Making the impossible happen
Centuries before Venice became a synonym of glory, glamour and power, the City of the Doges was a mere bunch of islands, half-stuck in a shallow, muddy lagoon at the top of the Adriatic. The empty, inhospitable environment of the Venetian marsh, in the middle of nowhere, was far from a dreamland. But, in the 6th century, Europe was ravaged by Hunnic and Germanic raids, leaving no freedom of choice.
The convoy of refugees fleeing their homelands in North Italy was in despair: with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, they decided to stay in the Venetian lagoon, at least for a while, hoping that the barbarian tribes would not bother chasing them on the water.
Months went by and still no Huns in sight. Then someone had to ask: “why don’t we make ourselves a home here?” The idea was as attractive as it was mad: how on earth would they make a city stand -let alone survive- on the water? How would they manage to stabilize its foundations on such soft, muddy soil? They imagined a pile of tree trunks closely spaced to each other, stuck into the sand until they reached a harder layer of compressed clay. They got limestone from Istria to cover the wooden piles on top, and set the foundations of the construction. The calendar read 639 A.D. The first houses began to rise from the muddy ground of the Torcello island and so did Venice’s first church -still standing on her feet. “Miracolo!” It worked! What started as a daring experiment got the shape of what Italians would later call “La Serenissima”: an oriental odalisque laying nonchalantly on a soft bed of mud, salt and wood.
Wood and salt, materials of glory
If wood and mud served as construction materials, wood and salt became the fuel that launched La Serenissima to the orbit of history’s greatest Empires. Early on into the history of the city, Venetians tapped into the vast tree reserves of mainland’s nearby forests to build houses, and, most importantly, ships. From the Arsenale, the world’s largest shipyard of its time, Venice launched thousands of ships that fought battles and led the maritime trade from the 9th to the 15th century. And it was salt -a precious mineral that the lagoon provided in abundance- that was traded first. By becoming the world’s biggest merchant of salt and spices -the two most wanted food preservatives of the medieval world- the tiny city of Venice was set to become a trading giant ruling the world for over six centuries.
In order to instill the cardinal role of water for the Republic into the citizens’ minds, the procurators introduced a symbolic rite, called the “Marriage of the Sea” (“Sposalizio del Mare” in Italian): a pompous ceremony, celebrated annually on Ascension Day, where the Doge threw a golden ring into the Adriatic Sea to symbolize the maritime domination of Venice.
The ceremony began with the “Bucentaur”, the Doge’s grandiose galley, docking at the mole in front of Palazzo Ducale. The Doge boarded on, dressed in full regalia – including a mantle of gold, ermine fur, and a ceremonial “Corno Ducale” headwear. The papal legate, French ambassador and Venetian senators were sitting close by. A convoy of boats and gondolas accompanied the Bucentaur to Lido Island where the Patriarch of Venice climbed aboard to pronounce a nuptial benediction. The Doge then threw a ring into the sea reciting the following words: “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii.” — “We espouse thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion.” A feast, famous for its splendor and wealth, called “Festa della Sensa” concluded the magnificent ceremony.
This 18th-century painting by Canaletto features on the background the Doge’s barge, called the Bucentaur, returning to Venice after the “wedding of the Sea” ceremony.
Before ecology became cool
The prediction of the first settlers was spot-on: throughout Venice’s history, the shallow and unstable banks of the lagoon effectively protected her from riots, feuds and invasions. What seemed to have been underestimated were the difficulties of keeping such an inhospitable environment from threatening the city’s own survival: for over 15 centuries and counting, Venetians have been forced to deploy all their ingenuity on an endless fight against the lagoon’s perilous facets: floods, erosion, pollution, and, last but not least, plague pandemics.
It was quickly observed that the numerous rivers flowing into Venice brought tons of sediment along with their precious waters. Had they let nature take its course, La Serinissima would eventually be drowned under layers of mud. To prevent this fatality, the ingenious citizens had to learn how to deviate river beds, and dredge artificial canals and dams; extensive hydraulic projects were undertaken throughout the history of the Republic, preventing silt from clogging the canals, and thus protecting the lagoon from turning into a marsh.
