Common section


Timeless City


Bells and Gondolas

The Venetians needed to control time, just as they controlled every other aspect of their insular world. The bells rang out at precise times of day, to co-ordinate the activities of the populace. Within the campanile itself, in Saint Mark’s Square, there was a system of five bells—the marangonathat announced the beginning and end of the working day, the nona and the mezza terza that rang the hours, the trottiera that invited the patricians to vote in their various assemblies, and the maleficio that called the spectators to the latest public execution. The bells were a form of social control, creating areas of forbidden time. An edict was announced in 1310 that “no person whatsoever shall be suffered, without special licence, to walk abroad after the third bell of the night.”

In the private and public institutions of the city every phase of activity was signalled by the ringing of bells; the people were summoned for waking, for washing, for praying, for eating and for sleeping. It is another indication of the paternalism, or authoritarianism, of Venetian society. Yet since bells were intimately associated with religious devotion, it was a way of making life itself a sacred activity. It was a qualitative, as well as a quantitative, token.

Yet time seems to shift in the city. The tokens of various periods appear together, and various times modify one another. In Venice there is no true chronological time; it has been overtaken by other forces. There are occasions, indeed, when time seems to be suspended; if you enter a certain courtyard, in a shaft of sunlight, the past rises all around you. This is not necessarily a private or individual sensation. The organisations of the city were believed by the people to be “perpetual.” In their work on the public monuments of the city the Venetians were concerned to accrue various layers or levels of time, with borrowings and adaptations from earlier cultures. Theirs was never meant to be an architecture of the present, but rather of the past and present conflated. The city affords visitors a glimpse of the porousness of history.

There is indeed a different sense of time in the city, as any visitor will testify. No one can hurry in Venice; no one can “make up” time. There is no transport except by water, and there are many hindrances to a pedestrian’s rapid journey. It is a city that slows down the human world. That is another reason for the sense of enchantment or dream that it induces. There is a great will to wander and be lost. The official institution of time was also different. The beginning of the next day was dated from the hour of the evening Angelus, or six o’clock. Thus 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve was, for the Venetians, already Christmas Day. This system continued until the Napoleonic conquest.

The continuity of the city and of its administration impressed upon the inhabitants a different sense of time, also, calculated in centuries rather than in decades. Venice measured itself in historical rather than chronological time. The centuries are, as it were, enclosed on the island; they are imprisoned in the labyrinth of the calli. Time on the mainland has the room to spread outward, so that it becomes flatter and thinner. In Venice it echoes and re-echoes. The Irish writer Seán O’Faoláin described it as “a projection of the Schopenhauerian will, a timeless essence.”

It might be truer to say that there are continuities through time. A Venetian of the sixteenth century, if not earlier, would have no trouble in finding his or her way through the streets of the modern city. That is true of few other cities on earth. The churches, and markets, are still in the same place. The ferries still cross the Grand Canal from the same stations that they used five hundred years ago. The same religious festivals are celebrated. Of all cities, Venice is the one that most fully manifests continuity. It has become its reason for being. It is reassuring because it represents permanence and stability in a world of change; that is why its survival has become so important to variously concerned groups in England and America. Some of the cityscapes of the sixteenth century, by Carpaccio and others, can still be identified in the contemporary city. There is a famous view by Canaletto of a stonemason’s yard, by the bank of the Grand Canal where now the Accademia bridge has been erected. From the painting itself, approximately of the Campo S. Vidal and the church of S. Maria della Carità, it is possible to identify still existing houses, a small bridge and a little canal. The painting is dated to 1727, so the territory has remained stable for almost three hundred years.

The most obvious sign of continuity is also the most familiar. The gondolas have been plying the waterways of the city for a thousand years, with only the smallest modifications in shape and appearance. John Evelyn described them in the seventeenth century as “very long and narrow, having necks and tails of steel … some are adorned with carving, others lined with velvet, commonly black … while he who rowes, stands upright on the very edge of the boate, and with one oare (bending forward as if he would precipitate into the sea) rowes & turnes with incredible dexterity.”

