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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911



Holy Week and Eastertide. Here, as everywhere, we found an English Church and Chaplain. "We do admire," said an American lady to me, "at your S.P.G. and other societies; we come to Italy every year, and never fail to find an English Church, though our own Church is represented in large centres, and, page 250of course, we are quite at home in your English services."

Very noticeable, whatever may be said to the contrary, is the devotion of the Italians at such a season as this. In Florence there are seven principal Churches to which all the faithful are supposed to go, giving a certain time to prayer in each. Wherever I went I found the places thronged, including many well-dressed men; there was no sort of attraction by way of music or preaching; all there on their knees in various parts of the church, quite free from that self-consciousness which clings to the Anglo-Saxon, taking no notice of others. On Thursday evening I found my way to the Church of Santa Maria Annunziata, and was scarcely able to edge myself in amongst a dark crowd of men standing in the nave. The church was in darkness, save for the glimmering light of some candles in a side chapel, in which there was a representation of the Burial of our Lord. Behind the reredos a solemn miserere was being sung by the choir. Suddenly there came a startling sound from the side aisles, as if someone were flogging the pillars with canes. "Would you tell me," I said to an Italian, "what that means?" "'Tis only the bones of Judas," he replied. During this week, all over Italy, the memory of Judas is execrated; little children with sticks, imitating their elders, beating the pillars of church porches.

Early on Easter morning, after the Celebration in the English Church, I saw a curious ceremony in the Church of Santa Maria Novella. In a transept stood a very large table, covered with plates and small baskets full of all sorts of provisions, eggs, butter, bread, fowls, fruit and cakes, brought by people, page 251some well-dressed, others of the poorer classes, who were waiting until a priest, attended by a boy, came out of a sacristy and took his place at the head of the table. The boy carried a book, and a silver vessel of water, with an asperge or whisk. So long as you are reverent, no one seems to mind what you do in an Italian church. So I drew near the priest and looked over his shoulder at the book, which contained in Latin short prayers and benedictions for every kind of food. Uttering these prayers, the priest, with the asperge, sprinkled the plates, the boy responding with "Amen" after each benediction. I imagined that the food was being blessed as a charitable offering to the poor. But no sooner was the ceremony over, than the owner of each plate, wrapping it in a napkin, carried it off, and within a few minutes the table was again covered with others, by a different set of people. "Tell me, please," I said to a bystander, "what all this means." "Oh no, not for the poor; on Easter day we bring something of our provision for our households, in order to receive the Church's blessing upon it; then we take it home and feast upon it."

I was much struck, also, with another instance of practical Italian piety, often seen in the busiest streets. A procession of men, habited in black robes, with peaked cowls which completely hide the face, leaving only two small holes for their eyes. They are on their way to perform the last offices for the dead; they have a special chapel, founded in the thirteenth century, where the dead lie until burial, whilst a watch is kept. These men are not monks, but drawn from all classes, often of the higher ranks; their work is entirely gratuitous; they are summoned to it at any hour by the tolling of their bell.

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I must not try to describe the great places of Florence, the Cathedral with its dome second only to that of St. Peter, Giotto's Tower, and the famous Baptistery, nor the treasures of art in the picture galleries. I may be able to say something about them if I revisit Florence. One other Church, however, Santa Croce, the chief shrine of the great Franciscan order, must not be passed by. Dean Stanley, I think, calls it the Westminster Abbey of Italy. Its architecture is a specimen of Tuscan Gothic, and its fresco paintings by Giotto are a great attraction, but much more so the memorials of the mighty dead who lie there or are commemorated by monuments,—Michael Angelo, Galileo, Dante, Donatello, the sculptor, Machiavelli, Alfieri, Rossini, and amongst them an English Bishop, John Catrick, of Exeter, who was Ambassador from Henry V in Florence, and died there. The Franciscans were a preaching order, drawing immense congregations in the vast nave, which measures three hundred and eighty-four feet by sixty-five feet.

