 
fully considered it, as a means of injecting some new com 
mercial guts into the flaccid body politic, but decided instead to 
revive the languishing glass industry and merchant navy. Napo 
leon, so it is said, ordered his engineers to survey the ground for 
bridge-piles. A group of Italian business men, in the early 
18405, launched a company to finance a railway line to Venice. 
And the Austrians, in 1846, actually built a bridge. It linked 
Venice by rail with Vicenza, and it horrified the world s 
romantics (Ruskin likened it to a low and monotonous dock 
yard wall, with flat arches to let the tide through it ). 

It stands there today, 3,000 yards long, supported upon 222 
arches, and provided with forty-eight explosive chambers, for 
easy demolition in emergencies. It brings about 100 passenger 
trains each day into the new railway station, where the tourists, 
struggling out of their ivagons-lits, are whisked bemused into 
gondolas and launched directly into the Grand Canal. There 
were once plans to have the trains puffing into the very heart of 
the city: they were to pass behind Giudecca on an elevated line, 
and end beside Palladio s church on the islet of San Giorgio 
Maggiore. Other nineteenth-century visionaries proposed a 
dual bridge, dividing at the entrance of the city, one part to run 
away across the lagoon to the Lido and Chioggia, the other to 
end at the island of Murano, to the north. 

One bridge it remained, though, for nearly a century, until the 
railway line had become an essential part of the Venetian scene, 
and had extended into a meshwork of sidings beside the docks, 
and the city had long been accustomed to the wail of its sad 
steam-whistles in the night (which still sound, reassuring echoes, 
above the hubbub of the motor-boat engines). A prolonged and 
bitter controversy preceded the building of the second causeway, 
the road bridge. On the one side stood the pontisti, the men of 

128 



Ex-Island 

progress, who wanted ever closer links between Venice and the 
great modern world, with the heart of Italy beating against her 
own : on the other side were the traditionalists, the lovers of 
things old and honoured, who wished to keep their Venice as 
close to virginity as was physically possible, and who argued on 
a spectacular variety of premises, from the danger that a second 
bridge would stifle the flow of tides and kill the city by malaria, 
to the possibility that the rumble of cart-wheels would weaken 
the foundations of its buildings. 

Thus they stood as exemplars of a perennial Venetian dispute: 
whether to modernize the Serenissima, or preserve her. Through 
any modern book on Venice this problem runs as a Leitmotiv, 
tingeing every page with the thought that Venice, as we see her 
now, may not last much longer, and giving her future a micro- 
cosmic quality. The conflict between old and new, between the 
beautiful and the profitable, between progress and nostalgia, 
between the spirit and the crank-case, is one that involves us all: 
and in Venice you may sense it, if you are not too obsessed with 
the tourist sights, crystallized and in synthesis. It is not decided 
yet. Even Mussolini at first forbade the building of another 
bridge, and said that if he could have his way he would destroy 
the railway too: but in Anno X of his dictatorship, 1931, the 
pontisti won their particular campaign, and the motor causeway 
was completed. It has eight more arches than its companion, and 
swings away from it, as they enter the city side by side, to end 
with a bang at Piazzale Roma in the biggest garage on earth, 
six stories high and cruelly expensive. 

Consider, as you prop yourself against the wall of the cam 
panile (you cannot fall out, for there is a wire mesh to prevent 
suicides) how these two bridges have affected the character of 
Venice. First, they ended any pretence of insular Republican 
independence. Manin s forces, it is true, breached the railway 
bridge and defended it against all comers: but it is almost incon 
ceivable that a city so intimately linked with the mainland could 
long have maintained its sovereignty, except as a kind of joke 
or fiscal fiddle. Secondly, the bridges weakened the isolation of 
the Venetian character. Many more mainland Italians followed 
the railway into the lagoon; many more Venetians visited the 
hinterland; the inbred, introspective complex of Venetian 
society was cracked. Thirdly, the causeways brought an influx 

129 



The City 

of new life and vigour into the city, helping to account for the 
strange and sudden renaissance of 1848. They fostered trade, 
they encouraged tourism, and they did something to revive the 
languishing entrepot activity of the port. 

Finally, the bridges shattered a myth. They dispelled some of 
the gilded mystery of Venice, laid her open to the Cook s tour 
and the family motorist, forced her, willy-nilly, half-way into 
the modem world. She became, as she remains, an ex-island. 
Modern Venice begins, not at the distant entrances of the lagoon, 
where the sea shimmers beyond the lighthouses, but down there 
at the causeway, behind the petrol pumps and the station plat 
forms. When you leave the bell-chamber at last, clutching your 
photographer s ticket ( Redfy in Two Hours, Garanted Perfect ), 
and pushing your way diffidently but firmly into the lift, mark 
the causeways black on your mind s map of Venice, and keep 
the rose-red for the canals. 



12 

STREETS FULL OF WATER 

The life-stream of Venice arrives on wheels her goods and 
her visitors, even the poor cattle for her municipal slaughter 
house: but once at the station or the Piazzale Roma, all this mass 
of men and material, this daily army, must proceed by water or 
by foot. Thomas Coryat, before he visited Venice, met an 
English braggart who claimed to have ridden through Venice 
in post : this was, as Coryat indignantly discovered, *as gross 
and palpable a fiction as ever was coyned . Nobody ever rode 
through Venice in post, and there are still no proper roads in 
the city, only footpaths and canals. Streets Full of Water, 
Robert Benchley cabled home when he first arrived there, 
Please Advise . 

The only wheels in Venice proper are on porters trolleys, or 
perambulators, or children s toys, or on the antique bicycles 
used by a few taciturn knife-sharpeners as the motive force for 
their grindstones. To grasp what this means, go down to the 
causeway in the small hours of the morning, and see the convoys 

130 



f Streets Full of Water* 

of trucks and trailers that wait there in the half-light to be un 
loaded hundreds of them every morning of the year, parked 
nose to tail, with their drivers sleepy at the wheel, and their 
bales and packing-cases bursting from the back. Some of this 
material will be loaded into ships and taken to sea: but most of 
it must be conveyed into Venice, on barges, rowing-boats, 
trolleys, and even in huge conical baskets on the backs of men. 
The bridges of the lagoon have linked Venice irrevocably with 
the mainland: but she remains a wet-bob city still, in which 
Chateaubriand, who so rashly complained about her wateriness 
a century and a half ago, would feel no less irritated today. 

The central artery of Venice is the Grand Canal, and from 
that incomparable highway the smaller canals spring like veins, 
through which the sustenance of the city is pumped daily, like 
insulin into the system of a diabetic. There are said to be 177 
canals, with a total length of twenty-eight miles. They follow 
old natural water-courses, and meander unpredictably through 
the city, now wide, fine and splendid, now indescribably tor 
tuous. The Grand Canal is two miles long; it is seventy-six 
yards wide at its grandest point, and never less than forty; it has 
a mean depth of about nine feet (thirteen feet at the Rialto 
bridge, according to the Admiralty Chart) ; and it is lively with 
incessant traffic. Other Venetian waterways are infinitely less 
imposing they have an average width of twelve feet, and the 
average depth of a fair-sized family bath-tub. One canal goes 
clean under the church of Santo Stefano, and you can take a gon 
dola along it if the tide is low; others are so narrow that only 
the smallest kind of boat can use them, or so short that there is 
only just room for their names on the map. 

Their usefulness varies according to the tide, -and the tide 
itself varies according to the time of year. The maximum spring 
tide is probably about seven feet, and the average rise and fall 
(at the Dogana entrance to the Grand Canal) is just over two 
feet. These fluctuations drastically alter both the appearance and 
the efficiency of the city. Like the tide six hours up and six 
hours down , is how a Venetian saying describes the supposedly 
mercurial character of the citizenry. When the tide is low, the 
underpinnings of the Venetian houses are revealed in all their 
green and slimy secrecy. The bottoms of the canals are laid 
hideously bare, putrescent with rubbish and mud, and some of 



The City 

the smaller waterways almost dry up altogether, so that no boat 
with a propeller can use them. But when the swift scouring tide 
sweeps in from the Adriatic, clean, fresh and young, swelling 
down the Grand Canal and seeping through all its tributaries 
then the whole place is richened and rejuvenated, the water 
surges into the palace doorways, the dead rats, broken dolls and 
cabbage-stalks are flushed away, and every canal is brimming 
and busy. Sometimes an exceptional spring tide topples over the 
edge, flooding the Piazza of St. Mark, and people go to their 
favourite cafe in gondolas, or hilariously pole their boats about 
among the colonnades. And once every few centuries the canals 
freeze over, as you may see in an enchanting picture at the Ca 
Rezzonico, and the Venetians build fires upon the ice, skate to 
the islands of the lagoon, and impertinently roast their oxen in 
the middle of the Grand Canal. 

The canals have tempered the impact of the causeway. Venice 
is no longer an island, but her people are still islanders by tem 
perament, for life in roadless Venice is still slow, erratic and 
sometimes infuriating, and totally unlike existence in any other 
city on the face of the earth. The Venetian business man can 
never summon his Cadillac. The Venetian urchin cannot leap 
whistling upon his bicycle. The housewife has to take a boat to 
market, and the small boy has to walk each morning across a 
cavalcade of bridges, through a maze of alley-ways, to be at 
school on time (the parents, if of nervous disposition, can often 
follow his progress half-way across the city, by mounting a 
powerful telescope on the terrace). 

Trade and traffic churn their way heavily through the Vene 
tian waterways, sometimes so busily and so uncomfortably that 
the whole place feels clogged and constipated with slow move 
ment. The entire organization of one s private life is governed 
by the presence of the water. I was once leaning over the Grand 
Canal with a Venetian acquaintance when she suddenly breathed 
an extended and despondent sigh, surveyed the canal from one 
end to the other, and exclaimed: Water! Nothing but water! 
If only they d fill the thing up, what a road it would make ! 



The canals, some of which have ninth-century origins, have 
been successfully deepened to allow the passage of larger boats: 

132 



Streets Full of Water* 

but they also act as the drains of Venice, and are continually 
silting themselves up. Until the sixteenth century several rivers 
flowed through the middle of the lagoon, and they brought so 
much sediment with them that at one time the canals of Venice 
were almost choked, and you could walk from the mainland to 
the city without wetting your feet. The rivers were then 
diverted to the edges of the lagoon, and today the only mud 
that enters is sea-mud, to be swept out by the tide again each 
day. Every year, though, a mountain of excrement falls into the 
canals, and if you wander about Venice at low tide you will see, 
sometimes well above the water-line, the orifices by which, in 
the simplest possible process, most of the city s sewage leaves its 
houses. (Many houses nowadays have septic tanks, emptied 
periodically into barges: but here and there you may still see, 
jutting from the facades of old palaces, the little closets that used 
to act as the lavatories of Venice, emptying themselves directly 
into the water beneath, like the external privies that are attached 
to the hulls of Arab dhows.) 

Tons of muck flow into the canals each day, and give the 
crumbling back-quarters of Venice the peculiar stink half 
drainage, half rotting stone that so repels the queasy tourist, 
but gives the Venetian amateur a perverse and reluctant pleasure. 
Add to this the dust, vegetable peel, animal matter and ash that 
pours into every waterway, in defiance of the law, over the 
balconies and down the back-steps, and it is easy to conceive 
how thickly the canal-beds are coated with refuse. If you look 
down from a terrace when the tide is low, you can see an extra 
ordinary variety of rubble and wreckage beneath the water, 
gleaming with spurious mystery through the green; and it is 
horrible to observe how squashily the poles go in, when a pile- 
driver begins its hammering in a canal. 

The Venetians have never been much daunted by this sub 
stratum. In the fifteenth century they burnt joss-sticks, and 
ground scents and spices into the soil, to take away the smells: 
but not long ago even the most fashionable families used to 
bathe regularly in the Grand Canal, and I am told there was a 
notice near the Rialto sternly warning passers-by that it was 
Forbidden to Spit Upon the Swimmers . There used to be 
floating swimming-baths, too, near the Salute (and there is still 
a swimming enclosure around the corner, on the Zattere). 

133 



The City 

Even now the gayer ragamuffins and the wilder young blades of 
the place, in the sweltering summer evenings, are often to be 
seen taking wild dives into the murk from bridges and quay 
sides, and you may sometimes observe fastidious boatmen, with 
expressions of unshakeable hygiene, carefully washing out their 
mugs and basins in the turgid fluid of a backwater. 

The civic authorities, though, are necessarily obsessed with 
sanitation. Much of the foul refuse of Venice, like the mud, is 
washed away by the tide, without which the city would be un 
inhabitable the sea rises and falls there , as a fifteenth-century 
visitor said, and cleans out the filth from the secret places . The 
rest must be removed by man. It is too late, or at least too expen 
sive, to give Venice an entirely new drainage system, relieving 
the canals of their fetid burden: so to keep the water-system of 
Venice alive, the canals must be scoured by old-fashioned means, 
with shovels. Each canal is drained every twenty years or so 
(cul-de-sacs more often, because the tide does not wash through 
them). Only the Grand Canal escapes: it has only been emptied 
once, when a fourteenth-century earthquake swallowed its 
waters in an instant and left it dry for two weeks. Draining the 
canals is an expensive process, but the main navigational water 
ways of Venice are the responsibility of the State, not the Muni 
cipality : also the Italian Constitution decrees that certain national 
funds must be applied to the improvement of civic sanitation, 
and since nothing much can be done to improve Venetian 
sanitation, the Venetians use this money for the dredging of 
canals. 

It is an ominous sight for the householder, when a boat-load 
of respectable men in overcoats appears outside her back door, 
painting numbers in red paint upon the walls: for it may mean 
that the canal is about to be drained, exposing its bed in all its 
horror. A vile miasma then overcomes the quarter, the inhabi 
tants shutter their windows and hasten about with handker 
chiefs over their mouths: and far down in the gully of the 
empty waterway, beneath the ornate doorways and marble 
steps of the palaces, you may see the labourers toiling in the 
sludge. They have erected a little railway down there, and they 
stand knee-deep in black glutinous filth, throwing it into tipper- 
trucks and wheeling it away to waiting barges. Their bodies, 
their clothes, their faces are all smeared with the stuff, and if you 

134 



Streets Full of Water 

engage them in conversation their attitude is one of numbed but 
still mordant resignation. 



A wonderful variety of boats has been developed by the 
Venetians, over the generations, to make the best use of their 
unorthodox highways. Their very first chronicler, visiting the 
wattle villages of their original island settlements, remarked upon 
the boats tied up outside every house, for all the world as other 
people kept their horses. Today the ordinary Venetian is not 
generally a waterman, and looks at the canals with a mixture of 
pride and profound distrust; but sometimes you see a motor- 
boat driver, waiting for his patron, who does not bother to 
moor his craft, but stands on the quayside holding it with a 
loose rope, precisely as though it were a champing horse, and he 
a patient groom in a stable-yard. In the Natural History Museum 
there is*a prehistoric canoe, dug up from a marsh in the lagoon, 
and now preserved in a fossilized condition. It looks almost as 
old as time itself, but in its blackened silhouette you can clearly 
recognize the first developing lines of the gondola. 

If you take an aircraft over Venice, and fly low above her 
mottled attics, you will see her canals thick with an endless flow 
of craft, like little black corpuscles. Every kind of boat navigates 
the Venetian channels, for every kind of purpose, and many are 
unique to the place. There is the gondola, of course. There is the 
sandolo, a smaller but no less dapper boat, also rowed by one 
standing oarsman, facing forward. There is the vaporetto, which 
is the water-bus. There is the motoscafo, which is the motor 
launch. There is the corfina, and the tope, and the trabaccolo, and 
the cavallina, and the vipera, and the bissona, not to speak of 
semi-mythical rigs like the barcobestia, or ceremonial barges like 
the bucintoro, or skiffs from the two old Venetian rowing clubs 
(the Querini and the Bucintoro), or frisky outboards, or sleek 
speedboats, or dustbin barges, or parcel-post boats, or excursion 
launches, or car ferries, or canoes paddled by visiting German 
students, or rubber rafts with outboard engines, or yachts, or 
schooners from Yugoslavia, or naval picket boats, or the smel 
ter s barge with a billowing furnace on it, or ambulance boats, 
or hearses, or milk-boats, or even the immaculate humming 

135 



The City 

liners that sail into the wide canal of Giudecca from Capetown, 
the Levant or the Hudson River. 

For a cross-section of this vivacious armada, I like to stand on 
my corner balcony and watch the boats pass down the Grand 
Canal. Here (for instance) comes the chugging vaporetto, loaded 
deep and foaming at the prow: a trim and purposeful little ship, 
painted green and black. Here is a squat fruit barge, loud with 
oranges and great banana bunches, a haughty black dog at its 
prow, a languid leathery brown-skinned man steering with a 
single bare foot on the tiller. An elderly couple, he in a woollen 
flapped cap, she in a threadbare khaki jacket, laboriously propel 
a skiff full of vegetables towards some minor city market. Eight 
students in a heavy hired motor boat stagger nervously towards 
the Rialto, singing an unconvincing roundelay. Out of a side- 
canal there lumbers, with a deafening blare of its horn, a gigantic 
barge-load of cement; its crew are white with dust, wear hats 
made of newspaper (like the Walrus s Carpenter) and periodic 
ally pass around the deck the single stump of a cigarette a puff 
for each, and two for the steersman. A Coca-Cola barge potters 
cheerfully by, bottles clinking : its helmsman wears the standard 
Coca-Cola uniform, as you may see it on delivery trucks from 
Seattle to Calcutta, and on his Venetian face there has been 
transplanted, by the alchemy of capitalism, the authentic 
American regular-feller smile. 

Backwards and forwards across the Grand Canal the ferry 
gondolas dart daintily, like water-insects, with a neat swirl and 
decoration at the end of each trip, as they curve skilfully into the 
landing-stage. The Prefect rides by in his polished launch, all 
flags and dignity. From the cabin of a taxi there reaches me an 
agreeable mixture of Havana and Diorissima, as a visiting pluto 
crat sweeps by towards the Danieli, with his pigskin suitcases 
piled beside the driver, and his blasee befurred wife in the stern. 
Outside the Accademia art gallery they are loading an enormous 
canvas, an orgasm of angels and fleshy limbs, into a sturdy snub- 
nosed lighter. Beyond San Trovaso, splendid between the 
houses, a liner pulses to its moorings, and behind the dome of 
the Salute I can see, like the twigs of some exotic conifer, a 
warship s intricate radar. 

Sometimes there is a glimpse of red or orange, as an old- 
fashioned fishing-boat labours along the Giudecca; sometimes a 

136 



4 Streets Full of Water* 

delightful little black sandolo, meticulously polished, skims 
urgently towards the station; and always somewhere on the 
Grand Canal, drifting pleasantly with the tide, struggling loftily 
into the lagoon, tossing at a post or protruding its aristocratic 
beak between a pair of palaces, there stands a high-prowed, lop 
sided, black-painted, brass-embellished gondola, the very soul 
and symbol of Venice. 



The water transport of Venice is easygoing but generally 
efficient, after fifteen centuries of practice. Traffic regulations 
are not stringent, and are often genially ignored. The speed 
limit for boats in the city is nine kilometres an hour say 5 
m.p.h. but everybody expects you to go a little faster if you 
can. You should pass a powered boat on its port side, a rowing- 
boat on its starboard: but in the wide Grand Canal nobody much 
cares, and anyway the gondola is surrounded by so powerful a 
mystique, is so obviously the queen of the canals, that when you 
see her tall sensitive silhouette gliding towards you, why, you 
merely curtsey and stand aside. Surprisingly few collisions occur, 
and only rarely will you hear a violent splutter of expletives, 
trailing away into muttered imprecations, as one barge scrapes 
another outside your window. The watermen of Venice are 
robust but tolerant, and do not make difficulties for one another. 

The prime passenger carrier of Venice is the water-bus. The 
first steamboat appeared on the Grand Canal in 1881. She be 
longed to a French company that had won a municipal con 
cession, and with seven tall-funnelled sister ships she had sailed 
from the Seine all around the toe of Italy, to begin the first 
mechanical transport service Venice had ever known. .Till then, 
passengers had either travelled grandly in a gondola, or had 
taken passage up the canal in a long communal boat, not unlike 
a Viking long-ship, which two men rowed from the station to 
St. Mark s (you may see a surviving example in the naval 
museum at the Arsenal, and a direct descendant is still used by 
the Giudecca ferry-men). The advent of the Societa Vaporetti 
Omnibus di Venezia plunged the gondoliers into alarm, and they 
instantly went on strike: but they survived, and on Giudecca, 
off the Rio della Croce, you may see an ex voto, erected by the 
ferry-men of that island, thanking the Holy Mother for her 

137 



The City 

kindness in ensuring that they were not entirely ruined by the 
steamboats. 

The steamboat line flourished too, and presently (in the way 
of successful foreign concessions) it was nationalized, and turned 
into the Azienda Comunale per la Navigazione Interna Lagunare 
A.C.N.LL. for short. It now has more than eighty boats since 
1952 all propelled by diesel or motor engines, though everybody 
still calls them vaporetti. They have had varied histories (like the 
old Trieste-Venice steamer, in the days of the Austrians, which 
began life as an excursion boat on the London to Margate run). 
Two vaporetti, Torcello and No. 6, are survivors of the first 
Italian-built type, based on the Seine model, and launched at 
Trieste in 1882: but upon their archaic hulls have been built 
smart streamlined superstructures, as you might add a plate- 
glass sun-parlour to a manor house. Another boat was built in 
Holland, and the car ferry to the Lido was laid down in Egypt 
as a British tank-landing craft it disgorged its Shermans in 
Sicily and was later sold to the Italians. Several boats, requisi 
tioned by the Italian Government during the war, were sunk by 
bombing and later salvaged. Except for the very latest vessels, 
the whole fleet has been successively modified, redesigned, re 
built, re-engined, so that each craft, like a great cathedral, is the 
product of generations of loving hands and skills a steam-cock 
from one period, a funnel from another, a wheel-house from a 
third, all embellished and enhanced by some very fine early 
twentieth-century life-belts. The line has its own shipyards, near 
the Arsenal: and like the mason s yard at Chartres, they are 
always busy. 

A.C.N.LL. runs at a loss, because in the dim Venetian winter 
only a third of its seats are occupied, and because its fares are 
artificially low an average, in 1959, of 54 lire (yd., or 12 cents) 
for an average journey of two miles, at an average speed of 
yi m.p.h. In 1958, when 62 million tickets were bought, the 
deficit was 254 million lire (.145,000, or $406,000). This is no 
index of the efficiency of the line, which is impressive. Its ser 
vices are frequent, fast and reasonably comfortable (though un 
deniably noisy), and it is only rarely that you see a vaporetto 
ignominiously towed towards the shipyard by the stripped and 
gaunt old steamboat that serves as a tug. The crews are some 
times surly, but generally cordial. At each station there is a 

138 



Streets Full of Water 

gauge-mark, a metre high, for the measurement of children and 
the calculation of half-fares : but it is touching how often the 
official on duty, with a slight downward pressure of his hand 
and the distant suspicion of a wink, manages to usher your 
children beneath it. There is even a beauty to the vaporetti, if you 
are not inalienably attached to the picturesque; for a fine rollick 
ing spirit compels these little ships, when they plunge into the 
lagoon on a bright windy morning, wallowing deep and thresh 
ing hard, with the spray surging about their stems and the 
helmsman earnest in his little glass cabin. 

And threading a snooty way among these plebs, one step 
down in the maritime scale but two or three up in price, are the 
Venetian motor launches. About 100 are private, owned by 
firms or families and sometimes, perhaps, taxation being what 
it is, by both at the same time. Seventy others are taxis, organized 
in three companies of resounding title the San Marco, the 
Serenissima, the Salute. They are fine wooden boats of a design 
unique to Venice: built in the boatyards of the city (many of 
them at the eastern end of Giudecca) and often powered by 
British or American engines. Their tariffs are high. Their decor 
is ornate, going in for tasselled curtains, embroidered seats, white 
roof-covers, flags and occasional tables. The newest have wrap 
around windscreens, and the oldest look like floating Rolls- 
Royces. 

Their drivers, warped by 40 horse-power and the awful 
vulnerability of their polished mahogany, are often cross and 
sometimes oddly incompetent. There hangs around them, 
whether they are taxis or private vehicles, an air of snobbishness 
and conceit very far from the horny bonhomie of the bargees and 
the fishermen: and sometimes, when their wash spills arrogantly 
over the bulwarks of some poor man s boat (in particular, mine) 
they remind me of heedless nobles in a doomed and backward 
kingdom, riding their cruel black horses across a peasant crop. 



Different indeed is the character of the gondola, a boat so 
intimately adapted to the nature of this city that it is difficult to 
imagine Venice without it. The origin of the craft is said to be 
Turkish, and certainly there is something about its grace and 
lofty pose that smacks of the Golden Horn, seraglios and odal- 

139 



The City 

isques and scented pasbas. It is also clearly related to the boats of 
Malta: in the summer you may sometimes compare them, for 
when ships of the British Mediterranean Fleet visit Venice, they 
usually bring with them a Maltese boatman, to provide cheap 
transport for the crews, and you may see his bright butterfly- 
craft bobbing provocatively among the black Venetian boats. 
What the word gondola* means nobody quite knows. Some 
scholars suggest it comes from the Greek t<6v8v, a cup; others 
derive it from KVJJL^, the name the Greeks gave to Charon s 
ferry; and a few dauntless anti-romantics plump for a modern 
Greek word that means, of all things, a inusseL I think it odd 
that in the modern world the word has had only three applica 
tions: to a kind of American railway wagon; to the under-slung 
cabin of an airship; to the town carriage of the Venetians. 

The gondola is built only in the boatyards of Venice, squeezed 
away in smoke and litter in the back-canals of the city (some of 
them will also make you, if you pay them well, exquisite and 
exact miniacures of the craft). It is constructed of several different 
woods oak, walnut, cherry, elm or pine and is cut to a per 
nickety design, perfected at last through innumerable modi 
fications. The first gondola was a much less spirited craft, if we 
can go by the old woodcuts, its form governed by the clumsy 
practice of boarding it over the bows: the present model has 
been so exactly adapted to the needs of the city that there are 
said to be only two places, even at the lowest tide, where a gon 
dola cannot pass one near the Fenice Theatre, the other near 
the church of San Stae. 

The gondola is immensely strong. An adventurous eccentric 
once sailed in one to Trieste, rowed by a crew of eight. I have 
seen a gondola with its bows chopped clean off in a collision, 
still confidently afloat; I have seen one, salvaged after months 
under water, restored to gleaming perfection in a few days; and 
if ever you have your gondola towed by a motor boat, and race 
across the lagoon with its prow hoisted high and the salt foam 
racing by you, the violent but harmless slapping of the water on 
the boat s belly will tell you how soundly it is built, like an old 
Victorian railway engine, or a grandfather clock. 

The gondola can also be fast. I once found it extremely diffi 
cult, in my outboard motor boat, to keep up with a gondola 
practising for a regatta beyond San Giorgio. Two gondoliers 

140 



Streets Full of Water* 

will effortlessly take a pair of passengers from Venice to Burano, 
a good six miles, in less than two hours. With a load of four 
talkative tourists, and an unhurried gondolier, the gondola 
easily keeps up with a man walking along a canal bank in the 
city. (All the same, when the Republic presented a gondola 
to Charles II of England as a wedding present in 1662, and 
sent a couple of gondoliers to man it, Evelyn reported that 
it was not comparable for swiftnesse to our common 
wherries .) 

The modern gondola does not often have thefelze, the little 
black cabin that used, in poetical eyes anyway, so to intensify its 
air of suggestive gloom: but it is still thickly carpeted, and fitted 
with brass sea-horses, cushioned seats, coloured oars and a heavy 
layer of shiny black varnish gondolas have been black since 
the sixteenth century, when the sumptuary laws ordained it, 
though you may sometimes see one painted a bright blue or a 
screaming yellow for a regatta. All gondolas are the same, except 
some rather bigger versions for the fixed ferry runs, and a small 
toy-like model for racing. Their measurements are standard 
length 36 feet, beam 5 feet. They are deliberately lop-sided, to 
counter the weight of the one-oared rower at the stern, so that 
if you draw an imaginary line down the centre of the boat, one 
half is bigger than the other. They have no keel, and they weigh 
about 1,300 pounds apiece. 

At the prow is the ferro, a steel device, often made in the hill- 
towns of Cadore, with six prongs facing forwards, one prong 
astern, and a trumpet-like blade above. Most people find this 
emblem infinitely romantic, but Shelley likened it to a nonde 
script beak of shining steel , and Coryat described it confusedly 
as a crooked thing made in the forme of a Dolphin s tayle, with 
the fins very artificially represented, and it seemeth to be tinned 
over*. Nobody really knows what it represents. Some say it is 
descended from the prows of Roman galleons. Some say it is a 
judicial axe. Others believe it to reproduce the symbol of a key 
that appeared on Egyptian funerary boats. The gondoliers them 
selves have homelier theories. They seem generally agreed that 
the six forward prongs represent the six districts of Venice, but 
disagree wildly about the rest. The top is a Doge s hat a 
Venetian halberd a lily the sea the Rialto bridge. The rear 
prong is the Piazza Giudecca the Doge s Palace Cyprus. 

141 



The City 

The strip of metal running down the stem of the boat is some 
times interpreted as the Grand Canal and sometimes as the 
History of Venice. Now and then, too, in the Venetian manner, 
a ferro has only five forward prongs instead of six, and this 
necessitates an agonizing reassessment of the whole problem: 
and if you ever do settle the symbolism of the thing, you still 
have to decide its purpose whether it is for gauging the heights 
of bridges, whether it balances the boat, or whether it is merely 
ornamental All in all, the ferro of a gondola is a controversial 
emblem: but few sights in Venice, to my mind, are more 
strangely suggestive than seven or eight of these ancient talismans, 
curved, rampant and gleaming,- riding side by side through the 
lamplight of the Grand Canal 

A gondola costs about 500,000 lire say ^300, or $840 
payable in instalments; and every three weeks or so in summer 
it must go back to the yards to be scraped of weed and tarred 
again. Since the gondoliers are largely unemployed in the winter 
months, fares are necessarily high, and every now and then the 
Gondoliers Co-operative announces, in a spate of emotional 
posters, the impending disappearance of the very last gondola 
from the canals of Venice, unless the municipality agrees to 
raise the tariff again. In the sixteenth century there were 10,000 
gondolas in Venice. Today there are about 400; but since a ride 
in one is a prime experience of any Venetian visit, and since they 
form in themselves one of the great tourist spectacles, they are 
unlikely to disappear altogether. Even on severely practical 
grounds, the gondola is still useful to Venetians, for there are 
eleven gondola ferries across the Grand Canal, three of them 
working all night (they have gay little shelters, often charmingly 
decorated with greeneries and Chinese lanterns, in which off- 
duty gondoliers picturesquely sprawl the hours away, sometimes 
engaging in desultory argument, or playing with a communal 
cat). The gondolier is essential to the spirit and self-esteem of 
Venice. The gondolier , says a municipal handbook, cannot 
demand, even as a tip, a higher fare than is indicated on the 
notice that must be affixed to his gondola ; but it is wonderful 
what circumventions he can devise to augment his income, and 
how expensive his diverse pleasantries somehow prove to be, 
his odd droppings of curious knowledge, his mastery of saints 
days and Old Customs, his improbable historical anecdotes and 

142 



Streets Full of Water* 

his blue persuasive eyes, when at length you reach the railway 
station. 

For myself, I am willing to pay a little extra for the delight 
of watching his dexterity. At first the gondola may strike you 
as wasp-like and faintly sinister: but soon you will be converted 
to its style, and recognize it as the most beautiful instrument of 
transport on earth, except perhaps the jet aircraft. Each example, 
they say, has a distinct personality of its own, fostered by minute 
variations of woodwork or fitting, and the gondolier plays upon 
this delicate soundbox like a virtuoso. Some of his attitudes are 
very handsome especially when Carpaccio portrays him, 
poised in striped tights on a gilded poop, in the days before the 
sumptuary laws. In particular there is a soft gliding motion, to 
convey the boat around sharp corners, that reminds me irre 
sistibly of a ski-turn: the feet are placed in a ballet-like position, 
toes well out; the oar is raised to waist level; the body is twisted 
lithely in the opposite direction to the turn; and round the gon 
dola spins, with a swing and a swish, always crooked but never 
ungainly, the gondolier proud and calm upon its stern. 

He utters a series of warning cries when he makes a manoeuvre 
of this sort, throaty and distraught, like the call of an elderly and 
world-weary sea-bird. These cries so affected Wagner, during 
his stay in Venice, that they may have suggested to him (so he 
himself thought) the wail of the shepherd s horn at the opening 
of the third act of Tristan : and they are so truly the cri-de-coeur 
of Venice that during the black-outs of the two world wars, 
pedestrians adopted them too, and sang them out as warnings at 
awkward street corners. The basic words of the admonition are 
premi and stall left and right : but it is difficult to discover 
precisely how they are used. Ruskin, for example, observes 
obscurely that if two gondoliers meet under any circumstances 
which render it a matter of question on which side they should 
pass each other, the gondolier who has at the moment least 
power over his boat cries to the other "Premi!" if he wishes the 
boats to pass with their right-hand sides to each other, and 
" Stali!" if with their left. Other writers are more easily satis 
fied, and believe that when a gondolier is going left he cries 
Premi! 9 and when he is going right he cries Stalif Baedeker, 
frankly defeated by the whole system, merely records the un 
pronounceable exclamation A-OeW which means, he says 

143 



The City 

bathetically, Look out! The poet Monkton Milne, in some 
verses on the problem, says of the gondoliers cries : 

Oh! they faint on the ear as the lamp on the view, 
I am passing premi ! but I stay not for you ! 

Nowadays the gondoliers seem to vary their cry. I have often 
heard the old calls, but generally, it seems to me, the modern 
gondolier merely shouts Of/ (for which Herr Baedeker s trans 
lation remains adequate) and I know one modernist who, 
swinging off the Grand Canal into the Rio San Trovaso, habitu 
ally raises his fingers to his teeth for a raucous but effective 
whistle. 

It is not at all easy to row a gondola. The reverse stroke of the 
oar is almost as laborious as the forward stroke, because the 
blade must be kept below water to keep the bows straight; and 
skilful manipulation, especially in emergencies, depends upon 
instant movement of the oar in and out of the complicated row 
lock (which looks like a forked stump from a petrified forest). 
To see this skill at its most advanced, spend ten minutes at one 
of the Grand Canal traghetto stations, and watch the ferry-men 
at work. They move in a marvellous unity, two to a gondola, 
disciplined by some extra-sensory bond, and they bring their 
boats to the landing-stage with a fine flamboyant flourish, 
whipping their oars neatly out of the rowlocks to act as brakes, 
and coming alongside with a surge of water and an endearing 
showmen s glance towards the audience on the bank. 



Boats, boatmanship and boatlore are half the fascination of 
Venice. Do not suppose, though, that the Venetians never set 
eyes on a car. You can see them any day, of course, at the 
Piazzale Roma, or on the resort-island of the Lido, but they 
sometimes get far nearer St. Mark s. At the Maritime docks, 
near the Zattere, you may often see cars running about behind 
the barricades, and sometimes observe a great diesel lorry that 
has hauled its trailer direct from Munich to the inner fringe of 
the sea-city. When there is an especially important celebration, 
the authorities land television and loudspeaker trucks in the 
Piazza itself, where they sit around in corners, skulking beneath 
the colonnades and looking distinctly embarrassed. The British 

144 



Stones of Venice 

took amphibious vehicles to the Riva degli Schiavoni, when 
they arrived in Venice at the end of the second world war. 
Cargoes of cars (and railway wagons, too) often chug across the 
inner lagoon on ferry-boats. And I once looked out of my win 
dow to see a big removal truck outside my neighbour s front 
door, on the Grand Canal itself: it had been floated there on 
barges, and its driver was sitting at the steering-wheel, eating a 
sandwich. 



13 

STONES OF VENICE 

There are many houses in Venice that do not stand upon 
canals, and are inaccessible by boat: but there is nowhere in the 
city that you cannot reach on foot, if you have a good map, a 
stout pair of shoes and a cheerful disposition. The canals govern 
the shape and pattern of Venice. The streets fill in the gaps, like 
a filigree. Venice is a maze of alleys, secluded courtyards, bridges, 
archways, tortuous passages, dead ends, quaysides, dark over 
hung back streets and sudden sunlit squares. It is a cramped, 
crowded, cluttered place, and if its waterways are often spark 
ling, and its views across the lagoon brilliantly spacious, its 
streets often remind me of corridors in some antique mouldy 
prison, florid but unreformed. It is a very stony city. A few weeks 
in Venice, and you begin to long for mountains or meadows or 
open sea (though it is extraordinary, when once you have tied 
your sheets together and jumped over the wall, how soon you 
pine for the gaol again). 

There are several different grades of street and square in 
Venice. The fondamenta is a quayside, usually wide and airy. 
The calle is a lane. The salizzada is a paved alley, once so rare as 
to be worth distinguishing. The ruga is a street lined with shops. 
The riva is a water-side promenade. The rio terra is a filled-in 
canal, and the piscina a former pond. Then there is something 
called a crosera, and something called a ramo, and a sotto-portico, 
and a corte, and a catnpo, and a campiello, and a campazzo. There 
is a Piazzale in Venice (the Piazzale Roma, by the car park). 

145 



The City 

There are two Piazzettas (one on each side of the Basilica). But 
there is only one Piazza, the stupendous central square of the 
city, which Napoleon called the finest drawing-room in Europe. 

Each section of the city, as we saw 6:9 m the campanile, clus 
ters about its own square, usually called a campo because it used 
to be, in the virginal days of Venice, a soggy kind of field. The 
most interesting campi in Venice are those of San Polo, Santa 
Maria Formosa, San Giacomo dell Orio, Santo Stefano, and 
Santa JVtargherita the first rather dashing, the second rather 
buxom, the third rather rough, the fourth rather elegant, the fifth 
pleasantly easygoing. In such a campo there is usually no 
glimpse of water, the canals being hidden away behind the 
houses, and all feels hard, old and urban. It is, as the guides 
would say, Very characteristical . 

In the middle of Campo Santa Margherita (for example) there 
stands an inconsequential little square building, rather like an old 
English town hall, which was once the Guild of the Fur-Makers, 
and is now used as a furniture factory. At one end of the square 
is an antique tower, once a church, now a cinema, and at the 
other is the tall red campanile of the Carmini church, with an 
illuminated Madonna on its summit. Between these three land 
marks all the spiced activities of Venice flourish, making the 
campo a little city of its own, within whose narrow confines you 
can find almost anything you need for sensible living. There is a 
bank, in a fine old timbered house; and three or four cafes, their 
radios stridently blaring; and a swarthy wineshop, frequented by 
tough old ladies and dominated by an enormous television set; 
and a second-hand clothes dealer, upon whose trestle tables there 
lie in bilious excess a multitude of gaudy frilled petticoats; and 
a dairy, and a couple of well-stocked groceries, and a delightful 
old-school pharmacy, all pink bottles and panelling. At the 
brightly-coloured newspaper kiosk the proprietor peers at his 
customers through a small cavity among the film stars, as 
though he has nibbled a way between the magazines, like a dor 
mouse. The draper s shop is warm with woollies and thick 
stockings; the tobacconist sells everything from safety-pins to 
postage stamps; and each morning they set up a market in the 
square, beneath gay awnings, squirming with fish and burgeon 
ing with vegetables. 

Like many another Venetian campo, Santa Margherita is an 

146 



Stones of Venice 

unsophisticated place. No elegant socialites sit at its cafes. No 
film stars cross their legs revealingly on the steps of its war 
memorial. The passing tourists hurry by anxiously consulting 
their street plans, on their way to grander places. But there is no 
better way to taste the temper of Venice than to sit for an hour 
or two in such a setting, drinking a cheap white wine from the 
Veneto, and watching this particular small world go by. 



Extending from the squares, like tenuous roots, run the alley 
ways of Venice, of which there are said to be more than 3,000. 
Their total length is more than ninety miles, but some are so 
small as to be almost impassable. Browning was delighted to 
find one so narrow that he could not open his umbrella. The 
narrowest of all is said to be the Ramo Salizzada Zusto, near 
San Giaconio dell* Orio, which is 2i feet wide, and can only be 
traversed by the portly if they are not ashamed to try sideways. 
The lanes of Venice often have lovely names the Alley of the 
Curly-Headed Woman; the Alley of the Love of Friends Or of 
the Gypsies; the Filled-In Canal of Thoughts; the Broad Alley 
of the Proverbs; the First Burnt Alley and the Second Burnt 
Alley, both commemorating seventeenth-century fires; the 
Street of the Monkey Or of the Swords; the Alley of the Blind. 
Not long ago, before people s skins grew thinner, there was 
even a Calle Sporca Dirty Lane. 

The lanes are often beguilingly unpredictable, ending abruptly 
in dark deep canals, plunging into arcades, or emerging without 
warning upon some breathtaking vista. They can also be mis 
leading, for you will frequently find that the palace looming at 
the end of an alley-way is separated from you by a wide water 
way, and can only be reached by an immense detour. This 
means that though Venetian houses may be close to one another, 
they are not necessarily neighbours, and it has led to the evolu 
tion of a complicated sign language, enabling housemaids to 
converse with each other at long range, or conduct gentle flirta 
tions across the chasm: I once saw a young man in the very act 
of blowing a kiss to a girl across such a canal when his window- 
pane fell down with a busy-body thump, fatally weakening his 
aplomb. The mystery, secrecy and romance of the lanes is always 
a fascination, especially if you learn, as the Venetians do, to 

147 



The City 

andare per le fodere move among the linings , or poke your 
way through the little subsidiary passages that creep padded and 
muffled among the houses, like the runs of city weasels. 

They used to have running-races in the crook-back, zigzag 
streets of Venice, and you can make good speed along them if 
you develop the right techniques of side-step and assault. The 
best way to move about Venice, though, is by a combination of 
methods, based upon careful analysis. You can walk from the 
Rialto to the church of Ognissanti in half an hour: but if you 
know the place, you will catch the express vaporetto to San 
Samuele take the traghetto across to the Ca Rezzonico follow 
the linings through the Calle Traghetto, the Calle Lunga San 
Barnaba, the Calle delle Turchette, the Fondamenta di Borgo, 
the Fondamenta delle Eremite, the Calle dei Frari, the Rio Terra 
degli Ognissanti and in a dazed minute or two, emerging 
panting upon the Campo Ognissanti, you are there. 

Turn up on your right hand/ said Launcelot to Gobbo, when 
that old gentleman was looking for Shylock s house turn up 
on your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning 
of all, on your left: marry, at the very next turning, turn of no 
hand, but turn down indirectly to the Jew s house/ 

By God s sonties/ the old boy replied, Ywil] be a hard way 
to find and O Heavens ! he was right. 



Long centuries ago the Venetians, looking around them at 
these peculiar circumstances, and examining the best Greek, 
Roman and Byzantine models, devised their own kind of house. 
Many an ephemeral taste has embellished their architecture 
since then, and many fluctuations of fortune have affected their 
style, so that today Venice is a gallimaufry of domestic architec 
ture, so tightly packed and heavily loaded with buildings that 
sometimes it feels like one massive jagged stone hillock, pro 
jecting irregularly from the waters of the lagoon. 

The classic Venetian house remains the palace of the old aris 
tocracy. Itjxiund all over the-city r in innumerable back-alleys 
and little-frequented co wtyards in the best modern guide to 
Venice 334 such houses are thought worthy of mention. Many 
a modest old doorway masks a lovely house, and often a butch 
er s shop or a grocer s has been built into the side of an ex- 

148 



Stones of Venice 

quisite small fifteenth-century mansion. You can see the greater 
houses at their best and grandest, though, along the banks of the 
Grand Canal, where their architecture springs from three dis 
tinct periods the Byzantine, the Gothic, the Renaissance 
which are instantly recognizable to writers of guide books, but 
often indistinguishable to me. Some of these houses are appeal- 
ingly decrepit. Some have been ruthlessly restored. Some are 
charming, some (to my mind) perfectly hideous. Some are 
simple and demure, some massively ostentatious, with immense 
heavy doorways and ugly obelisks on their cornices. They are, 
at least those of the Gothic pattern, unique to Venice: but when 
Mr. Tiffany and his associates wanted to erect a jeweller s man 
sion on Fifth Avenue, and when the committee of the Army 
and Navy Club were planning their new premises in Pall Mall, 
all those gentlemen cast their eyes admiringly towards the 
Grand Canal, and built their own Venetian palaces at home. 
Their basic design is lofty but practical, and clearly derived 




^^ mFW ^^ ,, - ^ 

back (on an alley). It has four, five or six storijps. The front door 

._ A-^^-*^-^^ .**sf - "- j " "V *" * 1 / ^---"-s**.* 

^ppens spaciously upon the water, where the boats are moored at 

huge painted posts unless there is a boaAouse at the side, like a 
garage. The back door opens discreetly intcTaTaSe^or into a 
high-walled and often disregarded garden. If the house is vener 
able enough, there may be a flagged courtyard with a well-head, 
from which a wide staircase marches upwards, as in the houses 
of Damascus and Baghdad. 

Thejjso^ 

yarcC where the family gondola used to be laid up, high, dry and 
mysterious, in the winter months, and where the old merchant 
aristocrats stored their bales of silk, their bundles of ivory, their 
tapestries, their perfumes and even their shivering apes from 
Tripolis, from Mexico, and England/ as Shakespeare once 
imaginatively put it, From Lisbon, Barbary and India*. The 

&>LQoQL^^ fh^^^^^^^^^ %Lk?B? 

where the merchants did their accounts, conclude3TtB.eir agree 
ments and dismissed their dishonest servants. The-secaaddsjthe 

/gzaL^ ^ or 

the pleasure of his honour the proprietor. It has a long, dark, 
imposing central room, often running the whole length of the 

149 



The City 

house, with a large balcony over the canal, and an alcove each 
side with windows over the water. From this central salon bed 
rooms lead off on either side, trailing away in a warren of bath 
rooms, dressing-rooms and miscellaneous offices. 

Above the piano signorile the house loses some of its gnffldsjur, 
each flopr, becoming successively pokier until at last, atove the 
ultimate attic, you emerge upon the higgledy-piggledy "roof, 
and find there the wooden platform, called the althna, which was 
originally designed to allow Venetian ladies privacy while they 
bleached their hair in the sun, but which nowadays generally 
flutters with washing. The house may once have been covered 
with frescoes and vivid ornamentation, sometimes vaguely 
visible to this day, when the sun is right: now it is probably 
reddish, brownish, or stone-coloured, and enlivened chiefly by 
its gay mooring-posts, like barbers poles, its striped awnings, 
and the delectable flower-boxes, bird-cages and odd domestic 
foliage with which elderly Venetian ladies like to freshen their 
windows. 

Plastered and stuccoed on the facades of these houses are the 
mementoes of progress : bits and pieces of decoration left behind 
by successive restorers, like sea-shells in a grotto. Angels, 
cherubs, scrolls and lions abound on every window-sill, and 
sometimes there are huge pyramidal spikes on the roof, like 
the rock-temples of Petra. The side facade of a Venetian palace, 
in particular, can be immensely complicated by these accretions. 
I once examined the side elevation of a house near mine, and 
found that beneath its domed tower and its copper weather-vane 
it was embellished with four chimney-pots, of three different 
designs; fifty-three windows, of eight different shapes and sizes, 
two of them blocked and three grilled; the casement of a spiral 
staircase; twelve iron staples; eight inlaid pieces of white 
masonry; a defaced memorial slab; a carved rectangular orna 
ment of obscure significance; four buttresses; five external 
chimney flues; scattered examples of bare brick, cement, piping, 
stonework and embedded arches; various bits of isolated tiling; 
a heavy concrete reinforcement at the water s edge; a carpet 
hung out to air; a quizzical housemaid at a third-floor window; 
and an inscription recording the fact that a celebrated French 
actress had lived there. 

The greatest of these strange houses, though much smaller 

150 



Stones of Venice 

than the country palaces of the English patricians, are very large 
indeed. (Their owners often had mansions on the mainland, too : 
the Pisani family had fifty such villas, and at one house in the 
Veneto 150 guests could be entertained at a go, together with 
their servants it contained two chapels, five organs, a concert 
hall, a printing press and a couple of theatres.) In the early days 
of Venice, the citizens all lived in virtually identical houses, to 
show their unity and equality in all things : later the palaces 
became symbolic of wealth and success, the most gloriously 
ostentatious way of keeping up with the Contarinis. 

Many stories testify to the pride of the old Venetian house 
holders, as they erected these grandiose homes. One tells of the 
aristocrat Nicolo Balbo, who was so anxious to move into the 
new Palazzo Balbi that he lived for some months in a boat 
opposite the building site: alas, he caught cold, and before he 
could take up residence in the mansion, poor old Balbi died. 
Another concerns a determined suitor who, refused a lady s hand 
because he did not possess a palace on the Grand Canal, promptly 
built one so large that, as he pointed out, any one of its principal 
windows was bigger than his father-in-law s main portal: the 
young man s house is the Palazzo Grimani, now the Court of 
Appeal, and the old man s the Coccina-Tiepolo, almost oppo 
site. A third story says that the truncated Palazzo Flangini, near 
San Geremia, was once twice its present size, but that when two 
brothers jointly inherited it, one of them demolished his half in 
a fit of jealous dudgeon. The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni remains 
unfinished, so it is said, because the owner of the immense 
Palazzo Corner, directly opposite, objected so strongly to the 
impertinence of its completion: it was certainly going to be 
enormous, as you may see from a model in the Correr Museum. 
The palace of the Duke Sforza, near the Accademia, was appar 
ently intended by that ambitious condottiere to be more of a 
fortress than a mere house, and that is why it remains at half- 
cock, with a princely set of stairs but a modest elevation. 

The Grand Canal, as Gautier once said, was the register of the 
Venetian nobility * every family has inscribed its own name on 
one of these monumental facades . The Palazzo Vendramin, 
where Wagner died, was built by the Loredan clan, and passed 
in aristocratic succession to the Duke of Brunswick, the Duke of 
Mantua, the Calergi family, the Grimani family, the Vendra- 

151 



The City 

min family, the Duchesse de Berry (mother of Henri V) and 
the Duca della Grazia. Countless and often fabulous were the 
festivities mounted in such houses, in the days of the Venetian 
decline. They used to have bull-baitings in the courtyard of the 
Ca Foscari, and sometimes people erected floating platforms on 
the canal outside their front doors, and had dances on them. 

Only a few years ago a ball of legendary luxury and splendour 
was held in the Palazzo Labia, beside San Geremia, and the 
grandest parties of the Grand Canal are still among the greatest 
events of the international season. Few of the larger palaces, 
though, are still private houses, and if they are, their proprietors 
are not usually Venetians. One or two patrician families main 
tain their old homes, usually keeping well out of the social lime 
light: but their palaces are likely to be divided among different 
members of the family, floor by floor, with a chaperone or 
housekeeper to give a respectable unity to the manage. 

Many other palaces are now institutions the Municipality, 
which occupies two, the Museum of Modern Art, the winter 
casino, the Franchetti Museum, the Ca Rezzonico Museum, 
the International Centre of Art and Costume, the headquarters 
of the Biennale, the Museum of Natural History, the Prefecture, 
the municipal pawnshop. Some of the finest are hotels. Some 
are offices, some are antique shops, one is a mosaic workshop, 
two are showrooms of Venetian glass. Many more are apart 
ments, mostly expensive (especially at the southern end of the 
Grand Canal), some magnificent. The ownership of these struc 
tures can be involved, for they are often divided by floors, so 
that one landlord owns the top of the house, and quite another 
the middle, and a third the garden and the water-gate, and a 
fourth the path that leads you into the common land of the 
back-alley. Sometimes ownership extends to part of the pave 
ment outside. Near the Rialto there is a house whose garden 
gate juts abruptly into the passing lane. Across the angle thus 
made with the wall of the alley a stone has been set in the pave 
ment, enclosing an area of about two square feet between the 
gateway and the wall, and upon it is engraved the inscription: 
Private Property. 9 1 once put my foot across this mystic barrier, 
into the forbidden inches beyond: and sure enough, such is the 
strength of Venetian tradition, a queer tingle ran up my leg, 
like a psychic admonition. 

152 



Stones of Venice 

Do not judge the prosperity of a Venetian house by the 
opulence of its doorway, especially if it stands well away from 
the Grand Canal. There are, of course, many poor houses in 
Venice, drab uniform tenements, dreary cottages, even the rem 
nants of rock-bottom slums. The apparent squalor of many 
homes, though, is merely a veneer. Downstairs the house may 
be dank, messy, derelict or even sinister: but once you are inside, 
and past the musty obscurity of the hall, and up the rickety 
stairs, and through the big black door of the principal apart 
ment, and along a gloomy echoing corridor or two, and up a 
few shaky staircases then suddenly, passing through a heavy 
curtain, you may find yourself in the brightest and most elegant 
of rooms, locked away in that dark exterior like a pearl in a 
knobbly oyster. (Venetians have always liked to live out of 
doors, anyway, as you may see from the countless cheerful citi 
zens who take their knitting and their newspapers each summer 
evening to the cafes of the Riva or the quaysides and trattorias 
near the docks.) 

Do not think, either, that Venice has no gardens. In the 
winter, when all this maze of buildings is cold, shuttered and 
depressed, it can feel the most barren of cities, starved of green, 
sap and juices. This is misleading. Hundreds of gardens lie hid 
den among the stones of Venice, protected by iron gates and old 
brick ramparts, so that you only catch a quick passing glimpse of 
wistaria, or a transient breath of honeysuckle. The Venetians 
love flowers. Florists abound, and there are shops where you can 
buy edible essence of rose-petal, or bunches of orange marrow- 
blossom to fry in flour. There are trees in Venice, too hundreds 
of pines, regimentally paraded, in Napoleon s Public Gardens; 
handsome plane trees in several squares; myrtles, laurels, olean 
ders, pomegranates, tamarisks and palms in many a private 
garden. There is even, a learned man once assured me, a genuine 
lodogno tree, in the Campo San Zaccaria information I could 
only accept in respectful silence. 

There is a beguiling secrecy and seclusion to these green places 
of Venice, and they are often littered with quaint statues and 
carvings, and haunted by cats, and dignified by old overgrown 
well-heads. On Giudecca, once the garden-island of Venice, 
there are still one or two rich flower gardens running down to 
the lagoon, their heavy fragrance hanging like a cloud above the 

153 



The City 

water; and even in the very centre of the city, where you should 
take nothing for granted, solemn forbidding buildings often 
secrete small bowers of delight. Behind the old convent of the 
Servites, enclosed by high walls, there is a vegetable garden 
(tended by nuns in cowls and gum-boots), so wide and richly 
cultivated that it feels like a transplanted patch of Umbria, 
snatched from the farmlands: and above the low roof of the 
Palazzo Venier you may see the tall luxuriant trees of its garden, 
a place of deep evocative melancholy, like a plantation garden 
in the American South. 

Such places are not often public. Most of the Venetian gar 
dens are jealously locked, and impenetrable to strangers. On the 
entire southern shore of Giudecca there is now only one spot 
where ordinary people may wander down to the water. To see 
the gum-booted nuns at work you must persuade some friendly 
local housewife to give you access to her roof, and look at them 
over the wall. Few benches stand among the Venetian greeneries 
as encouragements to dalliance, and the ones in the big Public 
Garden, at the end of the Riva, are nearly always occupied. 

