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Venetian Cafés by T. A. T.

It is years since so lovely an autumn as that of 1874 has been seen in Europe: people say not since the last great comet year, and they credit the erratic visitor of last summer with the exceptional beauty of the weather. As in the case of other marked comet years, the vintages of which still bring extraordinary prices, Italy has had exceptionally fine harvests of all kinds this year. The grain has been abundant, the vintage has been superb, the olives have escaped the danger of unseasonable frosts, and the still more important crop of foreigners seems to be pretty well assured. The charming weather in October and November made the interesting blossoms sprout plentifully; and boat-loads and train-loads came in with an abundance promising an unusually fine winter for la bella Italia. Venice, indeed, may be said to have pretty well housed her crop in this kind already. It has been a magnificent one, and the Queen of the Adriatic admits that due homage has been done to her. The forestieri season sets in earlier in her case than in her sister cities. The real "Carnival de Venice" is in August, September and October now-a-days, let the calendar say what it may. Some flaunting of gaudy-colored calico, some dancing on the Piazza of St. Mark, there may be on the eve of Lent in obedience to old usages, but the dancing that really glads the Italian heart is the dancing for which the forestiere pays the piper, and the true Lenten time is that when his beneficent presence is wanting.

Venice, then, has already brought her Carnival to a conclusion; and it has been a splendid one. English, Americans, Germans, all came in shoals—all thronged the galleries, the churches and the palaces in the morning, sauntered or bathed on the outer shore of the Lido in the afternoon, and met at Florian's in the evening. "What is Florian's?" will be asked by those who have never been at Venice—by some such, at least. For probably the fame of the celebrated caffè may have traveled across the Atlantic, just as many who have never crossed it westward are no strangers to the name of Delmonico. Florian's, however, in any case, deserves a word of recognition. It is the principal, largest and most fashionable caffè on the Piazza di San Marco. But the singular and curious specialty of the place is that it has never been closed—no, not for five minutes—day or night, for a period of more than a hundred and thirty years! Probably it is the only human habitation of any sort on the face of the globe of which that could be said.

But the caffè in itself is in many respects a specialty of Venetian life, and has been so since the days of Goldoni. The readers of his comedies, so abundantly rich in local coloring, will not have failed to observe that the caffè plays a larger part in the life of Venice than is the case in any other city. Probably no Venetian passes a single day without visiting once at least, if not oftener, his accustomed caffè. Men of business write their letters and arrange their meetings there. Men of pleasure know that they shall find their peers there. Mere loafers take their seats there, and gaze at the stream of life, as it flows past them, for hours together. And, most marked specialty of all, Venice is the only city in Italy where the native female aristocracy frequents the caffè. Indeed, I know no place in all the Peninsula where so large an amount of Italian beauty may be seen as among the fashionable crowd at Florian's on a brilliant midsummer moonlight night.

Venice is of all the cities in the world the one which those who have never seen it know best. The peculiarities of it are so marked and so unlike anything else in the world, and the graphic representations of every part of the city are so numerous and so admirably accurate, that every traveler finds it to be exactly what he was prepared to see, and can hardly fancy that he sees the Queen of the Adriatic for the first time. I may therefore assume, perhaps, that my readers are acquainted with the appearance of that most matchless of city spaces, the Piazza di San Marco. They will readily call to mind the long series of arcades that form the two long sides of the parallellogram which has the gorgeous front of St. Mark's church occupying the entirety of one of the shorter sides. Well, about halfway up the length of the piazza six of the arches on the right hand of one facing St. Mark's church are occupied by the celebrated caffè. The six never-closed rooms, corresponding each with one of the arches of the arcade, are very small, and would not suffice to accommodate a twentieth part of the throng which finds itself at Florian's quite as a matter of course every fine summer's night. But nobody thinks of entering these smartly-furnished little cabinets save for breakfast or during the hours of the day. Some take their evening ice or coffee on the seats under the arcade, either immediately in front of the cabinets or around the pillars which support the arches, and thus have an opportunity of observing the never-ceasing and ever-varying stream of life that flows by them under the arcade. But the vast majority of the crowd place themselves on chairs arranged around little tables set out on the flags of the piazza. A hundred or so of these little tables are placed in long rows extending far out into the piazza, and far on either side beyond the extent of the six arches which are occupied by the caffè itself. A London or New York policeman would have his very soul revolted, and conclude that there must be something very rotten indeed in the state of a city in which the public way could be thus encumbered and no cry of "move on" ever heard. Assuredly, it is public ground which Florian, in the person of his nineteenth-century representative, thus occupies with his tables and chairs. Probably, if a Venetian were asked by what right he does so, the question would seem to him much as if one asked by what right the tide covers the shallows of the lagoon. It always has been so. It is in the natural order of things. And how could Venice live without Florian's?

