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Venetian Life

William 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.)

VENETIAN LIFE book cover

This three-part article series contains selected excerpts from Venetian Life, 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 Venice":

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 gondola.

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 a full-text download from Project Gutenberg in various formats, use the links below:

Venetian Life excerpts:

Full text download in multiple formats: