Venice might be described as a series of box-like stages, opening out one into another. It is the merest cliché that it resembles a vast stage set, against which the citizens engaged in carnival and parade. The paintings of Carpaccio and of Longhi, the drawings of Jacopo Bellini, depict it as a form of sacred theatre; in the work of these Venetian artists the city is a tableau vivant, suffused with what W.D. Howells in Venetian Life described as “the pleasant improbability of the theatre.” The citizens are displayed in groups, with actions and attitudes taken from the stage or from the pageant. It has always been a place of artifice, where even the natural has a sprinkling of stage dust. It glitters. The houses and churches have the air of stage properties, sited for the convenience of the eye. The arches and the stairs are mere effects. The palace of the doge, and the basilica of Saint Mark, take their place before the proscenium of Saint Mark’s Square.
The pageant masters made full use of the square for floats and parades, mummeries and processions; on great state occasions, the theatrical possibilities of the city were exploited to the full. The square was also the stage on which acrobats and magicians performed. Puppet theatres were especially popular, in a city that was itself often described as a puppet show. Venice welcomed actors dressed in motley. There were even stages on the water, during the pageants and festivities. Stages were erected on the Grand Canal for the performance of serenatas. There were ornamental barges, too, for singers and musicians. The water was a perfect auditorium as well as a stage.
The façades of the Venetian churches were often eminently theatrical, with fantastic ornaments of stone loaded upon them; the curved mouldings vie with the contorted columns; volutes and pinnacles, capitals and cornices, are piled high in wedding-cake fashion. The church of S. Moise, built by Alessandro Tremignon in 1688, is a riot of whimsical excess. The more famous Salute invites awe rather than admiration. The religious services of Venice were theatrical in conception and execution, with music more suitable for an opera than for a sacred occasion; the congregation was an audience, chattering and gossiping through the proceedings, and the ritual was a performance. The recesses of the churches create an authentic air of mystery; the confused light and darkness, the brilliance of marble and precious stone, the air steeped in the perfume of incense, are all what Ruskin termed the “stage properties of superstition” in Venice. They are to be found in the basilica of Saint Mark, for example, which Ruskin considered to be of a theatrical nature “unexampled in any other European church.”
Yet the theatricality of Venice was sometimes a cause of complaint among Venetians themselves. When at the end of the sixteenth century new pillars were added to the square one senator, Federigo Contarini, compared them to theatre props. In the twenty-first century the newly rebuilt theatre, La Fenice, has been criticised by some Venetians as a contrived pastiche of the previous building destroyed by fire. Theatricality is everywhere.
The convents of Venice became a form of theatre, with the nuns sitting behind gratings watching the rest of Venice cavort before them; masked balls, with the characters of Pierrot and Harlequin, were performed for their delectation. The private trials of Venice were conceived in theatrical terms. During one hearing of the Inquisition the walls of the chamber were draped in black; the curtains were suddenly thrown back to reveal a strangled corpse. The deliberations of the council of ten depended upon surprise and suddenness. The head of the police in the late eighteenth century, Missier Grando, always dressed in black. The various receptions and meetings, conducted within the ducal palace, were occasions of intense theatricality. At an ambassador’s reception the doge sat wrapped in a golden cloak, with the various councillors ranged about him. Upon the death of a doge a great procession circled Saint Mark’s Square, each member carrying a large candle or torch; in front of the basilica the coffin was raised and lowered nine times while the bells of the city tolled. On Good Friday torches were lit beside the houses and palaces that lined the canals, so that all the waterways of Venice were illuminated by fiery reflections. The power of visual spectacle was more important to Venice than to any other European city.