But it is not Florian's alone which is thus a trespasser on the domain of the public. The other less celebrated caffès do the same thing. One immediately opposite to Florian's, on the other side of the piazza—Quadri's—has almost as large a spread of chairs and tables as Florian himself. But it is a curious instance of the permanence of habits at Venice, that though at Quadri's the articles supplied are quite as good, and the prices exactly the same, the fashionable world never deserts Florian's. The only difference between the two establishments, except this one of their customers, that is perceptible to the naked eye, is that at Quadri's beer is served, while Florian ignores the existence of that plebeian beverage, which assuredly was never heard of in Venice in the days when he began his career and formed his habitudes.

I am tempted to endeavor to give the reader some picture of the scene on the piazza on a night when (as is the case almost every other evening) a military band is playing in the middle of the open space, and the cosmopolitan crowd is assembled in force—to describe the wonderful surroundings of the scene, the charm of the quietude broken by no sound of hoof or of wheel, the soft and tempered light, the gay clatter, athwart which comes every fifteen minutes the solemn mellow tone of the great clock of St. Mark with importunate warning that another pleasant quarter of an hour has drifted away down the stream of time. It is a scene that tempts the pen. But the well-dressed portion of mankind is very similar in all countries and under all circumstances, and perhaps my readers may be more interested in a few traits of the popular life of Venice, which the magnificent Piazza of St. Mark is not the best place for studying, for some of the most characteristic phases of it are absolutely banished thence. The strolling musician or singer, who may be heard every night in other parts of the city, never plies his trade on the piazza. Mendicancy, which is more rife at Venice, I am sorry to say, than in any other Italian city, except perhaps Naples, is not tolerated on the piazza.