The salutary river diversion had a negative collateral effect: it created an ever-deeper lagoon environment, which, along with the naturally evolving subsidence of Venice’s soft soil, accentuated the intensity of the seasonal flood tides, commonly known as “Acqua Alta”. Taking place between autumn and spring, Acqua Alta is a local phenomenon of tide peaks resulting from the conjunction of various factors: the shape and location of the lagoon; the co-existence of two winds -the Sirocco and the Bora- both blowing with force towards the top of the Adriatic; and the growing melting of the ice in the nearby Alps. Pushing in from the Adriatic, these flood tides can last for a few hours -sometimes days- drowning entire neighborhoods and eroding building foundations. Saint Mark’s square is sadly the first to be flooded, since the ground there is at its lowest levels.
As Venetians were busy fighting natural phenomena, plague was knocking on their door. Black Death devastated the Republic at least 3 times: in 1348, 1575-1577 and 1629-1630, decimating up to 150.000 citizens -almost half of the total population- on every single stroke. Faced with an ecosystem extremely complicated to maintain, the authorities introduced numerous ecological measures instilling a pro-environmental mentality, perhaps earlier than in any other place. The protection of the water became the city’s biggest concern, justifying severe punishments to its polluters: in fact, a Doge’s decree imposed death sentence to whoever was apprehended polluting the lagoon by all manner of means.
Grand Canal, a packed boulevard
Three hundred years after the fall of La Serenissima, the plague of modern Venice comes, not with the sailors, but with the 30 million visitors arriving in Venice in cruise ships, trains and airplanes every year.
Several protests have been held against the massive tourism industry for having eroded the quality of life, damaged the environment and driven residents away. The environmental battle takes place on many fronts: several measures have been considered against sound pollution -a fine of up to €500 was considered for those who carry wheeled suitcases- and littering -tourists are encouraged to drink from water fountains instead of using plastic bottles. Keeping the city clean and floating is a task far more costly in Venice than anywhere else, and so visitors are asked to pay a tax up to €6 per night, while a €5 entrance fee is considered to be applied to cruise-ship day trippers.
Fortunately, cruise ships are no longer allowed to sail past St Mark’s Square and along the Grand Canal. Instead, they take a less glamorous route via the industrial area of Marghera and disembark far from the city centre. Their distancing was imposed by the fact that, over the years, the waves caused by these gigantic ships have eroded the underwater supports of historic buildings and polluted the waters; so have the city’s countless motor boats -exclusively reserved for residents- which are forced to abide by strict speed limits.
Famous writers in love with the floating city
Writers, artists and historians wrote extensively about their impressions of Venice and notably, the views from the Canal, the water palaces, and the joyful temperament of the gondoliers.
Ernest Hemingway (1899 –1961), the famous Nobel-prize novelist and journalist, was only 18 years old when he first landed in Italy in WWI to join the Italian Front as an ambulance driver. He deployed his wartime experiences to write A Farewell to Arms, an all-time-classic of American literature. It was much later, in 1948, when he visited Venice and stayed there for months, captivated by his feelings for a 19-year-old girl, Adriana Ivancich. Their platonic relationship inspired Hemingway to write the novel Across the River and into the Trees, a title derived from the last words of U.S. Civil War Confederate General Thomas Jackson: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” The novel deals with the theme of death and how the latter is faced through a flashback of life experiences of Colonel Cantwell, a 50-year-old US Army officer, duck hunting near Venice at the close of World War II. Written in a distinctive spare style, where the substance lies below the surface of the plot, the selected extract goes back to the time before the foundation of the Venetian Republic to explain how -and where- the whole story started: on Torcello Island.
Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), was a French historian, critic and philosopher known for his observing eye and obsession with accuracy. His work influenced French naturalism, a literary movement conceived to depict life and local customs with the precision of a photograph. In 1866, he visited Italy and wrote extensive travel notes on Rome, Naples, Tuscany and Venice. Loyal to his methods, the French historian delivered a meticulous and impressively perceptive portrait of the city of the Doges – its landmarks, artistic culture, and lifestyle- that very few visitors have perceived. In the following extract, during an ethereal gondola ride, hovering between earth and sky, Taine invites us to observe the curves of the canal, admire the mastery lacework of the palatial marble facades, and get lost in a game of water reflections.
