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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter XXIII

Innocents Abroad

Chapter XXIII

The Venetian gondola is as free and graceful, in its gliding movement, as
a serpent. It is twenty or thirty feet long, and is narrow and deep,
like a canoe; its sharp bow and stern sweep upward from the water like
the horns of a crescent with the abruptness of the curve slightly

The bow is ornamented with a steel comb with a battle-ax attachment which
threatens to cut passing boats in two occasionally, but never does. The
gondola is painted black because in the zenith of Venetian magnificence
the gondolas became too gorgeous altogether, and the Senate decreed that
all such display must cease, and a solemn, unembellished black be
substituted. If the truth were known, it would doubtless appear that
rich plebeians grew too prominent in their affectation of patrician show
on the Grand Canal, and required a wholesome snubbing. Reverence for the
hallowed Past and its traditions keeps the dismal fashion in force now
that the compulsion exists no longer. So let it remain. It is the color
of mourning. Venice mourns. The stern of the boat is decked over and
the gondolier stands there. He uses a single oar--a long blade, of
course, for he stands nearly erect. A wooden peg, a foot and a half
high, with two slight crooks or curves in one side of it and one in the
other, projects above the starboard gunwale. Against that peg the
gondolier takes a purchase with his oar, changing it at intervals to the
other side of the peg or dropping it into another of the crooks, as the
steering of the craft may demand--and how in the world he can back and
fill, shoot straight ahead, or flirt suddenly around a corner, and make
the oar stay in those insignificant notches, is a problem to me and a
never diminishing matter of interest. I am afraid I study the
gondolier's marvelous skill more than I do the sculptured palaces we
glide among. He cuts a corner so closely, now and then, or misses
another gondola by such an imperceptible hair-breadth that I feel myself
"scrooching," as the children say, just as one does when a buggy wheel
grazes his elbow. But he makes all his calculations with the nicest
precision, and goes darting in and out among a Broadway confusion of busy
craft with the easy confidence of the educated hackman. He never makes a

Sometimes we go flying down the great canals at such a gait that we can
get only the merest glimpses into front doors, and again, in obscure
alleys in the suburbs, we put on a solemnity suited to the silence, the
mildew, the stagnant waters, the clinging weeds, the deserted houses and
the general lifelessness of the place, and move to the spirit of grave

The gondolier is a picturesque rascal for all he wears no satin harness,
no plumed bonnet, no silken tights. His attitude is stately; he is lithe
and supple; all his movements are full of grace. When his long canoe,
and his fine figure, towering from its high perch on the stern, are cut
against the evening sky, they make a picture that is very novel and
striking to a foreign eye.

We sit in the cushioned carriage-body of a cabin, with the curtains
drawn, and smoke, or read, or look out upon the passing boats, the
houses, the bridges, the people, and enjoy ourselves much more than we
could in a buggy jolting over our cobble-stone pavements at home. This
is the gentlest, pleasantest locomotion we have ever known.

But it seems queer--ever so queer--to see a boat doing duty as a private
carriage. We see business men come to the front door, step into a
gondola, instead of a street car, and go off down town to the counting-

We see visiting young ladies stand on the stoop, and laugh, and kiss
good-bye, and flirt their fans and say "Come soon--now do--you've been
just as mean as ever you can be--mother's dying to see you--and we've
moved into the new house, O such a love of a place!--so convenient to the
post office and the church, and the Young Men's Christian Association;
and we do have such fishing, and such carrying on, and such swimming-
matches in the back yard--Oh, you must come--no distance at all, and if
you go down through by St. Mark's and the Bridge of Sighs, and cut
through the alley and come up by the church of Santa Maria dei Frari, and
into the Grand Canal, there isn't a bit of current--now do come, Sally
Maria--by-bye!" and then the little humbug trips down the steps, jumps
into the gondola, says, under her breath, "Disagreeable old thing, I hope
she won't!" goes skimming away, round the corner; and the other girl
slams the street door and says, "Well, that infliction's over, any way,--
but I suppose I've got to go and see her--tiresome stuck-up thing!"
Human nature appears to be just the same, all over the world. We see the
diffident young man, mild of moustache, affluent of hair, indigent of
brain, elegant of costume, drive up to her father's mansion, tell his
hackman to bail out and wait, start fearfully up the steps and meet "the
old gentleman" right on the threshold!--hear him ask what street the new
British Bank is in--as if that were what he came for--and then bounce
into his boat and skurry away with his coward heart in his boots!--see
him come sneaking around the corner again, directly, with a crack of the
curtain open toward the old gentleman's disappearing gondola, and out
scampers his Susan with a flock of little Italian endearments fluttering
from her lips, and goes to drive with him in the watery avenues down
toward the Rialto.

