FROM VENICE TO ONE AT HOME:
SARAH ORNE JEWETT.
DAY before yesterday, we went to Torcello, "the mother of Venice." In the morning, we had gone on a trading voyage to a beguiling iron-shop, with an English friend, where iron chains held us long with their lovely twisted links, and hanging lamps shone at the end upon empty purses. Alexander the coppersmith wrought us much evil, as in Scripture times, but Doges' candlesticks and delightful water-pots could not be left behind: so that we gathered a pretty freight for the gondola, and came home to luncheon.
It was the best of afternoons to go to Torcello. Giovanni had another gondolier to help him, by the name of Bastiano, a wise and manful rower; and we also carried a sail, by the advice of friends. It was striped handsomely with orange and red, and had four blue corners, all nicely faded, and was of a lug rig. This sail cost half a lira, or ten cents extra, which awful information was broken to me most humbly, in a private interview, by Giovanni, who had hired it of a friend for the occasion. There was a light breeze, and we had a long way to go.
First we went down the Grand Canal and turned off under the Bridge of Sighs, coming out at last by Zanipolo, as the people call the great church of San Giovanni e Paoli. It is always pleasant to me to say Zanipolo as if I were a Venetian, but it is a very familiar name for such a big and solemn church, with its own piazza between it and the canal, and the great Colleone statue standing guard.
Soon we got out into the lagoon, and turned toward Murano. We skirted the wall of San Michele, where we had been only a day or two before to a gondolier's funeral, the dear friend of Giovanni, and for years chief gondolier to that friend of ours whom Venice has long held in happy thraldom. The old brick wall of the Campo Santo was glowing with color, and here and there a tuft of grass or a gay flower nodded down at the rippling sea-water. A light breeze obliged us by coming our way, so we pompously put up the sail and slid away over the smooth reaches just a little faster than we could be rowed, but neither of our crew knew much about sailing a boat, especially one that had neither rudder nor keel: so I had to come to the fore at times with the little that I knew myself, which was of value as far as it went. I was reminded of our daring attempts to sail the birch-bark canoe down the river at home, with the small yellow sail that cheered but could not navigate, without going sidewise into the wet hemlock boughs, when the wind was a little too stiff.
You remember the great lines of piles that stretch across the lagoons? I knew that they were to mark the channels, but I never thought how much these channels were like roads: you have to follow them, except at high water, so that you meet all the boats that are coming, like carriages on a turnpike. We were unmistakably on the road to Burano, the island-town of fishermen and lace-makers, as Murano is the town of glass-makers. Most of the sails we met were orange and brown; now and then there was a white one, which looked more charming than any, until, as we sailed slowly along, we came in sight of a large fishing-smack, which presently changed her course and let the sunlight flash back to us from a great mainsail of bright scarlet. This, with the low green shore and the blue sky and shining water, was more beautiful than black ink can describe. Ruskin says somewhere that the island-towns of the lagoons look like handfuls of jewelry scattered on a mirror. As you come closer, there is a moment when they look duller; then, nearer still, you see that the red bricks are very red, and the yellow ones very yellow, and so with the orange and white, and then there are rude pictures in coarse bright mosaic that have a surprising way of catching the sunshine.
The villages on the islands each had their bell-tower. Sometimes there was a bell-tower without any village, but soon we saw the great square campanile of Torcello away to the north. Beyond it, all the way that we had sailed, we had seen the snow-covered Alps glimmering through the haze, but when we came closer to Torcello we forgot to look at either the sea or the mountains. It was a charming bit of low-lying green country, like a little piece of Holland. There were delightful green fields, and one of them was full of hay-cocks, though it is only a little after the middle of May; and the elder was all in bloom, holding great blossoming boughs up against the blue sky. Our little wind served us all the way up an old canal, where the ruined brickwork had crumbled on either hand, and all sorts of grasses and bushes and trees came crowding down to the water's edge. At the end of this canal was a ruined stone pier.
