Dean Howells was a 19th Century journalist who began his education as a writer at age 9,
when he set type in his father's print shop. He later became a journalist and wrote a
campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln won, and so did Howells: the young
author (then 25) was named American Consul to Venice, where his four-year tour of duty led
to a book, Venetian Life, that was published in 1866.
In 1989, The Marlboro Press reprinted Venetian Life as a 317-page
paperback with the aid of a grant
from the National Endowment for the Arts. The book is also available as a
download from Project Gutenberg. (See links at bottom of page.)
This three-part article series contains selected excerpts from
which is as readable today as it was nearly 150 years ago.
From Chapter 1, "Venice in Venice":
I could not...dwell three years in
the place without learning to know it differently from those writers who have described it
in romances, poems, and hurried books of travel, nor help seeing from my point of
observation the sham and cheapness with which Venice is brought out, if I may speak, in
literature. At the same time, it has never lost for me its claim upon constant surprise
and regard, nor the fascination of its excellent beauty, its peerless picturesqueness, its
sole and wondrous grandeur.
It is true that the streets in Venice are canals; and yet you can walk
to any part of the city, and need not take boat whenever you go out-of-doors, as I once
fondly thought you must. But after all, though I find dry land enough in it, I do not find
the place less unique, less a mystery, or less a charm. By day, the canals are still the
main thoroughfares; and if these avenues are not so full of life and color as some would
have us believe, they at least do not smell so offensively as others pretend. And by night
they are still as dark and silent as when the secret vengeance of the Republic plunged its
victims into the ungossiping depths of the Canalazzo!
From Chapter 2, "Arrival and First Days in
I think it does not
matter just when I first came to Venice. Yesterday and to-day are about the same here. I
arrived one winter morning about five o'clock, and was not so full of Soul as I might have
been in warmer weather. Yet I was resolved not to go to my hotel in the omnibus (the
large, many-seated boat so called) but to have a gondola solely for myself and my luggage.
The porter who seized my valise in the station inferred from some very polyglottic Italian
of mine the nature of my wish, and ran out and threw that slender piece of luggage into a
I followed, lighted to my seat my a beggar in picturesque
and desultory costume. He was one of a class of mendicants whom I came, for my sins, to
know better in Venice, and whom I dare say every traveller recollects,--the mercilenss
tribe who hold your gondola to shore, and affect to do you a service and not a
displeasure, and pretend not to be abandoned swindlers. The Venetians call them gransieri,
or crab-catchers; but as yet I did not know the name or the purpose of this poverino
at the station, but merely saw that he had the Venetian eye for color: in the distribution
and arrangement of his fragments of dress he had produced some miraculous effects of red,
and he was altogether as infamous a figure as any friend of brigands would like to meet in
a lonely place.
He did not offer to stab me and sink my body in the Grand
Canal, as, in all Venetian keeping, I felt that he ought to have done; but he implored an
alms, and I hardly know now whether to exult or regret that I did not understand him, and
left him empty-handed. I suppose that he withdrew again the blessings which he had
advanced me, as we pushed out into the canal; but I heard nothing, for the wonder of the
city was already upon me.
All my nether-spirit, so to speak, was dulled and jaded by
the long, cold railway journey from Vienna, while every surface-sense was taken and
tangled in the bewildering brilliancy and novelty of Venice. For I think there can be
nothing else in the world so full of glittering and exquisite surprise as that first
glimpse of Venice which the traveler catches as he issues from the railway station by
night, and looks upon her peerless strangeness.
There is something in the blessed breath of Italy (how
quickly, coming south, you know it, and how bland it is, after the harsh, transalpine
air!) which prepares you for your nocturnal advent into the place; and O you! whoever you
are, that journey toward this enchanted city for the first time, let me tell you how happy
I count you! There lies before you for your pleasure the spectacle of such singular beauty
as no picture can ever show you nor book tell you,--beauty which you shall feel perfectly
but once, and regret forever.
For more excerpts or full-text downloads from Project
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