But if we wish for a good specimen of the truly popular life of Venice, it will not be necessary to wander far from the great centre of the piazza. Coming down the Piazzetta, or Little Piazza, which opens out of the great square at one end, and abuts on the open lagoon opposite the island of St. George at the other, and turning round the corner of the ducal palace, we cross the bridge over the canal, which above our heads is bridged by the "Bridge of Sighs," with its "palace and a prison on each hand," as Byron sings, and find ourselves on the "Riva dei Schiavoni"—the quay at which the Slavonic vessels arrived, and arrive still. The quay is a very broad one, by far the broadest in Venice, paved with flagstones, and teeming with every characteristic form of Venetian life from early morning till late into the night. There are two or three hotels frequented by foreigners on the Riva, for the situation facing the open lagoon is an exceptionally good one; and there are three or four caffès at which the cosmopolitan and not too aristocratic visitor may get an excellent cup of coffee (for the Venetians, thanks to their long connection with the East, know what coffee is, and will not take chiccory or other such detestable substitutes in lieu of it) for the modest charge of thirteen centimes—just over two cents—and study as he drinks it the moving and ever-amusing scenes enacted before his eyes. His neighbor perhaps will be an old gentleman, the very type of the old "pantaloon" whose mask was in the old comedy supposed to be the impersonation of Venice. There are the long, slender and rather delicately-cut features terminating in a long, narrow and somewhat protruding chin; the high cheek-bones, the lank and sombre cheeks, the high nose, the dark bright eye under its bushy brow. He is very thin, very seedy, and evidently very poor. But he salutes you, as you take your seat beside him, with the air of an ex-member of "The Ten;" his ancient hat and napless coat are carefully brushed; his outrageously high shirt-collar and voluminous unstarched neckcloth, after the fashion of a former generation, though as yellow as saffron, are clean; and his poor old boots as irreproachable as blacking—which can do much, but, alas! not all things—can make them. His expenditure of a penny will entitle him not only to a cup of coffee, as aforesaid, but also to a glass of fresh water, which has been turned to an opaline color by the shaking into it of a few drops of something which the waiter drops from a bottle with some contrivance at its mouth, the effect of which is to cause only a drop or two of the liquor, whatever it may be, to come out at each shake. Our old friend is also entitled, in virtue of his expenditure, to occupy the chair he sits on for as many hours as he shall see fit to remain in it. And after the coffee, which must be drunk while hot, has been despatched, the sippings of the opaline mixture aforesaid may be protracted indefinitely while he enjoys the cool evening-breezes from the lagoon, the perfection of dolce far niente, and the amusement the life of the Riva never fails to afford him. An itinerant vender of little models of gondolas and bracelets and toys made out of shells comes by, seeking a customer among the folk assembled at the caffè. He does not address Pantaloon, for of course he knows that there is nothing to be done in that line with him. But spying with a hawk's glance a forestiere among the crowd, he strolls up to him, holding up one of his gimcrack bracelets daintily—and he thinks temptingly, poor fellow!—between his finger and thumb. "Un franco! Un sol franco! è una beleza per una contesa!" ("One franc! only one franc! It would be beautiful on the arm of a countess!") he murmurs in his soft lisping Venetian, which abolishes all double consonants, and supplies their place by prolonging the soft liquid sound of the preceding vowel. One franc! It is wonderful how the thing, worthless as it is, can be made even by the most starving fingers for such a price. Yet after dangling his toy for a minute, and gazing, oh, so wistfully! the while out of his big haggard eyes, he says, "Seventy-five centimes! half a franc!" and still lingers ere he turns away with a sigh, a weary movement of his emaciated figure and a longing look on his poor hollow face that make one feel that the drama we are witnessing is not all comedy. But it is all supremely interesting to our neighbor, Si'or Pantaleone. He has been keenly watching the attempted deal, and no doubt wished that his countryman might succeed. But there was no element of tragedy in the matter for him, a condition of semi-starvation is too much an ordinary, every-day and normal spectacle. He looked on more as a retired merchant might look on at the progress of a bargain for the delivery of a shipload of grain. Presently, a middle-aged woman and a girl of some fourteen years station themselves in front of the audience seated outside the caffè. The elder woman has a guitar, and the girl a violin and some sheets of music in her hand. The woman has her wonderful wealth of black hair grandly dressed and as shining as oil can make it. She has large gilt earrings in her ears, a heavy coral necklace, and a gaudy-colored shawl in good condition. Whatever might be beneath and below this is in dark shadow—"et sic melius situm." She is not starved, however, for, as she prepares to finger her guitar, she shows a well-nourished and not ill-formed arm. The young girl has one of those pale, delicate, oval faces so common in Venice: she also has a good shawl—an amber-colored one—which so sets off the olive-colored complexion of her face as to make her a perfect picture. This couple do not in any degree assume an attitude of appealing ad misericordiam. They pose themselves en artistes. The girl sets about arranging her music in a business-like way, and then they play the well-known air of "La Stella Confidente," the little violinist really playing remarkably well. Then the elder woman comes round with a little tin saucer for our contributions. No slightest word or look of disappointment or displeasure follows the refusal of those who give nothing. The saucer is presented to each in turn. I supposed that the application to Si'or Pantaleone was an empty form. But no. That retired gentleman could still find wherewithal to patronize the fine arts, and dropped a centime—the fifth part of a cent—into the dish with the air of a prince bestowing the grand cross of the Golden Fleece. Then comes a dealer in ready-made trousers, which Pantaloon examines curiously and cheapens. Then a body of men singing part-songs, not badly, but to some disadvantage, as they utterly ignore the braying of half a dozen trumpets which are coming along the Riva in advance of a body of soldiers returning to some neighboring barracks. Then there are fruit-sellers and fish-sellers and hot-chestnut dealers, and, most vociferous of all, the cryers of "Acqua! acqua! acqua fresca!" There, making its way among the numerous small vessels from Dalmatia, Greece, etc. moored to the quay of the Schiavoni, comes a boat from the Peninsular and Oriental steamer, which arrived this morning from Alexandria, with four or five Orientals on board. They come on shore, and proceed to saunter along the Riva toward the Grand Piazza, while their dark faces and brightly-colored garments add an element to the motley scene which is perfectly in keeping with old Venetian reminiscences.