Venetians, indeed, do not always covet gardens. Many a 
private paradise is cruelly neglected. (Ah! say the romantics, 
but that s part of their charm! unkempt lawns and matted shrub 
bery being presently fashionable in Venice.) Others are laid out 
with crude display. Some neighbours of mine, in a spasm of 
enthusiasm, recently engaged a landscape gardener to rearrange 
their entire garden, hitherto a tangled wilderness. They ordered it 
all by the book, complete with a lawn, a garden path, a flower- 
border, a handful of small trees and a garden gate with brass 
insignia. The gardeners worked hard and skilfully, and within a 
month they had created a spanking new garden, as neat, correct 
and orderly as a ledger : and some time later, when the flowers 
came out, I observed the mistress of the house wandering among 
the roses with a catalogue in her hand, making sure she had got 
what she ordered. 



Where an alley meets a water-way, there you have a Venetian 
bridge. The bridges, as Evelyn observed, tack the city together . 
There are more to the square mile in Venice than anywhere else 
on earth more than 450 of them, ranging from the gigantic 

154 



Stones of Venice 

twin spans of the causeway to the dainty little private bridge on 
Giudecca which, if you open its wicket gate and cross its planks, 
deposits you prudently in the garden of the Queen of Greece. 
There is the Bridge of Fists and the Bridge of Straw and the 
Bridge of the Honest Woman and the Bridge of Courtesy and 
the Bridge of Humility and the Little Bridge and the Long 
Bridge and the Bridge of Paradise and the Bridge of the Angel 
and the Bridge of Sighs, where Byron stood, lost in sentimental 
but misinformed reverie. 

The arched bridge turned the canals into highways: but to 
this day many of the Venetian bridges are so low, so dark and 
so narrow that the gondolier has to crouch low on his poop to 
get through them, while his passengers clutch their new straw 
hats and laugh at their own echoes (and if it is one of those 
bridges whose undersides are flecked with moving water-reflec 
tions, going beneath it is like gliding behind a silent waterfall). 
The ubiquity of bridges has given the Venetians their peculiar 
clipped gait, and contributes heavily to the swollen ankles and 
unsteady heels with which unaccustomed visitors, swearing in 
expressible enjoyment, stagger back to a restorative bath after an 
afternoon of sightseeing. 

The early Venetian bridges were used by horses and mules as 
well as humans, and therefore had ramps instead of steps. They 
had no parapets, and were made of tarred wood, as you can see 
from Carpaccio s famous Miracle of the True Cross at the Rialto. 
Today the ramps have all disappeared, but there is still one ex 
ample of a bridge without parapets, on the Rio San Felice near 
the Misericordia. Most of the minor bridges nowadays are single- 
spanned, high-arched, and built of stone. There are still a few 
flat wooden bridges, approached by steps from the pavement, 
like an English railway- bridge. There is a three-arched bridge 
over the canal called Cannaregio. There is an eccentric junction 
of bridges near the Piazzale Roma, where five separate struc 
tures meet in a baffling confrontation of steps and directions. 
There are some private bridges, ending abruptly and haughtily 
at the great wooden doors of palaces. There are a few iron 
bridges, some of English genesis. At certain times of the year 
there are even pontoon bridges, erected by Italian Army 
engineers from the Po Valley garrisons. In November one is 
thrown across the Grand Canal to the Salute. In July they build 

155 



The City 

one across the wide Giudecca Canal to the church of the Reden- 
tore, for the commemoration of another plague delivery (for 
thirty hours no ship can enter or leave the port of Venice). They 
used also to build one, on All Souls Day, to the cemetery of 
San Michele: but today a steamboat will take you to the grave 
side anyway, in a matter of mournful moments. For the rest, the 
little bridges of Venice are so numerous, and so unobtrusive, 
and so alike, that you may cross ten or twenty in the course of 
half an hour s stroll, and hardly even notice them. 

Three bigger bridges span the Grand Canal. Until the last 
century there was only one, the Rialto which all Venetians 
meticulously call Ponte di Rialto, the Rialto being, in their long 
memories, not a bridge but a district. There have been several 
bridges on this site. The first was a bridge of boats. The second 
was broken during the Tiepolo revolution in 1310, when the 
rebels fled across the canal. The third collapsed in 1444 during 
the Marchioness of Ferrara s wedding procession. The fifth, por 
trayed in Carpaccio s picture, had a drawbridge in the middle. 
It was temporarily removed in 1452 to let the King of Hungary 
pass by in suitable state with the Duke of Austria; and it 
became so rickety over the years that one chronicler des 
cribed it as all gnawed, and suspended in the air as if by a 
miracle . 

The sixth was the subject of a famous sixteenth-century 
architectural competition. Sansovino, Palladio, Scamozzi, Fra 
Giocondo tod even Michelangelo all submitted designs (you may 
see Michelangelo s, I am told, at the Casa Buonarotti in Florence). 
Most of the competitors suggested multi-arched bridges, but 
one, Antonio da Ponte, boldly proposed a single high arch, 
based upon 12,000 stakes, with a span of more than 90 feet, a 
height of 24, and a width of 72. This was a daring gesture. Da 
Ponte was official architect to the Republic, and the Signory 
was hardly lenient with employees errors Sansovino himself 
was shortly to be imprisoned when his new library building 
unfortunately fell down. Nevertheless, da Ponte s design was 
accepted, and the bridge was built in two years. It has been a 
subject of controversy ever since. Many Venetians disliked it at 
the time, or mocked it as an unreliable white elephant; many 
others objected when its clean arch was loaded with the present 
picturesque superstructure of shops; and it has been, until 

156 



Stones of Venice 

recently, fashionable to decry it as lumpish and unworthy 
(though several great painters have fondly pictured it, including 
Turner in a lost canvas). 

Structurally, it was a complete success during rioting in 1797 
they even fired cannon from its steps, to dispel the mobs: and 
for myself, I would not change a stone of it. I love the quaint 
old figures of St. Mark and St. Theodore, on the station side of 
the bridge. I love the Annunciation on the other side, angel at 
one end, Virgin at the other, Holy Ghost serenely aloft in the 
middle. I love the queer whale-back of the bridge, humped 
above the markets, and its cramped little shops, facing resolutely 
inwards. I think one of the great moments of the Grand Canal 
occurs when you swing around the bend beside the fish market 
and see the Rialto there before you, precisely as you have imag 
ined it all your life, one of the household images of the world, 
and one of the few Venetian monuments to possess the quality 
of geniality. 

For another three centuries it remained the only bridge over 
the Grand Canal. As late as 1848 the Austrian soldiers could pre 
vent subversive foot passage across the city simply by dosing 
the Rialto bridge. Then two iron structures were thrown across 
the water-way one by the railway station, one near the Acca- 
demia gallery. They were flat, heavy and very ugly, and the 
Accademia bridge was sometimes known, in mixed irony and 
affection, as Ponte Inglese. Both lasted until the 193 os, when they 
had to be replaced because of the increased size of the vaporetti. 
The new station bridge was a handsome stone structure, far 
higher than the Rialto. The new Accademia bridge was of 
precisely the same proportions, but because money was short it 
was built (just for the time being, so they cheerfully said) of 
tarred wood a return to the original materials of Venetian 
bridge-building. 

And here is an extraordinary thing. There are only these two 
modern bridges across the Grand Canal, the world s most 
resplendent water-way; and if you take a vaporetto to San 
Maurizio, and walk across to the Fenice Theatre, and cross 
Campo San Fantin, and take the first turning on the left, and the 
third on the right, and follow the alley to the left again, and 
knock on the door of the third house on the right, the face of a 
jolly housekeeper will inspect you from an upstairs floor, the 

157 



The City 

door will click open, and when you have walked up two flights 
of stairs you will find yourself shaking hands with the architect 
who designed and built them both one of the most remarkable 
monuments any man of our time has erected to himself. 



14 

CITY SERVICES 

Into their hugger-mugger city the Venetians have had to 
insert all the paraphernalia of modern urban life. Industry has 
generally been kept at arm s length, on the perimeters or on the 
mainland, but within the city proper a couple of hundred 
thousand people live, vote and pay their dues and it is discon 
certing how often the Venetian tax-collector seems to come 
around, shuffling with his receipt book among the buttressed 
alleys. Venice must be policed, lit, watered, cleaned, like any 
other city, adapting all the techniques to fit its strange and 
antique setting. 

The old Venetians used to drink rain-water, supplemented 
by water from the Brenta river. It was channelled into elaborate 
cisterns and purified through sand-filters: the carved well-heads 
that you see in Venetian squares are often only the outlets of 
great underground storage tanks, sometimes almost filling the 
area of the campo. (The cisterns are sometimes still full of water, 
and sustain the struggling green foliage that persistently presses 
through the paving-stones.) Since 1884 drinking water has come 
by pipe from artesian wells at Trebaseleghe, on the mainland. 
It is stored in reservoirs near Sant Andrea, and is so good that 
even Baedeker was prepared to commend it. During the first 
war the aqueduct burst somewhere underground, and only swift 
engineering action, kept secret from the people, prevented a 
calamity: today the supply is plentiful even in drought, and 
some of the public drinking fountains splash away merrily all 
day. 

Electric power marches across the lagoon on pylons from its 
mountain sources. Petrol comes in barges, ships and tanker- 
trucks there are several petrol stations in Venice, including one 

158 



City Services 

near St. Mark s and one on the Grand Canal. The city gasometer 
is tucked discreetly away near the northern church of San Fran 
cesco della Vigna, far from railing purists. The municipal 
slaughter-house is near the station: the cattle are driven there 
from the railway track, two mornings a week, by way of the 
Square of the Pork Butcher and the Alley of Butchers, and the 
waters around the building are stained with their blood. The 
best-known newspaper, the Gazzettino, occupies a marvellously 
cadaverous palace behind St. Mark s, and its rolls of newsprint 
are delivered by barge (though one of the Milan evening papers 
maintains a dashing speedboat in the city). The radio station 
shares with the Municipal Casino the great Palazzo Vendramin, 
giving rise to a piquant juxtaposition of sound-proof walls, 
florid fireplaces, gaming tables, marble pillars, ermine and jazz. 

The telephone department occupies a beautiful cloister near 
San Salvatore. The prison stands bleakly, guarded by lions of 
St. Mark, in the shambled warehouse area near the car park, and 
if you pass by on visiting day you may look between its open 
doors and see the poor inmates talking gravely with their 
women-folk through the grilles. The lunatic asylum, isolation 
hospital, old people s home and consumptive sanatorium are all 
on islands in the lagoon. The fire brigade stands, its old red 
motor boats warily shining, beneath a shady arcade near Ca 
Foscari, just off the Grand Canal: when they are summoned to a 
fire the engines are launched with such fierce momentum that 
one boat, recently misjudging a manoeuvre in the heat of its 
enthusiasm, struck the side of a palace and knocked its entire 
corner askew. The milk comes by truck from the mainland and 
is distributed by barge, with a tinny clanking of bottles in the 
half-light though sixty years ago there were, besides the English 
herd, cows in sheds at Campo Angelo Raffaele and Santa Mar- 
gherita. The Conservatoire of Music lives in a vast Renaissance 
palace near the Accademia bridge, from where the strains of its 
not very elfin horns emanate relentlessly across the waters. The 
tax department works in the cloister of Santo Stefano: always a 
place of controversy, for here Pordenone, commissioned to 
paint a series of Biblical frescoes, is said to have worn his sword 
and buckler on the job, in case his ferocious rival Titian came 
storming through the archway. 

Several different kinds of policemen keep Venice safe and on 

159 



The City 

the move. There are the extravagantly accoutred Carabinieri, 
whose faces, between their cocked hats and their gleaming 
sword-hilts, are often disconcertingly young and vacuous. There 
are the State police, drab in workaday grey, who cope with 
crime. There are the civic police, handsomely dressed in blue, 
who are responsible for traffic control, and are often to be seen 
vigilantly patrolling the Grand Canal in tiny speedboats, like 
toys. You do not need a driving licence in Venice, but your 
engine must be registered and taxed, if it generates more than 
three horse-power, and you must have permission to drive 
mooring stakes into the canal beside your door; so that the city 
police spend a great deal of time examining credentials and dis 
tributing documents, and generally leave the traffic to look after 
itself. The stringent regulations announced before every cere 
monial begin strictly enough, but always peter away as the hours 
pass, until in the end the policemen, succumbing to the invari 
able geniality of the occasion, take very little notice at all, and 
allow the festival boats to swirl about in delightful but some 
times inextricable confusion. 

There are a few traffic notices in Venice, reminding boatmen 
of the speed limit. There is one familiar intersection sign, mark 
ing the crossing of two canals. There is even a set of traffic lights, 
near Santa Margherita. The novice boatman, like a suburban 
housewife up for the day s shopping, must learn where he can 
park his craft with impunity difficult at St. Mark s, dangerous 
on the Riva (because of the swell), impossible on the Grand 
Canal, simple in the poor, friendly, good-natured districts that 
stretch away beyond Rialto to the Fondamenta Nuove. Mostly, 
though, the Venetian policemen will not bother him, and I am 
told they are much sought after as sons-in-law. 

Much less full of circumstance are the dustbin men, who 
supplement the natural emetic of the sea-tides with a fleet of 
some twenty grey motor barges. Under the Republic the refuse 
men formed an influential guild, and a plaque in their honour 
was mounted above the church door of Sant* Andrea, behind 
the car park. They were so grand, indeed, that once they had 
established family monopolies of the business, they employed 
other people to do the work for them, and lived comfortably at 
home on the profits. Today the garbage men are not usually 
proud of their calling, and do not much like to be photographed 

160 



City Services 

at work: but very efficient and impressive they are, all the same, 
as their barges swirl in convoy into the Grand Canal, cluttered 
with obscure equipment, blasting their horns and roaring their 
engines, like warships of advanced and experimental design. 

The dustbin fleet is run by private enterprise, under municipal 
contract. A small army of uniformed men, pushing neat metal 
trollies, collects the dustbins each morning from the houses of 
Venice, and hurries them through the alley-ways towards a ren 
dezvous with their barges. There the bins are fitted neatly into a 
mechanism; the engines whirr; the rubbish is stacked auto 
matically deep in the hold; and away the barge chugs, no dirtier 
than a vegetable boat, or smellier than a fish-cart. Ruskin 
caustically described Venice as a City in the Mud, but she is also 
a City upon the Garbage: for they take that rubbish to the 
islet of Sacca Fisola, at the western tip of Giudecca, and eventu 
ally, mixing it hideously with sand, silt and sea-weed, use it as 
the basis of new artificial islands. 

The municipal hospital of Venice is a vast and rambling 
structure near the church of San Zanipolo, occupying the former 
building of the Scuola di San Marco. Going into hospital is thus 
a queer experience, for the way to the wards passes through one 
of the quaintest facades in Venice, a marvellous trompe-Yoeil 
creation of the fifteenth century, replete with lions, grotesquer- 
ies, tricks of craftsmanship and superimpositions. The reception 
hall is a tall dark chamber of pillars, and the offices, operating 
theatres and wards run away like a warren to the distant melan 
choly quayside of the Fondamenta Nuove, looking directly 
across to the cemetery. If you happen to take a wrong turning, 
on your way to the dispensary, you may find yourself in the 
fabulous chapter room of the Great School of St. Mark, now a 
medical library, with the most magnificently opulent ceiling I 
have ever seen. If you should chance to die, they will wheel you 
at once into the old church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, which 
now forms part of the hospital, and is only opened for funerals: 
it is remarkable partly for its manner of ingrained despair, and 
partly for a monument to a seventeenth-century worthy so 
hugely domineering that it faces two ways, one supervising the 
entire chancel of the church, the other demanding instant 
obeisance from anyone entering the vestibule. And in an arched 
boatyard beneath the hospital stand the duty ambulances, power- 

161 



The City 

ful blue motor boats which, summoned to an emergency, race 
off through the canals with a scream of sirens and a fine humani 
tarian disregard of the traffic rules. 

Other city services cannot be wholly mechanized, and retain 
rituals and conventions passed down from the Middle Ages. 
The water scavengers, for example, do their work in the old 
way, scooping up floating scum in baskets, or pottering grimly 
about in boats with nets and buckets : the man who cleans our 
side-canal also carries a bottle of wine among his tackle in 
case, he once cheerfully told me, his zest should momentarily 
fail him. The postal service, too, has changed slowly down the 
centuries. The central post office occupies the enormous Fondaco 
dei Tedeschi near the Rialto bridge, once the headquarters of 
the German mercantile community it contained their offices, 
their warehouses, their chapel, and even hotel accommodation 
for visiting traders. This building was once decorated with fres 
coes by Titian and Giorgione, after those two young geniuses 
had prudently helped to extinguish a fire there ( the only people 
who are going to get anything out of this calamity , one citizen 
told them as they passed the water-buckets, are chaps like you ! 
and sure enough, they each got a handsome commission). 
Today the place is gloomy and echoing, and from it nearly 100 
postmen go out each day in their caps and coarse brown uni 
forms, slung with satchels. They take the vaporetto to their 
allotted quarters, and then walk swiftly from house to house, 
popping the mail into baskets lowered from upstairs floors on 
long strings, and sometimes singing out a name in a rich and 
vibrant baritone. 

Since the twelfth century the city has been divided into six 
sestieri, or wards: to the north and east of the Grand Canal, the 
sestieri of Cannaregio, San Marco and Castello; to the south and 
west, San Polo, Santa Croce and Dorsoduro (which includes 
Giudecca and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore). Within each 
of these sections the houses are numbered consecutively from 
beginning to end, regardless of corners, cross-roads or cul-de- 
sacs. The sestiere of San Marco, for example, begins at No. I (the 
Doge s Palace) and ends at No. 5562 (beside the Rialto bridge). 
There are 29,254 house numbers in the city of Venice, and within 
the limits of each sector their numbering is inexorable. Through 
all the quivering crannies of the place, the endless blind alleys 

162 



City Services 

and cramped courtyards, the bridges and arches and shuttered 
squares through them all, coldly and dispassionately, the house 
numbers march with awful logic. The postman s task thus 
retains a Gothic simplicity and severity. He begins at No. I, and 
goes on till he finishes. 

And away down the Grand Canal, in the superb Palazzo 
Corner della Regina, there thrives the Monte di Pieta, the muni 
cipal pawn-shop. Nothing could be more tactfully organized 
than this institution. On the ground floor, to be sure, there is a 
sale room of a certain rag-bag ebullience, haunted by fierce- 
eyed bargain hunters and eager dealers : but upstairs, where you 
deposit your treasures and draw your cash, all is propriety. The 
atmosphere is hushed. The counters are discreet and sombre, as 
in an old-fashioned bank. The attendants are courteous. There 
is none of the flavour of old clothes, rusty trinkets and embarrass 
ment that pervades an English pawnbroker s. The Monte di 
Pieta suggests to me a modest but eminent Wall Street finance 
house, or perhaps a College of Heraldry. 

A pawnshop is a pawnshop, though, however kindly dis 
guised; and if you hang around the lane beside this great build 
ing you will often encounter the sad people of the hock-shop 
world, broken old men with sacks of junk, or wispy ladies, 
hopefully hurrying, bent-back with their mattresses and dis 
jointed sewing-tables. 

Everybody dies in Venice. The Venetians die in the normal 
course of events, and the visitors die as a matter of convention. 
In the Middle Ages the population was periodically decimated 
by the plague, which was often brought to Venice by way of 
the Levantine trade routes, and was only checked, on repeated 
occasions, by lavish votive offerings and prayers. Immense doses 
of Teriaca failed to keep the plague at bay. A single fifteenth- 
century epidemic reduced the population by two-thirds: nearly 
50,000 people died in the city, it is said, and another 94,000 in 
the lagoon settlements. So concerned were the old Venetians 
with these perennial horrors that they even stole, from Mont- 
pellier in France, the body of St. Roch, then considered the most 
effective champion against bacterial demons, and they built five 
churches in thanksgiving for the ends of plagues the Salute, the 

163 



The City 

Redentore, San Rocco, San Sebastiano and San Giobbe (Job 
was locally canonized, in the plague areas of the Adriatic shores, 
because of his affinity with sufferers). 

Many a precious fresco has been lost because the Venetians 
whitewashed a wall to stifle the plague germs; and the whole 
floor of the church of San Simeone Grande was once laboriously 
rebuilt and elevated, owing to the presence of plague corpses 
beneath its flagstones. When Titian died of the plague, in 1576, 
only he among the 70,000 victims of that particular epidemic 
was allowed burial in a church. Nor is this all very ancient his 
tory. A silver lamp in the Salute was placed there as recently as 
1836, to mark the end of a cholera plague: and there were 
ghastly scenes of suffering corpses lowered from windows into 
barges, mass burials in the lagoon when cholera attacked Venice 
during the 1848 revolution. 

Malaria, too, has killed or debilitated thousands of Venetians 
down the centuries, and is only now checked by the new 
chemicals (mosquitoes are still pestilential in the late summer) ; 
and the harsh Venetian winters, with their rasping winds and 
interminable rains, have been fatal to innumerable sickly pen 
sioners. For all its glorious spring idylls, the climate is treacher 
ousif balanced nowadays by the relative peacefulness of a 
city without cars. Often the days feel mysteriously depressing 
and enervating, as though the sadness of Venice has impregnated 
its air; and it is said that Eleanora Duse suffered all her life 
from the moods induced by these moments of climactic hope 
lessness. 

The experts say, indeed, that Venice is unusually healthy. Its 
birth-rate has always been higher than the Italian average, its 
death-rate lower. The barometric pressure , says one official 
pamphlet in its best bed-side manner, is maintained at a uniform 
level because of the evenness of its oscillations. Bacterioscopical 
laboratory tests , says another, have proved that the water of 
the lagoon possesses auto-purifying powers/ It is odd, all the 
same, how often foreign consuls and ministers have died in 
Venice in the course of their duties, to leave their high-flown 
honorifics mouldering on island tombstones: and many a visit 
ing lion has roared his last in Venice. Wagner died in the palace 
that is now the winter casino. Browning died in the Ca Rez- 
zonico, on which the municipality has inscribed his famous coup- 

164 



City Services 

let of gratitude to Italy. Diaghilev died here, and Baron Corvo, 
and so did Shelley s little daughter Clara, after a journey from 
the Euganean Hills complicated by the fact that Shelley had 
left their passports behind. 

A fourteenth-century Duke of Norfolk, banished from Eng 
land after a quarrel with the future Henry IV, was buried in the 
Basilica, until he was exhumed and taken home by his descen 
dants he had retired himself to Italy, so Shakespeare wrote of 
him, 

And there, at Venice, gave 
His body to that pleasant country s earth, 
And his poor soul unto his captain, Christ. 

In San Zanipolo you may still see the grandiose tomb of 
Odoardo Windsor, Barone Inglese , who died in 1574. John 
Law, perpetrator of the Mississippi Bubble, died in Venice an 
impoverished gambler, and is buried in San Moise. Even Dante 
died of a fever contracted during a journey to Venice. The angry 
Venetian modernists like to say that this has become a city 
where people come to expire . The gentle last-ditchers, inspired 
by so many distinguished predecessors, only wait for the 
day. 

There is nothing more characteristically Venetian than one of 
the funeral corteges that plough with such startling frequency 
down the Grand Canal, on their way to the island cemetery of 
San Michele (to which Napoleon decreed that all the city s dead 
should be carried). Several funeral companies will arrange such a 
saturnine procession for you, offering you a wide but always 
seemly choice of hearses. The most expensive is a straight- 
prowed, old-school motor boat, heavily draped in brown, black 
and gold, and steered by an unshakeably lugubrious chauffeur. 
The next is a kind of lighter, huge, forbidding and encrusted 
with gold, like a floating four-poster. Then comes an elaborately 
gilded barge, rowed by three or four elderly boatmen in black 
tam-o -shanters, at the bows a lion crying into a handkerchief, 
at the stern that prodigy of paradise, a bearded angel. And 
cheapest of all is a mere gondola in disguise, a little blacker and 
heavier than usual, mournfully draped, and rowed by two men 
in threadbare but unmistakably funereal livery. Photographs of 
these various craft are displayed in the undertakers windows: 
and I once overheard a small boy, looking at these pictures with 

165 



The City 

his sister, remarking in a phrase that I found hauntingly am 
biguous: There! That s Daddy s boat! 

Marvellously evocative is a winter funeral in Venice. A kind 
of trolley, like a hospital carriage, brings the coffin to the quay 
side, the priest shivering in his wind-ruffled surplice, the bereaved 
relatives desperately muffled; and presently the ungainly death- 
boat lopes away through the mist down the Grand Canal, high, 
crooked and solemn, with a glimpse of flowers and a tumble of 
gilt, and a little train of mourning gondolas. They keep close to 
the bank, in the shade of the tall tottering palaces (themselves 
like grey symbols of the grave), and thus disappear slowly into 
the distance, across the last canal. 

The procession is not always so decorous when it arrives at 
San Michele, for this cemetery still serves the whole of Venice, 
and often there are two or three such corteges arriving at the 
landing-stage simultaneously. Then there is a frightful con 
glomeration of brass impediments, a tangle of plumes, motor 
boats backing and roaring, gondoliers writhing at their row 
locks, hookers straining on the quay, mourners embarrassingly 
intermingled. It is a funeral jam. I once saw such a mtlange, one 
bright summer morning, into which a funeral gondola of racy 
instincts was projected forcibly by an accomplice motor boat, 
slipping the tow neatly as it passed the San Michele landing- 
stage: never were mourners more mute with astonishment than 
when this flower-decked bier came rocketing past their gon 
dolas, to sweep beside the quay with a jovial flourish. 

Once ashore, though, and there will be no such contretemps, 
for San Michele is run with professional efficiency, and the 
director stands as proudly in his great graveyard as any master 
ful cruiser captain, god-like on his bridge. The church at the 
corner of the island is beautifully cool, austere and pallid, and is 
tended by soft-footed Franciscans: Paolo Sarpi is buried at its 
entrance, and the Austrians used its convent as a political prison. 
The cemetery itself is wide and calm, a series of huge gardens, 
studded with cypress trees and awful monuments. Not so long 
ago it consisted of two separate islands, San Michele and San 
Cristoforo, but now they have been artificially joined, and the 
whole area is cluttered with hundreds of thousands of tombs 
some lavishly monumental, with domes and sculptures and 
wrought-iron gates, some stacked in high modern terraces, like 

166 



City Services 

filing systems. There is apathetic little row of children s graves, 
and around the cloister at the entrance many an old Venetian 
worthy is buried, with elaborate inscriptions on big stone 
plaques (many of which have been unaccountably defaced, by 
scribbled signatures and lewdities). 

The cult of death is still powerful among the Venetians, and a 
constant flow of visitors moves silently among the graves, or 
meditates among the pleasant flower-beds of the place. Many of 
the grander tombs, already inscribed and shuttered, are not yet 
occupied, but await a death in the family. Others are so spacious, 
well built and frequented that they are more like nightmare 
summer-houses than tombs, and remind me of the hospitable 
mausoleums in Cairo s City of the Dead. Inside one such struc 
ture an elderly couple sits for ten minutes every day of the year, 
beside the tomb of their son, who died in 1936. Inside many 
others there hang, in the Italian manner, portraits of the de 
parted, giving them rather the feeling of well-polished marble 
board-rooms, awaiting a quorum- 
There is an annual pilgrimage of ballet-lovers to the modest 
tomb of Diaghilev; and an increasing trickle of visitors finds its 
way to the obscure burial-place, high in a tomb-terrace, of 
Frederick William Serafino Austin. Lewis Mary Rolfe, Baron 
Corvo . He died, according to British Consulate records, in 
October 1913, in the Palazzo Marcello, at the age of 53 : his life 
in Venice had sunk from eccentricity to outrage to depravity, 
but he refused ever to leave the city, wrote some incomparable 
descriptions of it, died in poverty and obloquy, and was buried 
(characteristically) at his brother s expense. Silently this multitude 
of shades lies there beneath the dark trees of San Michele; and at 
night-time, I am told, a galaxy of little votive lamps flutters 
and twinkles on ten thousand tombstones, like so many small 
spirits. 

At the eastern corner of San Michele is an old Protestant 
graveyard of very different temper. It is like a Carolina church 
yard, lush, untended and overgrown, shaded by rich gnarled 
trees, with grassy walks and generations of dead leaves. Most of 
its graves are obscured by weeds, earth and foliage, and it is 
instructive to wander through all this seductive desolation, 
clearing a gravestone here and there, or peering through the 
thickets at a worn inscription. There are many Swiss and Ger- 

167 



The City 

mans in these graves; and many British seamen, who died on 
their ships in the days when the P. & O. liners used the port of 
Venice. There is an English lady, with her daughter, who 
perished in a ferry disaster off the Lido in the early ipoos; and 
several Americans with names such as Horace, Lucy or Harriet; 
and one or two diplomats, among whose flowery but almost 
illegible epitaphs you may discern a plethora of adjectives like 
noble-minded , lofty , much-respected , eminent . There is a 
long-forgotten English novelist, G. P. R. James, whose merits 
as a writer, we are ironically assured, are known wherever the 
English language is spoken ; and there is an unfortunate-Mr. 
Frank Stanier, of Staffordshire, whose mourners wrote of him, 
in a phrase that might be kindlier put, that he Left Us In Peace, 
Febry 2nd, 1910 . 

The marble-workers who erect the fancy mausoleums of San 
Michele are understandably cynical about the expenses of death 
in Venice, and say that only the rich lie easily in their graves. 
Certainly the Venetians have sometimes paid heavily for im 
mortality. One sixteenth-century patrician directed in his will 
that his body should be washed in aromatic vinegar by three 
celebrated physicians, wrapped in linens soaked in essence of 
aloes, and placed in a lead coffin enclosed in cypress wood: upon 
the surrounding monument the virtues of the deceased were to 
be engraved in Latin hexameters, in letters large enough to be 
easily read at a distance of twenty-five feet, and the history of the 
family was to be added in a series of 800 verses, specially com 
missioned from some expensive poet. Seven commemorative 
psalms were also to be composed, and twenty monks were to 
chant them beside the tomb on the first Sunday in every month 
for ever. (But if you want to see how Pietro Bernardo s execu 
tors honoured this will, go and look at the bourgeois memorial 
they in fact erected to him in the Frari, and ask how often the 
monks sing those psalms these days.) 

Humbler Venetians, too, have always hankered after a com 
fortable oblivion in the tomb. Here we poor Venetians become 
landowners at last/ said a Venetian woman to W. D. Howells, 
as they approached the cemetery just a century ago : but it is not 
strictly true. For twelve years they he at peace in their graves: 
but then, unless their relatives are prepared to pay a substantial 
retaining fee, their bones are briskly exhumed and dumped in a 

168 



City Services 

common grave, and their pitiful little headstones, inscriptions 
and memorial photographs are left cracked and mouldering on 
a rubbish dump. Until a few years ago their bones were shipped 
away to a distant island of the lagoon. Nowadays they remain 
upon San Michele, and extra land is being reclaimed on the 
eastern side of the island, to make room for more. 

This anonymous destiny has long coloured the Venetian s 
attitude to death. Nothing is more wryly comical to him than 
the whole paraphernalia of San Michele. Nothing excites his 
cynical instincts more bitterly than the cost of serenity after 
death. Here we all stop in the end , says the gondolier in a 
Venetian epigram, as he passes San Michele, rich and poor 
alike but his employer s reply is typically astringent. Per 
fectly true , he says. We all stop here in the end but in the 
meantime, my friend, keep rowing/ To understand how strongly 
the Venetians feel about graves, coffins and urn-burials, try sug 
gesting the advantages of burial at sea. In the water 1 the 
Venetians will exclaim, those old sea-wanderers, where all the 
fishes and crabs will nibble your corpse! And they throw up 
their hands in disbelieving horror, as though you had suggested 
being buried alive, or roasted, like many of the city s favourite 
martyrs. 

Death and Venice go together, as Thomas Mann demon 
strated: but it is a curious truth that while nearly everybody 
remembers a Venetian funeral, and fits it easily into the mould 
of the city s life, Venetian weddings go unnoticed. This was not 
always so. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Venetian 
brides were celebrated throughout Europe for the magnificence 
of their clothes and the display of their weddings. They wore 
their hair long to the altar, cascading down their backs inter 
woven with threads of gold. On their heads were exquisite 
jewelled coronets. Their shoulders were bare, and their gorgeous 
full-skirted dresses were made of silk damask and gold brocade 
(unless they happened to be widows, who had to be veiled and 
dressed in unrelieved black, and must be married on the stroke 
of midnight). 

Sometimes even today, if a princess marries in Venice, or a 
millionaire s daughter, there are spectacular celebrations, and 
frothy pictures in the illustrated magazines: but generally the 

169 



The City 

wedding, unlike the honeymoon, is not regarded as a Venetian 
institution, and seldom graces the folk-lore of the guide books. 
This is not at heart a blithe city. A gondola wedding can be a 
charming function, though, with the bride s lace veil streaming 
over her velvet cushions, the gondoliers in yellow or red or 
blush-pink, the flowers hermetically sealed in cellophane, the 
bridegroom indescribably formal in his morning suit, and the 
wedding guests chugging along in their motor boats behind. 

I saw one such wedding party emerging, on a crisp spring 
day, from the church of Santa Maria Formosa. The bride was 
very pretty; the husband was elegant; the guests were grand; 
the boats were immaculate; the priest, advancing paternally 
from the church, looked at once gay and godly; the bystanders, 
loitering with their shopping-bags upon the bridge, were 
properly pleased. But moored directly behind the bridal gondola 
was a lumpish grey dustbin boat, and its captain stood there 
four-square among his garbage, arms akimbo. The expression 
on his lace, as the lily-perfume reached him, was a salty mixture 
of the caustic and the benign, and when the bridal party glided 
away down the canal, in a flutter of satin and pink ribbon, he 
started his engines with an oily rumble, and merrily set off 
towards the reception. 



15 

AGE 

The buildings of Venice are mostly very old, and sometimes 
very decrepit, and for centuries it has been a popular supposition 
that Venice will one day disappear altogether beneath the waters 
of her lagoon. She sprang from the sea fifteen centuries ago, and 
to round her story off aesthetically, so many a writer and artist 
has felt, she only needs to sink into the salt again, with a gurgle 
and a moan. Tintoretto, in a famous painting, portrayed the city 
finally overwhelmed by a tidal wave. Rose Macaulay, when she 
died, was planning a novel about the last submergence of the 
place. Noiseless and watchful , is how Dickens saw the water 
of Venice, coiled round and round ... in many folds like an 

170 



Age 

old serpent : waiting for the time when people should look down 
into its depths for any stone of the old city that had claimed to 
be its mistress/ 

Certainly the disappearance of Venice would give her history 
a wonderful symmetry of form born out of the water, and 
returned at last into the womb; and you have only to take a trip 
in a gondola, observe the crumbled fa$ades about you and 
watch the thickened lapping of the canals, to realize how pre 
cariously aged Venice is. Many a palace seems to bulge and 
totter, like an arthritic duke in threadbare ermine, and many a 
tower looks disconcertingly aslant. The old prison building on 
the Riva stands noticeably out of true, and sometimes I think, 
in the pink of a summer sunset, that the Doge s Palace itself is 
subsiding at its south-western corner. Venice depends for her 
longevity upon the long line of islands, artificially buttressed, 
which separate the lagoon from the Adriatic, and keep the sea- 
storms away from her delicate fabrics. She lives like a proud 
parchment dowager, guarded by the servants at the door. 

She is built upon soggy mud-banks (though the Doge s 
Palace, as it happens, stands upon clay, on the stiffest portion of 
the Venetian under-soil). She rests upon an inverted forest of 
stakes 1,156,672, so they say, support the Salute so nobody 
can wonder if she wobbles a bit now and then. Over the cen 
turies her wooden supports have been repeatedly weakened, 
partly by the natural corrosion of salt water (the salinity of the 
Adriatic at Venice is the highest in Europe), partly by the wash 
of powered boats, partly by the deepening of canals, which has 
taken their waters to a depth unforeseen by the old engineers. 
Every now and then some ancient structure, tired of the fight 
against age, wind and corrosion, dies on its feet and disintegrates 
into rubble. The Venetian chronicles are full of such collapses, 
and old historians often record, with enviable sang-froid, the 
spontaneous disintegration of a church or a celebrated bridge. 

In particular the Venetian campaniles have a long tradition of 
subsidence, and several of them look doomed today. Santo 
Stefano, San Giorgio dei Greci, San Pietro di Castello they all 
lean violently, and if you stand at their feet with an imaginative 
ear you may almost hear them creaking. Even the tower of San 
Giorgio Maggiore, which was only completed in 1790, is no 
longer upright, as you can see if you take a boat into the lagoon 

171 



The City 

and line it up against the Campanile of St. Mark. The campaniles 
were among the first Venetian structures, serving originally as 
look-outs as well as bell-towers, and sometimes as lighthouses 
too. Since fashions in towers change sluggishly, they often sur 
vived when their accompanying churches were rebuilt, and thus 
remained as memorials to earlier styles of architecture. In the 
sixteenth century there were more than 200 of them old prints 
of Venice sometimes depict the city as one immense forest of 
bell-towers. Today there are about 170; the rest have fallen 
down. 

"When the tower of the church of La Carita, now part of the 
Accademia, fell into the Grand Canal in the eighteenth century 
it caused such a wave that a fleet of gondolas was left high and 
dry in a neighbouring square. When the old tower of San 
Giorgio Maggiore collapsed in 1774 it killed a monk and left, as 
one observer recorded, a dismal vacancy among the marvels . 
The campanile of Sant* Angelo fell three times before they finally 
demolished it. The campanile of Santa Ternita survived its 
demolished church and was used for half a century as a house; 
but it collapsed in 1882, temporarily burying its tenant in the 
ruins. The tower of San Giorgio dei Greci leaned from the 
moment it was built, and has been causing intense anxiety at 
least since 1816, when an urgent plan was prepared for its 
restoration. The campanile of Santo Stefano was so unsafe, after 
an earthquake in 1902, that they built a small subsidiary bell- 
tower, still to be seen above the rooftops of Campo Santo Ste 
fano. When the campanile of the Carmini was shaken by light 
ning in 1756, the monks were actually ringing its bells, but aban 
doned their peal in such haste that one man ran his head against a 
wall and was killed. At least seven campaniles have, at one time or 
another, been demolished just in time, as they staggered towards 
their fall. Outside the church of Santa Maria Zobenigo you may 
see a rectangular brick travel agency that is the stump of an un 
finished campanile, intended to replace an unsafe predecessor, 
but stifled at an early age owing to a dissipation of funds. IJarth- 
quakes, lightnings and violent winds have all humiliated Vene 
tian campaniles ; muddy ground, vegetation among the masonry, 
subterranean water, inadequate foundations, inferior bricks all 
threaten their assurance. This is dangerous country for bell- 
towers. 

172 



Age 

When the most famous of them all fell down, the whole 
world mourned. There is a traghetto station on the Grand Canal, 
near San Marcuola, whose members have long had the fancy of 
recording events in large irregular writing upon the wall. 
Changes of fare are written there, and hours of service, and 
among several almost illegible inscriptions one stands out boldly. 
14 Luglio 1902* (it says, in the dialect) Ore 9.55 Cadeva La Tone 
di S. Marco 9 On 14 July 1902, at five to ten in the morning, 
the tower of St. Mark fell down/ Nothing in the whole of their 
history seems to have affected the Venetians more deeply, and 
you will still hear as much about the eclipse of the old Cam 
panile, the prime symbol and landmark of Venice,, as you will 
about the fall of the Republic. 

The building was begun, so we are told, on St. Mark s Day, 
25th April 912. Its summit was once sheathed in brass, to act as 
a perpetual day-time beacon, and its flashing could be seen 
twenty-five miles away. Warning cressets were also lit in its bell- 
chamber, and during the wars against the Genoese five cannon 
were mounted up there. Countless great expeditions were wel 
comed home by the bells of the Campanile. Scores of criminals 
died to the slow beat of the Malefitio, the bell of evil omen. In 
the belfry Galileo demonstrated to the Doge his latest invention, 
the telescope, and from the platform below it Goethe caught his 
first sight of the sea. Since the seventeenth century the revolving 
gilded angel on the summit had been the master weather-vane 
of Venice, 

Nothing on earth seemed stronger and stabler than the Cam 
panile of St. Mark s. It had, so one eighteenth-century guide 
book observed, never given the slightest sign of leaning, shak 
ing or giving way*. It was so much a part of Venice, had super 
vised so many years of changing fortune, that it seemed eternal, 
and the people regarded it with an almost patronizing affection, 
and called it the Landlord . According to popular rumour, the 
foundations of the tower ran deep beneath the pavement of the 
Piazza, extending star-wise in all directions; and every visitor to 
Venice made the ascent of the Campanile, whether he was an 
emperor inspecting the lagoon defences, or a renegade priest 
from the mainland, hung from the belfry in his wooden cage. 
All through the years, though, like a game but rocky old uncle, 
the Campanile was secretly weakening. It had been repeatedly 

173 



The City 

struck by lightning, its gilded summit positively inviting calam 
ity as early as 1793 it was fitted with a lightning conductor, one 
of the earliest in Europe. It had been injudiciously restored and 
enlarged, and some rash structural alterations had been made 
inside the tower. Its bricks had been half-pulverized by cen 
turies of salt wind and air. Its foundations, though strong, were 
not nearly as invulnerable as legend made them: though the 
tower was 320 feet high, the piles that supported it were driven 
less than sixty feet deep. 

Thus, early that July morning, this famous tower gave a gentle 
shudder, shook itself, and slowly, gently, almost silently col 
lapsed. The catastrophe had been foreseen a few days before : the 
firing of the midday cannon had been cancelled, in case it shook 
the structure, and even the bands in the Piazza were forbidden to 
play. Soon after dawn on the I4th the Piazza had been closed, 
and the anxious Venetians gathered around the perimeter of the 
square, waiting for the end. When it came, 7/ Campanile , it 
was said, se stato galantuomo the Campanile has shown him 
self a gentleman . Not a soul was hurt. A hillock of rubble filled 
the corner of the Piazza, and a cloud of dust rose high above the 
city, like a pillar of guidance, or a shroud: but the only casualty 
was a tabby cat, said to have been called Melampyge after 
Casanova s dog, which had been removed to safety from the 
custodian s lodge, but imprudently returned to finish its vic 
tuals. The weather-vane angel, pitched into the Piazza, landed at 
the door of the Basilica, and this was regarded as a miraculous 
token that the great church would not be damaged: nor was it, 
much of the debris being kept from its fabric by the stumpy 
pillar in the south Piazzetta from which the laws of the Republic 
used to be proclaimed. When the dust had cleared, and the loose 
masonry had subsided, there was seen to be lying unbroken on 
the debris the Marangona, the senior bell of Venice, which had 
called the people to their duties for six centuries. Even half a 
dozen shirts, which the custodian s wife had been ironing the 
day before, were found as good as new under the wreckage. 

In a matter of moments it was all over, and only a pyramid of 
bricks and broken stones was left like an eruption in the square. 
(The remains were later taken away in barges and dumped, with 
a mourning wreath of laurel, in the Adriatic.) I once met a man 
who was present at this melancholy occasion, and who still 



Age 

seemed a little numbed by the shock of it. Weren t you aston 
ished that such a thing could happen? I asked him. Well, he 
replied heavily, yes, it was a surprise. I had known the Cam 
panile all my life, like a friend, and I never really expected it to 
fall down. 

The news of this old great-heart s death rang sadly around the 
world. The silhouette of Venice, one of the most universally 
familiar scenes on earth, was dramatically altered, and the sky 
line was left looking oddly flat and featureless, like a ship with 
out masts. The city council met that same evening under the 
chairmanship of an old Venetian patrician, Count Grimani, who 
was mayor of the city for more than thirty years: and grandly 
aristocratic was its decision. There were some Venetians who 
thought the rebuilding of the tower would cost more than it 
was worth. There were many others who thought the Piazza 
looked better without it. The council, however, did not agree. 
The Campanile would be rebuilt, they decided, as it was and 
where it was , and the phrase has become famous in Venetian 
lore Com era, dov* era*. 

Money poured in from many countries; the greatest experts 
came from Rome; in nine years the Campanile was built again, 
modernized in structural design, 600 tons lighter, but looking 
almost identical. The shattered bells were recast at a foundry on 
the island of Sant Elena, and paid for by the Pope himself that 
same Pius X whom we saw returning so triumphantly to Venice 
half a century later. The foundations were reinforced with 1,000 
extra piles. The broken little loggia at the foot of the tower was 
put together again, piece by piece, and so were the lions and 
figures at the top. The angel s cracked wings were splinted. On 
25th April 1912, a millennium to the day after the foundation 
of the old Campanile, the new one was inaugurated. Thousands 
of pigeons were released to carry the news to every city in 
Italy: and at the celebratory banquet six of the guests wore those 
rescued shirts, whose ironing had been so abruptly interrupted 
nine years before. 



For all these sad precedents, Venice is not going to collapse 
altogether from sheer senility. Her palaces were stoutly built in 
the first place, by engineers of great vision, and her foundations 

175 



The City 

in the mud at least have the advantage of a certain elasticity. It is 
extraordinary how few of her antique buildings are uninhabit 
able, and how successfully the old place can be patched and 
buttressed, as a wrinkled beauty is repeatedly rejuvenated by 
surgery, cosmetics and the alchemy of love. The Venetians have 
always been assiduous restorers, as every art gallery knows, and 
the divers you may sometimes see in the Grand Canal, the ooze 
dripping from their helmets as they emerge out of the sludge, 
are earnests that the city itself is being unobtrusively touched up. 

The municipal engineers have no exact precedents to follow: 
in this respect, as in many others, the Venetians are all on their 
own. Their methods have always been bold and sometimes 
startling. As long ago as 1688 an ingenious engineer succeeded 
in straightening the toppling tower of the Carmini church. He 
did it by boring holes into the brickwork on three sides of the 
tower, driving wedges of wood into them, and dissolving the 
wood with a powerful acid. The tower settled into the cavities 
thus created, and the engineer is gratefully buried inside the 
building, underneath a seat. Even earlier, in 1445, a Bolognese 
named Aristotle guaranteed to straighten the tower of Sant 
Angelo by a method secret to himself (it entailed excavat 
ing ground beneath the base of the campanile). The work 
was elaborate, the tower was in fact straightened, but the very 
next day after the removal of the scaffolding the building col 
lapsed altogether, and Aristotle fled ignominiously to Moscow, 
where he built part of the Kremlin. In the nineteenth century 
the Doge s Palace itself was restored in a brilliant engineering 
work, in the course of which some of the vital columns of the 
arcade were removed altogether and replaced with stronger 
pillars. 

Today many a campanile is supported with hidden stanchions 
and supports, and some buildings (like the former church of San 
Vitale) are visibly held together with strips of iron. The palaces 
of Venice, when they need support, are strengthened by the 
injection of concrete into their foundations, as a dentist squeezes 
a filling into a rotting but still useful tooth: this entails the 
building of a water-tight caisson around the house, and the 
Municipality contributes half the cost. About thirty of the 
Grand Canal palaces have been treated. The Basilica is constantly 
attended by its own private consultant, the resident engineer, 

176 



Age 

successor to a long line of Architects to St. Mark s. This learned 
and devoted man knows every inch of his church, and spends 
his life devising ways of strengthening it without spoiling its 
antique irregularities. He has a staffof nearly forty men working 
all the year round, and a mosaic workshop manned by twelve 
skilled craftsmen. He is always experimenting, and has in par 
ticular perfected a means of replacing broken chips of mosaic in 
the ceiling by cutting through the masonry above, and inserting 
the precious fragments from behind. No Venetian experience is 
more satisfying than to wander round the dark Basilica with 
Professor Forlati, and absorb the meticulous but daring care 
with which he keeps that almost mythical building from falling 
apart. The engineers of Venice, like most of her professional 
men, are impressive people: and we need not doubt that they 
will at least keep the city on its feet for many a long century to 
come. 

It is less certain that they can keep its toes dry. Though the 
process is much less spectacular than the jeremiads imply, it is 
more or less true that Venice is slowly sinking into the lagoon. 
At high tide, as you can see from the Campanile, the lagoon is 
mostly water, but at low tide it is mostly mud Goethe climbed 
the bell-tower twice, to see the difference. Within its wide 
enclave two geological evolutions are occurring: the water is 
going up, the mud is going down. The sub-soil of Venice is 
alternately hard and soft. To a depth of more than 100 feet it is 
usually soft mud; then there is a slab about ten feet thick of good 
firm clay; and below that there are layers of spongy peat, sandy 
clay and watery sand. It is apparently the gradual compression 
of the stiff clay, the basis of Venetian stability, that causes the 
subsidence: and the water is forced upwards by volcanic heav- 
ings underground if you bore a deep hole, tepid mud comes 
out, and offshore there are sudden hot currents and exhalations 
of obviously volcanic origin. The water level is rising, so they 
say, at an average of nearly an inch every ten years which 
means, so I calculated one rainy afternoon, that in just 3,612 
years the potted azalea on the balustrade of my apartment will 
be watered directly by the Grand Canal. 

This is apparently an old story. There are many places in 
Venice where columns and doorways, once at ground level, are 
now weU below it the entrance to the Basilica, for example, 

177 



The City 

which was originally flat with, the Piazza, but is now down a 
couple of steps. When they remove the paving-stones for a 
drain or a water-pipe, they often find the remains of another 
street about a yard below, built in the Middle Ages when the 
lagoon was lower. You could no longer store your damasks in 
the ground floor of a Grand Canal palace the damp would 
ruin them in a week. The Piazza floods are a modern excitement, 
caused by the rise of the water: in February 1340 the waters 
rose three cubits higher than had ever been known in Venice* 
but the Piazza remained dry. The pillars of the Doge s Palace 
have often been criticized as gouty* and dumpy , but they were 
much more elegant, and a good deal taller, before the level of 
the Piazza had to be raised around them five older pavements 
lie beneath the present one. All over the city you may see such 
evidence of the rising water pillars that have been successively 
heightened, stone lions whose whiskers are washed by the tides, 
damp rot on a hundred palace walls. Venice has often hitched 
up her skirts to keep clear of the wet, but the water is always 
gaining on her. 

It is mainly a natural phenomenon, but is partly humanly in 
duced. The dredging of deep-water entrances into the lagoon 
has increased the flow of the tides and affected the natural balance 
of the waters. So has the deepening of canals inside the city, and 
the constant scouring of the water-ways. The diversion of the 
rivers that used to pass through the lagoon has apparently raised 
the level of the water rather than lowered it. Earthquakes have 
contributed to the subsidence of the mud-flats, but so have 
various industrial activities on the mainland, and if they start 
drilling for oil they are already prospecting the mud may 
sink a great deal faster, and Venice with it. 

It is technically possible to arrest the sinking movement. 
Long Beach, California, was threatened with subsidence by 
neighbouring oil drills, and has been successfully propped up: 
salt water has been injected into cavities under the soil to replace 
pressures lost by the removal of oil. This would, though, be 
prohibitively expensive for Venice, and the city engineers do 
not even consider it as a possibility. No, they say, for the mo 
ment we must just wait and see. It is a slow emergency, like the 
ones that sometimes threaten Mississippi tow-boats ( Time for a 
cup of coffee, as a tow-boat captain once remarked to me, 

178 



The Bestiary 

before we get thinking what to do. ). Today the engineers of 
Venice are more concerned with keeping the place healthy and 
vertical than with rescuing her from a distant and still hypo 
thetical drowning. 

Still, if the romantics bide their time they may yet see the old 
sea-mistress obeying her obvious destiny her towers and man 
sions slipping in lurches beneath the mud, till only the high 
golden baubles of St. Mark s remain fitfully glittering through 
the water, and all the rest is seaweed. 



16 
THE BESTIARY 

Somebody once won a handsome prize from the Republic for 
suggesting in a laborious sonnet that Venice was divinely 
founded. I am myself often reminded in this city (though nobody 
is going to reward me for it) of the old tag. about those whom 
the gods destroy. Venice went half-mad in the decades before 
her fall, reeling through her endless carnival with such abandon 
that one disapproving observer said of her that the men are 
women, the women men, and all are monkeys . The mass 
lunacy of it all reached such a pitch that you sometimes saw a 
mother giving her baby suck, both wearing dominoes. Today 
Venice is relatively sober, except for the ostentatious aliens who 
sweep in during the high months of summer: but I sometimes 
fancy among its buildings the megalomaniac palaces of the 
Grand Canal, the dark elaborate churches, the contorted back- 
streets some seeds or droppings of insanity. 

Take, in particular, the myriad carved animals that decorate 
this city, and contribute powerfully to its grotesquerie. Often 
these figures conform to old animal symbolisms the hare 
for lust, the fox for cunning, the pelican for loyalty, the lamb 
for meekness, the crane for vigilance, the spider for patience. 
Sometimes they represent family emblems riccio the porcupine, 
for instance, for the house of Rizzo. Others, though, seem to 
portray degeneracies, cruelties, horrors and freaks with a per 
verse and peculiar relish. There is no zoo in Venice, but a mad- 

179 



The City 

cap menagerie is carved upon its walls, for wherever you go 
these unhinged creatures peer at you from the masonry: dogs, 
crocodiles, birds, cockatrices, crabs, snakes, camels, monsters of 
diverse and horrifying species. There are innumerable eagles 
that seem to be made out of pineapples. There are some very 
queer dromedaries (the Venetian artists never could do camels, 
and the two on the facade of San Moise seem to have the heads 
of turtles). There is a misshapen porcupine on a well-head in 
Goldoni s house, and a skew-eyed ox in the church of Sant 
Aponal, and a long-necked imaginary bird peers myopically 
over the Rialto end of the Merceria. 

Most of this monstrous bestiary seems to be malignant, from 
the contorted dragons on the church-cinema of Santa Mar- 
gherita, who are grappled in a dreadful death-struggle, to the 
arrogant cocks on the floor of San Donato, in Murano, who are 
carrying a fox upside down on a pole, as you might take a hap 
less grizzly back to camp. An entire column-head in the arcade 
of the Doge s Palace is devoted to animals gorging their prey 
a lion with a stag s haunch, a wolf with a mangled bird, a fox 
with a cock, a gryphon with a rat, a bear with a honeycomb. 
The stone animals of Venice all seem to be gnawing, or tearing, 
or wrestling, or biting, or writhing, or embroiled in a mesh of 
limbs, teeth, hair, ears and saliva. If you look at the mosaic of 
Christ s baptism in the Baptistery of the Basilica, you will dis 
cover that even the sacred Jordan is infested with swordfish. 
Nothing could be sweeter than the little animals of Venetian 
painting, from Carpaccio s curly dog to the ironical donkey in 
Tintoretto s Crucifixion, sadly chewing withered palm leaves 
behind the Cross: but the Venetian sculptors infused their 
animal life with a streak of paranoia, progressively declining in 
delicacy and originality until they reached their nadir in the 
hideous head, half-human, half-beast, that stands on the wall of 
Santa Maria Formosa, its eyes bulging and its tongue a-lick. 



An altogether different, gender kind of derangement informs 
the sculptured lions of Venice, which stand grandly apart from 
all these degradations. The lion became the patron beast of 
Venice when St. Mark became the patron saint, and for a 
thousand years the lion and the Serenissima were inseparable, 

1 80 



The Bestiary 

like China and the dragon. Pope wrote contemptuously of 
Venice in her degeneracy as a place where 

. . . Cupids ride the lion of the deeps; 
Where, eased of fleets, the Adriatic main 
Wafts the smooth eunuch and enamoured swain. 

