Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 59, No. 364, February 1846
Author: Various
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But let Mr Whyte speak for himself.


"The Canal Orfano, the Ponte di Sospiri! what a day to behold these long pictured images of darknes and terror, for the first time! Such a blaze of May sunshine, such a soothing repose broken by a few distant bells or the nearer laugh of the gay Gondoliers. I looked upon the narrow, immured waters under the Bridge of Sighs, then to the high arch that like the heavy embossed clasp of some old solemn book united its decorated Gothic Piles (those volumes of bloody Story) on either side, and instead of shuddering at inquisitions and racks, and Piombi and Pozzi, as in common decency I ought, away fled my intractable thoughts to merry England's old Sabbath Chimes, her village spires, village greens, village elm lanes, and decent peasantry.

"Yet those high and antique abodes of venerable crime, those wild barbaric piles, in which old age palliates and almost hallows infamy! giving it somewhat the same prescriptive sanctuary as Milton bestows on the Palace of his Pandemonium! That cruel slinking flood, the only firmament the stone vaulted pits below were conscious of! Each looked as malignant and dangerous as they could, beneath the triumph of such a glorious sun; that light to which their aspect once was hateful, and their deeds untold.

"My gondolier dipt his oar into the canal just under the Bridge of Sighs, and at half its length it was arrested by a hollow substance which he told me was the marble roof of the Pozzi, whose unfathomable tiers of dungeons stretched one under another beneath this dreadful water gallery. It was not here, however, that the secret midnight drownings took place, (as I had fancied,) but in that widest, deepest portion of the Canal Orfano, far out in the Lagoons situated between the towery Isola Servilio and the lovely groves and monastery of San Grazia. This murder-hole of the Adriatic is called Marani, and to this day it is forbidden to fish in its accursed depth. To-day it looks not only innocent, but gloriously bright.

"I was out in the Lagoons this evening, for the purpose of visiting by twilight that solitary Isle of St Clements, where Monks exchange the voluntary seclusion for penal dungeons, (l'un vaut bien l'autre!) the sky glowing with its last light, lingered over its tall belfry and few old trees, and a sea as smooth as a crystal pavement slept at the base of its grim walls, all in vain; Campanile, Convent, Grove, and that pyramidal Powder Magazine, looked obdurately sullen enough to tell their own uses, had I not known their chronicle."


"I thence directed my gondolier to row under the Bridge of Sighs, through the intricacies of the interior canals; and if ever a man wished to be fed to the full with solemn, ay, appalling gloom, he may be gratified by following my example. From the weltering surface of a labyrinth of channels, let him look up till it wearies him, to the awful roofs of the mansions, whose walls of immeasurable height, and scarfed with black masses of shadow and glaring moonlight, seem to close over his head and to barricade his path, as they interlace and confound each other in endless circuits; and he will have quite enough to kindle the torch of his darker imagination, even if he did not know those tremendous gulfs of masonry to be Venice, and those heart-sinking portals and windows of barbaric sculpture, the homes of her inexorable oligarchy. Yes, you may anticipate Naples, you may picture to yourself Rome, and Florence may have fulfilled much of your previous fancies; but no conception can prepare you for Venice.

"What enchantment lingers still about every stone of this mourning city! My affection for her dismantled palaces is almost morbid.

'Like an unrighteous and an unburied ghost,'

do I nightly haunt that Tartarus of antique masonry, the interior canals of Venice, uniformly entering or departing from them by the Bridge of Sighs. To me their hideous height, their appalling gloom, (for the meridian cannot touch their waters, and the moon glides like a spectre over their huge parapets,) their bewildering intricacies, their joyless weltering floods, the countless bridges, each with its sculptured monster-heads yawning as if to swallow up the silently sweeping gondola in its arch of shadow; their deep dead silence only broken by the sullen plash of the oar, the dreary word of warning uttered by the gondoliers before turning a sharp angle, or the shrill rattling creak of innumerable crickets; but principally those old Gothic posterns with deep-ribbed archways, like rat-holes in proportion to the enormous piles, and their thresholds level with the water, some blockaded with ponderous doors, others developing their long withdrawn passage by a lamp, that not only makes darkness visible, but frightful; while others (as in the Martinengo palace to-night) disclose wide pillared halls, and stately staircases, and moonlight courts —to me, I say, all these attributes of the interior of Venice are irresistible. Were you to see these old porticos by a summer's daylight, you would not fail to find an old fig tree in broad leaf and full of fruit, or a lattice-work of vine, most pleasantly green in its deep court, where sun and shadow hold divided reign; while the hundred shaped windows of those gloomy walls are variegated with geranium and carnation, and perhaps a sweet dark eye fairer than either.

"They are so obviously the symbols of her hollow oligarchy itself, which to the world and to the sun in heaven, (like the brave palaces on her chief canal,) displayed a gallant guise, at once sublime, glittering, and august; while, within, its tortuous policy was twisted into murky and inextricable labyrinths, of which Necessity, Secresy, and Suspicion, formed the keystone; where Danger lurked at every winding, and whose darkling portals were watched by Mystery, and Stratagem, and Disgrace, and Fate!

