Every opportunity of passing through the courtyard should be taken, and during the chief hours of the day there is often—but not invariably—a right of way between the Porta della Carta and the Riva, across the courtyard, while the first floor gallery around it, gained by the Giants’ Stairs, is also open. For one of those capricious reasons, of which Italian custodians everywhere hold the secret, the delightful gallery looking on the lagoon and Piazzetta is, however, closed. I once found my way there, but was pursued by a frantic official and scolded back again.
The courtyard is inexhaustible in interest and beauty, from its bronze well-heads to the grated leaden prison cells on the roof, the terrible piombi which were so dreaded on account of their heat in summer and cold in winter. Here in the middle of the eighteenth century that diverting blackguard, Jacques Casanova, was imprisoned. He was “under the leads” over the Piazzetta wing, and the account of his durance and his escape is one of the most interesting parts, and certainly the least improper, of his remarkably frank autobiography. Venice does not seem to have any pride in this son of hers, but as a master of licentiousness, effrontery, adventurousness, and unblushing candour he stands alone in the world. Born at Venice in 1725, it was in the seminary of S. Cyprian here that he was acquiring the education of a priest when events occurred which made his expulsion necessary. For the history of his utterly unprincipled but vivacious career one must seek his scandalous and diverting pages. In 1755, on an ill-starred return visit to his native city, he was thrown into this prison, but escaping and finding his way to Paris, he acquired wealth and position as the Director of State Lotteries. Casanova died in 1798, but his memories cease with 1774. His pages may be said to supply a gloss to Longhi’s paintings, and the two men together complete the picture of Venetian frivolity in their day and night.
The well-head nearer the Giants’ Stairs was the work of Alberghetti and is signed inside. The other has the head of Doge Francesco Venier (1554-1556) repeated in the design and is stated within to be the work of Niccolo Conti, a son of Venice. Coryat has a passage about the wells which shows how much more animated a scene the ducal courtyard used to present than now. “They yeeld very pleasant water,” he writes. “For I tasted it. For which cause it is so much frequented in the Sommer time that a man can hardly come thither at any time in the afternoone, if the sunne shineth very hote, but he shall finde some company drawing of water to drinke for the cooling of themselves.” To-day they give water no more, nor do the pigeons come much to the little drinking place in the pavement here but go rather to that larger one opposite Cook’s office.