In earlier times the lion had more honourable roles to play. He 
rode rampant upon the beaks of the Venetian war-galleons, and 
fluttered on the banner of St. Mark. His friendship for St. 
Jerome automatically elevated that old scholar high in the Vene 
tian hagiarchy. He stood guard beside thrones and palaces, 
frowned upon prisoners, gave authenticity to the State docu 
ments of the Republic. His expression varied according to his 
function. In one Croatian town, after a rebellion against Venetian 
rule, a very disapproving lion was erected: the usual words on 
his open book, Pax tibi, Marce, were replaced with the inscrip 
tion Let God Arise, and Let His Enemies Be Scattered. In Zara, 
which revolted seven times against Venice, and withstoo d 
thirty-two Venetian sieges, a lion was erected, so the chron 
iclers tell us, with a gruff expression, his book closed and his 
tail contorted like an angry snake . In a seventeenth-century 
map of Greece the lion is shown striding into action against 
the Turk, his wings outstretched, a sword in his paw, and 
the Doge s hat on his head. The Venetians respected him so 
much that some of the patricians even used to keep live lions in 
their gardens. A fourteenth-century writer reported excitedly 
that the pair in the zoological gardens beside the Basin of St. 
Mark s had given birth to a couple of thriving cubs: they were 
fed, like the pelicans of St. James s Park, at the expense of the 
State. 

I cannot help thinking that the old Venetians went a little 
queer about lions, for the profusion of stone specimens in Venice 
is almost unbelievable. The city crawls with lions, winged lions 
and ordinary lions, great lions and petty lions, lions on door 
ways, lions supporting windows, lions on corbels, self-satisfied 
lions in gardens, lions rampant, lions soporific, amiable lions, 
ferocious lions, rickety lions, vivacious lions, dead lions, rotting 
lions, lions on chimneys, on flower-pots, on garden gates, on 
crests, on medallions, lurking among foliage, blatant on pillars, 
lions on flags, lions on tombs, lions in pictures, lions at the feet 

181 



The City 

of statues, lions realistic, lions symbolic, lions heraldic, lions 
archaic, mutilated lions, chimerical lions, semi-lions, super-lions, 
lions with elongated tails, feathered lions, lions with jewelled 
eyes, marble lions, porphyry lions, and one real lion, drawn 
from the life, as the artist proudly says, by the indefatigable 
Longhi, and hung among the rest of his genre pictures in the 
Querini-Stampalia gallery. There are Greek lions, Gothic lions, 
Byzantine lions, even Hittite lions. There are seventy-five lions 
on the Porta della Carta, the main entrance to the Doge s 
Palace. There is a winged lion on every iron insurance plate. 
There is even a sorrowing lion at the foot of the Cross itself, in a 
picture in the Scuola di San Marco. 

The most imperial lion in Venice is the winged beast painted 
by Carpaccio in the Doge s Palace, with a moon-lily beside his 
front paw, and a tail four or five feet long. The ugliest pair of 
lions he at the feet of a French Ambassador s tomb in the church 
of San Giobbe, and were carved, with crowns on their heads 
and tongues slightly protruding, by the French sculptor Per- 
reau. The silliest lion stands in the Public Gardens, removed 
there from the facade of the Accademia: Minerva is riding this 
footling beast side-saddle, and on her helmet is perched another 
anatomical curiosity an owl with knees. The eeriest lion is the 
so-called crab-lion, which you may find in a dark archway near 
the church of Sant* Aponal, and which looks less like a crab than 
a kind of feathered ghoul. The most unassuming stands on a 
pillar outside San Nicolo dei Mendicoli; he holds the book of 
St. Mark in his paws, but has never presumed to apply for the 
wings. The most firoward stands on a bridge near Santa Chiara, 
behind the car park, where a flight of steps runs fustily down to 
the canal like a Dickensian staircase in the shadows of London 
Bridge, and this unlikeable beast glowers at you like Mrs. 
Grundy. 

The most pathetic lion is an elderly animal that stands on the 
palisade of the Palazzo Franchetti, beside the Accademia bridge, 
bearing listlessly in his mouth a label inscribed Lahore. The most 
undernourished is a long lion on the south facade of the Basilica, 
three or four of whose ribs protrude cruelly through his hide. 
The most glamorous is the winged lion on his column in the 
Piazzetta, whose eyes are made of agate, whose legs were dam 
aged when Napoleon removed him to Paris, and whose Holy 

182 



The Bestiary 

Book was inserted neatly under his paws when he was first 
brought to Venice from the pagan East, converted from a savage 
basilisk to a saint s companion. 

The most indecisive lion is the creature at the foot of the 
Manin statue, in the Campo Manin, whose creator was evidently 
uncertain whether such carnivores had hair under their wings, or 
feathers (as Ruskin said of another pug-like example, which has 
fur wings, *in several other points the manner of his sculpture is 
not uninteresting ). The most senile lions are the ones on the 
Dogana, which are losing their teeth pitifully, and look badly in 
need of a pension. The most long-suffering are the porphyry lions 
in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, north of the Basilica, which have 
been used by generations of little Venetians as substitutes for 
rocking horses. The frankest lions, the ones most likely to suc 
ceed, are the pair that crouch, one dauntless but in chains, the 
other free and awfully noble, beneath the fine equestrian statue 
of Victor Emmanuel on the Riva degli Schiavoni. 

The most enigmatical is the gaunt bald lion, outside the gates 
of the Arsenal, whose rump is carved with nordic runes. The 
most confident is the new lion that stands outside the naval 
school at Sant Elena, forbidding entry to all without special 
permission from the commandant. The most athletic looks 
sinuously past the Doge Foscari on the Porta della Carta. The 
most threatening crouches on the fa9ade of the Scuola di San 
Marco, his paws protruding, ready to leap through the sur 
rounding marble. The most reproachful looks down from the 
Clock Tower in the Piazza, more in sorrow than in anger, as 
though he has just seen you do something not altogether credit 
able beneath the arcade. The jolliest but there, none of the 
lions of Venice are really very unpleasant, and comparisons are 
invidious. 

They provide an essential element in the Venetian atmosphere, 
an element of cracked but affectionate obsession. It is no accident 
that in the very centre of Tintoretto s vast Paradise, in the Doge s 
Palace, the lion of St. Mark sits in unobtrusive comfort, nestling 
beside his master amid the surrounding frenzy, and disputing 
with that saintly scribe, so Mark Twain thought, the correct 
spelling of an adjective. 

Bestial, too, were the men of Venice, when the madness of 

183 



The City 

politics or revenge caught hold of them. If you have a taste for 
Grand Guignol, Venice has much to offer you: for here, to this 
day, the spirit of melodrama lives on in shrouded triumph, 
if you care to rap the tables and seek it out. To the early Vic 
torians Venice was synonymous with tyranny and terror. The 
hushed and sudden methods of the Venetian security agencies, 
controlled by the Council of Ten and the Council of Three, cast 
a chill across all Europe, and have left behind them (now that 
we are quite safe from the strangled s cord) an enjoyable after 
math of shudder. 

They worked in a ghastly secrecy, but it was part of their 
technique to surround themselves with an aura of unspeakable 
horror, so that the French essayist Montesquieu, jokingly told 
one day that he was being watched by the Three , packed his 
bags that very morning and fled helter-skelter home to Paris. 
The Ten send you to the torture chamber, so the Venetians 
used to whisper, the Three to your grave* and they would 
cross themselves, as a pious but not always infallible insurance. 
Even foreign embassies were not immune: every diplomatic 
household contained at least two State spies among its servants, 
and the agents of the Three examined each envoy s house for 
secret passages or hidden chambers. 

Enemies of the State were precipitately strangled, beheaded 
between the two pillars of the Piazzetta, or hanged between the 
upper columns of the Doge s Palace (two of them still stained, 
so tradition wrongly says, with the blood of traitors). Some 
times malefactors were publicly quartered, and the several parts 
of their bodies were exposed on the shrines of the lagoon: as 
late as 1781 this happened to Stefano Fantoni, who had helped 
his mistress to kill her husband, chop him in bits, and distribute 
him among the canals and wells of the city. Sometimes it was 
all done without explanation, and early morning passers-by 
would merely observe, on their way to work, that a couple of 
fresh corpses were hanging by one leg apiece from a rope sus 
pended between the Piazzetta columns. If a wanted man ran 
away from Venice, hired assassins of dreadful efficiency were 
almost sure to find him. If he stayed, he invited the attentions 
of the terrible Venetian torturers, the most advanced and 
scientific of their day. 

The dungeons of the Piotnbi (the Leads, or attics) and the Pozzi 

184 



The Bestiary 

(the Wells) were horribly celebrated in their time, and even 
more so after Casanova s escape from them engineered, so 
some people think, because he was really a secret agent of the 
Three. I see, sir (said the gaoler to the great adventurer, in the 
most famous chapter of his memoirs), that you want to know 
the use of that little instrument. When their Excellencies order 
someone to be strangled, he is seated at a stool, his back against 
the wall, that collar around his neck; a silken cord goes through 
the holes at the two ends, and passes over a wheel; the execu 
tioner turns a crank, and the condemned man yields up his soul 
to God ! 

Most ingenious, Casanova thought it; and a sense of hooded 
contrivance still hangs murkily over the prisons of the Doge s 
Palace, assiduously though the tourists chew their gum, as they 
peer through the peep-holes of the dungeons. ( Your tickets also 
entitle you to visit the Dungeons, 9 says Mr. Grant Allen in his 
Historical Guide, 1898. I am not aware of any sufficient reason 
why you should desire to avail yourself of this permission. ) 
Horror runs in the blood of Venice: not just because the Vene 
tian gaolers were crueller than the French or the English, or 
because the Pozzi were more dreadful than the cells of the 
Tower, the rats more noisome or the strangling machines more 
meticulous but because Venice was so small a place, her sym 
bolisms were so compact, and all the apparatus of mediaeval 
autocracy, gorgeously gilded and embellished, was established 
within a few hundred yards of the Doge s Palace. 



Modern Venetians, conditioned by this grisly heritage, often 
have a taste for the macabre. They like it to be authentic, though, 
and have little time for idle superstitions, however gruesome. 
It is true that Alfred de Musset, when he paid a catastrophic 
visit to Venice with George Sand, who promptly ran off with a 
handsome young doctor it is quite true that de Musset occu 
pied Room 13 at the Hotel Danieli ( Alfred was a sad flirt , said 
Swinburne, and George was no gentleman ): but in Venice 
nobody much cares about spilling salt or walking under ladders 
which indeed, propped across the narrow alley-ways of the 
place, often give you no choice. There are few Venetian ghost 
stories. The Palazzo Contarini delle Figure, near Byron s palace 

185 



The City 

on the Grand Canal, is said to be haunted. In the fifteenth cen 
tury it belonged to an irrepressible squanderer, who married a 
beautiful heiress and successively gambled away first her lands, 
then her palace, and finally the heiress herself: today, so it is 
said, it is plagued by queer knockings and opening of doors, as 
of phantom brokers men. Another story is attached to the 
church of San Marcuola, whose vicar, having foolishly an 
nounced from the pulpit his utter disbelief in ghosts, was 
promptly taken in hand by the corpses of his own churchyard, 
who dragged him from his bed and soundly beat him. 

The most famous such tale used to concern a house known as 
the Casino degli Spiriti, which stands beside a rectangular inlet 
of water in the northern part of the city, and was until recently 
a lonely and desolate place. This house has had a chequered past. 
It was once owned, so they say, by a ban viveur of intellectual 
tastes, who made it a centre of artistic and literary society, and 
gave gay parties in its gardens : but it stands on the route of the 
funeral processions to San Michele, and is said to have been used 
also as a theatre for autopsies corpses lay the night there before 
passing to their graves in the morning. Other rumours say that 
it was once a mart for contraband, and that the smugglers 
deliberately surrounded it with ominous legends, to keep the 
curious away. Whatever the truth of its history, it has a creepy 
reputation, and its ghost story, a long and rather tedious one, 
concerns a love-triangle, a dead coquette and a possessive 
phantom. 

Even today, though no longer isolated, the Casino degli 
Spiriti still feels spooky. Some people claim to hear disconcerting 
echoes there. Others say the very look of it, alone on its promon 
tory, slightly curdles the blood. It has passed through English 
hands, and was once handsomely decorated (if a trifle oddly 
one bathroom is entirely papered in black) : but now it is empty 
again, the property of an institution in Turin, but inhabited only 
by a family of caretakers living a gimcrack life on the ground 
floor, with a beautiful tame pigeon strutting about their beds. 
The garden is overgrown and echoing. The windows of the 
great boat-house are cracked. The walls of the little chapel are 
peeling. All is weedy, tumbledown, forlorn, and at low tide the 
urchins of the neighbourhood creep across the mud-flats and 
climb through the waterside windows. The legend of the ghosts 

186 



The Bestiary 

has faded, and only the name survives: but a few years ago two 
evil gondoliers, now languishing in prison, robbed a woman of 
her money, murdered her, dismembered her body, bundled it 
into a sack, and dropped it into the water only a few yards from 
the terrace of this weird and ill-omened house. 



Venice scarcely needs fables to strengthen her strain of the 
ghastly. There is macabre enough for most tastes in the pictures 
and sculptures of the city the vivid torture-scenes of its holy 
paintings, the corpses, severed ligaments, shrivelled limbs and 
metallic death-masks of its countless relics, the lolling head of 
Goliath in the church of San Rocco, the writhing ghosts of 
Titian s Last Judgement in Madonna dell Orto ( rattling and 
adhering , as Ruskin saw it with relish, into half-kneaded 
anatomies, that crawl, and startle, and struggle up among the 
putrid weeds ). There is the Palazzo Erizzo, near the Maddalena 
church, which was decorated by a conscientious member of the 
Erizzo family with pictures showing one of his illustrious ances 
tors being sawn in half, while still alive, by the Turks. There is 
the stark and curdling figure of the Crucifixion that suddenly 
confronts you in a little glass cabinet, if you climb the winding 
staircase inside the church of the Gesuiti. There are the blackened, 
mutilated statues that stand in the burnt chapel of the Rosary, 
in San Zanipolo. 

The streets of Venice, too, are alive with ancient horrors. In 
the streets around San Zaccaria three Doges have been, at one 
time or another, assassinated Pietro Tradonico in 864, Vitale 
Michiele I in 1102, Vitale Michiele II in 1172. In the Campo San 
Polo Lorenzino de Medici, himself a practised murderer, was 
fallen upon by two hired ruffians as he came out of the church: 
they cut his head in half with one sword-blow. Near the church 
of Santa Fosca, Paolo Sarpi was stabbed by hired assassins of the 
Pope (one of whom is said to have been a Scot). He was left for 
dead with a dagger embedded in his cheek-bone, but recovered 
miraculously and hung the dagger as an ex veto in his monastery 
church, after his doctors had tried it on a dog and a chicken, to 
make sure it was not poisoned. There was once a murder in the 
Palazzo Vendramin, the Municipal Casino. During the Revolu 
tion of 1848 a mob chased an Austrian naval officer up and up 

187 



The City 

the spiral staircase of one of the Arsenal towers, driving him ever 
higher until, trapped at the top, he was killed with an iron bar 
and allowed to tumble bloodily down the stone steps again. In 
the church of the Misericordia a seventeenth-century Venetian 
author was murdered by a priest who poisoned the Host. 
The innumerable wayside shrines of the city, usually in obscure 
street corners, were originally set up at places notoriously 
haunted by footpads partly because their candles would illu 
minate the place at night, partly as a call to the criminal con 
science. In the twelfth century false beards were prohibited in 
Venice, because so many assassins wore them in disguise. There 
is even a Calle degli Assassini, near Santo Stefano a church 
which was consecrated on six separate occasions, because of 
repeated bloodshed within its walls. 

There are many Venetian burial-places of morbid and sinister 
import. Resting on iron brackets in the Frari, high on a wall 
beside the right transept, you will see a wooden coffin of the 
crudest kind. This was intended, so it is said, for the unfortunate 
condottiere Carmagnola, who led a Venetian army to defeat in 
1431, was enticed back to Venice, accused of treason, tortured 
and beheaded: but his body now lies in Milan, and this grim 
box, so high among the dust and shadows, contains, as a mordant 
but still inadequate substitute, the ashes of a murdered Venetian 
nobleman. Somewhere in Santo Stefano is buried another enemy 
of Venice, Novello Carrara of Padua, who was captured in 
battle in 1406 and secretly murdered with his two sons in the 
Doge s Palace: he was buried in the church with hypocritical 
pomp, the very day after his strangulation, but nobody now 
knows the position of his grave though for centuries people 
thought that the initials carved on the tomb of a harmless mer 
chant called Paolo Nicolo Tinti really stood for Pro Norma 
Tyrannorum, and showed where the old grandee lay. 

On San Michele is buried the French painter Leopold Robert, 
who killed himself in 1835, ten years to the day after his brother 
had done the same thing: his epitaph was written by Lamartine, 
and observes loftily, describing the suicide as un actis de dtfail- 
lance, that whereas Michelangelo would have vanquished it, 
Leopold Robert succumbed . In the church of San Francesco 
della Vigna there is a tomb of the Barbaro family, surmounted 
by the ancestral device of a red circle on a field argent: this em- 

188 



The Bestiary 

blem was granted to the Barbaros in gratitude to Admiral Marco 
Barbaro, who cut off the hand of a Moor during a twelfth- 
century battle, whipped the turban from the poor infidel s head, 
traced a triumphant red circle upon it with the bleeding stump 
of his arm, and flew it from his mast-head as an ensign of 
triumph. 

Among a series of sarcophagi on the portico of the Museum of 
Natural History, in the Fondaco dei Turchi, there is one without 
decoration or inscription. This once belonged to the Paliero 
family, one of the greatest Venetian houses. In 1355 Marin 
Faliero, then the Doge of Venice, was convicted of treason and 
decapitated on the steps of his palace ( You are condemned , so 
the court messenger brusquely informed him, to have your 
head cut off within the hour ). His body, with its head between 
its feet, was displayed to the public for twenty-four hours, and 
then taken quietly by boat to San Zanipolo, where the Faliero 
sarcophagus then lay. The centuries passed, and in 1812 the 
vault was opened, disclosing the body of the disgraced Doge, 
with its skull still between its leg-bones. The sarcophagus was 
emptied, removed from the church, and used for years as a 
reservoir by the apothecary of the civic hospital, around the 
corner. Then it was taken into the country and used as a cattle 
trough. Now it stands, vast and brooding, all disregarded beside 
the water-steps of the museum, sans skulls, sans crest, sans in 
scription, but instinct with sad memory : and what has happened 
to the poor Doge s skeleton, nobody seems to know. 

Most horrific of all in its associations is the memorial to the 
Venetian admiral Marcantonio Bragadino that stands in the 
right-hand aisle of San Zanipolo. Bragadino was a distinguished 
Venetian commander who defended Famagusta during the six 
teenth-century wars against the Turks. His resistance was brave 
and competent, but after many months of siege he was forced 
to surrender. The Turkish commander offered him honourable 
terms, and Bragadino left the fortress to sign the surrender, 
dressed in the purple robes of his office, attended by the officers 
of his staff, and shaded from the sun by a red ceremonial um 
brella. The Pasha at first received him courteously: but suddenly, 
in the course of the ceremony, the Turk sprang from his seat, 
accused Bragadino of atrocities against his prisoners, and ordered 
the officers of the Venetian staff to be instantly hacked into pieces. 

189 



The City 

Bragadino s fate was worse. Three times he was just about to 
be beheaded when, as a refinement of suspense, the executioner 
was told to stop. His nose and ears were cut off, his body was 
mutilated, and every morning for ten days he was loaded with 
baskets of earth and driven to the Turkish fortifications, pausing 
before the Pasha s pavilion to kiss the ground before it. He was 
hoisted to the yardarm of a ship and left for hours to dangle 
there. He was subjected to all kinds of degrading and sadistic 
mockery. Finally, he was taken to the main square of the city, 
stripped, chained to a stake, and slowly skinned alive in the 
presence of the Pasha. His skin was stuffed with straw and 
paraded through the streets on a cow, its red umbrella held 
above it in irony: and when at last the Pasha sailed home in 
triumph to the Golden Horn, this grim trophy swayed from 
the bowsprit of his flagship. 

The skin was placed, a memento of victory, in the Turkish 
arsenal at Constantinople: but years later the Venetians acquired 
it, some say by purchase, some by theft. It was, so we are told, 
still as soft as silk, and it was cleaned, blessed, and placed inside 
an urn. Today a bust of Bragadino (after whom a vaporetto is 
named, if nothing else) gazes serenely from his great monument 
in San Zanipolo. Above him is a detailed fresco of his flaying, 
mercifully obscured by age and shadow. Beside him two lions 
stare numbly into the nave. And directly above his head, if you 
look closely, you will see the small stone urn in which his yel 
lowing scarred skin lies peacefully folded, like a pocket hand 
kerchief in a linen drawer. 



17 

ARABESQUES 

In the Strada Nuova, on the way to the station, there stands a 
small outdoor market in which I sometimes like to pause, and 
close my eyes, and lean against a pillar. There is a sweet market 
smell there, tinged with fish, pepper and a suggestion of cloves; 
there is a clatter of wooden-soled shoes and a hubbub of high- 
pitched voices; there is a swish of dresses, a clashing of pans, a 

190 



Arabesques 

clamour of pedlars and stallholders, a creaking of old wood, a 
flapping of canvas awnings; and sometimes a dog barks, and 
sometimes a harridan screams. As I lean bemused against my 
pillar in this place, and let my mind wander, I find that Venice 
fades around me, west turns to east, Christian to Muslim, 
Italian to Arabic, and I am back in some dust-ridden, fly-blown, 
golden market of the Middle East, the tumbledown suk at 
Amman, or the bazaars beside the Great Mosque of the Um- 
mayads, in the distant sunshine of Damascus. I can all but hear 
the soft suck of a hubble-bubble in the cafe next door, and if I 
half-open my eyes and look at the tower of the Apostoli, along 
the street, I swear I can see the muezzin up there in the belfry, 
taking a deep dogmatic breath before summoning us to prayer. 

In Venice, as any gilded cockatrice will tell you, the East 
begins. When Marco Polo returned with his father and uncle 
from his travels, so we are told, he went straight to his house 
near the Rialto and knocked upon the door. Nobody recognized 
him (he had been away for nearly twenty years, and had grown, 
a bushy beard) and nobody believed the wild tales he told of 
Chinese splendour tales so interspersed with superlatives and 
rodomontades that they nicknamed him // Milione. He soon 
convinced them, though, by a sudden display of fabulous 
wealth, sacks of rubies, emeralds and carbuncles, velvet cloaks 
and damask robes such as no man in Europe had seen before: 
and from that day to this the Venetians have been hopelessly 
enthralled by the spell of the East. They love to think of their 
city as a bridge between Occident and Orient, and periodically 
have noble dreams of mediation between the colours and reli 
gions and aspirations of East and West. 

Colour, intrigue, formality, pageantry, ritual all these east 
ern enthusiasms have long been reflected in the daily life of 
Venice, just as her buildings are cluttered with Oriental treas 
ures, and her legends reek of frankincense. Her history has been 
inextricably interwoven with the East, since the first Venetians 
entered into an ambivalent communion with the Byzantine 
emperors. The wealth and strength of Venice was built upon the 
eastern trade, and she obtained a monopoly of commerce with 
the legendary lands that lay beyond the Levant. Booty of 
diverse kinds poured into Venice from the Orient, to be piled 
in shining heaps upon the Riva, and sometimes these stolen 

191 



The City 

valuables suffered curious sea changes pagan basilisk into Vene 
tian lion, or wicked emperor into Doge. The Pala d Oro in the 
Basilica, which epitomizes the riches brought to Venice from 
Constantinople, contained (until its partial despoliation under 
Napoleon) 1,300 large pearls, 400 garnets, 90 amethysts, 300 
sapphires, 300 emeralds, 15 rubies, 75 balas rubies, 4 topazes, 
2 cameos, and unmeasured glitters of gold, silver, gilt and 
precious enamel. The jewels were polished but only cut en 
cabochon, and the screen was divided into 86 layers and sections, 
all equally astonishing. 

Many Oriental ideas, too, have helped Venice, from geo 
graphical theories to the system of ventilation which cools the 
newest of her hotels, and is directly related to the wind- 
towers of the Persian Gulf. Even the Oriental peoples them 
selves were familiar to the city. In 1402 an embassy arrived in 
Venice from Prester John, the legendary Emperor of Ethiopia, 
whose robes were woven by salamanders and laundered only in 
fire, who was attended by 7 kings, 60 dukes, 360 viscounts, 30 
archbishops and 20 bishops, who was descended from Melchior, 
Caspar and Balthazar, and around whose hospitable table 30,000 
guests could eat at a sitting. Few visitors have been more 
honoured than the Japanese Christian envoys who arrived in 
1585, and were feted gorgeously as possible allies against the 
pretensions of the Papacy. One of the most popular figures of 
eighteenth-century Venice was a dear old Moorish eccentric who 
used to wander the streets in turban and sandals, ringing a big 
bell and calling upon everybody to be happy; and as late as the 
i820s the Piazza was full of Arabs, Turks, Greeks and Armen 
ians, drinking sherbet, nibbling ices, or plunged in opium 
dreams. 

All this you will still feel in Venice, for there is a mandarin 
quality to the city s spirit. The wooden Accademia bridge, for 
example, curves gracefully across the Grand Canal in a distinct 
willow-pattern, and sometimes a column of bobbing umbrellas 
trails across it in the rain, precisely as in a Hokusai print. The 
boatmen of the lagoon, standing in the poops of their dragon 
fly craft, often seem to be rowing across a sea of rice-paper: and 
when, one magic spring morning, you see the distant white line 
of the Alps from the Fondamenta Nuove, you almost expect to 
find Fujiyama herself reflected among her pine-trees in the 

192 



Arabesques 

water. Real Japanese fishing-boats sometimes arrive in Venice, 
from their grounds in the Atlantic, and their small black-eyed 
sailors, in well-worn blue denims, fit easily enough into the 
criss-cross pattern of the city. I sometimes encounter a Chinese 
man-servant in the lanes behind San Stae: I have never dis 
covered where he works, but he always seems to be carrying a 
dish with a white coverlet, deliciously steaming Peking Duck, 
no doubt, or roast pheasant with chestnuts. 

There is a series of stone ornaments above the Porta della 
Carta that look precisely like the all-seeing eyes on the facades 
ostupas. Above the central door of the Basilica, high above the 
Madonnas and the myriad saints, you may see a squat figure of 
divinity, rotund but ineffable, that looks less like Jehovah than 
Buddha himself. There is a touch of India to the gilded balls on 
the domes of St. Mark s, and a suggestion of face to the com 
plications of Venetian etiquette: and sometimes the Venetian 
porters, plodding among the lanes with their huge wicker 
baskets strapped to their backs, might almost be making their 
way through a Himalayan drizzle from one slatternly doss- 
house to the next. 

More often, though, the allusions of Venice are arabesque, for 
once they had discovered China, the Venetians dealt chiefly with 
the peoples of the Middle East. The great trade routes which 
kept the Serenissima rich and powerful converged, out of Tur 
kestan and Persia, Afghanistan and Arabia, upon the seaports of 
the Levant, where the Venetians maintained their own great 
khans and warehouses (you can still see one of the most impor 
tant, among the bazaars of Aleppo) ; and the wars in which she 
was almost incessantly engaged took her fighting men re 
peatedly to Muslim seas and shores, whether they were cynically 
supporting a Crusade, defending Europe single-handed against 
the Turks, or suppressing, in the last Republican exploit of all, 
the eighteenth-century Barbary pirates of North Africa those 
pestilent Moors who took their ships as far as the Bristol Chan 
nel, and whose reputation was so black among the English that 
even poor Welshmen were called Morris after them. 

Arab ways and thoughts strongly influenced the Venetians. 
The great Bishop s throne in San Pietro di Castello, traditionally 
used by St. Peter at Antioch, has a quotation from the Koran 
carved upon it, and you can see Arabic letters, if you look very 

193 



The City 

hard, on a column on the facade of the Basilica itself. A few 
Venetian dialect words have Arabic derivations, and some 
Arabic words have come through the Venetian entrepot to us : 
dar es sinaa (house of art) =arzena=arsenak= arsenal: sikka (a die) 
zecca (a wmt)==zecchino (a coin) = sequin. The Venetians 
learnt much from the Arabs in the art of navigation, and their 
architects shared with the great Islamic builders a common heri 
tage of Byzantium, so that St. Mark s and the Dome of the 
Rock are, if not precisely brothers, at least distant cousins, 
estranged by circumstance. 

. For all these affinities, when the Venetians spoke of pagans, 
they usually meant Muslims: -and most strange foreigners were 
characterized as Moors, dark, heathen, muscular people, to be 
exploited as slaves or victimized as villains. Nobody knows the 
identity of the four little porphyry knights who stand, affec 
tionately embracing each other, outside the main entrance to the 
Doge s Palace: but Venetian popular legend long ago deter 
mined them to represent a band of despicable Moors caught 
trying to ransack the Treasury of St. Mark s. Four enchantingly 
enigmatical figures in a campo near Madonna dell Orto have 
been known as Moors for so long that the square itself is named 
for them (though the one on the corner with the iron nose is 
Signor Antonio Rioba, once a sinister, later a comical figure, 
and it used to be a great joke to direct ignorant errand boys with 
messages to that gentleman). 

Two marvellous Moors, twenty feet high and glistening with 
sweat, support the monument of the Doge Giovanni Pesaro in 
the Frari, their white eyes bulging and their backs bent double 
with toil. Two others strike the hours, with surprising delicacy, 
on the top of the Clock Tower in the Piazza: it is true they once 
inadvertently hit a workman, precipitating him into the square 
and breaking his neck, but after all their centuries of hammering 
they have made only a modest indentation in the surface of the 
bell. The quaintest of sculptured Moors, twisted and one-legged, 
urges a reluctant camel on the wall of the Palazzo Mastelli. It 
used to be the custom, if a small child was destined to be a gon 
dolier, for his godfather to screw into his ear an amethyst carved 
in the shape of a Moor s head, and to this day half the grander 
front doors of Venice seem to have thick-lipped Negroes as 
door-knobs. The classic Venetian souvenir, in the heyday of 

194 



Arabesques 

the Grand Tour, was one of those little black wooden pages, 
sashed and turbaned, which you sometimes see beside the 
doors of the more self-conscious English antique shops, like 
Indians outside American tobacconists : these were reminders of 
the days when the Venetians had live black slaves at their dis 
posal, only replacing them with wooden substitutes when the 
slave-traffic petered out. 

The Venetians always seem a little offended at Shakespeare s 
conception of Othello, and like to suggest that it was all a mis 
understanding, and that the prince was not a Moor at all, but a 
Venetian gentleman named Moro who originated from the 
Morea and whose effigy still stands, they add, in shining and 
very Christian armour, on the corner of his palace in the Campo 
dei Carmini. But despite a few imperial prejudices, there is no 
colour bar among the Venetians. The Turks, when they were 
allowed to establish their national warehouse on the Grand 
Canal (the Fondaco dei Turchi), were so severely circumscribed 
that no woman or child was allowed to enter the building at all: 
but even in the fifteenth century a youth of noblest birth was 
thrown into the Pozzi for a year for violating the honour of a 
black slave-girl. 

Many and delectable are the suggestions of Islam in Venice: 
though sometimes, to be sure, they are older than Islam itself, 
and came direct from old Constantinople in the days before the 
Arab armies had burst out of their deserts. There are the old iron 
window-grilles and the cool shaded courtyards of the city; and 
the Arab schooners you sometimes see, slim and romantic, in 
the boat-yards of Giudecca; the cobblers, their spectacles on the 
tips of their noses, and the brawny bare-armed coppersmiths 
among their lions and sea-horses; the dark little workroom near 
San Polo where the girls sit cross-legged darning eiderdowns; 
the small sockets in the walls of houses that act as refrigerated 
larders; the Bedouin-like mats, all gay stripes, that hang in the 
windows of the poorer drapers; the little tenement houses of 
Giudecca, like seaside cottages in Beirut, and the big modern 
blocks of Sant Elena that might be in Heliopolis; the fountains 
and sudden gardens of the place, like ravishing glimpses of 
Syria; the images of camels, turbaned merchants, forgotten 
eastern emperors, that stand sentinel in many a disregarded 
courtyard; the nasal murmured songs of the girls, such as some- 

195 



The City 

times emerge from behind the black veils of Arab women; the 
ladies who peer, like wives in purdah, from the closed windows 
of lofty palaces; the languid sense odokefar niente that pervades 
the Venetian summer; the carved studded doors of Venice, and 
the coffee-trays that stand upon its official tables, and the jasmine- 
scented evenings of Giudecca, and the burnous-like cloaks of the 
policemen. The white fringes of the gondola covers are like 
camel-trappings, and the star-speckled blue of the Clock Tower 
is like a tomb at Karnak, and the great Basilica itself, which 
Mark Twain saw as a Vast warty bug taking a meditative walk , 
strikes most people as an eastern treasure-house, a Saracen war- 
tent or a tasselled Shah s pavilion. 

In Venice you can enjoy the pleasures of the Orient without 
suffering its torments. Flies are few, mosquitoes are decreasing, 
beggars are unpersistent, water is wholesome, nationalism is 
restrained, nobody is going to knife you, or talk about Zionism, 
or blame you for Kashmir, or make you drink brick tea and eat 
sheep s eyes. But in Venice, as in the Arab countries, you have 
the comforting feeling that if you let things drift, and treat life 
undemandingly, your objectives will eventually be achieved. 
Do not be alarmed, if you lose sight of your friend on a dis 
appearing steamboat: hang about the Piazza for a while, and she 
will turn up, miraculously, without surprise or reproach. Do not 
be despondent if the hull of your boat is splintered by a passing 
barge: it may look irreparable, but somehow or other, if you do 
not make a fuss, the boatyard will be able to mend it, and the 
money will arrive unexpectedly from New York, and you will 
find the craft more elegant and seaworthy than ever. 

Nothing is more reminiscent of the Middle East than one of 
the gondoliers quarrels that have given so much picturesque 
pleasure to visitors down the centuries. They start in some nig 
gling disagreement about a mooring or a rope, and they proceed 
in a series of abrupt crescendos and deflations, as the protagon 
ists flex their muscles. Sometimes, when their rancour has flared 
to one of its successive apexes, one gondolier suddenly walks 
off into the Piazza, turning his back on the whole affair, as if he 
is suddenly wearied of it all; but after a few moments of utter 
silence, such as precedes a thunderstorm or a caterwaul, he 
swivels violently around again and advances upon his rival with 
a fresh torrent of abuse. The quarrel thus proceeds sporadically, 

196 



Arabesques 

in fits and starts, gradually increasing in warmth and invective, 
getting louder and shriller and more sustained and more fero 
cious, the eyes flashing, the voices trembling, the feet stamping, 
until at last the ultimate exchange seems upon us, the flow of 
insult is almost uninterrupted, the outbreak of actual physical 
assault seems inescapable and suddenly all evaporates, the gon 
doliers are inexplicably reconciled, the expectant crowd laugh 
ingly disperses, and the disagreement trails away in a murmur 
of mingled self-justification and understanding. I have seen the 
same process a hundred times in the streets of Egypt, when one 
man has often been on the very point of cutting his opponent s 
throat, and then lost interest. 

All these things buildings, memories, manners bind Venice 
to the East, and make the exotic seem common-place. In the 
19205 there returned to Venice a grandee who had been governor 
of an Italian colony in East Africa. He brought with him a stal 
wart African servant, and dressing him flamboyantly, as his 
forebears had dressed their slaves, in a red turban and a green 
sash, taught him to drive the family motor boat. The Venetians, 
I am assured, scarcely looked twice at this spectacular figure, so 
immemorial have been their associations with the East, just as 
they hardly seemed to notice the grande dame whose handsome 
Indian leopard habitually occupied the front seat of her gondola. 



The noises of Venice are often Oriental, too, not least the 
blaring radios and television sets that hurl their melodies after 
you down the back-streets, and the din of porters, whistles and 
importunate guides that greets you at the railway station. Many 
long years ago the city lost its silver reputation for silence. The 
steamboats did not entirely shatter it, for they used to ease their 
way down the Grand Canal with the gentle chugging, thump 
ing and hissing that went with polished brass and oiled pistons: 
but once the petrol engine arrived in Venice, the peace of the 
city was doomed. 

Today there are some places on the Grand Canal that are as 
noisy as any mainland city. The throbbing of engines, the blow 
ing of horns, the thudding of steam-hammers, the shouting of 
irate boatmen, the girl next door laboriously practising her 
Chopin, the warning cries of the gondoliers, the communal 

197 



The City 

singing of students, the jollities of drunks all are hideously 
magnified and distorted by the surface of the water and the high 
walls that surround it, and reverberate around the houses as 
from a taut drum-skin. (It is disconcerting to hear a snatch of 
your own conversation, as you meander home from a midnight 
party, and realize in a moment of clarity how far and how 
loudly it carries down the canals.) I am woken every morning 
by a terrible racket of engines, klaxons and voices outside my 
window as an infatuated Victorian poet put it, From the calm 
transparent waters Float some thrilling sounds of Amphionic 
music . You might think, from the babel of it all, that the Goths 
were in the lagoon at last: but in fact it is only the dustbin con 
voy streaming into the city, foam at the prow, helmsmen high 
and threatening in the stern. 

There are other, more evocative noises. The streets of Venice 
have their own sound, the quick tap of heels upon stone flag 
stones. From a thousand houses comes the chirping of a myriad 
canaries. At the backs of trattorias skittle balls clatter against 
wood. The postman s call rings richly through the streets, and 
sometimes a bargee announces his eruption into the Grand 
Canal with a magnificent bellow from the pit of his stomach. 
The rattle of shutters is a familiar sound, for this is a resolutely 
closeted city, and is always opening and closing its windows. 

The boom of a ship s siren is a Venetian noise, and the 
trumpeting of tugs; and in the foggy winter nights, when the 
city is blanketed in gloom and damp, you can hear the far 
away tinkling of the bell-buoys out in the lagoon, and the dis 
tant rumble of the Adriatic beyond. The great Piazza of St. 
Mark, on a high summer day, is a rich medley of sounds: the 
chatter of innumerable tourists, the laughter of children, the 
deep bass-notes of the Basilica organ, the thin strains of the cafe 
orchestras, the clink of coffee-cups, the rattling of maize in paper 
bags by the sellers of bird food, the shouts of newspapermen, 
bells, clocks; pigeons, and all the sounds of the sea that seep into 
the square from the quayside around the corner. It is a heady, 
Alexandrian mixture. Fielding s blind man said that he had 
always imagined the colour red as being much like a sound of a 
trumpet : and if you want a visual equivalent for the symphony 
of the Piazza, think of a sheet of vermilion, shot with gold and 
dyed at the edges with sea-green. 

198 



Arabesques 

Venice is no longer the supreme city of music, as she was in 
the eighteenth century, when four celebrated conservatoires 
flourished there, when her choirs and instrumentalists were un 
rivalled, and when the priest Vivaldi, suddenly inspired with a 
melody in the middle of celebrating Mass, instantly rushed off 
to the Sacristy to scribble it down. Music, nevertheless, often 
sounds in the city. The strains of great symphonies rise, in the 
summer season, from breathless floodlit courtyards; twelve- 
tone scales and electronic cadences ring from the International 
Festival of Contemporary Music, which recently brought Stra 
vinsky himself to conduct an opera in the Scuola di San Rocco; 
the noble choir of St. Mark s, once trained by Monteverdi, sings 
seraphically from its eyrie among the high mosaics of the 
Basilica. The gondoliers no longer quote Tasso to one another, or 
sing old Venetian love songs (most of the popular tunes nowa 
days are from Naples or New York) : but sometimes an ebul 
lient young man will open his heart and his lungs together, 
and float down the canal on the wings of a throaty aria. 

To hear the bells of Venice it is best to come at Christmas, 
when the air is mist-muffled, and the noises of the city are 
deepened and richened, like plum-duff. A marvellous clash of 
bells rings in Christmas morning, noble bells and frenzied bells, 
spinsterish bells and pompous bells, cracked bells and genial 
bells and cross reproving bells. The bells of San Trovaso sound 
exactly like Alpine cowbells. The bells of the Carmini sing the 
first few notes of the Lourdes hymn. The bells of Santa Maria 
Zobenigo are rung with such persistency , so one Victorian 
visitor recorded, that the whole neighbourhood must be driven 
almost to distraction . The bells of the Oratory of the Virgin, 
near San Giobbe, so annoyed the monks of the neighbouring 
convent that in 1515 they went out one night and razed its little 
campanile to the ground: they had to rebuild it at their own 
expense. 

The great bell of San Salvatore rings in an exciting dissonance, 
its notes being, so I am assured, E flat, D flat and B flat. The 
great Marangona bell, rescued from the ruins of the old Cam 
panile of St. Mark, no longer sounds, but hangs there in the 
belfry looking frail and venerable: but the big new bell of St. 
Mark s is alone permitted to sound at midnight, and also rings, 
to an erratic timetable, at odd intervals during the day. There is 

199 



The City 

a little bell that strikes the hours on the north-western corner of 
the Basilica, beneath a small stone canopy; and this seems to act 
as a kind of trigger or stimulus to the two old Moors on the 
Clock Tower, who promptly raise their hammers for the strike. 
All these bells, and a hundred others, welcome Christmas with a 
midnight flourish, and for long echoing minutes after the hour 
you can hear them ringing down again, softer and softer across 
the lagoon, like talkative old gentlemen subsiding into sleep. 

And there is one more sound that evokes the old Venice, 
defying the motor boats and the cacophony of radios. Some 
times, early in the morning, as you lie in bed in the half-light, 
you may hear the soft fastidious splash of oars outside, the swish 
of a light boat moving fast, the ripple of the waves against the 
bulwarks of the canal, and the swift breathing of the oarsman, 
easy and assured. 



A sense of Islamic denial seems to govern the Venetian atti 
tude to pleasure. This is no longer a city of boisterous and extro 
vert enjoyment, and the Venetians have long lost the harum- 
scarum gaiety that characterized the place during the last decade 
of its decline. The modern Venetian is a deliberate kind of man, 
bred to scepticism. He looks an indulgence firmly in the eye, 
and examines the world s delights analytically, as a hungry ento 
mologist might dissect a rare but potentially edible spider. 
Venice is still a fine place for dawdling or frivolity: but like the 
cities of the Muslim world, it is not ideal for orgies. 

It is not, for example, a gourmet s city. Once upon a time the 
cudn a Veneziana was considered the finest in the world, specializ 
ing in wild boar, peacock, venison, elaborate salads and architec 
tural pastries. Even then, though, some perfectionists thought it 
was spoiled by an excessive use of Oriental spices: Aretino, the 
poet-wastrel, used to say that the Venetians did not know how 
to eat or drink , and another commentator reported caustically 
that the pride of Venetian cookery was the hard biscuit, which 
was particularly resistant to the nibblings of weevils (some left 
in Crete in 1669 were still edible in 1821). Certainly by now the 
victuals of Venice have lost any traces of antique glory, and 
generally conform tamely to the Italian cuisine, perhaps the 
dullest in Europe. 

200 



Arabesques 

There is no drink that feels organic to Venice, as beer seems 
to spring from the fields of Germany, and arak from the very 
sap of the Baghdad date trees. The wines of the Venetian hinter 
land are coarse and often sour, and limited indeed are the foreign 
varieties stocked by the vintners. Most Venetian restaurants 
merely offer you red or white (if it is one of the simpler trat 
torias, they call it nero and bianco}. The most famous bar of the 
city is excellent, but always feels contrived: Harry s Bar is 
Venetian-owned and Venetian-staffed, and loves to talk about 
its visiting celebrities Hemingway, spectacularly slung with 
bandoliers and dead birds, striding in from Torcello; Orson 
Welles propped beside the toasted sandwiches; duchesses (with 
and without dukes) ; presidents (in and out of office) ; film stars 
(contracted, resting, or in predatory attendance at the Film 
Festival) ; a bishop or two, Truman Capote, a few Nobel prize 
winners, and Winston Churchill himself, the last of the nabobs, 
hugging a paint-box. 

Here the Italian aristocracy, heavily made up about the eyes, 
loves to sit in smoky silence, looking terribly distinguished or 
fearfully scandalous, and here the barman will offer you a 
Giorgione or a Titian, two of his cocktail specialities. At Harry s 
Bar the great gay world assembles in summer, and Venetians 
speak of it with a certain pride, for since its foundation in the 
19205 it has been a fairy-tale success: but it feels harshly at odds 
with the mouldering spirit of Venice, her lofty monuments and 
her reflective soul. 

The pleasures of sex, of chance, of intrigue, of display all are 
drawn largely in the Venetian chronicles, and reflected in the 
voluptuous canvases of the Venetian artists: but the pleasures of 
wine seldom appear, and it has been said that Carnival itself was 
a means of escaping into unreality without getting drunk. 
Everyday hospitality in Venice has always been abstemious a 
glass of Marsala, a sickly nip from a ready-mixed cocktail 
bottle, a box of biscuits, and everyone is satisfied. If the old 
palaces of Venice could drink today, they would probably stick 
to the most expensive kind of coffee, especially imported from 
the western shores of Arabia, and served in chipped gold cups 
at the card-table. 

And they would eat with lofty frugality. One restaurant in 
the city advertises its merits in an appealing jingle: 

201 



The City 

From north to south of Italy 
Runs Nane Mora s fame. 
His precious cooking is the queen 
Of every Gent and Dame. 

And the almond cake, oh wonder! 
It s a glory of its kind. 
Have a try, your griefs mil sunder 
When you taste its crispy rind! 

Not every Gent or Dame, though, will relish the meals of Venice. 
Even the Venetians have their doubts. I once saw a party of 
Venetian restaurateurs assembling at the Patriarchate for a 
convention: most of them looked sallow and pimply, and some 
seemed actually under-nourished. You can eat expensively and 
quite well at two or three of the grander hotels, but a cruel 
monotony informs the menus of the average restaurant. In the 
first years of this century E. V. Lucas spent a month eating in 
every Venetian restaurant in turn, and decided that there was 
only one he wanted to visit a second time. I have tried about 
thirty, and shall not feel intolerably misused if denied re-entry 
to any of them (though I shall cherish an affectionate nostalgia 
for the innumerable modest eating-houses which put up your 
dinner in a bag for you and send you steaming homewards 
through the streets, reeking of prawns and lasagna). 

The service in Venetian restaurants is usually rough and ready, 
sometimes off-hand, and occasionally downright rude, and the 
food, after the first dozen meals, begins to acquire a soporific 
sameness. The meat revolves sluggishly around a gristly core of 
veal. The salads are unimaginative, and are redeemed chiefly, if 
you insist, by the liberal use of fennel. It is only when you come 
to the fish, the native food of the Venetians, that you may feel 
a spark of enthusiasm. Venetian scampi are magnificent. There is 
a dish called mista mare, a fried pot-pourri of sea-foods, that can 
be delicious, at least for the first twenty or thirty times. Various 
kinds of eel are splendid, and so are innumerable small shell 
fish and minor molluscs. If the season is right, and the restaurant 
not too grand, you may be given some delicious soft-shelled 
crabs, which are a great delicacy in America, but considered 
coarse fare in Venice. 

202 



The Seasons 

Indeed to my mind the lower you slither in the hierarchy of 
the Venetian kitchen, the more you are likely to enjoy yourself, 
until at last, turning your back on the crepe suzette of the hotels 
and the avaricious gentility of the big restaurants, you find 
yourself in some water-front trattoria eating a fine but nameless 
fish from the lagoon, garnished with small crabs, washed down 
with a flagon of rasping white wine, and fortified by a glistening 
slab of polenta, the warm maize bread of the Venetians, which, 
eaten in tandem with an eel, a trout or a haunch of tunny, is 
food fit for Doges. 

To live in Venice is one of the supreme pleasures that this 
world can offer. But though I have often been indescribably 
happy there, and often dazed with admiration, and often sur 
feited with the interest and enchantment and variety of it all, 
yet I have never felt in the least Bacchanalian. The Levantine 
attitudes of the Venetians are catching. More than once, watch 
ing a gay party of visitors float down the Grand Canal, singing 
to an accordion, exchanging holiday badinage, and toasting 
each other s fortunes in beakers of red wine, I have examined my 
reactions meticulously, and caught myself estimating how much 
they would get back on the bottles. 



18 

THE SEASONS 

Venice is a seasonal city, dependent more than most upon 
weather and temperature. She lives for the summer, when her 
great tourist industry leaps into action, and in winter she is a 
curiously simple, homely place, instinct with melancholy, her 
Piazza deserted, her canals choppy and dismal. The winter 
climate of Venice is notorious. A harsh, raw, damp miasma 
overcomes the city for weeks at a time, only occasionally dis 
persed by days of cold sunny brilliance. The rain teems down 
with a particular wetness, like unto like, stirring the mud in the 
bottom of the Grand Canal, and streaming magnificently off 
the marbles of the Basilica. The fog marches in frowardly from 
the sea, so thick that you cannot see across the Piazza, and the 
vaporetto labours towards the Rialto with an anxious look-out 

203 



The City 

in the bows. Sometimes a layer of snow covers the city, giving 
it a certain sense of improper whimsy, as if you were to dress a 
duchess in pink ruffles. Sometimes the fringe of a bora sweeps the 
water in fierce waves up the narrower canals, and throws the 
moored boats viciously against the quays. The nights are vapor 
ous and tomb-like, and the days dawn monotonously grey. 

So Venice sits huddled over her inadequate stoves, or hugger- 
mugger in her cafes. The palaces of the Grand Canal are heavily 
clamped and boarded, with only a handful of dim lights burning 
from ugly tinkling chandeliers through fusty dark brown cur 
tains. The boatmen crouch at their tillers, shrouded in sacks and 
old overcoats, and sometimes clutching umbrellas. The alley- 
cats squat emaciated behind their grilles, and the pigeons cluster 
dejectedly in sheltered crannies of the Piazza. All Venice snivels 
with influenza, colds in the nose and throat infections: when the 
Republic secretly did away with three of its political enemies in 
the fifteenth century, the cause of death was blandly announced 
as catarrh, and everyone was satisfied. The great hotels are 
closed or moribund, their echoing foyers haunted only by a 
handful of disillusioned millionaires and leathery ladies of in 
trigue. The restaurants are empty and indifferent, and even 
Florian s cafe, which used to boast that its doors had been open 
night and day for two centuries, lowers its shutters long before 
midnight. Not a fiddle plays in the Piazza. Not a tout hangs 
around the arcades. Scarcely a tourist complains about the price 
of hot chocolate. It is a very private city. 

Its celebrations have a club-like feeling, free of prying outsiders. 
A Venetian Christmas is a staunchly family festival. The trains 
are fuE of returning migrants, waiters and labourers from Paris, 
mothers* helps from the Home Counties, and there is a great 
deal of hand-shaking in the streets, and many a delighted re 
union at the steamboat station. Suddenly everyone in Venice 
seems to know everyone else. An endless stream of shoppers, 
dressed in their elegant best, pushes so thickly through the 
narrow Merceria that sometimes the policemen, stationing 
themselves at intersections, impose a system of one-way traffic. 
The windows burgeon with Christmas trees. Every passing 
barge seems full of bottles, or parcels, or little firs from the 
mountains, and every child in Venice seems to trail a red 
balloon. 

204 



The Seasons 

In the plushy cafes of St. Mark s (Regency stripes and spindly 
chairs) spruce infants listen with deference to the interminable 
reminiscences of immaculate uncles: and in the cafes on Christ 
mas Eve 20,000 families giggle before the television sets, drink 
ing Cinzano and eating sticky cakes, while the favourite melody 
of the day is passed from shop to shop, from square to square, 
down one dark alley to another, like a cheerful watchword in 
the night. The Christmas services are warm, bright and glisten 
ing; the cribs are crude but touching; the choirs sing lustily; 
and Venice feels less like a grand duchess than a buxom land 
lady, enjoying a glass of stout when the customers have gone 
(except for the mysterious permutations of clergy, gold and 
crimson and misty with incense, that you may glimpse passing 
and repassing the open doors of the Basilica). 

To see the Serenissima without her make-up on, try getting 
up at three in the morning one foggy February morning, and 
watch the old lady reluctantly awakening. As you stand on your 
terrace above the canal, it is as though you are deposited plumb 
in the middle of an almost disused nowhere, so deathly silent is 
the place, so gagged and pinioned with mist. There are sombre 
pools of lamplight on the shrouded Grand Canal, and the only 
person in sight is a solitary eccentric in a fur hat, reading the 
Rules and Regulations at the steamboat pontoon with a cold 
and unnatural intensity. And when you have plastered your 
sweaters on, and crept down the scrubbed echoing staircase of 
your palace (past the sleeping advocate on the second floor, the 
Slav Baronessa on the first, the one-eyed ginger torn in his niche, 
the mighty padlocked coal-cellar doors, the pigeon-streaked 
bust of an unknown hero by the entrance, the little neglected 
Madonna on the wood shed, the arid tangle of a lawn and the 
stiff squeaking iron gates) when you are out at last, you will 
find the whole great city damp and padded in sleep. In London 
or New York the night is never absolute: in Venice, at three on 
a foggy winter morning, it feels as though the day will never 
come. 

All is dank, swirling, desolate. If you stand still for a sudden 
moment, allowing the echo of your steps to retreat around a 
corner, you will hear only the sad slapping of the water on a 
tethered boat, the distant clanging of a fog bell, or the deep 
boom of a steamer at sea. Perhaps there will be, far away across 

205 



The City 

the rooftops, a distant sporadic splutter of men s voices. Perhaps 
a pale faithful light will flicker before a tinsel ex vote. The white 
cat who lives beneath the seat of a gondola in the Rio della 
Toletta may spring like a demon from his lair; or there may 
even scurry by, wrapped in worn wool, with a scarf over her 
nose and mouth and a string shopping-bag in her hand, some 
solitary poor conscientious soul off to clean a heartless office or 
buy the first cabbage of the dawn. For the rest, it is wet, dismal, 
mist-muffled silence. Water pours miserably from an antique 
pump. Lamplight shines sullenly among the alleys, and some 
times picks out, with a gleam of wet masonry, half a sculptured 
saintly nose, the tail end of a carved peacock, a crown, a crest, 
or a crab in a medallion. 

In winter Venice wakes up at her edges. Down beyond the 
empty car park life begins early. Outside the church of Santa 
Chiara, where a burly watchman walks heavy-shouldered up 
and down the quay, light shines from the hatches of a dozen 
barges, throwing the huge moving shadows of their engineers 
on the wall across the water. At the end of the causeway the 
daily parade of trucks and trailers waits to be unloaded, hung 
about with diesel fumes. Harsh voices and the banging of crates 
emerge from the big warehouses by the docks, and there is a 
smell of eels, apples, onions and cheap tobacco. There are lights 
about, and policemen, a few bright steamy coffee-shops, a 
chatter and clutter of life beside the wharves. 

Slowly, hesitantly, as you range the streets, this animation of 
morning spreads across Venice. The fringes of the city curl, and 
colour, and burst into wintry flame. When you walk back 
across Dorsoduro, shafts of light from opening doors punctuate 
the fog. The myriad cafes are raising their shutters, and their 
bottles, coffee-machines and sugar containers stand sleepily 
shining in the mist. In San Polo a butcher and his assistant are 
laboriously heaving a carcass into their window. By the Bridge 
of Fists, around the corner from the Alley of Haste, a fruit- 
seller, yawning and grunting, climbs blearily from the hold of 
his barge. A boat-load of wild fishermen from the lagoon is 
sluicing itself in water under a bridge. Beneath the high arch of 
the Accademia two hulking cement barges labour up the Grand 
Canal, their four oarsmen shouting to one another, grand, slow 
and heavy in the gloom, like ancient galleys. Outside the church 

206 



The Seasons 

of San Maurizio two pale novice-nuns are scrubbing the marble 
steps. Inside Santa Maria Zobenigo the twisted baroque angels 
of the altar look down compassionately upon an early Mass (a 
priest, an acolyte, three nuns, and a sad-faced woman in grey). 
By Harry s Bar a sailor steps off the vaporetto carrying his rifle 
wrapped up in newspaper, and along the intersecting alley-ways 
platoons of litter-men swish their brushes energetically in the 
cold. 