Leaving Florence, with a day or two in Padua, the famous university city in mediæval days, we went to Ferrara, on our way to Venice, a quiet, half-deserted place, once a great commercial centre, not far from the river Po, which is crossed by a bridge of boats, a wide, rapid stream, banked on either side by high grass-grown dykes of earth. The early morning market was worth a visit. In Italy the people seem to depend on the daily market for all their needs; there were women of all ranks, priests, soldiers, labourers, well-dressed men, bargaining for their rolls, eggs, butter, and meat. In most of these towns one notices some peculiar costume; the Ferrarese ladies wear, in place of any sort of hat or bonnet, bright page 253coloured small shawls, rising in a peak above the masses of black hair, something after the style of the poke bonnet in fashion at home some years ago. Leaving Ferrara for Venice, you pass extensive rice fields, fed by irrigation channels, traversed by ridges of soil, which enclose shallow water; the country is a dead flat, but very fertile. The approach to Venice is as unique as the city itself; a railway viaduct for several miles brings you across a waste of lagoon water, dotted with islets of rough herbage, into a station which might be in any town, lit with electricity. Passing out from it, the scene changes, no street or road, no 'busses or any sort of vehicle; a canal with gondolas; no noise of traffic, scarcely any sound save the cries of the gondoliers as you turn sharp corners right up against the houses; "Premi; stali!" cries of warning to any boat coming from an opposite direction, equivalent to our starboard and port. We emerge into the Grand Canal, making for the Hotel Britannia, and then land on its steps. Next morning the same unusual surroundings; no noise whatever of traffic; there is not a wheeled vehicle, horse, mule, or ass in the city; only a subdued murmur of voices and the occasional swish of oars in the water. Out after breakfast for a walk, for you can walk in Venice through so-called streets, mere alley ways between lofty houses, and over innumerable little bridges crossing the network of canals which intersect the city, to the one large open space, the Piazza of St. Mark. At its further end stands the Church of St. Mark, crowned with numerous oriental domes, some-what dwarfed in appearance by the towering height of the Campanile, which rises three hundred and twenty-five feet. Inside the Church the walls and page 254vaulting are covered with mosaics on a gold ground; there is little beauty of architectural form; a sort of haze of mysterious colour fills every corner of the building; a dim, religious light, but not that, say, of Westminster Abbey; an oriental atmosphere of indefinite splendour, rather than the ordered beauty of a Gothic cathedral. It was St. Mark's day; the church thronged with people, through whom stately processions, chanting litanies, moved slowly. In one of the sacristies I saw rich specimens of Church plate, and amongst them capacious chalices cut out of rock crystal, evidently needed in old days, when the Cup was not withheld from the laity. Don't expect, in a letter like this, any attempt to describe the paintings of Titian, Bellini, and Carpaccio, or the Doges' palace, its dungeons, and the Bridge of Sighs, but come and spend most of the time, as we did, on the water in that most delightful of boats, the gondola. Engaging a gondolier for our stay in Venice, to his great amusement we practised the peculiar style of rowing that a gondola needs in some of the small canals. The idea of anyone working when he can pay someone else to do it for him is a joke to the Italian mind. Presently we ventured out into the Grand Canal, the great highway of Venice, curving like the letter "S" in its two-mile course through the city. I was rowing the bow oar, whilst the gondolier, at the stern oar, steered the boat, and passing a very smart gondola, in which two men were rowing some Americans, the Gondoliers held water, then shouted out: "Behold the mad Englishman! What labour! What an appetite! I pity his hotel keeper." To this our own gondolier replied, "Lavora, signor, lavora!" Work, signor, work! Even when we were paying him off on leaving, page 255he could not resist saying to a fellow gondolier, "and they worked, all the time."

A row of several miles took us to the Island of Murano, once a small city in itself, with glass works, dating from the Early Middle Ages, which are still carried on in the old workshops. You know the peculiarity of Venetian glass, blown and moulded by hand, fused somehow with lovely colours, quite different to our hard, clear cut glass. The skill and deftness of hand with which the men fingered out intricate shapes of ornamental glass was amazing. Giving me a long iron tube, I was invited to dip it into a crucible of molten stuff, and then blow, regulating gradually the force of one's breath. By degrees I produced a long, narrow-necked little flask; as it cooled a tap with an iron tool separated it from the pipe, another formed a lip, a third flattened its base. I have two of the same kind to keep as a memento of Venice.

