[Illustration: MADONNA AND SLEEPING CHILD FROM THE PAINTING BY GIOVANNI BELLINI In the Accademia]
It was not at the Palazzo Falier that Mr. Howells enjoyed the ministrations of that most entertaining hand-maiden Giovanna; but it was from here that he heard that quarrel between two gondoliers which he describes so vividly and which stands for every quarrel of every gondolier for all time. I take the liberty of quoting it here, because one gondolier’s quarrel is essential to every book that hopes to suggest Venice to its readers, and I have none of my own worth recording. “Two large boats, attempting to enter the small canal opposite at the same time, had struck together with a violence that shook the boatmen to their inmost souls. One barge was laden with lime, and belonged to a plasterer of the city; the other was full of fuel, and commanded by a virulent rustic. These rival captains advanced toward the bows of their boats, with murderous looks,
Con la test’alta e con
Si che parea che l’aer ne temesse,
and there stamped furiously, and beat the wind with hands of deathful challenge, while I looked on with that noble interest which the enlightened mind always feels in people about to punch each others’ heads.
“But the storm burst in words.
“‘Figure of a pig!’ shrieked the Venetian, ’you have ruined my boat for ever!’
“‘Thou liest, son of an ugly old dog!’ returned the countryman, ’and it was my right to enter the canal first.’
“They then, after this exchange of insult, abandoned the main subject of dispute, and took up the quarrel laterally and in detail. Reciprocally questioning the reputation of all their female relatives to the third and fourth cousins, they defied each other as the offspring of assassins and prostitutes. As the peace-making tide gradually drifted their boats asunder, their anger rose, and they danced back and forth and hurled opprobrium with a foamy volubility that quite left my powers of comprehension behind. At last the townsman, executing a pas seul of uncommon violence, stooped and picked up a bit of stone lime, while the countryman, taking shelter at the stern of his boat, there attended the shot. To my infinite disappointment it was not fired. The Venetian seemed to have touched the climax of his passion in the mere demonstration of hostility, and gently gathering up his oar gave the countryman the right of way. The courage of the latter rose as the strange danger passed, and as far as he could be heard, he continued to exult in the wildest excesses of insult: ’Ah-heigh! brutal executioner! Ah, hideous headsman!’ Da capo. I now know that these people never intended to do more than quarrel, and no doubt they parted as well pleased as if they had actually carried broken heads from the encounter. But at the time I felt affronted and trifled with by the result, for my disappointments arising out of the dramatic manner of the Italians had not yet been frequent enough to teach me to expect nothing from it.”