So the day comes up again, pinkish and subdued, a Turnerish, 
vaporous, moist, sea-birds day. Nasty morning , you say to the 
waiter, as you order your cafe breakfast: but he only shrugs his 
shoulders and smiles a separate, melancholy smile, as a Doge 
might smile at an importunate emperor, or a great sea-captain 
patronize a Turk. 

And then one morning the spring arrives. Not any old morn 
ing, but specifically May I5th, for the Venetians believe in the 
infallibility of the calendar, and regard the beginning of each 
season as a strictly immovable feast. Eccentric indeed is the 
foreigner who bathes before June ist, when the bathing season 
opens, and it really does seem to be true that on July 25th each 
year (St. James s Day) the swallows vanish from the city, and 
leave the field clear for the mosquitoes. 

In spring the swallows are still arriving, and bring a new 
element of delicate frenzy to the place There goes a swallow to 
Venice, the stout seafarer! Seeing those birds fly, makes one wish for 
wings. 9 Generally Venice is not a dancing city, like New York 
on a frosty morning, or London in early summer, when every 
man feels like Fred Astaire, and every girl like Cleopatra. Here 
the whistle is inclined to fade from your lips, as the pensive 
Venetian faces go by, or a mob of raggle-taggle tourists ad 
vances upon you with grimaces, mistaking you for the man who 
is going to show them round the glass factory. In spring, though, 
the city has its moments of brilliant exhilaration, when you can 
happily echo the parodist s verses: 

With due respect to old R.B. 
My own especial spring-time prayer 
Is Oh to be in Italy, 
In Venice, now the spring is there! 9 
207 



The City 

These are the halcyon days of the Venetian year. The city is 
not too crowded, the sun is not too hot, the fogs have gone, 
there is a sense of discomforts survived and prosperity to come. 
The coal man knocks on your door with an eager smile, to say 
that he is perfectly willing to buy back your unused stocks of 
anthracite (at a slightly reduced price, of course). The vegetable 
man plucks a carnation from the vase behind him and offers it to 
you with a truly Neapolitan flourish. Streaks and flecks of green, 
appear in the city at last, softening its urban stoniness. The female 
cats, one and all, fatten with kittens: the toms disappear into the 
shrubbery. As the days brighten, and the warm winds blow up 
from the south, the very pavements of the city seem to be 
cherished and revived, not to speak of its dank and frigid 
drawing-rooms. Spring floods into Venice like a tingling elixir 
or a dry Martini, or perhaps a dose of Teriaca. 

Now the massive tourist machine of Venice greases its cogs 
and paints its upper works for the summer. Wherever you go 
in the city, bits and pieces of gondolas hang fresh-painted on its 
walls, totems of May shiny seats, velvet cushions, a brass sea 
horse dangling from a window-knob, a black walnut panel 
propped against a door. The boat-yards are full of holiday craft, 
having the weed scraped from their bottoms. The Grand Canal, 
which spent the winter as a plain market highway, a bus route, 
a business street, now becomes the supply route of tourism, as 
all the curtains, paint pots, upholsteries, cutlery, bedspreads, 
furniture and chromium fittings of the new season flood towards 
St. Mark s. The first cruise ship of the year anchors tantalizingly 
in the lagoon, bright with awnings, with a scent of the Aegean 
to her funnel vapours, or a thin flicker of rust from the Hudson 
river. The first tourists parade the Piazza, wearing tarbooshes, 
Maltese slippers, Spanish skirts or burnouses, according to their 
earlier itinerary. The first visiting warship moors at the Dogana, 
and its officers of the watch strut on deck in red sashes and 
swords. The first British seaman of the season retires to the 
municipal hospital after a jolly spring brawl on the Riva degli 
Schiavoni. 

Now the hotels and the pensions and the restaurants spring 
into life again. Their shutters are packed away at last, their brass- 
work is polished, their landing-stages are bright with blue and 
gold. If you want to book a room the receptionist no longer 

208 



The Seasons 

greets you with cheerful informality, as he did a month ago, but 
cocks a sophisticated seasonal eyebrow, turns a supercilious page, 
and informs you kindly that lucidly, owing to a late cancellation 
from Venezuela, he is able to let you have one small but pleasant 
room, not unfortunately over the Grand Canal, but overlooking 
the very characteristic, if a trifle noisy, alley-way at the back 
without bathroom, alas, though there is one at the end of the 
corridor, beyond the maids* pantry on the sixth floor, but with 
lift service, of course, to the fourth and all this, he nearly for 
gets to add, at a special price which, expressed in Italian lire, 
seems very little more than you would pay for the Presidential 
suite at the "Waldorf. With a distant smile he adds your name to 
the register: for it is spring, and the Venetian instincts are 
reviving. 

Up and down the waterways, too, the ponderous mansions 
are burgeoning with flower-pots, canary-cages and varnish. 
There is a stir of impending arrival among the servants of the 
peripatetic rich. In many a winter-shuttered apartment the maids 
and house-men are at work, in a cloud of dust and a flash of 
aprons, and not a few astute householders are packing their own 
bags in expectation of lucrative summer tenants. On their first 
evening , a Venetian nobleman once told me, *my American 
tenants will find everything prepared for them, from butler to 
candlesticks within an hour of their arrival they will be able to 
entertain a dozen guests to a succulent dinner : but if this high 
standard of service falls off a little during their occupancy of my 
apartment, well, it is a difficult world, is it not, and heavy with 
disillusionment? 

And sometimes, in the Venetian spring, you awake to a 
Canaletto day, when the whole city is alive with sparkle and 
sunshine, and the sky is an ineffable baby-blue. An air of flags 
and freedom pervades Venice on such a morning, and all feels 
light, spacious, carefree, crystalline, as though the decorators of 
the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons 
laced their mortar with lavender. 



With a thud, a babble of voices and a crinkle of travellers 
cheques, summer falls upon Venice. The pleasure factory works 
at full blast, and the city s ingrained sadness is swamped in an 

209 



The City 

effulgence of money-making. This is not quite so unpleasant as 
it sounds. Venice in her hey-day has been described as one vast 
joint-stock company for the exploitation of the east . Today her 
money is in tourism. Her chief function in the world is to be a 
kind of residential museum, a Tintoretto holiday camp, just as 
Coventry makes cars and Cedar Rapids corn flakes: and though 
the city in summer can be hideously crowded and sweaty, and 
the mobs of tourists unsightly, and the Venetians disagreeably 
predatory, nevertheless there is a functional feeling to it all, as of 
an instrument accurately recording revolutions per minute, or a 
water-pump efficiently irrigating. 

There is nothing new in this. The word Venetia, wrote one 
old chronicler, is interpreted by some to mean Veni Etiam, 
which is to say, "Come again and again". The Venetians have 
always exploited the holiday assets of their city. Even in the 
fourteenth century it was a city of hotels the Hat, the Wild 
Savage, the Little Horse, the Lobster, the Cock, the Duck, the 
Melon and the Queen of Hungary. (It was a city of rapacious 
monopolists, too one man owned nine of these hostelries.) 
One inn, on the site of the modern prison, was kept by an 
Englishman, and was much patronized by English tourists be 
cause of its excellent stables. Another, which still exists, was 
temporarily closed in 1397 when its landlord was condemned 
for giving short measure. As early as the thirteenth century the 
Venetians had their Tourist Police, to inspect hotels for cleanli 
ness and comfort, and speed the lost visitor (in any of several 
languages) towards the more expensive shops. 

The piazza of St. Mark s , wrote a mediaeval Venetian monk, 
with a fastidious sigh, seems perpetually filled with Turks, 
Libyans, Parthians and other monsters of the sea. One hundred 
thousand visitors came in a good year to the great fair of the 
Ascension, the first international trade festival, when the Piazza 
was covered with a great marquee, and there were booths and 
stalls all down the Riva. Tourists from all over Europe flocked 
to see the annual ceremony in which the Doge, riding in a barge 
of dream-like elaboration, threw a ring into the Adriatic in 
token of perpetual domination. The carnivals of the eighteenth 
century, when the city was peopled with masked gamblers, 
courtesans, adventurers and wild hedonists those delightful but 
decadent jamborees were purposely fostered by the State, partly 

210 



The Seasons 

to keep the powerless population happy, but partly to attract die 
tourists. Venice is perhaps the supreme tourist attraction of the 
world. She lives for flattery, and peers back at her admirers 
with an opal but heavy-lidded eye. When summer sets the city 
humming, the turnstiles creaking, the cash registers ringing, it 
feels only proper: the machine is back at work, the factory 
hooters blow, Sheffield is making knives again, a pit-wheel 
turns in Rhondda. . 

Rather more than 700,000 foreigners came to Venice in a 
normal recent year. Confessions in most western languages are 
heard regularly in the Basilica (in English, between eight and 
nine every summer morning). Americans are the most numerous 
visitors, followed by Germans, Frenchmen, Britons, Austrians, 
Swiss, Danes, Belgians, Dutchmen, Canadians and (as one refer 
ence table discreetly puts it) Miscellanians. Ten thousand cars 
sometimes cross the causeway in a single summer day, and the 
buses are often so many that when they have asgorged their 
passengers at the Piazzale Roma they retreat to the mainland 
again, and you may see them parked hugger-mugger in the sun 
shine beneath a fly-over of the great bridge, like country coaches 
behind the cricket pavilion. There are 170 well-known hotels 
and pensions in Venice, and at the height of a good season they 
are all full. In the Piazza you can buy the newspapers of France, 
Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, England and Manchester; and 
the Paris press is personally represented by a covey of rather 
portly newspaper vendors, dressed in blue track suits, like ageing 
milers, aud blazoned with the names of their journals. I have 
been outside the Basilica at three o clock on a summer morning, 
and found earnest tourists consulting their guide books in the 
moonlight. There is an attendant at one of the garages who 
claims that long before he can see the registration plate on the 
back of the car, he can tell the occupant s nationality by the look 
in the driver s eye. , 

Thus through the loose gilded mesh of the city there passes a 
cross-section of the world s spawn, and it is one of the pleasures 
of summer Venice to watch the sea-monsters streaming by. 
Germans appear to predominate, for they move in regiments, 
talk rather loud, push rather hard, and seem to have no particu 
lar faces, merging heavily into a jolly sunburnt Volkswagen 
mass. The Americans are either flamboyant to the point of repul- 



211 



The City 

sion, in crimson silk, or gently unobtrusive in drip-dry cotton: 
the one kind sitting studiously in a trattoria with its intelligent 
children and its large-scale map; the other vigorously decolletee, 
violently made up and slightly drunk, at a corner table in 
Harry s Bar. 

The British seem to me to provide the best of the men (often 
distinguished, frequently spare, sometimes agreeably individual 
ist) and the worst of the women (ill tempered, hair unwashed, 
clothes ill fitting, snobby or embarrassingly flirtatious). The 
French are nearly all delightful, whether they are scholarly 
elderly gentlemen with multi-volumed guide books, or students 
of existentialist sympathies with purple eyelids and no lipstick. 
The Japanese are almost obliterated by their mountainous fes 
toons of photographic equipment. The Indians are marvellously 
fragile, exquisite and aloof. The Yugoslavs seem a little dazed 
(and are said by gondoliers to be the meanest visitors of all). 
The Australians are unmistakable. The Canadians are indistin 
guishable. The Russians no longer come. The Chinese have not 
arrived yet. 

Confronted by these multitudes, in summer the character of 
Venice abruptly coarsens. The cost of a coffee leaps, if you are 
anywhere near St. Mark s, and is gradually reduced, in topo 
graphical gradations, as you take your custom farther from that 
avaricious fulcrum. The waiters of the Piazza brush up their 
brusquest manners, in preparation for the several hundred people 
each day who understandably believe that there must be some 
mistake in the bill. Souvenir stalls spring up like garish fungi, 
and the market is suddenly flooded with straw hats, gondoliers 
shirts, maps printed on head-scarves, lead gondolas, spurious 
antiques * originalissim? , as the old dealers used to say a mil 
lion water-colours and a thousand paper-weights in the shape of 
St. Mark s Campanile. 

The unsuspecting visitor, stepping from the steamboat, is 
accosted by a pair of ferocious porters, who carry his bags the 
fifteen-odd feet into his hotel lobby and demand, as their com 
pulsory payment for this service, the price of a substantial meal, 
with wine. The withered sacristans of the famous churches, 
brushing the dust from their cassocks, emerge eagerly from the 
shadows to drag you to the very last dismal pseudo-Titian of the 
vestry. Pampered young men pester you to visit their show- 

212 



The Seasons 

rooms. The cry of Gondola! Gondola! follows you like an 
improper suggestion down the quays. There is a queue for the 
lift to the top of the bell-tower. Enough people peer into the 
horrors of the dungeons each morning to make Casanova s head 
reel. There is a shop near St. Mark s so well adapted to every 
possible shift in the balance of power that the homesick tourist 
may buy himself the flag of Yemen, the Ukraine, Bolivia, or 
even the United Nations. 

And chanting a sing-song melody of triumph, the guides of 
Venice come into their own again. Guides 9 , wrote Augustus 
Hare in the 1890$, are usually ignorant, vulgar and stupid in 
Venice, and all but the most hopelessly imbecile visitors will 
find them an intolerable nuisance (though in later editions of 
his book he dropped the bit about the imbeciles). Nevertheless 
the guides of Venice flourish, the directors of itineraries boom, 
and many a poor holiday-maker staggers home at the end of a 
day s pleasure as though she has been grinding corn on a tread 
mill, or attending some crucial and excruciating viva voce. 
There are 107 churches in Venice, and nearly every tourist feels 
he has seen at least 200 of them: for the guides and guide books 
presuppose an unflagging whip-lash energy in their victims, an 
utter disregard for regular meals, and an insatiable appetite for 
art of aU periods, standards and purposes. 

One itinerary, for example, suggests that the unhappy visitor 
spend his first morning looking at the Basilica of St. Mark 
(the mosaics, the Treasury, the horses gallery, the museum, the eight 
side-chapels, the celebrated floor, the Baptistery, the Atrium, the 
Nicopoeia Madonna, the Pala d Oro, the Rood Screen and the Sacristy) ; 
and the Piazza outside (the Campanile, the Clock Tower, the 
Library, the Archaeological Museum, the columns of St. Mark and 
St. Theodore, the two Piazzettas, the Correr Museum, Florians and 
Quadris) ; and the Doge s Palace (the exterior arcades, the Giants 
Staircase, the State Chambers, Tintoretto 9 s Paradise, the Armoury, 
the Bridge of Sighs, the Dungeons, the Bocche di Leone). He should 
move on that afternoon to the Accademia Gallery (all twenty- 
four rooms) ; the Scuola di San Rocco (all sixty-two Tintorettos) ; 
the Frari church (the Bellini Madonna, Titian s Ascension, the 
tombs of Titian and Canova, the Pesaro altar piece, the Memorials 
and the very fine choir stalls) ; the markets (fish and vegetable) ; and 
the small church of San Giacomo di Rialto, which well repays 

213 



The City 

the trouble of a short but attentive inspection. And he should 
end the day with *a quiet moment or two upon the Rialto 
bridge, before returning to his hotel, so the book thoughtfully 
suggests, restfully by gondola. Haggard are the faces of tourists 
I have seen, desperately following such a course, and inexorable, 
unwavering, unrelenting are the voices of the lecturers so often 
to be heard, dogmatic but unscholarly, riding above the silences 
of San Giorgio or the Salute. 

Alas, the truth is that most visitors to Venice, in any case, 
move among her wonders mindlessly, pumped briskly through 
the machine and spewed out along the causeway as soon as they 
are properly processed. An old-fashioned Englishman, once in 
vited to produce a tourist slogan for a Middle Eastern country, 
suggested the cruel back-hander * Where Every Prospect Pleases : 
and there are moments in the high Venetian summer when even 
the lily liberal, surveying the harum-scarum harlequinade of 
tourism that swirls around him, must stifle some such expression 
of intolerance. Seen against so superb a setting, art and nature 
exquisitely blended, Man in a blinding Jamaican shirt can seem 
pretty vile. 

But though crowds do not suit some parts of the city the 
grey districts of the north-west, the quiet canals behind the 
Zattere, the reaches of the inner lagoon nevertheless the great 
Piazza of St. Mark s is at its very best on a hot day early in 
summer, when visitors from the four corners of the earth are 
inspecting its marvels, and Venice is one great itchy palm. 
During Ascension week, by an old and obscure tradition, 
images of the three Magi, preceded by an angel-herald, emerge 
each hour from the face of the Clock Tower and rotate in 
homage around the Virgin (in any other week of the year you 
can see them packed away, rigid and bulge-eyed, in a glass cup 
board inside the tower, near the big revolving drums that carry 
the figures of the clock). This is the time to inspect the Piazza. As 
the huge cosmopolitan crowd waits around the clock for the 
appearance of those quaint old sages, you can capture to perfec 
tion the summer flavour of Venice. 

The great square is dressed for entertaining. The two cele 
brated cafes, Florian s and Quadri s one on the south side of 
the square, one on the north have arranged their chairs and 
tables in symmetrical rows upon the pavement, and their orches- 

214 



The Seasons 

teas string away in blithe disharmony (Florian s specializes in the 
sicklier musical comedy melodies, now and then graced with a 
popular classic, but at Quadri s you sometimes hear the drum 
mer indulging in something precariously approaching jazz). 
The flags of Italy and Venice fly from the three bronze flag- 
staffs before the Basilica symbolic of lost Venetian dominions, 
Crete, Cyprus and the Morea. Down the Piazzetta there is a 
glimpse of sparkling water, a flicker of gondoliers straw hats, a 
shifting web of moored boats : and the shadowy Merceria, with 
its glittering shops, falls away out of the sunshine like a corridor 
of treasure. 

The patterned floor of the Piazza is thick with pigeons, and 
two or three women at little trestle stalls are invitingly rattling 
their packets of maize. Round and round the arcades, cool and 
shaded, mills a multitude of tourists, looking for lace and picture 
postcards, and almost every table has its holiday couple he 
reading the Daily Mail, she writing laboriously home. A girl in 
a tartan cap lounges beside her ice-cream box beneath the colon 
nade. The professional photographer in the middle of the square 
stands in an Edwardian attitude beside his old tripod camera 
(which stays in the Piazza all night, like a shrouded owl on a 
pedestal); and the fourteen licensed postcard hawkers wander 
ingratiatingly from group to group, their trays slung around 
their shoulders upon frayed and well-rubbed leather straps. On 
every step or balustrade, on the ledges around the base of the 
Campanile, on the supports of the two columns of the Piazzetta, 
around the flagstaffs, beside the little porphyry lions wherever 
there is a square foot of free sitting space, hundreds of young 
people have settled like birds, spreading their skirts and books 
around them. 

There are faces everywhere, faces bronzed and flushed in the 
cafes, faces peering back from shop windows (framed in lace 
napkins and Canaletto prints), faces high in the obscurity of the 
Campanile belfry, faces looking down from the Clock Tower 
itself, a tide of faces, wondering, irritated, delighted, amorous, 
exhausted, pouring constantly from the funnel of the Merceria. 
And all around you before the clock stands the core of this great 
daily crowd, chattering and expectant, a turmoil of cottons, 
dark glasses, conical hats, guide books, thonged sandals; a clutch 
of honeymooners, a twitching of children, a clash of tongues 

215 



The City 

all the languages of Christendom , as Coryat said, besides those 
that are spoken by the barbarous Ethnicks ; here a stiff English 
man, trying not to gape, here a jolly soul from Iowa, every 
ounce a tourist, from the enamelled ear-rings dangling beneath 
her bluish hair to the tips of her pink-varnished toe-nails. All is 
shifting, colourful and a little sticky, as it must have been in the 
hey-day of the Venetian carnival, when this city was the revel 
of the earth, the Masque of Italy , a boast, a marvel and a show. 
The preliminary bell rings on the corner of the Basilica. The 
Moors, swivelling athletically from the waist, sound the hour 
with dignity. The shutters open beside the strange old clock. 
Out come the three Magi, led by the trumpeting angel. They 
bow creakily to the Madonna, shuffle stiffly around her, and 
with a whirring and grating of antique mechanisms, disappear 
inside. The little doors close jerkily behind them, the cogs grind 
into silence, and all is still. A sigh of amusement and pleasure 
runs around that gaudy crowd, and it is the long, hot, breathless 
sigh of a summer in Venice. Packing away their cameras, the 
Germans, Americans, Frenchmen, Yugoslavs, Japanese, Britons, 
Indians, Australians, Turks, Libyans, Parthians and other visit 
ing monsters push their way towards a pink ice-cream, stoically 
count their money for lunch, or resume their earnest trek around 
the Tintorettos. 



19 

NEW ON THE RIALTO 

For Venice is a kind of metropolis, in the sense that all the 
world comes to visit her. If I stand upon my balcony and survey 
the square mile or so that lies within my vision, I can envisage 
the shades of an extraordinary gallery of people who have been, 
at one time or another, my neighbours : Duke Sforza the great 
mercenary, Byron and Ruskin, Rejane, Goethe, Galileo, two 
Popes, four Kings, Cardinal Pole, de Pisis, Chateaubriand, Bar 
bara Hutton, Taglioni the dancer, Frank Lloyd Wright (whose 
house beside the Palazzo Balbi was never built), Baron Corvo 
(whose gondola was rowed, in his shameless last years, by a 
crew of four flamboyant gondoliers). 

216 



New on the Rialto 

In the little square opposite my apartment Casanova was 
born. In the house to the right, with the flower-pots in the win 
dow, W. D. Howells lived. To my left is the palace where 
Wagner wrote the second act of Tristan, and just beyond it the 
terrace from which Napoleon once watched a regatta. Near by 
is the Ca Rezzonico, one of the great houses of the world: 
Browning died in it, the Pope Clement XIII lived in it, the 
Emperor Francis II stayed in it, Max Beerbohm wrote about it. 
Across the canal is the home of the Doge Cristoforo Moro, 
sometimes claimed to be the original of Othello, and to my 
right is a palace once owned by a family so uncountably rich 
that it is still called Palazzo degli Scrigni the Palace of the 
Money-Chests. 

Around the corner is d Annunzio s little red house , where 
he made love to Duse and wrote Notturno in the dark of blind 
ness. At the Convent of La Carita, now part of the Accademia, 
Pope Alexander III, exiled from Rome, is said to have worked 
for six months as a scullion, until he was recognized by a French 
visitor and so completely restored to power that the Emperor 
himself came to Venice to beg his pardon. Don Carlos, 
Charles VII of Spain, used to own the house beyond the mosaic 
factory. In the enchanting Palazzo Dario de Regnier lived and 
wrote like a Venetian , as his memorial plaque says. *La Donna 
of La Donna e Mobile lived in the Palazzo Barbaro. In the little 
Corte Catecumeni, away to my right, malleable Turkish pris 
oners used to be confined until they had learnt their Catechism, 
and could embrace Christianity. Wherever I look, I can fancy 
the shadows of famous men and of one obscure and pitiful 
woman, for it was from the balcony of the Palazzo Mocenigo 
that one of Byron s Venetian paramours threw herself in 
desperation into the canal. 

Venice was an essential port of call in the Grand Tour of the 
eighteenth century, when fashionable English visitors awaited 
their audiences of the Doge as eagerly as they now queue, hum 
ming a tune from Ancient and Modern, to pay their respects to 
the Pope. Even now, until you have seen Venice there is an 
asymmetrical gap in your education. Not many foreigners still 
rent entire Venetian palaces for the season, but few famous 
names of the western world have not, at one time or another, 
appeared in the hotel registers of the city. The Venetian summer 

217 



The City 

season still summons the envoys of the haut monde, in their 
yachts, Cadillacs or Beechcraft, to the assemblies of the Serenis- 
sima the Venetians, who already have a fine new airport on 
the mainland, want to extend the old one on the Lido to wel 
come private and chartered aircraft. A descendant of one of the 
Ducal houses, now a motor-boat driver, once told me with 
great satisfaction that the Sheikh of Kuwait, an Arabian Doge 
himself, had recently slipped him a 20,ooo4ire tip. The most 
lavish ball of the 1950$, anywhere in the world, was given by a 
Mexican millionaire at the Palazzo Labia (some of whose pre 
vious owners, long ago, had the habit of throwing gold plate 
in the canal, for the show of it, and later secretly fishing, it out 
again, for thrift). 

This gallimaufry of the rich, though it sometimes conjures 
evocative visions of eighteenth-century Venice, nevertheless 
does much to corrupt the spirit of the place. Unctuous syco 
phancy oozes from the grander hoteliers as the summer ad 
vances, and even the rhythms of the canals are sometimes shat 
tered when there advances ponderously past the Salute, ensign 
hugely at the stern, some ostentatious motor cruiser from ports 
west, all cocktail bars and record-players. It is often only a 
sweeping glance that such visitors grant to the old place, for 
they are offto the Lido in the evening, merely returning to Venice 
now and then for an expensive dinner or a well-publicized 
party: but it is enough to tarnish the pride of the city, so 
patronizing does their brief survey feel, and so uncomprehend 
ing. Many an Anglo-Saxon uses Venice as a summer refuge 
from stricter conventions at home. Many a loud and greasy 
visitor brings to Harry s Bar a sudden whiff of the used-car lot, 
the scrap-iron yard or the murkier upstairs offices of the City 
for when you think of sudden fortunes, you often think of 
Venice. (But other rich men, disembarking from their schooners 
or swift aeroplanes, still bring to Venice some lost sense of 
power and worldly style.) 

In its great centuries Venice was more than a mere spectacle, 
and the world came here not only to look at the golden horses 
or pay tribute to Titian, but to swop currencies, to invest funds, 
to rent ships, to talk diplomacy and war, to take passage, to 
learn the news from the East, to buy and to sell. The Fair of the 
Ascension attracted traders, manufacturers, financiers and even 

218 



New On The Rialto 

fashion designers from all Europe (a big doll, dressed in the 
latest fashion, was set up in the Piazza to act as a mannequin for 
the modes during the coming year). And the most celebrated of 
all Venetian institutions was the great commercial exchange of 
the Rialto, one of the prime facts of European history. To Euro 
peans of the Middle Ages, the Rialto was as formidable a pres 
ence as a World Bank or a Wall Street today. It was the principal 
channel of finance between East and West, and the real power 
house of the Venetian Empire. 

The earliest of all State banks, the Banca Giro, was opened on 
the Rialto in the twelfth century, and for 300 years the banks of 
the Rialto dominated the international exchanges. From its 
business houses the argosies set out to the Orient, to Flanders 
and to England: most of the ships belonged to the State, and 
were built to a standard pattern (for easy servicing), but the 
money invested in them belonged to the merchants of the 
Rialto. On the walls of the Rialto colonnade a huge painted 
map illustrated the great trade routes of Venetian commerce 
to the Dardanelles and the Sea of Azof, to Syria, Aleppo and 
Beirut, to Alexandria, to Spain, England and Flanders; and 
before it the merchants would assemble to watch the progress 
of their fortunes, like staff officers in an operations room. Beside 
the Rialto were the Venetian Offices of Navigation, Commerce 
and Shipping the ultimate authorities, in those days, on matters 
commercial and maritime. 

To the emporia of this famous place the whole world came 
for its gold, its exotic textiles, its coffees and spices, sometimes 
brought to Venice through countries that Europeans had never 
even heard of: even Henry III of France thought it worth while 
to wander around the Rialto shops incognito, in search of bar 
gains. Throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth cen 
turies Europe asked with Antonio : What s new on the Rialto? : 
until in the long run the seven caravels of Vasco da Gama, round 
ing the Cape to India, ended the Venetian monopoly of the 
Oriental trade, and laid the Rialto low. So sensitive was the 
Venetian commercial sense that when, one dark morning in 
1499, the news of da Gama s voyage arrived in the city (long 
before the explorer had returned to Portugal) several of the 
Rialto banks instantly failed. 

Today there are still banks around the eastern end of the 

219 



The City 

Rialto bridge: but the old commercial meeting-place is now a 
popular market, lively, noisy and picturesque, and only a few 
gnarled reminders of its great days remain to stimulate your 
sense of history. To understand the impact of the Venetian 
decline, there is no better exercise than to go to the western end 
of the bridge, near the church of San Giacomo, and survey the 
scene with one eye on the market-women, and one on the 
absent magnificoes. 

The great enterprises have vanished. All around you now, 
beneath the crooked hump of the bridge, is the animation of 
petty trade. Under the arcades are the jewellers, their windows 
full of sovereigns, Maria Theresa dollars, gilded ornaments, and 
you can see them through their open doors, looking fearfully 
shrewd, weighing minuscule gold chains (for St. Christopher 
medallions) in desperately delicate scales. In the passage-way is 
the Erberia, the vegetable market: a jolly, pushing, hail-fellow 
place, its stalls loaded with succulent peaches, onion strings, 
bananas, untidy heaps of fennel, lettuces, green jagged leaves 
like dandelions, gherkins, rigid hares, plucked quails in im 
maculate rows, spinach, slices of coconut beneath cooling 
sprinklers, potatoes, dead upside-down seagulls, pieces of arti 
choke floating in buckets, magnificent apples, vivid radishes, 
oranges from Sicily and carnations from San Remo. The market 
men are cheerful and skilled in badinage, the shoppers earnest 
and hurried, and sometimes a thoughtful lawyer, in his white 
tabs, stalks through the hubbub towards the criminal courts. 

Above the stalls stands the old church of San Giacomo, a poky 
but friendly little place, which is known to the Venetians fami 
liarly as San Giacometto, and stands among the vegetables pre 
cisely as the church of St. Paul s stands in Covent Garden, only 
awaiting an Eliza. Its big blue twenty-four-hour clock appears 
in a famous painting by Canaletto, but has had a dismal mechan 
ical history. It went wrong several times in the fourteenth 
century, and had to be renewed Tor the honour and consolation 
of the city . It stopped again in the eighteenth century, appar 
ently at four o clock. In 1914 a traveller reported that it always 
showed the time as three in the afternoon, and today it is per 
manently stuck at midnight precisely. 

Beneath this unreliable piece, hidden away among a clutter of 
sheds and packing cases, you will find the Gobbo di Rialto, one 

220 



Neiv on the Rialto 

of the best-known, images of mediaeval Venice. He stands now, 
abandoned and neglected, among a mass of boxes and old 
vegetables: a small hobbled granite figure of a man, supporting 
a flight of steps and a squat marble column. He used to be called 
a hunchback, but he is really only bent with burdens, for in the 
hey-day of the Rialto his responsibilities were great. Upon his 
pedestal the decrees of the Republic were promulgated, in the 
days when Venetian law was written in blood and enforced with 
fire: and to his steps men convicted of petty crimes were forced 
to run naked from St. Mark s, hastened by a rain of blows, until 
at last, breathless, bleeding and humiliated, they fell chastened 
at his knobbly feet and embraced him in blind relief. 

And around the corner, beside the Grand Canal, there lies the 
incomparable fish market of Venice, a glorious, wet, colourful, 
high-smelling concourse of the sea, to which in the dawn hours 
fleets of barges bring the day s supply of sea-foods. Its stalls are 
lined deliriously with green fronds, damp and cool: and upon 
them are laid, in a delicately-tinted, slobbering, writhing, 
glistening mass, the sea-creatures of the lagoon. There are sleek 
wriggling eels, green or -spotted, still pugnaciously alive; beau 
tiful little red fish packed in boxes like tubes of a vivid cos 
metic; strange tubular molluscs, oozing at the orifice; fine red 
mullet, cruel pseudo-sharks, undefeated crabs and mounds of 
gem-like shell-fish; skates, and shoals of small flat-fish, and 
things like water-tarantula, and pools of soft bulbous octopus, 
furiously ejecting ink; huge slabs of tunny, fish-rumps and fish- 
steaks, joints offish, fish kidneys, innards and guts and roes of 
fish: a multitude of sea-matter, pink, white, red, green, multi- 
limbed, beady-eyed, sliding, sensuous, shimmering, flabby, 
spongy, crisp all lying aghast upon their fresh green biers, 
dead, doomed or panting, like a grove of brilliant foliage among 
the tundra of Venetian stone. 

By the eighteenth century the quayside beside the fish market, 
once the economic centre of the western world, had become a 
dawn promenade for Venetian revellers, haggard or distraught 
after the night s love and gaming, and it was the fashionable 
thing to appear there at first light, displaying all the proper 
signs of dissipation. Today the Rialto is not even loose-living, 
only picturesque. There is a sad irony to the description on the 
apse of San Giacomo, a memento of its Gothic days: Around 

221 



The City 

This Temple Let the Merchant s Law Be Just, His Weight 
True, and His Covenants Faithful. No Shylocks now demand 
their securities beneath the arcades of Rial to; no giggling cour 
tesans sweep their mud-stained skirts through its market in the 
dawn; only the greengrocers shout, the housewives haggle, and 
the tourists on the bridge anxiously consult their exposure 
meters. You must look at the Rialto with an inner eye: just as, 
when I inspect the view from my terrace, I see not only the 
passing boatmen, and my small son stumbling across the bridge 
to school, but Napoleon too, pouting on his balcony, and the 
lovely sick Duse, and Othello,, and Corvo, and all those poor 
imprisoned infidels, desperately memorizing their articles of 
faith behind the Salute. 



2O 

CURIOSITIES 

Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the- 
counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in 
piquant, wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the 
house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell. 
Some are the increments of an old religion, some the bequests 
of history, some are just civic quirks. In Venice Sempre diretto! 9 
will always lead you to some world-familiar landmark, the 
Campanile of St. Mark s, the Rialto, the sumptuous Piazza or 
the Grand Canal itself: but you must walk there crookedly, 
through a hall of curiosities. 

Venice was always alone in the world, always unique in 
manners as in status. If you go to the big monastic building next 
door to the Frari, walk upstairs and speak nicely to the man at 
the reception desk, you will find yourself admitted to the State 
Archives of the Venetian Republic, in which are reverently 
preserved the records of independent Venice from its earliest 
beginnings until its fall. It is the most complete such State 
memorial on earth. Wild statistics surround its contents, born 
out of the secrecy of the old State, and often find their way into 

222 



Curiosities 

the most reputable guide books. Some say it contains 14 m. 
volumes, others that it has 1,000 rooms. The nineteenth-century 
geographer Andrea Balbi, crazed by his theme, calculated that 
the separate leaves of its documents and volumes numbered 693,- 
176,720, that placed end to end they would be 1,444,800,000 
feet long and would extend eleven times round the circum 
ference of the earth, and that they would cover so wide an area 
that the entire human race could stand upon their surface. Even 
as late as the 1850$ the innermost secrets of the Council of Ten 
were still protected in the Archives, but now that every corner 
is accessible to scholars, people seem to agree that its 280 rooms 
contain something like 250,000 books, documents and parch 
ments. The earliest date from 883 (when Alfred the Great was 
on his throne, and Charlemagne hardly dead). 

Its warren of chambers, once the cells of a Franciscan monas 
tery, are packed to the ceilings with this extraordinary docu 
mentation, file after file, quarto after quarto, huge illuminated 
manuscripts, hand-drawn maps, land titles, deeds, rolls of the 
nobility, official proceedings of the Great Council a vanished 
society perpetuated, like a long-dead Pope in a crystal coffin, or 
an ear of corn from a pyramid. There is a smell of parchment 
and old powdery ink: and in a small room near the entrance a 
man is busy micro-filming family trees for those modern Vene 
tians who wish, upon payment of a suitable fee, to confirm their 
descent from the pages of the Golden Book. 

A sense of historical continuity also haunts the streets and 
buildings of Venice. Yes/ said my housekeeper one day, telling 
me the origins of the Salute church, *yes, Signor Morris, when 
the plague ended we all put our hands in our pockets, every one 
of us, and we all gave a little money, and built the church in 
gratitude/ It happened just 300 years ago, but so strong is the 
sense of family in Venice, and so compressed are all its centuries, 
that Emilia half-believed she had contributed a few lire herself. 
Venice is full of such perpetual echoes from the very name of 
the Frezzeria, the Street of Arrow-Makers (where they still 
make wicker baskets, like quivers), to the shipyards of the 
Arsenal, where the tankers are repaired in the very same ship 
yard that Dante visited six centuries ago. The custodian of the 
Clock Tower, in the Piazza, is actually a clock repairer, a deaf 
and benign old gentleman, who wears a watchmaker s eye- 

223 



The City 

glass in his eye as he sells you a ticket of entry. In the Campo 
San Zan Degola there is a carved stone head popularly believed 
to represent a legendary villain called Biagio, who chopped poor 
children up and sold them as stew in his restaurant: the tale 
springs from the Middle Ages, but if you visit the image you 
will still find it smeared with mud, a token of Venice s long and 
unforgiving memory. Alongside the Riva degli Schiavoni, the 
Quay of the Slavs, you may still often see the red star of Yugo 
slavia, the new mistress of Dalmatia. The sugar supplies of the 
city have been unloaded at the same place where the Alley of 
Sugar meets the Zattere since the earliest days of the Republic. 
The Dogana is still an active customs house. The oldest of the 
traghetti have been in continuous existence at least since the 
thirteenth century. 

Here the past and the present have been repeatedly smudged, 
so that the old often seems contemporary, and the new is 
quickly streaked with age. They play football in the grandiose 
Renaissance courtyard of the Palazzo Pisani, near the Acca- 
demia. They show movies in the Ridotto, once the most cele 
brated gaming-house in Europe. They sell dress materials in the 
oJd School of the Shoemakers, beside San Toma; they make 
chairs in the School of the Tanners, in Santa Margherita; and if 
you buy yourself a glass of beer in the cafe that stands opposite 
the main door of Santo Stefano, you will be standing in the old 
School of the Woolworkers, once so flourishing that it possessed 
five Carpaccio paintings of its own. The very materials of 
Venice seem timeless, for often they were old already, when the 
Venetians stole them and brought them home to the lagoons: 
and even an idea like the design of the cupola came to Venice 
from Byzantium, and went to Byzantium from Rome. 

I was once standing with my wife beside the church of San 
Giacomo dell Orio when a football was projected violently 
between us, crumpling the map I was holding and striking my 
wife sharply on the side of the head: and looking up with a 
terrible oath upon my lips, and preparing to bastinado the 
ruffians, if they were not too big, I happened to observe a notice 
upon the wall. It was obviously several centuries old, and it gave 
warning that, on pains of the most ferocious penalties, ball 
games were not to be played in that campo, owing to the fre 
quent passage through it of doctors and other learned men. My 

224 



Curiosities 

anger evaporated instantly, and smiling agreeably at the youths 
with the ball, I told my wife not to make such a fuss. 

Venice is thickly encrusted with the stranger ornaments of 
religion. She is one of the great reliquaries of the Christian 
world. Almost every Venetian church has its splinter of sacred 
bone, its skeleton, its nail, its piece of wood, its patriarchal stone, 
marvellously encased in gilt, glass and gold, kept reverently in 
shrines and padded boxes, or behind lush velvet curtains. The 
bodies of St. Mark, St. Stephen, St. Zacharias (father of the 
Baptist), St. Athanasius (of the Creed), St. Roch, St. Theodore, 
St. Magnus, St. Lucy and many another holy person lie in the 
churches of the city. The church of San Toma possesses more 
than 10,000 sacred relics, including, so it is said, twelve com 
plete saintly corpses (temporarily removed from the church, 
owing to the damp). 

In San Pietro di CasteEb a church founded, according to 
Venetian legend, by the Trojans stands the throne used by St. 
Peter at Antioch. In the Basilica of St. Mark alone there are 
preserved, or so it has at one time or another been claimed, a 
knife used at the Last Supper; the stone on which St. John the 
Baptist was beheaded, still stained red in the Baptistery; the 
skull of the Baptist; an arm of St. George; a bas-relief, still wet, 
carved from the stone that Moses struck; a picture painted by 
St. Luke; two small angel-shrines which once decorated Pontius 
Pilate s balcony in Jerusalem; a stone on which Our Lord stood 
while preaching in Tyre; a rib of St. Stephen; a finger of Mary 
Magdalene; a stool belonging to the Virgin Mary; the marble 
stone on which Our Lord sat when He asked the Samaritan 
woman for water; the sword with which St. Peter cut off Mai- 
chus s ear; and a manuscript of St. Mark s gospel written in the 
Evangelist s own hand. 

Scarcely less venerated than these ancient relics is the room in 
which the Papal Conclave of 1800 met to elect Pius VII to the 
Pontificate. The conclave had been banished from Rome by 
Napoleon (the previous Pope, asking if he might be allowed at 
least to die in Rome, had been told that he could die just 
wherever he liked ) ; and it sat in an upstairs room of the monas 
tery of San Giorgio Maggiore, adjoining the Palladian church. 
The carved wooden seats are still labelled with the names of the 
thirty-five participating cardinals, as though they had just 

225 



The City 

picked up their wide-brimmed scarlet hats and gone downstairs 
to the refectory; the Pope s own hat lies in a glass case, resting 
upon a circle of moth-balls, as if upon ball-bearings; and out 
side the door is the little black stove in which the ballot-papers 
were burnt, the tell-tale smoke of their ashes emerging through 
an iron chimney beside the campanile above. 

The tombs of Venice, when they are not horrendous, are often 
wonderfully bizarre. In the church of San Giobbe, before the 
high altar, you may see the tomb (as we have already seen the 
house) of the original Othello , the Doge Cristoforo Moro. One 
theory is that Shakespeare took the tale from a scurrilous 
pamphlet written about this man, and its exponents like to point 
to a family device which is engraved upon his memorial. It 
represents a mulberry (mora) *and does not Shakespeare speak, 
or more probably Bacon, in Act iv, Scene in, of Othello s gage 
d amour to Desdemona as "a handkerchief spotted with straw 
berries"? Do you need more proof, my poor friend? Are you 
still sunk in obsolete tradition? 

Then to the left of the high altar in the Basilica there is a heart- 
shaped stone set among the mosaics. Until recently nobody knew 
what this signified, but during the restoration of the floor the 
stone was lifted, and beneath it was found a small box containing 
a shrivelled human organ: it was the heart of the Doge Francesco 
Erizzo, who died in 1646 his body lies in the church of San 
Martino, but he willed that his innermost being should be buried 
as close as possible to the patron saint of the Venetians. The 
Doge Francesco Morosini, who died in 1694, is buried in Santo 
Stefano beneath the largest funeral slab in Venice, dominating 
the central floor of the church, and measuring eighteen feet by 
fifteen. The Doge Andrea Vendramin, buried in San Zanipolo 
in 1478, is chiefly famous to the world at large because his effigy 
there was the subject of a particular scrutiny by Ruskin: con 
vinced that the Venetian Renaissance was instinct with sham, 
Ruskin borrowed a ladder from the sacristan of the church and 
mounted the high tomb to prove that the image of the Doge 
was itself fraudulent, and was only carved on one side, the 
other being a blank slab of marble. 

In the Frari, to the right of the high altar, is the tomb of the 
unhappy Doge Foscari, who was deposed in 1457 and died 
(apparently of a broken heart) a few days after his own son s 

226 



Curiosities 

execution for treason. It is a huge and pitiful edifice, to which, 
for five centuries, no guide has pointed without retelling the 
story of the family disgrace: but beneath it an inscription records 
a touching sequel. Two and a half centuries after the poor old 
Doge s death a descendant named Alvise Foscari ordered, as an 
act of family loyalty, that his own heart should be inserted into 
that tomb of shame: and so it was, in 1720. (The Doge immedi 
ately opposite, the fifteenth-century Nicolo Tron, will be seen 
to have a bushy beard: he grew it upon the death of a favourite 
son, and refused ever to shave it, as an emblem of perpetual 
mourning.) 

And in the church of the Scalzi, the barefoot Carmelites, is 
the tomb of the last of all the Doges, Ludovico Manin, I20th in 
the succession, who surrendered his Republic with scarcely a 
whimper to the rampant forces of Napoleon, and died inglori- 
ously five years later. The Manins came to Venice from Florence, 
flourished in commerce, and bought their nobility at the time 
of the wars with Genoa; but the last Doge was scarcely a stal 
wart figure, and his visiting card was decorated with a design of 
a nude Adonis asleep beneath an oak tree. There is thus an ironic 
melancholy to this simple tomb. It is a plain sombre slab in a 
side-chapel, and on it is engraved a stark inscription. Cineres 
Manini , it says The Ashes of Manin . 



Venetian art, too, is rich in curiosities. The city s pellucid 
feeling of delusion has always been exploited by her artists in 
tricks and wrinkles of perspective and proportion. Nothing is 
quite symmetrical in Venice the Piazza is not only irregular, 
but also slopes towards the Basilica, and has a floor pattern that 
does not fit. Buildings are deliberately top-heavy, like the Doge s 
Palace, or fantastically embellished with mock draperies, like 
the vast church of the Gesuiti, which is so bafflingly decorated 
with marble drapings, curtains, carpets and tapestries that you 
leave it in a dizzy state of disbelief. Perspective ceilings shift 
heavily as you walk; writhing clumps of angels float about in 
the blue, reminding me of the edible frogs in the Hong Kong 
fish market, which are clamped together with wires, alive but 
congealed, and present an animated multi-limbed appearance, as 
though they have twelve legs apiece. Arms and ankles protrude 

227 



The City 

from canvases, like Pordenone s famous horse s head in the 
church of San Rocco. Bells swing gaily out of painted skies. 
Mock Venetian blinds shade non-existent windows. If you look 
behind the angels that stand so triumphantly upon the portico 
of the Gesuiti, you will find that their buttocks are hollow, and 
are frankly sustained by struts of iron. The great dome of the 
Salute is supported by huge stone buttresses, elaborately scrolled : 
but they are not really necessary, for the dome is made of wood. 

One winter morning, when the Doge s Palace was empty of 
tourists, and the custodians of the Great Council Chamber were 
elsewhere, I stealthily removed my shoes and mounted the 
steps to the Doge s Throne; and sitting there in that porten 
tous seat, and looking at the great painted ceiling above me, I 
realized how carefully considered were the perspective distor 
tions of Venetian art. All those gigantic images and symbolisms, 
those Goddesses and Victories and Virtues, now seemed to be 
performing privately for me. I could look Venezia straight in 
the eye, without cricking my neck. I could receive the Tribute 
of the Conquered Provinces without moving my head. It was 
as though Veronese, Tintoretto, Bassano and Palma Giovane 
were themselves standing before me, bowing low and awaiting 
my approval. This experience had an elevating effect upon me. 
When I had tiptoed down the steps again, and replaced my 
shoes, and assumed an air of innocent scholarly interest, I looked 
behind me to find that the footprints of my stockinged feet on 
the polished wooden steps of the throne were twice as large as 
normal, and twice as confident. 

Venetian Baroque is sometimes gloriously eccentric. The 
fagade of San Moise usually stops the tourists in their tracks, so 
laughably elaborate is its facade; and inside is a gigantic altar 
piece, built of shiny granite blocks, which reproduces, almost 
life-size, Jehovah, Moses, the Tablets, Mount Sinai and all. 
Another splendid altar is in the church of San Marziale (a divine 
whose legend, if I have got the right one, is described in my 
dictionary of saints as an extravagant forgery ) : it seems to 
represent a holy hermit inside his cave, for beneath its slab there 
crouches, his halo just fitting in, a single forlorn and lonely sage, 
rather as children of artistic bent are sometimes to be seen 
huddled beneath grand pianos. 

The fa$ade of Santa Maria Zobenigo is notorious because not 

228 



Curiosities 

one item of its convoluted design has any religious significance 
whatsoever. The church was built by the Zobenigo family, but 
was reconstructed by the Barbaros, and its frontage is entirely 
devoted to their glorification. Looking from top to bottom, you 
will see a figure of Venice crowned, between Justice and Tem 
perance; a double-headed eagle, the Barbaro emblem, wearing 
a copper crown; a vast effigy of an armoured Barbaro above the 
door; four Romanized Barbaros in niches; two piles of military 
trophies, trumpets, guns, banners, drums; and six finely sculp 
tured plans, in stone relief, of places that figured largely in the 
Barbaro annals Zara, Candia, Padua, Rome, Corfu and Spa- 
lato. (When I looked at these plans one spring evening recently, 
they were all in mint condition, but when I went back the next 
day I discovered that a large chunk of Spalato had been broken 
away in the night, leaving a pale stone scar behind it: it is odd to 
experience so directly the decay of a civilization.) 

The Venetian artists often had a taste for whimsy and caprice, 
and loved private jokes, hidden allusions, undeclared self-por 
traits. In Veronese s famous Feast at the House of Levi, at the 
Accademia, Veronese himself is the suave major-domo figure 
in the left centre. He has also painted himself in the allegorical 
picture Glory, in the Doge s Palace, and in his Marriage at Cana, 
which is now in the Louvre, he not only appears himself, play 
ing the viola, but is accompanied by his brother, Tintoretto, the 
Sultan Soliman, the Emperor Charles V, the Marchese del 
Guasto and the Marchesa di Pescara. In Gentile Bellini s Miracle 
of the True Cross at San Lorenzo, the artist s entire family kneels 
in smug parade on the right-hand edge of the miracle, and the 
Queen of Cyprus stands with her ladies on the left. In Domenico 
Tiepolo s odd picture The New World, in the Ca Rezzonico, the 
artist himself is looking through a magnifying glass in the right- 
hand corner of the painting, with his father beside him. There 
is a picture of the naval battle of Lepanto, in the Sala dello 
Scrutinio of the Doge s Palace, in which, if you look hard enough 
among the carnage and the corpses, you will see a tidy little 
gentleman, neatly bearded, lace-collared, and perfectly calm, up 
to his neck in the Mediterranean: it is the artist Vicentino, un 
deterred by his subject. 

In the adjacent picture, another naval battle, Pietro Liberi has 
portrayed himself as a very fat naked slave, bang in the front of 

229 



The City 

the composition, brandishing a dagger. Near by is Palma 
Giovane s Last Judgment, which is supposed to contain portraits 
of the artist s mistress in two of her varying moods bottom 
left, agonized in Hell, top right, blissful in Paradise. Next door, 
Tintoretto s daughter sits at the feet of St. Christopher in the 
gigantic picture of Paradise in the Great Council Chamber. In 
the church of Madonna dell* Orto Tintoretto himself is seen 
helping to support the Golden Calf in preparation for a ritual 
he has a big black beard and a complacently pagan bearing, and 
near by is his wife, all in blue. Palma Vecchio s celebrated Saint 
Barbara, in Santa Maria Formosa, described as the ultimate 
representation of Venetian beauty , is in fact the artist s daughter 
Violante ( an almost unique representation of a hero-woman , 
George Eliot once wrote of the picture, standing in calm 
preparation for martyrdom, without the slightest air of pietism, 
yet with the expression of a mind filled with serious convic 
tion ). 

The Madonna in Titian s great Pesaro altar piece in the Frari 
is his own wife Celia, soon afterwards to die in childbirth. The 
neighbouring tomb of Canova, with its pyramidical super 
structure and its suggestive half-open door, was designed by 
Canova not for himself, but for Titian, who had his own plans 
for a truly Titianesque tomb, but died too soon to build it (he 
is buried in the Frari anyway in the grandest mausoleum of all, 
erected 300 years after his death by the Emperor of Austria, and 
surrounded by reliefs from his own works). In the same church, 
the fine statue of St. Jerome by Alessandro Vittoria, with its 
beautifully modelled veins and muscles, really portrays Titian 
in his old age: and the bust of Vittoria himself in San Zaccaria, 
representing him in dignified thought among an audience of 
respectful allegories, is a self-portrait. In the Scuola di SanRocco, 
the wooden caricature of an artist by the irrepressible Francesco 
Pianta mischievously lampoons Tintoretto, whose overwhelm 
ing canvases stand all around it. Five heads on Sansovino s 
sacristy door, behind the high altar of the Basilica, represent less 
than ethereal personages: they are Sansovino himself, Palladio, 
Veronese, Titian, and Aretino, who once endeared himself to 
all professional hacks by remarking that he earned his living by 
the sweat of his ink , and who is said to have died of laughing 
too much at an obscene joke about his own sister. 

230 



Curiosities 

In the church of San Salvatore the fine organ-shutters were 
painted by Titian s brother, Francesco Vecellio: they are among 
his last professional works, for he presently abandoned, art alto 
gether, and became a soldier. In three Venetian buildings you 
may see sets of pictures that were entries in a competition, now 
hanging together in perpetual truce: the twelve martyrs of San 
Stae, the twenty-one in the roof of the Marciana Library, the 
twenty-four, all concerned with the affairs of the Carmelites, 
that give a cluttered but powerful distinction to the -nave of the 
Carmini. (The stations of the Cross in Santa Maria Zobenigo 
were also painted by several different artists, each doing two.) 

Tintoretto s last work is the picture of the titular saint in San 
Marziale. Titian s last is his Deposition in the Accademia, in 
tended for his tomb: it was finished by Palma Giovane, who 
wrote beneath it, as you will see: What Titian left unfinished, 
Palma has reverently completed, and he dedicates the work to 
God. Verrocdhio s last is the equestrian statue of Colleoni. Lon- 
ghena s last is the Palazzo Pesaro on the Grand Canal, which he 
never lived to finish. Giovanni Bellini s last is his altar piece in 
San Giovanni Crisostomo, near the Rialto. Mantegna s last is 
thought to be his glorious San Sebastiano, in the Ca d Oro: it 
was found in his studio after his death, and at the foot of the 
picture, beside a smoking candle-wick, is the resigned inscrip 
tion: Nil Nisi Divinum Stabile Est, Caetera Fumus Nothing 
But God Endures, The Rest Is Smoke. 



Then there are the curiosities of politics and diplomacy. In 
the floor of the Basilica atrium there is a small lozenge-shaped 
stone which marks the point of the Emperor Frederick Bar- 
barossa s abasement before the Pope Alexander III in 1177. The 
Pope, in flight from the Emperor s armies, came to Venice in 
disguise, not sure whether the Republic was his friend or his 
enemy: but the Venetians, sensing opportunities of advance 
ment, arranged a reconciliation between the two monarchs, and 
thus established the Republic s position as a political deus ex 
machina. The Venetian legends say that the Emperor, facing 
Alexander on this very spot, agreed to apologize to St. Peter, 
but not to the Pope, and that Alexander replied sternly: To 
Peter and the Pope. Such versions of the event have Frederick 

231 



The City 

flat out on the ground kissing the papal feet, and the loyal Vene 
tian artists have pictured the occasion in a great series of paint 
ings in the Doge s Palace, including several scenes of Venetian 
triumph that are utterly apocryphal. 

Many legends, too, illustrate Alexander s arrival in Venice, 
destitute and friendless, and several churches claim the honour of 
having sheltered him in their porches on his first night in the 
city. Near the Campo Sant Aponal you will see, engraved above 
a small shrine at the entrance to a narrow courtyard, the follow 
ing inscription: Alexander the Third, Supreme Pontiff, flying 
from the armies of Frederick the Emperor, coming to Venice, 
here reposed the first night; and then conceded a perpetual 
plenary indulgence to whoever shall say a Pater Noster and 
an Ave Maria in this place. Let it not be heavy for thee to 
say Hail Mother. The year is 1177 and by the charity of the 
devout it is lighted day and night, as is seen. Whether this was 
really the Pope s first refuge, nobody knows: but it is perfectly 
true that, after some centuries of neglect and squalor, the lights 
do burn there night and day, and perhaps a few passing Vene 
tians still claim their indulgences. 