The gondolas are first mentioned in a document at the end of the eleventh century, although they must have been in existence for many decades before that date. The word itself has been granted many derivations, from the Latin cymbula or Greek kuntelas (both meaning small boat). But the actual origins of the boat have been variously found in Malta, Turkey, and, improbably, Avignon. It found its definite, and still modern, shape by degrees. Originally it was shorter and squatter than the modern version, with a cabin placed in the middle of the boat often protected by blinds or curtains. This was the mode of transport used by the patricians of the city, who might have many gondoliers in the pay of the household. By the seventeenth century these cabins or felzi became places of assignation and intrigue, adding to the legend of Venice as a city of hidden pleasures. They were removed in the 1930s. There was one other modification in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the right side was made nine inches (225 mm) longer than the left; this adjustment increased the little boat’s speed and manoeuvrability. Then the gondola sailed on through the centuries, growing slightly longer and slimmer so that it might accommodate the growing number of tourists. It was still a boat of pleasure, but no longer reserved for the few.

There were ten thousand gondolas in the sixteenth century, many of them festooned with ornaments and carvings. This encouraged displays of showmanship and rivalry among the wealthier Venetians, who were allowed few opportunities of conspicuous consumption in public. Such a spirit was of course to be resisted by a Venetian state that curbed individualism of any sort in the name of collective brotherhood. So the ornamentation was, in a decree of 1562, forbidden. That is why the gondolas became black. Even though black was not considered by the Venetians to be an unfavourable colour, the gondolas ever since have regularly been seen as floating coffins. Shelley compared them to moths that have struggled out of the chrysalis of a coffin. James Fenimore Cooper felt that he was riding in a hearse. Wagner, fearful in a time of cholera, had to force himself to board one. Goethe called it a capacious bier. And Byron saw it:

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,

Where none can make out what you say or do.

Byron is here describing the amours that might or might not take place in the private space of the cabin. The gondolier penetrating the interior canals of the city has also been given a phallic importance, so that in Venice sex and death are once more conflated. Henry James wrote of the experience that “each dim recognition and obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated to your doom.…” A ride on a gondola can prompt some very powerful instincts.

The metal beak at the prow, the ferro, has a complicated history. Some believe that its six teeth represent the six sestieri of the city. It has also been considered to be a replica of the beak of a Roman galley; given the Venetian fondness for antique copy, that has the ring of truth.

The gondoliers are the most famous of the city’s native sons. Their characteristic uniform of straw hat and black-and-white striped top, together with the red or blue scarf, was really only formalised in the 1920s. But their braggadocio is very old. They seem to enjoy the sound of their own voices, on land as well as on water. They bawl; they bellow; they sing. But when they are hushed, and the only sound is that of the gondola gliding through the water, then the deep peace of Venice begins to reign.

The gondoliers have been celebrated in song and ballad from the sixteenth century. They were praised for their discretion. When the gondola was used as a place of assignation, the gondoliers were silent about their customers; if a gondolier had denounced a lady to her husband, he would have been drowned by his colleagues. They were employed to deliver sensitive letters. Foreign visitors often denounced them as foul-mouthed cheats or pimps, but they received more praise from their compatriots. They appear as good-hearted heroes, for example, in the comedies of Goldoni. Here is part of a typical setting from his play, The Good Girl: “two gondoliers arrive at the same moment from opposite directions … Each insists that the other shall give way by dropping back.” There then follows a dialogue of threat and insult known to all earlier travellers to Venice. Yet their high spirits were part of the air of the city. They were incarnate of the will to live, and to survive, upon the water.

The cries and songs of the gondoliers have been endlessly recorded. In Stones of Venice Ruskin himself devotes his first appendix to “The Gondolier’s Cry.” It might be the title to an opera. “Premi!” to pass on the left, “Stali!” to pass on the right, and “Sciar!,”to come to a halt. The gondoliers love to call to one another across the water, although such marine repartee is now as much of a theatrical act as the singing of “O solo mio” or “Torno a Sorrento.” Although in the city itself they are still a powerful and sometimes disruptive force, they are now principally the delight of tourists. They have in a larger sense become part of the self-conscious mannerism of contemporary Venetian life, their costume little more than fancy dress. It has been said that no Venetian would be seen dead in a gondola, except perhaps in those that are used as ferries from one bank to another.

There are now only four hundred gondolas at work in the city. Only four are made each year. The boat cannot last for ever. After twenty or so years of service, its woodwork will warp and weaken. It is then taken to the island of Murano, where its wood is used to kindle the flames of the glass-works. It becomes part of another city industry, its energy transformed into Venetian glass.

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