There was a long history in Venice of collaboration between art and theatre. Jacopo Bellini was a pageant master and stage designer as well as an artist; at the time there would have been no need to distinguish his different roles. He was simply festaiuolo or organiser of festive play. The art of Veronese and of Tintoretto is in part the art of staging; theirs was an intensely theatrical vision. The work of Veronese was known as “maestoso teatro” or majestic theatre. He in turn has been associated with the great architects of Venice, Sansovino and Palladio, who share with the artist a sense of space and structure. When Sansovino redesigned the piazzetta in the sixteenth century he intuitively defined it as a stage set with a one-point perspective; from the bacino, the basin of water before it, the buildings on both sides diminish towards the “vanishing point” of the ornate clock tower. From the other direction, looking from the piazzetta towards the bacino, the two great pillars frame the watery landscape. Here some of the great set scenes of Venetian life were conducted. This was the site, for example, of the public executions. The rituals of Venice were surrounded by stage fire.
Tintoretto acquired the habit of placing small figurines, of wax or clay, in illuminated boxes. This was the brilliantly lit arena of his imagination, prior to his work on canvas. But the light is that of the stage spotlight. Tintoretto and Veronese also designed, and sketched, costumes for the stage. They needed to look no further than their canvases for inspiration. Tiepolo, too, revealed an interest in decorative costume; he also favoured exaggerated theatrical gesture and facial expression. The characters depicted in his paintings are often grouped together in the fashion of a dramatic chorus; they are earnest, purposeful and emotional. They have the bearing of actors, figures of commedia dell’arte under the impress of strong feeling.
This can only happen in a culture where no distinction is made between nature and art, between what is real and what is artificial. Or, rather, the distinction does not matter. The importance of anything lies in the gaiety and brilliance of its surface. Expression and activity are of more consequence than essence or being. That is perhaps an inevitable consequence of urban life, where everyone must signal his or her role. But it also seems peculiarly appropriate to Venice. Wagner, an adept at scenic mysteries, recognised the truth of the city at once. He remarked that “everything strikes one as a marvellous piece of stage-scenery,” and that this unreality created a “peculiar gaiety” that could not help but affect any visitor. The “chief charm,” he added, “consists in its all remaining as detached from me as if I were in the actual theatre.”
Detachment is the key. It is actually the reverse of what Coleridge once called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” We know that it is a real city, with real people, but we will proceed as if it were unreal. It was often noticed that the people of Venice were themselves detached from the world beyond their city. The government of Venice, by the eighteenth century, was considered too remote from the ordinary dealings of the world to be of any consequence. It was, you might say, trapped in its theatre. As the power of Venice declined in absolute terms, in that century, its capacity for life and display was never more exalted. The glorious past and the uncertain future were obscured by carnival and festival. This was not an isolated phase in the city’s history. During the Austrian siege of Venice in the early nineteenth century, when suffering and hardship and famine became the lot of all citizens, the people crowded on balconies and rooftops to watch the bombardment. The summits of the campanili and the towers of the churches were filled with Venetians bearing spy-glasses and telescopes so that they might more clearly see the destruction being inflicted upon their own city.
In foreign productions, as, for example, in the theatres of London, Venice was often viewed as a stage set. The Christmas pantomime at Drury Lane, in 1831, included a diorama entitled “Venice and its Adjacent Islands.” When Byron’s plays, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari, were produced the stage sets were considered to be the most considerable element of the entertainment. When Charles Kean played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, in 1858, the sets were praised for their realism. But what reality were they reflecting other than the theatrical image already in the public mind? This is the context for Edward Lear’s disappointment with the buildings of Venice, from which he derived “not one whit more of pleasure from seeing them there than in any of the many theatre scenes, dioramas, panoramas, and all other ramas whatever.” He knew them all already.
There is no scene in Venice that has not already been painted. There is no church, or house, or canal, that has not become the subject of an artist’s brush or pencil. Even the fruit in the market looks as if it has been stolen from a still-life. Everything has been “seen” before. The traveller seems to be walking through oils and water-colours, wandering across paper and canvas. It is no accident that Venice has also become a traditional setting for twentieth-century, and twenty-first-century, fiction or film. It is the natural home for the sensational and the melodramatic. Narratives of intrigue and mystery are commonly set in the calli and campi of the city, and Venice is the obvious setting for an international film festival. Venice is not so much a city as the representation of a city.
