Venice Map
Sette Comuni
Dr Barrett


John Davies Mereweather, Semele; or the Spirit of Beauty: A Venetian Tale, Rivingtons, London 1867. Price as advertised in The Western Daily Press: 3s. 6d.

Mereweather loved Venice, its cultural heritage, its beauty. Semele of Greek mythology is turned into an orphan daughter of noble Anglo-French lineage. She explores the city and the lagoon giving the reader something of a guided tour. After her wish to see the Spirit of all Beauty is granted, she goes mad; she dies a few months later. The book, which impressed an Italian reviewer, became something of a guide to Mereweather's own inner struggle "loving Beauty and Art, Spirit and Embodiment, with a frenzied enthusiasm, excluding all rational consideration of human duties and every-day life" (Semele, p. x).

One source of inspiration is the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. In his Memorable Relations Semele "read how a too sensitive, or rather diseased, imagination carried the writer into the realms of spirits; and how at pleasure he could invade the Blissful Land". (Semele, p. 17)

The set-up can be boring: the Spirit is the poetical cicerone of Semele who, in turn, is guiding the reader. Nevertheless, the book is full of cultural, historical and linguistic details, including an interesting description of the tableland of the Sette Comuni in the province of Vicenza. Click on the Sette Comuni link above.

See below for some extracts. Various illustrations have been added.

Riva degli Schiavoni, from Ponte della Paglia
Photograph, probably by Paolo Salviati, c. 1870

"When Semele first arrived at Venice, she took up her residence at a large hotel on the Riva degli Schiavoni, once belonging to the family Bernardo, built in the Pointed style of architecture at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Under her windows ran a spacious quay, crowded with people clad in a variety of costumes, and speaking a diversity of tongues." (Semele, p. 35)


San Giorgio Maggiore
Photograph by Christer Björkvall, c. 1955

"Before her, as she stood on the balcony, lay the island of St. Giorgio Maggiore, once, in very old times, crowned with cypresses, and refreshing the eye with its verdure; now groaning under the weight of a Renaissance church, barracks, and artillery." (Semele, p. 35)

Inspecting Venice

In a gondola Semele
"floated along off the Riva degli Schiavoni, rendezvous of innumerable ‘trabaccoli’, two-masted coasting vessels, from the Dalmatian and Istrian ports. She then passed the south entrance to the arsenal, the ‘Arzanà de' Viniziani’ of Dante, rounded the Giardino Publico, rowed under the interminable wall which bounds the north side of the arsenal, and pursued her course along the Fondamenta Nuove, having on the right the Cemetery and Murano, that once renowned island, peopled, in times long passed, by fugitives from Hunnic and Lombard ravagers, and later, birthplace or favourite  haunt of many learned spirits,—island, whose glass manufacturers' daughters were considered worthy to mate with Venetian patricians. Thence the gondola coasted along by the Campo di Marte—drillground for Austrian troops—and soon arrived in the canal of the Giudecca off a Fondamenta called ‘Le Zattere’, once crowded with charcoal-laden rafts. And then she passed down the Grand Canal and the Canareggio, and afterwards returned by the same route to her starting-point.  Thus Semele, by this tour of superficial inspection, could comprehend the plan of Venice, and judge of the site where she would be most pleased to reside." (Semele, p. 36)


The Madonna dell'Orto area

Semele "fixed her residence in a large palace [Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo] at the northern extremity of Venice near the church of Our Lady of the Garden [Madonna dell'Orto]. The view from the balcony of the first floor, or Piano Nobile, of this palace was a thing of enchantment. Below was a fertile garden rich with gay flowers and intersected by straight alleys sheltered from the rays of the sun by vines trained on trellis-work. Fig, almond, peach, and pomegranate trees were studded here and there, whilst some funereal cypresses toned down the laughing scene around. To the garden succeeded an extensive grass plot, having in the midst a large, empty basin of stone, presided over by some colossal water-deity, attitudinizing in all the mannerism of seventeenth-century art. This lawn terminated in a balustrade slightly raised above the level of the lagune, the waters of which caressed its base with their ripplings. About a mile away in front, couched upon the mirror-like sea, lay the island of Murano, rich with fair gardens, and displaying its two massive church towers, one uncrowned with cupola. To the right of Murano, and about half a mile apart from it, gleamed in the clear atmosphere the church of San Michele and the walls of its adjoining cemetery; ... ... Three hundred years before, great and ingenious minds such as Titian, Sansovino, Navagero, Pietro Aretino, and Sanmicheli were wooed to recreate in this favoured spot; and in a spacious mansion near, since called Il Casino degli Spiriti, probably germinated those flashes of genius and triumphs of art which have illustrated the Italian name throughout all lands." (Semele, p.37ff). Click on the Venice Map link above.


