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How do you solve a problem like Venice?

Posted on 21st April 2007. No Comment

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Does Venice deserve to be saved? Zaki Moosa is unsure…

all so quiet | past, present, future | mercy of nature

All so quiet
Venice in the daytime is a mass-tourism nightmare of over-crowded alleyways, pigeons and over-priced espressos. St Mark’s Square was flooded the first time I went so our only option was to shuffle along little catwalks across the water, a joyless activity only made worse by a Japanese family shoving their way past everyone in a rush to get back to their cruise ship. On the journey home, after being accosted by a fat American couple in baseball caps who demanded to know why their train to Venice had taken them to “Vuh-nee-zee-uh”, I tried to work out what had possessed Napoleon to call San Marco “the drawing-room of Europe”: the only connection I could make with lounges was that it had all been about as fun as visiting Ikea.

I went back a couple of weeks later, this time arriving at midnight to meet some friends before lurking around and catching a preposterously early train to Vienna, and I still can’t believe it was the same city. At as much risk as falling into hyperbole as I was of falling into a canal that night (powerful stuff, those Venetian sprizze), there is no other way to express the magic and beauty of Venice at 3am. There was literally not another person to be seen – with the exception of a couple of chattering policemen I had San Marco to myself, the canals brooded in the darkness and strange shadows flitted across deserted alleyways. Before dawn, the tourists still safely asleep, Venice briefly seemed normal: a postman made his rounds, old men delivered newspapers, shopkeepers swept the pavements and people rushed to work.

Past, present, future
But at the risk of stating the obvious – and very few people actually seem to get this after their romantic weekends in the Queen of the Seas – Venice isn’t normal. Yes, we know it’s unique as a city built as an island, with canals instead of roads etc etc etc. We can emerge from the mist and stand on the Bridge of Sighs, reciting Byron’s words “…a dying Glory smiles O’er the far times, when many a subject land Looked to the winged Lion’s marble piles, Where Venice sat in state, thron’d on her hundred isles,” but emotion, poetry and indeed pretension can play no part in debating Venice’s future. Anna Somers Cocks, the chairman of the Venice in Peril fund, has declared that “the Venice we’ve got is the Venice we want.” Her words miss the point entirely. Although it isn’t anymore, its far-reaching empire and artistic heyday long in the past, Venice was undoubtedly once a great world city, the London or Tokyo of its day. Ever since the first Venetians fled into the marshes, the city has developed like any great city does: unplanned, unruly, unpredictably, the layers of history built on top of each other like a lasagna. You can’t just pluck a time out of thin air and say “Right. It stops here”.

Luckily for Somers Cocks and many others who prefer to see the island as their own bit of paradise rather than a living city, it is stopping here. Venice, after all that the last millennium has thrown at it, is a dying city. Its resident population, currently about 60,000, is fleeing for the mainland at such a high rate that it is estimated the island will have no native Venetians left by 2040. Like a pretty Cotswold village, tourism and second-home owners are driving the natives out. Cities can revive, as New York and London have both done since the 1970s, but Venice’s uniqueness seems to make its future as a living city untenable. Take TV aerials and satellite dishes: should they be allowed to cluster on rooftops, ruining the ancient skyline for tourists, or should cable be installed at massive cost? All over the residential parts of the city are billboards proclaiming how broadband and a new electricity supply have been installed in one street at a cost of millions of euros and months of work. Consider the nightmare of replacing London’s water mains, and then imagine doing it in Venice. It’s no wonder people are leaving.

Mercy of nature
So then what? If nothing is done Venice will soon sink, but work on the Moses barrier to protect it has stopped and it is debatable whether it would have had a long-term effect anyway. Venice in Peril boasts how it spends donations restoring an old crane or a house to provide affordable living for four families, which seems a bit like running around the Titanic with a lump of blu-tack, because if sea-levels continue to rise nothing can be done to save the island. Now there are plans to turn it into a Disneyland-style tourist attraction, complete with an entry fee that may be as high as €50 a day per person. This might raise the money needed to build the defence needed against rising sea-levels. What we then need to ask is if Venice is worth saving, considering the huge costs involved. It is not comparable to saving a stately home or a piece of art: it’s an entire city. Other cities at risk include London, New York and Tokyo, the economic powerhouses of the world. Bangladesh, lying low in a delta, will soon be flooded; the Maldives will soon be below the waves. Why is Venice remotely a priority? Perhaps it’s time to concede that we are at the mercy of nature. The Dutch, forward-looking as ever, have begun to think about how to save their country: one plan includes allowing fields to flood in order to save towns, and building floating houses in those fields. But maybe the simple truth is that Venice is beyond rescue. No middle-class angst and hypocrisy about their favourite city break destination can stop that.

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  • ChrisJ said:

    I spent two weeks travelling around Italy last September, and Venice was by far the most striking city I saw.

    I totally agree that the best time to see the place is at unsociable hours when the tourists are nowhere to be seen. The view from the Campanile at 9am is stunning and blissfully serene as nobody is awake.

    Very convincing article – maybe Venice should be comitted to legend and left to fall into decline. If the Moses barrier goes ahead, the glittering blue of the lagoon will soon become a stagnant greeny-brown mush, which seems hardly worth the investment.

    Maybe the more dignified solution is to let Venice slip gracefully into the Adriatic sea…

  • ChrisJ said:

    I spent two weeks travelling around Italy last September, and Venice was by far the most striking city I saw.

    I totally agree that the best time to see the place is at unsociable hours when the tourists are nowhere to be seen. The view from the Campanile at 9am is stunning and blissfully serene as nobody is awake.

    Very convincing article – maybe Venice should be comitted to legend and left to fall into decline. If the Moses barrier goes ahead, the glittering blue of the lagoon will soon become a stagnant greeny-brown mush, which seems hardly worth the investment.

    Maybe the more dignified solution is to let Venice slip gracefully into the Adriatic sea…

  • ChrisJ said:

    I spent two weeks travelling around Italy last September, and Venice was by far the most striking city I saw.

    I totally agree that the best time to see the place is at unsociable hours when the tourists are nowhere to be seen. The view from the Campanile at 9am is stunning and blissfully serene as nobody is awake.

    Very convincing article – maybe Venice should be comitted to legend and left to fall into decline. If the Moses barrier goes ahead, the glittering blue of the lagoon will soon become a stagnant greeny-brown mush, which seems hardly worth the investment.

    Maybe the more dignified solution is to let Venice slip gracefully into the Adriatic sea…

  • zaki said:

    It was irrelevent to the article but the one good thing about the flood of tourists into Venice means nobody goes to Padua, a city of which I am strangely fond. It just has a nice civilised feel to it, and it has two awesome cathedrals. One is hilariously over-the-top in the best Catholic tradition – all gold and murals everywhere – and has the tomb of St Anthony so is full of weeping people from all over the world. I sat at the back of mass once and an old dear stood up, was given a microphone and then proceeded to cry her eyes out for half an hour. The other cathedral must be a replacement for one bombed in the war – it is completely white, minimalist and silent, with only bits of the old stonework mounted in the wall.
    Plus there the Scrovegni chapel, which is an extraordinarily beautiful piece of art – I had it to myself at 9pm on a Friday evening, for 45 minutes, because I found some special deal. Surely the highlight of the year abroad.

  • zaki said:

    It was irrelevent to the article but the one good thing about the flood of tourists into Venice means nobody goes to Padua, a city of which I am strangely fond. It just has a nice civilised feel to it, and it has two awesome cathedrals. One is hilariously over-the-top in the best Catholic tradition – all gold and murals everywhere – and has the tomb of St Anthony so is full of weeping people from all over the world. I sat at the back of mass once and an old dear stood up, was given a microphone and then proceeded to cry her eyes out for half an hour. The other cathedral must be a replacement for one bombed in the war – it is completely white, minimalist and silent, with only bits of the old stonework mounted in the wall.
    Plus there the Scrovegni chapel, which is an extraordinarily beautiful piece of art – I had it to myself at 9pm on a Friday evening, for 45 minutes, because I found some special deal. Surely the highlight of the year abroad.

  • zaki said:

    It was irrelevent to the article but the one good thing about the flood of tourists into Venice means nobody goes to Padua, a city of which I am strangely fond. It just has a nice civilised feel to it, and it has two awesome cathedrals. One is hilariously over-the-top in the best Catholic tradition – all gold and murals everywhere – and has the tomb of St Anthony so is full of weeping people from all over the world. I sat at the back of mass once and an old dear stood up, was given a microphone and then proceeded to cry her eyes out for half an hour. The other cathedral must be a replacement for one bombed in the war – it is completely white, minimalist and silent, with only bits of the old stonework mounted in the wall.
    Plus there the Scrovegni chapel, which is an extraordinarily beautiful piece of art – I had it to myself at 9pm on a Friday evening, for 45 minutes, because I found some special deal. Surely the highlight of the year abroad.

  • ChrisJ said:

    Call me a Philistine, but I was completely underwhelmed by Padua.

    I spent two days there after Venice and all I could find to keep me entertained was an average Mini-golf course and a VERY fit Italian waitress. 

  • ChrisJ said:

    Call me a Philistine, but I was completely underwhelmed by Padua.

    I spent two days there after Venice and all I could find to keep me entertained was an average Mini-golf course and a VERY fit Italian waitress. 

  • ChrisJ said:

    Call me a Philistine, but I was completely underwhelmed by Padua.

    I spent two days there after Venice and all I could find to keep me entertained was an average Mini-golf course and a VERY fit Italian waitress. 

  • James said:

    Good article, and I agree that it is a massive problem.  But Venice simply MUST be saved, regardless of cost.  As you say, it's not like a stately home or a piece of art, it's a city.  But as a city, Venice IS a piece of art.  It is so wonderful and unique, even in a country such as Italy which has so many treasures, that it would be a crime to lose it.  Some wealthy American could probably pay to have the whole city flown over to Florida.  Even if it cost as much as the 2012 Olympics to save it, it should be attempted.  There are, as you mention, far more worthy things to spend the money on – you are in so many ways quite right to draw the conclusion you do.  It probably is just middle-class angst and hypocrisy, and my argument doesn't stand up to any kind of reason, but losing Venice is, well… unimaginable.  Let's hope that middle class angst and hypocrisy is enough to save it!

  • James said:

    Good article, and I agree that it is a massive problem.  But Venice simply MUST be saved, regardless of cost.  As you say, it's not like a stately home or a piece of art, it's a city.  But as a city, Venice IS a piece of art.  It is so wonderful and unique, even in a country such as Italy which has so many treasures, that it would be a crime to lose it.  Some wealthy American could probably pay to have the whole city flown over to Florida.  Even if it cost as much as the 2012 Olympics to save it, it should be attempted.  There are, as you mention, far more worthy things to spend the money on – you are in so many ways quite right to draw the conclusion you do.  It probably is just middle-class angst and hypocrisy, and my argument doesn't stand up to any kind of reason, but losing Venice is, well… unimaginable.  Let's hope that middle class angst and hypocrisy is enough to save it!

  • James said:

    Good article, and I agree that it is a massive problem.  But Venice simply MUST be saved, regardless of cost.  As you say, it's not like a stately home or a piece of art, it's a city.  But as a city, Venice IS a piece of art.  It is so wonderful and unique, even in a country such as Italy which has so many treasures, that it would be a crime to lose it.  Some wealthy American could probably pay to have the whole city flown over to Florida.  Even if it cost as much as the 2012 Olympics to save it, it should be attempted.  There are, as you mention, far more worthy things to spend the money on – you are in so many ways quite right to draw the conclusion you do.  It probably is just middle-class angst and hypocrisy, and my argument doesn't stand up to any kind of reason, but losing Venice is, well… unimaginable.  Let's hope that middle class angst and hypocrisy is enough to save it!

  • john said:

    anyone else even moderately amused by Ann Somers Cocks? No? Just me then.

  • john said:

    anyone else even moderately amused by Ann Somers Cocks? No? Just me then.

  • john said:

    anyone else even moderately amused by Ann Somers Cocks? No? Just me then.

  • Anonymous said:

    haha venice

  • Anonymous said:

    haha venice

  • Anonymous said:

    haha venice

  • anus said:

    im italien nooooooooooooooo!!!!!

  • anus said:

    im italien nooooooooooooooo!!!!!

  • anus said:

    im italien nooooooooooooooo!!!!!

  • Evan said:

    hello whoever said haha venice screeew you

  • fukitol said:

    i love venice she is a beauty like shit and smells like it to like the“`ha ha “ guy

  • Evan said:

    hello whoever said haha venice screeew you

  • fukitol said:

    i love venice she is a beauty like shit and smells like it to like the“`ha ha “ guy

  • Evan said:

    hello whoever said haha venice screeew you

  • fukitol said:

    i love venice she is a beauty like shit and smells like it to like the“`ha ha “ guy