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    Casa Alvisi

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    Chapter 5
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    Invited to "introduce" certain pages of cordial and faithful
    reminiscence from another hand, [1]

    [1] "Browning in Venice," being Recollections of the late
    Katharine De Kay Bronson, with a Prefatory Note by H. J.
    (Cornhill Magazine, February, 1902).]

    in which a frankly predominant presence seems to live again, I
    undertook that office with an interest inevitably somewhat sad--
    so passed and gone to-day is so much of the life suggested.
    Those who fortunately knew Mrs. Bronson will read into her notes
    still more of it--more of her subject, more of herself too, and
    of many things--than she gives, and some may well even feel
    tempted to do for her what she has done here for her
    distinguished friend. In Venice, during a long period, for many
    pilgrims, Mrs. Arthur Bronson, originally of New York, was, so
    far as society, hospitality, a charming personal welcome were
    concerned, almost in sole possession; she had become there, with
    time, quite the prime representative of those private amenities
    which the Anglo-Saxon abroad is apt to miss just in proportion as
    the place visited is publicly wonderful, and in which he
    therefore finds a value twice as great as at home. Mrs. Bronson
    really earned in this way the gratitude of mingled generations
    and races. She sat for twenty years at the wide mouth, as it
    were, of the Grand Canal, holding out her hand, with endless
    good-nature, patience, charity, to all decently accredited
    petitioners, the incessant troop of those either bewilderedly
    making or fondly renewing acquaintance with the dazzling city.

    [Illustration: CASA ALVISI, VENICE]

    Casa Alvisi is directly opposite the high, broad-based florid
    church of S. Maria della Salute--so directly that from the
    balcony over the water-entrance your eye, crossing the canal,
    seems to find the key-hole of the great door right in a line with
    it; and there was something in this position that for the time
    made all Venice-lovers think of the genial padrona as thus
    levying in the most convenient way the toll of curiosity and
    sympathy. Every one passed, every one was seen to pass, and few
    were those not seen to stop and to return. The most generous of
    hostesses died a year ago at Florence; her house knows her no
    more--it had ceased to do so for some time before her death; and
    the long, pleased procession--the charmed arrivals, the happy
    sojourns at anchor, the reluctant departures that made Ca'
    Alvisi, as was currently said, a social porto di mare--is,
    for remembrance and regret, already a possession of ghosts; so
    that, on the spot, at present, the attention ruefully averts
    itself from the dear little old faded but once familiarly bright
    façade, overtaken at last by the comparatively vulgar uses that
    are doing their best to "paint out" in Venice, right and left, by
    staring signs and other vulgarities, the immemorial note of
    distinction. The house, in a city of palaces, was small, but the
    tenant clung to her perfect, her inclusive position--the one
    right place that gave her a better command, as it were, than a
    better house obtained by a harder compromise; not being fond,
    moreover, of spacious halls and massive treasures, but of compact
    and familiar rooms, in which her remarkable accumulation of
    minute and delicate Venetian objects could show. She adored--in
    the way of the Venetian, to which all her taste addressed itself-
    -the small, the domestic and the exquisite; so that she would
    have given a Tintoretto or two, I think, without difficulty, for
    a cabinet of tiny gilded glasses or a dinner-service of the right
    old silver.

    The general receptacle of these multiplied treasures played at
    any rate, through the years, the part of a friendly private-box
    at the constant operatic show, a box at the best point of the
    best tier, with the cushioned ledge of its front raking the whole
    scene and with its withdrawing rooms behind for more detached
    conversation; for easy--when not indeed slightly difficult--
    polyglot talk, artful bibite, artful cigarettes too,
    straight from the hand of the hostess, who could do all that
    belonged to a hostess, place people in relation and keep them so,
    take up and put down the topic, cause delicate tobacco and little
    gilded glasses to circulate, without ever leaving her sofa-
    cushions or intermitting her good-nature. She exercised in these
    conditions, with never a block, as we say in London, in the
    traffic, with never an admission, an acceptance of the least
    social complication, her positive genius for easy interest, easy
    sympathy, easy friendship. It was as if, at last, she had taken
    the human race at large, quite irrespective of geography, for her
    neighbours, with neighbourly relations as a matter of course.
    These things, on her part, had at all events the greater
    appearance of ease from their having found to their purpose--and
    as if the very air of Venice produced them--a cluster of forms so
    light and immediate, so pre-established by picturesque custom.
    The old bright tradition, the wonderful Venetian legend had
    appealed to her from the first, closing round her house and her
    well-plashed water-steps, where the waiting gondolas were thick,
    quite as if, actually, the ghost of the defunct Carnival--since
    I have spoken of ghosts--still played some haunting part.

