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David Chin | profile | all galleries >> My World of Links >> A WANDERER IN VENICE >> Chapter VII - The Piazzetta tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Chapter I - The Bride Of The Adriatic | Chapter II - S. Mark's. I: The Exterior | Chapter III - S. Mark's. II: The Interior | Chapter IV - The Piazza And The Campanile | Chapter V - The Doges' Palace. I: The Interior | Chapter VI - The Doges' Palace. II: The Exterior | Chapter VII - The Piazzetta | Chapter VIII - The Grand Canal. I: From The Dogana To The Palazzo Rezzonico, Looking To The Left | Chapter IX - The Grand Canal. II: Browning And Wagner | Chapter X - The Grand Canal. III: From The Rio Foscari To S. Simeone, Looking To The Left | Chapter XI - The Grand Canal. IV: From The Station To The Mocenigo Palace, Looking To The Left | Chapter XII - The Grand Canal. V: Byron In Venice | Chapter XIII - The Grand Canal. VI: From The Mocenigo Palace To The Molo, Looking To The Left | Chapter XIV - Island Afternoons' Entertainments. I: Murano, Burano And Torcello | A Wanderer in Venice - Cover

Chapter VII - The Piazzetta


The two columns--An ingenious engineer--S. Mark's lion--S. Theodore of Heraclea--The Old Library--Jacopo Sansovino--The Venetian Brunelleschi--Vasari's life--A Venetian library--Early printed books--The Grimani breviary--A pageant of the Seasons--The Loggetta--Coryat again--The view from the Molo--The gondolier--Alessandro and Ferdinando--The danger of the traghetto--Indomitable talkers--The fair and the fare--A proud father--The rampino.

The Piazzetta is more remarkable in its architectural riches than the Piazza. S. Mark's main facade is of course beyond words wonderful; but after this the Piazza has only the Merceria clock and the Old and the New Procuratie, whereas the Piazzetta has S. Mark's small facade, the Porta della Carta and lovely west facade of the Doges' Palace, the columns bearing S. Mark's lion and S. Theodore, Sansovino's Old Library and Loggetta; while the Campanile is common to both. The Piazzetta has a cafe too, although it is not on an equality either with Florian's or the Quadri, and on three nights a week a band plays.

The famous Piazzetta columns, with S. Theodore and his crocodile (or dragon) on one and the lion of S. Mark on the other, which have become as much a symbol of Venice as the facade of S. Mark's itself, were brought from Syria after the conquest of Tyre. Three were brought in all, but one fell into the water and was never recovered. The others lay on the quay here for half a century waiting to be set up, a task beyond human skill until an engineer from Lombardy volunteered to do it on condition that he was to have any request granted. His request was to be allowed the right of establishing a gaming-table between the columns; and the authorities had to comply, although gambling was hateful to them. A few centuries later the gallows were placed here too. Now there is neither gambling nor hanging; but all day long loafers sit on the steps of the columns and discuss pronto and subito and cinque and all the other topics of Venetian conversation.

I wonder how many visitors to Venice, asked whether S. Theodore on his column and the Lion of S. Mark on his, face the lagoon or the Merceria clock, would give the right answer. The faces of both are turned towards the clock; their backs to the lagoon. The lion, which is of bronze with white agates for his eyes, has known many vicissitudes. Where he came from originally, no one knows, but it is extremely probable that he began as a pagan and was pressed into the service of the Evangelist much later. Napoleon took him to Paris, together with the bronze horses, and while there he was broken. He came back in 1815 and was restored, and twenty years ago he was restored again. S. Theodore was also strengthened at the same time, being moved into the Doges' Palace courtyard for that purpose.

There are several saints named Theodore, but the protector and patron of the Venetians in the early days before Mark's body was stolen from Alexandria, is S. Theodore of Heraclea. S. Theodore, surnamed Stretelates, or general of the army, was a famous soldier and the governor of the country of the Mariandyni, whose capital was Heraclea. Accepting and professing the Christian faith, he was beheaded by the Emperor Licinius on February 7, 319. On June 8 in the same year his remains were translated to Euchaia, the burial-place of the family, and the town at once became so famous as a shrine that its name was changed to Theodoropolis. As late as 970 the patronage of the Saint gave the Emperor John I a victory over the Saracens, and in gratitude the emperor rebuilt the church where Theodore's relics were preserved. Subsequently they were moved to Mesembria and then to Constantinople, from which city the great Doge Dandolo brought them to Venice. They now repose in S. Salvatore beneath an altar.

