Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 18

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXIX, chapter 18
A gondola ride – Poetry – Catechism at St Peter’s – An aqueduct – A conversation with a fisher-girl – The Giudecca – Jewish women



Venice, the 10th to the 17th of September 1833.


On Sunday the 15th, the Patriarch, having been promoted to Cardinal, took the hat with all the usual ceremony. The bells rang, the city rejoiced; well-dressed women sat beneath the arcades of the cafés: Florian’s, Quadri’s, Leoni’s and Sutti’s: Monsieur Gamba assured me that they were assembled in such numbers in hopes of seeing me; that they had climbed on the benches and the bases of the columns of St Mark’s when the rumour spread that I was entering the Basilica; that I would meet the Venetian lady whose disdainful beauty had charmed me at Madame Albrizzi’s.

I thought little of these tricks of Italian flattery, which nevertheless puffed up my vanity; but instinctive humility overcame my delusions of grandeur: Mr Crow, instead of singing, was seized with terror; I hastened to flee from shyness, mistrust of myself, a horror of scenes, and a love of obscurity and silence. I hurled myself into a gondola and departed with Hyacinthe and Antonio, threading the labyrinth of least frequented canals.

Only the sound of our oars could be heard at the foot of the sonorous palaces, echoing all the more from their emptiness. Many of them, sealed for forty years, had seen not a soul enter: there, forgotten portraits hung, gazing at each other in silence through the darkness: if I had knocked, their subjects might have come to open the door, and asked me what I wanted, and why I was troubling their repose.

Full of memories of the poets, my thoughts elevated by the loves of yesterday, Saint Mark of Venice and Saint Anthony of Padua know the magnificent stories I dreamed then, while passing through the midst of the rats emerging from the marble. At the Bridge of Bianca Capello, I created a peerless romantic novel. Oh, how young, handsome, well-favoured I was! But how many dangers too! A haughty and jealous family, State inquisitors, the Bridge of Sighs from which one heard lamentable cries! ‘Let the galley-slaves make ready: let them row easily, and cleave the waves; bear us to the shores of Cyprus. Fair prisoner of palaces, the gondola awaits your beauty at the hidden sea-gate. Descend, adored girl! You whose blue eyes command the lily of your breast and the rose of your lips, as the azure heavens smile on the tinctures of spring.’

All this led me to San Pietro, Venice’s former cathedral. Little boys were repeating their catechism, interrogating each other under the direction of a priest. Their mothers and sisters, heads hidden in kerchiefs, stood listening. I gazed at them; I gazed at the painting by Alessandro Lazarini, representing San Lorenzo Giustiniani distributing his belongings to the poor. Since he was in the act of doing so, he might well have extended his good deed to us, the crowd of beggars cluttering up his church. Once I have spent the money set aside for my trip, what will I have left? And will those ragged young girls continue to sell the Levantines two kisses for five-pence?

From the eastern extremity of Venice I had myself rowed to the opposite extremity, girando (via a detour) by way of the Lagoon to the north. We passed close to the new island created by the Austrians, from gravel and piles of mud; it is on this emerging soil that they exercise the foreign troops who oppress Venice’s liberty: Cybele hidden in the breast of her son, Neptune, only emerges in order to betray him. I am not an Academician for nothing, and I know my Classics.

There was once a plan to link Venice to the mainland by a roadway. It astonishes me that the Republic at the height of its power did not think of bringing water to the city, by means of an aqueduct. An aerial canal running over the sea, through all the events of night and day, calm and storm, seeing the vessels pass beneath its arches, would have added its marvel to the city of marvels.

The western boundary of Venice is inhabited by the fishermen of the Lagoon; the end of the Riva delgi Schiavoni is the haunt of deep-sea fishermen; the former are the poorer: their shacks, like those of Olpis and Asphalion in Theocritus, have no other neighbour than the sea which bathes them.

There I might have nourished intrigue with Checca or Orsetta, from the comedy Le Baruffe Chiozzote: we hailed una ragazza (a little girl) who was wandering the shore. Antonio interpreted the tricky passages of dialogue.

‘– Carina, do you want to cross to the Giudecca? We’ll take you in our gondola.’

‘– Sior, no: vo a granzi: No, Sir: I am after crabs.’

‘– We can give you a better supper.’

‘– Col dona Mare: with my mother?’

‘– If you wish.’

‘– My mother is in the boat with my father.’

‘– Have you any sisters?’

‘– No.’

‘– Any brothers?’

‘– Uno: Tonino.’


Tonino, aged between ten and twelve, appeared, wearing a red Greek skull-cap, dressed only in a shirt clinging tightly to his flanks; his bare feet, legs and thighs were bronzed by the sun: he was carrying a vessel filled with oil; he had the air of a young Triton. He placed his urn on the ground, and began listening to our conversation with his sister.

Soon a water-carrier arrived, whom I had already met by the cistern of the DucalPalace: she was a brunette, lively and happy; she had a man’s hat on her head, tilted to the back, and on the hat a bunch of flowers which, tangled with her hair, fell over her brow. Her right hand rested on the shoulder of a tall young man with whom she was laughing; she seemed to be saying to him, in the sight of God and the whole human race: ‘I love you madly.’

We continued to exchange remarks with the picturesque group. We spoke about marriage, love, feasts, dances, Christmas Mass, celebrated in the past by the Patriarch assisted by the Doge; we talked about the Carnival; we argued about kerchiefs, ribbons, fishing, nets, boats (tartanes), good or bad fortune at sea, the joys of Venice, though, except for Antonio, none of us had seen or known life under the Republic; so far had the past receded. That did not stop us saying with Goldoni: ‘Semo donne da ben, e semo donne onorate; ma semo aliegre, e volemo saltare aliegre, e volemo ballare. E viva il Chiozotti, e viva le Chiozotte! We are good women, honourable women: but we’re happy, and we want to stay happy, and dance, and leap…and Long live the Chiozzotti, Long live Chiozzotte!’

In 1802 I dined on the Quai de la Râpée with Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant; the boatmen of Bercy have left no portrait of us: the fisher-folk of the Lagoon, and the sun of the Brenta, need a Léopold Robert. ‘Do you know that land where the lemon-trees bloom’ sings Mignon, the exile from Italy.’ (Goethe).

The Giudecca, which we touched at, while returning, contains only a few poverty-stricken Jewish families. They are recognisable by their features. In their race the women seem much more handsome than the men, and seem to have escaped the maledictions to which their fathers, husbands and sons are subjected. There was no Jewess among the crowd of Priests, and others, who insulted the Son of Man, flagellated him, crowned him with thorns, and made him endure the ignominies and sorrows of the Cross. The women of Judea believed in the Saviour, loved him, followed him, aided him out of their goodness, and relieved his sufferings. A woman of Bethany, poured precious ointment over his head from an alabaster vase; the sinner anointed his feet with perfumed oil and wiped them with her hair. Christ in turn extended his grace and mercy to the Jewish women-folk: he resurrected the son of the widow of Nain, and Martha’s brother; he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and the woman who touched the border of his garment; to the woman of Samaria he was a source of living water, a compassionate judge to the woman taken in adultery. The daughters of Jerusalem wept for him; the female saints accompanied him to Calvary, bought spice and ointments and sought the sepulchre weeping. ‘Mulier quid ploras? Woman, why weepest thou?’ His first appearance after his glorious resurrection was to Mary Magdalene; she did not recognize him, but he said to her: ‘Mary’. At the sound of that voice her eyes were opened and she replied: ‘Rabboni: Master’ Reflections of a beautiful light remain on the brows of Jewish women.