In a city set on the muddy, shallow waters of a lagoon, the holders of its power could not come from another environment: captains, sailors and gondoliers created the fabric of Venice’s glory right from the beginning. Countless stories were inspired by all three of them, especially the gondolieri. In an extract below, Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955) wrote a delightful incident of a stubborn, unlicensed gondolier, determined to give his patron a ride, whether the latter wanted it or not. Thomas Mann was a novelist and essayist interested in the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. Based on the philosophies of Goethe, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, the German author dug deep into the European and German archetypes. Death in Venice, arguably his most famous novel, talks about an ennobled writer, called Aschenbach, who visits Venice and gets captivated by the sight of Tadzio, a 14-year-old adolescent with an angelic face. Aschenbach, a 50-year-old man confined in a disciplined dedication to his art, becomes progressively obsessed by Tadzio’s aristocratic looks. He will follow him all over Venice, in a journey condemned to decline and perish.
Famous musicians were also impressed by the presence of the gondoliers. Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), the world-known opera composer of the Romantic Movement, visited Venice in 1858, after an ugly break-up with his wife, Minna. He rented an apartment in the Palazzo Giustinian, a marvelous Gothic mansion, to finish Tristan and Isolde. This famous opera was inspired by Schopenhauer and Mathilde Wesendonck, a poet Wagner was in love with. The selected extract, retrieved from his autobiographical book, “Mein Leben” (“My Life”), fishes out an incident that seemed to have influenced his work: during a gondola ride, Wagner’s gondolier sings a famous old folk-song; on a dramatic peak, the gondolier utters a long-drawn wail, like the cry of an animal. Wagner felt so moved that, although unable to recollect the melody on the spot, he managed to transcribe the sound into the shepherd’s horn at Tristan’s third act.
French novelist Marcel Proust (1871 –1922) gained world fame for his monumental novel entitled “In Search of Lost Time” (the previous English title being “Remembrance of Things Past”), originally published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927. A hopelessly romantic soul, this influential literary figure fell under the spell of Venice immediately. It would have been unthinkable for Proust to avoid paying tribute to his beloved Serenissima in his autobiographical work. In the selected extract, published in the novel’s second volume, Proust describes an idyllic ride on a gondola, where “a mysterious hand” led him through double line of palaces reflecting the light on their “rosy surface […] like a chain of marble cliffs”. In this floating “Champs-Elysees” boulevard, the mesmerized author recounts a procession of fashionable ladies comfortably sitting on velvet cushions of the black floating vehicles… A narration as dreamy and romantic as the city itself.
François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), is regarded as a hugely influential figure of French litterature, and the founder of French romanticism. As a writer, diplomat, historian and politician, he witnessed decisive events of history, met iconic figures and experienced exotic adventures in the farthest places; all of which were documented in his posthumous autobiographical work entitled “Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb”. In his travel notes on Venice, he offers a delightful description of the gondolier’s ritual of preparing his boat for the daily ride: you will be surprised to discover how serious a job it has been, following a specific protocol that includes washing, scraping, brushing, scrubbing, dusting and polishing the gondola among other steps. Chateaubriand’s poetic prose was so remarkable it inspired eminent poets, such as Victor Hugo, to say: “I will be Chateaubriand or nothing”.
Of mud and water
The Colonel and the driver walked over to the Venice side of the road and looked across the lagoon that was whipped by the strong, cold wind from the mountains that sharpened all the outlines of buildings so that they were geometrically clear.
“That’s Torcello directly opposite us,” the Colonel pointed. “That’s where the people lived that were driven off from the mainland by the Visigoths. They built that church you see there with the square tower. There were thirty thousand people who lived there once and built that church to honour their Lord and to worship him. Then, after they built it, the mouth of the Sile River silted up or a big flood changed it, and all that land we came through just now got flooded and started to breed mosquitoes and malaria hit them.