The west side of the Piazzetta consists of the quiet and beautiful facade of Sansovino's Old Library. To see it properly one should sit down at ease under the Doge's arcade or mount to the quadriga gallery of S. Mark's. Its proportions seem to me perfect, but Baedeker's description of it as the most magnificent secular edifice in Italy seems odd with the Ducal Palace so near. They do not, however, conflict, for the Ducal Palace is so gay and light, and this so serious and stately. The cherubs with their garlands are a relaxation, like a smile on a grave face; yet the total effect is rather calm thoughtfulness than sternness. The living statues on the coping help to lighten the structure, and if one steps back along the Riva one sees a brilliant column of white stone--a chimney perhaps--which is another inspiriting touch. In the early morning, with the sun on them, these statues are the whitest things imaginable.

The end building, the Zecca, or mint, is also Sansovino's, as are the fascinating little Loggetta beneath the campanile, together with much of its statuary, the giants at the head of Ricco's staircase opposite, and the chancel bronzes in S. Mark's, so that altogether this is peculiarly the place to inquire into what manner of man the Brunelleschi of Venice was. For Jacopo Sansovino stands to Venice much as that great architect to Florence. He found it lacking certain essential things, and, supplying them, made it far more beautiful and impressive; and whatever he did seems inevitable and right.

Vasari wrote a very full life of Sansovino, not included among his other Lives but separately published. In this we learn that Jacopo was born in Florence in 1477, the son of a mattress-maker named Tatti; but apparently 1486 is the right date. Appreciating his natural bent towards art, his mother had him secretly taught to draw, hoping that he might become a great sculptor like Michael Angelo, and he was put as apprentice to the sculptor Andrea Contucci of Monte Sansovino, who had recently set up in Florence and was at work on two figures for San Giovanni; and Jacopo so attached himself to the older man that he became known as Sansovino too. Another of his friends as a youth was Andrea del Sarto.

From Florence he passed to Rome, where he came under the patronage of the Pope Julius II, of Bramante, the architect, and of Perugino, the painter, and learned much by his studies there. Returning to Florence, he became one of the most desired of sculptors and executed that superb modern-antique, the Bacchus in the Bargello. Taking to architecture, he continued his successful progress, chiefly again in Rome, but when the sack of that city occurred in 1527 he fled and to the great good fortune of Venice took refuge here. The Doge, Andrea Gritti, welcomed so distinguished a fugitive and at once set him to work on the restoration of S. Mark's cupolas, and this task he completed with such skill that he was made a Senior Procurator and given a fine house and salary.

As a Procurator he seems to have been tactful and active, and Vasari gives various examples of his reforming zeal by which the annual income of the Procuranzia was increased by two thousand ducats. When, however, one of the arches of Sansovino's beautiful library fell, owing to a subsidence of the foundations, neither his eminent position nor ability prevented the authorities from throwing him into prison as a bad workman; nor was he liberated, for all his powerful friends, without a heavy fine. He built also several fine palaces, the mint, and various churches, but still kept time for his early love, sculpture, as his perfect little Loggetta, and the giants on the Staircase, and such a tomb as that in S. Salvatore, show.

[Illustration: S. JEROME IN HIS CELL FROM THE PAINTING BY CARPACCIO _At S. Giorgio dei Schiavoni_]

This is Vasari's description of the man: "Jacopo Sansovino, as to his person, was of the middle height, but rather slender than otherwise, and his carriage was remarkably upright; he was fair, with a red beard, and in his youth was of a goodly presence, wherefore he did not fail to be loved, and that by dames of no small importance. In his age he had an exceedingly venerable appearance; with his beautiful white beard, he still retained the carriage of his youth: he was strong and healthy even to his ninety-third year, and could see the smallest object, at whatever distance, without glasses, even then. When writing, he sat with his head up, not supporting himself in any manner, as it is usual for men to do. He liked to be handsomely dressed, and was singularly nice in his person. The society of ladies was acceptable to Sansovino, even to the extremity of age, and he always enjoyed conversing with or of them. He had not been particularly healthy in his youth, yet in his old age he suffered from no malady whatever, in-so-much that, for a period of fifty years, he would never consult any physician even when he did feel himself indisposed. Nay, when he was once attacked by apoplexy, he would still have nothing to do with physic, but cured himself by keeping in bed for two months in a dark and well-warmed chamber. His digestion was so good that he could eat all things without distinction: during the summer he lived almost entirely on fruits, and in the very extremity of his age would frequently eat three cucumbers and half a lemon at one time.

"With respect to the qualities of his mind, Sansovino was very prudent; he foresaw readily the coming events, and sagaciously compared the present with the past. Attentive to his duties, he shunned no labour in the fulfilment of the same, and never neglected his business for his pleasure. He spoke well and largely on such subjects as he understood, giving appropriate illustrations of his thoughts with infinite grace of manner. This rendered him acceptable to high and low alike, as well as to his own friends. In his greatest age his memory continued excellent; he remembered all the events of his childhood, and could minutely refer to the sack of Rome and all the other occurrences, fortunate or otherwise, of his youth and early manhood. He was very courageous, and delighted from his boyhood in contending with those who were greater than himself, affirming that he who struggles with the great may become greater, but he who disputes with the little must become less. He esteemed honour above all else in the world, and was so upright a man of his word, that no temptation could induce him to break it, of which he gave frequent proof to his lords, who, for that as well as other qualities, considered him rather as a father or brother than as their agent or steward, honouring in him an excellence that was no pretence, but his true nature."