We see the ladies go out shopping, in the most natural way, and flit from
street to street and from store to store, just in the good old fashion,
except that they leave the gondola, instead of a private carriage,
waiting at the curbstone a couple of hours for them,--waiting while they
make the nice young clerks pull down tons and tons of silks and velvets
and moire antiques and those things; and then they buy a paper of pins
and go paddling away to confer the rest of their disastrous patronage on
some other firm. And they always have their purchases sent home just in
the good old way. Human nature is very much the same all over the world;
and it is so like my dear native home to see a Venetian lady go into a
store and buy ten cents' worth of blue ribbon and have it sent home in a
scow. Ah, it is these little touches of nature that move one to tears in
these far-off foreign lands.

We see little girls and boys go out in gondolas with their nurses, for an
airing. We see staid families, with prayer-book and beads, enter the
gondola dressed in their Sunday best, and float away to church. And at
midnight we see the theatre break up and discharge its swarm of hilarious
youth and beauty; we hear the cries of the hackman-gondoliers, and behold
the struggling crowd jump aboard, and the black multitude of boats go
skimming down the moonlit avenues; we see them separate here and there,
and disappear up divergent streets; we hear the faint sounds of laughter
and of shouted farewells floating up out of the distance; and then, the
strange pageant being gone, we have lonely stretches of glittering water
--of stately buildings--of blotting shadows--of weird stone faces
creeping into the moonlight--of deserted bridges--of motionless boats at
anchor. And over all broods that mysterious stillness, that stealthy
quiet, that befits so well this old dreaming Venice.

We have been pretty much every where in our gondola. We have bought
beads and photographs in the stores, and wax matches in the Great Square
of St. Mark. The last remark suggests a digression. Every body goes to
this vast square in the evening. The military bands play in the centre
of it and countless couples of ladies and gentlemen promenade up and down
on either side, and platoons of them are constantly drifting away toward
the old Cathedral, and by the venerable column with the Winged Lion of
St. Mark on its top, and out to where the boats lie moored; and other
platoons are as constantly arriving from the gondolas and joining the
great throng. Between the promenaders and the side-walks are seated
hundreds and hundreds of people at small tables, smoking and taking
granita, (a first cousin to ice-cream;) on the side-walks are more
employing themselves in the same way. The shops in the first floor of
the tall rows of buildings that wall in three sides of the square are
brilliantly lighted, the air is filled with music and merry voices, and
altogether the scene is as bright and spirited and full of cheerfulness
as any man could desire. We enjoy it thoroughly. Very many of the young
women are exceedingly pretty and dress with rare good taste. We are
gradually and laboriously learning the ill-manners of staring them
unflinchingly in the face--not because such conduct is agreeable to us,
but because it is the custom of the country and they say the girls like
it. We wish to learn all the curious, outlandish ways of all the
different countries, so that we can "show off" and astonish people when
we get home. We wish to excite the envy of our untraveled friends with
our strange foreign fashions which we can't shake off. All our
passengers are paying strict attention to this thing, with the end in
view which I have mentioned. The gentle reader will never, never know
what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad. I speak now,
of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad,
and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise,
I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and
call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own
heart when I shall have finished my travels.

On this subject let me remark that there are Americans abroad in Italy
who have actually forgotten their mother tongue in three months--forgot
it in France. They can not even write their address in English in a
hotel register. I append these evidences, which I copied verbatim from
the register of a hotel in a certain Italian city:

     "John P. Whitcomb, Etats Unis. "Wm. L. Ainsworth, travailleur (he
     meant traveler, I suppose,) Etats Unis. "George P. Morton et fils,
     d'Amerique. "Lloyd B. Williams, et trois amis, ville de Boston,
     Amerique. "J. Ellsworth Baker, tout de suite de France, place de
     naissance Amerique, destination la Grand Bretagne."