On the Rialto in Venice
After the painting by H. Woods
Published by Die Photographische Union in Munich, late 19th century

And soon Semele "arrived at the Ponte di Rialto, the majestic proportions of which are destroyed by the twenty-four shops which cloud and encumber the superjacent arcades. (Palladio, Michel Angelo Buonarotti. Sansovino, Scamozzi, and Fra Giocondo sent in models and plans for this bridge. Those of Antonio dal Ponte were chosen, not because they were the best, but because they were the cheapest.) … … … And afterwards she descended the Bridge of the Rialto, and at the bottom, looking behind her, observed the people ascending and descending the stately triple staircase, putting her in mind of a dream dreamt at Bethel in times long past, save that the angelic natures were wanting." (Semele, p. 43ff)

The poor

"In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the population of Venice was nearly three hundred thousand, and the poor were prosperous, because fully occupied either as servants of the great families, or as employed in the vast commerce which flowed into this mart of nations. Besides this, their physical welfare was carefully promoted by the powerful Proveditori del Comune created for that purpose. These officers arranged that the food of the working population should be of the best and cheapest, and above all, they restrained by severe laws severely carried out, the vendors of necessaries from imposing on the poor. But now, Semele found that the population was reduced to less than a hundred thousand souls, and that the lower classes were no longer prosperous, but miserable; for no rich houses fed and lodged a crowd of gondoliers and servants, nor did the Port and Arsenal give work and wages, as of old, to hungry multitudes: nor were there any Proveditori to protect the people from the over-charges and trickery of the bread, meat, and wine sellers; whilst the innumerable charitable and mutual aid societies once flourishing, had disappeared. Consequently, thousands upon thousands were dependent for their wretched existence on extraneous aid. And yet they were good-tempered, courteous, intelligent, and even disinterested, at least those who had not been brought in contact with foreigners." (Semele, p. 47f)


Scala Contarini del Bovolo

"During one of her walks, Semele discovered in the most labyrinthine of labyrinths, in the Calle e Corte del Maltese detta del Risi, leading out of the Calle della Vida, which leads out of the Calle delle Locande, which must be approached from the Rio Terrà di S. Paternian, close to the Campo of that name, a circular staircase of exquisite geometrical proportions, twenty-two feet in diameter, seventy in height, and surmounted by a cupola which protects the whole from the weather. This capo d'opera entirely constructed of Istrian stone, is the production of an unknown architect of the fifteenth century; and was probably constructed as a splendid caprice, to act as an outer staircase to a palace more ancient than the one it now adjoins. The whole structure breathes of solidity and quaint grace, and fully merits its title of La Scala Formosa." (Semele, p. 49)









The Bridge of Sighs
Rio di Palazzo towards the lagoon with Ponte dei Sospiri, c. 1880
The view of Ponte della Paglia is obstructed by Ponte della Canonica

"And then she walked to and fro on the Piazzetta, between the Giardinetto, or Royal Garden, and the Ponte della Paglia, close over which loomed in the darkness the Ponte de' Sospiri, built in 1591, after the plans of Antonio da Ponte the architect of the Rialto Bridge. This closed bridge she was informed, was divided longitudinally by a partition wall, the passage to the south leading from the department of the Avvogadori del Comun to the prison; that to the north, connecting the prison with the Tribunal of the Ten. For in Venice all was suspicious precaution and secrecy and accordingly it would not have been meet that the prisoners of the Council of the Ten should have been mingled in their gloomy transit with those of the Avvogadori." (Semele, p. 56)


The Arsenal

"Some days afterwards, Semele went early to the Arsenal, ... ... In this vast group of buildings, founded in 1104, and gradually increased to their present extent, not many objects were found to interest the feminine sensibilities of Semele. Four animals, which her guide called lions, and eight others which he named Pagan Deities, these monstrous specimens of depraved renaissance art, and those monstrous specimens of expiring Grecian art, sentinelled the entrance to the ‘Arsenal of the Venetians’. The largest of the lions, however, attracted her momentary interest by the strange characters, probably of despairing illegibility, traced upon his body. Whether they were Pelasgic, or Greek, cotemporary with the battle of Marathon, or Runic, or old Saxon chiselled for amusement in the tenth century by the Varangian Guard of the Emperors of Constantinople, no one could tell her. Certain it was that they all came either from the Piræus, or the road leading thence to ‘Town’, τό ’Άστυ, or from somewhere else in Attica, for they were brought from Athens in 1687 by Francesco Morosini during his occupation of Achaia." Semele, p. 65ff)

