S’lim Issue 1 – Venice (October 2015)

Dearest ‘Contemporaries’ (and Venice) – Editorial
Venice Was a Dream – Janice Leung
Perpetually Visiting – Henrik Drufva
You Can’t Tell a Count from a Villain – Arianna Gellini & Marco de Mutiis with photography by Tobia Maschio
Uomini e animali – Trevor Yeung
Excerpts from Venice (1904) with illustrations by Mortimer Menpes and text by Dorothy Menpes

Excerpts from Venice

Venice (1904) with illustrations by Mortimer Menpes & text by Dorothy Menpes. Published by Adam and Charles Black. London.

“We hired a gondola, and glided swiftly and silently out into the darkness, our gondolier’s ringing voice joining the chorus of “ Puppy.” And so dexterously did he handle his dainty craft that, even as we turned corners and passed other gondolas in the pitch-black darkness, not a sound was made, not a splash.

I felt like beating the water with the palms of my hands to make a disturbance. This silent gliding went on for about twenty minutes, until suddenly we drew up by an enormous silver-grey palace down a side canal, one of the largest palaces in Venice, with broad marble steps and badly-made deal doors. After some time the doors were opened, and an old lady appeared, bowing and talking in rapid Italian. She led us up the steps and through a colossal hall of marble, all marble, with staircases on either side leading on to spacious landings, into a suite of rooms that seemed more like the state apartments of a king than those of an ordinary hotel.“ (pp.41-42)

“Our gondolier was quite a part of the picture young, very handsome, with a musical voice. And I began in a dreamy way to muse as I watched him. My thoughts went back for the moment to the Thames to an old gentleman toiling in a punt He was once a handsome young gondolier like this one, gracefully piloting a gondola through the canals of Venice; but now he had grown old on the Thames. There is no doubt that the gondola is made for Venice: it is futile to try it elsewhere. And then the colour is right. The gondola ought to be black. It became so naturally and as a matter of economy. People used to spend too much money on their gondolas, and colours had to be forbidden.
I was in a dreamy mood, and I began to wonder what became of the handsome young gondoliers they were all handsome and all young. They could not remain so for ever.” (pp.45-56)

“We were anxious to meet the artists of Venice, and had been told of a certain restaurant, the Panada, where they generally congregated. In the evening, then, we landed, and went thither to dine. The artists who went to the Panada, we had been told, were those who had “ let themselves go” more or less who had been taken hold of by the sirocco and had settled down to loafing. When they first arrived in Venice they went to wine-shops, little dark places, and dined off macaroni and harsh drink. The Panada was more or less organised for the convenience of artists. In the first place, you were not bored by having to tip waiters a duty that is always trying to an artist who is in between two exhibitions. And nearly all the Panada artists were in that condition. They had nearly all had exhibitions in Bond Street which had been “great artistic successes” in other words, they hadn’t sold any pictures. Another point about the Panada that appealed to the artist was that his bills could run on indefinitely. The bills did run : in fact, the only things that seemed to be at all active in Venice, in spite of the sirocco, were the bills. The Panada was a paradise! Who could resist it? The cooking was excellent, as cooking must always be where painters are, for they are very particular people. The Panada was perfect ; the Panada had a sanded floor ; the Panada was the noisiest restaurant in Italy. It was our first experience of Bohemia, the painter’s world, in Venice ; and we sat there, over our untouched dinner, fascinated fascinated by the general noise and confusion, fascinated even by the unsavoury smells. It was not clean ; there was a great deal of smoke, and so much talk. The guests seemed to be screaming and talking at once in all the languages of the world. Two words I heard continually “ breadth” and “ simplicity.” Here and there was a little talk of “mediums” and “technique,” but not much. It was generally broad principles that were discussed. There was no mistaking these groups of men. They were artists to their finger-tips in everything save work. They dressed like artists, talked like artists, and behaved like the artists one reads about in novels: the Ouida artists. They wore neckties reaching down to their waists, collars two sizes too large and cut very low ; their hands were always a little soiled, and their finger-nails never quite clean. The waiters also were soiled. They were very toney indeed, and very apathetic toes turned inwards, heads bent slightly forward. They were dejected from want of variety : there was no uncertainty in the Panada as to tips. They came in on the aggregate and received lump sums; but there was a general depression about the people that waited. All were soiled at the Panada the waiters, the artists, and the linen. But we very soon began to talk of this dirt as tone, and then it didn’t seem to matter so much. Everything seemed to be worked on more or less artistic principles. There were quaint decorative dishes. The puddings were pink ; the butter was stained ; and altogether it required great habits to enjoy food at the Panada. By perseverance, I was told, it was possible to acquire an appetite. There were tables of different sizes, and groups of artists belonging to different sects some antagonistic, some sympathetic : Dottists, and Spottists, and Stripists. Sometimes when the Dottists and Spottists happened to be friends for the minute they would join their tables together and make one long one. But this was only now and then. Usually the groups in the Panada were formed of twos. Often genius sat alone. Now and then, when a big picture was sold, the restaurant was very festive : the artist had a dinner-party, to which everyone had been invited. But generally it was a small water-colour that was sold, and the party went off to a small caf down by a side canal. “ (pp.46-50)

