|David Chin | profile | all galleries >> My World of Links >> A WANDERER IN VENICE >> Chapter VIII - The Grand Canal. I: From The Dogana To The Palazzo Rezzonico, Looking To The Left||tree view | thumbnails | slideshow|
The river of Venice--Canal steamers--Motor boats--Venetian nobility to-day--The great architects--A desirable enactment--The custom house vane--The Seminario and Giorgione--S. Maria della Salute--Tintoretto's "Marriage in Cana"--The lost blue curtain--San Gregorio--The Palazzo Dario--Porphyry--The story of S. Vio--Delectable homes--Browning in Venice--S. Maria della Carita.
To me the Grand Canal is the river of Venice--its Thames, its Seine, its Arno. I think of it as "the river." The rest are canals. And yet as a matter of fact to the Venetians the rest are rivers--Rio this and Rio that--and this the canal.
During a stay in Venice of however short a time one is so often on the Grand Canal that a knowledge of its palaces should come early. For fifteen centimes one may travel its whole length in a steamboat, and back again for another fifteen, and there is no more interesting half-hour's voyage in the world. The guide books, as a rule, describe both banks from the same starting-point, which is usually the Molo. This seems to me to be a mistake, for two reasons. One is that even in a leisurely gondola "all'ora" one cannot keep pace with literature bearing on both sides at once, and the other is that since one enters Venice at the railway station it is interesting to begin forthwith to learn something of the city from that point and one ought not to be asked to read backwards to do this. In this book therefore the left bank, from the custom house to the railway station, is described first, and then the other side returning from the station to the Molo.
The Grand Canal has for long had its steamers, and when they were installed there was a desperate outcry, led by Ruskin. To-day a similar outcry is being made against motor-boats, with, I think, more reason, as I hope to show later. But the steamer is useful and practically unnoticeable except when it whistles. None the less it was an interesting experience in April of this year (1914) to be living on the Grand Canal during a steamer strike which lasted for several days. It gave one the quieter Venice of the past and incidentally turned the gondoliers into plutocrats.
But there is a great difference between the steamers and the motor-boat. The steamer does not leave the Grand Canal except to enter the lagoon; and therefore the injustice that it does to the gondolier is limited to depriving him of his Grand Canal fares. The motor-boat can supersede the gondola on the small canals too. It may be urged that the gondolier has only to become an engineer and his position will be as secure. That may be true; but we all know how insidious is the deteriorating influence of petrol on the human character. The gondolier even now is not always a model of courtesy and content; what will he be when the poison of machinery is in him?
But there are graver reasons why the motor-boat should be viewed by the city fathers with suspicion. One is purely aesthetic, yet not the less weighty for that, since the prosperity of Venice in her decay resides in her romantic beauty and associations. The symbol of these is the gondola and gondolier, indivisible, and the only conditions under which they can be preserved are quietude and leisure. The motor-boat, which is always in a hurry and which as it multiplies will multiply hooters and whistles, must necessarily destroy the last vestige of Venetian calm. A second reason is that a small motor-boat makes a bigger wash than a crowded Grand Canal steamer, and this wash, continually increasing as the number of boats increases, must weaken and undermine the foundations of the houses on each side of the canals through which they pass. The action of water is irresistible. No natural law is sterner than that which decrees that restless water shall prevail.
Enjoyment of voyages up and down the Grand Canal is immensely increased by some knowledge of architecture; but that subject is so vast that in such a _hors d'oeuvre_ to the Venetian banquet as the present book nothing of value can be said. Let it not be forgotten that Ruskin gave years of his life to the study. The most I can do is to name the architects of the most famous of the palaces and draw the reader's attention to the frequency with which the lovely Ducal gallery pattern recurs, like a theme in a fugue, until one comes to think the symbol of the city not the winged lion but a row of Gothic curved and pointed arches surmounted by circles containing equilateral crosses. The greatest names in Venetian architecture are Polifilo, who wrote the _Hypnerotomachia_, the two Bons, Rizzo, Sansovino, the Lombardis, Scarpagnino, Leopardi, Palladio, Sammicheli, and Longhena.
In the following notes I have tried to mention the place of practically every rio and every calle so that the identification of the buildings may be the more simple. The names of the palaces usually given are those by which the Venetians know them; but many, if not more, have changed ownership more than once since those names were fixed.