So what were the Venetians themselves but actors, characters against a celebrated backdrop? Henry James, in The Aspern Papers, described them as “members of an endless dramatic troupe.” There is the gondolier and the lawyer, in their characteristic costumes; there is the housewife and the beggar. All of these people live in public. They delight in self-expression. They share the same language of gesture and attitude. They talk continually. They describe and imitate one another. They watch one another against the background of little shops and houses. They live in an intense and circumscribed space. It is another example of the Venetian life of the surface, where the primacy lies with what is seen. Hence, in the last century of the republic, the sublime importance of the mask or bauta.
The transcripts of trials, now held in the abundant archives of Venice, demonstrate the extent to which instinctive and unforced drama entered social and domestic life. The demeanour, as well as the evidence, of the witnesses was recorded. One book-keeper was described as wiping his face with his handkerchief, and twisting himself about, under the strain of testimony. There were dramatic phrases in the courts. “I never wanted him. I said yes with my voice but not with my heart.” “I do not even talk with her or her friends, because they are not meat for my teeth.” It is reported that the actors who performed in the various campi were employed to coach witnesses in the arts of speech and gesture.
It is always possible to see urban life as a form of theatre. When Wordsworth described London, in the Prelude, he reached for theatrical metaphors; he wrote of “shifting pantomimic scenes” and “dramas of living Men.” London was for a him a “great Stage.” But Venice possessed these qualities in excelsis. The masquerades of the Carnival were participating in one giant dramatic performance of which the city was the centre. The spectators become part of the play, and the crowd swirls in and around this living theatre. The memoirs of that quintessential Venetian, Giacomo Casanova, demonstrate the facility with which life in the city can be turned into self-conscious and self-serving drama. The individual Venetian, without mask or cloak, can become a lithe performer. Goethe noticed a man by a quayside, telling stories in Venetian dialect to a small group of bystanders. “There was nothing obtrusive or ridiculous about his manner,” he wrote, “which was even rather sober; at the same time both the variety and precision of his gestures showed art and intelligence.”
Venetians delighted in costume. They sometimes seemed to be dressed up as actors playing in a particularly sophisticated city comedy, and in 1610 a volume of illustrations was published with the title Outfits of Venetian Men and Women. They had a keen eye for fashion and for striking colour. They manifested an almost child-like delight in dressing-up. The patrician women of Venice in particular loved sumptuous attire. Indeed they seem to have been almost obliged to do so by the state. For one feast in honour of the French ambassadors, in 1459, the senate ordered all female guests to arrive in bright clothing and to wear as many jewels as possible. The appearance of wealth, and luxury, was all that mattered.
Evelyn described the garb of Venetian women as “very odd, as seeming allwayes in Masquerade.” Fynes Morisson gave a more graphic description, noting that they “shew their naked necks and breasts, and likewise their dugges, bound up and swelling with linen.” Their hats boasted many accessories, including butterflies and flowers and stuffed birds. But this was the Venetian talent for outward show. It seems, from certain allusions, that it was not customary to change under-garments very frequently. They were scrupulous in one respect, however. They wore veils, white for the young and black for the middle-aged or the old. But the Venetian women were most notorious, and conspicuous, for their shoes or zoccoli. These were effectively stilts, as much as eighteen inches (457 mm) in height, upon which they were balanced by attendants. They looked like giants in a pantomime. Venetian women were said to be half of flesh and half of wood. The preposterous footwear has been explained by the muddiness of the streets, or by the Venetian male restriction on female roaming. It also allowed the presence of gaudy or decorative trains. It is more likely, however, to have been a fashion that got out of control. It might be mentioned, in passing, that Venetian women had the general practice of dyeing their hair yellow. One of the ingredients in the process was human urine.
