[Illustration: MADONNA AND SAINTS FROM THE PAINTING BY BOCCACCINO In the Accademia]
Helena, according to the hagiologists, was advanced in years before she knew Christ, but her zeal made up for the delay. She built churches near and far, assisted in services, showered wealth on good works, and crowned all by an expedition to the Holy Land in search of the true cross. Three crosses were found. In order to ascertain the veritable one, a sick lady of quality was touched by all; two were without efficacy, but the third instantly healed her. It is fortunate that the two spurious ones were tried first. Part of the true cross Helena left in the Holy Land for periodical veneration; another part she gave to her son the Emperor Constantine for Constantinople for a similar purpose. One of the nails she had mounted in Constantine’s diadem and another she threw into the Adriatic to save the souls of mariners. Helena died in Rome in 326 or 328, and most of the records agree that she was buried there and translated to Rheims in 849; but the Venetians decline to have anything to do with so foolish a story. It is their belief that the saint, whom Paul Veronese painted so beautifully, seeing the cross in a vision, as visitors to our National Gallery know, was buried on their green island. This has not, however, led them to care for the church there with any solicitude, and it is now closed and deserted.
The adjoining island to S. Elena is that of Castello, on which stand the church of S. Pietro and its tottering campanile. This church was for centuries the cathedral of Venice, but it is now forlorn and dejected and few visitors seek it. Flowers sprout from the campanile, a beautiful white structure at a desperate angle. The church was once famous for its marriages, and every January, on the last day, the betrothed maidens, with their dowries in their hands and their hair down, assembled on the island with their lovers to celebrate the ceremony. On one occasion in the tenth century a band of pirates concealed themselves here, and descending on the happy couples, seized maidens, dowries, bridegrooms, clergy and all, and sailed away with them. Pursuit, however, was given and all were recaptured, and a festival was established which continued for two or three hundred years. It has now lapsed.
Venice is fortunate indeed in the possession of the Lido; for it serves a triple purpose. It saves her from the assaults of her husband the Adriatic when in savage moods; it provides her with a stretch of land on which to walk or ride and watch the seasons behave; and as a bathing station it has no rival. The Lido is not beautiful; but Venice seen from it is beautiful, and it has trees and picnic grounds, and its usefulness is not to be exaggerated. The steamers, which ply continually in summer and very often in winter, take only a quarter of an hour to make the voyage.