The night and silence of Venice are profound. Moonlight can flood Saint Mark’s Square. Venice is most characteristic at night. It has a quality of stillness that suits the mood of time preserved. Then it is haunted by what it loves—itself. The doorways seem darker than in any other city, lapped as they are by the black water. The little lamps still flicker before the statues of the Virgin on the corners of the calli. There are many kinds of night in Venice—the capacious blue of the summer night, and the fierce blackness of the winter night. The modern Venetians rarely seem to go out at night. There are no drunkards roaming through the street in the hours of the early morning. There are no raucous shouts. One contemporary acoustics engineer has measured the level of nocturnal sound in Venice at thirty-two decibels; the night of other cities is approximately thirteen decibels louder. There is no “background” noise.
In the second half of the thirteenth century a government agency was established known as the signori di notte or lords of the night who were obliged to safeguard public order under cover of darkness. The Venetian night seems to have been an object of suspicion. It contained the horror of unseen water, deep and dark, and of winding labyrinthine alleys. It is the time of assault and of subversion. The night was the time for the spy or the assassin. Night was the opportunity for secret groups, or even for the writing of graffiti on the walls of the city against the lawful government. For a city that prided itself upon its rational order and control, the night was an especial enemy. In decrees it was announced that there were many pericula or dangers in the night; there was always the risk of “disordines et tumultationes” or disorder and riot. Night was chaos. Night was threat. The night of Venice seemed to invoke the original blackness and silence of the lagoon, from which the city rose; the night was the memory of origin.
Yet the ubiquity of the Carnival in later centuries literally lightened the mood. In the eighteenth century the memoirs of Goldoni reveal a little world of night. The shops remained open until ten o’clock in the evening, many of them not finally closing their doors until midnight; at midnight, too, “all the taverns are open, and suppers are in preparation in every inn and hotel.”
What, then, are the sounds of the night? The sound of the footfall echoes through this city of stone. Venice is a good acoustic instrument. There is the occasional chime. There is the sound of water lapping and slapping against stone as part of its everlasting movement. There may be a call upon the water, pure and resonant; still water carries the voice very far. The narrow streets can also act as funnels of sound. Then there is the scarcely discernible sound of the gondola. In the nineteenth century the more romantic travellers noted that there were times when music crept over the waters. Liszt, more perceptively, invoked the “silent noises” of the city; the murmur of the boat floating across the water is one of them.
There are always moments when silence seems to descend upon Venice. “Everywhere,” Dickens wrote in Pictures from Italy, “the same extraordinary silence.” For him it was the enforced silencing of modern life—no carriages, no wheels, no machinery. For many Victorian travellers the charm of Venice lay in its distance from modern industrialised civilisation. Two centuries before, John Evelyn had described Venice as “almost as silent as the middle of a field, there being neither rattling of coaches nor trampling of horses.” Nor noise of cars. You may turn a corner, and come upon an area without sound. No other city still has so many pockets of silence. In Michael Dibdin’s Dead Lagoon, the narrator declares that “such absolute, unqualified silence was troubling, as though some vital life function had ceased.”
There was a dark side of Venice, a side that the night conceals. There were many poor, and many outcasts. Beggars have always been an aspect of Venetian life. In the late fifteenth century the senate discussed the problem of old men, and others, who lay each night in the precincts of the ducal palace. A “home” and a hospital were constructed. But they were not enough. At times of famine, as in the winter of 1527, the poor died against the pillars. Children stood in the market of the Rialto, or in the Square, crying out “I am dying of hunger! I am dying of hunger and cold!” One contemporary recorded that “the city stank with their odour.” This is a measure of the intense confinement of urban living. And of course Venice could produce no food of its own.
In the early seventeenth century a new institution, the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, was erected to clear the streets and squares of the countless vagrants. All beggars in Venice were obliged to obtain a licence, and to lodge at the hospital; unlicensed beggars were expelled, and those who were reported to be too successful in their trade were consigned to the galleys. The owner of an unofficial beggars’ lodging house was whipped all the way from Saint Mark’s Square to the Rialto bridge.
Not all of them, however, found their way into the public haven. Effie Ruskin noted that in the evening “we see them all lying packed together at the edges of bridges, wrapped in their immense brown cloaks and large hoods.” One Venetian patrician, Gasparo Contarini, was not sure if they were citizens of the Venetian republic or stray animals. Some families lived on rickety boats beside the quays. In the nineteenth century the palaces along the canal were converted into tenements, where the poor huddled. No pictorial view of Venice in that century was complete without the appearance of a picturesque vagrant, preferably young and female and pretty.
In the middle of the sixteenth century there were estimated to be six thousand beggars in the city. By the end of the eighteenth century that number had risen to twenty-two thousand. This was perhaps partly a reflection of the reputation of Venice as a centre for travellers; it has always been the case that beggars are more likely to find succour from foreigners. Mrs. Thrale described them as “saucy and airy and odd in their manners.” She also noticed that they were treated by the Venetian people themselves with great softness and courtesy. An account of the Venetian beggars of the sixteenth century records their words. “I made the people think I was a madman.” “I dressed up as a pilgrim and with an image of Saint James in my hand, I covered my face. I made piteous signs and gestures and the rich gave me money.” They showed their wounds, their cancers and their ulcers in the public squares. There were familiar calls for succour. “Pity! Pity!” “I will pray for your life if you throw me a coin.” “Give money for the blessed Virgin.” The beggars came to Venice from many other cities. A list, dating from the summer of 1539, registers them from Milan, Sicily, Pisa and even France. In the twenty-first century, for example, old women and young men are to be found lying bowed on the bridges with their hands outstretched. Venice has been known as the haven for the outcast and the exile in every sense. Why should it not extend that courtesy to the genuinely dispossessed?
There is no dawn chorus of small birds in Venice. Yet as day breaks, the life of the city wakes from its silent slumber. Once more the traveller hears the rising voices, the whistles, the songs, the shouts, the pealing of bells. It is the morning of a human city. There is endless chatter in the air.