I love this sort of people. A lady passenger of ours tells of a fellow-
citizen of hers who spent eight weeks in Paris and then returned home and
addressed his dearest old bosom friend Herbert as Mr. "Er-bare!" He
apologized, though, and said, "'Pon my soul it is aggravating, but I
cahn't help it--I have got so used to speaking nothing but French, my
dear Erbare--damme there it goes again!--got so used to French
pronunciation that I cahn't get rid of it--it is positively annoying, I
assure you." This entertaining idiot, whose name was Gordon, allowed
himself to be hailed three times in the street before he paid any
attention, and then begged a thousand pardons and said he had grown so
accustomed to hearing himself addressed as "M'sieu Gor-r-dong," with a
roll to the r, that he had forgotten the legitimate sound of his name!
He wore a rose in his button-hole; he gave the French salutation--two
flips of the hand in front of the face; he called Paris Pairree in
ordinary English conversation; he carried envelopes bearing foreign
postmarks protruding from his breast-pocket; he cultivated a moustache
and imperial, and did what else he could to suggest to the beholder his
pet fancy that he resembled Louis Napoleon--and in a spirit of
thankfulness which is entirely unaccountable, considering the slim
foundation there was for it, he praised his Maker that he was as he was,
and went on enjoying his little life just the same as if he really had
been deliberately designed and erected by the great Architect of the

Think of our Whitcombs, and our Ainsworths and our Williamses writing
themselves down in dilapidated French in foreign hotel registers! We
laugh at Englishmen, when we are at home, for sticking so sturdily to
their national ways and customs, but we look back upon it from abroad
very forgivingly. It is not pleasant to see an American thrusting his
nationality forward obtrusively in a foreign land, but Oh, it is pitiable
to see him making of himself a thing that is neither male nor female,
neither fish, flesh, nor fowl--a poor, miserable, hermaphrodite

Among a long list of churches, art galleries, and such things, visited by
us in Venice, I shall mention only one--the church of Santa Maria dei
Frari. It is about five hundred years old, I believe, and stands on
twelve hundred thousand piles. In it lie the body of Canova and the
heart of Titian, under magnificent monuments. Titian died at the age of
almost one hundred years. A plague which swept away fifty thousand lives
was raging at the time, and there is notable evidence of the reverence in
which the great painter was held, in the fact that to him alone the state
permitted a public funeral in all that season of terror and death.

In this church, also, is a monument to the doge Foscari, whose name a
once resident of Venice, Lord Byron, has made permanently famous.

The monument to the doge Giovanni Pesaro, in this church, is a curiosity
in the way of mortuary adornment. It is eighty feet high and is fronted
like some fantastic pagan temple. Against it stand four colossal
Nubians, as black as night, dressed in white marble garments. The black
legs are bare, and through rents in sleeves and breeches, the skin, of
shiny black marble, shows. The artist was as ingenious as his funeral
designs were absurd. There are two bronze skeletons bearing scrolls, and
two great dragons uphold the sarcophagus. On high, amid all this
grotesqueness, sits the departed doge.

In the conventual buildings attached to this church are the state
archives of Venice. We did not see them, but they are said to number
millions of documents. "They are the records of centuries of the most
watchful, observant and suspicious government that ever existed--in which
every thing was written down and nothing spoken out." They fill nearly
three hundred rooms. Among them are manuscripts from the archives of
nearly two thousand families, monasteries and convents. The secret
history of Venice for a thousand years is here--its plots, its hidden
trials, its assassinations, its commissions of hireling spies and masked
bravoes--food, ready to hand, for a world of dark and mysterious

Yes, I think we have seen all of Venice. We have seen, in these old
churches, a profusion of costly and elaborate sepulchre ornamentation
such as we never dreampt of before. We have stood in the dim religious
light of these hoary sanctuaries, in the midst of long ranks of dusty
monuments and effigies of the great dead of Venice, until we seemed
drifting back, back, back, into the solemn past, and looking upon the
scenes and mingling with the peoples of a remote antiquity. We have been
in a half-waking sort of dream all the time. I do not know how else to
describe the feeling. A part of our being has remained still in the
nineteenth century, while another part of it has seemed in some
unaccountable way walking among the phantoms of the tenth.