There was no city of Torcello, "mother of Venice," to be seen; only the great campanile with its square top that looked as if it were built to hold up the sky; the huge stone shape of the cathedral in the blossoming fields, and the ancient octagonal church that stood beside it. It was all startlingly old: the pavements, the stone railings of the little church, the stone shutters of the cathedral, the very paths through the grass, and the grass and flowers themselves; they all belonged to an earlier age. The flowers might have grown in the fields of Enna; much of the art was Byzantine. Nobody knows exactly how old the cathedral is, but these few old buildings stand alone like the temples of Pæstum, except, like those, for a few old stone farm-houses; and are full of old mosaic work and delicate carving, though outside they are bare and plain. Inside the damp, gray old cathedral tall shapes of saints and virgins in mosaic stare in each other's eyes, from wall to wall, and hold, from century to century, their crosses and crowns and palms. In the dim, high-vaulted place you feel like whispering, as if you were a poor fly buzzing about these everlasting stone relics and strange creatures of the past. I thought it was a ghostly sort of place at Torcello, but a sweeter, flowerier bit of country you never saw, even in Ireland in June! There were half a dozen pleasant little children with pretty eyes, who kept following us about, looking as if they had grown in the long grass and had to break their stalks when they started.
The afternoon was almost gone, and by the time we were ready to come away, the shadow of the campanile stretched away across the fields; but we were going to Burano before we came back to Venice: in fact, we had thoughts of eating a handful of cherries there with some nice little Venetian cakes, by way of afternoon tea, and we had been told that Burano was the place in which the gondoliers liked best to have an hour to themselves. I bestowed certain lire upon them by way of a gentilezza, which seemed to strike such joy into their honest hearts that, after making the passage between the islands and entering the narrow canal (filled with fishing-boats) that cuts Burano in halves, they tied us fast in a pretty spot just beyond the middle of the town, and then stood side by side on the shore, and made us a perfectly splendid bow, exactly together, with great waves of their hats; then they took to their heels and ran away like little boys. "Molto salute!" they said grandly, as they bowed. I truly hope that it was good vino rosso in the shop where they went.
Most of the citizens, young and old, of Burano, stepped with proper haste to that point of the canal, and watched us with deep interest. All that could be spared of the little Venetian cakes was tossed ashore to the children, and it was a season of great excitement. I never saw more beautiful women than those who stood in a little group, holding their sleepy babies, like the old pictures of the Madonna, and dressed in wonderful shades of dull red and brown and olive and green; you might have thought that all the pictures in Venice came alive at six o'clock, every evening, in Burano. We could look in at the open door-ways and see the women and girls at work with their lace-making, but work was over for the men, and the fishing-boats were all in.
Then we came home, rowing all the way, seven miles to Venice in the sunset; and we met long processions of black boats and gay sails, for they still had the good wind that had brought us over. We listened as best we could to their conversation, and now and then there was a snatch of song and much shouting from boat to boat. We reached home at eight o'clock, just as it was growing dark, and out of our parlor windows we could see the Salute turning white and gray, as it always does at night-fall, the colors of the day fading and falling away before our eyes.
"From Venice to One at Home" appeared in The Pilgrim Script (1: No. 2), January 1893; published by The Women's Rest Tour Association, Boston, MA. This text is available courtesy of Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, ME. The original text does not indent paragraphs.
Jewett first visited Italy on her first trip to Europe with Annie Fields in 1882, and Venice was one of her favorite cities, according to Paula Blanchard (Sarah Orne Jewett). She and Fields returned in 1892 -- which probably was the occasion for this essay - and again in 1900.
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wrought us much evil: See II Chronicles 33:6.
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lug rig: a square sail without a boom; it hangs from an upper yard.
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friend of ours: The identity of this friend who is thrall to Venice has not been determined; assistance is welcome.
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Ruskin: John Ruskin (1819-1900), British author and art historian, wrote a good deal about Venice, publishing The Stones of Venice in 1851-3).
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fields of Enna: Enna is a town in the center of the island of Sicily. It is known for panoramic views.
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temples of Pæstum: An ancient city southeast of the modern city of Salerno. Originally a Greek colony on the Italian peninsula, it was conquered by Rome and eventually abandoned. It is now the site of important Roman ruins, especially three Doric temples, the Basilica and temples to Poseidon and Ceres. (Source: Encarta Encyclopedia).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.