The very name breathes romance and spells beauty. Poets, artists, and
historians without number have revealed to us the glories of this city.
Dull indeed must be the perception of loveliness of form and colour in
the mind of the man who is not deeply moved by the contemplation of the
Stones of Venice. Yet it seems to me that no city is so difficult to
describe; everything has been said, every scene painted by master hands.
One’s impression must read inevitably like that which has been written
over and over again. And in a brief enumeration of the buildings to be
seen by the visitor, how can the unhappy writer avoid the charge of
baldness and inefficiency?
Well, then, to say that Venice is supremely beautiful among the towns of
Italy is to set down a commonplace. It is a town in which the
matter-of-fact man realises the meaning of romance and poetry; a town
where the phlegmatic become sentimental, and the poetic are stirred to
ecstasies. George Borrow wept at beholding the beauty of Seville by
the Guadalquivir in the evening light. “Tears of rapture” would have
filled his eyes as he gazed upon the splendours of the Grand Canal.
Some of the many writers upon Venice have found the scene “theatrical”;
others assert that the influence of Venice is sad, while others again
declare that the city provokes hilarity of spirits in a magical way.
Whatever the nature of the spell, it is strong, and few escape it.
Ruskin, Byron, the Brownings, and Henry James, are among the souls to
whom Venice has appealed with the force of a personality.
The spirit of Venice has been felt by thousands of travellers. Its
pictures–for every street is a picture–remain deeply graven on the
Perhaps there is nothing made by man to float upon the waters more
graceful in its lines than a gondola. To think of Venice, is to recall
these gliding, swan-like, silent craft, that ply upon the innumerable
waterways. Like ghosts by night they steal along in the deep shadows of
the palaces, impelled by boatmen whose every attitude is a study in
lissome grace. To lie in a gondola, while the attendant noiselessly
propels the stately skiff with his pliant oar, is to realise romance
and the perfection of leisurely locomotion.
What can be said of the sunsets, the almost garish colouring of sea and
sky, and the witchery of reflection upon tower and roof? What can be
written for the thousandth time of the resplendent churches, the rich
gilding, the noble façades, the hundred picturesque windings of the
canals between houses, each one of them a subject for the artist’s
brush? Is there any other city that grips us in every sense like Venice?
The eyes and the mind grow dazed and bewildered with the beauty and the
colour, till the scene seems almost unreal, a fantasy of the brain under
the influence of a drug.
The student of life and the philosopher will find here matter for
cogitation, tinged maybe with seriousness, even sadness. Venetian
history is not all glorious, and the city to-day has its social evils,
like every other populous place on the globe. There are beggars, many of
them, artistic beggars, no doubt; but they are often diseased and always
unclean. Yet even the dirty faces of the alleys, in this city of
loveliness, have, according to artists, a value and a harmony. There is
the same obvious, sordid poverty here as in London or Manchester. But
the dress of the people, even if ragged, is bright, and the faces, even
though wrinkled and haggard, fit the scene and the setting in the
estimate of the painter.
If your habit is analytic and critical, you will find defects in the
modern life of Venice that cannot be hidden. The city is not prosperous
in our British sense of the word. There is an air of decayed grandeur,
an impression that existence in this town of exquisite art is not
happiness for the swarm of indigents that live in the historic purlieus.
On the other hand, there is the climate, a soft, sleepy climate, not
very healthy perhaps, but usually kindly. The sun is generous, the sky
rarely frowns. Life passes lazily, dreamily, on the oily waters of the
canals, in the piazza, and in those tall tumble-down houses built on
piles. No one appears to hurry about the business of money-getting; no
one apparently is eager to work, except perhaps the unfortunate
mendicants and the persuasive hawkers, who do indeed toil hard at their
When the evening breeze bears the interesting malodours of the canals,
with other indescribable and characteristic smells, and the sun sinks
in crimson in a flaming sky, and music sounds from the piazza and the
water, and the gondolas glide and pass, and beautiful women smile and
stroll in streets bathed in gold, you will think only of the loveliness
of Venice, and forget the terrors of its history and the misery of
to-day. And it is well, for one cannot always grapple with the problems
of life; there must be hours of sensuous pleasure. Sensuous seems to me
the right word to convey the influence of Venice upon a summer evening,
when, a little wearied by the heat of the day, you loll upon a bridge,
smoking a cigar, and drinking in languidly the beauty of the scene,
while a grateful breeze comes from the darkening sea.