We have seen famous pictures until our eyes are weary with looking at
them and refuse to find interest in them any longer. And what wonder,
when there are twelve hundred pictures by Palma the Younger in Venice and
fifteen hundred by Tintoretto? And behold there are Titians and the
works of other artists in proportion. We have seen Titian's celebrated
Cain and Abel, his David and Goliah, his Abraham's Sacrifice. We have
seen Tintoretto's monster picture, which is seventy-four feet long and I
do not know how many feet high, and thought it a very commodious picture.
We have seen pictures of martyrs enough, and saints enough, to regenerate
the world. I ought not to confess it, but still, since one has no
opportunity in America to acquire a critical judgment in art, and since I
could not hope to become educated in it in Europe in a few short weeks, I
may therefore as well acknowledge with such apologies as may be due, that
to me it seemed that when I had seen one of these martyrs I had seen them
all. They all have a marked family resemblance to each other, they dress
alike, in coarse monkish robes and sandals, they are all bald headed,
they all stand in about the same attitude, and without exception they are
gazing heavenward with countenances which the Ainsworths, the Mortons and
the Williamses, et fils, inform me are full of "expression." To me there
is nothing tangible about these imaginary portraits, nothing that I can
grasp and take a living interest in. If great Titian had only been
gifted with prophecy, and had skipped a martyr, and gone over to England
and painted a portrait of Shakspeare, even as a youth, which we could all
have confidence in now, the world down to the latest generations would
have forgiven him the lost martyr in the rescued seer. I think posterity
could have spared one more martyr for the sake of a great historical
picture of Titian's time and painted by his brush--such as Columbus
returning in chains from the discovery of a world, for instance. The old
masters did paint some Venetian historical pictures, and these we did not
tire of looking at, notwithstanding representations of the formal
introduction of defunct doges to the Virgin Mary in regions beyond the
clouds clashed rather harshly with the proprieties, it seemed to us.

But humble as we are, and unpretending, in the matter of art, our
researches among the painted monks and martyrs have not been wholly in
vain. We have striven hard to learn. We have had some success. We have
mastered some things, possibly of trifling import in the eyes of the
learned, but to us they give pleasure, and we take as much pride in our
little acquirements as do others who have learned far more, and we love
to display them full as well. When we see a monk going about with a lion
and looking tranquilly up to heaven, we know that that is St. Mark. When
we see a monk with a book and a pen, looking tranquilly up to heaven,
trying to think of a word, we know that that is St. Matthew. When we see
a monk sitting on a rock, looking tranquilly up to heaven, with a human
skull beside him, and without other baggage, we know that that is St.
Jerome. Because we know that he always went flying light in the matter
of baggage. When we see a party looking tranquilly up to heaven,
unconscious that his body is shot through and through with arrows, we
know that that is St. Sebastian. When we see other monks looking
tranquilly up to heaven, but having no trade-mark, we always ask who
those parties are. We do this because we humbly wish to learn. We have
seen thirteen thousand St. Jeromes, and twenty-two thousand St. Marks,
and sixteen thousand St. Matthews, and sixty thousand St. Sebastians, and
four millions of assorted monks, undesignated, and we feel encouraged to
believe that when we have seen some more of these various pictures, and
had a larger experience, we shall begin to take an absorbing interest in
them like our cultivated countrymen from Amerique.

Now it does give me real pain to speak in this almost unappreciative way
of the old masters and their martyrs, because good friends of mine in the
ship--friends who do thoroughly and conscientiously appreciate them and
are in every way competent to discriminate between good pictures and
inferior ones--have urged me for my own sake not to make public the fact
that I lack this appreciation and this critical discrimination myself. I
believe that what I have written and may still write about pictures will
give them pain, and I am honestly sorry for it. I even promised that I
would hide my uncouth sentiments in my own breast. But alas! I never
could keep a promise. I do not blame myself for this weakness, because
the fault must lie in my physical organization. It is likely that such a
very liberal amount of space was given to the organ which enables me to
make promises, that the organ which should enable me to keep them was
crowded out. But I grieve not. I like no half-way things. I had rather
have one faculty nobly developed than two faculties of mere ordinary
capacity. I certainly meant to keep that promise, but I find I can not
do it. It is impossible to travel through Italy without speaking of
pictures, and can I see them through others' eyes?

If I did not so delight in the grand pictures that are spread before me
every day of my life by that monarch of all the old masters, Nature, I
should come to believe, sometimes, that I had in me no appreciation of
the beautiful, whatsoever.