Sansovino died in 1570, and he was buried at San Gimignano, in a church that he himself had built. In 1807, this church being demolished, his remains were transferred to the Seminario della Salute in Venice, where they now are.

Adjoining the Old Library is the Mint, now S. Mark's Library, which may be both seen and used by strangers. It is not exactly a British Museum Reading-room, for there are but twelve tables with six seats at each, but judging by its usually empty state, it more than suffices for the scholarly needs of Venice. Upstairs you are shown various treasures brought together by Cardinal Bessarione: MSS., autographs, illuminated books, and incunabula. A fourteenth-century Dante lies open, with coloured pictures: the poet very short on one page and very tall on the next, and Virgil, at his side, very like Christ. A _Relazione della Morte de Anna Regina de Francia_, a fifteenth-century work, has a curious picture of the queen's burial. The first book ever printed in Venice is here: Cicero's _Epistolae_, 1469, from the press of Johannes di Spira, which was followed by an edition of Pliny the Younger. A fine Venetian _Hypnerotomachia_, 1499, is here, and a very beautiful Herodotus with lovely type from the press of Gregorius of Venice in 1494. Old bindings may be seen too, among them a lavish Byzantine example with enamels and mosaics. The exhibited autographs include Titian's hand large and forcible; Leopardi's, very neat; Goldoni's, delicate and self-conscious; Galileo's, much in earnest; and a poem by Tasso with myriad afterthoughts.

But the one idea of the custodian is to get you to admire the famous Grimani Breviary--not alas! in the original, which is not shown, but in a coloured reproduction. Very well, you say; and then discover that the privilege of displaying it is the perquisite of a rusty old colleague. That is to say, one custodian extols the work in order that another may reap a second harvest by turning its leaves. This delightful book dates from the early sixteenth century and is the work of some ingenious and masterly Flemish miniaturist with a fine sense of the open air and the movement of the seasons. But it is hard to be put off with an ordinary bookseller's traveller's specimen instead of the real thing. If one may be so near Titian's autograph and the illuminated _Divine Comedy_, why not this treasure too? January reveals a rich man at his table, dining alone, with his servitors and dogs about him; February's scene is white with snow--a small farm with the wife at the spinning-wheel, seen through the door, and various indications of cold, without; March shows the revival of field labours; April, a love scene among lords and ladies; May, a courtly festival; June, haymaking outside a fascinating city; July, sheep-shearing and reaping; August, the departure for the chase; September, grape-picking for the vintage; October, sowing seeds in a field near another fascinating city--a busy scene of various activities; November, beating oak-trees to bring down acorns for the pigs; and December, a boar hunt--the death. And all most gaily coloured, with the signs of the Zodiac added.

The little building under the campanile is Sansovino's Loggetta, which he seems to have set there as a proof of his wonderful catholicity--to demonstrate that he was not only severe as in the Old Library, and Titanic as in the Giants, but that he had his gentler, sweeter thoughts too. The Loggetta was destroyed by the fall of the campanile; but it has risen from its ruins with a freshness and vivacity that are bewildering. It is possible indeed to think of its revivification as being more of a miracle than the new campanile: for the new campanile was a straight-forward building feat, whereas to reconstruct Sansovino's charm and delicacy required peculiar and very unusual gifts. Yet there it is: not what it was, of course, for the softening quality of old age has left it, yet very beautiful, and in a niche within a wonderful restoration of Sansovino's group of the Madonna and Child with S. John. The reliefs outside have been pieced together too, and though here and there a nose has gone, the effect remains admirable. The glory of Venice is the subject of all.

The most superb of the external bronzes is the "Mercury" on the left of the facade. To the patience and genius of Signor Giacomo Boni is the restored statuary of the Loggetta due; Cav. Munaretti was responsible for the bronzes, and Signor Moretti for the building. All honour to them!

Old Coryat's enthusiasm for the Loggetta is very hearty. "There is," he says, "adjoyned unto this tower [the campanile] a most glorious little roome that is very worthy to be spoken of, namely the Logetto, which is a place where some of the Procurators of Saint Markes doe use to sit in judgement, and discusse matters of controversies. This place is indeed but little, yet of that singular and incomparable beauty, being made all of Corinthian worke, that I never saw the like before for the quantity thereof."