Go to the Via Garibaldi, if you wish to lounge and to study the
Venetians of “the people.” Here the natives come and go and saunter. The
women are small, like the women of Spain, dark in complexion, and in
manner animated. They are very feminine; often they are lovely.
You will be struck with the gaiety of the people, a sheer
lightheartedness more evident and exuberant than the gaiety of Spanish
folk. Perhaps the struggle for existence is less keen than it seems
among the inhabitants of the more lowly quarters of the city. At
anyrate, the Venetians are lovers of song and laughter. A flower
delights a woman, a cigarette is a gift for a man. They are able to
divert themselves in Venice without sport, and with very few places of
“The place is as changeable as a nervous woman,” writes Mr Henry James,
“and you know it only when you know all the aspects of its beauty. It
has high spirits or low, it is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm,
fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour.”
Having given a faint presentment of the beauties of Venice, I will refer
to some of the chief episodes of its great history. In the earliest
years of its making, we are upon insecure ground in attempting to write
accurately upon Venetia. The city probably existed when the Goths swept
down upon Italy, about 420, and it fell a century later into the hands
of the fierce Lombards. Under the Doges (dukes) the land was wrested
here and there from the waves, the mudbanks protected with piles and
fences, and the great buildings began to arise from a foundation of
The ingenuity of the architect and the builder in constructing this city
is nothing short of marvellous. In the sixth century the town was no
doubt a collection of huts on sandbanks, intersected by tidal streams.
There were meadows and gardens by the verge of the sea, and the
inhabitants made the most of every yard of firm soil. St Mark’s
Cathedral was built in the tenth century, to serve as a resting-place
for the bones of the saint.
Under the wise rule of Pietro Tribuno, Venice withstood the attack of a
Hungarian horde. The city was walled in and fortified, and the natives
gathered at Rialto. The resistance was successful. The Doge who saved
the city was one of the most honoured of all the rulers of Venice as a
brave general and a man of scholarly parts.
Genoa and Pisa, formed into a powerful republic, warred with Venice in
the eleventh century; but the Venetians won in the protracted warfare.
Wars in Italy and wars in the East followed, and internal trouble
reigned intermittently in the city.
The discovery of America by Columbus, and the opening up of trade with
Hindustan, affected Venice injuriously. Until then the city had held a
monopoly as a market for the products of the Orient. Her great power
and wealth were imperilled by the discoveries of Columbus, the Genoese
voyager, and by the rounding of Cape Horn by the Portuguese adventurers.
Spain and Portugal were reaping the splendid golden harvest while Venice
was impoverished. Consternation filled the minds of the citizens. The
great Republic had reached the height of its glory in the fifteenth
century, but from the falling off of her commerce she never recovered.
It is curious that in the period of decline, Venice expended much wealth
in works of art, and in the embellishment of the buildings and palaces.
Several of the city’s greatest painters flourished at this time.
The Doge’s Palace, often burned down, was rebuilt in its present
grandeur. St Mark’s was constantly repaired, decorations were added, and
internal parts reconstructed. The palaces of the rich sprang up by the
waterways of this city in the sea.
Printing was already an art and industry in Venice. John of Spires used
movable type, and succeeding him were many distinguished printers, whose
presses supplied the civilised world with books.
A terrible plague devastated the city in 1575. Among the victims were
the great painter, Titian, then nearly a hundred years of age. The
epidemic spread all over Venice.
When Pope Paul V. endeavoured to bring the citizens under his autocratic
rule, they resisted with much firmness. One of the causes of offence was
that the Venetians favoured the principle of toleration in religious
beliefs, and permitted the heretical to worship according to their
consciences. The Pope, after fruitless negotiations, excommunicated
Venice, sending his agents with the documents. With all vigilance, the
government of the city forbade the exposure of any papal decree in the
streets, while the Doge stoutly asserted that the people of Venice
regarded the bull with contempt.
Nearly all Europe sided with Venice in this conflict between Pope and
Doge. England was prepared to ally herself with France, and to assist
Venice. Months passed without developments. Venice remained Catholic,
but refused to become a vassal of the Pope of Rome. Paul was enraged and
humiliated. One cannot admire his action; yet pity for the proud,
sincere, and baffled Pontiff tinges one’s view of the struggle. Venice
even refused to request the abolition of the ban. She remained quietly
indifferent to the thunderings of the See, and haughtily criticised the
overtures of reconciliation offered through the French cardinals.
