Venice

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
mind’s tablet.

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
occupations.

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
amusement.