Monday, October 16, 2006

"Travels through Italy and Swisserland"

by Joseph Addison
1672 - 1719

From Padua I went down the river Brent in the ordinary ferry, which brought me in a day's time to Venice. Having frequently heard this city represented as one of the most defensible cities in the world, I took care to inform myself of the particulars in which its strength consists, which I found, is chiefly owing to its advantageous situation, for though it has neither rocks nor fortifications, it is perhaps the most impregnable town in Europe. It stands at least four miles from any part of the main land, and the shallows that lie about it are never frozen hard enough to bring over an army from the land-side, and on that exposed to the Adriatic, the entrance is so difficult, that they have been obliged to mark it out with several stakes driven into the ground, which they would cut upon the first approach of an enemy's fleet. For this reason the little islands that lie at the entrance, are not fortified to the best advantage ; though these might very easily be made to command all the passes that lead to the city from the Adriatic; nor could an ordinary fleet with bomb vessels hope to succeed against a place that has always in its arsenal a considerable number of men of war and gallies, ready to put to sea on a very short warning. If therefore we would suppose them blocked up on all sides, by a power too strong for them both by sea and land, they would be able to defend themselves against every thing, but famine, and even this would be greatly mitigated by the vast quantities of fish, with which their seas abound, and that may be taken up in the midst of their very streets; which is such a natural magazine, as few other cities can boast.

Our writers of voyages represent this city as being in great danger of being left, within an age or two on the Terra Firma, from the sea's insensibly shrinking from it, and retiring into its channel. But the sea arises as high as ever, though the sand it brings along with it is apt to choak up the shallows; and they are in no danger of losing the benefit of their situation, while they are at the expense of removing these banks of sand and mud; indeed they are at a great charge in keeping the deep channels free and open. *(1)

The city is conveniently seated for commerce, and in its neighboring territories it has several navigable rivers, that run up into the heart of Italy, by which they might supply many countries with fish, and other commodities; and besides they have the greatest opportunities of carrying on a trade to each side of the Adriatic, and to the Levant: but notwithstanding these advantages, their trade is far from being in a flourishing condition; and there are high duties laid on merchandize: Their nobles think it beneath them to to engage in traffic: Their merchants who are grown rich, buy the honour of nobility, and generally give over trade: Their manufacturers are silk, cloth and glass, which were formerly the best in Europe, and are now excelled by those of other countries: They are tenacious of their old laws and customs, while a trading nation should be always making new changes, as different emergencies arise.

At a distance, Venice resembles a great town half floated by a deluge. It is everywhere crossed by canals, so that a person may go to most of the houses, either by land or water. This is a very great convenience to the inhabitants; for at Venice a gondola with two oars is as magnificent as a coach and six with a large equipage in other countries. It besides makes all other carriages extremely cheap. The streets are generally paved with free-stone or brick, and always kept very neat, for no carriage is permitted to pass through them. There is an innumerable multitude of very handsome bridges all of one arch, and without any fence on either side, which would be a very great inconvenience to a city of less sobriety. It is indeed surprizing that the Venetians should be so little addicted to drinking, since they are in moist air, and a moderate climate, and have no such diversions as riding, hunting, walking, bowling, and the like exercises, to employ them without doors: but the nobles are not to converse too much with strangers, and are therefore in no danger of learning it from them, and they are commonly too distrustful of each other, to allow of the freedoms used over the bottle.

In Venice there are many noble palaces; but their furniture is not commonly very rich, if we except the pictures, which are more numerous here, than in any other place in Europe, and done by the best masters of the Lombard school, as Titian, Paul Veronese, and Tintoret. The rooms are generally hung with gilt leather, which, on extraordinary occasions, they cover with tapestry, and hangings of greater value. The flooring is formed of a kind of red plaster made of bricks ground to a powder, and worked into mortar, and being rubbed with oil, for a smooth shining, and beautiful surface. These particularities are principally owing to the moisture in the air, which would have an ill effect on other kinds of furniture, as is too visibly seen in many of their finest pictures.

The arsenal of Venice is an island of about three miles in compass, which contains all their stores and privisions for war that are not actually employed. There are docks for their men of war and galleys, as well as workhouses for all preparations both by sea and land. The building, in which the arms are deposited, makes a great shew, and about 100 years ago was a very extraordinary place, but great part of its furniture is now grown useless. There seemed to be near as many suits of armour as there are guns, many of the swords are old fashioned and unwieldy, and the firearms fitted with locks that are not to be compared with those that are now in use. The Venetians pretend, they could in case of necessity fit out 30 men of war, 100 galleys, and 10 galeasses: but it is not easy to conceive how they could man half the number.

