Saturday 10 March 2018

If Venice dies – Michelle Lovric


In my library, there’s a curious book called Giorno per giorno, tanti anni fa (Almanacco della Regione Veneta) which I’d translate as Day by Day, Many Years Past (Almanac of the Veneto). Its contents, originally curated for radio, were cherry-picked by Luciano Filippi for publication in this volume.

Today, March 10th, is marked by several entries, but the one that seems most significant is that, on this date in 1924, the nation of Italy ceded the Doges’ Palace to the Comune of Venice. A ceremonial handing-over of the keys took place in the presence of civil, military and religious officers of the city.

It crossed my mind that this transfer may not have been a cause for unadulterated joy among the Venetians; it may also have been canny on the part of the Italian state. As anyone who's custodian of a centuries-old house could tell you, such a gift was always going to prove brutally expensive to the city.

But what moved me was the reason recorded for the gift. Italy’s representative declared: ‘I hand over to Venice the keys to this palace which has seen the highest form of statecraft in Italy. This people – its navigators, artists, merchants – shall once more own this seat of power where the whole political life of Venice has been enacted.

Salvatore Settis
I read those two sentences mindful of a book I’ve just finished reading and with the voice of its author still ringing in my head. Salvatore Settis presents the Venetians of 2018 as anything but masters of statecraft, navigators or artists. Instead, he shows a city gasping feebly for life amid the onslaught of mass tourism and crass globalization, a city from which her citizens are fleeing, a city mired in corruption and under threat of toxic development.

It's an old trope that Venice shall surely sink one day. And indeed danger has lately come to her by sea. However Venice is not drowning. She's being strangled by earthly greed. The monstrous cruise ships function as a symbol for everything that menaces the existence of a place held up for centuries as a model for all cities. As Professor Settis says, from the high decks of these ‘skyscrapers of the seas’, tourists literally look down on little Venice, oblivious to the fact that their very presence diminishes and endangers the city.

When ignorance, contempt and arrogance are thus allied with a ruthless desire for profit, it is the equivalent of a hostile invasion or a plague.

Professor Settis's book bears an ominous title: If Venice Dies. And the reason for the ‘if’ in the title is this: ‘if Venice dies, it won’t be the only thing that dies: the very idea of the city – as an open space where diversity and social life can unfold, as the supreme creation of our civilization, as a commitment to and promise of democracy – will also die with it.’ Fragile Venice, meanwhile, teeters on the brink. At least one funeral has already been held for the city.

I was privileged to be present when Professor Settis brought his vision of a city on the precipice to a tribal gathering of Venice in Peril in London last month. It would do a disservice to the eloquence of the author, who’s been described as ‘the conscience of Italy’, to try to encapsulate his book in a few paragraphs. Instead, I'll pick up on just a few ideas he raises.

Firstly, how do cities die?

In three ways: when invaders physically destroy them; when they are aggressively colonized; and finally, ‘when their citizens forget who they are and become strangers to themselves and thereby their own worst enemies without even realizing it’. Venice, argues Professor Settis, is losing her identity, suffering from the kind of dementia that leads only to a slow extinction of consciousness. When that ‘hesitant, final curtain’ falls, then the tangible horizon also darkens, because ‘the same air and blood binds the great monuments of art, nature, and history to those who created them, or look after them, or dwell in them.’

It will require not just awareness but active measures to save the beauty of Venice, which – as John Ruskin would argue – inevitably also represents its virtue.

A city has a soul, is a thinking machine.

