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
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.