Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXIX, chapter 4
DIGRESSIONS: Venice



Venice, Hôtel de l’Europe, 10th of September 1833.


Salve, Italum Regina
Nec tu semper eris.
Hail, Queen of Italy
Though you live not forever.
(SANNAZAR)
O d’Italia dolente
Eterno lume
Venezia!
Of sorrowful Italy
Eternal light
O Venice!
(CHIABRERA)

At Venice, one might think oneself at the tiller of a superb galley at anchor, on the Bucentaur, where they will give you dinner and from whose side you can view admirable things. My hotel, the Hôtel de l’Europe, is sited at the entrance to the Grand Canal facing the Dogana di Mare, Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore. When one travels the Grand Canal between its two rows of palaces, stamped by their centuries, so varied architecturally, when one takes oneself to the great and little piazzas, contemplates the Basilica and its domes, the Doge’s Palace, the Procuratie Nuove, the Zecca, the Torre dell’Orologio, the Campanile, and the Lion Column, all of it interspersed with the masts and sails of boats, the movements of the crowds and the gondolas, the azure sea and sky, the caprices of a dream or the play of an oriental imagination are no more fantastic. Cicéri sometimes paints and groups on canvas, for theatrical spectacles, monuments of every kind, every age, every country and every clime: such is Venice.

Those gilded edifices, adorned profusely by Giorgione, Titian, Paulo Veronese, Tintoretto, Giovanni Bellini, Paris Bordone, and the two Palmas, are full of bronze, marble, granite, porphyry, precious antiques and rare manuscripts; their magic within matches their magic without; and when, in the subtle light that illuminates them, one discovers illustrious names and noble remembrances attached to their vaults, one cries with Philippe de Comines: ‘It is the most triumphant city I have ever seen!’

And yet she is no longer the Venice of Louis XI’s Minister, Venice wedded to the Adriatic and mistress of the seas; Venice who gave Constantinople emperors, Cyprus kings, Dalmatia, the Peloponnese, and Crete princes; Venice who humiliated the German Caesars, and welcomed suppliant Popes to her inviolable hearths; Venice of whom monarchs held it an honour to be citizens, to whom Petrarch, Plethon, and Bessarion bequeathed the remnants of Greek and Roman Letters saved from the barbarian wreckage; Venice who, a republic in the midst of feudal Europe, served as a shield for Christianity; Venice planter of the lion who set her feet upon the ramparts of Acre, Ascalon, Tyre, and defeated the Crescent at Lepanto; Venice whose Doges were the knights’ sages and merchants; Venice who subdued the Orient or bought her spices there, who brought from Greece conquered turbans or new-found masterpieces; Venice who emerged victorious from the thankless League of Cambrai; Venice who triumphed as much by her festivals, her courtesans and her arts, as by war and great men; Venice at once a Corinth, an Athens, a Carthage, decking her brow with rostral crowns and flowered diadems.

She is no longer the city I traversed when I visited the shores which witnessed her glory; but, thanks to her voluptuous breezes and her delightful waves, she keeps her charm; decadent countries above all need a beautiful climate. There is enough civilization in Venice for existence to play out its sensitivities there. The seductive sky prevents one needing a more than human dignity; an attractive strength emanates from those traces of grandeur, those remnants of the arts with which one is surrounded. The fragments of the ancient society that produced such things, leaves one no wish for the future. You love to feel yourself dying amongst all that is dying around you; you care for nothing but to adorn the rest of your life while she sheds her leaves. Nature, as quick to create fresh generations among the ruins as to clothe them with flowers, retains in the weakest of races the employments of passion and the enchantments of pleasure.

Venice no longer knows idolatry; she grew Christian on the island where she was nurtured, far from Attila’s brutality. The descendants of the Scipios, Paula and Eustochium, escaped the violence of Alaric in the caves of Bethlehem.

Different to all other cities, eldest daughter of ancient civilization and neither dishonoured nor conquered, Venice contains neither Roman remains nor Barbarian monuments. One sees nothing of what one sees in the north and west of Europe, amongst works of industrial progress; I speak of those new constructions, entire streets thrown up in haste, whose houses remain half-built or empty. What could they build here? Wretched shacks which would show the poverty of conception of the sons beside the magnificent genius of their fathers; pallid huts which could not compare with the gigantic residences of the Foscati and the Pesaro. When one thinks of the trowel full of mortar and handful of plaster whose application to a marble capitol urgent repairs have demanded, one is shocked. Rather the worm-eaten planks barring Greek or Moorish windows, the rags hung out to dry on elegant balconies, than the imprint of our century’s puny hand.

If only I might shut myself up in this city in harmony with my destiny, in this city of poets, which Dante, Petrarch and Byron passed through! If only I might finish writing my Memoirs by the light of the sun which falls on these pages! At this very moment the sun still scorches my Floridian savannahs and is setting here at the extremity of the Grand Canal. I no longer see it; but through a gap in those lonely palaces, its rays strike the globe of the Dogana, the spars of boats, the yards of vessels, and the gates of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. The monastery tower, changed to a rose-coloured pillar, is reflected in the waves; the white façade of the church is so brightly lit that I can see the tiniest of chiselled details. The shop walls of the Giudecca are painted with Titianesque light; the gondolas on the canal and in the harbour swim in the same glow. Venice is seated there at the edge of the sea, like a beautiful woman who will vanish with the day: the evening breeze lifts her fragrant hair; she is dying, hailed by all of Nature’s smiles and graces.