Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
First Impressions of Venice
By George Stillman Hillard (18081879)
[Born in Machias, Me., 1808. Died in Boston, Mass., 1879. From Six Months in Italy. 1853.]
NO city exerts so strong a spell over the imagination as Venice. The book of Rome has many more pages, but no one chapter like that of Venice. The history of Venice is full of dramatic interest, and poets of all nations have found it a fruitful storehouse of plot, incident, and character. Without doubt, it had its fair proportion of prosaic tranquillity and its monotonous tracts of uneventful happiness, but these are unheeded in the splendor of its picturesque and salient points; its conquests, its revolutions, its conspiracies, and its judicial murders. Shakespeare makes us familiar with its name, at an age when names are but sounds, and the forms with which he has peopled it are the first ever to greet the minds eye when we approach it. Shylock still darkens the Rialto with his frown; the lordly form of Othello yet stalks across the piazza of St. Marks, and every veil that flutters in the breeze shrouds the roguish black eyes of Jessica. Pictures and engravings introduce us to its peculiar architecture, and we come into its presence with an image in our thoughts, and are not unprepared for what we see. Venice never takes us by surprise. We are always forewarned and forearmed, and thus its unique character never has quite a fair chance with us.
The whole scene, under the brilliant light of a noonday sun, is full of movement and color. As soon as the steamer has dropped anchor at the entrance of the Grand Canal, a little fleet of gondolas crowds round her, and we are charmed to find them looking exactly as we expected. As they receive the passengers, they dart off in the most easy and graceful manner possible, their steel prows flashing in the sun, and their keels tracing a line of pearl upon the bright green water. In time our own turn comes, and, as we are borne along the Grand Canal, the attention is every moment attracted by the splendid show on either side. The long wave which the prow turns over is dashed against a wall of marble-fronted palaces, the names of which, carelessly mentioned by the gondolier, awaken trails of golden memories in the mind. The breadth of the silent highway allows the sun to lie in broad, rich masses upon this imposing gallery of architectural pictures, and to produce those happy accidents of light and shade which the artist loves. High in the air arise the domes and spires of the numerous churches with which wealth and devotion have crowded the islands of Venice, the bells of which are ever filling the air with their streams of undulating music. Everything is dreamlike and unsubstantiala fairy pageant floating upon the waters; a city of cloudland rather than of the earth. The gondola itself, in which the traveller reclines, contributes to weave the spell in which his thoughts and senses are involved. No form of locomotion ever gratified so well the two warring tendencies of the human soul, the love of movement and the love of repose. There is no noise, no fatigue, no danger, no dust. It is managed with such skill and so little apparent effort, that it really seems to glide and turn by its own will.
So far, the picture is all in light. But it is not without its shadows. A nearer view of the palaces which seem so beautiful in the distance reveals the decaying fortunes of their possessors. An indescribable but unmistakable air of careless neglect and unresisted dilapidation is everywhere too plainly visible. Indeed, many of these stately structures are occupied as hotels and lodging-houses; their spacious apartments cut up by shabby wooden partitions, and pervaded by an aspect of tawdry finery and mouldering splendor. On diverging from the Grand Canal, to the right or left, a change comes over the spirit of the scene. Instead of a broad highway of liquid chrysoprase, we find ourselves upon a narrow and muddy ditch. The sun is excluded by the height and proximity of the houses, and for the same reason there are no points of view for anything to be seen to advantage. All that meets the eye speaks of discomfort, dampness, and poverty. Slime, sea-weed, and mould cling to the walls. Water in small quantities is nothing if it be not pure. A fountain in the garden is beautiful, but the same quantity of water lying stagnant in ones cellar is an eyesore. The wave that dashes against a ship is glorious, but when it creeps into the hold through a defective seam it is a noisome intruder. Venice wants the gilding presence of sunshine. In a long rain it must be the most dispiriting of places. So when we leave the sun we part with our best friend. The black, cold shadow under which the gondola creeps falls also upon the spirit. The ideal Venicethe superb bridegroom of the sea, clasped by the jewelled arms of his enamored bridedisappears, and we have only a warmer Amsterdam. The reflection, too, forces itself upon us that Venice at all times was a city for the few and not for the many. Its nobles were lodged more royally than kings, but the common people must always have been thrust into holes, close in summer, cold in winter, and damp at all times.
In external Venice there are but three things to be seen; the sea, the sky, and architecture. There are no gardens, no wide spaces over which the eye may range; no landscapes, properly so called. There are no slopes, no gradations, no blending of curved lines. What is not horizontal is perpendicular: where the plane of the sea ends, the plumb-line of the facade begins. It is only by climbing some tower or spire, and looking down, that we can see things massed and grouped together. The streets are such passages as would naturally be found in a city where there were no vehicles, and where every foot of earth is precious. They are like lateral shafts cut through a quarry of stone. In walking through them, the houses on either hand can be touched. The mode of life on the first floor is easily visible, and many agreeable domestic pictures may be observed by a not too fastidious eye. These streets, intersected by the smaller canals, are joined together by bridges of stone, and frequently expand into small courts, in the middle of which is generally found a well, with a parapet or covering of stone, often curiously carved. Here, at certain seasons of the day, the people of the neighborhood collect together to draw water, gossip, and make love; and here the manners and life which are peculiar to Venice may be studied to advantage. Goethe complains of the dirt which he found in the streets. Time and the Austrians have remedied that defect, and they are now quite clean. But nowhere else have I heard the human voice so loud. Whether this arises from the absence of all other sounds, or whether these high and narrow streets multiply and reverberate every tone, I cannot say, but everybody seems to be putting forth the utmost capacity of his lungs. I recall a sturdy seller of vegetables in Shylocks Rialtowhich is not the bridge so called, but a square near itwhose voice was like the voice of three, and who seemed to take as much pleasure in his explosive cries as a boy in beating his first drum.