There are many mementoes of Napoleon in Venice, from the 
Public Gardens to the present shape of the Piazza. Beside the 
church of San Pietro di Castello, in the eastern part of the city, 
you may see the rambling and uncomfortable building which 
was, until he decreed otherwise, the palace of the Patriarch: it 
now provides married quarters for petty officers of the Italian 
Navy. If you stand with your back to the Basilica and look at 
the western end of the Piazza, you will see a row of twelve 
statues on the fa$ade of the Ala Napoleonica : they represent great 
emperors of the past, and in the middle of them is a gap in 
which it was intended to erect a gigantic statue of Napoleon 
himself. In the meantime an enormous semi-naked effigy of him 
was erected in the southern Piazzetta: this was later removed to 
the monastery of San Giorgio, then a barracks, and what 
eventually became of it nobody seems to know. 

The internal politics of Venice, too, have their many peculiar 
memorials: the bocche dei leoni, the Tiepolo stone in Campo Sant 
Agostin, the old crone and her mortar in the Merceria, the 
absent doge among the portraits in the Doge s Palace. The 
church of San Trovaso is a memento in itself. It lies directly on 

232 



Curiosities 

the border-line between the territories of the two ancient Vene 
tian factions, the Nicolotti and the Castellani, and it has a door 
on each side of the church, one opening into Nicolotti country, 
the other into Castellani. If there was ever a wedding between a 
Castellani bride and a Nicolotti bridegroom, the wedding pair 
left together by the central door of the church, but their relatives 
stalked resolutely out in opposite directions, 

But the most bizarre of all Venice s historical allusions comes 
from distant places and far more ancient times. Outside the 
main gates of the Arsenal, among a pride of peers, there stands a 
tall marble lion, gangling but severe. This beast was brought 
from Athens in 1687 by the fighting Doge Francesco Morosini 
(chiefly eminent in universal history because a shell from one of 
his ships exploded the Turkish powder magazine that happened 
to be inside the Parthenon). The lion used to guard the gateway 
into the Piraeus, and was so celebrated among the ancients that 
the port itself was known as the Port of the Lion: but when it 
arrived at the Arsenal, booty of war, the Venetians were puzzled 
to discover that engraved upon its shoulders and haunches were 
some peculiar inscriptions, not at all Greek in style, in characters 
that seemed, to the eyes of a people accustomed to the exquisite 
calligraphies of Arabic, rudely and brusquely chiselled. 

For several centuries nobody knew what these letters were: 
until one nineteenth-century day a visiting Danish scholar in 
spected them, raised his arms in exultation, and pronounced 
them to be Norse runes. They were carved on the lion in the 
eleventh century by order of Harold the Tall, a Norwegian 
mercenary who fought several campaigns in the Mediterranean, 
conquering Athens and once dethroning the Emperor in Con 
stantinople, only to die in 1066 as King of Norway, fighting 
Harold the Saxon at Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire. The inscrip 
tion on the lion s left shoulder says: Haakon, combined with 
Ulf, with Asmud and with Orn, conquered this port. These 
men and Harold the Tall imposed large fines, on account of the 
revolt of the Greek people. Dalk has been detained in distant 
lands. Egil was waging war, together with Ragnar, in Roumania 
and Armenia/ And on the right haunch of this queer animal is 
inscribed, in the runic: Asmund engraved these runes in com 
bination with Asgeir, Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, by desire of 
Harold the Tall, although the Greeks on reflection opposed it/ 



The City 

What all this means, only the Hon knows: but modern 
scholars have interpreted its general sense as implying that 
Kilroy, with friends, was there. 



Other nooks of Venetian oddity are almost out of range of 
the guide books. Behind the Basilica there is a Lapidariuin, a 
courtyard haphazardly studded with diverse stones and pieces of 
sculpture: two headless pigeons, a noseless warrior, a very old 
Adam in a clump of bushes, a pair of disembodied hands which 
have been plastered to the walls, and reach out from it creepily in 
perpetual distress, clutching stone rods. (As you stand before 
these strange objects, you may be momentarily disturbed to 
hear a muffled subterranean thumping, below your feet: but do 
not be alarmed it is only the workmen restoring the crypt of 
the Basilica.) 

The Palazzo Mastelli, near Madonna dell Orto, is a house of 
equally esoteric quality. On its facade is a peculiar dromedary 
which we have already, with an unkind snigger, examined: but 
the inner courtyard of this place, approached around the corner, 
is lavishly stuccoed with souvenirs and fragments of loot, 
columns built high into the structure, a small Madonna in a 
shrine, irrelevant arches, well-heads, grilles. It is a magpie-nest 
of a house, secretively sheltered behind a high brick wall, and 
camouflaged with foliage. As you walk befuddled and enchanted 
from its purlieus you will not be surprised to learn that the four 
enigmatical Moors of the Campo dei Mori, as odd a quartet as 
ever stared blankly from a crumbling wall, are sometimes sup 
posed to have been among its ancient residents. 

On the ground floor of the Fondaco dei Turchi, which is now 
the Natural History Museum (and has Faliero s coffin in its 
loggia), there is a courtyard that is part boat-house, part men 
agerie, part Pantheon. Around its walls are affixed a series of 
portrait statues, once kept in the Doge s Palace: there are 
admirals, painters, scholars, poets, architects, Sebastian Cabot, 
Marco Polo, Galileo and Admiral Emo, with Dante thrown in 
for respect and affection. These mouldering images, now un- 
visited from one year to the next, gaze down thoughtfully upon 
the boats and apparatus of the chief collector of the Museum, 
who spends half his time gathering specimens in the reedy wastes 

234 



Curiosities 

of the lagoon, and. half the time stuffing and mounting them 
upstairs. Four or five black sandoli lie there on the flagstones, 
with oars and planks and an outboard motor: and here and there 
among the jumble you may find little living creatures, recently 
plucked from their nests or burrows, and now kept in doomed 
but kindly confinement until they are the right age to be, as the 
American taxidermists say, eternalized. 

A pair of baby seagulls, perhaps, lives beneath the poop of one 
boat, stamping angrily about on their infinitesimal webbed feet, 
and sometimes plodding across to the courtyard fountain for a 
dignified circuit of its pool four times round precisely, no 
more, no less, before returning to their nest beneath the pro 
truding eyes of one of the lesser-known philosophers. A young 
duck inhabits a nearby sarcophagus. In a wire cage in the 
shadow of Titian two green snakes are moodily coiled, and 
huddled beneath the earth of a wooden box are three leathery 
salamanders. Upstairs the Museum of Natural History, im 
peccably organized, breathes the spirit of rational inquiry: but 
there is something delightfully hare-brained to the courtyard 
below. 

The naval museum at the Arsenal is similarly intriguing, 
with its bits of ships, banners, figure-heads, lions galore and 
remains of the Bucintoro; so is the Scuola di San Giovanni, with 
a beautiful Renaissance courtyard and staircase, and a main hall 
that is half museum and half carpenter s shop; so is the tiny 
Oratory of the Annunciation, twenty feet square, in the Campo 
Sant Angelo; and the carved stone girl on the Zattere who has 
tied her long hair beneath her chin, like a muffler; and the boat 
yards of the city, and its innumerable cloistered courtyards, its 
unsuspected churches, its quirks and idiosyncrasies of architec 
ture, its topsy-turvy street plan. 

There is a column-head among the arcades of the Doge s 
Palace that tells, for no apparent reason, the sad life story of a 
child love at first sight between its mooning parents, court 
ship, conception (in a double bed), birth,, childhood, early death, 
tears. In any other city this sequence of images might strike you 
as perfectly inexplicable, bearing as it does no relation to any 
thing else in the palace, containing no apparent historical or 
religious allusion, and conveying no recognizable moral. Here, 
though, it does not seem untoward: for when you have wan- 

235 



The City 

dered around this city for a time, and examined a few of its 
crooked displays, and inspected some of its paradoxes and per 
plexities, you will realize that much the most curious thing in 
Venice is Venice herself. 



21 

TO THE PRODIGIES 

If you imagine Venice as an oil painting, then the basis of its 
colour is provided by this twisted gnarled ambience of the city, 
crowded, aged, nonconformist. Before the highlights of the 
place are grandly daubed upon it, there is a gentler layer of fine 
tinting, giving richness, variety and strength to the composition. 
This is provided by a multitude of modest but wonderful 
monuments in the city, well known but not world-renowned, 
which are as essential to its flavour as are the picture postcard 
marvels. 

Consider first the ward of Cannaregio, the northernmost 
section of the city. Here is the entrancing Gothic church of 
Madonna dell Orto, named for the miraculous image found in a 
neighbouring garden and now lumpishly deposited in the right 
transept: there is a radiant Cima Baptism in this building, and a 
Giovanni Bellini altar-piece, and Tintoretto s admired Presenta 
tion, and a photograph (beside the door) of a recent vicar of the 
church who seems to me to have one of the finest faces in 
Venice. Very near is the church of Sant Alvise, almost ignored 
by the mass itineraries, with Tiepolo s mighty The Way to 
Calvary, and the appealing little knightly pictures known as the 
Baby Carpaccios which do look as though they might have 
been painted by some artist of genius in his nursery days, and in 
fact bear (not altogether convincingly) Carpaccio s signature. 

To the east is the church of the Misericordia, with two 
cherubs on its facade so genuinely mournful that their small 
faces are swollen with tears; to the south is San Giovanni Crisos- 
tomo, with its lovely Bellini altar-piece and a picture in which 
the elusive Giorgione is thought to have had a hand. The monu 
mental Gesuiti has its mock draperies and Titian s awful picture 

236 



To the Prodigies 

of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. The exquisite funeral church 
of San Michele stands on its island in a perpetual obsequial hush, 
like a very aristocratic undertaker. 

On the Grand Canal stands the Ca d Oro museum, which 
possesses Mantegna s wonderful San Sebastiano, and also 
Guardi s well-known picture of the Piazzetta, more often copied, 
perhaps, than any other landscape painting on earth. Not far 
away is the Lahia Palace, the scene of many voluptuous celebra 
tions, which is decorated in apposite magnificence with Tiepolo 
frescoes depicting the career of Cleopatra. The three dismal 
courtyards of the Ghetto stand squalidly among their tenements. 
The church of San Giobbe is tucked neatly away near the 
slaughter-house. If you arrive by aircraft or car, it is worth 
visiting the railway station, if only to marvel at the ingenuity by 
which so lavish and functional, a building can be designed with 
out providing a single place for the weary traveller to sit down 
without paying for the privilege. 

Consider secondly the ward of Castello, the eastern part of 
the city. The church of Santa Maria Formosa contains an altar- 
piece by Alvise Vivarini that is startlingly reminiscent of Stanley 
Spencer, besides Palma Vecchio s renowned Santa Barbara: and 
almost next door, in the Querini-Stampalia gallery, is a fascin 
ating collection of eighteenth-century Venetian genre paintings, 
illustrating everything from a bull-baiting to a nun s reception 
room. The main altar-piece in San Giovanni in Bragora is a 
masterpiece by Cima, now well displayed, once so badly placed 
that, as one old English guide book robustly advises, the best 
way to see it is to stand upon the altar . There is a famous Gio 
vanni Bellini in San Zaccaria, and a glister of ikons in San 
Giorgio dei Greci, and an ornate but gentle Madonna by 
Negroponte in San Francesco della Vigna. 

Above the main door of Sant Elena is a masterly figure of a 
man in supplication, by Antonio Rizzo. The Scuola di San 
Marco, the hospital, contains some of the most opulent assem 
bly rooms in Venice. Hidden away in the heart of the sestiere 
is the church of the Knights of Malta, San Giovanni, with 
elegant quarters for the Grand Prior of the order, and a cosy 
house for the chaplain. Among the plane trees of the Public 
Gardens there stand self-consciously the elaborate pavilions of 
the Bieiuiale, and the whole eastern region of Castello is domin- 

237 



The City 

ated by the grim uncompromising walls of the Arsenal, block 
ing many a quaint vista, and bringing to this poor neighbour 
hood a vision of the city s iron days. 

Consider third, in this survey of second-class sights, the ward 
of San Marco, clustering around the Basilica. Here is the Correr 
Museum, with famous pictures by the BeHinis, Lotto and Car- 
paccio, not to speak of the original blocks for Barbari s famous 
Venetian map, and many surprising curios of Venetian life and 
history, like banners from captured Turkish warships, and shoes 
with twelve-inch heels. Around the corner in the Piazzetta, the 
Marciana Library displays in a glass case the illuminated Breviaro 
Grimani, one of the most beautiful and valuable of books, the 
pages of which are turned over daily, with infinite caution, by a 
permanently awestruck curator. 

The Baroque extravaganzas of San Moise and Santa Maria 
Zobenigo are both in this sestiere. So is the church of San Salva- 
tore, which has a Renaissance interior of great distinction, and a 
brand-new white marble image of Pius X, and in Easter week is 
transformed by the brilliance of a magnificent silver altar-screen. 
Santo Stefano has a big comfortable nave and a haughty cam 
panile, San Giuliano a good Sansovino carving above its door 
it represents the rich physician from Ravenna who paid for the 
church. The Fenice Theatre has a delightfully evocative series of 
eighteenth-century banqueting rooms, still echoing to the clip of 
buckled shoes and the swish of crinolines. If you walk up a side 
alley from the Campo Manin, on the southern side of that 
square, you will come across the fine spiral staircase, said to defy 
all the proper constructional laws, which is called Scala dal 
Bovolo the Staircase of the Snail. If you wander down the 
dazzling Merceria, the Venetian Fifth Avenue, you will come in 
the end to the statue of Goldoni the playwright, which stands 
in the Campo San Bartolomeo, gently and quizzically smiling, 
and seems to me as happy a memorial as any man could ask for. 

Consider next the southern ward of Dorsoduro, the Hard 
Back , with its attendant island of Giudecca. It extends from the 
Dogana at one end, with the bronze figure of Fortune holding 
his sail of chance, almost to the car park at the other. The Salute 
is its most ponderous monument: in this vast church, besides its 
Titians and its Tintorettos and the pillars brought from the 
Roman amphitheatre at Pola, you may notice that the great 

238 



To the Prodigies 

lamp hanging on a chain from the centre of the dome is two or 
three inches out of true. Near by is the quaint little cluster of 
buildings around San Gregorio, from where, in the war-like 
days of the Republic, they used to throw a defensive chain 
across the Grand Canal. The factional church of San Trovaso is 
in Dorsoduro; its real name (in case your guide book is of 
pedantic leanings) is Santi Gervasio e Protasio, far too large a 
mouthful for the Venetian vernacular. Near it is the church of 
the Gesuati, on the Zattere waterfront, which has a gay Tiepolo 
ceiling, floating with pantomimic angels. 

In the church of the Carmini you may see another entrancing 
Cima, one of the rare Venetian pictures of Lorenzo Lotto (who 
deserted the city, driven out by jealous rivals), and some inter 
esting bas-reliefs of ships, near the main door. The neighbouring 
Scuola dei Carmini glows, and sometimes shrieks, with the 
talent of Tiepolo. There are organ-shutters painted deliciously by 
Guardi in the church of Angelo Raffaele, besides two agreeable 
saints, one on each side of the altar, whose haloes are tilted 
rakishly at opposing angles to give symmetry to the ensemble. 
San Sebastiano is magnificently decorated by Veronese, who is 
buried there. San Pantaleone is notable for a gigantic painting, 
as much engineering as art, that covers its concave ceiling. The 
Ca Rezzonico museum has a quaint little puppet theatre in its 
attic, and out towards the docks there is a weird, shadowy, bar 
baric, gleaming, candle-lit church called San Nicolo dei Mendi- 
coli it has a solemn figure of the Virgin in a dark red velvet 
dress, and two cherubs of herculean measurements. Across the 
water on Giudecca there broods the famous Palladian church of 
the Redentore, an antiseptic fane that nobody loves. 

Consider fifthly San Polo, the district that lines the Grand 
Canal between Ca Foscari and the Rialto or, if you are of 
modernist tastes, between the fire station and the Post Office. 
Here are the vivid splendours of the markets, bustling around 
the law courts and San Giacomo di Rialto, and the meshed net 
works of old houses, converging upon the Rialto, that used to 
be the stews of Venice. The church of San Rocco is in this 
ward, and so is the cafe of Nini the cat: and on the left-hand 
wall of San Giovanni Elemosinario, near the Rialto, there is a 
wonderful old Chartres-like carving of the Nativity, rescued 
from the ruins of an earlier building, with a gentle recumbent 

239 



The City 

Madonna and an ox who gently licks, in a manner of dreamy 
devotion, the little face of the Christ-Child. 

Sixthly Santa Croce, the westernmost sestiere, whose pace and 
atmosphere is increasingly dictated hy the presence of the Piaz- 
zale Roma, buzzing with buses and ablaze with neon signs. If 
you knock on the door of a convent near Campo San Zan 
Degola, a very old nun will produce a very large key and take 
you into the church of her order, San Giovanni Decollator and 
leading you carefully through its damp and peeling nave, she 
will show you, high on the wall of a side chapel, the remains of 
some Byzantine frescoes that are said to be the oldest works of 
art in Venice, and which, though not in themselves very beauti 
ful, have a certain hypnotic allure to them, like the goggle-eyes 
that peer at you out of the middle of cuckoo-spit. 

In San Giacomo dell* Orio there is a queer and beautiful green 
pillar, made of Greek marble, and a wooden roof built precisely 
like the hull of a boat. Santa Maria Mater Domini is an unjustly 
neglected Renaissance church by the Lombardi brothers, of 
clean but gorgeous line. San Cassiano has a noble Titian Cruci 
fixion. The back of San Nicolo da Tolentino looks like an 
Edwardian battleship, with barbettes, bulwarks, flying bridges 
and catwalks. In the church of San Simeone Grande there is a 
breathtaking statue of St. Simeon in death, in the chapel to the 
left of the high altar: his mouth is slightly open, his eyes stare, 
his hair is long and tangled, and the whole is carved with such 
strength and certainty that you may feel the presence of that 
dead saint lingering beside you still, long after you have left the 
dark little church and joined the crowds that press perpetually 
towards the station. 

What depth and richness and variety of colouring these minor 
monuments of the sestieri contribute to the masterpiece of 
Venice herself! There are palaces to see everywhere, and precious 
churches, and bridges, and pictures by the thousand, and all the 
criss-cross pattern of antiquity that is picturesque Venice, 
mocked by the materialists, sentimentalized by the Romantics, 
but still by any standards an astonishing phenomenon, as fruity 
as plum pudding, as tart as the brandy that flames about its 
holly. 

But when all is said, and nearly all is done, it is the diapason 

240 



To the Prodigies 

sights you come to see. You may meander through your curiosi 
ties, your shy churches and your unobtrusive geniuses. You may 
follow the wandering canals from San Giobbe to Sant Elena. 
You may inspect the dustbin barges, and wonder at the leaning 
campaniles, and tickle the cats whiskers, and sample the roast 
eel, and sniff the burnt straw of the boat-yards, and breathe the 
spices of the Orient, and listen to the tread of the great ships 
screws, and count the trains on the causeway, and attend an 
Armenian Mass, and look a dozen lions in the eye, and hold your 
nose beside a drained canal, and examine the Archives of the 
Republic, and haggle with the gondoliers, and buy an Afghan 
flag, and peer over the wall of the Servite convent, and ride the 
vaporetti like a connoisseur, and wave a brisk good morning to 
Signor Dandolo, as he leans from his window with a command 
ing presence, like a generalissimo speeding a parting fleet. The 
time will necessarily come, though, when you obey the injunc 
tions of the generations, and follow the stream of traffic to the 
superlatives of Venice. They will be as familiar to you as the 
Pyramids or the Great Wall of China: but the most marvellous 
of the Venetian spectacles are still the ones that get their well- 
worn stars in Baedeker. 

No little building in the world is more fascinating than the 
Renaissance church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, hidden away 
behind the Rialto like a precious stone in ruffled satin. It has all 
the gentle perfection, and some of the curious dull sheen, that 
marks a great pearl from the Persian Gulf, and it seems so com 
plete and self-contained that it might be prised from the sur 
rounding houses and taken bodily away, leaving only a neat 
little church-shaped cavity, not at all unsightly, in the fabric of 
the city. Its choir stalls are decorated with adorable figures, its 
altar is raised high and holy above its congregation, and the 
miraculous picture that it was built to honour is still reverenced 
inside it. I cannot imagine the most truculent of atheists failing 
to remove his hat as he enters this irresistible sanctuary. 

Nothing anywhere is more piquandy charming than the 
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, which Carpaccio decor 
ated, long ago, with a small series of masterpieces. It is no bigger 
than your garage, and its four walls positively smile with the 
genius of this delightful painter, the only Venetian artist with a 
sense of humour. Here is St. George lunging resolutely at his 

241 



The City 

dragon, which is surrounded horribly by odd segments of semi- 
digested maidens; and here is St. Tryphonius with a very small 
well-behaved basilisk ; and here the monks of St. Jerome s monas 
tery, including one old brother on crutches, run in comical terror 
from the mildest of all possible lions; and here, in the most 
beguiling of all these canvases, St. Jerome himself sits in his 
comfortable study, looking out of his window in search of a 
deathless phrase, while his famous little white terrier sits bright- 
eyed on its haunches beside him. 

No art gallery in Europe is more exuberant than the Acca- 
demia, the distillation of Venetian civilization. There are better 
collections of pictures elsewhere, grander Titians, finer Bellinis, 
more numerous Guardis, Canalettos and Giorgiones: but the 
glory of the Accademia is that all this grand variety of beauty 
and taste, ranging from the toy-like to the overblown, has been 
inspired by the small city that lies about you, from the crystal 
Cimas and the quaint Carpaccios to Tintoretto himself and 
Veronese s tremendous Feast at the House ofLevi, to my mind 
the most endlessly fascinating picture of them all. You are stand 
ing in the middle of the paintbox. You can see one of Titian s 
studios from the window of the building, and Veronese s house 
is 200 yards away across the Grand Canal. 

No collection of sacred pictures is more overwhelming of 
impact than the immense series of Tintorettos in the Scuola di 
San Rocco often dark, often grandiose, often incomprehen 
sible, but culminating in the huge masterpiece of the Cruci 
fixion, which Velazquez humbly copied, and before which, to 
this day, you may still see strong men moved to tears. (And 
around the walls of this great school are the impudent satirical 
carvings of Francesco Pianta, wonderfully witty and original: 
there is a mock miniature library all of wood, an explanatory 
catalogue in microscopic writing, and an enormous blaze-eyed 
Hercules at the end of the hall.) 

Nothing is cooler, and whiter, and more austerely reverent 
than Palladio s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, standing with 
such worldly aplomb among its peasantry of convent buildings. 
Somebody once defined this group of structures as on the 
whole, a great success : and it does have a feeling of high accom 
plishment, as of a piece of machinery that clicks silently into its 
appointed grooves, or an aircraft of unimpeachable line. The 

242 



To the Prodigies 

proportions are perfect, the setting is supreme, and from the top 
of the campanile you get the best view in Venice (a smooth 
Swiss lift will take you there, and the Benedictine monk who 
operates it is almost as proud of its bakelite buttons as he is of 
his historic monastery). 

No two churches are starker, pinker, loftier, nobler than the 
two Friars churches of Venice the Frari on one side of the 
Grand Canal, San Zanipolo on the other. The Frari is like a 
stooping high-browed monk, intellectual and meditative, with 
its two great Titians, its lovely altar-pieces by Giovanni Bellini, 
the Vivarinis, Basaiti, its tail tombs of artists, rulers, statesmen, 
generals, its carved choir stalls and its air of imperturbable calm. 
San Zanipolo has more of a flourish to it, a more florid style, 
suave but curled: its tombs are myriad and illustrious forty- 
six Doges are buried there its roof is high-vaulted, and outside 
its walls stands the unrivalled equestrian statue of Colleoni, the 
most famous horseback figure in the world. If you stand upon 
the campanile of one of these churches, you can see the cam 
panile of the other: but they carefully ignore each other, like 
rival dogmatists at an ecclesiastical congress. 

Nothing is more stimulating, on a gleaming spring day, than 
the kaleidoscopic Basin of St. Mark, the pool that lies directly 
before the Piazzetta, bounded by the incomparable curve of the 
Riva degli Schiavoni. It reminds me often of Hong Kong, with 
out the junks, so incessant is its traffic and so limpid its colour 
ing. In the day-time the basin is never calm, however still the 
weather, because of the constant churning of ships and propel 
lers : but at night, if you take your boat out there through the 
lamplight, it is as still and dark and luscious as a great lake of 
plum-juice, through which your bows seep thickly, and into 
whose sickly viscous liquid the dim shape of the Doge s Palace 
seems to be slowly sinking, like a pastry pavilion. 

Nothing on this earth is grander than the Grand Canal, in its 
great doubling sweep through the city, jostling with boats, 
lined by the high old palaces that form its guard of honour: 
secretive buildings like the Granary of the Republic, and dazz 
ling ones like the Ca d Oro, and pompous piles like the Prefec 
ture, and enchanting unconventional structures like the little 
Palazzo Dario, loaded with marble and inset with verd-antique. 
They look almost stagy, like the Victorian sham-fa<jades of one- 

243 



The City 

horse Western towns, but they are rich with the realities of his 
tory. There is a church with a green dome at the station end of 
the canal, and Desdemona s villa at the other, and there are 
Byzantine arches, and Gothic windows, and Renaissance 
flowerings, and the whole is plastered with a thick increment of 
romance and literature. As your boat churns its way towards the 
lagoon, all these improbable palaces fall away from your prow 
like so many fantasies, as though they had been erected for some 
forgotten exhibition, the Crystal Palace or the Brussels World 
Fair, and had been left to rot away in splendour until the next 
display. 

And so at last we come, like an army of pilgrims before us, 
into the central complex of St. Mark s, which many a proud 
Venetian, dead and living, has fondly regarded as the heart of 
the world. We are among the prodigies. We take a cup of 
coffee in the music-laden, pigeon-busy Piazza, beside the bronze 
flag-poles and the great kindly Campanile, where the sun is 
brighter than anywhere else on earth, the light clearer, the 
crowds more animated, and where more people congregate on a 
Sunday morning in July than in all the other piazzas of the 
world put together. We labour through the gigantic halls of 
the Doge s Palace, beneath the battles, the fleshy nymphs and 
the panoramic parables Venice Triumphant, Venice Holding 
a Sceptre, Venice Conferring Honours, Venice Accepting Nep 
tune s Trident, Venice Breaking her Chains, Venice Receiving 
Gifts from Juno, Venice Ruling the World, The Conquered 
Cities Offering Gifts to Venice, Venice Receiving the Crown in 
Token of her Power, The Apotheosis of Venice, The Victories 
of Venice over Franks, and Greeks, and Sicilians, and Turks, and 
Albanians, and Genoese, and Paduans and on to the Bridge of 
Sighs, Titian s bewitching St. Christopher, the gleaming 
armoury, the dreadful dungeons a swollen, beringed, night 
mare palace, pink outside, ominous within. 

We watch the Moors of the Clock Tower clanging their big 
bell; we inspect the two squat little lions beside the tomb of 
Manin; and thus, passing the lordly beadle at the door, and adjust 
ing our sleeves and our neck-lines beneath the severity of his 
appraisal thus we pass into the old cavern of the Basilica, 
golden with mosaics, its pavement heaving in elaborate patterns, 
its dim-lit spaces pierced with figures, gleaming with treasure, 

244 



Purposes 

dusty and drab and opaque with centuries of incense, cluttered 
with chapels and galleries and unsuspected altars, with the 
legendary Pala d Oro a golden sheet of jewels behind the high 
altar, and the great organ reverberating above us, mingled with 
the thumping of the cafe drums outside, and an endless move 
ment of priests, sight-seers, vergers, groups of country folk, 
children, nuns, and a haze of dust sliding across the open doors, 
and a solitary proud pigeon strutting angrily away across the 
crooked floor towards the sunshine of the Piazza. 



22 

PURPOSES 

are not (swore d Annunzio) *and will not be a museum, 
a hostelry ... a sky painted Prussian blue for honeymoon 
couples/ You may conclude, as you wander intoxicated among 
these spectacles, that Venice has happily found her modern 
mltier as the greatest of all museums; but you may sometimes 
have the feeling, as I do, that this is in some sense a prostitution 
of a great city, a degradation, a shame. Venice has always been 
an exhibitionist, and has always welcomed her lucrative sight 
seers, but she was built for trade, power, and empire. She is still 
the seat of a prefecture, the capital of a province, the head 
quarters of many business enterprises: but it is a far cry, all the 
same, from a Quarter and a Half-Quarter of the Roman 
Empire. 

Nobody will deny that tourism is part of the Venetian mys 
tique. The Piazza is better, livelier, lovelier for its garish summer 
crowds. Venice handles her visitors, if not exactly kindly, or 
even delicately, at least efficiently: her methods have been tried 
and tested over many generations. Her output of pleasure-per- 
customer-per-month is high, and I think it probable that all in 
all you can have a better holiday in Venice than anywhere else 
on earth especially if you hire yourself a boat, and see the place 
in its prime and original perspective. Venice devotes herself 
diligently and understandably to a very profitable monopoly : 
Venice. 

245 



The City 

Nor is she as fossilized as her detractors claim, and as a certain 
kind of devotee, often foreign and elderly, would like her to be. 
She has probatly changed less in the last three centuries than 
any other city in Europe, even resisting the triumphant town- 
planners of the Napoleonic age: but she has changed more than 
you might suppose. Several new artificial islands have radically 
altered her outline in the area of Sant Elena, at the western 
end of Giudecca, around the docks and more are constantly 
being prepared (the mud-banks are staked, reinforced with con 
crete, and stacked with rubbish). Within living memory whole 
new housing areas have arisen at Sant Elena, on Giudecca, and 
north of the Ghetto. The vast new railway station has been 
completed since the war. There is a big new hotel near the 
station, and a plain but desperately exclusive one on Giudecca, 
and a large ugly extension has been built to the Danieli on the 
Riva degli Schiavoni. 

Quaysides have been repeatedly widened, as you can confirm 
by examining the structure of the Riva, upon which little 
plaques record its limits before it was widened in 1780. Since 
the eighteenth century scores of canals and ponds have been 
filled in to make streets : every Rio Terra, every Piscina is such 
a place, and very pleasant they are to walk in, with space to 
swing your shopping bag about, or play with your balloon. 
Two big new streets have been cut through the buildings, one 
leading to the station, one on the edge of the Public Gardens. 
Above all, the building of the motor causeway has brought a 
bridgehead of the machine age to the fringe of Venice, and has 
made the region of the Piazzale Roma a raucous portent of the 
future: for shattering is the transition that separates the ineffable 
small squares of Dorsoduro from the diesel fumes, blinding 
lights, myriad cars and petrol pumps of the Piazzale, one of the 
nastiest places I know. 

If you want to consider the modern purposes of Venice, have 
a Cinzano at a cafe by the car park, and do your meditating 
there. 

Venice has to fight , says a handbook published by the Tourist 
Department, against the pressing threat of the rhythm of 
modern life ; and this gnomic statement, if scarcely disinterested, 
puts the Venetian problem in a nutshell. Venice poses an insol- 

246 



Purposes 

uble dilemma. If they compromise with modernity, fill in her 
canals and take cars to the Piazza, then they wreck her abso 
lutely. If they leave her alone, she potters down the years as a 
honeymoon city, part art gallery, part burlesque, her mighty 
monuments mere spectacles, her wide suzerainties reduced for 
ever to the cheap banalities of the guides. 

Two schools of thought grapple with this conundrum. (I do 
not count the rigid advocates of the status quo.) One believes 
that Venice proper should be regarded purely as a lovely back 
water, preserved in artistic inutility, while commerce and indus 
try should be confined to the mainland suburb of Mestre, tech 
nically part of the Municipality. The other school wishes Venice 
herself, her city and her lagoon, to be given new meaning by an 
infusion of modern activities. Fierce newspaper controversies 
rage around these opposing conceptions; personal enmities are 
cherished; plan is pitted against plan, statistic against statistic; 
and Venice herself stands waiting, half-stultified, half-modern 
ized, part a relic, part a revival. 

The first school does not object to tourism, so long as the city 
is not further vulgarized, but its proponents cherish their Venice 
chiefly as a centre of art and scholarship. They enthusiastically 
support the Biennale, the International Music Festival, the Film 
Festival (especially the documentary sections), the great periodical 
exhibitions of Venetian art. They think the future of the Serenis- 
sima is well represented by Peggy Guggenheim s collection of 
modern paintings in the Palazzo Venier, which is gauntly but 
spectacularly contemporary, and softened only by the youthful 
indiscretions of masters who adopted the principles of the Dada 
Movement or the Suprematists relatively late in their careers. 
They like to boast of Venice s own artists colony, which lives 
in the region to the west of the Accademia bridge, and includes 
a few painters of distinction, and many of great charm. They 
send visitors helter-skelter to the Fondazione Cini which has 
recently been established on San Giorgio, and which is partly a 
sea school, partly a technical college, but chiefly a magnificently 
equipped centre of scholarship, ablaze with purpose and ideal 
ism. They are earnest, devoted, anxious people: and as they 
shake their heads over the rhythm of modern life, and analyse 
the threats to their beloved Venice, it sometimes feels as though 
they are dissecting, with infinite care and the latest possible 

247 



The City 

instruments of surgery, an absolutely rock-bottom dead 
cadaver. 

The other school points out impatiently that the population 
of the city proper, tourists or no tourists, Klees or no Klees, has 
long been declining. Many Venetians have moved to Mestre 
altogether and work in its shipyards and factories. Many more 
(including at least one gondolier) live on the mainland, where 
houses are more plentiful and conditions less cramping, and 
commute to Venice each day down the causeway. Others again 
have moved to villas and apartments on the Lido, and pour off 
the steamers each morning at St. Mark s precisely as the Guild- 
ford stockbrokers flood into Waterloo. This trend (say the 
advocates of city development) will continue, unless Venice is 
herself modernized. Business houses will move to the mainland, 
leaving the social life of the city stagnant and its palaces neglected. 
Venice will become ever more artificial, ever more degraded, 
until the tourists themselves, sensing the shamness of her heart, 
will take their holiday allowances elsewhere. Such men want to 
revive the industries of the lagoon lace, glass, shipbuilding, 
mosaics. They want to establish new industrial communities on 
the bigger islands, with underground roads to the mainland. 
They want to extend the Piazzale Roma complex further into 
the city, filling in canals for motor traffic, and taking cars 
directly to the quays of the Zattere. They talk of Venice in tones 
of bouiicing angry gusto, as you might discuss converting some 
dreamy country house into flats (paying proper attention, of 
course, to its undoubted architectural merits). 

Do we not know them well, wherever we live, the aesthetic 
conservers on the one hand, the men of change on the other? 
Which of their two philosophies is the more romantic, I have 
never been able to decide. 



The prime advantages of Venice he, as both sides agree, in 
her position upon the frontiers of east and west. This is handy 
for tourists, stimulating to art and scholarship, and good for 
business. In particular, it sustains the importance of Venice (and 
her subsidiary, Mestre) as a world port. If you are attacked by 
pangs of distaste in Venice, look along the side canals, and you 
can nearly always see a ship. 

248 



Purposes 

Venice is still the third largest port in Italy. Crippled by Vasco 
da Gama s discoveries, she revived a little when de Lesseps cut 
the Suez Canal a project she had herself vainly proposed to the 
Sultan of Egypt several centuries before. Since then the port has 
been, with fluctuations, steadily expanding. Today big ships are 
always on the move in Venice, and at the quays of Giudecca 
there are usually vessels tied up for painting and repairs, their 
power cables wound casually round the antique Jerusalem but 
tresses that support the waterside structures. There are active 
repair yards behind the Arsenal, and even within the ramparts 
of that old fortress you sometimes see the glare of welding upon 
a tanker s hull. (The envious Trevisans used to call the Arsenal a 
gondola factory : the Venetians retorted that whatever its 
functions, it was big enough to contain the whole of Treviso 
within its walls.) 

Most ships sail clean through the city down the broad dredged 
canal to Mestre and Porto Marghera, where there is an impor 
tant oil port. In 1958, for example, 8,400,000 tons of goods were 
handled in the port of Venice as a whole: but 6,400,000 tons of 
this went to Mestre, and two-thirds of it was oil for the refin 
eries there (more oil went from Venice up the system of canals 
and rivers that leads to Mantua and Cremona). Still, many ships 
do use the docks of Venice proper, either to discharge passen 
gers, or to unload cargoes that will later be taken by train or 
truck to the awkwardly limited hinterland served by the port 
not too far to the west, because of Genoa, not too far to the 
south, because of a vigorously expanding Rimini, not too far to 
the east, because of poor old Trieste. The big docks at the western 
edge of the city, whose derricks welcome you grimly as you 
drive along the causeway, are entirely modern. The ships of the 
world have painted their names and slogans upon their quay 
sides, and the great grain elevator has become, from any main 
land viewpoint, the principal landmark of the city. 

The port can handle about 100 medium- and large-sized ships 
at a time. More than 10,000 used it in 1958. Before the first 
world war most of the ships that came to Venice flew the 
British, Austrian or Hungarian flag. In one month of 1959, 
though, there arrived vessels from Belgium, Britain, Finland, 
France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, Yugoslavia, Liberia, 
Norway, Panama, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, the United Arab 

249 



The City 

Republic and the United States. Fifty regular lines use the port. 
You may take passage here direct to New York, Capetown, 
Hong Kong, Sydney or Helsinki. Outside the offices of the 
great shipping companies, lining the Zattere in palatial pomp, 
the big transatlantic liners discharge their passengers, direct from 
Pier 84, into fleets of waiting gondolas: and beside the Riva 
degli Schiavoni, throughout the summer months, there nearly 
always stands a brace of cruising liners, huge Cunarders jam- 
packed with Americans, or the swift Greek yacht-like ships, 
flying the emblem of Niarchos or Onassis, that slip from island 
to island, from temple to temple, from lecture to lecture of the 
blue Aegean. 

The boldest of the Venetian visionaries base their schemes 
upon the activity of this port. They see Venice once again ful 
filling her function of a trade channel between East and West 
particularly for oil, successor to the apes and spices and silks of 
the past. They point out that Venice is one of the nearest 
western European ports to the oil terminals of Syria and 
Lebanon, and is also close to the great industrial centres of 
Germany. It is nearly three times as far from Beirut to Hamburg 
as it is from Beirut to Venice. 

A great new oil terminal, Sant Ilario, is therefore being built 
south of Mestre, and a new deep-water canal is being dredged 
to serve it, avoiding the city altogether (Venetians have always 
shuddered at the sight of loaded tankers among their precious 
buildings). The planners see it as the prime point of European 
entry for Middle Eastern oil, and there are schemes to supple 
ment it with an oil pipeline and an autostrada direct from Venice 
to Munich. The pipeline would be, say its advocates, Virtually 
a prolongation of Middle Eastern pipelines to the centre of 
Europe, with the insertion of a short sea-ferry between the 
Levant and Venice . The autostrada would be a double-deck 
affair, and would whisk the German tourist from his beer-cellar 
to the trattorias of Venice in the twinkling of a travel-agent s eye. 

The Venetians have also built themselves a new international 
airport, administered by the port authorities, on the northern 
shore of the lagoon. Until recently they relied upon a small and 
inconvenient field on the Lido, and on the airport at Treviso, an 
hour away by bus, and unsuitable for big jets. The new airfield 
can handle the very biggest. Its runways lie parallel with the 

250 



Purposes 

lagoon, rather as those at Nice run beside the Mediterranean, and 
it is to be linked with Venice by a new deep-water canal, and a 
road connecting it with the causeway. Its runways are almost as 
long as the city of Venice itself, and it is called (for it cost several 
million pounds) the Aeroporto Marco Polo. 

Do not suppose, then, that the mummy has twitched its last. 
Argue they may about the purposes of Venice, the dangers that 
threaten her, the opportunities that are hers : but there are many 
Venetians who see her future clear, and who, looking well 
ahead into the twenty-first century, envisage her as the south 
eastern gateway of united Europe. 



For myself, I think she deserves even more. I admire the 
rampaging go-getters of Venice, and I sympathize with the 
gentle conservatives : but I believe the true purpose of Venice 
Hes somewhere between, or perhaps beyond, their two extremes. 
For if you shut your eyes very hard, and forget the price of 
coffee, you may see a vision of another Venice. She became 
great as a market city, poised between East and West, between 
Crusader and Saracen, between white and brown: and if you 
try very hard, allowing a glimmer of gold from the Basilica to 
seep beneath your eyelids, and a fragrance of cream to enter 
your nostrils, and the distant melody of a cafe pianist to orches 
trate your thoughts if you really try, you can imagine her a 
noble market-place again. In these incomparable palaces, East 
and West might meet once more, to fuse their philosophies at 
last, and settle their squalid bickerings. In these mighty halls the 
senate of the world might deliberate, and in the cavernous 
recesses of the Basilica, glimmering and aromatic, all the divini 
ties might sit in reconciliation. Venice is made for greatness, a 
God-built city, and her obvious destiny is mediation. She only 
awaits a summons. 

But if you are not the visionary kind well, pay the man, 
don t argue, take a gondola into the lagoon and watch her 
magical silhouette sink into the sunset: still, after a thousand 
years, one of the supreme sights of civilization. 



251 



THE LAGOON 



23 
SEVENTH SEA 

Sometimes in a brutal winter night you may hear the distant 
roar of the Adriatic, pounding against the foreshore: and as you 
huddle beneath your bedclothes it may strike you suddenly how 
lonely a city Venice repaains, how isolated among her waters, 
how forbiddingly surrounded by mud-banks, shallows and un 
frequented reedy places. She is no longer a true island, and the 
comfortable mainland is only a couple of miles from your back 
door: but she still stands alone among the seaweed, as she did 
when the first Byzantine envoys wondered at her gimcrack 
settlements, fourteen centuries ago. Time and again in Venice 
you will glance along some narrow slatternly canal, down a 
canyon of cramped houses, or through the pillars of a grey 
arcade, and see before you beneath a bridge a tossing green 
square of open water: it is the lagoon, which stands at the end of 
every Venetian thoroughfare like a slab of queer wet country 
side. 

Several sheltered spaces of water, part sea, part lake, part 
estuary, line the north-western shores of the Adriatic: in one 
Aquileia was built, in another Ravenna, in a third Comacchio, 
in a fourth Venice herself. They were known to the ancients as 
the Seven Seas, and they were created in the first place by the 
slow action of rivers. Into this cranny of the Mediterranean flows 
the River Po, most generous of rivers, which rises on the borders 
of France, marches across the breadth of Italy, and enters the sea 
in a web of rivulets and marshes. Other famous streams tumble 
down from the Alpine escarpment, losing pace and fury as they 
come, until at last they sprawl sluggishly towards the sea in wide 
stone beds : the Brenta, which rolls elegantly through Padua out 
of the Tyrol; the Piave, which rises on the borders of Austria, 
and meanders down through Cadore and the delectable Belluno 
country; the Sile, which is the river of Treviso; the Adige, 
which is the river of Verona; the Ticino, the Oglio, the Adda, 

255 



The Lagoon 

the Mincio, the Livenza, the Isonzo and the Tagliamento. This 
congregation of waters, sliding towards the sea, has made the 
coastline a series of estuaries, interlinked or overlapping: and 
three rivers in particular, the Piave, the Brenta and the Sile, 
created the Venetian lagoon. If you look very hard to the north, 
to the high Alpine valleys in the far distance, lost among the 
ridges and snow peaks, then you wiH be looking towards the 
ultimate origins of Venice. 

When a river pours out of a mountain, or crosses its own 
alluvial plain, it brings with it an unseen cargo of rubble: sand, 
mud, silt, stones and all the miscellaneous bric-a-brac of nature, 
from broken tree-trunks to the infinitesimal shells of water- 
creatures. If the geological conditions are right, when its water 
eventually meets the sea, some of this material, buffeted between 
fresh water flowing one way and salt water pushing the other, 
gives up the struggle and settles on the bottom, forming a bar. 
The river forces its way past these exhausted sediments, the sea 
swirls around them, more silt is added to them, and presently 
they become islands of the estuary, such as litter the delta of the 
Nile, and lie sun-baked and turtle-haunted around that other 
Venice, the southernmost village of the Mississippi. 

Such barriers were erected, aeons ago, by the Brenta, the 
Piave and the Sile, when they met the currents of the Adriatic 
(which, as it happens, sweep in a circular motion around this 
northern gulf). They were long lonely strips of sand and gravel, 
which presently sprouted grass, sea-anemones and pine trees, 
and became proper islands. Behind them, over the centuries, a 
great pond settled, chequered with currents and counter-cur 
rents, a mixture of salt and fresh, an equilibrium of floods: and 
among the water other islands appeared, either high ground that 
had not been swamped, or accumulations of silt. This damp 
expanse, speckled with islets, clogged with mud-banks and half- 
drowned fields, protected from the sea by its narrow strands 
this place of beautiful desolation is the Venetian lagoon. It is 
thirty-five miles long and never more than seven miles wide, 
and it covers an area, so the most confident experts decree, of 
210 square miles. It is roughly crescent-shaped, and forms the 
rounded north-western corner of the Adriatic, where Italy 
swings eastward towards Trieste and Yugoslavia. Its peers 
among the Seven Seas have long since lost their eminence the 

256 



Seventh Sea 

lagoon of Ravenna silted up, the lagoon of Aquileia forgotten: 
but the lagoon of Venice grows livelier every year. 

Very early in their history, soon after they had settled on 
their islands and established their infant State, the Venetians 
began to improve upon their bleak environment. It was a pre 
carious refuge for them. The sea was always threatening to 
break in, especially when they had weakened the barrier islands 
by chopping down the pine forests. The silt was always threaten 
ing to clog the entire lagoon, turning it into a vulnerable stretch 
of land. The Venetians therefore buttressed their mud-banks, 
first with palisades of wood and rubble, later with tremendous 
stone walls : and more fundamentally, they deliberately altered 
the geography of the lagoon. Until historical times five open 
ings between the bars now called lidi connected it with the 
open sea, allowing the river water to leave, and the Adriatic 
tides to ebb and flow inside. The Venetians eliminated some of 
these gaps, leaving only three entrances or porti through which 
the various waters could leave or enter. This strengthened the 
line of the lidi, deepened the remaining breaches, and increased 
the scouring force of the tide. 

They also, in a series of tremendous engineering works, 
diverted the Brenta, the Sile, the Piave and the most northerly 
stream of the Po, driving them through canals outside the con 
fines of the lagoon, and allowing only a trickle of the Brenta to 
continue its normal flow. The lagoon became predominantly 
salt water, greatly reducing (so the contemporary savants 
thought) the ever-present menace of malaria. The entry of silt 
with the rivers was virtually stopped: and this was opportune, 
for already half the lagoon townships were congealed in mud, 
and some had been entirely obliterated. 

Thus the lagoon is partly an artificial phenomenon; but 
although it often looks colourless and monotonous, a doleful 
mud-infested mere, it is rich in all kinds of marine life. Its in 
fusions of salt and fresh water breed organisms luxuriantly, so 
that the bottoms of boats are quickly fouled with tiny weeds and 
limpets, and the underneaths of palaces sprout water-foliage. 
The lagoon is also remarkable for its biological variety. Each 
porto governs its own small junction of rivulets, with its own 
watershed: and wherever the tides meet, flowing through their 
respective entrances, there is a recognizable bump in the floor of 

257 



The Lagoon 

the lagoon, dividing it into three distinct regions. It is also split 
into two parts, traditionally called the Dead and the Live 
Lagoon, by the limit of the tides. In all these separate sections 
the fauna and flora vary, making this a kind of Kew Gardens 
among waters; it used to be said that even the colour of the cur 
rents varied, ranging from yellow in the north by way of azure, 
red and green to purple in the extreme south. 

In the seaward part, where the tides run powerfully and the 
water is almost entirely salt, all the sea-things live and flourish, 
the mud-banks are bare and glutinous and the channels rich in 
Adriatic fish. Farther from the sea, or tucked away from its 
flow, other organisms thrive: beings of the marshes, sea- 
lavenders, grasses and tamarisks, swamp-creatures in semi- 
stagnant pools, duck and other birds of the reeds. There are 
innumerable oysters in these waters, and crustaceans of many 
and obscure varieties, from the sea-locust to the thumb-nail 
shrimp ; and sometimes a poor flying-fish, leaping in exaltation 
across the surf, enters the lagoon in error and is trapped, like a 
spent sunbeam, in some muddy recess among the fens. 

A special race of men, too, has been evolved to live in this 
place: descended partly from the pre-Venetian fishing com 
munities, and partly from Venetians who lingered in the wastes 
when the centre of national momentum had moved to the 
Rialto. They are the fittest who have survived, for this has often 
been a sick lagoon, plagued with malaria, thick with unwhole 
some vapours, periodically swept by epidemics of cholera and 
eastern disease. Like the rest of the fauna, the people vary greatly 
from part to part, according to their way of life, their past, their 
degree of sophistication, their parochial environment. Inshore 
they are marsh-people, who tend salt-pans, fish among grasses, 
and do some peripheral agriculture. Farther out they can still be 
farmers or horticulturists, if they live in the right kind of 
island; but they are more likely to be salt-water fishermen, 
either taking their big boats to sea, or hunting crabs, molluscs 
and sardines among the mud-banks of the outer lagoon. 

Their dialect varies, from island to island. Their manners 
instantly reflect their background, harsh or gentle. They even 
look different, the men of Burano (for instance) tousled and 
knobbly, the men of Chioggia traditionally Giorgionesque. The 
lagoon islands were much more independent in the days before 

258 



The Office of a Moat 

steam and motors, with their own thriving local governments, 
their own proud piazzas, their own marble columns and lions of 
St. Mark: and each retains some of its old pride still, and is dis 
tinctly annoyed if you confuse it with any neighbouring islet. 
*Burano ! the man from Murano will exclaim. It s an island of 
savages! but only two miles of shallow water separates the 
one from the other. 

The lagoon is never complacent. Not only do the tides scour 
it twice a day, the ships navigate it, the winds sweep it coldly 
and the speed-boats of the Venetian playboys scud across its 
surface in clouds of showy spray: it also needs incessant engin 
eering, to keep its bulwarks from collapsing or its channels silt 
ing up. The Magistracy of the Waters is never idle in the lagoon. 
Its surveyors, engineers and watermen are always on the watch, 
perennially patching sea-walls and replacing palisades. Its 
dredgers clank the months away in the big shipping channels, 
looming through the morning mist like aged and arthritic 
elephants. The survival of Venice depends upon two contra 
dictory precautions, forming themselves an allegory of the 
lagoon: one keeps the sea out; the other, the land. If the barrier 
of the outer islands were broken, Venice would be drowned. If 
the lagoon were silted up, her canals would be dammed with 
mud and ooze, her port would die, her drains would fester and 
stink from Trieste to Turin (it is no accident that the romantic 
fatalists, foreseeing a variety of dramatic ends for the Serenissima, 
have never had the heart to suggest this one). 

So when you hear that beating of the surf, whipped up by the 
edges of a bora, go to sleep again by all means, but remember 
that Venice still lives like a diver in his suit, dependent upon the 
man with the pump above, and pressed all about, from goggles 
to lead-weighted boots, by the jealous swirl of the waters. 



24 

THE OFFICE OF A MOAT 

The Venetians first filtered into the lagoon because it offered 
an obvious place of refuge, safe from landlubber barbarians and 

259 



The Lagoon 

demoralizing heresies. They fortified it from the start, building 
tall watch-towers, throwing defensive chains across its water 
ways, erecting high protective walls along its quays. As early 
as the sixth century the people of Padua were complaining that 
the Venetians had militarized the mouth of the Brenta, to 
prevent alien shipping entering the lagoon. Nine centuries later 
the traveller Pero Tafur vividly described the war-readiness of 
the Venetian Navy. As soon as the alarm sounded, he records, 
the first warship emerged from the gate of the Arsenal, under 
tow: and from a succession of windows its supplies were handed 
out cordage from one window, food from another, small 
arms from a third, mortars from a fourth, oars from a fifth 
until at the end of the canal the crew leapt on board, and the 
galley sailed away, fully armed and ready for action, into the 
Canale San Marco. For many centuries the lagoon served the 
Venetians admirably in the office of a moat, and it stands there 
still, in the nuclear age, as a wide watery redoubt, studded with 
antique forts and gun-sites. 

No enemy has ever succeeded in taking Venice by storm. 
The first assault upon it was made by Pepin, son of Charle 
magne, in 809; and the legend of his rebuff symbolizes the 
Venetians canny sense of self-defence. When they first came 
into this waste, established their tribunes in its various islands, 
and painfully coalesced into a single State, their original capital 
was the now-vanished island of Malamocco, half a mile off the 
reef. They were afraid of enemies from the mainland, not from 
the Adriatic, and so set up their Government as deep in the sea 
as possible. Pepin, though, in pursuance of his father s imperial 
ambitions, determined to humble the Venetians, and attacked 
the settlements from the seaward side. His forces seized the 
southern villages one by one, and finally stood before Mala 
mocco itself. The Government then abandoned its exposed head 
quarters, and withdrew across the mud-flats, through intricate 
shallow channels that only the Venetians understood, to a group 
of islands in the very centre of the lagoon, called Rivo Alto 
Rialto. 

Pepin seized Malamocco triumphantly, and prepared to cross 
the lagoon in pursuit. Only one old woman, so the story goes, 
had stayed behind in Malamocco, determined to do or die, and 
this patriotic crone was summoned to the royal presence. 

260 



The Office of a Moat 

* Which is the way to Rivo Alto? demanded Pepin, and the old 
lady knew her moment had come. Quavering was her finger as 
she pointed across the treacherous flats, where the tide swirled 
deceitfully, and the mud oozed, and the seaweed swayed in 
turbulence. Tremulous was her voice as she answered the prince. 
Sempre Jiritto! she said: and Pepin s fleet, instantly running 
aground, was ambushed by the Venetians and utterly humiliated. 

The next major enemies to enter the lagoon were the Genoese, 
the prime rivals of Venetian supremacy throughout the four 
teenth century: but they too were kept at arm s length by its 
muddy presence. At the most threatening moment of their pro 
tracted campaigns against the Venetians, in 1379, they captured 
Chioggia, the southern key to Venice, and settled down to 
starve the Serenissima. Their warships burnt a Venetian galley 
within sight of the city, watched by hundreds of awestruck 
citizens, and some of their raiders may even have crossed the 
reef and entered the lagoon proper. The Venetians were hard- 
pressed. Half their fleet, under the dashing Carlo Zeno, was 
away in distant waters. The other half was demoralized by past 
setbacks, and its commander, Vettore Pisani, was actually 
released from prison to assume his duties. Cannon were mounted 
in the belfry of St. Mark s Campanile, just in case, and the Doge 
himself volunteered to go into action, a desperate step indeed. 

Pisani thus sailed out to battle with a scratch fleet of warships, 
a ramshackle army, most of the male population of Venice in 
patriotic tumult between decks, and this hell-for-leather poten 
tate beside him on the poop. Yet in a few weeks he had so ex 
ploited the tactical advantages of the lagoon that the Genoese 
were placed critically on the defensive. They dared not station 
their ships outside the lidi, to face the buffeting of the winter sea 
and the possible return of Zeno, so they withdrew inside the 
Porto di Chioggia, the southernmost entrance to the lagoon: 
and there Pisani, swiftly deploying his vessels, promptly bottled 
them up. He closed the main Porto di Lido, to the north, with 
an iron chain, guarded by fortress guns. He closed the Porto di 
Malamocco, the central gate, by sinking two old ships, filled 
with stone. Four more blockships closed the entrance to Chiog 
gia itself, and two others blocked the main channel from the 
town towards Venice. A wall was built across the mud-flats at 
the approaches to the city, in case these successive obstacles were 

261 



The Lagoon 

overcome, and for miles around every signpost and marker 
stake was removed, making the entire lagoon a slimy trap for 
alien navigators. 