The Island of San Lazzaro

"From the Public Gardens Semele's gondola with its four stalwart rowers swiftly flew over the still surface of the lagune towards the island of San Lazzaro, once, in 1182, a refuge for lepers; now the abode of Armenian monks of the order of S. Benedict. And she was courteously conducted over the domains of this intelligent and gentle-mannered brotherhood, and shown their church, and library of 14,000 volumes and 1,400 Armenian manuscripts, and their admirable printing-press. There she saw some monks of extreme old age, with very white beards; and all received her cheerfully and kindly." (Semele, p. 71)



The Lido

Semele "pursued her way to the Lido, and wandered through waste places, rendered still sadder by monumental memorials of Protestant and Israelite. But over all this desolate scene, the lark, blithe spirit of the islands of the lagunes, sang sweetly, as it had been the soul of one of the entombed, guarding its mortal remains. And she deciphered inscriptions on the tombstones of British envoys and consuls ..." (Semele, p. 71)



From the Lido

"The night damps were falling, the moon was hastening towards her western goal ... ." So Semele "left the Lido, and bent her course towards home. And on her way she heard voices in a distant boat singing one of those exquisite barcaroles, so full of soft plaintive melody, which are peculiar to Venice. It was ‘La Barcheta ze a la riva’, and so perfect was the harmony, and gracefully simple the melody of this canzonetta, that the silvery notes fell like a musical dew upon the surrounding waters and lulled with their liquid influence the hearts of the hearers into a half-waking trance, so saturating their souls with soft music, that the internal echo ceased not long after the singers were out of of hearing." (Semele, p. 80f)

View from San Giorgio across the Bacino di San Marco
Photograph by Paolo Salviati, c. 1880

"… one bright morning, Semele ordered her gondoliers to conduct her into the mid-channel between the Church of S. Giorgio and the Piazzetta. From thence the marvellous view of the south side of Venice glowed before her. There was the busy Riva degli Schiavoni laid out in all its sunny splendour, until it merged into the massive verdure of the Public Garden; the dark prison; the darker Bridge of Sighs; the Ducal  Palace, marvellous union of massive solidity with graceful airy lightness, fair type of the  junction of soul and body; the southern portion of S. Mark's, inexplicably rich in oriental marbles; the quaint tower of the Clock, the two Columns, the Library, the Mint, the Imperial Palace and Gardens, the lordly entrance of the Grand Canal, sentinelled by the majestic church of the Salute; whilst on her left sparkled the waters of the Canal of the Giudecca, with its forest of masts. Over all, the radiant angel hovering on the apex of the pyramidal termination of the gigantic Campanile of S. Mark, seemed to give his benediction." (Semele, p. 93)

The Accademia bridge, built in 1854 by the Austrians (demolished in the early 1930s)
Card postmarked 1911, view towards la Dogana 

Semele slowly glided over the limpid waters of the Grand Canal from Punta della Dogana. "Then she rowed by the spot soon to be desecrated by the most hideous of bridges constructed by an English engineer, with a sense of beauty as hard as the iron he employed in his work." (Semele, p. 95)

Il Fondaco dei Turchi, Restauration of the façade on the Grand Canal
Wood engraving by E. Roevens and A. Deroy, published in Le Monde Illustré, 1869

"And a little farther on, at the left hand, the long double ranges or tiers of elegant Byzantine arches belonging to the Fondaco de’ Turchi, work of the eleventh century, rose like a pleasant dream. Most beauteous and rare in its semi ruin this Oriental structure appeared to the eyes of Semele, although the costly marbles which once incased it had long since been torn away.  And  she reflected that this costly edifice, work worthy of advanced civilization, stood in all its unmutilated  exquisite proportions at that remote epoch when in England the Saxon Ethelred was treacherously slaughtering Danish residents; when Sweyn, the fierce King of Denmark, was seizing the English throne, amid the wailing and execrations of massacred Saxons; and when Scotland trembled under the usurping rule of the sanguinary Macbeth; and that even then the tides of the Lagunes bathed the walls of a city which could calculate its existence by centuries. She cared not to hear that it once belonged to the Pesaro family, and was by them ceded to the Government in 1380, who presented it to the Duke of Ferrara; that it went into the possession of Michele Priuli, bishop of Vicenza, and afterwards was appropriated as the abode of the Turkish merchants visiting Venice; but she did care to hear that the Duke Alphonso of Este was once lodged here, and brought with him his friend Torquato Tasso, that translucent fount of limpid verse."  (Semele, p. 100f)



