Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911
My dear St. John,
After a year's holiday, I am here, about to sail again for New Zealand, in S.S. Rimutaka. In January I went abroad, for, though I have been twice round the world, I knew nothing of the Continent, and was especially anxious to visit Italy. At Cannes I found our old Eton and Oxford friend, Wollaston, who is the permanent Chaplain of St. Paul's Church, having had to give up his living in England owing to throat trouble. He advised me to make an expedition to the Island of St. Honorat, one of the Isles de Lerins, some six miles distant, where I had a most interesting time.
One of these Islands is the place where the man with the iron mask was confined; the other famous for its monastery, founded by Honoratus in 410 a.d. It is a little gem of beauty in the blue Mediterranean; "Beata ilia Insula" was its old title; that Isle of Happiness. Not far from the landing-place there is an archway crossing the road that leads to the buildings, and on it these words:
"Pulcrior in toto non est locus orbe Lerina,
Dispeream hie si non vivere semper amem,"
"In all the world no place more lovely than Lerina.
Let me die if I would not live here for ever."
Perhaps if we had lived when the Roman Empire was tottering to its fall, Alaric sacking Rome, Lerina would have seemed just such a haven of refuge as these words suggest, such as its first inmates found it, but who made it something more than a place of selfish ease and peace; from the first it was a school of study and personal preparation for active missionary work, a centre of light in days of darkness, and the forerunner of similar institutions in the Middle Ages.
With other tourists, Italian and French, I went to the entrance of the monastery, where the Prior, in the white Cistercian habit, received us. Speaking in French, he said there were one hundred monks, of whom thirty were engaged chiefly in cultivating the land, producing all needed for their maintenance; the rest engaged in literary work, editing, compiling, with original work as well, and printing. Each monk has two cells, a bedroom and a study. In the refectory opposite each seat I noticed a cruet stand for oil, vinegar and wine; "Yes, we grow our own wine." Many of the monks are artists; the walls of their chapel, lately restored by their own hands, show excellent examples of fresco painting. Owing to their reputation as scholars, the Government has not suppressed the monastery, or reduced its numbers. Its history is unique; its scholars and trained men in the Fifth Century and later furnished the Church in the South of France with notable Bishops, such as St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Martin of Tours; here also for a time St. Patrick was educated. It also produced great writers and thinkers, one especially, Vincentius Lerinensis, whose well-known maxim of true Church doctrine and practice was couched in the page 238words: "Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum," i.e. "That which always, everywhere, and by all has been believed."
Happening to let fall a word or two in English, the Prior, drawing me aside, said, "I am English; stay behind, and I will show you what I do not usually show to visitors. "He is an Oxford man who has joined the Roman Communion. Taking me to his rooms, he showed me valuable manuscripts, and a splendid chromo-lithographic copy of a presentation book they had taken six years to complete as an offering to the Pope, on the occasion of his Jubilee. It contained the Magnificat in every known language, with illustrations in colour and photography of each country to which the language belonged. Turning over the leaves, I came across the Magnificat in Maori. The Prior seemed well pleased with the chance of a talk with a fellow Oxford man, and before I took leave of him, led me down to a typical monastic cellar, where stood brass bound barrels of wine, and bottles of a famous liqueur, made from herbs found in the island. The cellarer produced biscuits and glasses, and we toasted each other happily. On the seaward side of the island there is a picturesque fortress, built by the Monks about 1100 a.d. to protect the island from Saracen pirates, who were ravaging the Mediterranean. They beat them off, but later the place was taken by Genoese marauders and held by them for a short time, until help came from France.
At Cannes, meeting some old friends, we drove from Nice by the Via Corniche, the road which Napoleon cut across the spurs of the maritime Alps. The road rises at one point to a great height at Turbie, where there is a grand relic of Roman greatness, a page 239huge tower built in honour of the conquest of the Alpine tribes by Augustus; a little lower you look down on Monte Carlo, and the tiny kingdom of Monaco; for miles the road overhangs precipitous cliffs, indented with bays, in which the Mediterranean sparkles with ever changing tints, amethyst, sapphire, and green where the water shallows. Little vegetation, till it descends to lower levels, except ilex and olive, but below vines, figs, and oranges. I was much surprised to see the trees in places sprinkled with snow. The orange tree never seems to rest, having fruit in various stages of maturity at all times of the year, reminding one of George Herbert's lines:
"I would I were an orange plant,
That ever busy tree,
Then should I never want
Some fruit for Him that dresseth me."
