Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 8

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XXXIX, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 9

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIX, chapter 8
The Arsenal – Henri IV –A frigate leaving for America

Venice, September 1833.

After my discovery of the prisons where Austrian materiality tried to stifle Italian intellect, I went to the Arsenal. No monarchy, however powerful, has offered an equivalent maritime factory.

An immense space, enclosed by crenellated walls, surrounds four docks for high-sided vessels, the shipyards to build such vessels, the workshops for whatever concerns the navy and merchant marine, from rope-works to foundries for cannon, from the workshops where they shape the oars for gondolas to those where they carve out the keel of a seventy-four, from the rooms given over to antique weapons won at Constantinople, Cyprus, the Morea and Lepanto, to the rooms where modern weapons are displayed: the whole mingled with pillared galleries, architecture designed and created by the leading masters.

In the naval arsenals of Spain, England, France and Holland you see only what relates to the purpose of those arsenals; in Venice, the arts unite with industry. The monument to Admiral Emo, by Canova, awaits you beside the carcass of a ship; rows of cannon appear through long porticoes: the two colossal lions from Piraeus guard the gates of the dockyard from which frigates emerged to a world that Athens never knew, and that revealed the genius of modern Italy. Despite these fine Neptunian remains, the arsenal merely recalls those lines of Dante:

‘As in the arsenal in Venice,
they boil the clammy pitch in winter
to caulk those damaged ships

they cannot sail, and labouring there
one builds anew, another stops the ribs
of a vessel that has widely fared;

some hammer at the prow, some the stern;
some shape oars, and others twine the rope;
one mends the mainsail, another mends the jib:’

All that activity is done with; the emptiness of nine tenths of the Arsenal, the unlit furnaces, the rusting boilers, the shipyard without workers, the rope-works without winding-wheels, bear witness to the same death which has struck the palaces. Instead of a crowd of carpenters, sail-makers, sailors, caulkers and ship’s apprentices, I glimpsed a few galley-slaves dragging their shackles: two of them were eating on a cannon’s breech-block; at that iron table they could at least dream of liberty.

In the past, when those galley-slaves rowed the Bucentaur, they threw a purple tunic over their stringy shoulders to make them look like kings: cleaving the waves with gilded oars, they exercised their labour to the rattle of chains, as in Bengal, at the Durga, the dances of the dancing girls, clothed in golden gauze, are accompanied by the tinkling of the bracelets with which their necks, arms and legs are adorned. The Venetian convicts wedded the Doge to the sea, and themselves renewed in slavery their indissoluble union.

Of the numerous fleets that carried the crusaders to the shores of Palestine and denied all foreign sails access to the Adriatic breezes, one Bucentaur in miniature remains, Napoleon’s canoe, a dugout of savages, and plans for vessels, traced in chalk on the blackboards of the Naval colleges.

A Frenchman arriving from Prague and waiting in Venice for Henri V’s mother cannot help but be touched to see Henri IV’s armour in the Venice Arsenal. The sword the Béarnais carried at the Battle of Ivry belongs with the armour: the sword is now missing.

By a decree of the Grand Council of Venice, of the 3rd of April 1600; Enrico di Borbone IV, re di Francia e di Navarra, con li figliuoli e discendenti suoi, sia annumerato tra I nobili di questo nostro maggiore consiglio: Henry IV of Bourbon, King of France and Navarre, with all his sons and descendants, will be counted among the nobles of this our Grand Council.

Charles X, Louis XIX and Henri V, descendants di Enrico di Borbone, are thus gentlemen of the Venetian Republic which no longer exists, as they are kings of France and Bohemia, as they are canons of St John Lateran in Rome, and always by virtue of Henri IV; I represented them in that capacity: they have lost their hoods and furs, and I have lost my Embassy. Yet I was so fine in my stall at St John Lateran! What a lovely church! What a beautiful sky! What admirable music! Those hymns have lasted longer than my greatness and that of my Royal Canon.

My glory bothered me in the Arsenal; it shone on my brow without my knowing it: Field-Marshal Palucci, Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, recognized me by my horns of fire. He hastened to show me various curiosities himself; then, excusing himself for not being able to accompany me longer, because of a council meeting which he was off to preside over, he left me in the hands of a senior officer.

We met the captain of the frigate which was about to depart. He approached me without any fuss, and said, with that sailor’s easiness that I so love: ‘Monsieur le Vicomte (as if he had known me all his life) have you any commissions for America?’ – ‘No, captain: but give it my best compliments, it is a long time since I saw it!’

I cannot gaze at any ship without dying of envy to sail in her: if I were free, the first vessel travelling to the Indies would have its opportunity to carry me. How I regret not accompanying Captain Parry to the Polar Regions! My life is only enjoyable in the midst of sea and cloud: I always hope that it will vanish under sail. The heavy years we throw into the waves of time are not anchors; they do not arrest our course.