    Let me add, at the same time, that Mrs. Bronson's social
    facility, which was really her great refuge from importunity, a
    defence with serious thought and serious feeling quietly
    cherished behind it, had its discriminations as well as its
    inveteracies, and that the most marked of all these, perhaps, was
    her attachment to Robert Browning. Nothing in all her beneficent
    life had probably made her happier than to have found herself
    able to minister, each year, with the returning autumn, to his
    pleasure and comfort. Attached to Ca' Alvisi, on the land side,
    is a somewhat melancholy old section of a Giustiniani palace,
    which she had annexed to her own premises mainly for the purpose
    of placing it, in comfortable guise, at the service of her
    friends. She liked, as she professed, when they were the real
    thing, to have them under her hand; and here succeeded each
    other, through the years, the company of the privileged and the
    more closely domesticated, who liked, harmlessly, to distinguish
    between themselves and outsiders. Among visitors partaking of
    this pleasant provision Mr. Browning was of course easily first.
    But I must leave her own pen to show him as her best years knew
    him. The point was, meanwhile, that if her charity was great even
    for the outsider, this was by reason of the inner essence of it--
    her perfect tenderness for Venice, which she always recognised as
    a link. That was the true principle of fusion, the key to
    communication. She communicated in proportion--little or much,
    measuring it as she felt people more responsive or less so; and
    she expressed herself, or in other words her full affection for
    the place, only to those who had most of the same sentiment. The
    rich and interesting form in which she found it in Browning may
    well be imagined--together with the quite independent quantity of
    the genial at large that she also found; but I am not sure that
    his favour was not primarily based on his paid tribute of such
    things as "Two in a Gondola" and "A Toccata of Galuppi." He had
    more ineffaceably than anyone recorded his initiation from of
    old.

    She was thus, all round, supremely faithful; yet it was perhaps
    after all with the very small folk, those to the manner born,
    that she made the easiest terms. She loved, she had from the
    first enthusiastically adopted, the engaging Venetian people,
    whose virtues she found touching and their infirmities but such
    as appeal mainly to the sense of humour and the love of anecdote;
    and she befriended and admired, she studied and spoiled them.
    There must have been a multitude of whom it would scarce be too
    much to say that her long residence among them was their settled
    golden age. When I consider that they have lost her now I fairly
    wonder to what shifts they have been put and how long they may
    not have to wait for such another messenger of Providence. She
    cultivated their dialect, she renewed their boats, she piously
    relighted--at the top of the tide-washed pali of traghetto
    or lagoon--the neglected lamp of the tutelary Madonnetta; she
    took cognisance of the wives, the children, the accidents, the
    troubles, as to which she became, perceptibly, the most prompt,
    the established remedy. On lines where the amusement was happily
    less one-sided she put together in dialect many short comedies,
    dramatic proverbs, which, with one of her drawing-rooms
    permanently arranged as a charming diminutive theatre, she caused
    to be performed by the young persons of her circle--often, when
    the case lent itself, by the wonderful small offspring of humbler
    friends, children of the Venetian lower class, whose aptitude,
    teachability, drollery, were her constant delight. It was
    certainly true that an impression of Venice as humanly sweet
    might easily found itself on the frankness and quickness and
    amiability of these little people. They were at least so much to
    the good; for the philosophy of their patroness was as Venetian
    as everything else; helping her to accept experience without
    bitterness and to remain fresh, even in the fatigue which finally
    overtook her, for pleasant surprises and proved sincerities. She
    was herself sincere to the last for the place of her
    predilection; inasmuch as though she had arranged herself, in the
    later time--and largely for the love of "Pippa Passes"--an
    alternative refuge at Asolo, she absented herself from Venice
    with continuity only under coercion of illness.

    At Asolo, periodically, the link with Browning was more confirmed
    than weakened, and there, in old Venetian territory, and with the
    invasion of visitors comparatively checked, her preferentially
    small house became again a setting for the pleasure of talk and
    the sense of Italy. It contained again its own small treasures,
    all in the pleasant key of the homelier Venetian spirit. The
    plain beneath it stretched away like a purple sea from the lower
    cliffs of the hills, and the white campanili of the
    villages, as one was perpetually saying, showed on the expanse
    like scattered sails of ships. The rumbling carriage, the old-
    time, rattling, red-velveted carriage of provincial, rural Italy,
    delightful and quaint, did the office of the gondola; to Bassano,
    to Treviso, to high-walled Castelfranco, all pink and gold, the
    home of the great Giorgione. Here also memories cluster; but it
    is in Venice again that her vanished presence is most felt, for
    there, in the real, or certainly the finer, the more sifted
    Cosmopolis, it falls into its place among the others evoked,
    those of the past seekers of poetry and dispensers of romance. It
    is a fact that almost every one interesting, appealing,
    melancholy, memorable, odd, seems at one time or another, after
    many days and much life, to have gravitated to Venice by a happy
    instinct, settling in it and treating it, cherishing it, as a
    sort of repository of consolations; all of which to-day, for the
    conscious mind, is mixed with its air and constitutes its
    unwritten history. The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted,
    the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there
    something that no other place could give. But such people came
    for themselves, as we seem to see them--only with the egotism of
    their grievances and the vanity of their hopes. Mrs. Bronson's
    case was beautifully different--she had come altogether for
    others.
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