For more than a thousand years Venice was something unique among the nations, half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling in the pearls of Asia.
Venice, like many a beautiful mistress and many a strong dark wine, is never entirely frank with you. Her past is enigmatic, her present contradictory, her future hazed in uncertainties. You leave her sated but puzzled, like the young man who, withdrawing happily from an embrace, suddenly realises that the girl’s mind is elsewhere, and momentarily wonders what on earth he sees in her.
The Spectacle of Venice afforded some hours of astonishment and some days of disgust. Old and in general ill built houses, ruined pictures, and stinking ditches dignified the pompous denomination of canals…and a large square decorated with the worst architecture I ever saw yet.
There lie your houses built like seabirds nests, half on sea, half on land…made not by Nature but created by the industry of man. For the solidity of the earth is created only by wattle work; and yet you fear not to place so frail a barrier between yourselves and the sea. Your inhabitants have fish in abundance. There is no distinction between rich and poor; the same food for all; the houses all alike; and so envy, that vice which rules the world, is absent here. All your activity is devoted to the saltworks, whence comes your wealth…From your gains you repair your boats which, like horses, you keep tied up at your doors.
The truth is that there is something curiously melancholy and sensual in the air of Venice which irritates the full-blooded and unromantic. The whole city has the atmosphere of a deserted ballroom the morning after a ball…But those who have found an echo of their own mood in this melancholy, those who have been able to savour and, like Proust and Thomas Mann, relish an atmosphere of transience and decay have fallen in love with Venice
Almost everyone interesting, appealing, melancholy, memorable, odd, seems at one time or another, after many days and much life, to have gravitated to Venice by a happy instinct, settling in it and treating it, cherishing it, as a sort of repository of consolations; all of which today, for the conscious mind, is mixed with its air and constitutes its unwritten history. The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give.
The Place is as changeable as a nervous woman, 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, gray or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour. It is always interesting and almost always sad; but it has a thousands occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents. You become extraordinarily fond of these things; you count upon them; they make part of your life. Tenderly fond you become; there is something indefinable in those depths of personal acquaintance that gradually establish themselves. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient, and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally, a soft sense of possession grows up, and your visit becomes a perpetual love affair.
This city of palaces, pigeons, poodles, pumpkins (I am sorry to say also of innumerable pimps – to keep up the alliteration) is a wonder and a pleasure.
Certainly it is a building of symbolic significance, for at this spot, with the founding of Venice, the tides of Rome and Byzantium met. Torcello marks a watershed. To the west extends the ribbed and vaulted architecture we call gothic – Rome, Chartres, Cambridge and the monasteries of Ireland. To the east stand the domes: Mount Athos, Istanbul, the bulbous churches of Russia and the noble mosques of Cairo, Samarkand, Isfahan and India. On one side of Torcello is the Palace of Westminster on the other the Taj Mahal.
Far as the eye can reach, a waste of wild sea moor, of a lurid ashen grey; not like our northern moors, with their jet black pools and purple heath, but lifeless, the colour of sackcloth, with the corrupted sea water soaking through the roots of its arid weeds, and gleaming hither and thither through its snaky channels. No gathering of fantastic mists, nor coursing of clouds across it; but melancholy clearness of space in the warm sunset, oppressive, reaching to the horizon of its level gloom. To the very horizon, on the northeast; but to the north and west, there is a bluer line of high land along the border of it, and above this, but farther back, a misty band of mountains, touched with snow. To the east, the paleness and roar of the Adriatic, louder at momentary intervals as the surf breaks on the bars of the sand; to the south, the widening branches of the calm lagoon, alternately purple and pale green, as they reflect the evening clouds or twilight sky; and almost beneath our feet, on the same field which sustains the tower we gaze from, a group of four buildings, two of them little larger than cottages (though built of stone and one adorned by a quaint belfry, the third an octagonal chapel, of which we can see but little more than the flat red roof with its rayed tiling, the fourth a considerable church with nave and aisles, but of which, in like manner, we can see little but the long central ridge and lateral slopes of roof, which the sunlight separates in one glowing mass from the green field beneath the grey moor beyond. There are no living creatures near the buildings, nor any vestige of village or city round about them. They lie like a little company of ships becalmed on a far away sea.
Then look farther to the South. Beyond the widening branches of the lagoon, and rising out of the dark lake into which they gather, there are a multitude of towers, dark and scattered among square-set shapes of clustered palaces, a long irregular line fretting the southern sky. ‘Mother and daughter you behold them both in your widowhood – Torcello and Venice.’ 1300 years ago, the grey moorland looked as it does this day, and the purple mountains stood as radiantly in the deep distances of evening; but on the line of the horizon there were strange fires mixed with the light of sunset, and the lament of many human voices mixed with the fretting of the waves on their ridges of sand. The flames rose from the ruins of Altinum; the lament from the multitudes of its people, seeking, like Israel of old, a refuge from the sword in the paths of the sea. The cattle are feeding and resting on the site of the city that they left; the mower’s scythe swept this day at dawn over the chief street of the city that they built, and the swathes of soft grass are now sending their scent into the night air, the only incense that fills the temple of their ancient worship. Let us go down into that little space of meadowland.