At the entrance to the Grand Canal, on a small island, there is a Church, which nearly fills the whole of it, of singular shape and beauty of proportion, seeming to rise out of the water, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Octagonal in shape, it is covered by a dome which is supported by immense buttresses shaped like curved shells. It was built to commemorate the sudden staying of the plague in 1650. It is the special Church of the Gondoliers, who belong to two guilds, each with their distinctive professional dress. Great is the rivalry and excitement when the guilds meet for their annual race on the Grand Canal. Every year, on the 1st of November, a thanksgiving is celebrated for the cessation of the plague in this Church. Two pontoon bridges are constructed to it, one for those going, the others for those returning page 256from the festival. Processions from all the parishes in Venice are formed. In the body of the church the Gondoliers muster in their Sunday flannel shirts, black and white checks, mauve, blue, and red, with blue scarves for the waist. The women and others sit in the circular ambulatory which runs round the building. Services go on all day, whilst outside, in the small space that the island affords, there is a sort of fair, stalls for the sale of refreshments—wine, coffee, hot fish, pastry, and fruit. The large flat-bottomed fishing and cargo boats with their coloured sails are a beautiful sight in the Grand Canal where it opens out into the sea,—flat-bottomed, capable of crossing the innumerable shoals which surround Venice, keelless, but with a large deep rudder that steadies them in the open sea; the principal sail, which is very large, at the stern, brilliantly coloured, in white, orange and red, and occasionally a pale sea-green.

From Venice we went to Ravenna, somewhat out of the usual tourist route; an old-world, semi-deserted place, practically in the same state as it was in the Middle Ages. Guides beset you in every town, and are mostly a nuisance, but here we came across probably the only one in the place, very intelligent, but unable to speak English. We had scarcely sat down to lunch in a primitive Italian hotel, the Spado d'Oro, "The Golden Sword," than he entered the room, and produced various testimonials. "Could he read English?" "Oh no, but he knew they spoke well of him." The first we glanced at was from a well-known composer of songs, Maud Valerie White: "You' may trust the bearer; he is well up in the history of the place; in fact, he is a regular brick." "Yes," he said, "her Excellency who wrote that was a grand English Signora."

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Ravenna differs from nearly all the well-known Italian cities in its antiquities; there are no pagan relics; only the monuments of early Christianity, and the remains of Imperial buildings. Yet, in the time of Augustus, it was the naval base of the Roman fleet in Adria, with a harbour that could hold two hundred and fifty vessels, "Portus Classis," which in those days was close to the town; to-day some miles of low swampy land separate the town from the sea. In later times its situation made it the metropolis of the Western Empire, under its Gothic Kings, and it became the bulwark of Italy against the hordes of Northern invaders, who might have changed the whole course of Italian history; to-day it has only one visible message for the traveller, its temples of Christianity.

Come into one of these, the great Church of 8. Apollinaris in Classe, which stands in a lonely wild of swamp and marsh some distance from the town, built of the then Roman brick of classical times, as far back as 534 a.d. A spacious nave, the marble floor green with damp; lofty grey marble columns supporting clerestory walls, decorated with fresco paintings of Bishops and Archbishops in unbroken succession from the year 74 a.d., when St. Apollinaris was martyred: 129 in all. A flight of marble steps leads up to the high altar in the apse, enriched with mosaics of the year 550 a.d. The loneliness of the vast church, its silent spaces, once thronged, now only occupied by a handful of people for an occasional service, and the presence of that long array of saints of old who keep vigil there, as they have done for centuries past, is the most impressive witness to the power of Christianity to survive all changes and chances page 258of time, and outlive Thrones, Dominations, and Powers. There stands the Church, yet all traces of the mighty Roman Empire have vanished. Outside it a mere wilderness, broken in the distance by a long line of pine forest; scarce any human habitation in sight; a few patches of rice ponds; silence everywhere, where once a busy naval port was alive with the hum of voices and the tumult of traffic.

There are other notable buildings in the town, such as the Church of San Vitale, Byzantine in style, a sort of miniature of Santa Sophia in Constantinople; the Cathedral and the sepulchral chapel of Galla Plaudia, the Empress, which also contains the tomb of her brother Honorius, Emperor in 420. In these interiors there are mosaics and frescoes unequalled anywhere in Italy.

Returning to England in May, after visiting Verona and Milan, I had the summer before me, but as this letter is long enough, I will tell you of that part of my holiday in my next.

I am,
Yours ever,

H. W. H.