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Venetian Life

Page 2
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VENETIAN LIFE book coverWilliam Dean Howells was a 19th Century journalist who served four years as American Consul in Venice before writing a book, Venetian Life, that was published in 1866. A 317-page paperback reprint is available from Marlboro Press, and a Project Gutenberg text is available for download. (See links at bottom of page.)

This feature is the second in a series of excerpts from Howell's book. The text is as readable today as it was nearly 150 years ago, although prospective visitors should note that Venetians are no longer entirely hostile to the idea of winter heating.

From Chapter III, "The Winter in Venice":

It was winter, as I said, when I first came to Venice, and my experiences of the city were not all purely aesthetic. There was, indeed, an every-day roughness and discomfort in the weather, which travelers passing their first winter in Italy find it hard to reconcile with the habitual ideas of the season's clemency in the South. But winter is apt to be very severe in mild climates. People do not acknowledge it, making a wretched pretence that it is summer only a little out of humor.

The Germans have introduced stoves at Venice, but they are not much in favor with the Italians, who think their heat unwholesome, and endure a degree of cold in their wish to dispense with fire, which we of the winter-lands know nothing of in our houses. They pay for their absurd prejudice with terrible chilblains; and their hands, which suffer equally with their feet, are, in the case of those most exposed to the cold, objects pitiable and revolting to behold when the itching and the effort to allay it has turned them into bloated masses of sores. It is not a pleasant thing to speak of, and the constant sight of the affliction among people who bring you bread, cut you cheese, and weigh you out sugar by no means reconciles the Northern stomach to its prevalence.

The houses are, naturally enough in this climate, where there are eight months of summer in the year, all built with a view to coolness in summer, and the rooms which are not upon the ground-floor are very large, lofty, and cold. In the palaces, indeed, there are two suites of apartments,--the smaller and cozier suite upon the first floor for winter, and the grander and airier chambers and saloons above, for defence against the insidious heats of the scirocco. But, for the most part, people must occupy the same room summer and winter, the sole change being in the strip of carpet laid meagrely before the sofa during the latter season.

In the comparatively few houses where carpets are the rule, and not the exception, they are always removed during the summer,--for the triple purpose of sparing them some months' wear, banishing fleas and other domestic insects, and showing off the beauty of the oiled and shining pavement, which in the meanest of houses is tasteful, and in many of the better sort is often inwrought with figures and designs of mosaic work.

People sit with their feet upon cushions, and their bodies muffled in furs and wadded gowns. When one goes out into the sun,one often finds an overcoat too heavy, but it never gives warmth enough in the house, where the Venetian sometimes wears it. Indeed, the sun is recognized by Venetians as the only legitimate form of heat, and they sell his favor at fabulous prices to such foreigners as take the lodgings into which he shines.

It is those who remain indoors, therefore, who are exposed to the utmost rigors of the winter, and people spend as much of their time as possible in the open air. The Riva degli Schiavoni catches the warm afternoon sun in its whole extent, and is then thronged with promenaders of every class, condition, age, and sex; and whenever the sun shines in the Piazza, shivering fashion eagerly courts its favor. At night men crowd the close little caffè where they reciprocate smoke, respiration, and animal heat, and thus temper the inclemency of the weather, and beguile the time with solemn loafing and the perusal of dingy little journals, drinking small cups of black coffee, and playing long games of chess,--an evening that seemed as torpid and lifeless as a Lap's and intolerable when I remembered the bright, social winter evenings of another and happier land and civilization.

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