Street cries of the world

Street cries were once a popular subject of songs and literature in Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Each month from 2018 onwards I'll be scanning and transcribing publications to build this collection.


This article appeared in Vol. 2 No. 2 of The Crayon, published in July 1855. This New York-based journal described itself as ‘devoted to the graphic arts and the literature related to them’.


MOST persons are now well acquainted with the general aspect of the Venetian gondola, but few have taken the pains to understand the cries of warning uttered by its boatmen, although those cries arc peculiarly characteristic, and very impressive to a stranger, and have been even very sweetly introduced in poetry by Mr. Monckton Milnes. It may, perhaps, be interesting to the traveller in Venice to know the general method of management of the boat to which he owes so many happy hours.

The gondola is, in general, rowed only by one man standing at the stern; those of the upper classes having two or more boatmen, for greater speed and magnificence. In order to raise the oar sufficiently, it rests, not on the side of the boat, but on a piece of crooked timber like the branch of a tree, rising about a foot from the boat’s side, and called a “forcola.” The forcola is of different forms, according to the size and uses of the boat, and is always somewhat complicated in its parts and curvature, allowing the oar various kinds of rests and catches on both its sides, but perfectly free play in all cases, as the management of the boat depends on the gondoliers being able in an instant to place his oar in any position.

The forcola is set on the right hand side of the boat, some six feet from the stern: the gondolier stands on a little flat platform or deck behind it, and throws nearly the entire weight of his body upon the forward stroke. The effect of the stroke would be naturally to turn the boat’s head round to the left, as well as to send it forward ; but this tendency is corrected by keeping the blade of the oar under the water on the return stroke, and raising it gradually as a full spoon is raised out of any liquid, so that the blade emerges from the water only an instant before it again plunges.

A downward and lateral pressure upon the forcola is thus obtained, which entirely counteracts the tendency given by the forward stroke; and the effort, after a little practice, becomes hardly conscious, though, as it adds some labor to the back stroke, rowing a gondola at speed is hard and breathless work, though it appears easy and graceful to the lookers-on. If, then, the gondola is to be turned to the left, the forward impulse is given without the return stroke; if it is to be turned to the right, the plunged oar is brought forcibly up to the surface ; in either case, a single strong stroke being enough to turn the light and flat-bottomed boat. But as it has no keel, when the turn is made sharply, as out of one canal into another very narrow one, the impetus of the boat in its former direction gives it an enormous leeway, and it drifts laterally up against the wall of the canal, and that so forcibly, that if it has turned at speed, no gondolier can arrest the motion merely by strength, or rapidity of stroke of oar; but it is checked by a strong thrust of the foot against the wall itself, the head of the boat being, of course, turned for the moment almost completely round to the opposite wall, and greater exertion made to give it, as quickly as possible, impulse in the new direction.

The boat being thus guided, the cry, “Premi,” is the order from one gondolier to another, that he should “press,” or thrust forward his oar without the back stroke, so as to send his boat’s bead round to the left; and the cry, “Stali,” is the order that he should give the return or upward stroke, which sends the boat’s head round to the right. Hence, if two gondoliers meet under any circumstances which render it a matter of question on which side they should pass each other, the gondolier who has at the moment the least power over his boat, cries to the other, “Premi,” if he wishes the boats to pass with their right-hand sides to each other, and “Stali,” if with their left. Now, in turning a corner, there is of course risk of collision between the boats coming from opposite sides, and warning is always clearly and loudly given on approaching the angle of the canals. It is, of course, presumed that the boat which gives the warning will be nearer the turn than the one which receives and answers it; and therefore will not have so much time to check itself, or alter its course. Hence the advantage of the turn, that is, the outside, which allows the fullest swing, and greatest room, for lee-way, is always yielded to the boat which gives warning.

Therefore, if the warning boat is going to turn to the right, as it is to have the outside position, it will keep its own right hand aide to the boat which it meets, and the cry of warning is, therefore, “Premi,” twice given; first, aa soon as it can be heard round the angle, prolonged and loud, with the accent on the c, and another strongly accented e added, a kind of question, “Premi-é”, followed, at the instant of turning, with “Ah, Premi,” with the accent sharp on the final i. If, on the other hand, the warning boat is going to turn to the left, it will pass with its left-hand aide to the one it meets; and the warning cry is, “St´li-é, ah, Stali.” Hence the confused idea in the mind of the traveller that Stali means “to the left,” and Premi “to the right;” while they mean, in reality, the direct reverse: the Stali, for instance, being the order to the unseen gondolier who may be behind the corner, coming from the left hand side, that be should hold as much as possible to his own right; this being the only safe order for him, whether he is going to turn the corner himself, or to go straight on; for, as the warning gondola will always swing right across the canal in turning, a collision with it is only to be avoided by keeping well within it, and close up to the corner which it turns.

There are several other cries necessary in the management of the gondola, but less frequently, so that the reader will hardly care for their interpretation; except only the “Sciar,” which is the order to the opposite gondolier to stop the boat as suddenly as possible, by slipping his oar in front of the forcola. The cry is never heard, except when the boatmen have got into some unexpected position, involving a risk of collision; but the action is seen constantly, when the gondola is rowed by two or more men (for, if performed by the single gondolier, it only swings the boat’s head sharp round to the right), in bringing up at a landing place, especially when there is any intent of display, the boat being first urged to its full speed, and then stopped with as much foam about the oar blades as possible, the effect being much like that of stopping a horse at speed by pulling him off his haunches.

—Stones of Venice.