There is one more circumstance which we ought to remember as giving peculiar significance to the position which the Episcopal throne occupies in this island church, namely, that in the minds of all early Christians the Church itself was most frequently symbolised under the image of a ship, of which the bishop was the pilot. Consider the force which this symbol would assume in the imaginations of men to whom the spiritual church had become an Ark of Refuge in the midst of a destruction hardly less terrible than that fro which the eight souls were saved of old., a destruction in which the wrath of man had become as broad as the earth, and as merciless as the sea, and who saw the actual and literal edifice of the church raised up, itself like an ark in the midst of the waters. No marvel if, with surf of the Adriatic rolling between them and the shores of their birth, from which they were separated for ever, they should have looked upon each other as the disciples did when the storm came down on the Tiberias Lake, and have yielded ready and loving obedience to those who ruled them in His name, who had there rebuked the winds and commanded the stillness of the sea. And if the stranger would yet learn in what spirit it was that the dominion of Venice was begun, and in what strength she went forth conquering and to conquer, let him not seek to estimate the wealth of her arsenals, or number of her armies; nor look upon the pageantry of her palaces, nor enter into the secrets of her councils; but let him ascend the highest tier of the storm ledges that sweep round the altar of Torcello, and then, looking as the pilot did of old along the marble ribs of the goodly temple ship, let him re-people its veined deck with the shadows of its dead mariners, and strive to feel in himself the strength of heart that was kindled within them.
Joined the Red Cross during WWI and became the first American casualty in Italy. The experience of war in the Veneto left a lasting mark on him and he wrote a book Across the River and into the Trees, a love song to the city. He returned to Torcello in 1948 where he began his story.
That’s Torcello directly opposite us… that’s where the people lived that were driven off the mainland by the Visigoths. They built that church you see there with the square tower. There were 30,000 people that lived there once and they built that church to honour their lord and worship him. Then, after they built it, the mouth of the Sile River silted up or a big flood changed it, and all that land we came through just now was flooded and started to breed mosquitoes and malaria hit them. They all started to die, so the elders got together and decided they should pull out to a healthy place that would be defensible with boats, and where the Visigoths and the Lombards and the other bandits couldn’t get at them, because these bandits had no sea power. The Torcello boys were all great boatmen. So they took the stones of all the great houses in barges, like the ones we just saw, and they built Venice…they were very tough and they had very good taste in building. They came from a little place up the coast called Caorle. But they drew on all the people from the towns and the farms behind when the Visigoths overran them. It was a Torcello boy who was running arms into Alexandria, who located the body of St Mark and smuggled it out under a fresh load of pork so the infidel customs guards would not check him. This boy brought the remains of St Mark to Venice and he’s their patron saint and they have a cathedral there to him. But by that time, they were trading so far to the east that the architecture is pretty Byzantine for my taste. They never built any better than at the start there in Torcello.
Saw Venice for the first time in 1900 and in 1904 he translated 2 volumes of Ruskin. Following is from Remembrance of Things Past.
After dinner, I went out by myself, into the heart of the enchanted city where I found myself wandering in strange regions like a character in the Arabian Knights. It was very seldom that I did not, in the course of my wanderings, hit upon some strange and spacious piazza of which no guidebook, no tourist had ever told me. I had plunged into a network of little alleys, calli dissecting in all directions by their ramifications the quarter of Venice isolated between a canal and the lagoon, as if it had crystallised along these innumerable, slender, capillary lines. All of a sudden, at the end of those little streets, it seems as though a bubble had occurred in the crystallised matter. A vast and splendid campo of which I could certainly never, in this network of little streets, have guessed the importance, or even found room for it, spread out before me flanked with charming palaces silvery in the moonlight. It was one of those architectural wholes towards which, in any other town, the streets converge, lead you and point the way. Here it seemed to be deliberately concealed in a labyrinth of alleys, like those palaces in oriental tales to which mysterious agents convey by night a person who, taken home again before daybreak, can never again find his way back to the magic dwelling which he ends by supposing that he visited only in a dream.
On the following day I set out in quest of my beautiful nocturnal piazza, I followed calli which were exactly like one another and refused to give me any information, except such as would lead me farther astray. Sometimes a vague landmark which I seemed to recognise lead me to suppose that I was about to see appear, in its seclusion, solitude and silence, the beautiful exiled piazza. At that moment, some evil genie which had assumed the form of a fresh calle made me turn unconsciously from my course, and I found myself suddenly brought back to the Grand Canal. And as there is no great difference between the memory of a dream and the memory of a reality, I ended by asking myself whether it was not during my sleep that there had occurred in a dark patch of Venetian crystallisation that strange interruption which offered a vast piazza flanked by romantic palaces, to the meditative eye of the moon.