Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 20

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XXXIX, 19 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 21

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 20
The Lido – Venetian Festivities – The Lagoon on leaving Venice for the first time – News of Madame la Duchesse de Berry – The Jewish Cemetery

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

Every Monday during September, the people of Venice go to the Lido to drink and dance. As it had rained on the two previous Mondays, a great crowd was expected on Monday the 16th, if the weather was fine. I was curious to see the spectacle.

I had another reason for going to the Lido, namely my wish to say a tender word to the sea, my darling, my mistress, my love. Men of the Mediterranean lands never meet with them again once they have left them. We others, born as we are on the waves, are in a happier state: our homeland, the sea, embraces the globe; we find her again everywhere; she seems to follow us and enter exile with us. Her face and voice are the same in all climates; she has no trees or valleys that alter in form and aspect; only she seems sadder to us, as we are ourselves, on distant shores under a foreign sun; on those shores she has an air of saying to us: ‘Halt your steps and I will allow my waves to turn back, and carry you again to our own land.’

The Lido, a long narrow island, extends north-east to south-west opposite Venice, separating the Lagoon from the Adriatic. At its eastern extremity is the San Nicolò fort below which the little boats change course; its western extremity is defended by the Fortdegli Alberoni where the channel is open to larger vessels. The San Nicolò fort faces the castle of Sant’Andrea; the fortdegli Alberoni looks towards the port of Malamocco and the shoreline of Pellestrina.

On the Lido itself, from the Lagoon, one sees the village of Santa Maria Elizabetta and a hamlet composed of a few sheds: the latter served as a stable for Lord Byron’s horses.

The contrast presented by the two sides of the Lido is neatly described by Monsieur Nodier: ‘On the one side, from which you can see Venice, the Lido is covered with gardens, pretty orchards, simple but picturesque houses…From there Venice appears to the gaze in all her magnificence; the canal covered with gondolas, presents, with its broad extent, the image of an immense river bathing the foot of the Ducal Palace and the steps of Saint Mark’s.’

Today one only needs to delete those pretty orchards, and simple but picturesque houses from the description, and in their place put barracks, vegetable plots, and beds of reeds growing in the brackish water.

Unfortunately, having left Venice quite late, I was caught in the rain while disembarking at the Lido, beside San Nicolò fort, and I lacked the time to cross the isle to reach the sea.

In the interior of the fort’s grounds dances take place beneath the mulberry, willow, walnut and cherry trees; but this shade was almost deserted. At the tables, a few ragazze (lads) and sailors were eating avidly; you shouted and they brought you Zucca arrostita (roasted pumpkin); you drank straight from the long thin-necked bottles. Two or three groups were rushing through a tumultuous farandole to the sound of a screeching violin; a scene inferior in every way to the saltarella in the gardens of the Villa Borghese.

A spirit of mockery seemed to be amusing itself by thwarting the ideas I had formed of Venetian festivities according to Madame Renier Michielli. On the Lido they celebrated, at Ascension, the marriage of the Doge with the sea. The Bucentaur (the name of Aeneas’ galley also), crowned with flowers like a new bride, progressed to the midst of the waters, to the noise of canon, the sounds of music, and the stanzas of an epithalamion in old Venetian which was no longer understood.

The Feast della Marie (of the Marys) recalled the engagement, abduction and rescue of twelve young girls, when in 944 they were taken by pirates from Trieste and freed by their Venetian relatives. Each of them at the moment of abduction wore a gilded breastplate embroidered with pearls: during the commemorative feast the breastplate was exchanged for a hat of gilded straw, oranges from Malta, and malmsey wine.

In July, at Santa Marta, illuminated gondolas carried moveable banquets along the canals, amongst the uninhabited palaces: the feast is still kept by the populace; it is defunct among the nobility.

The church of San Zaccario furnished the occasion for, and destination of, a solemn celebration: the leaders of the Republic went there in gilded boats in memory of the Corno Ducale which the nuns and abbess of the convent had once presented to the Doge. This Corno Ducale was of gold, adorned with twenty-four large pearls, surmounted by an eight-faceted diamond, an enormous ruby and a cross of opals and emeralds.

I expected a glimpse of those fiancées, those apples and orange-flowers, those gems transformed into gleaming finery; that repast accompanied by songs and malmsey, and found instead clumsy Austrian soldiers, in smocks and heavy boots, waltzing together, pipe to pipe, moustache to moustache: seized with horror, I threw myself into my gondola and returned to Venice.

The Lagoon was lifeless; the falling tide revealed banks of silt. Monsieur Ampère saw what I saw, when he wrote these lines, which ring true:

‘This wave extending round me endlessly,
In which one scarce can see the dripping land,
Treeless, uninhabited, with grass-less sand,
From which at tide’s ebb a few isles break free,
Like some soft sponge, soaking up the sea.’

Yet I am happy to have crossed the route of that same young man who, a French poet in Italy, a student of Slavic art in Bohemia, advances towards the future, while I am returning to the past. It is a consolation to me, at the end of my travels, to meet those children of the dawn who accompany me towards my last sunset. All is not finished? Onwards! Those soldiers of the Young Guard will make the veteran’s remaining journey seem shorter and the bivouacs seem less harsh.