Thus the Genoese were caught. Venetian troops were landed 
near Chioggia, and the Genoese tried helplessly to get out to 
sea, even cutting a channel through the sand-bank that separated 
their ships from the Adriatic: but it was hopeless. Their supply 
routes were cut, and they were presently reduced, so their 
chroniclers say, to eating rats, mice and other unclean things . 
They were doomed already when, in a day famous in Venetian 
history, the topmasts of Zeno s hurrying squadrons appeared 
over the horizon, and the victory was clinched. As a last straw 
for the poor Genoese, a campanile in Chioggia, hit by a stray 
shell when all was almost over, collapsed in a heap of rubble and 
killed their commander, Pietro Doria. 

No other battles have been fought within the lagoon. Four 
hostile forces have, at one time or another, penetrated to the 
city of Venice, but they have never had to force their way across 
these waters. The first was a vagabond pirate commando, scum 
from Dalmatia, who decided one day in the tenth century to 
raid Venice at a moment when a mass wedding was to take 
place in the church of San Pietro di Castello. They sidled into 
the city at night, pounced upon the ceremony, kidnapped the 
brides with their handsome dowries, ran to their ships ( their 
accursed barks , the poet Rogers called them), and sailed exul 
tantly away. The infuriated Venetians, led by the men of the 
Cabinet Makers Guild, followed in furious chase : and presently, 
skilfully using their knowledge of the lagoon, close-hauled and 
black with anger, they overtook the pirates, killed them every 
one, returned with the fainting brides to Venice, married them 
hastily and lived happily ever after. 

It was eight centuries before the next enemy set foot in 
Venice, and by that time simpler citizens believed their lagoon 
to be divinely impregnable, so securely had it protected their 
city through all the switchbacks of Italian history. The mainland 
of the Veneto had long been a cockpit of European rivalries, 
and in 1796 Napoleon entered it with his heady slogans, his 
battle-stained infantry, and his volunteer legion of Italian 
liberals (some of whom, so Trevelyan tells us, had re-entered 
their native country by sliding down the Alpine slopes on their 

262 



The Office of a Moat 

stomachs, their horses glissading behind them). Venice carefully 
looked the other way by then she was the weakest State in 
Europe, besotted with hedonism. Even when it became clear that 
Napoleon was not going to spare her, and that war was inevit 
able, the emergency orders given by the Republic to her 
Proveditor General merely enjoined him to maintain intact the 
tranquillity of the State, and give ease and happiness to its sub- 
jects : 136 casinos still flourished in the city; 5,000 families, we 
are told, received company every evening. The Venetians, 
though, were no longer men of war: when the last Doge heard 
the news of his election, in 1789, he burst into tears and fainted. 

This enervated and gangrenous organism Bonaparte had 
already promised to the Austrians, under the secret agreement of 
Leoben: and presently he picked his quarrel with the Serenis- 
sima. One day in April 1797 a French frigate, Liber ateur cTltalie, 
sailed through the Porto di Lido without permission, an appal 
ling affront to Venetian privilege. Such a thing had not hap 
pened for five centuries. The fort of Sant Andrea opened fire, 
the ship was boarded and looted, the French commander was 
killed. This was Napoleon s casus belli. He refused to treat with 
the Venetian envoys sent to plead for peace, and blamed the 
Republic for a massacre of French troops that had occurred in 
Verona. The Venetians were, he said, dripping with French 
blood . I have 80,000 men and twenty gunboats ... to sarb un 
Attila per lo State Veneto. 9 

On the ist of May 1797 he declared war. The Venetians were 
too disorganized, too frightened, too leaderless, too riddled with 
doubts, too far gone to offer any resistance: and two weeks later 
forty of their own boats conveyed 3,231 French soldiers from 
the mainland to the Piazza of St. Mark lean forms , as a 
French historian has described them, shaped for vigorous action, 
grimy with powder, their hats decked only with the cockade . 
fai occupe ce matin 9 , the French general reported prosaically to 
Napoleon, la ville de Venise, avec la 5* demi-brigade de bataille 9 
et les ties et forts adjacents. 9 He was the first commander ever to 
report the capture of Venice, and as he sealed this matter-of-fact 
dispatch he ended an epoch. 

The Austrians were the next to take Venice. In the vagaries 
of their relationship with France, they had first been given the 
city, then lost it after Austerlitz, then regained it after Waterloo : 

263 



The Lagoon 

until in 1848 the Venetians themselves, rising under Daniele 
Mania, expelled them and restored the Republic. This time the 
citizens, hardened by ignominy and suffering, defended their 
lagoon with tenacity against imperial blockade. They garrisoned 
its innumerable forts, breached its newly-completed railway 
bridge, and even made some successful sorties on the mainland. 
The Austrians invested the city fiercely. They floated explosives 
over Venice on balloons, like those that were flown over Cali 
fornia by the Japanese; and when these operations proved a 
laughable fiasco, they dismounted their field-guns, to give them 
more elevation, and shelled the city heavily. Everything west of 
the Piazza was within their range. 

Battered, starving, short of ammunition, ravaged by cholera, 
without allies, Venice resisted longer than any of the other 
rebellious Italian cities, but in August 1849 Manin surrendered. 
The Austrians entered the lagoon without fighting. Their com 
mander, that indomitable old autocrat Marshal Radetzky, whose 
last illegitimate child was born in his eighty-first year, rode up 
the Grand Canal in triumphant panoply: but not a soul was 
there to greet him, scarcely a maidservant peered from the win 
dows of the palaces, and when he reached the Piazza he found it 
empty but for his own soldiers. Only one obsequious priest, so 
we are told, ran from the atrium of the Basilica and, throwing 
himself before the conqueror, fervently kissed his hand. 

The last invading force to enter Venice was British. In 1945, 
when the world war was clearly ending and the German armies 
were retreating through Italy in a demoralized rout, the par 
tisans of Venice seized the city from the last of the Germans, 
gave them a safe conduct to the mainland, shot a few of their 
own particular enemies, and awaited the arrival of the Allies, 
then storming across the Po. Two New Zealand tanks were the 
first to arrive: they raced each other down the causeway neck 
and neck, and one New Zealander reported that as his vehicles 
clattered pell-mell over a fly-over near Mestre, he looked down 
and saw the Germans racing helter-skelter in the opposite 
direction underneath. 

The New Zealanders had specific orders from their com 
mander, General Freyberg, to capture the Danieli Hotel he 
had stayed there before the war, and wanted to reserve it as a 
New Zealand officers club, even sending a special reconnais- 

264 



The Office of a Moat 

sance party to undertake the mission. They were received 
enthusiastically by the Venetians, and presently the British in 
fantry arrived too, every boat in the place was requisitioned, the 
Danieli, the Excelsior, the Luna were turned into officers clubs, 
and so many soldiers canteens were established that you can 
still see the blue and yellow NAAFI signs mouldering upon 
Venetian walls among the other graffiti of history. Three days 
later the armistice was signed, and the war in Italy was over. 

Thus the city has been spared the worst of war, and there have 
never been bazookas in the Piazza, or tommy-gun bursts across 
the Grand Canal. No bomb has ever fallen upon the Basilica of 
St. Mark. In none of the several assaults was much damage done 
to Venice. In the 1848 revolution, though several thousand 
Austrian shells fell in the city, it is said that only one house was 
completely destroyed. In the first world war, when Venice was 
an active military base, she was repeatedly bombed the bronze 
horses were removed for safety, the Basilica was heavily rein 
forced with bags full of seaweed, and night watchmen shouted 
throughout the night: Pace in aerial All quiet in the sky! In 
several churches you may see unexploded missiles hung as ex 
votes upon the walls: but among all the treasures of the city, 
only the roof of the Scalzi church, near the station, was destroyed. 
In the second world war Mestre was heavily bombed, but 
Venice never. The tower of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli was 
struck by a stray shell during the German withdrawal, and the 
Tiepolo frescoes in the Palazzo Labia were damaged when a 
German ammunition ship blew up in the harbour: but apart 
from broken windows, nothing was destroyed. Venice was, I 
am told, the very first city on both the German and the Allied 
lists of places that must not be harmed. Not everybody has wel 
comed this immunity. In 1914, when a bomb almost hit the 
Basilica, the crazy Futurist Marinetti, who wanted to pull down 
all the Italian masterpieces and begin again, flew over the city in 
an aeroplane dropping leaflets. Italians, awake ! they said. The 
enemy is attempting to destroy the monuments which it is our 
own patriotic privilege to demolish! 

The lagoon has saved Venice. She has stood aside from the 
main currents of war, and has fought her battles, like England, 
chiefly in distant places. She stands upon no vital cross-roads, 
controls no crucial bridge, overlooks no strategic position, com- 

265 



The Lagoon 

mands no damaging field of fire. You could, if you happened to 
be another Napoleon, take the whole of Italy without much 
feeling the exclusion of Venice: and the innumerable wars of 
the Italian mainland, though they have often involved Venetian 
troops, have always passed the city by. Even the ferocious Turks, 
whose armies were so near in 1471 that the fires of their carnage 
could be seen from the top of St. Mark s Campanile even those 
implacable hordes never entered the lagoon. No city on earth is 
easier to spot from the air, framed by her silver waters, and no 
city has fewer cellars to use as air-raid shelters : yet almost the 
only civilian casualties of the two world wars were the 200 
citizens who walked into canals in the black-out and were 
drowned. In the official histories of the Italian campaigns of the 
second war, Venice is scarcely mentioned as a military objective: 
and one British regimental diary, recording the hard slog up the 
peninsula, observed in reviewing the battles to come that all 
ranks were eager to get to grips with Jerry again, and looking 
forward, too, to some sightseeing in Venice . In war as in peace, 
Venice stands alone, subject to none of the usual rules and con 
ventions: like the fashionable eighteenth-century priest who, 
though courted by the greatest families of the Serenissima, chose 
to live in a rat-infested garret, and collected spiders webs as a 
hobby. 

But though nobody much cares nowadays, the lagoon is still 
a formidable military barrier. Napoleon himself apparently 
thought that if the Venetians decided to defend it, he would 
need as many men to beat them as he had at Austerlitz in the 
greatest battle of his career; but the Austrians were perhaps the 
last to survey it with a serious strategic eye. It was the main base 
for their imperial fleet, which was largely Italian-manned, and 
partly built in the old Arsenal of Venice. They made the lagoon 
a mesh-work of strong-points in 1848 there were sixty forts 
(though visiting British officers were, as usual, not greatly im 
pressed by their design). In the first war it was a naval base, an 
armoury, and the launching site for d Annunzio s dashing air 
raids against the Austrians. In the second it was a refuge for 
many a hunted partisan and prisoner-of-war, lurking in remote 
and vaporous fastnesses where the Germans never penetrated: 
and many Venetians hid there too, escaping conscription into 

266 



The Office of a Moat 

Nazi labour forces. The German Army made a short last stand, 
until blasted out by the guns of the New Zealand armour, on 
the north-eastern edge of the lagoon, and they used barges to 
withdraw some of their troops along its water-ways. Before the 
rot set in they had prepared a defence system along the line of 
the Adige river, from Chioggia in the east to Lake Garda in the 
west: and some strategists believe that this line, embedded at its 
left flank in the impassable mud-flats of the lagoon, might 
have been the toughest of all the successive barriers that delayed 
the Allied advance through Italy. 

The warlike propensities of the Venetian lagoon are still 
inescapable. If you come by train, almost the first thing you see 
is the big mainland fort of Marghera, a star-shaped earthwork 
outside Mestre, now covered in a stubble of grass and weed, like 
a downland barrow. Half-way up the causeway there stands the 
exposed gun platform beside the railway which was, for a few 
perilous weeks, the outermost Venetian stronghold in the 1848 
revolution; and near by is the odd little island called San Secondo, 
shaped like a Pacific atoll, which is now a municipal stores 
depot, but was once an important fort and magazine. To the 
south of the causeway, near the docks, you may see the minute 
Isola Tresse: this is crowned by a concrete bunker, and on its 
wall there still stands a black swastika painted, whether in 
irony or ignorance, the wrong way round. 

All about the city there stand such relics of a military past 
shuttered little islands and abandoned barracks, fine old forts 
and aircraft hangars. The distant Sant* Angelo della Polvere 
St. Angelo of the Gunpowder looks like a fairy island, crowned 
with towers, but turns out to be, when you approach it in dis 
illusionment, only an old powder factory, clamped and pad 
locked. San Lazzaretto, on the other side of the city, was once 
the quarantine station of Venice, then a military detention depot. 
In the seventeenth century, when Venice was threatened by 
Spanish ambitions, a division of Dutch soldiers, hired direct from 
Holland and brought to the lagoon in Dutch ships, was quar 
tered on this island: they got so bored that they mutinied, and 
to this day the sentries still pace the grim square ramparts of its 
barracks with an air of unutterable ennui, waiting for an enemy 
that has never, in all the 1,500 years of Venetian history, chosen 
to come this way. 

267 



The Lagoon 

From the windows of San Giacomo in Palude St. James in 
the Marshes to the north of Venice, cheerful soldiers in their 
shirt-sleeves, doing the washing-up, still grin at you as your 
boat chugs by, and a notice sternly forbids your presence within 
fifty yards of this vital outpost. Haifa mile away, on the islet of 
Madonna del Monte, stands a huge derelict ammunition build 
ing, littered with rubble but still bound about with iron cables, 
to keep it standing in case of an explosion: it is a sun-soaked but 
eerie place I once found six dead lizards lying side by side on a 
stone there, with a swarm of locusts performing their obsequies 
round about, and in the winter the dried pods of its little trees 
jingle metallically in the wind like the medals of long-dead 
corporals. Another barred and abandoned powder-island is Santo 
Spirito, away beyond Giudecca. From here Pisani s engineers 
built their protective wall to the lidi, but it later became a famous 
monastery, with pictures by Titian and Palma Vecchio, and a 
church by Sansovino. The church was destroyed when its 
monastic order was suppressed, in 1656, but as they were at that 
moment building the great new church of the Salute, the pic 
tures were opportunely taken there, and they hang still in the 
Sacristy. 

Out beside the great sea-gates, you may see the Adriatic 
defences of the lagoon. At the southern porto there stands behind 
high grass banks, still flying its flag, the fortress of La Lupa the 
She- Wolf mediaeval in masonry, eighteenth century in em 
bellishment: and near by a little stony settlement by the water, 
now inhabited by a few fisher-families, is the remains of the 
powerful Fort Caromani, itself named for a much older strong 
hold still, Ca* Romani the House of the Romans. Two big 
octagonal fortresses, rising sheer from the water, guard the cen 
tral porto of Malamocco. They are overgrown and deserted 
nowadays, and look rather like the stilt-forts that the British 
built in 1940 to protect their sea-approaches; but not long ago a 
passing fisherman, observing me raise my camera towards these 
dilapidated defences, told me gently but firmly that photography 
of military works was, as I surely ought to know, strictly for 
bidden. 

At the northern end of the lagoon, near Punta Sabbione, 
there stands Fort Treporti, a comical towering construction, all 
knobs and tessellation, that looks like a chess-board castle. Not 

268 



Navigation 

far away is the old seaplane base of Vignole, now a helicopter 
station, and the Italian Air Force still occupies the rambling slip 
ways, hangars and repair shops of the amphibians, haunted by 
d Annunzio s flamboyant shade. If you are ever silly enough to 
charter an aeroplane at the Lido airfield, you will learn (during 
your long and fruitless hours of waiting) how often the air 
space of the lagoon is monopolized by military manoeuvres. 
And four-square before the Porto di Lido, the principal gateway 
of the lagoon, glowers the magnificent castle of Sant Andrea, 
on the islet of Certosa; from its mighty ramparts they used to 
stretch the iron chain that blocked the channel to enemy ships, 
and it still stands there undefeated, the senior sentinel of Venice. 
So the old lagoon still bristles. Its forts may be, as those visit 
ing officers reported, *not up to British standards ; its great 
navies have vanished; its guns are mostly spiked; its prickles are 
blunted; the jets that whistle overhead have come here, in the 
twinkling of an eye, from airfields on the Lombardy flat-lands. 
But sometimes, as your boat potters down the Canale San 
Marco, you may hear an ear-splitting roar behind your stern; 
and suddenly there will spring from the walls of the Arsenal a 
lean grey torpedo-boat, with a noble plume of spray streaming 
from her stern, and a shattering bellow of diesels; and she will 
disappear thrillingly towards the open sea, the rumble of her 
engines echoing among the old towers and ramparts of the place, 
the fishing boats bobbing and rolling in her wash. 



25 

NAVIGATION 

The lagoon is a trap for enemies, a work-ground and thorough 
fare for friends. The Venetians first appeared in history when 
Narses the Eunuch, satrap of the Byzantine Emperors, asked 
them with flattery and circumspection to transport his troops 
adross its wastes; and they began their satisfactory career as 
middle-men by carrying cargoes across it from Aquileia to 
Ravenna. Its presence gave the Venetians the best natural port in 
Italy, spacious and sheltered. Its tides kept them healthy, its fish 

269 



The Lagoon 

fed them. Its nearer waters have always served them as a pleasure- 
park Ve will go , wrote the deposed Doge Foscari to a friend, 
after his removal from office, * we will go and amuse ourselves 
in a boat, rowing to the monasteries . 

It has always been, though, an atrocious place to navigate. 
Its tides are fierce, its storms blow up suddenly and dangerously, 
and most of it is treacherously shallow. Sometimes the bora 
sweeps devastatingly across its mud-banks in 1613 it blew 
down two of the bronze flagpoles in the Piazza. (Two of the 
valli vales, or reaches into which the fishermen have divided 
their lagoon are called the Small Vale of Above the Wind and 
the Small Vale of Below the Wind.) The lagoon is full of secret 
currents, shoals, clinging water-weeds. Over most of its ex 
panse, if you lie in the bows of your boat in the sunshine, with a 
hamper beside you and an arm around your waist, you can see 
the slithery foliage of its bottom scudding obliquely beneath 
your keel: until, rashly taking a short cut, you find yourselves 
soggily aground, your propeller churning the mud around you 
and your idylls indefinitely postponed. 

The lagoon can be an uncommonly lonely place. Its water, as 
the Venetians would say, is very wet. Its mud is horribly 
sticky. On many evenings, even in summer, a chill unfriendly 
wind blows up, making the water grey and choppy, and the 
horizons infinitely distant. Often, as you push your crippled boat 
laboriously across the flats, the mud gurgling around your legs, 
there is nothing to be seen but a solitary silent islet, a far-away 
rickety shack, the long dim line of the mainland, or the slow 
sails of the fishing-smacks which, loitering constantly in the 
waste, give these waters some of their slow sad indolence. It is 
no use shouting. There are monasteries and forts in this wide 
lagoon, fishing villages and shooting lodges, fleets of boats and 
companies of stalwart fishing people; but the empty spaces are 
so wide, the high arch of the sky is so deadening, the wind is so 
gusty, the tide so swift, that nowhere on earth could feel much 
lonelier, when you are stuck in the ooze of the Venetian lagoon. 

The Venetians have always been terrified of going aground. 
Storms, demons, pirates, monsters all figure in the folklore of 
Venetian seamanship : but low water more dreadfully than any 
of them. The St. Christophers of Venice, as often as not, are 
depicted conveying the infant Christ across the shallow hazards 

270 



Navigation 

of the lagoon, and many a sacred legend secretes a mud-bank 
among its pieties even the ship carrying the body of St. Mark, 
hastening home from Alexandria, went ashore in the middle of 
the Mediterranean, and had to be miraculously refloated. I 
should not see the sandy hour-glass run , says Salarino to 
Antonio in the very first dialogue of The Merchant of Venice, 
But I should think of shallows and of flats, And see my wealthy 
Andrew docked in sand/ 

Very early in their history, urged by these apprehensions, the 
Venetians surveyed and charted their lagoon, marking its safe 
passages with wooden poles. Today its entire expanse is criss 
crossed with these bricole, a multitude of stakes driven into the 
mud, from Chioggia in the south to the marshy morasses of the 
extreme north. Some are elaborately prepared, with tripod piles 
and lamps; at night the channels around the big mud-flat in the 
Basin of St. Mark are brilliantly illuminated with orange lamps, 
like the perimeters of a fairground. Other channels demand 
more of your waterman s instincts, for they rely upon a few 
sporadic and sometimes rickety poles, offering no very clear 
indication which side you are supposed to pass, and often con 
fused by bits of tree and bramble which fishermen have stuck in 
the mud to mark their fish-traps or demarcate some private shoal. 

If you keep very close to the bricole, you are usually safe: but 
not always, for sometimes their positioning is disconcertingly 
precise, and if you are a few inches on the wrong side splosh, 
there you are again, up to your knees in mud, and pushing from 
the stern. There are said to be 20,000 bricole in the Venetian 
lagoon. Some are precariously rotting, and look as though 
generations of water-rats have nibbled their woodwork. One or 
two have little shrines upon them, dear to the artists and poets 
of the nineteenth century ( Around her shrine no earthly blossoms 
blow, No footsteps fret the pathway to and fro 9 ). Many are used by 
lovers, anglers and bathing boys as mooring piles for their boats: 
and one of the most curious sights of the lagoon is offered by 
those gondoliers who, to while away a blazing holiday, run 
their gondolas upon a convenient mud-bank and take their 
families paddling, leaving their queer-prowed craft gasping and 
stranded upon die mud, fenced by the gaunt stockade of the 
bricole. 

Like the canals of the city, the navigational channels of the 

271 



The Lagoon 

lagoon are mostly based upon natural runnels and rivulets, some 
times dredged and deepened. There are entrance channels 
through each of the three surviving parti. There are transverse 
channels along the outer edge of the lagoon, close to the inside 
shore of the lidi. There are innumerable channels meandering 
through the shallows to the inner recesses of the lagoon, some 
times unmarked and known only to local fishermen, sometimes 
haphazardly signposted with old poles. Some such water-ways 
link Venice with the canals and rivers that lead into the Lorn- 
bar dy plain: you can sail directly from the lagoon to Treviso, 
to Padua, to Mantua and Cremona, and even up the Po and its 
affluents to Turin. Some are the delivery routes of the city, link 
ing the Rialto markets with the vegetable gardens and orchards 
of the lagoon: at the turn of the century, when there were still 
civic levies on vegetable produce, floating customs houses com 
manded each approach to Venice, and armed excise-men pa 
trolled the mud-banks at night. The greatest channel of all ushers 
the big ships through the Porto di Lido and, striding in majesty 
past St. Mark s, runs away bathetically as the Canale Ex-Vit- 
torio Emmanuele III to the workaday quays of Mestre. 

These channels have played their immemorial parts in Vene 
tian history. The broad Canale Orfano, which you will see to 
your right as your ferry-boat approaches the Lido, owes its 
name the Orphan Canal to its sanguinary past. In the first 
days of Venetian settlement, when the various lagoon colonies 
were still fighting each other, two factions squabbled so violently 
that the Canale Orfano ran red with blood (and according to 
some chroniclers, this particular dispute was the origin of the 
Nicolotti-Castellani feud). Later the bulk of poor Pepin s army 
was hacked to pieces on the shoals beside this canal, only a mile 
or two from its objectives on the Rialto islands: some Franks 
were drowned, some suffocated in the mud, some had their 
throats cut, and only the most agile managed to flounder away 
across the flats. 

In the Middle Ages the Canale Orfano became the scene of 
judicial drownings, a watery Tyburn. Criminals were not gener 
ally drowned in Venice, and an awful secrecy surrounded such 
occasions. The unhappy prisoner, languishing in his dark cell 
beneath the Doge s Palace, was paid a last visit by the duty 
monk, and a first visit by the duty executioner bountifully 

272 



Navigation 

hired by the Senate , so Coryat tells us. The terms of the sen 
tence were read to him that he should be conducted to the 
Canale Orfano, with his hands tied behind his back and weights 
tied to his body, and there drowned, and let him die*. Then at 
dead of night, bound and muffled, he was led into a barge beside 
the Bridge of Straw and softly rowed across the lagoon, past the 
sleeping San Giorgio Maggiore, to the Orphan Canal: and there, 
with a grunt and a splash, they threw him overboard. His death 
was never publicly announced. Only the State registers of 
deaths and judgements have since revealed that, for instance, 
between 1551 and 1604 there were 203 punitive drownings. The 
last criminal was tossed into the water early in the eighteenth 
century: but until the end of the Republic a grim old statute 
forbade any kind of fishing in the ominous Canale Orfano, on 
pain (obviously) of death. For myself, when I go bathing there 
to this day I sometimes still fancy ancient skeletons tickling my 
toes in the mud, and see the masked faces of the executioners 
peering at me darkly from the passing vaporetti. 

New channels are still being cut through the lagoon. One, as 
we have seen, will soon lead direct to the new oil port of Sant 
Ilario, south of Mestre, avoiding the city of Venice altogether. 
It will enter the lagoon by the Porto di Malamocco, which was 
the chief Venetian port of entry in the days of Austrian rule; 
and slashing through a web of minor channels, islets and 
swamps, it will end among the oil-tanks in what is now one of 
the queerest and loneliest reaches of the lagoon where cen 
turies ago the powerful abbey of Sant Ilario, suzerain of the 
surrounding flat-lands, maintained its private port of entry at 
the mouth of the River Lama. The new canal will be deep 
enough (as no other channel is) to take ships of 100,000 tons, and 
the passage of its super-tankers, from Kuwait or Tripoli, will 
profoundly alter the hushed and dejected character of die south 
western lagoon. 

Another canal is being dredged to the north of Venice, linking 
the city with the Marco Polo airport, and conveying new 
arrivals theatrically, in scudding high-powered motor boats, 
directly from the customs sheds to the Piazza of St. Mark, by 
way of the municipal cemetery. Like Venice herself, the lagoon 
is changing : fight though the conservatives may to ensure that 
its peculiar aureole, as one Victorian poet expressed it 

273 



The Lagoon 

. . , burns and blazes 
With richest, rosiest hue, 
Where red San Giorgio raises 
Its belfry in the blue 

struggle manfully though they may, the world is overtaking 
these solitary but dramatic places. 

I am only half-sad about it, because for me the excitement of 
the lagoon lies less in its pale or lurid silences than in its sense of 
age-old activity. One of the best places I know to watch the 
ships go by is the wide free channel of the Porto di Lido, where 
the Canale San Marco sweeps out to sea. Bulbous black buoys 
mark this tremendous water-way, and two long stone moles 
protect it, extending to the twin lighthouses that mark the ex 
tremity of Venice. On the Lido shore stands the old tower of 
San Nicolo, from which the first of all weather-cones was 
hoisted five centuries ago. To the east, a wide, calm, empty 
water-way leads to Treporti, and you can just see, far away 
among the haze, one lonely white house on a distant promon 
tory. At the junction of the waters, scowling and vigilant, the 
castle of Sant Andrea awaits another impudent frigate, or peers 
through its gun-slits towards the ruffians of Dalmatia. 

Here you switch off your engine, allow your boat to rock 
with the sea-swell, and let the traffic of the lagoon stream past 
you. A squadron of fishing boats, their sails a vivid orange, lies 
idle and becalmed upon a sand-bank, waiting for the tide or the 
shell-fish. A dredger thumps away behind you, surrounded by 
dirty lighters, like acolytes. The ferry-steamer for Treporti, 
steering clear of the big Sant Erasmo mud-bank, sweeps in a 
spacious curve around the marker buoy and swings away to 
wards the shore. Over the mole you can see the riggings and 
topsails of fishing smacks, meandering to and fro off the Lido 
sands; and sometimes a tangled crabman s boat, a riddle of nets, 
ropes and buckets, slides swiftly past you with an air of intense 
and urgent preoccupation. A dapper little speed-boat hurries 
towards some unfrequented bathing beach; a languid yacht 
tacks between the lighthouses; eight jolly men, seven portly 
women, twelve children, three dogs and a picnic basket lollop 
hilariously by in a motor boat with a cotton canopy, keeping 
close inshore and all talking at once. 

274 




PQ 




Torcello 




Pellestrina 




O 

3 

O 



.r v JK : 




s 

CD 

(H 

H 



On the Edge 

And through them all the big ships sail, as they have for a 
thousand years: the cruising liner from Yugoslavia, its loud 
speaker blaring; the elegant white tankers from the Persian 
Gulf; a submarine from Malta, spouting jets of water from the 
base of its streamlined conning-tower; a succession of limping 
old freighters, rust-streaked and beery; and sometimes, if you 
are lucky, a great Italian liner from Africa or America, proud 
and beautiful, pounding by in the misty sunshine like another 
old argosy, its passengers crowding the sun-decks and clustered 
on the forecastle, its crew bustling about the companion-ways, 
and its captain just to be seen upon his bridge, gazing grandly 
through his binoculars, as though he is awaiting a signal flag 
from St. Mark s to welcome him home from Cathay. 



26 

ON THE EDGE 

It is ninety miles around the perimeters of the lagoon, but it is 
still all Venice: tempered, watered, vulgarized, often neglected, 
but always tinged with the magic of the place *a breath of 
Venice on the wind*. Only fifty years ago most of the lagoon 
shore was untouched by progress, sparsely inhabited, scarcely 
visited by tourists from one decade to the next. The old guide 
books speak tantalizingly of unspoilt strands and virgin beaches, 
and make it sound as though a trip to the villages on the rim of 
the lagoon required a sleeping-bag and a bag of beads. 

Today Herr Baedeker would find it much more suitable for 
delicate constitutions, and could safely advise that stomach pills, 
portable wash-basins and topees will not be required. Wherever 
the car can go, modernity has followed. Of the perimeter of the 
Venetian lagoon, only the lidi, the central bulwarks against the 
Adriatic, are inaccessible by road and you may even take your 
Lancia there, if you load it on a car ferry. The other seaward 
barriers, the Littorale di Cavallino and the Lido di Sottomarina, 
are in effect protrusions of the mainland, and you can drive all 
the way along them on Cavallino, indeed, to a point within 
three miles of the Piazza itself. There are still places on the main- 

275 



The Lagoon 

land shore that are remote and unfrequented, if only because 
nobody much wants to live there, but they are disappearing 
fast. In the middle of the lagoon you can still feel uncomfortably 
isolated: on its edge you are seldom very far from a telephone, a 
parish priest or a Coca-Cola. 

The enfant terrible of the lagoon, and some would say its new 
master, is Mestre. Until the first world war it was no more than 
a castle-village, surrounded by forts and scratchy farmland. 
Today it is a hideous industrial city, straggling, unkempt, dirty, 
shapeless and nearly always (or so it seems) blurred in drizzle. 
Its docks at Porto Marghera are, in hard commercial terms, the 
new Venice. "When people speak of Venice as the oil port of 
Europe, they really mean Mestre. Its shipyards are among the 
most important in Italy, and the half-built ships on their slip 
ways loom patronizingly over the Venice causeway. Its fac 
tories employ 30,000 men, producing chemicals, aluminium, 
zinc, coke, plate-glass, paint, canned foods, instruments, and 
millions of gallons of refined oil. In Mestre the roads and rail 
ways converge upon Venice: and the place is spreading so fast 
and frowardly that before long we may expect to see its drab 
tentacles extending along half the mainland shore of the lagoon, 
from the new oil port in the south to the new airport in the 
north. Administratively, Mestre is part of Venice, and many of 
the guide books list its hotels together with those of the Serenis- 
simia. There are no sadder people on earth than those unfor 
tunates who inadvertently book rooms there, or accept some 
claptrap advice about its advantages, and are to be seen emerg 
ing from their hotel lobbies, spruced and primped for an 
evening s gaiety, into the hubbub, traffic jams, half-completed 
streets and dowdy villas of this dismal conurbation. 

This particular stretch of shore, nevertheless, has always been 
the classic point of embarkation for Venice. Nearby the remains 
of the diverted Brenta enter the lagoon, and it was at Fusina, the 
little port at its mouth, that generations of travellers boarded 
their gondolas and were slowly paddled, as in a dream, towards 
the distant pile of the city. From Fusina, by the common ferry 
which trades to Venice , Portia travelled from Belmont to her 
seat of judgement: Shakespeare called it the tranect , a word 
that has baffled generations of commentators, and may perhaps 
be a corruption of traghetto. From here, too, the heavy-laden 

276 



On the Edge 

barges used to take fresh river water to the city. In Montaigne s 
time it was also a portage: barges were lifted from the Brenta by 
a horse-powered pulley, wheeled across a spit of land, and 
lowered into the canal that crossed the lagoon to Venice. Later a 
little railway line was built to Fusina, and today the buses come 
down there from Padua to connect with the Venice ferry boats. 

It is only two or three miles from the centre of Mestre, but it 
is still suggestively calm and ruminative, like a place on the edge 
of great mysteries. Herds of sheep wander about its grassy river- 
banks, guarded by laconic shepherds in cloaks and floppy tall- 
crowned hats. There is a quaint little landing-place, with a 
stuffy cafe, and the remains of the old railway rot away beside 
the river levee. The road wanders through wide water meadows 
and ends abruptly at the edge of the lagoon; and there, sitting 
lazily upon a bollard, you will often find a grey-clad sentry 
with a rifle, gazing absently across the water. *The object which 
first catches the eye , wrote Ruskin at the climax of a magni 
ficent descriptive passage, is a sullen cloud of black smoke . . . 
which issues from the belfry of a church. It is Venice. Today, if 
you catch your first glimpse of the city from this classic fore 
shore, the first thing you will see is the big grain elevator, and 
the second is the untidy iron silhouette of the port. It may re 
mind you of Cardiff docks or Jersey City: but like the man said, 
it is Venice. 

North-east of Mestre the line of the lagoon shore curves, 
through marshy and once malarious flat-lands, past salt-pans and 
water-meadows and duck-flown swamps, to the promontory of 
Cavallino, a long sandy spit which doubles back upon itself, 
and reaches almost to Venice. It has seen some bumpy fluctua 
tions of fortune. Its towns have risen, fallen, risen again. Its pine 
forests were destroyed, and are now growing again. It was once 
intersected by two important gateways into the Adriatic: one 
where the Piave entered the sea, now a mere creek, the other the 
Porto di Treporti, now closed altogether. For centuries Caval 
lino remained neglected, inhabited only by poor farmers and 
fishermen, visited only by a few adventurous sportsmen: and 
there are still sections of this narrow shore that remain infinitely 
bucolic, rich in birds and earthy vegetables, with frogs croaking 
in miasmic ditches and pleasant country inns. The ancient village 
of Treporti still gazes in whitewashed simplicity across the 

277 



The Lagoon 

marshes, and some of the creeks of the place are so like the 
Cherwell that you almost expect to encounter punt-loads of 
undergraduates, with parasols and gramophones, or hear the 
distant stroke of Tom. 

Progress, though, has recently struck Cavallino with a jazzy 
vengeance: for not long ago the speculators, eyeing this long 
line of sandy beaches, built there the brand-new town of lesolo. 
Its sands are immensely long and exquisitely fine, flecked with 
grass and scented with pine-cones. Its hundreds of new buildings 
are instantly reminiscent of Tel Aviv. It has a race-course, two 
roller-skating rinks, five open air cinemas, and a psammato- 
therapic establishment (if you know what that is). It is a big, 
booming, rip-roaring, highly successful holiday resort, one of 
the most popular on the Adriatic, and you may see its gaudy 
posters beckoning you to the lagoon everywhere from Milan to 
Vienna. Gradations of activity ripple away from it into nearly 
every part of Cavallino. There are petrol stations, and garages, 
and excellent bus services. Bulldozers rumble and rip the days 
away, if you penetrate to the very tip of the promontory, Punta 
Sabbione, where you may look across the water to the half- 
hidden pinnacles of Venice, a notice in German will tell you 
where to park your bicycle, a fizzy drink is awaiting you in its 
little red ice-box, and presently the car ferry will arrive impa 
tiently from the Lido to ship you away to the Film Festival. If 
you want a taste of the old Cavallino, a sniff of its dank frag 
rances, a stroll along its empty sand-dunes, you must make 
haste : it cannot last much longer. 

There is a resort, too, at the other extremity of the lagoon, 
where the multi-coloured sunshades stand in mathematical pat 
terns on the sands of Sottomarina, and the young bloods ride 
their motor scooters helter-skelter along the foreshore. The 
guardian of the southern lagoon, though, and the traditional key 
to Venice, is still a place of horny and homely instincts. There 
is a stumpy winged lion on a pillar at Chioggia which has long 
been a joke among the Venetians they like to call it the Cat of 
St. Mark: and a streak of pathos, an echo of ridicule, seems to 
infuse the life of this ancient fishing town, which still feels pal 
sied, scabrous and tumble-down, and sunk in morbid supersti 
tion. 

A rabble of touts, car park men, beggar boys and assorted 

278 



On the Edge 

obsequious attendants greet you as you step upon the quayside 
at Chioggia, or open the door of your car: and the wide central 
street of the place always seems to be either totally deserted, or 
thick with fustian youths and flouncy groups of girls. Chioggia 
is a place of stubborn, sullen character. Its people have a cast of 
feature all their own, broad-nosed and big-eyed, and their in 
comprehensible dialect is said to be the language of the early 
Venetian settlers, with Greek overtones. Their town is rigidly 
symmetrical, without the endearing higgledy-piggledy intrica 
cies of Venice. Two unwavering causeways connect it with the 
neighbouring mainland, and it consists of one main street and 
three canals, all running in parallel, with nine bridges in 
rectangular intersection. 

For all its sense of degeneracy, it is the greatest fishing port in 
Italy, its fleets ranging the whole Adriatic, and its catch travel 
ling each day in refrigerated trucks as far as Milan, Rome and 
Innsbruck. Its narrow canals are crammed and chock-a-block 
with shipping, thickets of masts and sails, packed so tightly hull 
to hull that you can often walk from one quay to another, and 
getting a boat out must be at least as difficult as putting one in a 
bottle. The wharfs and alley-ways of Chioggia are always 
crowded with fishermen s wives, wearing black shawls and 
faded flowered pinafores, sitting at trestle tables, chattering 
raucously, and doing obviously traditional things with needles, 
pieces of wood, nets and pestles. The musty churches of Chiog 
gia are hung with the votive offerings of fishermen crude and 
touching storm scenes, with half-swamped boats agonizingly in 
the foreground, and benignant helpful Madonnas leaning 
elaborately out of the clouds. 

Chioggia lives, dreams, talks, and eats fish. Its streets are lit 
tered with fish scales. Its fish market is startlingly polychro 
matic. Its principal restaurant offers an incomparable variety of 
fish-foods. (A surprising number of tourists come to Chioggia 
nowadays, and a Swiss visitor to the town once told me, munch 
ing a particularly succulent polypus, that he was not even 
bothering to go on to Venice.) At the hotel boys will come to 
your breakfast table selling you sponges fresh from the sea-bed, 
and from your window you may watch the sturdy snub-nosed 
fishing-boats streaming away to work. Chioggia faces the 
Adriatic, where the big fish swim, and has its back to the 

279 



The Lagoon 

lagoon: and though it is often a disappointment to visitors, I 
have grown to like the place and its rude people, and feel there 
is something deep-sea and salt-swept to its manners (even the 
touts on the quayside are a genial kind of riff-raff, once you have 
tipped them, or bought one of their desiccated sea-horses). Its 
reserve is really less surly than phlegmatic, and its people have a 
local reputation for positively English stolidity. Help! I m 
drowning P says one Chioggian in a beloved Venetian anecdote. 
Hang on a minute/ says the other, I m just lighting my pipe/ 
In the lagoon one day I gave a tow to a boat-load of tattered 
Chioggian sardine-fishers, and I remember the encounter with 
a midsummer pleasure : for when they left me in the approaches 
to Chioggia, they waved good-bye with such dazzling smiles 
and such indolent, graceful, airy gestures that I felt as though a 
crew of Tritons were slipping the tow. 

Such are the towns of the lagoon shore, from the blatant 
Mestre to the decadent Chioggia. For the rest, the perimeter is 
flat, monotonous and often dreary; and to be honest, though 
there are some interesting places upon it, and some haunting 
relics of old glories, it is astonishing to me how so drab a frame 
can contain so glittering a masterpiece: for wherever you stand 
upon this coast, whether the juke-boxes are screaming beside 
you at lesolo, or the fisher-children intoning their shrill cate 
chism in the cathedral at Chioggia, the trolley-buses spitting 
sparks at Mestre, the oil tanks stinking at Porto Marghera, the 
flocks of sheep and donkeys trailing absent-mindedly towards 
Fusina wherever you are, you are never more- than ten miles 
from Venice herself. 

27 

ISLAND TOWNS 

But it is not always Venice that you first see from the main 
land, for the old Venetians built many island towns before they 
moved to the Rialto archipelago. There is a hamlet called 
Altino, east of Mestre, that is the site of the Roman Altinum. 
It has a little museum beside its church, and a vague air of lost 
distinction. If you walk from this village across the Trieste road, 

280 



Island Towns 

to the marshy edge of the lagoon, you will see across the fens 
and puddles (part sea, part land, part salt-bog) a solitary tall 
campanile. You cannot quite make out what lies around it, for 
the light of the lagoon is delusive, and is, sometimes crystal clear, 
but sometimes veiled in shimmer: all you can see among that 
muddle of marshland is the single red-brick tower, a talisman in 
the waste. It looks very old, and very proud, and very lonely, 
and abandoned. It is the campanile of Torcello. 

When the frightened ancients left the mainland, they had not 
very far to go though in those days the lagoon seems to have 
been, if dryer, rather wider than it is now. In the course of their 
successive emigrations, spread over many decades, some went 
to the Adriatic shore, but many stayed within a few miles of the 
mainland, within sight of their enemies. In all twelve major 
settlements were established, from Clugies Major (Chioggia) in 
the south to Grado, which lies in the next lagoon to the north, 
and has long since lost all connection with Venice. The people of 
Altinum, a proud and prosperous city, walked to the edge of the 
lagoon, as we have done, and chose the island that is now Tor- 
cello; or, in another version of events, they were divinely 
ordered to climb the city watch-tower, and from its eminence, 
seeing a vision of boats, ships and islands, deduced that they 
were intended to move into that corner of the lagoon. They 
took everything they could with them, even to building stone, 
and around Torcello they built five townships, each named 
pathetically after a gateway of their lost city. This became the 
richest and most advanced of the lagoon colonies, in the days 
when the islets of Rivo Alto were still rude fishing hamlets, 
Mother and daughter, cries Ruskin from the top of Torcello 
campanile, *y ou behold them both in their widowhood Tor- 
cello and Venice/ 

The weeds of Torcello are much the more poignant. The city 
flourished and grew for some centuries, and by the 15005 is said 
to have had 20,000 inhabitants, a score of splendid churches, 
paved streets and many bridges. Torcello contributed three com 
pletely equipped galleys to the Chioggia wars, and sent 100 
bowmen for service in the fifteenth-century Dalmatian cam 
paigns. The two pious merchants who stole the body of St. 
Mark from the Egyptians were both citizens of Torcello. Tor- 
cello had her own gateway to the sea, through Cavallino, and 

281 



The Lagoon 

was a flourishing mart and shipping centre in her own right, 
even after the move from Malamocco to Rialto. In the oldest 
woodcuts and maps of Venice she usually appears formidably in 
the background, a mound of turrets and towers in the water. In 
the twelfth century one commentator wrote respectfully of the 
* Magnum Emporium Torcellanomm . 

She then entered a disastrous decline. Her canals were clogged 
up with silt from the rivers, not yet diverted from the lagoon, 
and her people were decimated by malaria and pestilent fevers. 
Her trade was killed at last by the rising energy of the Rialto 
islands, better placed in the centre of the lagoon, near the mouth 
of the Brenta. Torcello fell into lethargy and despondence. Her 
most vigorous citizens moved to Venice, her merchant houses 
folded and were forgotten. Presently the island was so deserted 
and disused that the Venetian builders, when they were short of 
materials, used to come to Torcello and load the remains of 
palaces into their barges, scrabbling among the rubble for the 
right size of staircase or a suitably sculptured cornice. Through 
the centuries poor Torcello rotted, crumbling and subsiding and 
declining into marshland again. When Napoleon overthrew the 
Republic she proclaimed herself, in a moment of frantic virility, 
an autonomous State: but by the middle of the nineteenth cen 
tury a visit to Torcello was, for every romantic visitor, a positive 
ecstasy of melancholia. 

Today about a hundred people live there: but Torcello is that 
fortunate phenomenon, a ghost with a private income, like the 
dead mining towns of the American West, or even Pompeii. It 
is still an island of exquisite nostalgia. A sad stone Madonna 
greets you when you land there, behind a tangle of old barbed 
wire, and a narrow muddy canal leads you through green fields 
to the decayed Piazza, once the centre of city life, now no more 
than a village green. Nowhere in the lagoon can you feel the 
meaning of Venice more pungently, for this place has an ines 
capable air of hunted determination, and it is all too easy, as you 
gaze across its empty water-ways, to imagine the fires of terrible 
enemies burning on the mainland shore, or hear the frightened 
Te Deums of exiles. 

The island is green, and is planted with fields of artichokes 
and scrubby orchards. Small farmhouses stand here and there, 
with boat-houses made of thatched wattle, and skinny barking 

282 



Island Towns 

dogs. A wide sluggish canal, more like a great river than a creek, 
separates Torcello from the patchy mud-islands that run away 
to the mainland: on this listless channel I once saw a tall white 
yacht that had sailed from Norway, and was slipping away to 
Venice in the first dim light of dawn, like a spirit-ship among the 
marshes. The city of Torcello has utterly vanished: but the little 
lanes of the place, last vestiges of the Fondamenta Bobizo, the 
Campo San Giovanni, the Fondamenta dei Borgogni, and many 
another lost thoroughfare all these dusty small paths lead, as 
if by habit, towards the Piazza. It is only a little grassy square, 
but it still has a suggestion of pomposity, passed down from 
the days when the Tribune met there, and the patrician palaces 
stood all about. It stands beside a canal, and around it are grouped 
a trattoria, a little museum in a Gothic palace, two or three 
cottages, the octagonal Byzantine church of Santa Fosca, and 
the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which a learned man once 
described as the most moving church in Christendom. 

Certainly it is a building of symbolic significance, for at this 
spot, with the founding of Venice, the tides of Rome and 
Byzantium met. Torcello marks a watershed. To the west there 
extends the ribbed and vaulted architecture we call Gothic 
Rome, Chartres, Cambridge and the monasteries of Ireland. To 
the east stand the domes: Mount Athos, Istanbul, the bulbous 
churches of Russia and the noble mosques of Cairo, Samarkand, 
Isfahan and India. On one side of Torcello are the Houses of 
Parliament, on the other the Taj Mahal. 

It is a spiritual watershed, too. At Torcello the theologies 
overlap, and the rival ideals of Christianity met here, half-way 
between the old Rome and the New. The cathedral of Torcello 
is part Byzantine, part Gothic, partly eastern, partly western. It 
was built badly, by scared men in a hurry some say in a panic, 
because they thought that the end of the world would occur in 
the year 1000. It is simple and sophisticated at the same time, 
bold and tremulous too. Its campanile is grandly defiant (and 
was grander still, before lightning lopped off its top in 1640); 
but enormous stone shutters, swinging on stone pegs, protect its 
windows from the furies of elements and enemies. Tall and 
aloof it stands there, with nothing warm or welcoming to its 
spirit, and it still feels almost makeshift, barn-like, as if it is 
uncompleted, or only temporary. 

283 



The Lagoon 

At one end of the nave is a vast mosaic, covering the entire 
west wall, and illustrating in profuse and often grotesque detail 
the Crucifixion, the Resurrection of the Dead and the imminent 
Day of Judgement an illustrated manual of dogma, from St. 
Michael conscientiously weighing the souls, like an apothecary, 
to the poor damned sinners below, already writhing in the blasts 
of hell. At the other end of the church, above the stalls of the 
rounded apse, there stands something infinitely more magni 
ficent: for there against a dim gold background, tall, slender and 
terribly sad, is the Teotoca Madonna. There are tears on her 
mosaic cheeks, and she gazes down the church with an expres 
sion of timeless reproach, cherishing the Child in her arms as 
though she has foreseen all the years that are to come, and holds 
each one of us responsible. This is the noblest memorial of the 
lagoon. Greek craftsmen made it, so we are told: and there are 
some who think that the Venetians, through all their epochs of 
splendour and success, never created anything quite so beautiful. 

Beneath that sad and seer-like scrutiny, a host of tourists mills 
about the church: popping into Santa Fosca if they have a 
moment to spare; buying postcards from the women who have 
set up their stalls on the grass outside, like village ladies at a fete; 
posing for photographs in the great stone chair, called obscurely 
the Throne of Attila, that stands in the middle of the Piazza 
(even the soul-struck Victorians, on their shaky progressions 
through the remains, allowed themselves this moment of tourist 
levity, and many a faded snapshot shows them in their flowered 
hats and mutton-chop sleeves, posing as to the manner born in 
this imperial seat). 

Some of these people, but not many, have come on the 
regular ferry service from Venice, and are going to have a picnic 
beside a muddy rivulet somewhere behind the cathedral, while 
their children catch crabs and prawns among the pools and their 
wine grows steadily hotter in the sun. Most of them, though, 
have come to Torcello primarily for lunch at the trattoria: for 
this simple-looking inn, with its homely list of prices outside, 
its rustic tables beside the door, its complement of picturesque 
pedlars this unpretentious hostelry is one of the most famous 
restaurants in Italy, where you can eat splendidly, drink from 
tall frosted glasses, and bask the afternoon away among flower 
gardens in the shadow of the campanile. 

284 



Island Towns 

Harry s Bar owns and runs this inn, and provides comfortable 
motor boats to take you there, and spares you half an hour or so 
before lunch to look at the cathedral: and it has all the preten 
sions of its celebrated progenitor (mock-modesty, mementoes of 
the great, fancy cocktails) and all the considerable attractions 
(admirable food, excellent service, and a certain simplicity of 
spirit that is not all spurious). The startling resurrection of the 
trattoria, which has burgeoned since the war, has revolutionized 
life in Torcello for the few remaining indigenes. Some may tell 
you, sotto voce, that the presence of Harry s Bar has prevented 
the building of a simpler trattoria of their own, where no blue- 
haired Americans would tinkle their bangles at the bar, and you 
could eat an honest polenta without blushing. Others admit that 
a side-stream of affluence has reached them from the restaurant, 
greatly improving the trade in dried sea-anemones and orna 
mental weeds. Nobody can deny that it has brought a new 
animation to their derelict little island, and there are not many 
such minuscule communities that can boast the patronage both 
of a Picasso and a Winston Churchill. 

I cannot myself, without hypocrisy, resent the success of 
Locanda Cipriani. I have eaten many a delicious dish there, and 
have enjoyed my ham and eggs among the sighing of the 
laurels, the creaking of old timbers, the splashing of small ducks 
and amphibious dogs, and the early-morning chatter of the 
island women, washing their smalls upon the quay (for though 
the trattoria plumbing is luxurious, the rest of Torcello has no 
running water). And by a swift adjustment of the imagination, 
I find it easy still, when I stand upon the mainland shore, and 
see that distant campanile in the mud, to fancy Torcello as 
deserted, desolate and abandoned as she used to be, when the wind 
blew through empty ruins, and only a dim rustic lamp burnt in 
the bar-room of the inn. I dismiss the gin-fizzes and the filet 
mignon from my mind: and I think of the haunted water-ways 
of the island, that silent white ship among the marshes, the great 
stone shutters of the cathedral, the soft rustle of trees in the 
night, and the lanky image of the Teotoca Madonna, tear- 
stained and accusing, which a child once gravely described to 
me as a thin young lady, holding God . 

Many other islands of the lagoon have had their eras of urban 

285 



The Lagoon 

glory, before fading, like Torcello, into bleached obscurity, for 
the life of a lagoon town is beset with inconstancy. It is always 
rising or waning, sinking or abruptly reviving: either being 
slowly sucked into the subsoil, or converted at great expense 
into a little Coney Island. Two islands only have survived as 
living townships from times immemorial, and both lie in the 
melancholy expanse of the northern lagoon, on the water-route 
between Torcello and Venice. 

Burano you will see first, and remember longest, as a sheer 
splash of colour. A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding 
dankness. A mile or two away is the solemn tower of Torcello; 
to the east a small island is clad in cypress trees; to the north the 
marshes trail away in desolation. It is a muted scene, slate-grey, 
pale blue and muddy green: but in the middle of it there bursts 
a sudden splurge of rather childish colour, its reflections spilling 
into the water, and staining these lugubrious channels like an 
overturned paint-pot. This is the island town of Burano. Its 
campanile leans at a comical angle, and it is packed tightly with 
hundreds of bright little houses, like a vivid adobe village in a 
dismal desert: red and blue houses, yellow and orange and 
blazing white, a jumble of primary colours shining in the 
mud. 

It lives by fishing and by lace-making, an old Venetian craft 
which was revived in the nineteenth century. In its hey-day 
Venetian lace was the best in the world, sometimes so delicate 
that a collar ordered for Louis XIV was made of white human 
hair, no spun thread being fine enough for the design. Later the 
industry languished so disastrously that when they came to 
resuscitate it, only one very old lady survived who knew how 
to make Venetian point: they muffled her in woollies, stuffed 
her with pills, and gently filched her secrets before she died. 

The lace industry is now conducted with an air of profound 
charitable purpose, but at a pleasant profit for its sponsors. 
There is a school of lace-making near the church, where tourists 
are more than welcome, and may even be allowed, if they press 
hard enough, to make some trifling purchase; and every Burano 
cottage doorway has its demure lace-maker, stitching away in 
the sunshine, eyes screwed up and fingers flickering (if the tour 
ist season is bad, she may have abandoned lace, and be devoting 
her talents to the production of coarse net curtains). Only a hint 

286 



Island Towns 

of tragedy sours the spectacle: for there is no occupation more 
damaging to the eye-sight, except perhaps writing fugues by 
candle-light. 

While the women stitch, the men go fishing, as in an allegory, 
or an opera. Wild-eyed fishermen stalk the streets of Burano, 
carrying cork floats and enormous shoes, and there are nets 
hanging up to dry on the wall of the church. The fishermen sail 
their boats to the very doors of their houses, to be greeted with 
soups and fond embraces: and this suggestion of ideal domesti 
city, the quintessential femininity of the women, the shaggy 
masculinity of the men, the gaudy little houses, the soups and 
the nets and the flashing needles all this makes Burano feel like 
one protracted amateur theatrical. Until recently the island was 
very poor indeed, and you will still find many Hammers and 
Sickles upon its walls, until the tidy housewives wash them off: 
but the place does not seem real enough to be hungry. It is an 
island of absurd diminutives: tiny canals, toy-like homes, minia 
ture bridges, infinitesimal stitches. Nothing very much has ever 
happened in Burano (though there can scarcely be a town on 
earth that has more memorial plaques to the square mile) and 
life there feels flaky and insubstantial. The lace-makers bend 
over their frames, the fishermen paddle out to the mud-banks, 
the tourists take a quick look round on their way to Torcello, 
and the hours pass like the first act of an obvious play, or a 
rousing opera chorus. 