They all started to die, so the elders got together and decided they should pull out to a healthy place that would be defensible with boats, and where the Visigoths and the Lombards and the other bandits couldn’t get at them, because these bandits had no sea-power. The Torcello boys were all great boatmen. So they took the stones of all their houses in barges, like that one we just saw, and built Venice.”
He stopped. “Am I boring you, Jackson?”
“No, sir. I had no idea who pioneered Venice.”
“It was the boys from Torcello. They were very tough and had very good taste in building. They came from a little place up the coast, called Caorle. But they drew on all the people from the towns and farms behind when the Visigoths over-ran them.
It was a Torcello boy who was running arms into Alexandria, who located the body of St. Mark and smuggled it out under a load of fresh pork so the infidel customs guards wouldn’t check him. This boy brought the remains of St. Mark to Venice; now he is their patron saint and they have a cathedral there for him.
But by that time, they were trading so far to the east that the architecture is pretty Byzantine for my taste. They never built any better than at the start there in Torcello. That’s Torcello there.”
It was, indeed.
“St Mark’s square is where the pigeons are and where they have that big cathedral that looks sort of like a moving picture palace, isn’t it?”
“Right, Jackson. You’re on the ball. If that’s the way you look at it. Now you look beyond Torcello and you will see the lovely campanile on Burano that has damn near as much list on it as the leaning tower of Pisa. That Burano is a very overpopulated little island where the women make wonderful lace, and the men make bambinis and work day-times in the glass factories in that next island you see on beyond with the other campanile, which is Murano. They make wonderful glass day-times for the rich of all the world, and then they come home on the little vaporetto and make bambinis. Not everyone passes every night with his wife though. They hunt ducks nights too, with big punt guns, out along the edge of the marshes on this lagoon you’re looking across now. All night long on a moonlight night you hear the shots.” He paused.
“Now when you look past Murano you see Venice. That’s my town. There’s plenty more I could show you, but I think we probably ought to roll now. But take one good look at it. This is where you can see how it all happened. But nobody ever looks at it from here.”
“It’s a beautiful view. Thank you, sir.”
“O.K.”,’ the Colonel said. “Let’s roll.”
Across the river and into the trees, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950
A stubborn gondolier
Can there be anyone who has not had to overcome a fleeting sense of dread, a secret shudder of uneasiness on stepping for the first time or after a long interval of years into a Venetian gondola? How strange a vehicle it is, coming down unchanged from times of old romance, and so characteristically black, the way no other thing is black except a coffin -a vehicle evoking lawless adventures in the plashing stillness of night, and still more strongly evoking death itself the bier, the dark obsequies, the last silent journey! And has it been observed that the seat of such a chair with its coffin-black lacquer and dull black upholstery, is the softest, the most voluptuous, most enervating seat in the world?
Aschenbuch became aware of this when he had settled down feet, sitting opposite his luggage, which was neatly bled at the pow. The oarsmen were still quarrelling; raucously, unintelligibly, igibly, with threatening gestures. But in the peculiar silence of this city of water their voices seemed to be softly absorbed, to become bodiless, dissipated above the sea. It was sultry here in the harbor. As the warm breath of the sirocco touched him, as he leaned back on cushions over the yielding element, the traveler closed his eyes in the enjoyment of this lassitude as sweet as it was unaccustomed. It will be a short ride, he thought; if only it could last forever! In a gently swaying motion he felt himself gliding away from the crowd and the confusion of voices.
How still it was growing all around him! There was nothing to be heard except the plashing of the oar, the dull slap of the wave against the boat’s prow where it rose up steep and black and armed at its tip like a halberd, and a third sound also: that of a voice speaking and murmuring -it was the gondolier, whispering and muttering to himself between his teeth, in intermittent grunts pressed out of him by the labour of his arms. Aschenbach looked up and noticed with some consternation that the lagoon was widening round him and that his gondola was heading out to sea. It was thus evident that he must not relax too completely, but give some attention to the proper execution of his instructions.
