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CANTO THE FOURTH.
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
THE communication between the ducal palace and the prisons of Venice is by a gloomy bridge, or covered gallery, high above the water, and divided by a stone wall into a passage and a cell. The state dungeons, called pozzi, or wells, were sunk in the thick walls of the palace; and the prisoner when taken out to die was conducted across the gallery to the other side, and being then led back into the other compartment, or cell, upon the bridge, was there strangled. The low portal through which the criminal was taken into this cell is now walled up; but the passage is still open, and is still known by the name of the Bridge of Sighs. The pozzi are under the flooring of the chamber at the foot of the bridge. They were formerly twelve; but on the first arrival of the French, the Venetians hastily blocked or broke up the deeper of these dungeons. You may still, however, descend by a trapdoor, and crawl down through holes, half-choked by rubbish, to the depth of two stories below the first range. If you are in want of consolation for the extinction of patrician power, perhaps you may find it there; scarcely a ray of light glimmers into the narrow gallery which leads to the cells, and the places of confinement themselves are totally dark. A small hole in the wall admitted the damp air of the passages, and served for the introduction of the prisoner's food. A wooden pallet, raised a foot from the ground, was the only furniture. The conductors tell you that a light was not allowed. The cells are about five paces in length, two and a half in width, and seven feet in height. They are directly beneath one another, and respiration is somewhat difficult in the lower holes. Only one prisoner was found when the republicans descended into these hideous recesses, and he is said to have been confined sixteen years. But the inmates of the dungeons beneath had left traces of their repentance, or of their despair, which are still visible, and may, perhaps, owe something to recent ingenuity. Some of the detained appear to have offended against, and others to have belonged to, the sacred body, not only from their signatures, but from the churches and belfries which they have scratched upon the walls. The reader may not object to see a specimen of the records prompted by so terrific a solitude. As nearly as they could be copied by more than one pencil, three of them are as follows:–
1. non TI Finant Ad ALcuno Pensa e tact SE FUGIR vuoi DE SPIONI INSIDIE e LAcci
rt, Pentrari PEntirti nulla Giova.
The copyist has followed, not corrected, the solecisms; some of which are, however, not quite so decided, since the letters were evidently scratched in the dark. It only need be observed, that bestemmia and mangiar may be read in the first inscription, which was probably written by a prisoner confined for some act of impiety committed at a funeral; that Cortellarius is the name of a parish on terra firma, near the sea; and that the last initials evidently are put for Viva lasanta Chiesa Kattolica Romana.
She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
An old writer, describing the appearance of Venice, has made use of the above image, which would not be poetical were it not true.
“Quo fit ut qui superne urbem contempletur, turritam telluris imaginem medio Oceano figuratam seputet inspicere.”*
The well known song of the gondoliers, of alternate stanzas from Tasso's Jerusalem, has died with the independence of Venice. Editions of the poem, with the original on one column, and the Venetian variations on the other, as sung by the boatmen, were once common, and are still to be found.
* Marci Antonii Sabellici de Venetz Urbis situ narratio, edit. Taurin. 1527, lib. i. fol. 202.
The following extract will serve to show the difference between the Tuscan epic and the “Canta alla Bareariola.”
Some of the elder gondoliers will, however, take up and continue a stanza of their once familiar bard.
On the 7th of last January, 1817, the author of Childe Harold, and another Englishman, the writer of this notice, rowed to the Lido with two singers, one of whom was a earpenter, and the other a gondolier. The former placed himself at the prow, the latter at the stern of the boat. A little after leaving the quay of the Piazzetta, they began to sing, and eontinued their exercise until we arrived at the island. They gave us, amongst other essays. the death of Clorinda, and the palace of Armida; and did not sing the Wenetian, but the Tuscan verses. The carpenter, however, who was the eleverer of the two, and was frequently obliged to prompt his eormpanion, told us that he eould translate the original. He added, that he could sing almost three hundred stanzas, but had not spirits (morbin was the word he used) to learn any more, or to sing what he already knew: a man must have idle time on his hands to acquire, or to repeat, and, said the poor fellow, “look at my clothes and at me; I am starving.” This speech was more affeeting than his performance, which habit alone can make attractive. The recitative was shrill, screaming, and monotonous; and the gondolier behind assisted his voice by holding his hand to one side of his mouth. The carpenter used a quiet aetion, which he evidently endeavoured to restrain; but was too much interested in his subject altogether to repress. From these men we learnt that singing is not confined to the gondoliers, and that, although the ehant is seldom, if ever, voluntary, there are still several amongst the lower elasses who are acquainted with a few stanzas.