Finally, with dignity and yet a touch of farce, the Senate handed over
to the Pope’s emissaries certain offenders, “without prejudice,” to be
held by the King of France.
Paolo Sarpi, the priest and born diplomat, was the hero of Venice during
this quarrel with Rome. Sarpi was a man of unassailable virtue and
integrity, a tactful leader of men, and possessed of intrepidity. He
was, not unnaturally, detested by the adherents of the Pope for his
defence of Venetian rights and privileges. One night, crossing a bridge,
Brother Paolo was attacked by ruffians, and stabbed with daggers. The
assailants had been sent from Rome to kill the obnoxious priest. But the
scheme failed, for Paolo Sarpi recovered from his wounds, and the
attempt upon his life endeared him still more deeply to the hearts of
Some years after he died in his bed, lamented by high and low in the
city. Before the Church of Santa Fosca stands a memorial to this brave
The Venice of the eighteenth century was a decaying city, with an
enervated, apathetic population, given to gaming, and improvident in
their lives. Many of the noble families sank into penury. Still the
people sang and danced and held revelry; nothing could quench their
passion for enjoyment. The Republic was now the prey of the great
imperialist Napoleon, who adroitly acquired Venice by threats of war
followed by promises of democratic rule. A few shots were fired by the
French; then the Doge offered terms, which gave the city to the Emperor,
while the citizens held rejoicings at the advent of a new government.
A few months later Venice was given to Austria by the Treaty of
Campoformio. Between the French and the Austrians the city passed
through a troublous period of many years. Venice was now a fallen state.
But what a memorial it is! The city is like a huge volume of history,
and we linger over its enchanting pages. Let us now look upon the
monuments that reveal to us the soul and genius of Venice of the olden
Several of the most important buildings in Venice border the fine square
of San Marco, a favourite evening gathering-place of the Venetians.
Dominating the piazza is the Cathedral of San Marco, with its
magnificent front, a bewildering array of portals, decorated arches,
carvings in relief, surmounted by graceful towers and steeples. The
style is Byzantine, and partly Roman, designed after St Sophia at
Constantinople. In shape the edifice is cruciform, with a dome to each
arm of the cross. High above the cathedral roof rises the noble
Over the chief portal are four bronze horses, brought here in 1204 from
Byzantium. The steeds are beautifully modelled, and the work is ascribed
to Lysippos, a sculptor of Corinth. Napoleon took the horses to Paris,
but they were restored to Venice in 1815.
The mosaic designs of the façade represent “The Last Judgment,” among
other Scriptural subjects, while one of the mosaics depicts San Marco as
it was in the early days. A number of reliefs and images adorn the
arches of each of the five doorways of the main entrance.
Within the decorations are exquisite. Ruskin writes: “The church is lost
in a deep twilight, to which the eye must be accustomed for some moments
before the form of the building can be traced; and then there opens
before us a vast cave, hewn out into the form of a cross, and divided
into shadowy aisles by many pillars. Round the domes of its roof the
light enters only through narrow apertures like large stars; and here
and there a ray or two from some far-away casement wanders into the
darkness, and casts a narrow phosphoric stream upon the waves of marble
that heave and fall in a thousand colours along the floor. What else
there is of light is from torches or silver lamps, burning ceaselessly
in the recesses of the chapels; the roof sheeted with gold, and the
polished walls covered with alabaster, give back at every curve and
angle some feeble gleaming to the flames, and the glories round the
heads of the sculptured saints flash out upon us as we pass them, and
sink again into the gloom.”
In the vestibule of the cathedral, the mosaic decoration depicts Old
Testament scenes. In the apse are represented a figure of the Lord, with
St Mark, and the acts of St Peter and St Mark. The mosaics of the east
dome represent Jesus and the prophets. Tintoretto’s design is in an
adjoining archway, and in the centre dome is “The Ascension.” The
western dome has “The Descent of the Holy Ghost,” and an arch here is
decorated with “The Last Judgment.” There are more mosaics in the
aisles, illustrating “The Acts of the Apostles.”
The high altar is a superb example of sculpture. The roof is supported
by marble columns, carved with scenes from the lives of Christ and the
Virgin Mary. The figures date from the eleventh century. A magnificent
altarpiece of gold-workers’ design is shown for a fee. The upper part is
the older, and it was executed in Constantinople. The lower portion is
the work of Venetian artists of the twelfth century.