‘Well! To the vaporetto stop!’ he said, half turning round. The muttering ceased, but no answer came.
“I said to the vaporetto stop!” he repeated, turning round completely and looking up into the face of the gondolier, who was standing behind him on his raised deck, towering between him and the pale sky. He was a man of displeasing, indeed brutal appearance, wearing blue seaman’s clothes, with a yellow scarf round his waist and a shapeless, already fraying straw hat tilted rakishly on his head. To judge by the cast of his face and the blond curling moustache under his snub nose, he was quite evidently not of Italian origin. Although rather slightly built, so that one would not have thought him particularly well suited to his job, he plied his soar with great energy, putting his whole body into every stroke. Occasionally the effort made him retract his lips and bare his white teeth. With his reddish eyebrows knitted, he stared right over his passenger’s head as he answered peremptorily, almost insolently:
‘You are going to the Lido.’ Aschenbach replied:
‘Of course. But I only engaged this gondola to row me across to San Marco. I wish to take the vaporetto.’
‘You not take the vaporetto, signore’
‘And why not?’
‘Because the vaporetto does not carry luggage.’
That was correct, as Aschenbach now remembered. He was silent. But the man’s abrupt, presumptuous manner, so uncharacteristic of the way foreigners were usually treated in this country, struck him as unacceptable. He said:
‘That is my affair. I may wish to deposit my luggage. Will you kindly turn round.’
There was silence. The oar plashed, the dull slap of the water against the bow continued, and the talking and muttering began again: the gondolier was talking to himself between his teeth.
What was to be done? Alone on the sea with this st uncannily resolute fellow, the traveller could see I compelling him to obey his instructions. And in any case, how luxurious a rest he might have here if he simply accepted the situation! Had he not wished the trip were longer, wished it to last forever? It was wisest to let things take their course, and above all it was very agreeable to do so. A magic spell of indolence seemed to emanate from his seat, from his low black-upholstered armchair, so softly rocked of the high-handed gondolier behind him. The thought that he had perhaps fallen into the hands of a criminal floated dreamily across Auchenbach’s mind-powerless to stir him to any active plan of self-defence. There was the more annoying possibility that the whole thing was simply a device for extorting money from him. A kind of pride or a sense of duty, a recollection, so to speak, that there are precautions to be taken against such things, impelled him to make one further effort. He asked:
‘What is your charge for the trip?’
‘And looking straight over his head, the gondolier answered: ‘You will pay, signore.’
The proscribed retort to this was clear enough. Aschenbach answered mechanically:
‘I shall pay nothing, absolutely nothing, if you take me where I do not want to go.’
‘The signore wants to go to the Lido.’
‘But, not with you.’
‘I can row you well’
‘True enough, thought Aschenbach, relaxing. True enough, you will row me well. Even if you are after my cash and dispatch me to the House of Hades with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.
Der Tod in Venedig, S. Fischer Verlag, 1912
Death in Venice and other stories, Vintage, 1998
Procession of palaces
Today we visit Venice on a gondola; this will allow us to see the whole picture.
Venice is the pearl of Italy; I have seen nothing of comparable beauty. I know of only one city that comes close -but by far- and only for its architecture: it’s Oxford. In the whole peninsula, nothing can be compared to it. Thinking of the dirty streets in Rome and Naples, thinking of the dry, narrow streets of Florence and Siena, and then looking at those marble palaces, those marble bridges, those marble churches, that superb embroidery of columns, balconies and windows, Gothic, Moorish, Byzantine cornices, and the universal presence of moving, glistening water, one wonders why we didn’t come here right away, why we wasted two months in other cities, why we did not spend all of our time in Venice.
We plan to settle there, we swear we will come back; for the first time, a city is admired not only with the mind, but with the heart and the senses […]. We feel ready to be happy; we tell ourselves that life is beautiful. All we need to do is to just open our eyes: the gondola slides with an insensible movement; we lie down and let ourselves go completely, mind and body. A moist and soft air caresses the cheeks.