Where the Piazzetta especially gains over the Piazza is in its lagoon view. From its shore you look directly over the water to the church and island of S. Giorgio Maggiore, which are beautiful from every point and at every hour, so happily do dome and white facade, red campanile and green roof, windowed houses and little white towers, compose. But then, in Venice everything composes: an artist has but to paint what he sees. From the Piazzetta's shore you look diagonally to the right to the Dogana and the vast Salute and all the masts in the Giudecca canal; diagonally to the left is the Lido with a mile of dancing water between us and it.

The shore of the Piazzetta, or more correctly the Molo, is of course the spot where the gondolas most do congregate, apparently inextricably wedged between the twisted trees of this marine forest, although when the time comes--that is, when the gondolier is at last secured--easily enough detached. For there is a bewildering rule which seems to prevent the gondolier who hails you from being your oarsman, and if you think that the gondolier whom you hail is the one who is going to row you, you are greatly mistaken. It is always another. The wise traveller in Venice having chanced upon a good gondolier takes his name and number and makes further arrangements with him. This being done, on arriving at the Molo he asks if his man is there, and the name--let us say Alessandro Grossi, No. 91 (for he is a capital old fellow, powerful and cheerful, with a useful supply of French)--is passed up and down like a bucket at a fire. If Alessandro chances to be there and available, all is well; but if not, to acquire a substitute even among so many obviously disengaged mariners, is no joke.

Old Grossi is getting on in years, although still powerful. A younger Herculean fellow whom I can recommend is Ferdinando, No. 88. Ferdinando is immense and untiring, with a stentorian voice in which to announce his approach around the corners of canals; and his acquaintanceship with every soul in Venice makes a voyage with him an amusing experience. And he often sings and is always good-humoured.

All gondoliers are not so. A gondolier with a grudge can be a most dismal companion, for he talks to himself. What he says, you cannot comprehend, for it is muttered and acutely foreign, but there is no doubt whatever that it is criticism detrimental to you, to some other equally objectionable person, or to the world at large.

The gondolier does not differ noticeably from any other man whose business it is to convey his fellow creatures from one spot to another. The continual practice of assisting richer people than oneself to do things that oneself never does except for a livelihood would seem to engender a sardonic cast of mind. Where the gondolier chiefly differs from, say, the London cabman, is in his gift of speech. Cabmen can be caustic, sceptical, critical, censorious, but they do occasionally stop for breath. There is no need for a gondolier ever to do so either by day or night; while when he is not talking he is accompanying every movement by a grunt.

It is this habit of talking and bickering which should make one very careful in choosing a lodging. Never let it be near a traghetto; for at traghetti there is talk incessant, day and night: argument, abuse, and raillery. The prevailing tone is that of men with a grievance. The only sound you never hear there is laughter.

The passion for bickering belongs to watermen, although loquacity is shared by the whole city. The right to the back answer is one which the Venetian cherishes as jealously, I should say, as any; so much so that the gondolier whom your generosity struck dumb would be an unhappy man in spite of his windfall.


The gondolier assimilates to the cabman also in his liking to be overpaid. The English and Americans have been overpaying him for so many years that to receive now an exact fare from foreigners fills him with dismay. From Venetians, who, however, do not much use gondolas except as ferry boats, he expects it; but not from us, especially if there is a lady on board, for she is always his ally (as he knows) when it comes to pay time. A cabman who sits on a box and whips his horse, or a chauffeur who turns a wheel, is that and nothing more; but a gondolier is a romantic figure, and a gondola is a romantic craft, and the poor fellow has had to do it all himself, and did you hear how he was panting? and do look at those dark eyes! And there you are! Writing, however, strictly for unattended male passengers, or for strong-minded ladies, let me say (having no illusions as to the gondolier) that every gondola has its tariff, in several languages, on board, and no direct trip, within the city, for one or two persons, need cost more than one franc and a half. If one knows this and makes the additional tip sufficient, one is always in the right and the gondolier knows it.

One of the prettiest sights that I remember in Venice was, one Sunday morning, a gondolier in his shirt sleeves, carefully dressed in his best, with a very long cigar and a very black moustache and a flashing gold ring, lolling back in his own gondola while his small son, aged about nine, was rowing him up the Grand Canal. Occasionally a word of praise or caution was uttered, but for the most part they went along silently, the father receiving more warmth from the consciousness of successful paternity than we from the sun itself.

Gondoliers can have pride: but there is no pride about a rampino, the old scaramouch who hooks the gondola at the steps. Since he too was once a gondolier this is odd. But pride and he are strangers now. His hat is ever in his hand for a copper, and the transference of your still burning cigar-end to his lips is one of the most natural actions in the world.

S. JEROME IN HIS CELL - from the painting by Carpaccio - At S. Giorgio dei Schiavoni
S. JEROME IN HIS CELL - from the painting by Carpaccio - At S. Giorgio dei Schiavoni