Although for the most part the palaces of the Grand Canal have declined from their original status as the homes of the nobility and aristocracy and are now hotels, antiquity stores, offices, and tenements, it not seldom happens that the modern representative of the great family retains the top floor for an annual Venetian sojourn, living for the rest of the year in the country.
I wish it could be made compulsory for the posts before the palaces to be repainted every year.
And so begins the voyage. The white stone building which forms the thin end of the wedge dividing the Grand Canal from the Canale della Giudecca is the Dogana or Customs House, and the cape is called the Punta della Salute. The figure on the Dogana ball, which from certain points has almost as much lightness as Gian Bologna's famous Mercury, represents Fortune and turns with the wind. The next building (with a green and shady garden on the Giudecca side) is the Seminario Patriarcale, a great bare schoolhouse, in which a few pictures are preserved, and, downstairs, a collection of ancient sculpture. Among the pictures is a much dam-aged classical scene supposed to represent Apollo and Daphne in a romantic landscape. Giorgione's name is often associated with it; I know not with what accuracy, but Signor Paoli, who has written so well upon Venice, is convinced, and the figure of Apollo is certainly free and fair as from a master's hand. Another picture, a Madonna and Child with two companions, is called a Leonardo da Vinci; but Baedeker gives it to Marco d'Oggiano. There is also a Filippino Lippi which one likes to find in Venice, where the prevailing art is so different from his. One of the most charming things here is a little relief of the manger; as pretty a rendering as one could wish for. Downstairs is the tomb of the great Jacopo Sansovino.
And now rises the imposing church of S. Maria della Salute which, although younger than most of the Venetian churches, has taken the next place to S. Mark's as an ecclesiastical symbol of the city. To me it is a building attractive only when seen in its place as a Venetian detail; although it must always have the impressiveness of size and accumulation and the beauty that white stone in such an air as this can hardly escape. Seen from the Grand Canal or from a window opposite, it is pretentious and an interloper, particularly if the slender and distinguished Gothic windows of the apse of S. Gregorio are also visible; seen from any distant enough spot, its dome and towers fall with equal naturalness into the majestic Venetian pageant of full light, or the fairy Venetian mirage of the crepuscle.
The church was decreed in 1630 as a thankoffering to the Virgin for staying the plague of that year. Hence the name--S. Mary of Salvation. It was designed by Baldassarre Longhena, a Venetian architect who worked during the first half of the seventeenth century and whose masterpiece this is.
Within, the Salute is notable for possessing Tintoretto's "Marriage in Cana," one of the few pictures painted by him in which he allowed himself an interval (so to speak) of perfect calm. It is, as it was bound to be in his hands and no doubt was in reality, a busy scene. The guests are all animated; the servitors are bustling about; a number of spectators talk together at the back; a woman in the foreground holds out a vessel to the men opposite to show them the remarkable change which the water has undergone. But it is in the centre of his picture (which is reproduced on the opposite page) that the painter has achieved one of his pleasantest effects, for here is a row of pretty women sitting side by side at the banquetting table, with a soft light upon them, who make together one of the most charming of those rare oases of pure sweetness in all Tintoretto's work. The chief light is theirs and they shine most graciously in it.
Among other pictures are a S. Sebastian by Basaiti, with a good landscape; a glowing altar-piece by Titian, in his Giorgionesque manner, representing S. Mark and four saints; a "Descent of the Holy Ghost," by the same hand but under no such influence; and a spirited if rather theatrical "Nativity of the Virgin" by Lucia Giordano. In the outer sacristy the kneeling figure of Doge Agostino Barbarigo should be looked for.
The Salute in Guardi's day seems to have had the most entrancing light blue curtains at its main entrance, if we may take the artist as our authority. See No. 2098 in the National Gallery, and also No. 503 at the Wallace collection. But now only a tiny side door is opened.
[Illustration: THE MARRIAGE AT CANA FROM THE PAINTING BY TINTORETTO _In the Church of the Salute_]
A steamboat station, used almost wholly by visitors, is here, and then a canal, and then the fourteenth-century abbey of S. Gregorio, whose cloisters now form an antiquity store and whose severe and simple apse is such a rebuke to Longhena's Renaissance floridity. Next is a delightful little house with one of the old cup-chimneys, forming one of the most desirable residences in Venice. It has a glazed loggia looking down to the Riva. We next come to a brand new spacious building divided into apartments, then a tiny house, and then the rather squalid Palazzo Martinengo. The calle and traghetto of S. Gregorio, and two or three old palaces and the new building which now holds Salviati's glass business, follow. After the Rio del Formase is a common little house, and then the Palazzo Volkoff, once Eleonora Duse's Venetian home.
