Venice is a seasonal city, dependent more than most upon weather and temperature. She lives for the summer, when her great tourist industry leaps into action, and in winter she is a curiously simple, homely place, instinct with melancholy, her Piazza deserted, her canals choppy and dismal. The winter climate of Venice is notorious. A harsh, raw, damp miasma overcomes the city for weeks at a time, only occasionally dispersed by days of cold sunny brilliance. The rain teems down with a particular wetness, like unto like, stirring the mud in the bottom of the Grand Canal, and streaming magnificently off the marbles of the Basilica. The fog marches in frowardly from the sea, so thick that you cannot see across the Piazza, and the vaporetto labours towards the Rialto with an anxious look-out in the bows. Sometimes a layer of snow covers the city, giving it a certain sense of improper whimsy, as if you were to dress a duchess in pink ruffles. Sometimes the fringe of a bora sweeps the water in fierce waves up the narrower canals, and throws the moored boats viciously against the quays. The nights are vaporous and tomb-like, and the days dawn monotonously grey.
So Venice sits huddled over her inadequate stoves, or huggermugger in her cafés. The palaces of the Grand Canal are heavily clamped and boarded, with only a handful of dim lights burning from ugly tinkling chandeliers through fusty dark brown curtains. The boatmen crouch at their tillers, shrouded in sacks and old overcoats, and sometimes clutching umbrellas. The alleycats squat emaciated behind their grilles, and the pigeons cluster dejectedly in sheltered crannies of the Piazza. All Venice snivels with influenza, colds in the nose and throat infections: when the Republic secretly did away with three of its political enemies in the fifteenth century, the cause of death was blandly announced as catarrh, and everyone was satisfied. The great hotels are closed or moribund, their echoing foyers haunted only by a handful of disillusioned millionaires and leathery ladies of intrigue. The restaurants are empty and indifferent, and even Florian's café, which used to boast that its doors had been open night and day for two centuries, lowers its shutters long before midnight. Not a fiddle plays in the Piazza. Not a tout hangs around the arcades. Scarcely a tourist complains about the price of hot chocolate. It is a very private city.
Its celebrations have a club-like feeling, free of prying outsiders. A Venetian Christmas is a staunchly family festival. The trains are full of returning migrants, waiters and labourers from Paris, mothers' helps from the Home Counties, and there is a great deal of hand-shaking in the streets, and many a delighted reunion at the steamboat station. Suddenly everyone in Venice seems to know everyone else. An endless stream of shoppers, dressed in their elegant best, pushes so thickly through the narrow Merceria that sometimes the policemen, stationing themselves at intersections, impose a system of one-way traffic. The windows burgeon with Christmas trees. Every passing barge seems full of bottles, or parcels, or little firs from the mountains, and every child in Venice seems to trail a red balloon.
In the plushy cafés of St. Mark's (Regency stripes and spindly chairs) spruce infants listen with deference to the interminable reminiscences of immaculate uncles: and in the cafés on Christmas Eve 20,000 families giggle before the television sets, drinking Cinzano and eating sticky cakes, while the favourite melody of the day is passed from shop to shop, from square to square, down one dark alley to another, like a cheerful watchword in the night. The Christmas services are warm, bright and glistening; the cribs are crude but touching; the choirs sing lustily; and Venice feels less like a grand duchess than a buxom landlady, enjoying a glass of stout when the customers have gone (except for the mysterious permutations of clergy, gold and crimson and misty with incense, that you may glimpse passing and repassing the open doors of the Basilica).
To see the Serenissima without her make-up on, try getting up at three in the morning one foggy February morning, and watch the old lady reluctantly awakening. As you stand on your terrace above the canal, it is as though you are deposited plumb in the middle of an almost disused nowhere, so deathly silent is the place, so gagged and pinioned with mist. There are sombre pools of lamplight on the shrouded Grand Canal, and the only person in sight is a solitary eccentric in a fur hat, reading the Rules and Regulations at the steamboat pontoon with a cold and unnatural intensity. And when you have plastered your sweaters on, and crept down the scrubbed echoing staircase of your palace (past the sleeping advocate on the second floor, the Slav Baronessa on the first, the one-eyed ginger tom in his niche, the mighty padlocked coal-cellar doors, the pigeon-streaked bust of an unknown hero by the entrance, the little neglected Madonna on the wood shed, the arid tangle of a lawn and the stiff squeaking iron gates)--when you are out at last, you will find the whole great city damp and padded in sleep. In London or New York the night is never absolute: in Venice, at three on a foggy winter morning, it feels as though the day will never come.