On the wide, water field of the canal, one sees the rosy and whitish forms of the palaces undulating asleep in the freshness and silence of dawn; here, one can forget everything: his job, his projects, even himself; he looks, he picks, he savors the city, as if suddenly, ethereal, liberated from life, he can hover above things, within the sunlight and the blue sky.
The Grand Canal unfolds its curves between two rows of palaces, each built separately and for itself, which have unwittingly assembled their diversities to embellish it. Most of them date back to the Middle Ages with their ogival windows crowned with trefoils, latticework balconies of finials and rosettes. A rich Gothic fantasy flourishes in their marble lacework without ever falling into sadness or ugliness; other palaces, from the Renaissance, stage their three superimposed rows of antique columns. Porphyry and serpentine encrust their precious and polished stone above the doors. Several facades are pink or mottled with soft tints, and their arabesques resemble the lattices that the wave draws on fine sand. Time has put its grayish and melted livery on all these old forms, and the morning light laughs deliciously in the great spreading water.
The canal turns, and Santa Maria della Salute shows up with its domes, its heaps of sculptures, and a pediment laden with statues: the church rises from the water like rich marine vegetation, like a splendid and strange whitish blanching coral. Further down, on another island, San Giorgio Maggiore, all rounded and bristling, like a pompous shell of mother-of-pearl.
We set off again with our eyes turned to San Marco basilica, its campanile, its square, its ducal palace. There is probably no second gem in the world like this one.
À Venise – Voyage en Italie, Hachette, 1866
The chant of the gondoliers
The frequent gondola trips towards the Lido constituted my chief enjoyment during practically the whole of my stay in Venice. It was more especially on our homeward journeys at sunset that I was always overpowered by unique impressions. During the first part of our stay in the September of that year we saw on one of these occasions the marvellous apparition of the great comet, which at that time was at its highest brilliancy, and was generally said to portend an imminent catastrophe. The singing of a popular choral society, trained by an official of the Venetian arsenal, seemed like a real lagoon idyll. They generally sang only three-part naturally harmonised folk-songs.
It was new to me not to hear the higher voice rise above the compass of the alto, that is to say, without touching the soprano, thereby imparting to the sound of the chorus a manly youthfulness hitherto unknown to me. On fine evenings they glided down the Grand Canal in a large illuminated gondola, stopping before a few palaces as if to serenade (when requested and paid for so doing, be it understood), and generally attracted a number of other gondolas in their wake.
During one sleepless night, when I felt impelled to go out on to my balcony in the small hours, I heard for the first time the famous old folk-song of the gondolieri. I seemed to hear the first call, in the stillness of the night, proceeding from the Rialto to about a mile away like a rough lament, and answered in the same tone from a yet further distance in another direction. This melancholy dialogue, which was repeated at longer intervals, affected me so much that I could not fix the very simple musical component parts in my memory. However, on a subsequent occasion I was told that this folk-song was of great poetic interest. As I was returning home late one night on the gloomy canal, the moon appeared suddenly and illuminated the marvellous palaces and the tall figure of my gondolier towering above the stern of the gondola, slowly moving his huge sweep. Suddenly he uttered a deep wail, not unlike the cry of an animal; the cry gradually gained in strength, and formed itself, after a long-drawn ‘Oh!’ into the simple musical exclamation ‘Venezia!’ This was followed by other sounds of which I have no distinct recollection, as I was so much moved at the time. Such were the impressions that to me appeared the most characteristic of Venice during my stay there, and they remained with me until the completion of the second act of Tristan, and possibly even suggested to me the long-drawn wail of the shepherd’s horn at the beginning of the third act.
My Life, Cambridge University Press, 1983
A floating boulevard
My gondola followed the course of the small canals; like the mysterious hand of a Genie leading me through the maze of this oriental city, they seemed, as I advanced, to be carving a road for me through the heart of a crowded quarter which they clove asunder, barely dividing with a slender fissure, arbitrarily carved, the tall houses with their tiny Moorish windows; and, as though the magic guide had been holding a candle in his hand and were lighting the way for me, they kept casting ahead of them a ray of sunlight for which they cleared a path. […]
The sun had barely begun to set when I went to fetch my mother from the Piazzetta.
