Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 5
Venetian Architecture – Antonio – The Abbé Bettio and Monsieur Gamba – Rooms in the Doge’s palace – Prisons

Venice, September 1833..

In Venice, in 1806, I remember the young Signor Armani, the Italian translator, or a friend of the translator, of Le Génie du Christianisme. His sister, so he said, was a nun (monaca). There was also a Jewish gentleman on his way to the farce of Napoleon’s Grand Sanhedrin who eyed my purse; then there was Monsieur Lagarde, head of French espionage, who had me to dinner: my translator, his sister, and the Sanhedrin Jew, are either dead or no longer live in Venice. In those days, I stayed at the White Lion Inn, near the Rialto; that inn has changed location. Almost facing my former hostelry is the FoscariPalace which is falling down. Away, all these old fragments of my life! Those ruins will drive me mad: let us speak of the present.

I have tried to describe the general effect of Venetian architecture; in order to give an account of the details I travelled up and down the Grand Canal, and visited and revisited St Mark’s Square.

Volumes are needed to cover the subject exhaustively. Count Cicognara’s Le Fabbriche più cospicue di Venezia shows the features of the monuments; but the presentation is not clear enough. I will content myself with noting two or three of the most common arrangements.

From the capital of a Corinthian column a semi-circle is described which ends on the capital of a second Corinthian column: in the midst of these a third is erected, of the same order and dimensions; from the capital of this central column two further semi-circles rise to left and right whose extremities also rest on the capitals of the other columns. The result of this design is that the arches, intersecting, give rise to ogives at the point of intersection (It is clear to me that the ogive whose origin, deemed mysterious, is sought far and wide, is born fortuitously from the intersection of two rounded arches; and it is found everywhere. Architects have merely succeeded in extracting it from the designs in which it appears) such that it forms a delightful blend of two architectural styles, the Roman rounded arch and the Arab ogive, or oriental Gothic. I here agree with present opinion, in supposing the Arab ogive to be Gothic, or of the Middle Ages, in origin; but it definitely exists in the monuments termed cyclopean: I have seen it in its pure form in the tombs of Argos.

The Doge’s Palace reveals tracery reproduced in other palaces, particularly the Foscari Palace: the pillars support ogive arches; these arches leave intervening spaces: in these spaces the architect has placed rose windows. Each rose window rests between the points of two arches. These rose-windows, which also touch one another at a point on their circumference, on the building’s façade, act like a row of wheels on which the rest of the building rises.

In most construction the base is usually substantial; the building reduces in thickness as it ascends into the sky. The Ducal Palace precisely contradicts this natural architecture: the base, pierced by light porticoes surmounted by a gallery with arabesques, indented with four-leaved clover tracery, supports an almost bare rectangular mass: it could be called a fortress on pillars, or rather an upturned building planted on its airy crown its thick roots in the air.

The architectural masks and heads decorating the Venetian buildings are noteworthy. On the Pescaro Palace, the entablature of the first storey, of Doric order, is decorated with the heads of giants; the Ionic order of the second storey is decorated with the heads of knights projecting horizontally from the wall, faces turned towards the water: some cased in a beaver, others with visor half-lowered; all with helmets whose plumes curl into the ornamentation of the cornice. Finally, on the third storey, of Corinthian order, there are heads of female statues with variously knotted hair.

At St Mark’s, embossed with domes, incrusted with mosaics, loaded incoherently with the spoils of the Orient, I thought myself at the same moment at San Vitale in Ravenna, Sancta Sophia in Constantinople, St Saviour in Jerusalem, and in those lesser churches of the Morea, Chios and Malta: St Mark’s, of composite Byzantine architecture is a monument of victory and conquest raised to the Cross, as the whole of Venice is a trophy. The most remarkable effect of its architecture is its shadiness under a bright sky; but today, the 10th of September, the dim light outdoors was in harmony with the sombre basilica. They have completed the forty hours of prayer required to obtain good weather. The fervour of the faithful, praying against rain, was profound: a grey and aqueous sky is like the plague to Venetians.

Our wishes have been granted: the evening was delightful; tonight I walked along the quay. The sea was smooth; the stars mingled with the scattered lights of the boats and other vessels anchored here and there. The cafes were full; but I saw no Punchinellos, Greeks, or Barbary Pirates: all that is done with. A Madonna, brightly lit at the entrance to a bridge, drew a crowd: girls on their knees said their paternosters devotedly; with her right hand she made the sign of the cross, with her left hand she stopped passers-by. Returning to my inn, I lay down and slept to the singing of the gondoliers stationed beneath my windows.

I have Antonio as my guide, the oldest and wisest cicerone in the land: he knows the palaces, statues and paintings by heart.

On the 11th of September, I visit the Abbé Bettio and Monsieur Gamba, curators at the library: they welcome me with extreme courtesy, even without a letter of recommendation.

Traversing the rooms of the DucalPalace, you pass from marvel to marvel. There the entire history of Venice is revealed painted by the greatest masters: their pictures have been described a thousand times.

Among the antiquities, I noted, as all do, the group of Leda and the Swan, and the Ganymede said to be by Praxiteles. The swan is prodigious in terms of its grip and its voluptuousness; Leda is too complacent. The eagle of the Ganymede is not a true eagle; it looks like the gentlest of creatures. Ganymede, pleased to be carried off, is delightful: he speaks to the eagle who replies.

These antiquities are placed at either end of the magnificent halls of the library. With a poet’s sacred respect, I contemplated a manuscript of Dante’s, and gazed with a traveller’s avidity at Fra Mauro’s Mappa Mundi (1460). Africa however did not seemed as accurately traced as was said. Above all one ought to explore the archives of Venice: one would find there many precious documents.

From painted and gilded salons, I passed to dungeons and cells; the one palace offers a microcosm of society, pleasure and sorrow. The cells are beneath the leads, the dungeons at the level of the canal and on the second storey. They tell a thousand tales of secret strangulations and decapitations; by contrast, they tell of one prisoner who emerged, large, fat and ruddy from the oubliettes, after eighteen years in captivity: he had survived like a toad inside a stone. Honour to the human race! What a fine thing it is!

Perhaps philanthropic maxims adorn the walls and ceilings of dungeons, since our Revolution, so hostile to shedding blood ‘to that fearful stay, with a blow from an AXE, brought the light of day.’ In France, they cluttered the cells with victims whom they got rid of by cutting their throats; but they delivered the shades of those who were never there perhaps from the prisons of Venice; the gentle executioners who beheaded old men and children, the benign spectators who helped to guillotine women were moved by the progress of humanity, as is well proven by the opening of the Venetian dungeons. As for me, I am cold-hearted; I cannot match these heroes of sensibility. No old headless larvae were presented to my eyes beneath the Doge’s Palace; I only seemed to see in the dungeons of the aristocracy what the Christians saw when they shattered the idols, nests of mice escaping from the heads of the gods. That is what happens to all power eviscerated and exposed to the light; vermin emerge that worshippers have adored.

The Bridge of Sighs links the DucalPalace to the city prison; it is divided in two lengthwise: on one side ordinary prisoners entered; on the other prisoners of State approached the Tribunal of Inquisitors or the Ten. The bridge is elegant on the outside, and the prison’s façade is admired: you cannot avoid beauty in Venice, even with regard to tyranny and misfortune! Pigeons make their nests on the window ledges of the gaol; little doves, covered with down, flap their wings and coo at the bars while waiting for their mother. In days past, they cloistered innocent creatures almost as they emerged from the cradle; their parents no longer saw them except through the visiting-room grille or the wicket gate.