The body of the city is made of walls, buildings, squares. The soul is found in its living inhabitants but also in ‘a living tapestry of stories, memories, principles, languages, desires, institutions and plans.’ This inner city remains largely invisible to the uninformed eye, but its conflicts, triumphs and visions are in fact inscribed on the walls, buildings and squares. You just need to pause, look, read. The city is a theatre of memory, both individual and collective – or it should be. The very voids tell stories.

the forgotten slab with a mortar and pestle,
symbol of the defeat of the conspiracy
Why, for example, is there a (relatively) modern building in Calle Baiamonte Tiepolo near Sant’Agostin? It’s because the palace of Baiamonte Tiepolo, originally on that site, was razed as a punishment for his conspiracy in 1310. In response to the plot, Venice created its Council of Ten. A column of infamy was erected in Sant-Agostin, precisely to preserve those events in civic memory ... but now sits in a dusty store-room of the Doges Palace, where no-one may see it, despite passionate appeals for its restitution. The only trace that remains is a broken flagstone, usually covered with cigarette butts. This is what happens when a city forgets itself. It does not even remember why it needs not to forget.

Venice is the paradigm of the historical city, argues Professor Settis. Moreover, like ‘a celebrity patient’, its ills attract more attention than other places. Yet Venice is also the paradigm ‘of the modern city like Manhattan. It’s a thinking machine that allows us to ponder the very idea of the city, citizen practices, urban life as sediments of history, as the experience of the here and now, as well as a project for a possible future.’

A servile monoculture cannot save the city.

Venetians are outnumbered 140 to 1 by tourists at present. Residents must shackle themselves in service or subjugation to the monoculture of tourism - or leave. The plurality of dignified work is thus lost in a city once famous for her craftsmen, architects and artists. Many foreigners have second (or third, or fourth) homes in Venice. But a majority of those spend just a few days a year in the city. These are not the citizens whom Venice needs, not ‘the makers and guardians of its memories’.

A hit-and-run tourist monoculture is also inimical to the nuance of memory, and to dignity. In fact, it humiliates the city. ‘The skyscraper ships that pass by Venice constantly proclaim that Venice isn’t forever young and yet still perfectly formed, but is instead old, moribund, and poor, and must stretch its hand out to tourists and ask for alms.
An image used by the campaigners NOGrandiNavi who
seek to divert the huge cruise ships away from the heart of the city

Moreover, these ships distort and destroy Venice’s historic skyline. They ‘parade their pompous arrogance and trespass into Saint Mark’s basin, defying with their tacky bulkiness the ancient basilica, the Doges’ Palace and the horses stolen from Byzantium.’ The city is colonized and wrecked by these ‘veritable spaceships of modernity, temples of consumerism.’ They are ‘cookie-cutter machines that produce standardized pleasures … portray the blandest sort of mass tourism as a highly personalized experience.

Meanwhile, after the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in 2012, a new law has forced all cruise ships to stay 2.3 miles from Italian shorelines. The only exception: Venice.

Venice has a price-tag and her patrimony is for sale.

An act signed into law in 2010 by Silvio Berlusconi and Roberto Calderoli turned Italy into ‘a gigantic real estate supermarket’. The ownership of heritage sites was transferred from the nation to individual authorities, including Venice. At the same time, the values were quantified and the ‘assets’ became available for sale to private interests. In Venice, whole islands were thus put up for land-grabs – Certosa and Poveglia; also, many buildings in the historic centre. A law requires Venice to provide yearly reports on her real estate disposals alongside her city budget. Venetians, like the inhabitants of other historic cities in Italy, no longer have a right to their own city. Market forces have robbed her citizens of those rights.

Venice is a glove thrown down to the modernity.

 Professor Settis quotes the architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri: ‘Even in its current cadaverous state, Venice is still an unbearable challenge to the world of modernity. Venice only manages to make its heard in a whisper, but this is still simply unbearable to our technological world …’ Only the lagoon has protected Venice from suburbanization and the ‘fatuous rhetoric’ of skyscrapers. Instead, the state allows the floating skyscrapers unfettered access. Meanwhile, the scandal of MOSE exemplifies ‘how Venice’s problems have been used as a pretext to invoke empty rhetorical formulas of preservation, while actually allowing private interests to rob the city blind.