Here are some notes by the way: Men on the roads with cloaks and cowls, some with scarlet caps; women with nothing on their heads but their own thick dark hair; long narrow carts drawn by mules; in the villages streets so narrow that two vehicles can scarcely pass; lofty houses, heavy overhanging eaves, and wayside shrines. In one of these, beneath a statuette of the Virgin, with its little oil lamp and some artificial flowers, this inscription:
"Pro infermis et invalidis adsum,
In mare irato, in subitâ procellâ,
Invoco te, nostra benigna stella."
i.e "For the infirm and invalid I am present.
In angry sea, in sudden storm,
I call on thee, our kindly Star."
The Coast people know well what the Mediterranean can do in its angry moods. Passing through the village of Coglietto, I noticed a house, said to have been the birthplace of Christopher Columbus; over the doorway runs this inscription, in terse Latin:
"Hospes siste pedem; fuit hic lux prima Columbo; orbe viro majori heu nimis arcta domus.
Unus erat mundus; duo sunt, ait ille; fuere."
i.e. "Stranger, stay thy foot, Columbus here first saw the light;
A house, alas, too narrow for a man greater than the world."
"There was one world; there are two, said he;—there were."
Halting at Alassio for the night, we heard a story from the padrone of the hotel, who warned me not to sketch fortresses, however picturesque. An English Clergyman, staying with him, went off for a tramp in the hills, and began to sketch a fortress in a narrow pass. He was promptly run in by soldiers and being unable to talk Italian was taken for a spy. After a day or two he managed to send a letter to the hotel, and was released. "But why," I said, "did he not explain somehow that he was an English Padre?" "That," said the padrone, "would be no good in your case; has the Signor seen our Padres, how they walk?" and he imitated the stately gait of an Italian priest. "No good, for the Signor walks like this; I've seen him," and he strode up and down the room.
At Arma di Taggia, a little fishing village, one of our horses cast a shoe, and whilst it was being shod we sat down to eat lunch, and sketch a bell tower page 241topped with a Saracenic looking dome. Italians take a lively interest in visitors, and soon several children and grown-ups were eagerly watching the result. "Look, they are painting our tower—come and see!" Italians never seem in a hurry, as one of their proverbs has it: "Time for everything," which includes an amount of loafing and gossip which would simply bore the average Anglo-Saxon, but which greatly adds to the amusement of the holiday traveller. Not far from here there are the remains of a large church, wrecked in the earthquake of 1887, a mass of ruin, broken columns and stonework. Inquiring why nothing had been done to remove the ruin, we learnt that underneath lie scores of people who in panic had rushed into the church, and were overwhelmed. They had let them lie there untouched.
Very curious are the habits of Italians with regard to their dead. Professionals perform the last offices for them; no one else, not even near relatives, go near the body. The services in church are impressive, but the actual burial takes place attended by only a few officials. The cemeteries are enclosed with walls, with cloisters and arcades, under which stand elaborate monuments, but the actual graves in the centre of the ground are only known to the sexton. They are very particular in keeping the days of the death of a relative, and going to the cemetery, spend some time by the monument, making a sort of family reunion of the occasion. At Genoa the Campo Santo, as it is termed, is of great extent, and full of magnificent sculpture; not exactly the place a visitor affects, yet directly you are recognized as a sightseer, guides and cabbies beset you with the invitation: "II Cimeterio, Signor?"
My first glimpse from the train of the celebrated buildings, the Duomo, Baptistery, and Leaning Tower, was disappointing; due to the wide expanse of plain on which they stand, which dwarfs their real size. Next morning it was a different story. Passing through narrow streets, unmodernized, and emerging suddenly on a wide grassy space, you might fancy yourself in an English cathedral close. But the Cathedral, Baptistery and Tower, built of white and coloured marble, with a wealth of sculptured decoration, under an Italian sun, and the blue of an Italian sky, presents a very different picture to that of Durham, Lincoln, York, or Canterbury, weather-beaten and wrinkled with age and the storms of a Northern climate. Imagine a tower of marble, its sides encircled with decorated arcading, perfectly straight, like an ornamental jam pot, rising to a height of one hundred and eighty feet, and leaning fourteen feet out of the perpendicular, with a top story a little less in diameter than the rest of the tower, but with neither battlements or pinnacles atop. You enter and find a stairway in the wall which is fifteen feet thick, and from the top look down into the centre, which might be compared to the bore of a huge cannon; you walk round the top, which slants so much on the lower side, that one has the feeling that the whole thing must tip over, a slight iron fence being your only protection, Not less than three persons may ascend at one time, for the reason that one might commit suicide, in the case of two there might be murder, but three are supposed to be safe. There are seven bells, one weighing six tons, the heaviest being hung on the side of the tower opposite the overhanging part.page 243