Water surrounds it, though, and it lies embedded like a 
trinket in the lagoon. Its canals are silted and blocked with mud, 
making it extremely difficult to sail a boat into the town 
Scavate Canale! says a slogan painted angrily on one wall. The 
drainage of Burano is the filthiest and smelliest in the lagoon, 
pouring visibly into the shallow canals around you, and its 
streets are thick with muck. It looks gay and operatic in sum 
mer, but in winter its colours wilt before the grey gust of the 
wind, and its old women huddle about in their long black 
shawls, like undernourished eagles. 

I once turned into Burano as a refuge, driven back from 
Venice by a rising storm, and deposited my crew of five hilarious 
and ill-disciplined children upon a quayside. They were soaked 
to the skin, splashed with mud and very cold, and they ran 
about the place in a frenzy of excitement, burbling inexplicable 

287 



The Lagoon 

English slang. Observing this minor emergency, the Buranese 
threw off their pose of fancy dress and demonstrated how deep 
were their island instincts, for all their manner of stage-struck 
flippancy. In a trice those children were silenced and muffled in 
the back rooms of cottages, wrapped in towels; in a moment 
there emerged from unknown kitchens bowls of an aromatic 
soup; in five minutes a crowd of skilled bystanders had stripped 
my boat of its gear and stacked it away neatly in cubby-holes 
and sheds; in half an hour our night s programme was arranged 
for us; and through it all two or three old ladies in black, 
crouched on stools beside their doors, continued blandly with 
their needle-work, clickety-click, clickety-click, as though they 
were waiting for the water-tumbrils. 



Very different is the spirit of Murano, the most curmudgeonly 
of the Venetian communities, where it always feels like early- 
closing day. Once upon a time this big island, only a mile from 
the Fondamenta Nuove in Venice, was the gentlemen s play 
ground of Venice, a kind of private Vauxhall, where the aristo 
crats of the time, lapped in everything exquisite, strolled be 
neath their vines and fruit trees, discussing poetry and philo 
sophical conceptions, and conducting discreet but delicious 
amours. Successive English Ambassadors had sumptuous apart 
ments on Murano, and by all accounts made excellent use of 
them. 

The island then became the glass foundry of Venice, in the 
days when the Venetians held a virtual monopoly of the craft, 
and were the only people in Europe who knew how to make a 
mirror. So many disastrous fires had ravaged Venice that in the 
thirteenth century all the furnaces were compulsorily removed 
to Murano, which became the principal glass manufactory of 
the western world, with a population in the sixteenth century of 
more than 30,000. In envious foreign eyes Murano was imbued 
with almost mystical technical advantages. It was true that 
particular qualities of the local sand, and deposits of marine 
vegetation in the lagoon, made it a convenient place for glass- 
making; but many visitors thought, like the sixteenth-century 
James Ho well, that the superiority of Venetian glass was due to 
the quality of the circumambient Air that hangs o er the 

288 



Island Towns 

place*. So beneficent was this air, so it was said, that the best 
Venetian tumblers would break instantly into fragments if the 
merest drop of poison were poured into them. 

In fact Venice owed her supremacy to the ingenuity of her 
artisans, the knowledges she filched from the East, and the strict 
protectionist policies of the State. Like the steel-makers of 
Stalin s Russia, the glass-men of Murano became pampered 
wards of Government. Nothing was too good for them, so long 
as they worked. They even had their own nobility, and you may 
see its Golden Register in the Museum of Glass, among a wide 
variety of Murano products, and portraits of eminent glass- 
makers. All kinds of civic privileges were granted to Murano. 
The island coined its own money, and the ubiquitous spies of the 
Republic were forbidden to set foot there, so important to the 
national economy were its crafts and secrets. (But if a glass- 
maker took his knowledge out of Murano, and set himself up 
in business elsewhere in the world,, inexorable and pitiless were 
the agents of State sent to find him out, wherever he was, and 
kill him.) 

Glass is still the raison d etre of Murano, its pleasure-gardens 
having long ago been buried beneath brick and paving-stones. 
The glass industry, like the lace industry, withered with the 
Republic, but was revived in the nineteenth century and now 
dominates the island. A handful of imposing patrician palaces 
remains, and Murano s own Grand Canal has a grandeur still 
not unworthy of its great progenitor. There is an elegant mouldy 
Piazza, and one excellent trattoria, and two great churches sur 
vive a third, at the western end of the Grand Canal, has been 
turned into a tenement block, its high chancel stuffed with 
layers of ramshackle dwelling-places, a grubby line of washing 
strung from the remains of its porch. For the rest, Murano is a 
clutter of small glass factories, rambling, messy, unco-ordinated 
places, built of red brick or dingy stonework, with tall blackened 
chimneys and wooden landing-stages. All along the canals these 
slipshod establishments stand, and scarcely a tourist comes to 
Murano without visiting one (though you can watch the pro 
cesses much more comfortably, if not caught unawares by tout 
or hall porter, within a few hundred yards of St. Mark s). 

The important thing to know about the Murano glass-makers 
is that almost everything they make is, at least to my taste, per- 

289 



The Lagoon 

fectly hideous. This has always been so. Only one nineteenth- 
century designer, in all the hundreds whose work is displayed in 
the museum, seems to me to have evolved any elegance of line. 
When the Emperor Frederick III passed through Venice, on the 
occasion when he rode his horse up the Campanile of St. Mark s, 
he was given an elaborate service of Murano glass: but he took 
such an instant dislike to the pieces, so the story goes, that he 
tipped off his court jester, in the course of his buffooneries, to 
bump into the table on which they were displayed, shattering 
them into a thousand merciful fragments. The Venetians still 
profess to find Murano glass lovely, but sophisticates in the in 
dustry, if you manage to crack their shell of salesmanship, will 
admit that bilious yellow is not their favourite colour, and 
agree that one or two of the chandeliers might with advantage 
be a little more chaste. 

All this is a pity, for the making of glass is an activity of un 
failing fascination, and there is still a fine fiery mystery to what 
Howell called the Furnaces and Calcinations, the Transubstan- 
tiations, the Liquefactions that are incident to this Art*. Inside 
the drab workshops of Murano the Transubstantiations still 
occur, every working day of the year. Here stands the master 
glass-blower beside has furnace, grand and self-assured, with a 
couple of respectful apprentices to hand him his implements, 
and his long pipe in his hand like a wand. With a flourish he 
raises it to his lips, and with a gentle blow produces a small round 
bubble of glass. A twist, a chip, another delicate breath, and 
there appears the embryo of an ornament. A twiddle of the pipe 
follows, a slice with an iron rod, a dollop of molten glass, a 
swift plunge into the fire, a gulp or two, a flourish in the air, a 
sudden snap of iron shears and abruptly the blower lays down 
his work with a gesture of artistic exhaustion, as Praxiteles might 
rest his trowel, leaving the apprentice boys around him silent 
with respect, and the tourists, sweating in the heat, clustered 
awestruck about a huge glass harlequin, beady-eyed and multi 
coloured, whose long spindly legs, swollen stomach, drunken 
grin and dissipated attitude breathe a spirit of unsurpassable 
vulgarity. 

Upstairs the products of the factory are laid out horribly for 
your inspection, as in some nightmare treasure cave: feathery 
candlesticks, violent vases, tumblers of awful ostentation, de- 

290 



Island Towns 

graded glass animals, coarse images of clowns and revellers. 
Beside the door stands a pile of crates, carefully pointed in your 
direction, and stamped with improbable addresses: Messrs. 
John Jones, Piccadilly/ Alphonse Freres, Place de la Concorde/ 
or Elmer B. Hoover and Company Inc., Brooklyn Bridge, 
U.S.A. we send our beautiful traditional wares , remarks the 
guide educationally, to all parts of the civilized world, travellers 
cheques accepted/ Dazed are the faces of the more sensitive 
tourists, as they shamble through these blinding arcades: and 
sometimes you will hear the man from the glass factory shouting 
through the window to a pair of husbands who have evaded the 
tour, and are sitting comfortably on the quay outside. Gentle 
men! Gentlemen! he calls reprovingly. Sirs! Your charming 
ladies are awaiting you in the Vestibule! All the prices are 
marked! 

The people of Murano are not prepossessing. They scowl out 
side their pubs on Sundays. They look shabby and surly, and 
have none of the gentle courtesy of the city Venetian. Long 
years of poverty and tourism have soured them bowed down , 
so Ruslon described a Murano church congregation, partly in 
feebleness, partly in a fearful devotion, with their grey clothes 
cast far over their faces, ghastly and settled into a gloomy animal 
misery . The fringes of their island trail away into rubbish 
dumps and cess-pools, and only one great monument remains to 
take away the taste of it. The cathedral of San Donato stands 
upon a crooked canal, behind a string of glass factories. Its 
splendid red-brick colonnaded apse overlooks a wide piazza, 
and it is a structure of great presence: broader in the beam than 
the Gothic friars churches of Venice, and therefore somehow 
more queenly less like a great commander than an influential 
consort, in a fox fur and a toque. 

This great church has had a chequered history, for its suprem 
acy on the island was long challenged by the now-vanished 
church of Santo Stefano. The two foundations were rivals in the 
possession of sacred relics. First one acquired a kneebone or a 
hair, then the other, each producing more marvellous sanctities, 
until the cathedral was able to announce one glorious day that it 
had been given the body of St. Donato himself, Bishop of 
Euboea, which had been brought home in triumph by Venetian 
crusaders. This eminent prelate had killed a dragon in Cepha- 

291 



The Lagoon 

Ionia by spitting at it, and his body was received in reverent 
triumph and placed in a marble sarcophagus. The clergy of Santo 
Stefano were discountenanced: but they fought back strongly 
down the decades, and nearly 200 years later they made a brave 
last bid for the hegemony. On the I4th April 1374 the abbot of 
Santo Stefano announced that he had discovered in the vaults of 
the church not one sacred limb, nor even one unhappy martyr, 
but nothing less than a cache of 200 holy corpses which, being 
of infantile form and stature , were soon identified by unim 
peachable scholars as the Innocents murdered by King Herod. 
It was a dramatic coup, but unavailing. San Donato was un 
abashed, and has remained the undisputed cathedral of Murano 
ever since. It is one of the great churches of Venice, and the 
principal reason for visiting this froward island today. It has a 
wonderfully entertaining mosaic floor, a series of creepy faceless 
images beside the main door, and a mosaic of the Madonna, 
high in the apse, that is less accusatory, but hardly less breath 
taking than the Teotoca at Torcello. It has even more. When 
the Doge Domenico Michiele returned from the East with the 
corpse of Bishop Donato, he presented two separate containers 
to the abbot of the church: and if you go to the east end of the 
building, behind the high altar, and raise your eyes to the wall 
above you, there you will see, neatly stacked, like antlers, the 
bones of the dragon that Donato slew, in the dim sunshine years 
of long ago, when saints and martyrs frequented the islands of 
the lagoon, and pious spittle could still work miracles. 



28 

HOLY WATERS 

In those days these were holy waters, speckled with monas 
teries, and almost every islet had its devout but often comfort 
able community. Many an old print depicts now desolate 
islands of the lagoon in their days of consequence, with classical 
porticoes and shady palms, and monks in nonchalant worldly 
attitudes upon their water-steps. The convents of the Venetian 
lagoon were famous throughout Christendom, and possessed 

292 



Holy Waters 

great treasuries of art and religion. In the later days of the 
Republic they were often places of gaiety, too, where fashion 
able society nuns received visitors in an atmosphere of gossip, 
frivolity, flirtation and even downright salacity. When Charles 
de Brosses visited Venice in the 17305 three convents were cat 
tily disputing the right to supply a mistress for the new Papal 
Nuncio. This is the title assumed by one Venetian aristocrat, 
when she humbly took the veil: Sua Eccellenza Abbadessa 
reverendissima donna Maria Luigia principessa Rezzonico. 9 

Life, nevertheless, was not always easy for the monasteries. 
They were often closed, when Venice s relations with the 
Papacy demanded it, and often revived, and sometimes trans 
ferred from one brotherhood to another, so that by the time 
Napoleon suppressed the orders most of them had changed 
hands several times, and some had already fallen into disuse. 
Their works of art were neglected or dispersed. "When the 
monastery of San Cristoforo was closed (its island now forms 
part of San Michele) its pictures and sculptures disappeared all 
over the world, and the only work left in Italy is a painting by 
Basaiti that hangs in the church of San Pietro in Murano. The 
hey-day of the island monasteries was long past, when the new 
Attila scourged Venice; and today only two survive. 



Beside the channel to the Lido, within sight of St. Mark s, 
lies San Lazzaro, a small, comfortable, well-kept, rather subur 
ban sort of island, with groves of cypresses, a neat little cam 
panile, arbours, terraces and waterside gardens just the place, 
you might think, for a languorous but not very sinful dalliance. 
This is the home of the Mechitar Fathers, members of an in 
dependent Armenian order, observing the eastern rites of the 
Roman Catholic Church. The Mechitarists, with their founder 
Mechitar ( The Comforter ), were expelled from their monastery 
in Modone when the Turks overran the Morea in 1715. They 
were granted asylum in Venice, and given the deserted island of 
San Lazzaro, in those days an austere and unpromising islet off 
the lonely reef of the Lido.. There they prospered. Mechitar 
himself supervised the building of their monastery; they 
acquired productive lands on the mainland; and as the Armenian 
nation was decimated by persecution, its scholarship suppressed 

293 



The Lagoon 

and its energies emasculated, so San Lazzaro became a repository 
of the national learning and religion. Today the monastery is 
one of the three principal centres of Armenian culture in the 
world, the others being Vienna and Echmiadzin, the religious 
capital of the Armenian Socialist Soviet Republic. 

San Lazzaro is one of the most genial spots in Venice, not by 
and large a Dickensian place. Its twenty or so monks, heavily 
bearded and dressed in voluminous black cassocks, are at once 
gentle, welcoming and urbane, and though they eat in silence in 
their dark-panelled refectory, and recite their long offices three 
times each day, and meditate each evening for a good half-hour, 
and have a reputation both for scholarship and for piety 
nevertheless they somehow give the impression that the pleasures 
of the world are at least not beyond their powers of imagination. 
They run a school for Armenian boys on the island, to which 
pupils come from all over the Mediterranean. They have another 
school in the city of Venice. Their monastery is the seat of the 
Academy of Armenian Literature, and they are frequently en 
gaged in learned disputations of dogma or etymology. But 
the duties of these engaging Fathers are never menial, for as 
the official guide book to the monastery explains, lay brothers 
and Italian servants attend to the cooking, cleaning and gar 
dening . 

Everybody has been nice to the Mechitarists, since they 
arrived in Venice. Their culture, a fusion of East and West, 
appealed to the Venetians from the start, and the Republic 
treated them very generously. Even Napoleon reprieved them, 
when he closed the other monasteries: they had sent their dele 
gates to Paris itself to plead for his favour. Their splendid collec 
tion of manuscripts and books has been supplemented, at one 
time or another, by a mass of miscellaneous gifts, making the 
whole island a store-house of esoteric curios. A banana tree, a 
palm tree and a cedar of Lebanon flourish in the central cloister; 
there are rooms full of quaint paintings, and corridors hung with 
rare prints. The Duke of Madrid gave a collection of mineralo- 
gical and oceanographical objects. Pope Gregory XVI gave a 
marble figure of himself. Canova gave a plaster cast of a statue 
of Napoleon s son. An eminent Armenian of Egypt gave his 
collection of Oriental books, including signed copies of some 
not altogether suitable works by Sir Richard Burton. The Pa- 

294 



Holy Waters 

triarch of Venice gave a reliquary divided into fifty compart 
ments, with a small sacred relic in each. 

In the museum upstairs there is a fine Egyptian mummy, 
with some of its teeth still in the jaw, and the rest carefully 
stowed away in a little linen bag (its covering of beads was 
restored in the nineteenth century by the glass-makers of 
Murano). There is some manna in a box, and a telescope trained 
through a window upon the Campanile of St. Mark. There is a 
collection of books about the Armenian language in languages 
other than Armenian. There is a Buddhist ritual found by an 
Indian Armenian in a temple in Madras. There is a collection of 
wooden carvings from Mount Athos, and another of Chinese 
ivories, and a small armoury of antique weapons, and a machine 
for making electric sparks, and a passage from the Koran in 
Coptic, and a German set of medals depicting the heads of 
British monarchs, including a fine portrait of Kong Oliver I. 
There are autograph letters from Browning and Longfellow, 
and a visitors book reserved (the Fathers have a healthy respect 
for temporal achievement) Tor princes and celebrities . There 
are signed photographs of statesmen, bishops, sultans and Popes 
all presented , says the official handbook with a sniff, per 
sonally . 

Above all there is Lord Byron. In 1816 the poet, anxious to 
while away the daylight hours of the Venetian winter, decided 
to learn Armenian something craggy* to break his mind upon; 
and making the acquaintance of the kindly Mechitarists, he 
used to row across to San Lazzaro three times a week and study 
the language in their library. For four months he was a regular 
visitor. The Armenians were enchanted, and have never allowed 
the memory of their improbable pupil to die, so that many 
people in Venice, asked to think of San Lazzaro, think first of 
Byron, and only secondly of the Armenians. Byron s spirit 
haunts the island. "We see the trees he helped to plant, the sum 
mer-house he meditated in, the desk he sat at, the pen he wrote 
with, the knife he used to cut his pages. We are shown a splen 
did painting of his first arrival on the island, almost an ex voto, 
glowing with aristocratic romance; another shows him sprawl 
ing in indolent grace upon the terrace, attended by venerable 
but respectful monks, with the sun falling poetically into the 
lagoon behind him, and a big dog lying at his feet. We are 

295 



The Lagoon 

given a copy of the Armenian Grammar which he compiled, as 
a very minor collaborator, with a scholar of the monastery (and 
in which, in my copy anyway, some sober-side has brusquely 
amended in red ink a passage referring inadvertently, but 
inoffensively, to the curtain that hangs over the back-side of 
the tabernacle ). 

Byron is not always happily remembered in Venice, but good 
priests are often attracted by dashing and gifted reprobates, and 
at San Lazzaro only his better nature is recalled. He seems to 
have been genuinely liked by the Fathers, and to have treated 
them, with honesty and respect. "When the centenary of his 
death was commemorated, in 1924, a now forgotten poet 
named Charles Cammell was asked to write some verses, for 
translation into the Armenian. He addressed them to the 
Mechitarist Fathers themselves, and ended his poem with the 
lines: 

If England holds his body, Greece his heart, 
You surely of his spirit hold a part, 
Perhaps the highest, for with you remain 
The Friendship and the Peace, but not the pain. 

Certainly the Armenians of San Lazzaro will not soon forget 
Lord Byron. Of his stay among them, as the monastery hand 
book rightly says, they have kept ample and particular record* 
(though I have some doubts, all the same, about his eventual 
proficiency in their language a Waterloo of an alphabet , as 
he put it himself). 

Armenians are practical people. The Mechitarists lead lives of 
great devotion on their island, and there is something infinitely 
appealing about the little piles of vestments, each neatly capped 
with its biretta, that you see trimly folded on a chest in the 
vestry of their chapel. But the engine-room, the money-vault of 
their island, is its famous printing press. The first Armenian 
press in western Europe was established in Venice, then the 
world capital of printing, in 1512: and soon after the Mechitar 
ists arrived from Greece, they founded one of their own. Its 
machines are modern and cosmopolitan some from Germany, 
some from America, some from Britain and will print you 
almost anything, in almost any language. They used to print a 
book on San Lazzaro that consisted of the prayer of St. Nerses 

296 



Holy Waters 

divided into twenty-four sections, one for each hour, and trans 
lated into thirty-six languages. This entailed printing in twelve 
scripts Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Chaldean, Chinese, Ethio 
pian, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin, Russian and Sanskrit, not 
to speak of Scandinavian aberrations of the alphabet, and such 
subtle variations as differentiate the Russian from the Serbian. 
It is a confusing book. Some of the prayers read backwards, 
some from top to bottom, and some apparently upside down. 
It includes prayers in Greenlandish and Gaelic, and in the Eng 
lish section at least (I have not examined the Amharic very 
carefully) there is not a single misprint. 

Today the press is still polyglot, but it also specializes in 
glossy picture postcards, posters and shiny commercial labels. 
You may feel agreeably elevated by your visit to San Lazzaro, 
and sail away with the music of its immemorial chants ringing 
like a benediction in your ears: but when you buy a bottle of 
Italian Vermouth in Venice, the chances are that its slick 
coloured label rolled off the printing presses of the Armenians. 



San Lazzaro is always on the move. The very structure of the 
island has trebled in size since the foundation of the monastery, 
as you may see from a plaque on the landing-stage. The original 
buildings are cracking the Abbot Mechitar, though a versatile 
man, was no architect and there are plans to rebuild the whole 
place, illustrated in a plaster model near the electric-spark 
machine. The Armenians are on familiar terms with the authori 
ties of Venice (which one lay brother solemnly insists upon call 
ing the Serenissima The Serenissima has been most helpful 
with the drainage , or We have made the necessary application 
to the Serenissima ). San Lazzaro never feels far from the great 
world, and takes modernity easily in its stride. 

The other island monastery of the lagoon shares none of this 
sophisticated bounce, but lies becalmed in perpetual peace, 
among th northern marshlands. San Francesco del Deserto is a 
small and captivating island in the fens to the east of Burano, 
and beckons you shyly across the waters with a row of cypresses 
and tall umbrella palms, waving and buckling in the breeze like 
a line of Tibetan prayer flags. A tortuous shallow channel takes 
you there, and you step from your boat on to grass as green as 

297 



The Lagoon 

an English lawn, speckled with "Wiltshire daisies, beneath trees 
as rich as Connecticut elms, to a scent of Mediterranean flowers 
and rich tilled earth. A crucifix stands guardian above the 
landing-stage, and a notice on the wall gives you grave warning 
that games, dancing, profanity and loud voices are all equally 
prohibited. San Lazzaro is a plump little Riviera, but San 
Francesco is Shangri-la. 

They say that St. Francis was shipwrecked here during a 
voyage from the East in a Venetian ship perhaps, so some in 
dulgent hagiographers suggest, after his attempt to evangelize 
the Muslims in 1219. They show you a piece of tree that 
sprouted miraculously from his staff, and a coffin in which it was 
his practice to lie as acclimatization for the tomb (the friars of 
the island, I am told, have now adopted the system for them 
selves). Certainly the place is full of the Poverello s friends. A 
friar will meet you as you walk towards the convent from the 
creek (he is sure to speak excellent English and French, and prob 
ably German too, and is one of those who hear the confessions 
of foreigners in St. Mark s Basilica, three days a week) ; and as 
he guides you through the green bowers of this Arcadia, he will 
introduce you to the beasts of the garden, posed among the 
shrubberies as in an illuminated Breviary. Here on a grassy bank 
struts a pair of peacocks. Here is a brood of ducklings, scuttling 
away towards the water s edge, and here a flutter of scraggy 
hens. Everywhere there are swallows, most Franciscan of 
creatures, and the island is loud with bird song. There are even 
two cows, munching hay in a barn among the vegetable 
gardens. 

It is a novice house. There are thirty friars, all Italian, of 
whom fourteen are novices. Their cloisters are old and serene, 
their church is ugly but peaceful, and the most striking thing 
about their island is its silence. Nobody indeed dances, plays 
games, utters profanities or talks in a loud voice. Nobody lives 
there but the friars. The ferry-steamer calls there once or 
twice a day. A few motor boats bring tourists in the summer 
months. A jet sometimes flashes overhead, or an airliner lowers 
its flaps for a landing. Otherwise not a disharmony disturbs the 
convent. The friars row themselves silently about in sandoli, 
and you may often see their bent brown figures, labouring at 
the oar, far away among the flats. The fishermen of the sur- 

298 



Dead and Alive 

rounding islets are mostly too poor for motor boats, and the din 
of Venice (which seems, in this context, positively diabolic) is 
hours away across the water. The only sounds of San Francesco 
del Deserto are bells, chanting male voices, sober conversation, 
the singing of song birds, the squawking of peacocks, the cluck 
ing of ducks and hens, and sometimes a deep dissatisfied bellow, 
as of a soul sated with Elysium, from the ruminating cattle in 
the cow-house. 

The friars seem content with these arrangements. The happy 
text of San Francesco s pieties is *O beata solitudo, O sola beati- 
tudo\ and my cicerone there once quoted the words to me with 
an expression in his eye not exactly smug he was much too 
meek for that but at least tinged with grateful complacency. 



29 

DEAD AND ALIVE 

Many a smaller flowering island lies in these wide waters. 
Some are little more than shooting-lodges, places of Roman 
temperament, directly descended from the first pleasure-houses 
of the lagoon: big four-square buildings on isolated marsh- 
banks, self-contained as castles, with taciturn slow-witted cus 
todians and angry watch-dogs, and spacious loggias on which, 
at the right time of year, the duck-hunters assemble in carousal. 
Others are small fishing settlements, such as the little Isola Tes 
sera, beyond Murano, where a boisterous community of fisher- 
folk lives in hugger-mugger fellowship, like the jolliest of all 
kibbutzim: their boats lie bobbing about their water-gate, thick 
foliage decorates their houses, and when it is foggy, or dinner 
time, a big bronze bell rings out from their little campanile, 
calling the men home across the mud. Most such islets, though, 
are places of decay and decline, or are dedicated to melancholy 
purposes, and stand as sad reminders of the lagoon s greater 
days. 

A cordon of such doleful relics surrounds the archipelago of 
Venice proper. The Venetians call them Isole del Dolore, because 
they are all what the guide books tactfully describe as hospital 

299 



The Lagoon 

centres that is to say, sanatoria, isolation hospitals and lunatic 
asylums. A special steamboat service links them with the Riva 
degli Schiavoni: the boat is marked OspeJale, and it is usually 
full of patients relatives and nurses (who spend four days of 
each week at their island posts, and three on holiday in Venice). 
A sombre silence surrounds these sad islets, and sometimes makes 
them feel less like inhabited places than sea-rocks protruding 
savagely from the lagoon. They have melancholy and some 
times peculiar histories, too. The most cheerful of them, the big 
tuberculosis sanatorium called Sacca Sessola, is an artificial 
island, and has no mournful connotations. The others are all 
tinged with regret. 

La Grazia, for instance, which lies only half a mile beyond 
San Giorgio Maggiore, used to be a hospice for pilgrims going 
to the Holy Land in the days when the Venetians, astutely 
battening upon this source of income, organized it so thor 
oughly that they even had teams of multi-lingual officials, pre 
cisely like tourist police, always on duty in the Piazza to guide 
visitors to the glass factories. The island then became a monas 
tery, to honour a miraculous figure of the Virgin which was 
brought from Constantinople and was said to be the handiwork 
of St. Paul himself. It had a splendid Gothic church with a cam 
panile, but when Napoleon suppressed the monastic orders, it 
became a powder magazine: and during the 1848 revolution 
somebody lit a match inside it, and blew the whole place up. 
It stands there now looking distinctly subdued: for it is the 
isolation hospital of Venice, and children with pimpled faces 
gaze wanly from its windows towards the distant merry-go- 
rounds of the Riva fairground. 

Farther out is San Clemente, a huge whitish block of masonry, 
cold and heavy-shouldered. This, too, has been a monastery in 
its time, and still possesses a handsome seventeenth-century 
church, decorated with marble mock-draperies, and a pleasant 
little tree-shaded garden, to soften its severities: but it has a 
barred and shrouded air, for since 1843 it has been a lunatic 
asylum first for women only, now for both sexes. It is only 
two or three miles from St. Mark s, like Alcatraz from Fisher 
man s Wharf, but it might be in the middle of a grey ocean, so 
shuttered does it seem, and so self-sufficient. During the second 
world war two young Venetians evading German conscription 

300 



Dead and Alive 

hid in the boat-house of this gloomy island: and though their 
parents brought them provisions once a week by boat, they 
lived there in the shadows undisturbed until the end of the war, 
when they emerged blinking into the sunshine and went home 
rejoicing. 

The other asylum, if less forbidding, is much more celebrated. 
San Servolo (or San Servilio, as non-Venetians would call it) 
was a Benedictine monastery as early as the eighth century, and 
played a curious part in the history of the Republic. In 1001 the 
Western Emperor Otto III, observing the growing power of 
Venice, visited the city incognito, partly for curiosity, partly for 
reasons of policy: and it was to this island that he was secretly 
ushered, muffled in black, at dead of night, upon his arrival in the 
lagoon. (He was met at the monastery by the Doge Pietro 
Orseolo II, who promptly deluded the unfortunate young man, 
so some historians say, into granting all kinds of quite unpre 
meditated concessions.) 

For several centuries San Servolo flourished with the Bene 
dictines, assuming various medical and charitable functions 
until, in 1725, it became a hospital for the insane but only, by 
order of the Council of Ten, maniacs of noble family or com 
fortable circumstances : less fortunate lunatics were left at large 
in the city, or shut up in prison. Napoleon s arrival ended this 
fearful injustice, and presently Shelley made San Servolo the 
most famous madhouse on earth *a windowless, deformed and 
dreary pile , as Julian thought with Maddalo, such a one as age 
to age might add, for uses vile . 

Poor San Servolo is not so dreary now. Its conscientious 
management keep it as cheerful as they can, with colourful 
gardens and shady trees, and sometimes you may see the nurses 
of the asylum besporting themselves in the neighbouring waters. 
Not long ago a tame monkey was often to be seen on the 
landing-stage, a godsend to the cruder Venetian wags. But the 
very presence of the island, its past and its purpose, cast a chill 
upon the passer-by; and there are still people who claim to hear, 
from the transient vaporetto, those same ydls and bowlings and 
lamentings keen that made Julian shudder that evening, looking 
across the lagoon with Maddalo. 

Other inshore islands are less haunted, though still often 



The Lagoon 

wraithed in nostalgia. On the channel to Fusina there is an islet 
called San Giorgio in Alga St. George in the Seaweed to 
which Baron Corvo liked to row his sandolo, in his days of 
Venetian watermanship, and from where Ruskin considered 
you could get the best view in all Venice. This little place has 
also had its moments of consequence. Here, it is said, the un 
lucky Doge Faliero, sailing through a mist to take up office in 
his palace, ran ashore in his Bucintoro : it was regarded as an ill 
omen for his reign, and sure enough, only eight months later he 
was decapitated for treason (he also made the foolish mistake, 
when at last he stepped ashore at the Piazzetta, of walking 
between the two columns on the Molo, than which, as any fish 
wife knew, nothing was more certain to bring a man bad 
luck). 

Here too, in the island s monastic days, there lived a humble 
but learned monk named Gabriel Condolmiere. One day, when 
this man was doing his turn of duty as monastery porter, an un 
known hermit rowed himself to the water-gate. Condolmiere 
welcomed him kindly, took him into the church and prayed 
with him, and when the visitor returned to his boat, he turned 
to the monk and made a solemn prophecy. You, Gabriel 
Condolmiere, he said, * will become first a Cardinal, then a Pope : 
but in your pontificate, I prophesy, you will suffer many and 
grievous adversities. The hermit men rowed himself away, and 
was never seen again. The monk became Eugenius IV, one of 
the unhappiest and most ill-used of all the Popes. 

His monastery has long fallen into disuse and dereliction. It 
was half-destroyed by fire in 1717. Its campanile had its top 
lopped off to serve as an observation post in the 1848 revolution, 
and was later demolished altogether. The remains of its build 
ings became first a powder magazine, then a fort, and are now 
the home of a fisherman s family. Two vicious dogs bark at you 
ferociously if you approach too closely, even splashing into the 
water to get to grips with you. Only a stone plaque of St. 
George, and a sweet figure of the Madonna, modestly standing 
beneath a stone canopy at an angle of the wall, remain as 
reminders of old sanctities. 

Or there is Poveglia, away beyond San Servolo, a low huddle 
of buildings on a flat islet, with a single tall campanile in the 
middle. It is like a stylized Venetian island, such as you see 

302 



Dead and Alive 

drawn, with a few deft strokes of the air-brush, in the back 
ground of the travel posters. This was once Popilia, named for 
its abundance of poplars, an autonomous community with its 
own vigorous Government. It played an heroic and blood 
thirsty part, so we are told, in the defeat of Pepin the Pove- 
glians, living at the end of the Canale Orfano, are said to have 
pushed more Franks under the mud than any other body of 
combatants. In the war against the Genoese, so the official 
chronicles record, Poveglia was devastated by its own inhabi 
tants by public order . Romantics say this was an early example 
of scorched earth policies : cynics with a nose for euphemisms 
suspect that a party of Genoese raided the island, and devastated 
it for themselves. 

Poor Poveglia declined sadly down the centuries it became 
a quarantine station first, then an isolation hospital, and is now a 
home for aged indigents : aged people, who are to be seen sun 
ning themselves happily upon its lawns, or aged ships, which 
are laid up in a neighbouring channel, hull to hull, funnel to 
funnel, pitifully streaked with rust and salt, their only atten 
dants the skeleton crews who maintain their engines and the 
marine surveyors who now and then, clambering up their 
quavering gang-planks, shake their heads doubtfully upon their 
forecastles. Poveglia is shaped like a fan, and is cultivated to the 
water s edge with vines and maize, with a fringe of small trees 
running around its perimeter as a hem. At its apex there is a 
small octagonal stone fort, covered with shrubberies, in which 
there lives, so somebody recently assured me, a colony of several 
hundred plump rabbits, tastily varying the diet of crabs and 
stewed mussels on which I had always assumed the old people 
next door to subsist. 



To the east two big agricultural islands, intersected by shallow 
canals, form the market garden of Venice, fertilized by her 
manure, sustained by her appetite, but scarcely visited by her 
citizens from one year to another. Sant Erasmo and Vignole ex 
tend almost from the tip of the city itself to the island of San 
Francesco del Deserto five miles of damp but fertile vegetable- 
bed, inhabited only by gardeners and fishermen. 

They are interesting but dowdy islands. Nosing your way 

303 



The Lagoon 

down their brown waterways, you might be in the heart of 
some fecund but dilapidated countryside Carolina, perhaps, or 
Kildare. The water is overhung with trees and thick tangled 
shrubberies, and in the summer a layer of country dust lies 
heavily on the leaves like chalk. The cottages are clean but 
tumble-down, the gardens scrubby but productive. You may 
pass a fishermen s slipway among the fields, with their boats high 
and dry among their nets : or you may moor your boat beside a 
rickety white clapboard chapel, like a fundamentalist shrine in 
the American South, so that you almost expect to hear the 
whine of high-pitched hymn tunes from their windows, or the 
fruity acclamations of Holy Rollers. 

A farmyard smell hangs in the air of these places, heavily 
freighted with mud and manure. Their gardens are rich with 
onions, asparagus, potatoes, cabbages and artichokes for which, 
so the islanders gloomily complain, they are meagrely under 
paid by the middle-men who convey this produce to the markets 
of the city. These are the islands upon which the bolder Venetian 
planners hope to erect brand-new industrial communities, 
swamping their onion-patches in apartment blocks and power- 
stations; and already their earthy dereliction seems doomed and 
transient, like the crannies of countryside that you still sometimes 
find, hemmed in by housing estates, on the outskirts of London 
and Los Angeles. 

There is only one village in these islands the area of which, 
put together, is substantially greater than Venice herself. It 
stands on the western shore of Sant Erasmo, looking vapidly 
across to the cypresses of San Francesco and the patchwork 
muddle of Burano. It has a cafe with striped parasols propped 
pathetically outside it, and an old black landing-stage where the 
ferry-steamers stop, and a white barn of a church, cold and 
characterless. No history seems to be attached to these places 
they are not even surrounded, as an estate agent once said to me 
of a peculiarly repellent half-timbered house, by the amenities 
of tradition . The most conscientious guide books scarcely 
mention them. So resolutely has the world ignored them that 
some obscure mediaeval by-law, so I am assured, even forbids 
dancing on them. The people of Vignole and Sant Erasmo strike 
me as a grumpy lot; and who can blame them? 

Mazzorbo is a backwater of quite another kind. It lies west of 

304 



Dead and Alive 

Burano, to which it is connected by a footbridge, and it consists 
of a church, a cemetery, a fine broad canal, a few fields, a long 
stone wall always scrawled with politics, a handful of houses 
and an excellent trattoria where, if the wind is right, they will 
roast you a wild duck in the twinkling of an eye, or pull a fat 
wriggling eel from the bog at the bottom of the garden. The 
Mazzorbo people are simple but expansive, and will welcome 
you genially to their tables in the inn, and happily share your 
white wine and spaghetti: and this is unexpected, for if Sant 
Erasmo is moribund, Mazzorbo is a living elegy. 

Once it was very grand. Even in Roman times it was the site 
of a celebrated shrine to the god Belenus, and its very name 
means major urbs. In the Middle Ages it became the Venetian 
port of entry for the great German trade route theAkmagna 
and almost all imports from central Europe passed through the 
Mazzorbo customs. Particularly well-endowed, racy and upper- 
crust convents flourished there; rows of stylish palaces lined the 
canals of the place; a comfortable society of patricians and mer 
chants made it one of the liveliest social centres of the lagoon. 
My oldest Venetian guide book, published in 1740, depicts the 
island dignified by eight campaniles, and still rich in gardens 
and palaces. 

But long before that the rot had set in. Malaria had enervated 
the citizens of Mazzorbo, the rise of the Rialto had ruined its 
commerce, its thoroughfares were blocked with sludge and 
water-weed. By the eleventh century most of the people of 
Mazzorbo had decided to emigrate. Taking their houses care 
fully to pieces, as peripatetic Americans sometimes still do, they 
loaded the bricks and stones into barges and sailed away to 
Venice many of the little houses still standing around the 
Rialto bridge, once the vortex of the Venetian stews, are immi 
grants from old Mazzorbo. Today there is almost nothing left, 
and Mazzorbo is only a market garden, the cemetery of Burano, 
and a staging-post on the ferry-boat route to Torcello (splen 
didly do the vaporetti churn their way down the long straight 
stretch of its Grand Canal, the waves of their wake rippling 
along the towpaths, like stern-wheelers sweeping past Natchez 
on their way to New Orleans). 

But if you look through the window of the trattoria, shifting 
your eye past the red Coca-Cola sticker, you will see a small 

305 



The Lagoon 

square house across the canal that still retains some distant sug 
gestion of grandeur. It has Gothic windows and a solid square 
doorway. A rotting wall protects it from the water, and a 
sandolo is tied up beside its landing-stage. In the garden, among 
some stunted fruit trees, one or two defaced statues moulder the 
decades away. This is a house out of the past, like a coelacanth 
among fishes. Today it is all alone. Once it stood bravely among 
a line of peers, gleaming with life and luxury, padded boats at 
its steps and pampered courtesans in its salons. It is the Ca d Oro 
the House of Gold, a last defiant relic of Mazzorbo s forgotten 
hey-day. 

And far off in the northern lagoon there lies the loneliest and 
saddest of all the Venetian islets, Sant Ariano. It was originally 
a suburb-island of Torcello, forming with the neighbouring 
Costanziaca yet another famous and flourishing community. 
Now it is inhabited only by the dead, for in the seventeenth 
century, when its living glories had long vanished, it became the 
bone-house of Venice, and thus it is coldly marked on the map: 
Osseria, with a small black cross. They no longer take the bones 
there from Venice, preferring to tip them into a common grave 
upon San Michele: but it is only a year or two since the monthly 
bone-barge ploughed its slow way to Sant Ariano, freighted 
with anonymous remains, and a guide book to the lagoon pub 
lished in 1904 observes darkly that modern industry makes use 
of its unnamed skeletons, without scruple, for the refining of 
sugar . 

They do not, I think, make sugar from its bones nowadays, 
but it remains a queer and curdling place. I went there once 
from Mazzorbo, threading my boat through the treacherous 
channels behind Torcello, in a landscape that seemed uneasily 
deserted. A few sea-birds flew furtively above me. Far, far away 
across the marshes I could see a solitary fishing-boat. Torcello 
looked lifeless, and beyond it the swamps stretched away in 
dejection towards Altino. The channel to Sant Ariano twists 
and winds incessantly through the flats, so that for half an hour 
or more you can see the distant white rectangular wall of the 
bone-yard, all alone among the grass: and when at last I reached 
it the sun was high, the wind haa dropped, the lagoon was 
deathly calm, and all was sunk in heat and silence. There were 

306 



The Sacred Bulwarks 

lizards on the water-steps of the island. As I disembarked a rat 
jumped from the mud and dived into the water with a plop. 
The white gate of the osseria shone cruelly in the sunlight, and 
looking through its grille I could see in the shadows of the porch 
a stark staring head of Christ, unsmiling and emaciated. 

The gate was locked, but walking around the corner I jumped 
up to the top of the wall, and peered into the enclosure. There 
was nothing to be seen but a mass of tangled bushes, entirely 
filling the place, and growing thickly to the very walls. Not a 
memorial was there, not a bunch of flowers, not a touch of 
humanity, only this dense green jungle of shrubbery. I 
scrambled down the wall into the enclosure, slithering through 
the spiky foliage, and pushing aside the brambles I looked down 
at my feet to see what I was standing on. 

Beneath those bushes, I discovered, the ground was made of 
bones. These were bone-bushes. There was not a square foot of 
soil to be seen among the roots, only bones: thigh-bones and 
finger-bones, crumbled bones and solid bones, and a few tilted 
skulls shining like phosphorescence in the shade of the under 
growth. I leapt over that wall like a steeplechaser, and was 
home, believe me, well before dark. 



30 

THE SACRED BULWARKS 

A sixteenth-century Venetian decree speaks of the lagoon, 
its waters and its islands, as sanctos muros patriae -~J&it sacred 
bulwarks of the fatherland . Now as then, the outermost ram 
part of all is formed by the islands of the lidi, whose fragile and 
sometimes shifting strand is all that shields Venice from the sea. 
Not so long ago poets and people of that kind used to go to the 
Lido to ride horses, meditate, and ponder the peaked isles of 
the Euganean Hills in the sunset. Doges went a-hawking there. 
The 30,000 soldiers of the 4th Crusade were quartered there 
while their leaders haggled over costs and payments. In the 
fourteenth century every able-bodied Venetian male between 
the ages of sixteen and thirty-five had to practise cross-bow 

307 



The Lagoon 

shooting there. Byron wanted to be buried there, beneath the 
inscription Irnplora Pace, in the days when the sands were empty 
and washed in delicious melancholy. 

Today the name of the place is synonymous with razzle- 
dazzle glamour. All the myriad Lidos of the world, from 
Jamaica to the Serpentine, a million ice-cream parlours, a 
thousand gimcrack pin-table saloons, are named for this ancient 
place. This is a dual paradox. It is paradoxical first because lido 
is merely the Italian word for a shore or beach, and the lidi of 
Venice was a generic title for all the thin islands, part mud, part 
sand, on the seaward perimeter of the lagoon. There are two 
such reefs today, for the semi-promontory of Sottomarina is 
now virtually part of the mainland. The southern island is 
called the Littorale di Pellestrina. The other, and especially the 
northern end of it, is called by common custom the Lido. 

The second paradox is this : that though the world thinks of 
the Lido as a place of expensive pleasure-making, the cultural 
guide books dismiss it with a grimace, the loftier tourists claim 
never to have set foot there, nevertheless these reefs are places of 
drama and romance, soaked in history as well as sun-tan lotion, 
and still the sacred bulwarks of the Serenissima. 



They begin with a bang at the Porto di Lido, the principal 
gateway of Venice, which was formed by the union of three 
smaller breaches in the lidi, but later fell into such neglect that 
under the Austrian regime only small ships could use it. It was 
revived when the Italian Kingdom took over Venice, sheltered 
by the two long moles which now stretch out to sea, and 
restored to all its old splendours. Few of the world s sea-gates 
have such noble memories. Generations of argosies sailed for the 
East through this passage, and here for eight centuries the Doges 
of Venice, in a celebrated ceremonial, married the Adriatic. 

The custom began when the Doge Pietro Orseolo, in the 
year 997, took a fleet this way to defeat the first sea-enemies of 
the Republic, the Dalmatians (unfailingly described by the 
Venetian historians as pirates ). For decades the Venetians had 
paid them tribute, but in that year the Doge announced that he 
did not care to send a messenger this time, but would come to 
Dalmatia himself. He annihilated them, and over the years the 

308 



The Sacred Bulwarks 

ceremony at the porto, which had begun as a libation before 
battle, came to be symbolic of Venetian naval power. A vast 
cavalcade of ornamental barges sailed to the Lido each Ascension 
Day, with the Doge supreme in the stern of his bucintoro, and a 
cluster of tourist craft milling about behind. The great fleet 
hove-to at the sea-gate, and there was handed to the Doge a 
glittering diamond ring, blessed by the Patriarch. Holy water 
was poured into the sea, and the Doge, standing in his poop, 
cried in a loud voice: *O sea, we wed thee in sign of our true 
and everlasting dominion! and to the singing of choirs, the 
prayers of priests, the acclaim of the people, the rumble of guns, 
the back-paddling of oars, the slapping of sails, the roaring of 
the tide, he threw the ring ceremoniously into the water. For 
twenty generations this ritual was one of the great sights of 
Europe. Several hundred rings were thrown into the sea (though 
their value, we may assume, progressively declined as the mer 
cenary instincts of the Venetians developed). One was found 
later inside a fish, and is now in the treasury of the Basilica, 
looking grand but corroded in a glass case. The others are some 
where below you in the mud, souvenirs of divorce : for when, 
that fatal April day in 1797, the guns of Sant Andrea opened fire 
upon the Liberateur d ltalie, Venice s wedlock with the sea col 
lapsed in bitter tears. 

Beside the porto, and visible far out to sea, stands the magni 
ficent old church of San Nicolo di Lido, an ancient weather 
station, lighthouse, watch-tower and sailors talisman. It is named 
for a lie, for the body of Santa Glaus does not, as the old Vene 
tians claimed, in fact lie inside it. In the eleventh century Bari, 
then under Norman domination, set itself up in rivalry to 
Venice as a mart between East and West, and wished to emulate 
the Serenissima in the possession of some awe-inspiring relic. 
Its citizens accordingly acquired the corpse of St. Nicholas of 
Myra, patron saint of pawnbrokers, slaves, virgins, sailors, rob 
bers, prisoners, owners of property and children. This saint was 
particularly revered by the Venetians, if only because at the 
Council of Nicaea he had soundly boxed the ears of the theolo 
gian Arius, from whose very heresy, adopted by the Lombards, 
some of the earliest of the Venetians had fled into the lagoon. 
Since he was also the patron of seafarers, they much resented 
his adoption by Bari, especially as it occurred during the years 

309 



The Lagoon 

when their own great St. Mark was lost inside his pillar of the 
Basilica. 

They therefore invented the fiction that a party of Venetian 
adventurers had raided Bari and stolen the corpse, and the church 
on the Lido was renamed as its shrine. Great ceremonies were 
held there on the saint s feast day, and even in the last years of 
the Republic it was still claimed that his body lay there, to 
gether with another St. Nicholas, uncle of the first . The uncle, 
indeed, may really be there : but Bari has long re-established itself 
as the undoubted resting-place of Santa Glaus, for the, silver 
reliquary of St. Nicholas there is one of the principal miracle 
shrines of Italy, and has for nine centuries consistently exuded a 
liquid Holy Manna of such purity as to be indistinguishable 
from the clearest spring water. San Nicolo di Lido thus has an 
abashed, hang-dog air to it, and the more house-proud of the 
guide books prudently circumvent its history, and linger with 
unbalanced emphasis among its fine carved choir stalls. 

Down the road is the tree-shaded cemetery of the Venetian 
Jews, once a place of mockery and contumely, now munificently 
restored. Near it is a Catholic burial-ground, and in an over 
grown corner of the latter, locked away among rickety walls, 
are the remains of the celebrated Protestant burial-ground of the 
Lido. In the old days acattolid who died in Venice were denied 
burial in consecrated ground, and were instead dismissed to a 
field on this lonely island. The last British Ambassador to Venice 
was buried there, and so was Shelley s Clara : but when the air 
port was built at the end of the island, their graves were en 
gulfed, and their remains were bundled together and placed in 
one aristocratic sarcophagus. Today this memorial stands in the 
corner of the cemetery, and on it you may just discern, like a 
gentlemanly whisper from the past, the lordly name of 
Sackville. 

All around it, weedy and decayed, lie the other uprooted 
tombstones, some flat, some upside down, some piled like 
paving-stones. The little garden is difficult to find, and hardly 
anyone visits it. When I was there, guided through the maze of 
Catholic tombs by an obliging gardener, I idly brushed away 
the dust and pine-needles from a slab that lay beside my hand, 
and found it to be the tombstone of Joseph Smith, the British 
Consul who first recognized the talent of Canaletto and founded 

310 



The Sacred Bulwarks 

the splendid royal collection of his pictures now at Windsor 
Castle. This man , said I to my companion, was once much 
honoured in England. The gardener smiled sympathetically, 
groping for words that would be at once honest and undepre- 
cating, for he had never heard of Joseph Smith, but did not 
want to hurt my feelings. 1 imagine so, he said at last, *I imagine 
so.* 

Among these old and mellowed things, the new world of the 
Lido coruscates. Vast, glittering and costly is this famous beach 
resort, and only a prig or a recluse could call it altogether dull. 
Its hotels range from the orchid to the aspidistra; its shops are 
full of outrageous clothes and gorgeously sticky cakes; its streets 
are lined with wistaria and bougainvillea; its Casino is lavish, its 
night-clubs well frequented; its strings of fairy-lights, in loops 
and gaudy cascades, provide a piquant and sometimes comfort 
ing contrast to the dim mediaeval outline of Venice across the 
water. You can travel about the Lido by bus, by car or barouche. 
You can gamble there, or spot celebrities, or ride, or eat over 
priced ill-cooked ostentatious moonlit meals. You can even, if it 
is the depth of winter, or if you are a person of forcible tem 
perament, sometimes push your way down the bathing beaches 
for a mediocre swim (assuming you have a ticket, of course, for 
that particular stretch of foreshore). 

There are some lovely villas on the lagoon side of the Lido 
long white creeper-covered houses, such as might stand above 
Carthage in Tunisia, or recline among the blossoms in Marra- 
kesh. There *are also many modest houses and blocks of flats, 
for an increasing number of Venetians prefer to live in the easy 
space of this modern town, and commute each morning to the 
crooked Serenissima. The Lido is a well-planned, well-kept, 
comfortable place, and even in the winter, when its promenades 
are deserted and its restaurants closed, it still feels fairly cosy. Its 
seaside is second-rate after our English seas , says Mr. Edward 
Hutton bravely, the sluggish Adriatic might seem but a poor 
substitute : but its indescribable views across the lagoon, to the 
Isole del Dolore and the dim Euganian Hills, and the high 
fa9ades of Venice herselfthis consummate prospect makes tne 
resort uniquely privileged among the holiday places of the 
earth. 

311 



The Lagoon 

Its influence, like lesolo s, is creeping inexorably southwards, 
and the southern tip of the island is already occupied by Alberoni, 
a kind of embryo Lido, with a fashionable golf course, a couple 
of hotels, and numbers of hospitals, rest camps and sanatoria 
strewn among its sands like blockhouses. These two outposts of 
sophistication, though, are not yet united, and between them 
there are still reaches of the Lido shore that are silent and simple, 
meshed in weeds, tree-trunks and creepers, and littered with sea- 
shells (among which, on summer evenings, you may sometimes 
see eccentric enthusiasts, in baggy trousers or gypsy skirts, ener 
getically scrabbling). The lagoon shore is lined with vegetable 
gardens and obscure rustic outhouses, and the little creeks that 
sidle into the island are so rich and steamy, so thickly fringed 
with reeds and coarse grass, that they might be brown back 
waters of the Mississippi, in Huck Finn s country. 

Amidst all this, with its face towards Venice, stands the fishing 
town of Malamocco, one of the friendliest places in the lagoon. 
The original Malamocco, the first capital of the united Vene 
tians, has entirely vanished: scholars believe that it stood off 
shore, on an island in the sea, and that it was overwhelmed by a 
twelfth-century cataclysm every now and then an expedition 
puts on its goggles and flippers, and dives in search of its ruins. 
Modern Malamocco, all the same, feels very old indeed. It has 
its own miniature piazza, three churches, and an old guber 
natorial palace. A canal runs behind the town, between the 
lagoon and the sea, and here the vegetable barges set up shop 
each morning, announcing their arrival with ancient wailing 
hawking cries, apparently in Arabic. The women meander back 
to their houses carrying their potatoes in outstretched aprons, 
and the small boys stand on the quayside licking ice-creams. 
Green wet water-meadows stretch away to the sea-wall, and the 
streets of Malamocco are (so a notice kindly tells us) paved with 
sea-shells. 

There is a trattoria near the waterfront at Malamocco where 
you may eat your scampi and female crabs in a garden, and sur 
vey the translucent lagoon before you as from a napkinned 
terrace. Helpful loafers will look after your boat for you, and 
from the neighbouring bowling-alley you may sometimes hear 
guttural cries of triumph or despair, and the thudding of 
wooden balls. Away to the right, over a parade of little islands, 

312 



The Sacred Bulwarks 

you can see the towers of Venice. To the left there stands the 
disused lighthouse of Spania, surrounded by thickets of fisher 
men s poles. Near by a string of old ships lies in pathetic dignity, 
high and rusty in the water: in Evelyn s day Malamocco was the 
chiefe port and ankerage* for English merchantmen, but now it 
is only a haven for unwanted vessels. Now and then the trolley 
bus from the Lido slithers to a stop beside the quay, and occa 
sionally a trim little Fiat scurries by: but there is an air of sun- 
soaked, slap-happy repose to Malamocco. The excitements of 
the plage have not yet reached it, and the exertions of old Venice 
have long been forgotten. You may bask here in the sunshine 
undisturbed and unembarrassed, and even the small female 
crabs, fried in fat and garnished with oily segments of octopus, 
have a tranquil, soothing flavour to their shrivelled pincers. 



The gusto of the Lido fades as you sail southwards down the 
reef, and this easy-going feeling withers. The northern stretch of 
the lidi is prosperous and hospitable; the southern is threadbare 
and penurious. A slow serene ripple from the sea sways your 
progress as you pass Alberoni and cross the Porto di Malamocco, 
the second of the Venetian sea-gates, where the Austrian fleet 
used to lie at anchor, and the super-tankers will soon be pound 
ing down to Sant Ilario; but on the other side the Littorale di 
Pellestrina lies harshly, a poor, cluttered, ramshackle litter of 
villages, straggling along the ever-narrowing line of the reef. 

By now it is hardly an island, and the villages huddle together 
as though they spring directly from the water the sea at their 
back doors, the lagoon lapping at the front. Where San Pietro 
in Voltaends, Porto Secco begins, and Sant Antonio merges into 
Pellestrina, so that as you pass by their successive unkempt quay 
sides the reef beside you is like one long water-side street. There 
are churches now and again, and a piazzetta or two beside the 
water, and a cafe with tables outside its door, and sometimes a 
poor arid garden. The cottages are gaily painted but peeling, 
and are intermingled with tattered sheds, warehouses, boat 
yards, wood-piles. There are great oil barges, high and dry on 
piles, having their bottoms scraped; there are fleets of fishing 
boats in endless lines along the quays. At Porto Secco you may 
see the desiccated creek that is a dried-up porto to the sea, at 

313 



The Lagoon 

Pellestrina there is a mediaeval fortress-tower: but mostly the 
villages dissolve before your eyes into a muddle of tumbled 
structures, and look as though they have been not merely swept 
and bleached by the elements, but positively scraped. 

This is the poorest of the Venetian shores. It has no shine or 
glamour, and even its people seem wizened. They are the in 
habitants of a precarious sand-bank, and slowly, as you journey 
southwards, the line of their island contracts. Now, looking be 
tween the houses, you can see a strip of green and a glimmer of 
sea; now the green has vanished, and there is only a grey line of 
masonry beyond the piazzetta; now the houses themselves peter 
out, and there are shacks, raggety lines of bathing huts, boat- 
houses, rubbish yards; until at last, passing the final gravestones 
of Pellestrina, you find that only a great stone wall represents 
the ultimate bulwark. 