We returned up the Grand Canal in our gondola, watched the double line of palaces between which we passed reflect the light and angle of the sun upon their rosy surfaces, and alter with them, seeming not so much private habitations and historic buildings as a chain of marble cliffs at the foot of which people go out in the evening in a boat to watch the sunset.
In this way, the mansions arranged along either bank of the canal made one think of objects of nature, but of a nature which seemed to have created its works with a human imagination. But at the same time (because of the character of the impressions, always urban, which Venice gives us almost in the open sea, upon those waves whose flow and ebb make themselves felt twice daily, and which alternately cover at high tide and uncover at low tide the splendid outside stairs of the palaces), as we should have done in Paris upon the boulevards, in the Champs-Elysées, in the Bois, in any wide thoroughfare that was a fashionable resort, in the powdery evening light, we passed the most beautifully dressed women, almost all foreigners, who, propped luxuriously upon the cushions of their floating vehicle, took their place in the procession, stopped before a palace in which there was a friend whom they wished to see, sent to inquire whether she was at home.
And while, as they waited for the answer, they prepared to leave a card, as they would have done at the door of the Hôtel de Guermantes, they turned to their guide-book to find out the period, the style of the palace, not without being shaken, as though upon the crest of a blue wave, by the thrust of the flashing, prancing water, which took alarm on finding itself pent between the dancing gondola and the slapping marble. And thus any excursion, even when it was only to pay calls or to go shopping, was threefold and unique in this Venice where the simplest social coming and going assumed at the same time the form and the charm of a visit to a museum and a trip on the sea.
Albertine disparue, Gallimard, 1925, trad. C. K. Scott Moncrieff
The grooming of the gondola
The joy of these Nereus sons never forsakes them: clothed by the sun, they are fed by the sea. They do not lie about idly like the lazzaroni in Naples: ever stirring, they are sailors who lack ships and work, but who would still carry on the trade of the world and win the Battle of Lepanto, if the days of Venetian liberty and glory were not past. At six o’clock in the morning, they come to their gondolas, fastened to posts with their prows aground. Then they begin to scrape and wash their barchette at the Traghetti, just as dragoons curry, brush and sponge their horses on picket.
The ticklish sea-horse is restive and refuses to stand still under the movements of its horseman, who draws water in a wooden vessel and pours it over the sides and into the well of the craft. He repeats several times the aspersion, taking care to discard the water from the surface of the sea in order to obtain the cleaner water below. Then he scrubs the oars, polishes the brasses and the glass of the little black deck-house, dusts the cushions and carpets and rubs up the iron head of the prow. This daily routine is not done without a few words of humour or affection addressed, in the pretty Venetian dialect, to the skittish or docile gondola.
When the gondola’s toilet is completed, the gondolier proceeds to make his own. He combs his hair, shakes out his jacket and his blue, red or grey cap, washes his face, feet and hands. His wife, daughter or mistress brings him a bowl containing a mess of vegetables, bread and meat.
When the breakfast is over, each gondolier awaits fortune, singing…and there she is! A beautiful lady with one foot in the air, holding out her scarf to the wind and serving as a weather vane, at the top of the monument of the Dogana di Mare, the Customs office. Does she give the signal?
The favoured gondolier, with his oar upraised, starts out at the back of his craft, even as Achilles used to fly in former days, or as one of Franconi’s circus-riders gallops to-day on the crupper of a fiery steed. The gondola, shaped like a skate, glides over the water as over ice: “Sia, stati! Sta longo!” that does for the whole day. Then night comes, and the calle will see my gondolier singing and drinking with his zitella, the half-sequin which I leave him, as I go off most certainly to replace Henry V on the throne.
Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 1833
Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos in François-René de ChateaubriandThe Memoirs of François René Vicomte de Chateaubriand sometime Ambassador, Fremantle & Co, 1902
Venice for sunset lovers
Explore the most beautiful water views and spots to enjoy gorgeous sunsets in the floating city