Professor Settis outlines various projects to modernize Venice, using her fragility as a pretext for punishing her. ‘In each case, it is seen as essential to desecrate this this glorious city which has proved so annoying to the preachers of modernity in the same way that a virgin might frustrate a Don Juan who thinks himself irresistible.’

 A Vitruvian Oath for architects?

Doctors have their Hippocratic Oath, which forbids them to do harm to those they tend. Professor Settis has conceived the idea of a Vitruvian Oath for architects, to ensure that they serve the built environment and its citizens – privileging good work over profit and devotion to virtuous place-making over the narcissistic demands of commercial clients. More than anything, a Vitruvian Oath would require an architect to undertake a scrupulous study of history before imposing his creativity on a precious context. This is increasingly not the case in today’s architectural schools: ‘it’s almost as if the memory of our past were a burden to rid oneself of in order to live in a mindless present’.

On the contrary, Professor Settis argues, ‘the urgency of the present prompts us to re-examine the events of the past not as a mere accumulation of data, or as dusty archive, but as the critical living memory of human communities. This would be the only way in which the past could be leavening for the present, a reservoir of energy and ideas that we could use to build our future.’ When Professor Settis conceived this idea, it was contemplative and playful. But institutions are starting to take it seriously.

What can be done to save Venice?

Professor Settis told Venice in Peril that it is not enough to simply stop bad development. Active measures are needed to ensure that the city does not become a mummified tourist attraction. He sees hope in a limit on second homes, and in positive incentives to rebuild the small industries that once thrived in the city, creating both dignified and creative employment for Venetians. In the book, he writes also of re-utilizing the many vacant buildings in Venice, and of incentivizing research, training and apprentice schemes. These things cannot be achieved without a new pact between citizens and their city. He does not discriminate against incomers. You don’t have to be born in Venice to be part of this. You simply need to be committed to bringing the city back to life, which also entails restoring her memories and her self-respect before it is too late.

As I wrote the above, I noticed Giorno per giorno still lying on my desk. Picking it up, I discovered that it started with a list of Patron Saints. I think Patron Saints are another aspect of Venetian life that could do with revivification. Perhaps we shall not lay too many offerings on the altars of San Giuliano l’Ospedaliere or Santa Marta … protectors of hoteliers. But Venice would profit from the intervention of the following:
San Tommaso apostolo – architects
San Giovanni evangelista and San Luca – artists
San Crispino and San Aniano – shoemakers
San Eligio – ironmongers, clockmakers and jewellers
San Giovanni Bosco – publishers
San Giuseppe – carpenters
San Omobono – tailors
Sant’Elena – dyers
Sant’Agostino di Ippona – typographers
Santa Chiara d’Assisi – glassmakers

And yes … San Nicola di Mira – navigators.

Michelle Lovric’s website

If Venice Dies is published in English by Pallas Athene.


Mary Hoffman said...

What a powerful and horrific post, Michelle, following on your one about the giant cruise ships. It's terrible to think of any city dying but especially one that has meant so much to so many people, from artists and writers to ordinary visitors.

Sue Purkiss said...

Horrifying. It defies belief that those huge ships are allowed so close to the city - and that Italy's treasures can be up for grabs.

Leslie Wilson said...

Venice is so beautiful, and it's dreadful to think of the cruise ships - I can hardly believe it, it's so outrageous. I've been there twice in my life, first when I was seven, and I still vividly remember that visit, though it was only a day; it was so magical and enchanting to me. Then in 2003, I spent a week there with my husband. A city you walk round! I was quite astonished by this, having experienced it first from a gondola and then the vaporetto in 1959. But the pedestrian streets and bridges enchanted me, all those years later. Someone I know from dog-walking was happily telling me that their cruise ship had taken them right through the city, and I didn't know where to put myself. It's the ignorance, and the greed. Your post is powerful and horrific indeed, Michelle. I do pray that something can still be done to save this precious treasure.