But the quest for la bella figura ran among both genders and among all classes. The women of the poorer sort wore simple gowns and shawls, but they had a liking for small rings of chain which they wore around their wrists and necks. The fishermen wore large brown hooded cloaks complete with scarlet lining. The gondoliers wore white shoes and red sashes. Female servants wore frocks of dark brown or peacock blue. The beggars were self-consciously picturesque, and would often wear a cloak in imitation of the richer citizens. The working men dressed in blue tunics, with wide sleeves narrowed at the wrists, and the trousers that were first worn in Venice became known as “Venetians” or “pantaloons.” The favourite colour of the people was azure blue, translated as turchino, and known to Cassiodorus in the sixth century as the “Venetian colour.” It was possible, from the dress of each Venetian, to know his exact position in the political hierarchy.
The patricians obeyed strict rules in all matters of dress. Only the doge was permitted to wear gold. He also had the widest sleeves, since the width of the sleeve was a mark of status. The Venetian patricians wore sober black gowns as an image of their presence as perpetual guardians of the state. They were the priests of the polity. Those of higher rank dressed in scarlet or violet or purple; the members of the senate, for example, wore purple. But these, too, are grave and official colours. Over their gowns they wore hooded cloaks. They also wore black caps or bereti. Since the priests, the more important citizens, the doctors and the lawyers of Venice also wore black it is not difficult to see a city dressed in mourning. Many of the women, poor and patrician, also wore black. It was essentially a uniform or, in other words, a costume with which to express uniformity.
The long robe also impeded quick movement, so that the walk of the patrician was generally slow and deliberate. In 1611 Thomas Coryat, the English traveller, recorded how “they give a low congie to each other by very civil and courteous gestures, as by bending of their bodies and clapping their right hand upon their breasts.” So black was the colour of gravity. Black was the colour of anonymity. Black also held elements of intimidation. It represented death and justice. The predilection for black lasted a thousand years, its endurance a measure of the intense conservatism in all matters of Venetian social custom. Indeed the taste has lingered. It is not wonderful to see, in the streets of twenty-first-century Venice, young men wearing large black capes. There is still something odd, something theatrical, about the dress of contemporary Venetians.
There was one group of Venetians who showed off tremendously. The young patricians of the Renaissance city belonged to one of the numerous city clubs or calza guilds, from the Triumphanti to the Valorosi, the Immortali to the Principali. The hose or calza on the right leg was sewn with gold and silver, and besparkled with pearls and jewels; it was drawn over tightly fitting breeches and reached the hip. It was set off by a doublet of velvet worn over a flowing shirt of silk. Their long golden hair was, as often as not, dyed. And then there was the perfume. It might be expected, in a most unnatural city, that everything was scented—hats, shirts, socks, handkerchiefs. Even the money was scented.
The calza guilds were best known for their presentation of theatrical performances, for fêtes or wedding celebrations, at which the young men and young women (known as compagne) excelled. “We wore the stocking of the club,” one of them, Giacomo Contarini, wrote to his brother in January 1441, “as well as mantles of Alexandrian velvet brocaded with silver, doublets of crimson velvet with open sleeves, zones of the same colour, and squirrel fur linings, on our heads caps alla Sforzesca.” Sforzesca can be interpreted as in the style of Francesco Sforza, a celebrated condottiero or leader of mercenaries; before his success it had been the fashion in Venice to wear hats à la Carmagnola, after the name of a renowned general. It is an indication of the Venetian love of the trivial and the triumphant, all expressed in the most theatrical possible manner.
The Venetian patrician, at his noblest, had a long aquiline nose and high cheek-bones; he was the statesman as ascetic. His skin was the palest white. But a singular change can be dated precisely to 1529. In that year Venetian men began to cut their hair short, and to wear beards. Before that time they had worn their hair long, and beards were only allowed as a sign of mourning. Once one or two tentatively made the change, all the others duly followed. There were other and more general changes. By the late sixteenth century, for example, costumes became looser and fuller where once they had been stylised and close-fitting. The reasons are obscure, buried somewhere in the human appetite for novelty and transformation. It is no part of our purpose to write a history of fashion. It is important only to recognise that, for Venetian men and women, clothing was essentially dramatic costume.