Next is the splendid fifteenth-century Palazzo Dario, to my eyes perhaps the most satisfying of all, with its rich colouring, leaning walls, ancient chimneys and porphyry decorations. Readers of Henri de Regnier's Venetian novel _La Peur de l'Amour_ may like to know that much of it was written in this palace. We shall see porphyry all along the Canal on both sides, always enriching in its effect. This stone is a red or purple volcanic rock which comes from Egypt, on the west coast of the Red Sea. The Romans first detected its beauty and made great use of it to decorate their buildings.
Another rio, the Torreselle, some wine stores, and then the foundations of what was to have been the Palazzo Venier, which never was built. Instead there are walls and a very delectable garden--a riot of lovely wistaria in the spring--into which fortunate people are assisted from gondolas by superior men-servants. A dull house comes next; then a _stoffe_ factory; and then the Mula Palace, with fine dark blue poles before it surmounted by a Doge's cap, and good Gothic windows. Again we find trade where once was aristocracy, for the next palace, which is now a glass-works' show-room, was once the home of Pietro Barbarigo, Patriarch of Venice.
The tiny church of S. Vio, now closed, which gives the name to the Campo and Rio opposite which we now are, has a pretty history attached to it. It seems that one of the most devoted worshippers in this minute temple was the little Contessa Tagliapietra, whose home was on the other side of the Grand Canal. Her one pleasure was to retire to this church and make her devotions: a habit which so exasperated her father that one day he issued a decree to the gondoliers forbidding them to ferry her across. On arriving at the traghetto and learning this decision, the girl calmly walked over the water, sustained by her purity and piety.
The next palace, at the corner, is the Palazzo Loredan where the widow of Don Carlos of Madrid now lives. The posts have Spanish colours and a magnificent man-servant in a scarlet waistcoat often suns himself on the steps. Next is the comfortable Balbi Valier, with a motor launch called "The Rose of Devon" moored to its posts, and a pleasant garden where the Palazzo Paradiso once stood; and then the great and splendid Contarini del Zaffo, or Manzoni, with its good ironwork and medallions and a charming loggia at the side. Robert Browning tried to buy this palace for his son. Indeed he thought he had bought it; but there was a hitch. He describes it in a letter as "the most beautiful house in Venice." The next, the Brandolin Rota, which adjoins it, was, as a hotel, under the name Albergo dell'Universo, Browning's first Venetian home. Later he moved to the Zattere and after that to the Palazzo Rezzonico, to which we are soon coming, where he died.
Next we reach the church, convent and Scuola of S. Maria della Carita, opposite the iron bridge, which under rearrangement and restoration now forms the Accademia, or Gallery of Fine Arts, famous throughout the world for its Titians, Tintorettos, Bellinis, and Carpaccios. The church, which dates from the fifteenth century, is a most beautiful brown brick building with delicate corbelling under the eaves. Once there was a campanile too, but it fell into the Grand Canal some hundred and seventy years ago, causing a tidal wave which flung gondolas clean out of the water. We shall return to the Accademia in later chapters: here it is enough to say that the lion on the top of the entrance wall is the most foolish in Venice, turned, as it has been, into a lady's hack.
The first house after the Accademia is negligible--newish and dull with an enclosed garden; the next is the Querini; the next the dull Mocenigo Gambara; and then we come to the solid Bloomsbury-blackened stone Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni and its neighbours of the same ownership. Then the Rio S. Trovaso, with a pretty garden visible a little way up, and then a gay new little home, very attractive, with a strip of garden, and next it the fifteenth-century Loredan. A tiny calle, and then the low Dolfin. Then the Rio Malpaga and after it a very delectable new residence with a terrace. A calle and traghetto, with a wall shrine at the corner, come next, and two dull Contarini palaces, one of which is now an antiquity store, and then the Rio S. Barnaba and the majestic sombre Rezzonico with its posts of blue and faded pink.
This for long was the home of Robert Browning, and here, as a tablet on the side wall states, he died. "Browning, Browning," exclaim the gondoliers as they point to it; but what the word means to them I cannot say.