The Cathedral is a perfect specimen of an Italian basilica, with double aisles on each side of the nave, and on each side of the transepts; ancient Roman and Greek columns supporting a richly decorated coffered roof in the nave, the aisles being vaulted. The general effect of great space with rich but harmonious decoration is most satisfactory. I had here an interesting experience of Italian preaching. Sermons are seldom part of a service, but are delivered without any preface, and always by trained men; as a rule only given at certain seasons of the year. On this occasion, the preacher ascended a pulpit placed against one of the pillars in the nave, several hundreds bringing their chairs to take up favourable positions for hearing, many standing. I managed to follow the general drift of the sermon, which was on the conflict of Faith and Science. The preacher used much gesture, now and then sitting down to refresh himself with a pinch of snuff, then up again, resuming his argument with much animation. He used his long slender hands with such effect that at times his fingers fairly flickered. Describing the limitations of human knowledge of the world and the universe, and dwelling on the dogmatic claim of science to account for it all, he asked: "And what are the sources of our knowledge?" Then, with a finger in each eye, he exclaimed, "Only these two tiny pinholes!" He finished with a touching account of a visit to the deathbed of a young man who had given up the Faith; his mother sitting by, mourning; "and which of you would like to see your nearest and dearest dying like that?" Then, rapidly descending the pulpit steps, and as rapidly re-ascending,—"Oh, I forgot to say, I shall preach again next Thursday."page 244
The Baptistery is a magnificent building, circular, one hundred feet in diameter, with a dome one hundred and eighty feet in height, of marble, decorated with arcading and sculpture. Inside there is a font of great size, in which all children born in Pisa are baptized. The dome produces a remarkable echo, which is set going by a man waiting his chance of a tip, who sings in sonorous tones the four notes of the common chord; his voice is followed by rolling waves of harmony, like the diapason of a great organ, rising and falling, until you can hardly believe it is only an echo. A small tip goes a long way in Italy, where money is scarce. Outside the door an old man, with a little girl who prompts him as to the probable nationality of visitors, begins his beggar's litany: "poo' blin' man," "poo' blin' man." These folk haunt the Gates Beautiful of Italian churches, and, they say, thrive on their spoils.
Next a visit to the Campo Santo, close at hand, quite the most notable God's acre in Italy. A lofty wall encloses an oblong burial ground, with cloisters that open into it, through arches decorated with open tracery work. The cloister walls are covered with fresco paintings of the fifteenth century, chiefly of Scriptural subjects; some by Orcagna, which fascinate you with their grim and grotesque realism,—one of these represents the last Judgment. In it St. Michael, the Angel of Judgment, summons the dead, looking down upon them as they rise from their graves, partly concealing his face with the hem of his robe, as if horror struck at the scene. Below, some are welcomed by angels, others carried off by hideous demons; in the foreground King Solomon emerges from his tomb, bewildered and uncertain what his page 245lot will be. No doubt, in old days, such picture teaching suited the times; to-day one scarcely knows whether to smile or shiver at them. The central grassy space shews no sign of graves, though it is quite full, for all Pisans are buried there, the earth being regarded as specially sacred, having been brought in Pisan galleys from Jerusalem when Pisa was a great sea power, the rival of Genoa and Venice. The bodies rest there for a few years, and are then transferred to one common grave.
"You are a day too late for the fair," said a much travelled friend to me, as I spoke of going to Rome for the first time; "its beauty has vanished before the spade of the excavator, and the zeal of the archæologist; they have turned the Forum into a quarry yard of stones, and scraped the Colosseum of its graceful mantle of creepers and wild flowers."
"Wrong," I said to myself, "whatever the artist might say," as on my first morning there I stood on one of the massive tiers of seats in the Colosseum, and looked down on the most imposing ruin in the world. The whole circuit of the walls remains, though only on one side rising to its original height of one hundred and fifty-seven feet; its seats for ninety thousand spectators; the original surface of the arena, with its cages of wild beasts, and arrangements for gladiatorial shows, are all laid bare to view. Sitting there, and musing on those terrible scenes of blood which the Romans delighted in: Ignatius torn to bits by wild beasts; Telemachus, the plucky monk who rushed into the arena to protest against the gladiatorial fight, and by his death putting a stop to them for page 246ever; I was greeted with a voice, unmistakably American,—"You couldn't show us, sir, could you, where the Emperor's box was?" Two well-dressed, educated young fellows from Boston, doing a tour in Europe. "And we want to see the place in the Forum where Julius Cæsar's body was burned, and where Mark Antony made his oration."
The next day I met them there. It seemed all too small for such a place, perhaps because it is crowded in every corner with relics of old Rome, which go back to its earliest days. A few years ago to a great extent it was buried forty feet deep with the debris accumulated during so many centuries of rum, and by the mud brought down by floods in the Tiber. To-day, thanks to the archæologist, one sees so much that it is comparatively easy to reconstruct in imagination the Forum as it was, even in the Kingly period, right back in the days of Romulus, and all through its story, of Julius Cæsar, Augustus, and the Emperors.