It does not appear that it is usual for the performers to row and sing at
the same time. Although the verses of the Jerusalem are no longer casually heard, there is yet much music upon the Venetian canals; and upon holydays, those strangers who are not near or informed enough to distinguish the words, may fancy that many of the gondolas still resound with the strains of Tasso. The writer of some remarks which appeared in the “Curiosities of Literature” must excuse his being twice quoted; for, with the exception of some phrases a little too ambitious and extravagant, he has furnished a very exact, as well as agreeable, description: — “In Venice the gondoliers know by heart long passages from Ariosto and Tasso, and often chant them with a peculiar melody. But this talent seems at present on the decline:—at least, after taking some pains, I could find no more than two persons who delivered to me in this way a passage from Tasso. I must add, that the late Mr. Barry once chanted to me a passage in Tasso in the manner, he assured me, of the gondoliers. “There are always two concerned, who alternately sing the strophes. We know the melody eventually by Rousseau, to whose songs it is printed; it has properly no melodious movement, and is a sort of medium between the canto fermo and the canto figurato; it approaches to the former by recitativical declamation, and to the latter by passages and course, by which one syllable is detained and embellished. “I entered a gondola by moonlight; one singer placed himself forwards, and the other aft, and thus proceeded to St. Georgio. One began the song; when he had ended his strophe, the other took up the lay, and so continued the song alternately. Throughout the whole of it, the same notes invariably returned; but, according to the subject matter of the strophe, they laid a greater or a smaller stress, sometimes on one, and sometimes on another note, and indeed changed the enunciation of the whole strophe as the object of the poem altered. “On the whole, however, the sounds were hoarse and screaming: they seemed, in the manner of all rude uncivilised men, to make the excellency of their singing in the force of their voice: one seemed desirous of conquering the other by the strength of his lungs; and so far from receiving delight from this scene (shut up as I was in the box of the gondola), I found myself in a very unpleasant situation. “My companion, to whom I communicated this circumstance, being very desirous to keep up the credit of his countrymen, assured me that this singing was very delightful when heard at a distance. Accordingly we got out upon the shore, leaving one of the singers in the gondola, while the other went to the distance of some hundred paces. They now began to sing against one another, and I kept walking up and down between them both, so as always to leave him who was to begin his part. I frequently stood still, and hearkened to the one and to the other. “Here the scene was properly introduced. The strong declamatory, and, as it were, shrieking sound, met the ear from far, and called forth the attention; and quickly succeeding transitions, which necessarily required to be sung in a lower tone, seemed like plaintive strains succeeding the vociferations of emotion or of pain. The other, who listened attentively, imme
diately began where the former left off, answering him in milder or more vehement notes, according as the purport of the strophe required. The sleepy canals, the lofty buildings, the splendour of the moon, the deep shadows of the few gondolas, that moved like spirits hither and thither, increased the striking peculiarity of the scene; and amidst all these circumstances, it was easy to confess the character of this wonderful harmony. “It suits perfectly well with an idle solitary mariner, lying at length in his vessel at rest on one of these canals, waiting for his company, or for a fare, the tiresomeness of which situation is somewhat alleviated by the songs and poetical stories he has in memory. He often raises his voice as loud as he ean, which extends itself to a vast distance over the tranquil mirror; and as all is still around, he is, as it were, in a solitude in the midst of a large and populous town. Here is no rattling of carriages, no noise of foot passengers; a silent gondola glides now and then by him, of which the splashings of the oars are scarcely to be heard. “At a distance he hears another, perhaps utterly unknown to him. Melody and verse immediately attach the two strangers; he becomes the responsive echo to the former, and exerts himself to be heard as he had heard the other. By a tacit convention they alternate verse for verse; though the song should last the whole night through, they entertain themselves without fatigue: the hearers, who are passing between the two, take part in the amusement. “This vocal performance sounds best at a great distance, and is then inexpressibly charming, as it only fulfils its design in the sentiment of remoteness. It is plaintive, but not dismal in its sound, and at times it is scareely possible to refrain from tears. My companion, who otherwise was not a very delieately organised person, said quite unexpectedly:—E singolare come quel canto intenerisce, e molto più quandolo eantano meglio. “I was told that the women of Libo, the long row of islands that divides the Adriatie from the Lagoons*, particularly the women of the extreme districts of Malamocco and Palestrina, sing in like manner the works of Tasso to these and similar tunes. “They have the custom, when their husbands are fishing out at sea, to sit along the shore in the evenings and voeiferate these songs, and continue to do so with great violence, till each of them can distinguish the responses of her own husband at a distance.”f The love of music and of poetry distinguishes all classes of Venetians, even amongst the tuneful sons of Italy. The city itself can occasionally furnish respectable audiences for two and even three opera-houses at a time; and there are few events in private life that do not call forth a printed and circulated sonnet. Does a physician or a lawyer take his degree, or a clergyman preach his maiden sermon, has a surgeon performed an operation, would a harlequin announce his departure or his benefit, are you to be congratulated on a marriage, or a birth, or a lawsuit, the Muses are invoked to
* The writer meant Lido, which is not a long row of islands, but along island: littus, the shore. f Curiosities of Literature, p. 140. 12th ed. 1841; and Appendix xxix. to Black's Life of Tasso.