Steel engraving by C. Heath after a picture by C. Stanfield,
Longman & Co., London, c. 1840

From Burano "passing over a long and narrow wooden bridge, she arrived at Mazzorbo, the ancient Majurbium, formerly an island faubourg of Altinum. This once populous island, anciently the resort of Venetians during the summer season, had in old times contained five parishes, numerous monasteries, and ten churches. Now it was almost deserted, numbering but a few inhabitants, who by their labour developed the indescribable fertility of its gardens and orchards. And when Semele recounted to her companions the melancholy feeling that pervaded her as she trod on this desolate ground, formerly a centre of civilization, she was reminded that these Lagunes once possessed at least thirty islands, centres of religious or secular interest, which are now either mournful swamps inhabited by wildfowl, or entirely covered by the treacherous waves, showing at low tide fragmentary ruins of early civilization, or mediæval piety. They told her how Costanziaca was once rich in many highly decorated churches, now sunk beneath the surrounding hungry swamps; and how S. Catoldo, anciently the seat of the Episcopal Seminary of Torcello, was now but a slimy ridge, scarce rising above the level of the waters, called by the vulgar Monte dell'Oro, because, so they say, the golden car of the grim Attila, and his other treasures, were buried there. So pondering over these ruins of time, and reflecting how not only the heavenly bodies, but indeed all earthly things seem to roll unceasingly, never tranquil, round an immovable centre, ending where they set out,
…" (Semele, p. 108f)


Torcello, the Piazza
Small size postcard, c. 1910

"... Semele landed on the grass-covered Piazza of the once superb Torcello. Here indeed she found proof upon proof of time's vicissitudes. Could this unpeopled waste, approached by a stagnant canal hardly restrained within its crumbling banks; these melancholy fever-stricken gardens without cultivators; this group of churches without worshippers, have ever been populous, rich, and magnificent, radiant with marble palaces, the new Altinum, rival of the old? ... ... Yes! This mockery of a Piazza, glaring forth its poverty and neglect, was once the centre of a rich and flourishing city, existing from a remote period, as the old Venetian, Lombard, Hunnish, Roman, and Grecian coins, frequently found beneath the soil, attest. ... ... But, alas! owing to the changed course of the waters of the river Sile, fever was produced in this once favoured spot; and then little by little the inhabitants decreased; so in time it ceased to be a Bishop's see, the monasteries were dissolved or transferred elsewhere, and thus by easy gradations it descended to its lamentable state of present perdition its handful of cottages, its fifty or sixty denizens. And there in the Piazza, in front of a barn and granary, once a loggetta, from whence were proclaimed the laws of the Republic and the Municipality, probably the remains of the palace of the Podestà, Semele saw a rude stone chair, popularly called "the Chair of Attila", whence the early tribunes used to minister justice. She paused before the two churches, the Duomo and Santa Fosca, each of surpassing interest in its way, and carrying the observer back to the remotest ages of Christian architecture." (Semele, 109ff)

Chiesa di San Pietro di Castello

"On the left hand, as one enters this church, there is to be seen a very curious old tombstone, covering a vault, which, as we learn from the inscription, belonged to the gondolier fraternity at that ferry over the Grand Canal which is called the Traghetto di San Barnaba. The inscription (in old Venetian) runs thus:—

‘In tempo de Zorzi da Cataro
Gastaldo del Tragetto
De San Barnaba
Et Nicolo de Zorzi
Et Migiel de Bernardo
E. Compagni L. Anno

Then follows a rude representation of a boat, something like this:—

This is the church "of S. Pietro di Castello, containing, as legends tell, the marble chair in which S. Peter sat at Antioch". (Semele, p. 121f & note 5)


The Colleoni monument

"In the open space of ground adorned by the façades of the Gothic church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and the Scuola di San Marco, long changed into a Civil Hospital, stands the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, Commander of the Venetian land forces in the fifteenth century, and the first artillery captain of his age. This military chief, a Bergamasque by birth, left as a legacy to the Republic, not only a hundred thousand gold ducats, and the third part of ten thousand ducats due to him from the Duke of Ferrara, but also all his arrears of pay, with a request attached to his testament, that an equestrian statue in bronze should be raised to his honour in the Piazza di San Marco. The Senate accepted the legacy, but departed from the wish of the donor by erecting the memorial in the Campo de SS. Giovanni e Paolo. There it has stood from the year 1495 with the following inscription: 'Bartholomeo Coleono Bergamensi ob militare imperium optime gestum. S. C.' ... ... ... There was the successful soldier, in hardy daring attitude sitting on his war-steed, more in the guise of command than of good horsemanship, with his feet stretched out before him almost scorning the assistance of the stirrup. Under him, full of life and strength and energy, and, luckily for the rider, thoroughly trained, paced in quick walk the noble well-formed steed, so life-like, that the pedestal seemed too short for the step that he was certainly about to make." (Semele, p. 128ff)