Here you moor your boat carefully at an antique iron ring, 
and climbing a flight of steps you find yourself poised between 
the waters. You are standing upon the Murazzi, the noble sea 
walls that were the last great engineering works of the dying 
Republic. Without these great ramparts, 6,oob yards long and 
immensely strong, the Adriatic would by now have burst the 
Pellestrina strand, and flooded the lagoon. The Murazzi are 
made of huge blocks of Istrian granite, so beautifully put to 
gether that Goethe praised them as a work of art. It took thirty- 
eight years to build them. Upon the wall a big bronze slab, 
erected in 1751, records the purpose of the construction: Ut 
Sacra Aestuaria Urbis Et Libertatis Secies Perpetuum Conserventur 
Colosseas Moles Ex Solido Marmore Contra Mare Posuere 
Curatores Aquarum. 9 Nearly two centuries later, though, the 
Venetians erected another plaque, which better expresses the 
proud spirit of these magnificent works. Ausu Romano, 9 it says, 
Acre Veneto. 9 A truly Roman venture it was, achieved by the 
Venetians in their last years of independence. 

A narrow path runs along the top of the Murazzi, and here 
you may sit, dangling your legs, and consider the sacredness of 
the lidi. On one side there heaves the Adriatic Sea, cold, grey, 
restless, very deep, rolling across to Trieste, Pola, Dubrovnik, 
and away to Albania, Corfu and Cephalonia. On the other side, 
a few feet away, the Venetian lagoon lies pale and placid. Its 
waters are still and meditative; a host of little craft moves per- 

3H 



Lost 

petually across its wide expanse; and below you, where your 
boat lies motionless at its moorings, the small silver fish twitch 
and flicker among the seaweed. 



31 

LOST 

But the lagoon is doomed, for its essences are too vaporous to 
survive. It is a place of vanished glories, lost islands and forgotten 
palaces Malamocco drowned, Torcello deserted, Murano de 
graded, Mazzorbo moribund, Sant* Ariano sepulchral, monas 
teries dispersed and campaniles toppled. Soon the speculators, 
the oil-men and the bridge-builders will dispel its last sugges 
tions of secrecy. 

On the chart of the lagoon, away among the shambling 
marshes in the south-west, there is an islet marked Cason dei 
Sette Morti the House of the Seven Dead Men. It com 
memorates a legend. The Cason, an isolated stone house among 
the waters, was used by fishermen, in the days before motor 
engines, as a base for their operations; they would sleep, eat and 
rest there during intervals between fishing, caulk their boats and 
mend their nets, while one of their number went off to market 
with the catch. Several such lonely fishing lodges litter the 
emptier reaches of the southern lagoon Cason Cornio Nuovo, 
Cason di Valle in Pozzo, Cason Bombae, Cason di Valgrande 
mere specks in the mud, named for mediaeval master fisher 
men, or forgotten conceptions in crab-men s minds. 

Long ago, so the legend says, six men and a boy were staying 
at our particular cason. The men spent each night fishing, and 
the boy remained in the house and cooked. One morning the 
fishermen, returning from work, found the corpse of a man 
floating in the water. Hoisting it aboard, they laid it in the bows 
of their boat, intending to take it, after breakfast, to the Ponte 
della Paglia in Venice, where the bodies of drowned people were 
exhibited for identification. The boy, coming out of the house 
to greet them, saw this figure in the prow, and asked why they 
did not bring in their guest to breakfast. It was all ready, he said, 
and there was plenty for an extra mouth. 

315 



The Lagoon 

The fishermen had a truly Venetian instinct for the macabre. 
Peeling off their coats and entering the house, they told the boy 
to invite the stranger himself. He s as deaf as a post , they 
said, and awful stubborn. Give him a good kick and a curse, to 
wake him up. The boy did as he was told, but the man 
remained prostrate. Give him a good shake , the fishermen 
shouted, sitting down ribaldly at the table, and tell him we 
can t wait till doomsday for him ! We re working men, we are ! 

Again the boy obeyed, and presently he returned cheerfully 
indoors and began to ladle out the food. All was well, he said. 
The guest had woken up, and was on his way. The fishermen s 
flow of persiflage now abruptly ceased. They stared at each 
other, say the story-tellers, pallid and aghast ; and presently 
they heard slow, heavy, squelchy, flabby footsteps on the path 
outside. The door opened with an eerie creak; the corpse 
walked in, horribly stiff and bloodless; and by the time he had 
settled himself ponderously at the table, all those six churlish 
fishermen had been struck with a lethal chill, and sat before 
their polenta as dead as mutton. Seven dead men occupied the 
cason, and only the boy paddled frantically away to tell the tale. 

One day I determined to visit the House of the Seven Dead 
Men: but no bricole mark the channels, the charts are notoriously 
vague, and early in the morning I went to San Pietro in Volta 
to find myself a pilot. Fishermen from, the littoral, I discovered, 
no longer much frequented that part of the lagoon. Several, 
pointing out an island in diametrically the wrong direction, 
swore that it was the cason, they had known it since childhood. 
Several others admitted they did not know the way. One took a 
look at my boat and said kindly that he had other things to do. 
It was an aged, hirsute and wrinkled fisherman, an Old Man of 
the Lagoon, who finally agreed to a price, stepped aboard, and 
came with me. 

It would be, he said, quite like old times, quite a little outing. 
He hadn t been out there since the war, when he hid for a time 
from the Germans on a marshy reef near the cason. He was a 
talkative, jolly old man, wearing a slouch hat and geological 
layers of jersey: and he guided us merrily enough across the 
ruffled wastes of the central lagoon, the Vale of the Ditch of 
Low Water, the Small Vale of Above the Wind, where the sea 
weed lay only a few inches beneath our propeller, and swayed 

316 



Lost 

mysteriously with our passage. The day was grey and the wind 
cold, but as we voyaged the old man pointed out the landmarks 
the Cason dei Mille Campi, a big stone lodge alone among 
the marshes; the distant white farmhouses of the mainland; the 
almost indistinguishable island of San Marco in Bocca Lama; 
Chioggia dim and towering to the south; the long line of 
Pellestrina growing vague and blurred behind. 

The lagoon around us was deserted. The traffic of the big 
channels was far away, and only a few small shabby crab-boats 
lay at work in muddy inlets. Once or twice my pilot, who was 
not used to engines, ran us harmlessly aground: but presently we 
found ourselves in the deep water of the Fondi dei Sette Morti, 
the last stretch to our destination. Ah ! what memories it stirred 
for the old man! Here his father had brought him as a boy, 
when he was first learning to handle a boat; and here, in the 
lean days before the war, he used to spend the long windswept 
nights dredging the last possible mussel out of the mud; and 
over there, on that dank and blasted marsh-bank, he had hidden 
from the Germans, crouched beneath a canvas shelter, while his 
wife rowed out each week with his provisions; and just around 
this corner, between these shoals port a bit here, it s shallow, now 
back into the stream again here, just around this corner, we 
would find . . . 

But the old man s voice trailed away: for when we rounded 
that marshy point, the cason was no longer there. That predatory, 
dissatisfied, restless, rapacious lagoon had been at work again. 
The water had risen above the shoals, and all that was left of the 
house was a sprawling mass of masonry, a pile of brick and 
rubble, through which the tide was already seeping and gurg 
ling. The old man was astonished, but even more affronted. 
Now why should a thing like that happen? he asked me 
indignantly. Mamma mia! That house was there when I was a 
child, a fine big house of stone, the Cason dei Sette Morti and 
now it s gone ! Now why should that have happened, eh? Tel] 
me that! 

He was an urbane man, though, beneath his stubble: and as 
we moved away from that desolate place, and turned our prow 
towards San Pietro, I heard a rasping chuckle from the stern of 
the boat. Mamma mia! 9 the old man said again, shaking his head 
from side to side: and so we chugged home laughing and drink- 
Si? 



The Lagoon 

ing wine, until, paying insufficient attention to his task, that 
fisherman ran us aground and broke our forward gear, and we 
completed the voyage pottering shamefacedly backwards. Like 
a couple of crabs/ said the old man, unabashed, though even 
the crabs go sideways. 



EMBARKATION 



EMBARKATION 

Perhaps you are a millionaire, and can maintain your Venetian, 
palace the year round, with your gilded gondola behind its 
grille, your bright-painted mooring posts, and the vivid blue 
curtains which, drawn aloofly across your windows, proclaim 
your absence in Park Lane or New England. The chances are,, 
though, that one day you must pack your bags, pay your bills,, 
give a farewell kiss to the faithful (and touchingly sniffing) 
Emilia, and sail away to less enchanted shores. Then a curious 
sensation overcomes you, as you pass among the retreating; 
islands of the lagoon a sensation half of relief, half of sadness, 
and strongly tinged with bewilderment. Venice, like many a 
beautiful mistress and many a strong dark wine, is never en 
tirely frank with you. Her past is enigmatic, her present contra 
dictory, her future hazed in uncertainties. You leave her sated 
but puzzled, like the young man who, withdrawing happily 
from an embrace, suddenly realizes that the girl s mind is else 
where, and momentarily wonders what on earth he sees in her. 
For though there have been many scoffers at the Venetian 
legend, rationalists, sceptics and habitual debunkers, neverthe 
less the appeal of the Serenissima is astonishingly empirical. 
Nearly all its visitors seem to agree, when they leave Venice at 
last, that on the whole, and notwithstanding, it really is a very 
lovely place. An interminable procession of the talented has 
made the pilgrimage to St. Mark s, and been received into the 
Venetian state of grace. An army of visiting admirers has writ 
ten its paeans Goethe, Stendhal, Gautier, Hans Andersen, 
Musset, Charles Reade, "Wagner, Taine, Maurice Barrs, 
Thomas Mann, Mendelssohn, Henry James, Rilke, Proust, 
Rousseau, Byron, Browning, Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 
Hemingway, Ruskin, Dante, "Wordsworth, Petrarch, Long 
fellow, Disraeli, Evelyn, Shelley, Jean Cocteau not to speak of 

321 



Embarkation 

George Sand, Ouida, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Freya Stark and 
George Eliot, whose husband once fell, with an ignominious 
plop, from their hotel window into the Grand Canal beneath. 
Corot, Durer, Turner, De Pisis, Bonington, Dufy, Kokoschka, 
Manet, Monet, Renoir, Whistler have all painted famous pic 
tures of Venice, and there is hardly an art shop in London, Paris 
or New York that will not offer you a sludgy prospect of the 
Salute by some less eminent practitioner. 

Nietzsche, of all people, once said that if he searched for a 
synonym for music, he found always and only Venice . Even 
Hitler thought the city beautiful : he stayed at Stra, on. the main 
land, but he particularly admired the Doge s Palace, so I was 
told by one of the custodians who escorted him around it, and 
legend maintains that he broke away from protocol to range the 
city by himself in the small hours of the morning (some say at a 
half-demented jog-trot). Garibaldi liked the Doge s Palace, too, 
though not a man of artistic yearnings : he thought he saw a 
satisfying resemblance to himself in the image of the heroic 
Admiral Veniero in Vicentino s Battle ofLepanto. More slush has 
been written about Venice than anywhere else on earth, more 
acres of ecstatic maiden prose. Venice is paved with purple pas 
sages. But as John Addington Symonds once remarked, she is 
the Shakespeare of cities, unchallenged, incomparable, and 
beyond envy. Stockholm is proud to call herself the Venice of 
the North, Bangkok the Venice of the East. Amsterdam likes 
to boast that she has more bridges than Venice. London has her 
own Little Venice , in Paddington, where a notice on one 
irreverent householder s gate warns visitors to Beware of the 
Doge . Churchill himself did not object when an Italian admirer 
trying to evolve a worthy translation for his title Lord Warden of 
the Cinque Ports , dubbed him the Doge of Dover. 

All this strikes me as odd, for though Venice is obviously 
lovely, you might not expect her appeal to be quite so universal. 
The city undeniably stinks, for one thing; it can be disagreeably 
grasping of temperament, for another; its winters are cruel, its 
functions coarsened; its lagoon can be unpleasantly chill and 
colourless; its individual buildings, if you view them with a 
detached and analytical eye, range downwards from the sub 
lime by way of the over-estimated antique to the plain ugly. I 
myself dislike most of the grandiloquent Grand Canal palaces, 

322 



Embarkation 

with tkeir pompous facades, florid doorways and phallic obel 
isks. Many of the city s celebrated structures the Dogana, for 
instance, or the old prisons would look undistinguished if 
deposited in Clapham or the Bronx. 

Ruskin, who hated half the buildings in Venice, and wor 
shipped the other half, wrote of San Giorgio Maggiore that it 
was impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbar 
ous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, 
more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of 
rational regard . Charlie Chaplin once remarked that he would 
like to take a shot-gun and knock the figures off the Sansovino 
library in the Piazzetta, deity by deity. Evelyn thought the 
Basilica dim and dismal . Herbert Spencer, the philosopher, 
detested the meaningless patterns of the Doge s Palace, the 
tesselation of which reminded him of nothing so much as the 
vertebral spine of a fish . D. H. Lawrence, taking a first look at 
the buildings of Venice, called it an abhorrent, green, slippery 
city : and I know just how he felt. 

The allure of Venice, though, is distinct from art and archi 
tecture. There is something curiously sensual to it, if not actually 
sexual. Venice casts about you , as a nineteenth-century French 
man put it, a charm as tender as the charm of woman. Other 
cities have admirers. Venice alone has lovers . James Ho well 
assured his readers, in the seventeenth century, that if once they 
knew the rare beauty of the Virgin City, they would quickly 
make love to her . And Elizabeth Barrett Browning expressed 
some of this libidinous or perhaps narcotic rapture when she 
wrote that nothing is like it, nothing equal to it, not a second 
Venice in the world . Today the place is loud with motor boats, 
tawdry with tourism, far from virginal: but when I lean from 
my window in the early morning, when the air is sea-fresh and 
the day unsullied, when there is a soft plash of oars beneath my 
terrace, and the distant hum of a ship s turbines, when the first 
sun gleams on the golden angel of the Campanile, and the 
shadows slowly stir along the dark line of the palaces then a 
queer delicious yearning still overcomes me, as though some 
creature of unattainable desirability were passing by outside. 

I think this is partly a matter of organic design. Venice is a 
wonderfully compact and functional whole: rounded, small, 
complete, four-square in the heart of its sickle lagoon like an-old 

323 



Embarkation 

golden monster in a pond. Corbusier has described the city as 
an object lesson for town planners. The variegated parts of 
Venice have been mellowed and diffused, like the two old 
palaces on the Grand Canal whose roofs intimately overlap 
above a minute alley-way. Her architecture is a synthesis of 
styles eastern and western, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque so 
that Ruskin could call the Doge s Palace the central building of 
the world. Her canals and streets fit neatly into one another, like 
the well-machined parts of an engine. Her symbols are simple 
but catching, like advertisers 5 images the sleek winged lions, 
the golden horses, the Doge in his peaked hat, the twin pillars 
on the Molo, the ramrod Campanile, the lordly swing of the 
Grand Canal, the cobra-prows of the gondolas, rearing in the 
lamplight. Her slogans are exciting and memorable Viva San 
Marco! Lord of a Quarter and a Half-Quarter 9 , Pax Tibi, Marce , 
Morto o Vivo , Com era, dov 9 era. Venice has the feeling of a 
disbanded but still brilliant corporation, with the true ring and 
dazzle of capitalism to her ambiance. You feel, as you stand upon 
the high arch of the Rialto, that you can somehow capture the 
whole of her instantly in your mind the whole of her history, 
all her meaning, every nuance of her beauty: and although her 
treasures are inexhaustible, in a way you are right, for Venice is 
a highly concentrated extract of her own reputation. 

It is partly a matter of light. The Venetian painters were pre 
eminent in their mastery of chiaroscuro, and Venice has always 
been a translucent city, a place of ravishing sunsets and iridescent 
mornings, monochromatic though its long winters can seem. 
Once it was vivid with gil.ded facades and frescoes the Doge s 
Palace used to glow with gold, vermilion and blue and here and 
there, on decomposing walls or leprous carvings, you may still 
see faint lingering glimmers of the city s lost colour. Even now, 
when the Venetians hang out their flags and carpets in celebra 
tion, put up their gay sunshades, light their fairy-lamps, water 
the geraniums in their window-boxes, sail their bright pleasure- 
boats into the lagoon even now it can be, at its sunlit best, a 
gaudy kind of place. The atmosphere, too, is remarkable for a 
capricious clarity, confusing one s sense of distance and propor 
tion, and sometimes etching skylines and facades with uncanny 
precision. The city is alive with trompe-l oeil, natural and artifi 
cial deceits of perspective, odd foreshortenings, distortions and 

324 



Embarkation 

hallucinations. Sometimes its prospects seem crudely one- 
dimensional, like pantomime sets; sometimes they seem exag 
geratedly deep, as though the buildings were artificially separ 
ated, to allow actors to appear between them, or to give an 
illusion of urban distance. The lagoon swims in misty mirages. 
If you take a boat into the Basin of St. Mark, and sail towards 
the Grand Canal, it is almost eerie to watch the various layers of 
the Piazza pass each other in slow movement: all sense of depth 
is lost, and all the great structures, the pillars and the towers, 
seem flat and wafer-thin, like the cardboard stage properties that 
are inserted, one behind the other, through the roofs of toy 
theatres. 

It is partly a matter of texture. Venice is a place of voluptuous 
materials, her buildings inlaid with marbles and porphyries, 
cipollino, verd-antico, jasper, marmo greco, polished granite 
and alabaster. She is instinct with soft seductive textiles, like the 
silks that Wagner hung around his bedrooms the velvets, 
taffetas, damasks and satins that her merchants brought home 
from the East, in the days when all the ravishing delicacies of the 
Orient passed this way in a cloud of spice. When the rain 
streams down the marble facades of the Basilica, the very slabs 
seem covered in some breathtaking brocade. Even the waters of 
Venice sometimes look like shot silk. Even the floor of the 
Piazza feels yielding, when the moonlight shines upon it. Even 
the mud is womb-like and unguent. 

The Venetian allure is partly a matter of movement. Venice 
has lost her silken dreamy spell, but her motion is still soothing 
and seductive. She is still a dappled city, tremulous and flicker 
ing, where the sunlight shimmers gently beneath the bridges, 
and the shadows shift slowly along the promenades. There is 
nothing harsh or brutal about the movement of Venice. The 
gondola is a vehicle of beautiful locomotion, the smaller craft of 
the canals move with a staccato daintiness, and often you see the 
upper-works of a liner in stately passage behind the chimneys. 
There are several places in Venice where, looking across a canal, 
you may catch a momentary glimpse of people as they pass 
the openings in an arcade: their movement seems oddly smooth 
and effortless, and sometimes an old woman glides past en 
shrouded in black tasselled shawls, and sometimes a priest 
strides silently by in a liquefaction of cassocks. The women of 

325 



Embarkation 

Venice walk with ship-like grace, swayed only by the gentle 
wobbling of their ankles. The monks and nuns of Venice flit 
noiselessly about its streets, as though they had no feet beneath 
their habits, or progressed in a convenient state of levitation. 
The policemen of the Piazza parade slowly, easily, magisterially. 
The sails of the lagoon laze the long days away, all but motion 
less on the horizon. The chief verger of the Basilica, when he 
sees a woman in trousers approaching the fane, or a short- 
sleeved dress, raises his silver stick in a masterly unhurried ges 
ture of dismissal, his worldly-wise beadle s face shaking slowly 
to and fro bsneath its cockade. The crowds that mill through the 
narrow shopping streets do so with a leisurely, greasy anima 
tion: and in the winter it is pleasant to sit in a warm wine shop 
and watch through the window the passing cavalcade of um 
brellas, some high, some low, manoeuvring and jostling cour 
teously for position, raised, lowered or slanted to fit between one 
another, like the chips of a mosaic or a set of cogs. 

And in the final analysis, the glory of the place lies in the 
grand fact of Venice herself: the brilliance and strangeness of 
her history, the wide melancholy lagoon that surrounds her, 
the convoluted sea-splendour that keeps her, to this day, unique 
among the cities. When at last you leave these waters, pack 
away your straw hat and swing out to sea, all the old dazzle of 
Venice will linger in your mind; and her smell of mud, incense, 
fish, age, filth and velvet will hang around your nostrils; and 
the soft lap of her back-canals will echo in your ears; and 
wherever you go in life you will feel somewhere over your 
shoulder, a pink, castellated, shimmering presence, the domes 
and riggings and crooked pinnacles of the Serenissima. 

There s romance for you ! There s the lust and dark wine of 
Venice ! No wonder George Eliot s husband fell into the Grand 
Canal. 



326 



INDEX OF HISTORICAL EVENTS 





Date 


Page 




421 Traditional foundation of 






Venice 


26 




697 Election of first Doge 


26 




809 Pepin s attack on Venice 


260 


During the first 800 years of their 


829 Seizure of St. Mark s body 


58,6i 


history the Venetians established 


960 Dalmatians raid Venice 


262 


their independence, founded their 


976 Basilica burnt 


58 


commercial supremacy in the 


997 War against Dalmatians 


308 


eastern Mediterranean, and evol 


997 Marriage of the Adriatic 


309 


ved their own system of aristo 


looi Otto III in Venice 


301 


cratic Government at home. 


1 1 77 Pope Alexander III meets 


231 




Barbarossa 






1202 Fourth Crusade 


42, 57 




1297 Establishment of patrician 


30 




autocracy 




Throughout the I4th century, 


1310 Tiepolo conspiracy 


50 


after the division of the Byzan 


1335 Council of Ten instituted 


30 


tine Empire, Venice was involved 


1355 Doge Faliero beheaded 


189 


in a ding-dong struggle with her 


1373 Jews arrive in Venice 


105 


rival Genoa, against a background 


1380 Genoese surrender at Chioggia 


261 


of political instability at home. It 






ended triumphantly in the climax 






of Venetian success. 








1403-5 Acquisition of Bassano, Bel- 


128 




luno, Padua, Verona 




With Genoa defeated, the Vene 
tians looked inland, and by the 
middle of the isth century had 
established a mainland Empire 
reaching almost to Milan. The 
fall of Constantinople, however, 
marked the beginning of their 
enfeeblement. 


1406 Death of Carrara 
1421 birth of Gentile Bellini 
1426 birth of Giovanni Bellini 
143 1 death of Carmagnola 
143 5 birth of Verrocchio 
1450 birth ofCarpaccio 
1453 Turks take Constantinople 
1454 Acquisition of Treviso, FriuH, 


188 
188 

31 
128 




Bergamo, Ravenna 





327 



Index of Historical Events 





Date 


Page 




1457 Doge Foscari deposed 


226 




1472 birth ofGiorgione 






1480 birth ofPalma Vecchio 






1486 birth of Sansovino 






1489 Annexation of Cyprus 


66 




1498 da Gama s voyage to India 


3i 




1500 birth of Paris Bordone 


32 




1508 League of Cambrai 






1510 birth of da Ponte 






1518 birth of Tintoretto 






1518 birth ofPalladio 




During the last four centuries of 
her history, despite periods of 
astonishing artistic fertility, Ven 
ice declined in power and virility, 
her power whittled away in con 
stant defensive wars against the 
Turks and by the rise of new 
commercial rivals in the West. 
By the middle of the i8th century 
her Empire was almost gone, and 
she subsided in carnival and 


1528 birth of Veronese 
1539 Council of Three instituted 
1544 birth ofPalma Giovane 
1571 Death of Bragadino 
1574 Visit of Henry III of France 
1604 birth ofLonghena 
1606 The Great Interdict 
1607 Attempt on Sarpi s life 
1696 birth of Tiepolo 
1697 birth ofCanaletto 
1702 birth ofLonghi 


30 

189 
83 
95 

187 


garish excess towards her end as a 
State. 


1712 birth ofGuardi 
1751 Murazzi completed 


314 




1757 birth ofCanova 






1784 Campaign against the Barbary 


193 




pirates 






1797 French take Venice 


32, 118, 






262 




1798 Venice ceded to Austria 


263 




1800 Papal Conclave in Venice 


225 




1806 Return of French to Venice 


263 




1814 Return of Austrians to Venice 


263 




1846 Railway causeway built 


128 




1848 Venetian revolution against 


118,264 




Austria 






1866 Venice joins Italian Kingdom 


33 


For nearly a century Venice has 


1902 Collapse of Campanile 


173 


formed part of the Italian State. 


1915 Operations against Austria 


120, 265 


She is now a prefecture, the capi 


193 1 Road causeway built 


129 


tal of a province, and the third 


1945 British Army enters Venice 


120, 264 


port of Italy. 


1960 Construction of Marco Polo 


250 




airport 





328 



INDEX 



Map indices refer to the plan of Venice at the beginning of the book 



G9 Accademia bridge, 44, 88, 97, 
in, 114, 121, 136, 151, 157* 
159, 182, 192, 224, 247 

G9 Accademia gallery, 95, 97, 172, 

182, 213, 217, 242 
A.C.N.I.L., 138 
Adda, River, 255 
Addison, Joseph, 117 
Adige, River, 255, 267 
Airport, Marco Polo, 251, 273 
Alberoni, lagoon town, 312 
Alexander III, Czar, 75 
Allen, Grant, 185 

Altino, mainland village, 280 
Andersen, Hans, 321 
9 Angelo RafFaele, church, 239 
H9 Anglican Church (St. George), 

in 

G9 Archives, State, 75, 120, 222 
Aretino, Pietro, 230 
Aristotle (Ridolfo Fioravante), 

176 
18 Armenians, Alley of (Calle degli 

Armcni), no 
M7 Arsenal, The, 31, 46, 78, 127, 

183, 223, 233, 235, 238, 249, 
260, 266, 269 



Baedeker, 25, 81, 143-4, 158, 275 
Balbi, Andrea, 223 
Balbo, Nicold, 151 
Banca Giro, 219 
Barbari, Jacopo de , 238 
Barbaro family, 188, 229 
Barbaro, Admiral Marco, 189 
Barbarossa, Emperor Frederick, 

231 
Barnabotti, The, 52 



J8 



19 

F8 
J8 
J8 
F8 



J8 



Barres, Maurice, 321 

Basilica of St. Mark, 38, 53, 55, 
58, 60-1, 68, 77, 79, 83, 88-9, 
93-4, 96-7, 99-100, 118, 174, 
176-7, 180, 182, 192-3, 198, 

200, 213, 224-6, 231, 234, 244- 

5, 265, 298, 309 
Basin of St. Mark, 181, 243, 271, 

*325 

Beerbohm, Max, 217 
Bellini, Gentile, 57, 229 
Bellini, Giovanni, 46, 83, 231, 

236-7, 243 

Benchley, Robert, 130 
Bernardo, Pietro, 168 
Biagio , 224 
Biennale, Venice, 37, 84, 152, 

237, 247 

Bismarck, Prince, 120 
Bonington, Richard, 322 
Bordone, Paris, 83 
Bourse, The, 44 
Bragadino, Marcantonio, 56, 

189-90 
Brenta, River, 127, 158, 255-7, 

260, 276-7 
Bridge of Fists (Ponte dei Pugni), 

82 
Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei 

Sospiri), 155, 244 
Bridge of Straw (Ponte della 

Paglia), 76, 273, 315 
Bridge of the Honest Woman 

(Ponte di Donna Onesta), 68 
Brown, Horatio, 75 
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, 323 
Browning, Robert, 112, 164, 

217, 321 

Brunswick, Duke of, 151 
Bucintoro Rowing Club, 135 



329 



Index 



Burano, island, 141, 258-9, 286- 

8, 297, 305 
Byron, Lord, 39, so, 57, 104, 

107, 112, 155, 216-7, 295-6, 
308, 321 



16 Ca d Oro, 46, 231, 237 

G8 Ca Foscari, 83, 152, 159, 239 
G8 Ca Rezzonico, 53, 112, 152, 164, 
217, 229, 239 

Calergi family, 151 
H8 Calle degli Assassin!, 188 

Cambrai, League of, 32, 106 

Cammell, Charles, 296 
J8 Campanile of St. Mark, 76, 81, 
93, 96, 120, 125, 129, 173-5, 
215, 244, 261, 266 
9 Campo Angelo RarTaele, 159 
E8 Campo dei Carmini, 195 
G7 Campo dei Frari, 76 
H4 Campo dei Mori, 58, 63, 234 
18 Campo Manin, 97, 183, 238 
G7 Campo S. Agostin, 55, 78, 232 
H8 Campo S. Angelo, 235 
H7 Campo S. Aponal, 232 
F9 Campo S. Barnaba, 41, 52 

17 Campo S. Baitolomeo, 238 

18 Campo S. Fantin, 157 

G6 Campo S. Giacomo dell Orio, 

146 

18 Campo S. Luca, 127 
F8 Campo S. Margherita, 97, 146, 

1 60, 224 

J7 Campo S. Maria Formosa, 146 
G6 Campo S. Maria Mater Domini, 

55 

G7 Campo S. Polo, 82, 146, 206 
69 Campo S. Stefano, 91, 146, 172 
K8 Campo S. Zaccaria, 153 
G6 Campo S. Zan Degola, 224, 

240 

J6 Campo S. Zanipolo, 56, 62, 77 
Canale ex-Vittorio Emmanuele 

HI, 272 

Canale Orfano, 272-3 
Canale S. Marco, 260, 269, 274 
Canaletto (Antonio Canal), 220, 

310 

4 Cannaregio, canal, 69, 155 
Canova, Antonio, 113, 230 
Capote, Truman, 201 
Cappello, Bianca, 66 



E8 
F8 



U 
G5 



Iio 



H 7 



Carmagnola (Francesco Bussone), 

188 
Carmini, church (S. Maria del 

Carmelo), 146, 172, 176, 231, 

239 

Carmini, Scuola di, 239 
Carpaccio, Vittore, 73, 78, 143, 

155, 1 80, 182, 199, 224, 236, 

238, 241 

Carrara, Novello, 188 
Casanova, Giacomo, 90, 174, 

185, 217 

Casino degli Spiriti, 186-7 
Casino, Municipal, 159, 187 
Cason dei Sette Morti, fishing- 
lodge, 315-17 
Casteletto, ex-brothel, 67 
Castellani, faction, 41, 233, 272 
Certosa, island, 269 
Chaplin, Charlie, 323 
Charles V, Emperor, 35 
Charles VII, King of Spain, 217 
Chateaubriand, Fransois, 36, 131, 

216 
Chioggia, lagoon town, 127, 

258, 261-2, 267, 278-80 
Churchill, Winston, 201, 285, 322 
Cima da Conegliano, 236-7, 239 
Clock Tower, 183, 194, 196, 200, 

214-15, 223, 244 
Cobden, Richard, 112 
Colleoni, Bartolomeo, 56, 231, 

243 

Communist Party, 51 
Condolmiere, Gabriel, 302 
Conservatoire of Music (Palazzo 

Pisani), 159 

Contarini, Giovanni, 55 
Corbusier, Le, 324 
Comaro, Caterina, 66 
Corot, Jean, 322 
Corte Catecumeni, 217 
Corte del Duca Sforza, 70 
Corvo, Baron (Frederick Rolfe), 

100, 112, 165, 167, 216, 302 
Coryat, Thomas, 84, 130, 141, 

216, 272 

Cocteau, Jean, 321 
Council of Ten, 30, 104, 184,223, 

301 

Council of Three, 30, 118, 184 
Court of Appeal (Palazzo Gri- 

mani), 151 



330 



Index 



D 



d Annunzio, Gabriele, 217, 245, 

266, 269 

da Gama, Vasco, 31, 96, 219, 249 
da Lezze, Antonio, 55 
Dandolo, Andrea, 57 
Dandolo, Doge Enrico, 42-3, 57, 

77, 80 
J8 Danieli, Hotel, 57, 104, 185, 246, 

264-5 

Dante Alighieri, 165, 223, 321 
da Ponte, Antonio, 46, 156 
de Berry, Duchesse, 152 
de Brosses, Charles, 293 
de Commynes, Philippe, 31 
della Grazia, Duca, 152 
de Medici, Lorenzino, 187 
de Musset, Alfred, 185, 321 
de Pisis, Filippo, 216, 322 
de Regnier, Henri, 217 
Diaghilev, Sergei, 165, 167 
Dickens, Charles, 170, 321 
Disraeli, Benjamin, 321 
B7 Docks, Venice, 249 
19 Dogana, customs house, 131,183, 

208, 224, 238, 323 
J8 Doge s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), 

53, 55, <5o, 70, 72, 105, 118, 

120, 171, 178, 180, 182-5, *94, 

213, 228, .23 5, 244 
Doria, Pietro, 262 
Dufy, Raoul, 322 
Diirer, Albrecht, 77, 322 
Duse, Eleonora, 86, 164, 217 



Eliot, George, 230, 322, 326 
17 Erberia, market, 220 

Erizzo, Doge Francesco, 226 
Evelyn, John, 125, 154, 321, 323 
Excelsior Hotel, Lido, 265 



Faliero, Doge Marin, 55, 189, 

234, 302 
H8 Fenice Theatre, 37, 75, 140, 238 

Ferrara, Marchioness of, 156 
F8 Fire Station, 159, 239 

Fisher, Lord, 107 
H6 Fish market, 221 
J8 Florian s, cafe, 204, 214-15 
17 Fondaco dei Tedeschi (Post 
Office), 162 



G5 Fondaco dei Turchi, 189, 195, 

234 
J5 Fondamenta Nuove, quayside, 

127, 160-1, 192, 288 
Forlati, Professor, 177 
Foscari, Alvise, 227 
Foscari, Doge Francesco, 53, 226, 

270 

Foscarini, Antonio, 56 
Foscarini, Doge Marco, 128 
Franco, Veronica, 69 
F7 Frari, church (S. Maria Gloriosa), 

64, 68, 74, 80, 99, 122, 168, 

1 88, 194, 213, 222, 226, 230, 
243 

Frederick III, Emperor, 125, 290 
Freyberg, General, 264 
18 Frezzeria, street, 223 

Fusina, mainland village, 127, 
276-7 

G 

Galileo, 173, 216 
Garibaldi, Giuseppe, 322 
L6 Gasworks, Municipal, 159 
Gautier, Theophile, 151, 321 
Gazzettino, newspaper, 69, 1591 
Gio Gesuati, church (S. Maria del 

Rosario), 239 
J5 Gesuiti, church (S. Maria As- 

sunta), 187, 227-8, 236 
F4 Ghetto, 106-8, 127, 237, 246 

Giorgione da Castelfranco, 94, 

162, 236 

Fn Giudecca, island, 74, 84, 88, 97, 
100, 106, 112, 126-8, 136-7, 
139, 153-6, 161, 195, 238-9, 
246, 249 

Giustinian family, 37, 54 
17 Gobbo di Rialto , 220 

Goethe, Johann, 33, 77, 125, 173, 

177,216,314, 321 
Goldoni, Carlo, 39, 42, 238 
G7 Goldoni s house, 64, 180 

Gorzkowsky, General, 119 
G8 Grand Canal, 29, 38-9, 41, 49, 
53, 79, 85, 87, 104, 126, 128, 
131-4, 136-7, 142, 144, 149, 
I5<5, 173, 192, 195, 197, 208, 
239, 243, 264 
Grimani, Antonio, 62 
Grimani, Breviaro, 238 
Grimani, Cardinal, 62 



331 



Index 



Grimani, Count Filippo, 175 
Grimani, family, 151 
Guardi, Francesco, 46, 237, 239 
Guggenheim, Peggy, 247 

H 

Hare, Augustus, 65, 213 
Ip Harry s Bar, 104, 201, 218, 285 

Hemingway, Ernest, 201, 321 

Henry III of France, 83-4, 219 

Hitler, Adolf, 322 
J6 Hospital, Municipal, 161 

Howell, James, 288, 290, 323 

Howells, W. D., 113, 168, 217 

Hutton, Barbara, 216 

Hutton, Edward, 311 



Ibn Khaldun, 32 
lesolo, lagoon town, 278 
G8 International Centre of Art and 
Costume (Palazzo Grassi), 152 

International Festival of Con 
temporary Music, 199, 247 
International Film Festival, 85, 

247 
Isonzo, River, 256 



James, G. P. R., 168 
James, Henry, 113, 321 

K 

If] Knights of Malta, church of (S. 

Giovanni), 237 
Kokoschka, Oskar, 322 



Gg La Carita, ex-church, 172, 217 

La Grazia, island, 300 

La Lupa, lagoon fort, 268 

Lama, River, 273 

Law, John, 165 
16 Law courts, Rialto, 45 

Lawrence, D. H., 323 

Liberi, Pietro, 229 

Lido, island, 43, 77, 121, 128, 
144, 218, 250, 269, 307-11 

Lido di Sottomarina, lagoon 

shore, 275, 278, 308 
FS Lista di Spagna, street, 116 

Littorale di Cavallino, lagoon 
shore, 275, 277-8 



Littorale di Pellestrina, island, 

308, 313 

Livenza, River, 256 
Longfellow, H. W., 321 
Longhena, Baldassare, 46, 109, 

231 

Longhi, Pietro, 46, 182 
Loredan family, 151 
Loredan, Girolamo, 55 
Lotto, Lorenzo, 238-9 
Lucas, E. V., 202 
19 Luna Hotel 265 

M 

Macaulay, Rose, 170 
HS Maddalena, church, 187 

Madonna del Monte, island, 268 
H4 Madonna dell* Orto, church, 93, 

97, 187, 194, 234, 236 
Magistracy of the Water, 57, 259 
Malamocco, lagoon town, 260, 

268, 312-13 
Manet, Edouard, 322 
Manin, Daniele, 199, 183, 244, 264 
Manin, Doge Ludovico, 227 
Mann, Thomas, 169, 321 
Mantegna, Andrea, 231, 237 
Mantua, Duke of, 42, 151 
J8 Marciana Library, 23 1 , 23 8 
Marghera, lagoon fort, 267 
Mazzorbo, island, 304-6 
McCarthy, Mary, 113 
Mechitar, Abbot, 293, 297 
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Felix, 

321 
J8 Merceria, street, 50, 180, 204, 

215, 232, 238 
Mestre, mainland town, 77, 126- 

7, 247-50, 264-5, 267, 273, 

276-7 

Michelangelo Buonarroti, 156 
Michiel, Giustina Renier, 36 
Michiele, Doge Domenico, 292 
Milne, Monkton, 144 
Mincio, River, 256 
15 Misericordia, church (S. Maria 

della Misericordia), 155, 188, 

236 

Mitchell, Donald, 113 
Monet, Claude, 322 
Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley, 

66 



332 



Index 



Montaigne, 277 
H6 Monte di Pieta (Pawnshop), 86, 

163 

Monteverdi, Claudio, 199 
Moro, Cristoforo, 217, 226 
Moro family, 58 
Morosini, Doge Francesco, 72, 

226, 233 
H7 Municipality, 152 

Murano, island, 128, 259, 288-92 
Murazzi, seawalls, 314 
J8 Museum, Correr, 151, 238 
16 Museum, Franchetti (Ca d Oro), 

152, 237 

H6 Museum of Modern Art, 152 
G5 Museum of Natural History, 13 5, 

152, 189, 234-5 
M8 Museum of Naval History, 137, 

235 
Mussolini, Benito, 120, 129 

N 
Napoleon Bonaparte, 32, 58, 97, 

106, 117, 128, 165, 182, 217, 

232, 262-3, 294 
Narses the Eunuch, 269 
Pi I Naval School, 183 

Negroponte, Antonio da, 237 
Nicolotti, faction, 41, 46, 233, 

272 

Nicopeia Madonna (Basilica), 93 
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 322 
Norfolk, Duke of, 165 



Oglio, River, 255 
F9 Ognissanti, church, 148 

Orseolo II, Doge Pietro, 301, 308 
Otto III, Emperor, 301 
Ouida (Louise Ramee), 322 



Pala d Oro (Basilica), 192, 245 
G8 Palazzo Balbi, 151, 216 
G9 Palazzo Barbaro, 217 
H7 Palazzo Coccina-Tiepolo, 151 
G8 Palazzo Contarini delle Figure, 

185 

H9 Palazzo Corner, 151 
H6 Palazzo Corner della Regina, 163 
17 Palazzo Dandolo, 57 
H9 Palazzo Dario, 217, 243 
G9 Palazzo degli Scrigni, 217 



G 9 
G9 
H 5 
F5 
G9 
H 7 
F5 
H 4 
G8 
H6 
G9 
G 5 

H 9 



E 7 
J8 

J8 
J8 



Palazzo del Duca Sforza, 151 
Palazzo dell* Ambasciatore, 116 
Palazzo Erizzo, 187 
Palazzo Flangini, 151 
Palazzo Franchetti, 182 
Palazzo Grimani, 151 
Palazzo Labia, 152, 218, 237, 265 
Palazzo MastelH, 194, 234 
Palazzo Mocenigo, 217 
Palazzo Pesaro, 231 
Palazzo Pisani, 224 
Palazzo Vendramin, 151, I59 

187 
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, 151, 

154, 247 
Palladio, Andrea, 83, 97, 128, 

156, 242 

Palma Giovane, 230-1 
Palma Vecchio, 230, 237, 268 
Pellestrina, lagoon town, 127, 

3I3-H 

Penitents, ex-convent, 69 
Pepin, son of Charlemagne, 260-1, 

272 

Perreau, Claude, 182 
Petrarch, Francesco, 72, 112, 321 
Pianta, Francesco, 63, 230, 242 
Piave, River, 255-7, 277 
Piazzale Roma, 47, 64, 129-30, 

144-5, 155, 211, 240, 246, 248 
Piazza San Marco, 36, 46, 80-1, 

83, 126, 132, 173-4, i?8, 198, 

204, 213-16, 227, 302 
Piazzetta dei Leoncini, 81, 93, 

145, 183 
Piazzetta San Marco, 118, 145, 

174, 182, 184, 210, 215, 243 
Picasso, Pablo, 285 
Pisani family, 151 
Pisani, Vettore, 261, 268 
Po, River, 31, 78, 255, 257, 272 
Pole, Cardinal, 216 
Polo, Marco, 31, 191 
Pope Alexander, 181 
Pope Alexander III, 217, 231-2 
Pope Clement XIII, 217 
Pope Eugenius IV, 302 
Pope Giovanni XXIII, 98 
Pope Pius VII, 225 
Pope PiusX, 86-8, 98, 103, 175, 

238 
Pordenone (Giovanni de* Sac- 

chi), 228 



333 



Index 



Porto di Chioggia, sea entrance, 

261 
Porto di Lido, sea entrance, 261, 

263, 269, 272, 274, 308 
Porto di Malamocco, sea en 
trance, 261,273, 313 
Porto Marghera, mainland docks, 

126, 249, 276 

Porto Secco, lagoon village, 313 
17 Post Office, 162, 239 

Poveglia, island, 302-3 
H9 Prefecture, 152 

Prester John, 192 
D8 Prison, 159 
J8 Prisons, old, 171 

Proust, Marcel, 321 
On Public Gardens, 65, 74, 77, 89, 
97, 126, 153-4, 182, 232, 237, 
246 

Punta Sabbione, lagoon shore, 
268 



J8 Quadri s, cafe, 120, 214-15 

Querini-Benzoni, Countess, 50 
K6 Querini Rowing Club, 135 
J7 Querini-StampaKa Gallery, 182, 

237 



Radetzky, Marshal, 264 
G6 Ramo SaKzzada Zusto, 147 

Reade, Charles, 321 
Hi i Redentore, church, 84, 156, 239 

Rejane, Gabrielle, 216 

Renoir, Pierre, 322 

17 Rialto bridge (Ponte idi Rialto), 

29, 41, 45, 67, 80, 88, 91, 103, 
I2<5, 131, 136, 156-7, 219-22, 
239 

18 Ridotto, ex-casino, 224 
Rilke, Rainer Maria, 321 

Hi 2 Rio della Croce, 137 
G9 Rio della Toletta, 60, 206 
Gi i Rio del Ponte Lungo, 74 
15 Rio S. Felice, 155 
69 Rio S. Trovaso, 105, 116, 144 
H4 Rioba, Signor Antonio , 63, 194 
K8 Riva degli Schiavoni, 47, 71, 77, 
85, 93, 122, 145, 160, 183, 208, 
224, 243, 246, 250, 300 
Rizzo family, 179 
Rizzo, Antonio, 42, 237 



Robert, Leopold, 188 
Rogers, Samuel, 262 
RoncalH, Cardinal, 98 
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 321 
Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 321 
19 Royal Gardens, 73 

Ruskin, John, 105, 113, 128, 143, 
161, 183, 187, 216, 226, 277, 
281, 292, 302, 321, 323-4 



Dn Sacca Fisola, island, 88, 161 
Sacca Sessola, island, 300 
St. Athanasius, 225 
St. Donato, 291 
St. Francis, 298 
St. George, 93, 225, 241 
St. Jerome, 181, 242 
St. John the Baptist, 225 
St. John the Beheaded, 40 
St. John the Evangelist, 94 
St. Julian the Martyr, 94 
St. Lucy, 225 
St. Luke, 94, 225 
St. Magnus, 225 
St. Mark, 58, 61, 93, 225, 271 
St. Mary Magdalene, 225 
St. Nicholas, 61, 93, 309-10 
St. Paul, 300 

St. Peter, 25, 61, 193, 225, 231 
St. Roch, 163, 225 
St. Stephen, 225 
St. Theodore, 30, 58, 225 
St. Tryphonius, 242 
St. Zacharias, 225 
L7 SaHzzada delle Gatte, 116 
Ip Salute, church (S. Maria della 
Salute), 39, 41, 133, 155, 163- 
4, 171, 223, 268 

G3 S. Alvise, church, 40, 236 
D7 S. Andrea, church, 158, 160 

S. Andrea, lagoon fort, 263, 269, 

274, 309 
S. Angelo della Polvere, island, 

267 
K8 S. Antonin, church, 79 

S. Antonio, lagoon village, 313 
H7 S. Aponal, church, 40, 97, 180, 
182 

16 S. Apostoli, church, 93, in 
S. Ariano, island, 306-7 

F9 S. Bamaba, church, 52, 121 

17 S. Bartolomeo, church, 97 



334 



Index 



>8 S. Basso, ex-church, 97 
H6 S. Cassiano, church, 240 
D6 S. Chiara, church, 182, 206 

S. Clemente, island, 300 
E6 S. Croce, ex-church, 97 
18 S, Croce degli Armeni, church, 

no 
S. Donato, cathedral, Murano, 

1 80, 291-2 
Pi I S. Elena, church, 97, 237 

S. Erasmo, island, 274, 303-5 
H<5 S. Eustachio (S. Stae), church, 

56, 140, 193, 231 
HS S. Fosca, church, 187 

S. Fosca, church, Torcello, 283-4 
S. Francesco del Deserto, island, 

297-9 
Lj S. Francesco della Vigna, church, 

116, 159, 188, 237 

M9 S. Francesco di Paola, church, 90 
FS S. Geremia, church, 151-2 
F4 S. Gerolamo, ex-church, 96 
F9 S. Gervasio e Protasio (S. Tro- 
vaso), church, 136, 199, 232, 

239 
G6 S. Giacomo dell* Orio, church, 

147, 224, 240 
17 S. Giacomo di Rialto, church, 

213, 220-2, 239 
S. Giacomo in Palude, island, 

268 
4 S. Giobbe, church, 164, 182, 199, 

225, 237, 241 
K/7 S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni, 

school, 78, 241 
K8 S. Giorgio dei Greci, church, 

109, 171, 237 

S. Giorgio in Alga, island, 302 
Kio S. Giorgio Maggiore, church, 

128, 140, 162, 171-2, 225, 242, 

247, 273-4, 3^3 
16 S. Giovanni Crisostomo, church, 

231, 236 
G5 S. Giovanni Decollate (S. Zan 

Degola), church, 40, 240 
J6 S. Giovanni e Paolo (S. Zani- 

polo), church, 40, 76, 95-7, 

161, 165, 187, 189-90, 226, 243 
Ij S. Giovanni Elemosinario, 

church, 239 
L8 S. Giovanni in Bragora, church, 

237 
J8 S. Giovanni in Olio, church, 94 



G 7 


S. 


H 9 


S. 


J8 


S. 




S. 




S. 




S. 


J* 


S. 


G 5 


S. 


K 7 


S. 


J<5 


S. 




S. 


G 5 


S. 


F8 


S. 




S. 


E8 


S. 


19 


S. 


E6 


S. 


J7 


S. 


F7 


S. 

< 


D8 


S. 


H6 


1 

S. 


J<5 


S. 

1 


H 9 


S. 

< 


L8 


S/ 


H 5 


S. 


H 9 


S. 


K 4 


S. 


18 


S/ 


E7 


S. 



Giovanni Evangelista, school, 

235 
Gregorio, ex-church, 121, 

239 

Giuliano, church, no, 238 
Ilario, mainland oil terminal, 
250, 273 

Lazzaretto, island, 40, 267 
Lazzaro, island, 293-7 
Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, 161 
Leonardo, ex-church, 97 
Lorenzo, ex-church, 97 
Marco, School, 62, 161, 182-3, 

237 

Marco in Bocca Lama, island, 

317 
Marcuola (S. Ermagora e 

Fortunate), church, 40, 97, 

173, 1 86 

Margherita, ex-church, 180 

Maria Assunta, cathedral, 
Torcello, 283-4 
Maria del Carmelo (Carmini), 
church, 46, 172, 176, 231, 239 

Maria della Salute, church, 

39, 4*, 133, 155, 1^3-4, 171, 
223, 268 

Maria di Nazareth (Scalzi), 
church, 227, 265 

Maria Formosa, church, 170, 
1 80, 237 

Maria Gloriosa (Frari), church, 
64, 68, 74, 80, 99, 122, 168, 
1 88, 194, 213, 222, 226, 230, 

243 
Maria Maggiore, ex-church, 

97 

Maria Mater Domini, church, 
240 

Maria dei Miracoli, church, 
93, 116, 241 

Maria Zobenigo (del Giglio), 
church, 93, 172, 199, 207, 228, 
231 

Martino, church, 226 
Marziale, church, 93, 228 
Maurizio, church, 97, 207 
Michele, cemetery-island, 102, 
127, 156, 165-7, 186, 188, 237, 
293, 306 

Moise, church, 180, 228, 238 
Nicol6 da Tolentino, church, 
240 



335 



Index 



Dp S. Nicolo dei Mendicoli, church, 

182, 239, 265 
S. Nicolo di Lido, church, Lido, 

274, 309-10 

F8 S. Pantaleone, church, 97, 239 
S. Pietro, church, Murano, 293 
O8 S. Pietro di Castello, church, 96, 

171, 193, 225, 232, 262 
S. Pietro in Volta, lagoon village, 

313, 3i6 

G7 S. Polo, church, 195 
F7 S. Rocco, church, 94, 187, 228, 

239 

F7 S. Rocco, School, 62-3, 94, *oo, 
164, 199, 230, 242 

17 S. Salvatore, church, 36, 159, 

199, 231, 238 

9 S. Sebastiano, church, 164, 239 
S. Secondo, island, 267 
S. Servolo, island, 301 
F6 S. Simone Grande (S. Sirneone 

Profeta), church, 164, 240 
S. Spirito, island, 268 
H6 S. Stae (S. Eustachio), church, 

56, 140, 193, 231 
H8 S. Stefano, church, 100, 131, 159, 

171-2, 1 88, 224, 226, 238 
G8 S. Toma, church, 225 
F9 S. Trovaso (S. Gervasio e Pro- 
tasio), church, 136, 199, 232, 

239 

G9 S. Vio, church, 97 
G9 S. Vitale, ex-church, 97, 114, 176 
K8 S. Zaccaria, church, 187, 230, 237 
G5 S. Zan Degola (S. Giovanni 

Decollate), church, 40, 240 
J6 S. Zanipolo (S. Giovanni e 
Paolo),, church, 40, 76, 95-7, 
161, 165, 187, 189-90, 226, 243 
Sand, George, 104, 185, 322 
Sansovino (Jacopo Tatti), 46, 

109, 156, 238, 268 
Sarpi, Paolo, 42, 59, 95, i<56, 187 
Sarto, Cardinal, 98 

18 Scala dal Bovolo, staircase, 238 
E6 Scalzi, church (S. Maria di 

Nazareth), 227, 265 
Scamozzi, Vincenzo, 157 
H5 Services, Convent, 154 
Sforza, Duke, 77, 216 
Shakespeare, William, 165, 226, 

276 
Shelley, Clara, 165, 310 



D 4 



F6 

E6 



16 



Shelley, Percy Bysshe, 112, 118, 

141, 301, 321 
Sile, River, 255-7 
Sitwell, Sir Osbert, 39 
Slaughterhouse, Municipal, 159 
Smith, Joseph, 310-11 
Spania, lighthouse, 313 
Spencer, Herbert, 323 
Stark, Freya, 322 
Station bridge, 157 
Station, railway, 127-8, 246 
Stendhal, 321 
Steno, Doge Michel, 76 
Strada Nova, street, 190 
Symonds, John Addington, 322 



Tafur, Pero, 260 
Tagliamento, River, 256 
Taglioni, Marie, 216 
Taine, Hippolyte, 321 
Teotoca Madonna (Torcello 

cathedral), 284-5, 292 
Tessera, island, 299 
Ticino, River, 255 
Tiepolo, Benjamino, 50, 55, 156, 

232 

Tiepolo, Domenico, 229 
Tiepolo, G. B., 236-7, 239, 265 
Tintoretto (Jacopo Rubusti), 46, 

62, 83, 170, 180, 183, 230-1, 

236, 238, 242 
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), 35-0", 

46, 60, 83, 162, 164, 230-1, 

236, 238, 240, 242-4, 268 
Torcello, island, 61, 281-5, 286, 

292 

Treporti, lagoon village, 277 
Treporti, kgoon fort, 268, 274 
Tresse, island, 267 
Trevelyan, G. M., 262 
Tron, Doge Nicolo, 227 
Turner, J. M. W., 156, 322 
Twain, Mark, 183, 196 

U 

G8 University (Ca* Foscari), 37, 65 

V 

Vare", Daniele, 74 
Vecellio, Francesco, 231 
Velazquez, Diego, 242 
Vendramin, Doge Andrea, 226 



336 



Index 



Vendramin family, 151 
Veniero, Admiral, 322 
Verdi, Giuseppe, 75 
Veronese, Paolo, 73, 83, 95, 229, 

239, 242 
Verrocchio (Andrea del Cione), 

231 
18 Via Marzo 22, street, 79, 119 

Vicentino (Andrea di Michieli), 

229 

Vignole, island, 269, 303-5 
Vittoria, Alessandro, 46, 230 
Vivaldi, Antonio, 199 
Vivarini, Alvise, 237, 243 
Voltaire, Francois M. A. de, 33 

W 

Wagner, Richard, 98, 143, 151, 
164, 217, 321 



Ward, Mrs. Humphry, 322 
Welles, Orson, 104, 201 
Whistler, J. McN., 322 
Whitehead, Robert, 114 
Windsor, Baron Odoardo, 165 
Wordsworth, William, 115 
Wotton, Sir Henry, 56, 95, 112, 

116-17 
Wright, Frank Lloyd, 216 



Gio Zattere, quayside, 44, 63, 72, 99- 
100, 114, 121, 127, 133, 144, 
214, 224, 235, 239, 248, 250 

Zeno, Carlo, 261-2 

Zobenigo family, 229 



337 



^ " % " * 



v;^;V-V 7S;.:i 




1 02 349