Philippe de Comines described the Lagoon in his day: ‘Surrounding the said City of Venice there are a good seventy monasteries at a distance of less than a French half-league, broadly speaking, and it is strange to see such grand and beautiful churches founded in the sea….so many bell-towers, and such large buildings in the flood, and the people have no other means of reaching them than these little boats (gondolas) of which I believe they have thirty thousand.’

I searched the islands with my gaze to find these monasteries: some have been razed; others converted into civil or military establishments. I promised myself that I would visit the learned eastern monks. My nephew, Christian de Chateaubriand, wrote his name in their book; they took him for me. Those religious foreigners still ignore what happens in Venice; they had barely heard of Lord Byron who made a semblance of studying Armenian with them. They show editions of Saint John Chrysostom; far from their homeland, inhabiting the past, they live in a triple solitude, that of their little island, their studies, and the cloister.

Comines speaks of thirty thousand gondolas: the scarceness of these boats today bears witness to the grandeur of the ruins. ‘I would compare this gondola,’ says Goethe, ‘to a gently rocking cradle; and the cabin on top to a spacious coffin. Thus! Between cradle and coffin, carefree, we float and sway, along the Grand Canal of life!’ My gondola on its return from the Lido followed that of a group of ladies chanting lines from Tasso; but instead of heading for Venice they turned towards Pellestrina as if they wished to take to the high seas: their voices were lost in the unison of the waves. Away with my music and my dreams!

Everything changes always and in every moment: I look behind and see it as if it were another lagoon, the lagoon I crossed in 1806 on my way to Trieste: I have lifted this description from the Itinerary.

‘I left Venice on the 28th (of July) and embarked at ten at night for the mainland. The South-East wind was strong enough to inflate the sail, but not sufficient to stir the sea. As the boat pulled away I saw the lights of Venice sinking below the horizon, and distinguished the shadows of the various islands with which the coast is scattered, like dark stains on the water. These islands, instead of being covered with forts and bastions, are occupied by churches and monasteries. The bells of the hospices and lazarets could be heard, and brought to mind only thoughts of tranquillity and aid in the midst of an empire of storms and dangers. We approached near enough to one of these retreats to glimpse the monks as they watched our gondola go by; they looked like ancient mariners who had reached harbour after their long voyage; perhaps they blessed the traveller, since they recalled having been like him a stranger in the land of Egypt: fuistis enim et vos advenae in terra Aegypti.

The traveller has returned: has he been blessed? He has retraced his course; wandering endlessly, he has done no more than follow his own wake: ‘To look once more on what you have seen,’ says Marcus Aurelius, ‘is to begin to live again.’ I say: it is to begin to die again.

At last, news of Madame la Duchesse de Berry is waiting for me at the Hôtel de l’Europe. The Princess de Bauffremont newly arrived in Venice, and staying at the White Lion, desires to speak to me tomorrow, Tuesday the 17th at eleven.

On my trip to the Lido, as you have read, I was unable to reach the sea; now I am not a man to capitulate on such a matter. For fear some accident might prevent me returning to Venice once I have left, I will rise before daybreak tomorrow, and go to salute the Adriatic.

Tuesday, the 17th.

I have accomplished my plan.

Disembarking at dawn at San Nicolò, I took the path leaving the fort on the left. I stumbled amongst gravestones: I was in an unenclosed cemetery where they once disposed of the descendants of Judah. The stones carried Hebrew inscriptions; one was dated 1435 and that was not the oldest. The occupant had been named Violante; she had waited three hundred and ninety eight years for me to read and reveal her name. At the time of her death Doge Foscari began to experience that series of tragic incidents in his family: happy that obscure woman, above whose grave the sea birds fly, if she had no son.

An embankment built with the timber from old boats, on the same site, protects a new cemetery; wreckage shored up with the remains of wreckage. Through the peg-holes piercing the planks of those vessels’ shells, I spied on the dead, surrounding two cinerary urns; the dawn lit them: sunrise over the field where men rise no more is sadder than its setting. The Jews of Venice have marble tombs. They are not so richly buried at Jerusalem; I visited their graves at the foot of the Temple: when I reflect at night that I have returned from the Valley of Jehoshaphat, I feel afraid. In Tunis, in the Jewish cemetery, instead of alabaster urns, one sees by moonlight the veiled daughters of Zion, sitting like shades among the tombs: the cross and the turban sometimes come to console them.

I continued to walk towards the Adriatic; I could not see it, though I was very close. The Lido is an area of irregular dunes something like the sand-hills of the desert of Sabbah, which borders the Dead Sea. The dunes are covered with hardy plants; these plants are sometimes contiguous, sometimes separated into tufts that emerge from the bare sand, each like a lock of hair on a corpse’s skull. The land sloping towards the sea is scattered with fennel, sage, and thistles with spiky bluish flowers; the waves seemed to have dyed them with their colour: these thick, blue-green, prickly thistles, are reminiscent of cacti, and represent the transition from Northern vegetation to that of the South. A gentle breeze skimming the ground whistled among those rigid plants: one might have thought the earth sighing. Stagnant rain-water formed marshy pools. Here and there goldfinches flew with little cries among the clumps of bulrushes. A herd of cows smelling of milk, whose bull mingled his dull bellowing with that of Neptune, followed me as if I were their cowherd.

My joy and sadness were great when I discovered the sea, grey and wrinkled in the half-light. I set down here, under the title of Reverie, an imperfect picture of what I saw, felt and thought in those confused moments of meditation and seeing.