The baptistery contains early mosaics, a monument of one of the Doges of
Venice; and the stone upon which John the Baptist is stated to have been
beheaded is kept here.
“The Legend of San Marco” is the design in the Cappella Zen, adjoining
the baptistery. Here are the tomb of Cardinal Zen, a Renaissance work in
bronze, and a handsome altar.
In his rapturous description of the interior of San Marco, Ruskin
continues: “The mazes of interwoven lines and changeful pictures lead
always and at last to the Cross, lifted and carved in every place and
upon every stone; sometimes with the serpent of eternity wrapt round
it, sometimes with doves beneath its arms, and sweet herbage growing
forth from its feet.”
Venetian architecture has a character of its own. We find the Oriental
influence in most of the buildings of Venice; the ogee arch is commonly
used, and the square billet ornament is a distinguishing mark. The first
Church of San Marco was built in 830.
The Palace of the Doge is in the Piazza. Its architecture has been
variously described and classified. It has strong traces of Moorish
influence, while in many respects it is Gothic. The decorated columns of
the arcades are very beautifully designed. Archangels and figures of
Justice, Temperance, and Obedience adorn the building, and there is an
ancient front on the south side. Enter through the Porta della Carta,
and you will find a court of wonderful interest, with rich façades and
the great staircase, which is celebrated as the crowning-place of the
The architecture of the interior of the palace is of a later date than
that of the exterior. In the big entrance hall are Tintoretto’s
portraits of legislators of Venice. From here enter the next apartment,
which contains a magnificent painting of “Faith” by Titian. In another
hall are four more of Tintoretto’s works, and one by Paolo Veronese. The
Sala del Collegio is one of the principal chambers of the palace and its
ceiling was painted by Veronese. Here is the Doge’s throne.
Tintoretto and Palma were the artists who executed the paintings in the
Hall of the Senators. The adjoining chapel is decorated with another of
Tintoretto’s pictures. Pass to the Hall of the Council of Ten, where the
rulers of the city sat, and note the gorgeous ceiling by Paolo Veronese.
A staircase leads to the Hall of the Great Council below. From the
window there is an inspiriting view. The walls are hung with portraits,
but the glory of this hall is Tintoretto’s “Paradise,” an immense
Before leaving the Palace of the Doges, I will devote a few lines to the
Schools of Venice of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately most of the
works of Giorgione, the most characteristic painter of Venice, have
disappeared. He was the founder of a tradition, and the teacher of many
painters, including Palma, while his work influenced a number of his
contemporaries. Titian, born in 1477, was one of Giorgione’s admirers,
and his early work shows his influence. The pictures of the great
Venetian master are one of the glories of the city. Some of his
paintings are in the Academy, in the Church of Santa Maria dei
Friari–where there is a monument to the artist–in the Church of Santa
Maria della Salute, and in the private galleries of the city.
In the Academy collection, in a large building in the square of St
Mark’s, are Titian’s much-restored “Presentation” and the “Pieta,” among
the finest specimens of the Venetian School of painters. The celebrated
“Assumption” has been also restored.
“There are many princes; there is but one Titian,” said Charles V. of
Spain, who declared that through the magic of the Venetian painter’s
pencil, he “thrice received immortality.” Forty-three examples of the
art of Titian are in the Prado Gallery of Madrid. Sanchez Coello, Court
artist to Philip II. was one of the students of the Italian master;
indeed several of the great painters of Spain were influenced by Titian,
and none of them revered him more than Velazquez.
Tintoretto’s “Miracle of St Mark” and “Adam and Eve” are two instances
of his genius for colour, in the Academy, calling for special study,
and another of his works is to be seen in Santa Maria della Salute. We
have just looked at a number of this painter’s pictures in the Doge’s
It has been said that Tintoretto inspired El Greco, whose pictures we
shall see in Toledo. Tintoretto was a pupil of Titian, basing his
drawing on the work of Michael Angelo, and finding inspiration for his
colour in the painting of Titian. He was a most industrious and prolific
Paolo Veronese, though not a native of Venice, was one of the school of
that city. He surpassed even Tintoretto in the use of colour, and
adorned many ceilings and altars, besides painting canvases. The “Rape
of Europa” and others of Paolo’s mythical subjects display his gift of
colour and richness of imagination.
