Friday, 18 September 2015

A View of Venice in 1494

On the 15th May, 1494, a Milanese cleric, Canon Pietro Casola, left his native city to embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return, he published a book, describing the places he had visited. This book is very different from the Cavalier Santo Brasca's practical guide-book, which I discussed earlier this month - Casola had read Santo Brasca's book, and saw little point in repeating it.

Instead, Casola's book presents rich descriptions of the places he visited along the way, descriptions that might be savoured by people who would never make the journey themselves. This, in a very real sense, is the origin point of the tradition of travel-writing represented, in our own time, by authors such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson.

Leaving Milan, Casola took five days to reach Venice, presumably on horseback, and his description of the city is probably the most detailed to have survived from this epoch. He describes the Ducal Palace, the markets and warehouses, the monasteries, the arsenal, the shipping, the Festival of Corpus Domini and, perhaps most interestingly, the Venetians themselves.

Venice, by Bolognino Zaltieri, 1565. Photo: Xn4 (image is in the Public Demain).

Here I am quoting from Mary Margaret Newman's translation of 1907:

"Something might be said about the quantity of merchandise in the said city ... Indeed, it seems as if all the world flocks there, and that human beings have concentrated there all their force for trading. I was taken to see various warehouses, beginning with that of the Germans ... And who could count the many shops so well-furnished that they also seem warehouses, with so many cloths of every make, tapestry, brocades and hangings of every design, carpets of every sort ... camlets ... silks ... and so many warehouses full  of spices, groceries and drugs, and so much beautiful white wax."

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi ("Warehouse of the Germans"). Photo: Didier Descouens (licensed under CCA).

"Their women appear to me to be small for the most part, because if they were not, they would not wear their shoes - otherwise called 'pianelle' - as high as they do ... They were so high, indeed, that when they wear them, some women appear giants; and certain also are not safe from falling as they walk, unless they are well supported by their slaves. As to the adornment of their heads, they wear their hair so much curled over their eyes that, at first sight, they appear rather men than women. The greater part is false hair; and this I know for certain because I saw quantities of it on poles, sold by peasants in the Piazza San Marco."

A Venetian "chopine" (the term most commonly used today) of the 16th Century, Shoe Museum, Lausanne. Photo: Rama (licensed under CCA).

"These Venetian women, especially the pretty ones, try as much as possible to show their chests ... so much so that several times when I saw them I marvelled that their clothes did not fall off their backs. Those who can afford it, and those who cannot, dress very splendidly, and have magnificent jewels and pearls in the trimming round their collars ... they paint their faces a great deal, and also the other parts they show, in order to appear more beautiful."

"Two Venetian Ladies," by Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1525), Museo Correr (image is in the Public Domain).

Every so often, it seems to me, Casola has to pause to remind himself (and his readers) that he is a priest and a pilgrim, not a tourist. Commenting, for a second time, about the ladies' failure to cover their shoulders, he remarks, grumpily:

"Perhaps this custom pleases others; it does not please me. I am a priest in the way of the saints, and I had no wish to inquire further into their lives."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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