In the eighteenth century criers walked through the streets of Venice, calling out the casts and performance times of the latest plays. Venetians were known throughout Europe for their love of theatre. It was a passion that touched all classes, from the gondolier to the patrician, and is nowhere more evident than in the extraordinary success of commedia dell’arte. This form of improvised comedy first emerged in the Veneto of the sixteenth century although its ancient origins, whether in classical drama or festive ritual, seem undeniable. One of its principal figures was Pantaleone or Pantalone, a Venetian name attached to the recognisably Venetian figure of a sprightly if sometimes foolish old merchant. (Venice was effectively ruled by old men.) He was dressed in a red costume and black cape with red Turkish slippers, as token of the fact that he traded with the East. Thus the sixth age of man, according to Jaques in As You Like It, is represented by “the lean and slipper’d pantaloon.” He always spoke in Venetian dialect. It has been surmised that his name comes from a corruption of pianta leone, to plant the lion, in reference to the lion of Saint Mark on the flag of Venetian merchants. His besetting vice is that of avarice, the avarice of the wealthy man who fears to lose what he has rather than that of the poor man who wishes for more. He is fearful, a pacifist who nonetheless wishes to conquer the world by trade, jealous of everything, a fanatical patriot, desperate wooer and miser, high-principled but subtle, so fearful of being gulled that he runs headlong into situations that will guarantee his gulling. He represents Venice’s uneasy conscience.
From Pantaloon, too, springs the name of pantomime; we have Venice to thank for a still popular English art. The characters of the commedia were indeed pantomimic figures, with Arlecchino in his chequerboard costume and Doctor Graziano in his black robe. The female parts were played by young men. They wore masks, and spoke in Venetian dialect mixed with Greek and Slavonic words. Arlecchino spoke in the dialect of Bergamo, the town in Lombardy from which many of the porters and labourers of Venice came. The actors were shown the scenario of the play but, as soon as they stepped onto the temporary stage, they invented the dialogue with a wit and vitality that were wholly native. They were often obscene, and always playful. They engaged in fevered and acrobatic dances to the accompaniment of the lute and guitar.
The performers of the commedia were not averse to mocking contemporaries and contemporary types. The audiences for these comedies could recognise themselves. They screamed with laughter, and applauded, and cheered, whenever a familiar allusion was made. There were courtesans among the characters of the commedia, and many courtesans among the audiences. The themes of these improvised plays—unhappy children, miserly fathers, disloyal servants—were the stuff of Venetian social life. It was a curious mixture of magniloquence and parody, loud lamentation and broad farce. These were plays about play-acting. It can be called the comedy of mercantile capitalism, similar in spirit to the “city comedies” of early seventeenth-century London. Comedy thus became the mirror of the world.
And then of course it spilled over into the perception of real people and real events. Some of the cases conducted before the courts of Venice have the ingredients of a farcical sketch. A French diplomat of the early seventeenth century mocked the grave Venetian statesmen of the period as “these pantaloons.” So there may have perhaps been something risible about the spectacle of these solemn figures all secretly pursuing profit for themselves.
The Venetian people were themselves often derided as pantaloni. Byron noticed, too, the “naivete and Pantaloon humour” of the Venetians. There is still a phrase in Venice, paga pantalon; Pantalon pays, meaning the state or the taxpayer pays. Casanova records how he donned the costume of Pierrot, “assuming the gait of a booby.” In the masquerades of the Carnival, you had to maintain the character of the person whose costume you had donned. The early visitors to the Carnival noted that the local citizens liked to dress up as the natives of other countries. A Venetian could become an actor without a moment’s hesitation.