“In the crooked and bewildering streets of Venice, which open out from the great piazza and lead all over the city, one sees the true life of the people. It is there that the poor congregate. The houses teem with humanity. There the true Venetians are harboured. One comes to know them well, and the manner of life they lead ; and so gay and light-hearted are they, it is strange if one does not like them in spite of all their faults. Was there ever more irregularity than in the streets of Venice? All the houses seem to be differently constructed. Some are lofty ; others are squat ; some have balconies and chimney-pieces thrust out into the street so as almost to touch the houses opposite. Nearly every house has at one time been a palace, and each is in a different stage of decay houses that have once been the homes of merchant princes, palaces in which perhaps even Petrarch may have feasted, inhabited now by the poorest of Venetians.” (pp.127-128)

“Venetian women are good-looking. One sees them continually about the streets. Nothing can surpass the grace of the shawl-clad figures seen down the perspective of the long streets, or about some old stone well in a campiello. They are for the most part smart and clean. You see them coming home from the factories, nearly always dressed in black, simple and well-behaved. Their hair is of a crisp black, and well tended ; their manner is sedate and demure. There is no boisterousness about the Venetian girls, no turning round in the streets, no coarseness. Many of them are very beautiful. You see a woman crossing an open space with the sunlight gleaming on the amber beads about her throat and making the rich colour glow brighter beneath her olive skin. A shawl is thrown round her shoulders, and her jet- black hair is fastened by a silver pin. She wears a deep crimson bodice. The choice of colour of these women is unerring in taste. Their shawls are seldom gaudy, generally of blue or pale mauve ; vivid colours are reserved for the bodices.” (pp. 144-145)

“Greeks, with long bluish-black hair floating out behind them, and caps with silk top-knots (these were captains of small vessels coming from Cyprus and Syria, and they went to the Café della Costanza, where they could procure mocha and the pipe they loved best); and young Venetian gentlemen young Venetian gentlemen who spent their lives for the most part in drifting from one cafe to another, generally handsome, well-dressed men with immaculate linen and pointed beards carefully cut, carrying long canes, and the lightest of kid gloves.” (p.182)

“For the most part the ancient aristocracy of Venice lived in retirement and were very poor. They dwelt in palaces whose walls were covered with priceless paintings by great masters, with which they would not part. They dined off a dish of polenta or fried fish, which a valet brought from a tavern near by. Their poverty and the fear of spies and informers combined in making society in Venice extremely reserved. It was impossible for a stranger to penetrate into the midst.

In summer, in the months of the dog-star, those few among the patricians who were well-to-do flew to their villas on the banks of the Brenta, on the mainland. They returned to Venice in winter, only because, they said, the odours from the lagoons at that time were unhealthy and caused fever. Those who had no country houses, and could not afford to travel, shut themselves up in their palaces and drew down their blinds until it was the fashionable time to appear. In the dead season there were no lamps lit in the great entrances, and the palaces were silent. “ (pp.183-184)

“This custom of spending the summer months in the suburbs of Venice was called “ villeggiatura.” It was one of the gayest times of the year for the Venetians. They lived by night. All day long they lay behind closed blinds, while the sun parched and baked the ground. Only from five o’clock in the afternoon until four in the morning could they be said to live. Then they held dances, card-parties, and flirtations. During these hours, when the temperature was low, amusement and pleasure reigned supreme ; but no sooner did the sun begin to rise than, as surely as Cinderella disappeared at the stroke of twelve, the gay society of the Brenta vanished, and the place lay dead and silent once more under the intolerable glare.

How different society in Venice was in the early days ! Then the houses were marvels of luxury ; the finest wit, the most brilliant conversation, and the most delightful music were to be heard in Venice. It was not in the houses of the old aristocracy that the most brilliant people painters, writers, poets, and politicians assembled. It was in the houses of women who were looked upon as more or less shady persons, whom no Venetian gentleman would dream of introducing to his wife. The wives of the aristocracy were seldom seen except at public functions. They took much the same position in society as the “ honoured interior “ takes in Japan at the present day. (The geisha, although she is infinitely more entertaining, has no social status whatever.) The Venetian lady of quality, unlike the “ honoured interior,” dressed in the most magnificent style. In the estimate of her husband nothing was too gorgeous or too costly for her to wear. Among all those of the larger towns of northern Italy, Venetian women of the sixteenth century were the first to wear needle-point.” (pp.185-186)