"One bright morning Semele walked on the terrace washed at its base by the laughing daughters of the Adriatic. On her left the terraced Alps reared themselves into the ether, commencing with the fertile verdure-covered declivites descending into the plain close to Conegliano, and ending with inaccessible spirelike Tyrolean dolomite rocks. The sharp air of the more early hours of the day at that advanced season had yielded to the Italian sunshine; the night-mists had passed away, and a most clear atmosphere rendered all distant objects visible with a startling distinctness seemingly unreal to an inhabitant of cloudy climes. And the leaves of the trees in the many gardens of Murano were changing colour in anticipation of the approach of winter with all its severity*;" (Semele, p. 131ff)

" * Let no one think that Venetian winters are devoid of cold. What with the occasional Bora (Boreas), blowing from the north-east over the snow-covered Alps, its girdle of water, and its total absence of those endless appliances which in northern regions regard animal comfort, Venice, during the greater part of the months of January and February, is practically one of the coldest places in Europe to reside in. In January, 1858, the author saw  the whole Lagune frozen thickly over between Venice and Mestre, the thermometer falling to 12° below zero (Réaumur)  [ -15° C]. In other winters, the small canals in Venice are frequently frozen over. Whilst these frosts last, the nights feel milder than the days, during which, in spite of a good stove in the sitting-rooms, the pen will fall from the numbed fingers of the writer, shivering under a freezing temperature. Perhaps the following notes of extremely cold seasons in Venice will not be uninteresting to the reader. [Here follow comments on the severe winters of the years 568, 852, 1118, 1413, 1419, and 1431 when] a frost commenced the 6th of January, and lasted until the l2th of February, during which interval a bride came from Mestre in a carriage over the ice, bringing her dowry with her, [as well as 1486, 1514, 1548, 1549, 1598, 1601, 1608, 1684, 1709, 1716, 1740, 1758, and 1788-1789 when] the Lagunes were frozen over from the 28th of December to the 24th of  January, and a road was kept clear to Mestre, by which passed all the heavy and light traffic, and public-houses and amusements were rife upon the ice. On the night of the commencement of this frost many people died of cold in the streets, the houses, and the cafes." 


Isola San Francesco del Deserto, c. 1900

One night at "half-past nine Semele ordered her gondola with four rowers to be prepared to take her to the island of S. Francesco nel Deserto." (Semele, p. 153) "... she found her way into the half-ruined, desecrated church, and kneeling close to the narrow cell where S. Francis used to sleep, poured forth thanksgivings for having attained the object of her fondest hopes. Thence she passed into the open space, where was a rude hut, in which the venerable saint used to pray, now almost filled up by the lower part of the trunk of a large cypress tree. Then she, led by some mysterious impulse, moved joyfully and fearlessly forward into a large piece of ground at the back of the convent, looking towards the swampy shores of Erasmo, on the other side of which chafed the restless Adriatic. In the middle of this space grew five tall cypresses, so grouped together, that the largest stood in the centre surrounded by the four others. Against this tree she leaned, awaiting with fond confidence the arrival of the object of her strange and passionate love her sense of the Beautiful accurately shaped forth in intensest concentration. The rain and wind had ceased, but the black cloud remained, and every now and then the vivid lightning laid open its lurid recesses, leaving every thing blacker than before. And then Semele, with hands erect, as one earnestly praying, said, 'O glorious Spirit, that fillest the universe with thy presence, behold me here, unceasing seeker of thee in visible form! Be present now according to thine infallible promise, and afford me, at least, one glance of thy divine attributes, thus satisfying the life-long cravings of a heart and brain, which would comprehend in one vivid concentration all the infinite beauty of the material universe.'" (Semele, p. 159f)


Further reading: P. Bernardino Barban, L'Isoletta di "S. Francesco del Deserto" nelle Lagune di Venezia, Vicenza 1927.

On the inside of the front cover of the Semele copy depicted above, there is a bookplate:

E · M · B




Casa Alvisi  [Venice]

This would be Edith Millicent Bronson. She was born in Newport, RI, USA, in 1861. In 1895 she married Count Cosimo Rucellai, Florence.