It has sometimes been suggested that out of the songs and scenes of the commedia emerged the opera itself. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Venice became the first centre of opera in Europe. The opera and the commedia embody the spirit and attitudes of the people. They come out of the same circumstances, and fulfil the same desires. Both arts spring from the spectacle inherent in the religious and civic rituals of the people. The popularity of opera in Venice is of course well documented. Never has an art so suited the temperament of the people. The first public opera house in the world was created in Venice; in 1637 the patrician Tron family opened one within the premises of its grand house, and began to charge entrance fees for all who flocked there. A second opera house opened two years later and, within fifty years, there were seven of them. For librettists and composers there was now a flourishing trade. The post of the impresario was born. Dancers and singers were hired under contract. The structure of the opera itself became standardised, with each of the principal singers awarded five arias, and it was manufactured as quickly and as proficiently as a glass vase on Murano or a ship in the Arsenal. Between 1680 and 1743, 582 separate operas were produced and staged.
Opera flourished in Venice because, in many respects, it was an urban art. It was an art of contrast and heterogeneity in a city filled with contrasts between rich and poor, squalor and splendour; it was an art of the scenic and spectacular, in a city filled with the energetic display of festival and carnival. Opera is concerned with external life, life on display, with the great general drama of the human spirit taken up in music and in song. Opera has to do with energy and splendour, with ritual and melodrama. It was thoroughly Venetian. It also sustained the myth of Venice. There were operas in which Venice was hailed as a new Troy or a new Rome; there were operas that dramatised the origins of Venice among the exiles; many of the stage sets were of Venice itself. The audiences clapped, and whistled, and yelled. The gondoliers obtained free entrance; they applauded by stamping their feet and uttering loud cries of “Bravo!” Once they had heard a favourite aria, they would stamp their feet so loudly that the singer would be obliged to return to the stage with a reprise. After the aria was over, flowers would rain down from the boxes, together with scraps of paper on which laudatory poems had been written. There were even occasions when doves, with bells around their necks, were released within the opera house. One traveller noted the reaction of a Venetian patrician in his box. “Ah! Cara! Mi butto, mi butto!” Oh my darling, I’ll jump, I’ll jump!
Venetian stagecraft was renowned throughout Europe for its subtlety and elaboration. John Evelyn noted with approval “a variety of scenes painted and contrived with no less art of perspective, and machines for flying in the aire, and other wonderful notions; taken together, it is one of the most magnificent and expensive diversions the wit of man can invent.” This fascination with the marvels of stagecraft was of a piece with the Venetian predilection for fairy-tale plots and Oriental settings. There were shipwrecks and sea-monsters, fire-breathing dragons emerging from the depths and classical deities gently lowered from the sky. The “cloud machines” of Venice were especially praised. It was art as play.
Burckhardt, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, quotes one Venetian to the effect that “the fame of the scenic arrangements (apparati) brought spectators from far and near.” But he went on to note that the skill and effectiveness of these engines of display were used only for “comedies and other cheerful entertainments.” Scenic display had helped to kill tragedy. There never has been room for tragedy in Venice.
The first European theatre, specifically built for the production of plays, was erected in Venice in 1565. By the end of the seventeenth century there were eighteen public theatres, a large number catering for a population that was never more than 150,000. In the same period London possessed only six, and Paris only ten, theatres. In the sixteenth century, according to the Italian composer Girolamo Parabosco, the citizens “would climb walls, break open doors, or swim the canals to force their way into the place where some famous comedian was acting.”
The members of the audience were as much part of the play as the players. They gossiped, and laughed, and even gambled, through the course of the drama. People moved from box to box in search of conversation and entertainment. The noise of their chatter was compared to that of a bush filled with birds. The lighting was always dim, and the boxes were almost wholly dark; the desks of the musicians were illuminated by candles of Spanish wax, and the stage was lighted by lamps fed with olive oil. The spectators in the boxes spat upon the spectators in the pit. This was a custom endured with good spirit. Those in the pit were allowed to wear hats; those in the boxes were not given that privilege. The gondoliers, the favourite sons of Venice, entered free of charge, as in the opera houses. They in turn set up claques for particular actors or particular playwrights. They were often bribed to clap, or to jeer, on cue. Others merely waited at the back, with lanterns, for their masters. Between the acts vendors would pass among the people, selling oranges and biscuits, aniseed water and chestnuts, coffee and ices.
