It is four o’clock on a cold, wet November afternoon, and Lord Byron is in Mestre, bad-tempered because of the weather and because he has just been offered a very poor dinner. He has spent the previous week trundling slowly across the nothern Italian plain from Milan, with overnight stops at Brescia, Desenzano del Garda (where the rain prevented him from paying a visit to Catullus’ Grotto at Sirmione), Verona (where he pocketed some loose fragments from Juliet’s alleged “tomb”) and Vicenza.
He has spent the day in his carriage, travelling alongside the Brenta Canal from Padua, and now there is nothing between him and Venice except a wide, grey expanse of rain-soaked lagoon. Now, in the gathering twilight, he steps into a gondola for the first time, to begin the slow journey to his destination.
Byron’s party were rowed down the Grand Canal in a gondola with a canopy, or felze, like this one.
As he and his companions – his friend John Hobhouse and his manservant William Fletcher – are rowed past Forte Marghera, a boat intercepts them to ask for their passports: the Austrian rulers of Veneto-Lombardia like to keep a very close eye on any foreign visitors in their territory. But apart from that, it takes an hour and a half’s steady rowing to bring them to the mouth of the Grand Canal when finally, peering through the windows of the felze, they see the lights of “… high houses and stone piers.”
Soon, as Hobhouse writes later in his diary,
“The echo of the oars told us we were under a bridge, and a boatman cried out to us, ‘The Rialto!’”
The Hotel Gran Bretagna, now the headquarters of the municipality of Venice.
At last, stiff and damp from the confined and chilly gondola, they step ashore and enter their hotel, Albergo Gran Bretagna, where their English-speaking host invites them to sit down and take tea. “We thought ourselves,” Hobhouse will later recall, “very well-placed.”
And so, Byron has finally arrived in the destination which has glittered like a fantastic jewel in his imagination ever since his childhood. New adventures are about to begin….
I loved her from boyhood — she to me
Was as a fairy city of the heart,
Rising like water-columns from the sea,
Of joy the sojourn, and of wealth the mart;
And Otway, Radcliffe, Schiller, Shakespeare’s art,
Had stamped her image in me, and even so,
Although I found her thus, we did not part,
Perchance even dearer in her day of woe,
Than when she was a boast, a marvel, and a show.