Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 10

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XXXIX, 9 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 11

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 10
San Michele di Murano – Murano – The woman and child - Gondoliers

Venice, September 1833.

We went to see the other field that awaits the great ploughman. San Michele di Murano is a pleasant monastery with an elegant church, porticoes and a white cloister. From the monastery windows you can see the Venice Lagoon through the porticoes; a garden full of flowers meets the lawn whose compost is still maturing beneath a young girl’s skin. This charming retreat has been surrendered to the Franciscans: it would suit nuns better, who might sing like the little pupils of Rousseau’s Scuole. ‘Happy are those,’ says Manzoni, ‘who have taken the holy veil before setting eyes on a man’s face!’

Grant me a cell there, I beg you, to complete my Memoirs.

Fra Paolo is buried at the entrance to the church; that seeker of noise must be furious at the silence that surrounds him.

Pellico, condemned to death, was held at San Michele before being transported to the fortress of Spielburg. The President of the Tribunal that Pellico appeared before replaced the poet at San Michele; the former is buried in the cloister; he has never emerged from that prison.

Not far from the magistrate’s grave is that of a foreign lady: married at twenty, in January, she died in the following February. She did not wish to outlive her honeymoon; the epitaph reads: Ci rivedremo: we will meet again. If it be true!

Away with that doubt, away with the thought that anguish may fail to tear apart the nothingness! Atheist, when death sinks his nails in your heart, who knows if in the last moment of consciousness, before the destruction of the self, you will not experience an agony of grief capable of filling eternity, an immensity of suffering of which no human being can form an idea within time’s circumscribed limits? Oh, yes, ci rivedremo!

I was too close to the island and town of Murano, not to visit the workshop from which Combourg obtained the mirrors in my mother’s room. I did not see that workshop, which is now closed; but they spun before me, as time spins our fragile life, a thin rope of glass: it was of that glass that the bead was made that hung from the nose of the little Iroquois girl at Niagara Falls: a Venetian hand had shaped the ornament for a savage.

I met with greater beauty than Mila’s, a woman carrying a child in swaddling clothes; the fineness of colouring, and the charming glance of that Muranese are idealized in my memory. She had a sad and preoccupied air. If I had been Lord Byron, the occasion might have been favourable for an attempt at seducing the wretched; you get a long way here with a little money. Then, drunk on my success and my genius I might have created desperation and loneliness beside the waves. Love seems something else to me: I have lost sight of René for many years; but I do not know that he found the cure for his boredom in pleasure.

Every day after my sightseeing I went to the post-office, and found nothing there: Count Griffi failed to reply to me from Florence; the newspapers permitted in this land of liberty had not dared to record that a traveller had arrived at the White Lion. Venice, where the gazette was born, is reduced to reading the notices that announce on the same placard both the opera of the day and the time of Holy Sacrament. The Aldus’s will not rise from their graves to embrace, in my person, the defender of liberty and the Press. They must wait for me there instead. Returning to my inn, I dined and amused myself with the society of the gondoliers stationed, as I said, beneath my window at the entrance to the Grand Canal.

The gaiety of these sons of Nereus never leaves them; clothed by the sun, the sea nourishes them. They are not lazing around, at a loose end, like the lazzaroni of Naples: always in motion, they are sailors without a ship or a task, but who would nevertheless create world trade and win the battle of Lepanto, if the age of Venetian liberty and glory were not past.

At six in the morning they arrive at their gondolas, moored, prow shoreward, to the posts. Then they begin to scrape and clean their barchette (little boats) at the Traghetti (piers), like dragoons currying, sponging and grooming their horses at the picket. The touchy sea-horse cavorts about, rocked by the movement of her rider who scoops up water in a wooden bucket and pours it over the sides and interior of the vessel. He repeats the process several times, having to skim the surface to get at the purer water beneath. Then he scrapes the oar, and polishes the leather upholstery and the windows of the little black cabin; he dusts off the cushions, the curtains, and burnishes the iron that trims the prow. All is done with humorous or tender comments addressed, in the charming Venetian dialect, to the capricious or docile gondola.

The gondola’s toilette having been completed, the gondolier turns his attention to his own: he combs his hair, shakes out his jacket and his blue, red or grey cap; and washes his face, feet and hands. His wife, daughter or mistress brings him a bowl with an assortment of vegetables, bread and meat. Breakfast finished, each gondolier awaits good-fortune while singing: he has her image before him, one foot in the air, offering her robe to the wind and serving as a weather-vane, at the top of the Dogana di Mare. Has she given the signal? The favoured gondolier, oar raised, departs standing at the rear of his boat, as Achilles once stood in his chariot, or as one of Franconi’s riders gallops along today standing on his horse’s hindquarters. The gondola, shaped like an ice skate, slides over the water as if it were frozen. Then it’s ‘Sia stati!’ and ‘Sta longo!’ (Halt! Go on!), all day long. Then comes the night, and the calle (alley) will see my gondolier with his zitella (girl) singing and drinking away the half-sequin (gold) I give him as I depart to replace Henri V, in all probability, on his throne.