The curtain would rise upon a classical temple, a forest, or a royal palace. There would be processions and parades, banquets and battles. But there was one favourite subject. It was the city itself. The whole audience cheered any and every allusion to Venice, and they were delighted by amorous or mercenary dramas set in the streets and houses of the city. It was an intensely local drama. The spectators loved, in particular, the more reassuring emotions of family life. If a character or scene violated the decorum of real life, the audience would object in the most strenuous manner. Goethe witnessed a production which was stopped by the spectators when a young man was supposed to kill his wife with a sword; the actor then stepped forward, apologised, and confirmed that the scene would after all end happily. Were they not, after all, part of one big if not entirely happy family?
This is nowhere more evident than in the work of the most famous of all Venetian playwrights, Carlo Goldoni. His was the comedy of Venetian social life. He held a mirror up to Venetian nature. It was so congenial to him that, in one year, he completed sixteen three-act comedies; in the course of his theatrical career from 1734 to 1776, he wrote 250 plays. Like his compatriots Tintoretto and Titian and Vivaldi, he worked at high speed. He was filled with verve and energy. In the language of business, he managed a quick turnover. He began by writing formulaic dramas established upon the pattern of the commedia, and then by happy instinct migrated to the mild comedy of Venetian life. He captivated his public with portraits of gondoliers and of servants, of shopkeepers and housewives. Everything was staged on an intimate scale, with that compactness and neatness intrinsic to the Venetian character. The typical setting is the campiello or little square; the background is of familiar shops and houses. He reproduced the language and the manners of the people with the utmost fidelity. The larger world is of no consequence to his characters. In one of his comedies a Londoner talks of the canals of his city, with the suggestion that Goldoni believed London to resemble Venice. His characters do not concern themselves, either, with the politics of their city. That was a task left to others. They comprise a small group of people who steer their way through quarrels, misunderstandings, and awkward domestic moments. Households and families become unstable for a moment; then they steady themselves and sail on.
The first stage directions of The Fan, one of his most famous comedies, reveal a wholly Venetian scene.
Evarist and the Baron sit towards the front at a little table drinking coffee, Limonato serves them, Crispino is cobbling in his booth, near to him Coronato sitting beside his door, writing in a notebook. The Boots cleans the restaurant windows. Geltrude and Candida on the terrace, knitting. To the right Tognino is sweeping the square. Nina is spinning before her house door, beside her stands Moracchio holding two hunting dogs by a cord. Every now and again Timoteo puts his head out of the pharmacy; in the background Susanna, sewing before her shop.
It is a perfect miniature.
Goldoni was true to the spirit of the people, too, in his ability to see the absurd aspect of serious things. There was much mockery, and some impertinence, but no malice, in his humour. There is no violence upon his stage. Goldoni carefully refrained from the frank obscenity of the earlier commedia. His characters idle and gossip; they are lively, and witty; they talk about the latest play and the most recent scandal. They are very interested in money. But they are generally amiable and convivial. All of these qualities may be said to be characteristic of the Venetian temperament in the first half of the eighteenth century.
There is no inwardness. There are no meditations or monologues. We may call Goldoni’s drama superficial, therefore, but it is not meant to be anything else. It is a drama of surfaces. The Venetians on the stage are not properly individualised; they think, and act, like a community. They are not known for their eccentricities. They express no great passions. Everyone is affected by the same sentiments, and has much the same identity. That is why Goldoni’s comedies are couched in the genial poetry of domesticity. They do not record the exploits and sensibilities of outstanding individuals or aberrant types. All is light and graceful. Goldoni celebrated the inherent dignity of ordinary human nature.