It seems to me that whenever I glory to think that for once I have
discovered an ancient painting that is beautiful and worthy of all
praise, the pleasure it gives me is an infallible proof that it is not a
beautiful picture and not in any wise worthy of commendation. This very
thing has occurred more times than I can mention, in Venice. In every
single instance the guide has crushed out my swelling enthusiasm with the

"It is nothing--it is of the Renaissance."

I did not know what in the mischief the Renaissance was, and so always I
had to simply say,

"Ah! so it is--I had not observed it before."

I could not bear to be ignorant before a cultivated negro, the offspring
of a South Carolina slave. But it occurred too often for even my self-
complacency, did that exasperating "It is nothing--it is of the
Renaissance." I said at last:

"Who is this Renaissance? Where did he come from? Who gave him
permission to cram the Republic with his execrable daubs?"

We learned, then, that Renaissance was not a man; that renaissance was a
term used to signify what was at best but an imperfect rejuvenation of
art. The guide said that after Titian's time and the time of the other
great names we had grown so familiar with, high art declined; then it
partially rose again--an inferior sort of painters sprang up, and these
shabby pictures were the work of their hands. Then I said, in my heat,
that I "wished to goodness high art had declined five hundred years
sooner." The Renaissance pictures suit me very well, though sooth to say
its school were too much given to painting real men and did not indulge
enough in martyrs.

The guide I have spoken of is the only one we have had yet who knew any
thing. He was born in South Carolina, of slave parents. They came to
Venice while he was an infant. He has grown up here. He is well
educated. He reads, writes, and speaks English, Italian, Spanish, and
French, with perfect facility; is a worshipper of art and thoroughly
conversant with it; knows the history of Venice by heart and never tires
of talking of her illustrious career. He dresses better than any of us,
I think, and is daintily polite. Negroes are deemed as good as white
people, in Venice, and so this man feels no desire to go back to his
native land. His judgment is correct.

I have had another shave. I was writing in our front room this afternoon
and trying hard to keep my attention on my work and refrain from looking
out upon the canal. I was resisting the soft influences of the climate
as well as I could, and endeavoring to overcome the desire to be indolent
and happy. The boys sent for a barber. They asked me if I would be
shaved. I reminded them of my tortures in Genoa, Milan, Como; of my
declaration that I would suffer no more on Italian soil. I said "Not any
for me, if you please."

I wrote on. The barber began on the doctor. I heard him say:

"Dan, this is the easiest shave I have had since we left the ship."

He said again, presently:

"Why Dan, a man could go to sleep with this man shaving him."

Dan took the chair. Then he said:

"Why this is Titian. This is one of the old masters."

I wrote on. Directly Dan said:

"Doctor, it is perfect luxury. The ship's barber isn't any thing to

My rough beard wee distressing me beyond measure. The barber was rolling
up his apparatus. The temptation was too strong. I said:

"Hold on, please. Shave me also."

I sat down in the chair and closed my eyes. The barber soaped my face,
and then took his razor and gave me a rake that well nigh threw me into
convulsions. I jumped out of the chair: Dan and the doctor were both
wiping blood off their faces and laughing.

I said it was a mean, disgraceful fraud.

They said that the misery of this shave had gone so far beyond any thing
they had ever experienced before, that they could not bear the idea of
losing such a chance of hearing a cordial opinion from me on the subject.

It was shameful. But there was no help for it. The skinning was begun
and had to be finished. The tears flowed with every rake, and so did the
fervent execrations. The barber grew confused, and brought blood every
time. I think the boys enjoyed it better than any thing they have seen
or heard since they left home.

We have seen the Campanile, and Byron's house and Balbi's the geographer,
and the palaces of all the ancient dukes and doges of Venice, and we have
seen their effeminate descendants airing their nobility in fashionable
French attire in the Grand Square of St. Mark, and eating ices and
drinking cheap wines, instead of wearing gallant coats of mail and
destroying fleets and armies as their great ancestors did in the days of
Venetian glory. We have seen no bravoes with poisoned stilettos, no
masks, no wild carnival; but we have seen the ancient pride of Venice,
the grim Bronze Horses that figure in a thousand legends. Venice may
well cherish them, for they are the only horses she ever had. It is said
there are hundreds of people in this curious city who never have seen a
living horse in their lives. It is entirely true, no doubt.

And so, having satisfied ourselves, we depart to-morrow, and leave the
venerable Queen of the Republics to summon her vanished ships, and
marshal her shadowy armies, and know again in dreams the pride of her old

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