The Venetian Senate is one of the wisest councils in the world, though according to the reports of several who have been well versed in their constitution, a great part of their politics is founded on maxims. which are far from being hinerable: but nothing is more admirable than the great secrecy that reigns in their public councils. If we reckon only the sitting members, the Senate is generally as numerous as our House of Commons, and yet its resolutions are carried so privately, that they are seldom known till they discovers themselves in the execution. Not many years since they had great debates, relating to the punishment of one of their Admirals; and though they lasted a month together, and concluded in his condemnation, none of his friends, nor any of those who had warmly engaged in his defence, gave him the least intimation of what was passing against him, till he was actually seized and in the hands of justice. Monsieur Amelot computes, that in his time there were 2500 nobles who had voices in the great council; but I was told, that they did not now exceed 1500. However, each of these think themselves equal at least to the Electors of the Empire, and but one degree below kings. The nobility spreads equally through all the brothers, and they generally thrust the females of their families into convents, the better to preserve their estates. Hence the Venetian Nuns are famous for the liberties they allow themselves. They have operas within their own walls, and if they are not much misrepresented, often go out of their bounds to meet their admirers.

The great diversions at Venice during the carnival, as well as on other extraordinary occasions, is masking ; for though the Venetians are naturally grave, they love to give into the follies and entertainments of such seasons, when disguised as a false personage, and indeed, thet are under a necessity of finding out such diversions as may agree with their situation, and make them some amends for the loss of those pleasures which may be met with on the continent. These disguises occasion abundance of love adventures, and there is something more intriguing in the amours of Venice than in those of other countries. Operas are another great entertainment at this season; but the poetry is generally as extremely bad as the music is good. The comedies at Venice, and in all other parts of Italy, are also very indifferent, and more lewd than those of other countries; for as their poets have no notion of genteel comedy. when they have a mind to make their audience merry, they fall into the most filthy double meanings; but no part is generally so wretched as that of the fine gentleman, particularly when he converses with his mistress; for the whole dialogue is then an insipid mixture of romance and pedantry. But it is not surprising that the poets of so reserved and jealous a nation should fail in such conversations on the stage, where there are no patterns in nature. There are four standing characters which regularly enter into every piece that is acted. The Doctor, Harlequin, Pantaloon and Coviello. The doctor is a complete pedant, who with a deep voice, and magesterial air, breaks in upon conversation; backs everything he says with quotations out of Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Virgil or any other author; and all answers from his companions are considered by him as impertinences or interruptions. Harlequin's part is made up of absurdities and blunders, he mistakes one name for another, forgets his errand, stumbles over Queens, and runs his head against every post that stands in his way ; and all this is attended with something so comical in his voice and gestures, that a person sensible of the folly of the part, can scarecely forbear being pleased with it. Pantaloon is commonly an old cully *(a), and Coviello, a sharper *(b).

Among the several shews that are annually exhibited, there is one performed on Holy Thursday, which is peculiar to the Venetians. A set of artizans by the help of several poles laid across each others shoulders, build themselves up into a kind of pyramid, so that there is seen a pile of men in the air of four or five rows rising one above another, and yet the weight is so equally distributed, that every man is able to bear his part of it. The stories, if they may be so called, growing less and less in proportion as they advance higher, till a little boy represents the point of the pyramid, who, after standing thus a short time, leaps with great dexterity into the arms of one who catches him at the bottom; and in the same manner the whole edifice falls to pieces. This trick was, however, practiced by the Romans.

Original spelling preserved. I can't find a volume published in Addison's lifetime ... this is from pages 64-70. Vol. IX of a compendium, published in 1761: "A Curious Collection of Travels, Selected from The Writers of all Nations. In which the Conjectures and Interpolations of Several vain Editors and Translators Are expunged, Every Relation is made concise and plain, And The Divisions of Countries and Kingdoms are clearly and distinctly noted."

Definitions from Samuel Johnson, 3rd edition, 1768:

*(a) CU'LLY ... [coglione, Ital. a fool] A man deceived or imposed upon.
*(b) SHA'RPER ... [from sharp] A tricking fellow; a petty thief; a rascal.

*(1) One of the many politically difficult solutions explored, in the long-term salvation of Venice, is to let the lagoon silt up more -- after back-filling the deep channels: these were cut after the second World War for oil tankers.


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