And what, then, were the characteristics of the Venetians themselves? They were universally reported to be cheerful, with an innate gaiety and spontaneity of address. Henry James believed that they “have at once the good fortune to be conscious of few wants” and thus allowed their lives to be measured by “sunshine and leisure and conversation.” They had a freedom of manner, although it is something of a paradox that they were governed by one of the most severe systems of government in Europe. There may be some connection between public discipline and private liberty. George Sand described them as a “gay, unthinking people, so witty and so full of song.”
They were also described as frivolous, mercurial and naive. That may be the darker aspect of gaiety. They were considered, by other Italian city-states, as inept and unreliable. They were deemed to be fickle and unjust. They had a propensity to forget even the most recent and the most grave misfortunes. It may be the forgetfulness of excessive vivacity. The naivety, however, may have been characteristic of the people rather than of the patricians. By the government they were treated almost as children. Hence their trust of the state, and the climate of submissiveness in which they seemed to flourish. Addison believed that the senate of Venice encouraged sports and factions among the “common people” in order to preserve the safety of the republic.
They were, then, ambiguous. They were difficult to “read.” Ambiguity, reflecting the ambiguous status of a city on the water, may be the key. In the eighteenth century a nun could also be a prostitute. A gondolier might be a very wealthy man. A richly clad patrician might have no money. Albrecht Dürer reported that among them were “the most faithless, lying thievish rascals, such as I could scarcely believed could exist on earth; and yet if one did not know them, one would think that they were the nicest men on earth.” It could be argued that this is true of humankind in general, under whatever sky, but in a city of masks and secrets this ambiguity becomes manifold and pervasive. It becomes more intense.
It is certainly the source of the charge of duplicity that was always being levelled against them. They possessed a talent for dissimulation in their dealings with other states, and indeed with each other in the business of law and government. They disguised their greed with the semblance of honesty and piety; they hid their guile under the mask of polity. It became their nature, in the phrase of one English observer, “to sew a piece of Fox tayle to the skinne of S.Mark’s Lyon.” There were many stories of their duplicity. When the king of Hungary came to Venice, in the fifteenth century, he begged the body of Saint Paul the Hermit from the canons of the church of S. Zulian. They did not wish to offend the sovereign, and so they gave him the body of one of the Grimani family. The Hungarians then worshipped this worthless body as a holy relic.
The city of masks was adept at the art of concealment. That is why the Venetians were always polite, evincing what was known as their characteristic dolce maniera; they were celebrated for their good manners. They were formal and reserved in their public demeanour, perhaps recalling the Venetian proverb that “he who loves foreigners loves the wind.” There was a certain courtliness, from which the Venetian patrician could keep his distance. The memoirs and records suggest that they were courteous, and composed, even in their private dealings. They loved form, and surface, above everything. In company Venetians were observed to be “stiff,” relying entirely upon propriety and correctness of behaviour. Unlike other Italians, for example, they were not known for extravagance of gesture or language. There were certain significant catch-phrases adoped in the official texts of the city. Councillors were called “prudentes et cauti,” prudent and cautious; an officer of state was “sapiens et circumspectus vir,” wise and circumspect. They were pious, for example, but they were not zealots. Savonarola would not have been welcomed in Venice.
Their humour, however, was unambiguously coarse. There is a Venetian saying to the effect that, if you want to laugh, talk about shit. The statue of one famous and over-productive author, Niccolò Tommaseo, is known as el cacalibri or book-shitter. The vulgarity, as in England, has much to do with a culture of practicality and common sense. There was, for example, a certain harsh realism in their statecraft. In this “romantic” city there were few romantics. The humour is often at the expense of hypocrisy and pretence; it was often dark and, on occasions, bitter or savage. The Venetians were great deflaters of the pompous or the preening. This may have been the instinctive reaction of a population inured to the hypocrisies or pious pretences of public life. It was a way of striking back, of showing that they were not really fooled.