Among the later Venetian painters, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is perhaps
the most remarkable. His conceptions were bizarre, and his fanciful
style is manifest in his picture of the “Way to Calvary,” preserved in
Venice. Canaletto may be mentioned as the last of the historic painters
The work of Bellini must on no account be forgotten before we leave the
subject of Venetian art. His “Madonna Enthroned” is in the Academy,
among other of the masterpieces of his brush; and one of his most
exquisite paintings is in the Church of the Friari.
Let us also remember the splendid treasures of the art of Carpaccio, as
seen in the picture of “Saint Ursula” in the Academy, and in the
delightful paintings of San Giorgio, which moved Ruskin to rapture.
The many churches of Venice contain pictures of supreme interest. Most
of them are in a poor light, and can only be examined with difficulty.
San Zanipolo is a church of Gothic design, built by the Dominicans,
abounding in tombs and monuments. San Zaccaria has Bellini’s altarpiece
“The Madonna and Child.”
Many of the palaces, especially those of the Grand Canal, are
exceedingly beautiful in design, whether the style is Renaissance or
Byzantine-Romanesque. Among the oldest are the Palazzo Venier, the
Palazzo Dona, and the Palazzo Mesto; while for elegance the following
are notable: Dario, the three Foscari palaces, the Pesaro, the Turchi,
and Ca d’ Oro, and the Loredan.
Some of these historic houses are associated with men of genius of
modern times. Wagner lived in the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi. In 1818
Byron resided in the Palazzo Mocenigo, and Browning occupied the Palazzo
Robert Browning and his wife had a passionate love for Venice. As a
young man the poet visited the city, and returned to England thrilled by
his impressions. Mrs Bridell Fox, his friend, says that: “He used to
illustrate his glowing descriptions of its beauties–the palaces, the
sunsets, the moonrises, by a most original kind of etching. Taking up a
bit of stray notepaper, he would hold it over a lighted candle, moving
the paper about gently till it was cloudily smoked over, and then
utilising the darker smears for clouds, shadows, water, or what not,
would etch with a dry pen the forms of lights on cloud and palace, on
bridge or gondola, on the vague and dreamy surface he had produced.”
William Sharp–from whose “Life of Browning” I cull the passage just
quoted–tells us that his friend selected the palace on the Grand Canal
as a corner for his old age. Browning was “never happier, more sanguine,
more joyous than here. He worked for three or four hours each morning,
walked daily for about two hours, crossed occasionally to the Lido with
his sister, and in the evenings visited friends or went to the opera.”
In 1889 Robert Browning died in Venice, on a December night, as “the
great bell of San Marco struck ten.” He had just received news of the
success of his “Asolando.” The poet was honoured in the city by a
splendid and solemn funeral procession of black-draped gondolas,
following the boat that held his body. Would he not have chosen to die
in the Venice that he loved with such intense fervour?
Among the statuary in the streets is the image of Bartolomeo Colleoni on
horseback, “I do not believe that there is a more glorious work of
sculpture existing in the world,” writes Ruskin of this statue, which
stands in front of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. In the Piazzetta by the Palace
of the Doges are the two columns, which everyone associates with Venice,
bearing images of the flying lion of St Mark, and of St Theodore
treading upon a crocodile.
One other public building must be seen by the visitor. This is the
beautiful library opposite the Doge’s Palace, an edifice that John
Addington Symonds praises as one of the chief achievements of Venetian
artists. The cathedral, the ducal palace, the library, and the Academy
of Arts are certainly four impressive and splendid buildings.
If you have seen the old roofed bridge that spans the river at the head
of the Lake of Lucerne, you will have an impression of the famous Rialto
of Venice. The historic bridge is charged with memories of the days when
“Venice sate in state throned on her hundred isles,” and citizens asked
of one another, in the words of Solanio, in _The Merchant of Venice_.
“Now, what news on the Rialto?” The bridge is mediæval in aspect, and
romantic in its associations. You cannot lounge there without an
apparition of Shylock, raving at the loss of the diamond that cost him
two thousand ducats in Frankfort.
All around this “Queen of Cities” are places of supreme interest to the
student of architecture and the lover of natural beauty. Padua, and
Vicenza, with its rare monuments of Palladio, Murano, Torcello, and
other towns and villages with histories are within access of Venice. But
do not hasten from Venezia. It is a town in which one should roam and
loiter for long days.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan