Saturday, March 16, 2013

'The Paradise of Cities'

(Donato Bertelli's Map of Venice, 1566)

The Victorians -- John Ruskin comes to mind, in particular -- visited Venice because they enjoyed the characteristically Victorian blend of melancholy and moralising. For them, Venice was a warning to England, an example to be heeded. Ruskin, in the Stones of Venice (1851), saw it his task to
trace the lines of this image before it be for ever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the STONES OF VENICE.  
The sight of Venice's melancholy desolation, its unbearable beauty, and its ethereal, watery existence provoked especial thrill. To quote Ruskin again, Venice
is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness
Venice and its history were, to put it crudely, being consumed as a pornography of decline and ruin, much like the gawking that happens with photographs of a disused and decaying Detroit.

This nineteenth-century mindset is still very much with us and shapes much of Venetian tourism. It has been heightened by vague environmental awareness of the dangers and perils facing Venice. Tourism itself, and this is another commonplace, threatens the very soul of the city, even as it is utterly indispensable to the Venetian economy. Rising prices, lack of local communities are turning a living city into a dying museum, sending local, real Venetians fleeing. The point of going to Venice, even if it's for a day (an incredible, deplorable 70% of visitors to Venice are day trippers), is to see it before it inevitably sinks into oblivion -- physically and in spirit. Or so you'll hear.

Yet the impressions I received on this trip seemed to add up to something slightly more complex. Sure, in the melancholy of the sestiere (district) of Cannaregio where I stayed, with its decaying buildings and dark quiet, one could at times feel like the consummate connoisseur of decline. But Cannaregio was in fact incredibly lively, populated with locals and quality bars and restaurants. The city was well-run and efficient, overturning stereotypes of Italian misgovernment. Case in point: the waterbuses (vaporetti) were never late. (The only delay in my entire journey was due to Easyjet.) My landlord, a local Venetian, was extremely proud of Venice, its history, the history of the place he ran, the quarter he lives in -- and many Venetians I met were similarly proud, almost defiant. (Venetians seem to live as much in the past as in the present. Over an excellent espresso, my landlord openly lamented Napoleon's barbaric looting of Venice, in front of all the guests, who aside from myself and my companion, were all French.) The winged lion of St. Mark, prominently depicted in the Venetian flag -- which was everywhere -- seemed to represent this spirit of defiance: passant guardant and staring down doubters. Like the decline of the humanities, such predictions of demise, and the accompanying decrying, are often a sign of vitality and strength. I reckon Venice will last a long time yet.

(The Lion of St Mark, Vittore Carpaccio)

The relation to tourism is, to my mind, complex too. Venice was, after all, always a city of visiting merchants and migrants. (Hence the existence of places like the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, once the living quarters of the city's German merchants.) Comments about how Venetians were outnumbered by aliens went back a long way: at the end of the fifteenth century, the French ambassador Philippe de Commynes acidly remarked that 'most of their people are foreigners'.

(The Fondaco dei Tedeschi, just by the Rialto bridge.)

Yes, the day-trippers, who simply catch a glimpse of St Mark's Square and are then quickly evacuated back to the mainland are fools. But Venice has always cultivated extraordinary tourists, who fall in love with the city and proceed to champion its cause. One has only to note the number of funds and charities dedicated to rescuing and restoring Venice. It is through the eyes of famous tourists -- Ruskin, Byron, among countless others -- that we first view Venice, even if we outgrow their views and come to develop our own. And these distinguished visitors -- and also those less so -- have always been part of Venice's history. More so now than ever, it needs enlightened tourists, willing to defend it as if they were the inheritors of Venice themselves. I think again of Ruskin, who played a crucial part in Venice's conservation and restoration. His less famous piece on Venice was St Mark's Rest (1877-84), subtitled 'The history of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments'. I have no doubt such champions exist today, and will continue to do so.

Long may it live, defying the prophecies of ruin! 

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