"It is impossible to scrutinize these dread abysms of mansions, without experiencing that strange mixture of repugnance and attraction which certain spectacles are wont to call forth in animated nature. It is impossible to mark their melancholy and downfallen, yet portentous aspect, without deeming them at once the theatre and monument of those 'secret, black, and midnight crimes,' which history and tradition ascribe to the domestic, as well as to the state policy, of this Gehenna of fourteen centuries dominion.

'Visendus Ater flumine languido Cocytus errans.'

"Perhaps it would be difficult to conceive any thing more abhorrent to the soul and body of man, than the time, manner, and place, of death, distinguishing those executions which have rendered the gulfs of the Canal Orfano immemorably infamous.

"To me, the element, in its most serene and smiling state, wears a look of furtive menace; and I am free to confess, that even when gliding on a mid-summer night over that sweetest Lake of Derwentwater, beneath the shadows of its moonlit isles and fair pavilions, I have not been without a certain sensation of uncomfortable awe. But what must have been the feelings of the victim, whether criminal or innocent, who, from this accurst Maranna, cast around him his last straining look of agony, and uttered his last cry of supplication or despair! The conviction that his family, parent, wife, or son, were at that hour of horror in profound ignorance sometimes of his very absence, often of its cause, or at least, only perplexed with conjecture, and always unconscious of its horrible event, must have constituted no trifling pang in that mortal hour. Then that old familiar, though melancholy, water, more terrible to his feelings than the dreariest wilderness of ocean! For, girdling the dusky horizon, could he not see the domes and campaniles of Venice, perhaps the very lamps in his own palace windows, from whose festal saloons he had just been decoyed; just distant enough to be beyond the reach of help? but too, too near for that despairing gaze that recognized and bade adieu for ever at the same glance? There too were not those nestling lovely islands, each with its convent tower gleaming to the moon, and from which the sonorous bells were tolling, the sacred Anthems swelling for the last time on his ear! Alas! those chaunted masses were not for his conflicting soul; yea, it would have a strange comfort to feel that passing bell was proclaiming to the world that his spirit was parting from its scarcely worn weeds! But no! even that miserable solace was prohibited to him; he was to be obliterated from society, and his inexorable judges had decreed that society was not to know that he was gone. No grave for his dust; no monument for his name, to palliate his faults and perpetuate his virtues. The ghastly element that moaned and shuddered under the Gondola, as if remorseful for its own involuntary cruelties, was to spread its weltering pall over his hearseless bones."


"The islands constituting the Venetian Archipelago are about fifty in number, of various size and extremely picturesque. They were each of them the seat of a monastery or nunnery, till Napoleon came, who overthrew these saintly receptacles, converting them into forts, mills, public gardens, &c. In short, these islands are among the most beautiful contingents of this magic scene. Each has its graceful campanile, and its various structures of castle, convent, mill, or summer-house; each its due girdle of blue sea, fenced by walls that rise round its margent, and embroidered with groves and arbours of the most delightful green.

"This evening I cruised past many of them in my gondola after sunset; and was particularly struck with the beauty of the large Isle of Murano, and its attendant San Michaele (the latter one entire cemetery,) whose thin tall campaniles throw up their slender figures in fine relief against the long wavy purple of the Acharnean Hills in the west, at the head of the Adriatic.

"Night gathered round, as we floated under that prodigious monument of the departed majesty of the Republic, the arsenal, whose ramparts high and endless, and as ugly as either, lay weltering many a rood upon their wooden piles. Every bell in the city was tolling for Nones, and sang aloud to the surrounding islands, whose campaniles replied with sympathetic thunder, a solemn diapason of Corybantine brass, to my taste, wonderfully in unison with the funeral mole of the defunct Arsenal, the repose of the purple mountains, and the fainting splendour of that twinned vault and pavement, the opal sea and sky, smooth, soft, and bright enough for Juno and Amphitrite to hold a gossip, each from her own imperial element.

"Probably it is to the peculiarity of its situation, that one may attribute the sweetly solemn melodies produced by the bells of Venice. Flinging their prolonged notes down those immense hollows of architecture, sweeping round their narrow streets, and floating over their liquid pavement, they derive every advantage from that element which always so fondly detains and dallies with music, in addition to the depth and power with which they are endowed, by those pillared and winding concaves, that, like the tubes of some vast organ, receive and redouble the airy strain.

"Whatever be the case, I never felt any thing so fully coming up to my idea, of 'most musical, most melancholy.'"

We bid Mr Whyte adieu, in the hope that, if a second edition of these volumes be called for, he will subject them to a very thorough revision—connecting together many passages, which, though relating to the same subject, are at present unnaturally disjoined—omitting much, which, instead of heightening, interferes with the effect which it is his object to produce—and, above all, eschewing the indulgence of pleasantries which certainly produces no corresponding impression on his readers.

Edinburgh: Printed by Ballantyne and Hughes, Paul's Work.


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