I can only briefly touch on one's first impressions of Rome. The seven hills hardly rise to the height one expects, but that is due to the gradual filling up of the valleys which separated them. The old walls, including those of the Kingly period, are splendid examples of Roman work, great masses of tufa rock set without mortar, no less than thirteen miles in circuit, with twenty gates. The Tiber, such a much bigger river than I expected, with its course of three miles within the city walls; the buildings of mediæval and modern Rome, alike in one respect, in the love of the gigantic, which seems to have been always characteristic of Roman architecture; the immense proportions and solidity of such ancient buildings as the Baths of Caracalla, and Diocletian, the aqueducts, page 247and the Pantheon; the peculiar tenacity and toughness of old Roman brick and concrete has defied the tooth of time.
I confess I was rather disappointed with St. Peter's. At a distance the dome is perfect and seems to dominate the whole landscape. Approaching the building its vast size is dwarfed by the ungainly proportions of the facade, with its columns one hundred feet in height. Inside, also, it takes time to realize its vast extent. The arches of the nave are so few in proportion to the length of the church, resting on such massive piers that one's eye is deceived, until you note in the distance the diminutive size of people walking about. There is a glorious view of Rome and the neighbourhood from the top of the dome, of which I managed to get a fairly good sketch.
On a Sunday afternoon, after the Vesper Service in the Papal chapel, in one of the side aisles of the nave, I came upon a Sunday Catechism School. On raised seats opposite each other sat a number of boys, in front of them a teacher with a catechism, another with a notebook for marks. Question put to one side; if a mistake was made, shouts of "Errore" from the other side, which then had to answer correctly. The class dismissed, the boys scattered about the pavement, playing with a ball which ran against my foot. Picking it up and giving it to one of them, I said "Is it permitted to play in this sacred Church?" "And why not?" was the reply! The fact is that our conceptions of reverence due to a church are not those of Italians. They use their churches as if they belonged to them; coming and going all the day long; strolling about; kneeling for private prayer; talking; even during masses many, apparently, paying no page 248attention. Nor do the officiating priests seem to mind what the people are doing. They are frequented as much on week-days as on Sundays.
Rome is unique; a city of modern life, tramways, electric light, hotels, palaces, and crowds of people; yet also a city of the past and of the dead. Its three hundred churches are full of graves; outside the walls in the Catacombs, with galleries extending many miles, there are millions buried. The famous Via Appia, begun as far back as 300 B.C., and extending to Brindisi, for several miles outside the city is bordered with tombs and monuments. We went down the Callixtine Catacomb, which lies a little way off this road. Steep steps lead into a gallery branching out in various directions, with descents into galleries below. These are cut out of soft tufa rock, allowing room for walking upright, and in places opening out into chambers of some size. A perfectly dry atmosphere, and good ventilation, but a place of absolute darkness, lit up only by the candle which everyone carries. A guide precedes, and it is necessary to keep together, for there are gruesome tales of people lost and perishing in these subterranean mazes. In the walls of the galleries there are cavities containing stone coffins, with inscriptions recording the names and ages of the dead, mostly Christian, but some Pagan. I saw on the coffin of a little girl her toys in bone and wood and marble; over another, on a brick, the imprint of a die, with the date of year and the names of the Consuls, 257 a.d. Curious that it never occurred to them to use the same means for printing on paper or parchment. Entering one of the chambers, one saw that it had been used for Christian worship; at one end a large sarcophagus used as an altar; over page 249it a fresco painting of the Last Supper, and on the side walls rude paintings of the Good Shepherd, Jonah, figures of saints, and many cryptic emblems of the Faith, Ivy leaves are the emblem of Immortality, the peacock's eye feather of immortal beauty, the dove of peace, the anchor of hope, a fish in water of Baptism, wheat-ears and grapes of our Lord's words, "I am the Bread,—the Vine." The word in Greek signifying fish was the secret sign of Christianity, as its letters are the initials of "Jesus Christ, of God the Son, the Saviour." It is noticeable that there are no literal representations of Christ's agony and death; no crucifix, only the cross; our Lord always depicted as a young Shepherd in the prime of life. The great respect which Roman custom accorded to all burial places and rites enabled Christians to use these Catacombs for their worship, which would not have been permitted in public; regarded by the authorities as mere burial clubs, they escaped persecution for many years.
Having once been in Rome, I feel the spell which they say comes upon most who visit the Eternal City, alluring them to it again, and as I threw my coppers into the Fountain of Trevi, I am assured by those who know that I shall return. If so, I may be able to tell you more.
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.page 252
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."page 257
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.
H. W. H.