Henry James said of Venice: “There is nothing left to discover or describe and originality of attitude is completely impossible.” So, fresh back from a trip to the city to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, here goes.
There is nowhere like it on earth. Once you have turned the corner past the Piazzale Roma and crossed the Grand Canal you enter a place which in its design, history and beauty are unmatched by any other city. It would be a hard heart, despite the crowds of tourists, not to be moved by a journey down the Grand Canal, by the view of the baroque masterpiece Santa Maria della Salute, (Venice’s thank offering for the passing of the plague in 1630/1) or by the familiar sight of St Mark’s Square, described by Napoleon as “the finest drawing room in Europe”.
This is not just a city. Until its end in 1797, this was “La Republica Serenessima”, an independent state with over 1300 years of its own history and for much of that one of the major actors in European history. Its authority was based on its supremacy as a naval power in the Mediterranean and its fearsome military capability centred in the Arsenal (which at its peak employed 16,000 men, invented the assembly line and could turn out a warship in the time it took a 16th century French King to eat his dinner). Its wealth was a product of its position as the gateway between the West and the East and its pivotal position in the spice and other long distance trade.
The discovery of the New World and the development of trans-Atlantic trade in the end marked the demise of Venice’s position but the fading of the city state’s fortunes took nearly three centuries. That time of decline saw the continuation of Venice’s role as a cultural powerhouse with figures such as Vivaldi, Canaletto and Tiempelo. The end came not with a bang but a whimper, with Venice ceded to Austrian at the conclusion of one of Bonaparte’s Italian campaigns. There was no historic last act of defiance but rather the meek resignation of the last Doge and Council.
Despite its beauty it is not hard to sense and atmosphere of melancholy in Venice. History is everywhere in the city but where is the future? Much has been made of the environmental threats to the city, first dramatically highlighted in 1966 when an exceptionally high tide “alta acqua” catastrophically flooded much of the city, and this has prompted some investment in systems of flood defences, due to completed in 2016 which may offer some protection.
Perhaps more damaging however is the loss of the city’s indigenous population which has fallen below 60,000 from its peak of 170,000. While the city has, for a long time, been used to tourists (it was a standard destination on the aristocratic Grand Tour in the 18th century) there are now as many visitors (50,000 by an estimate in 2007) each day as there are inhabitants of the city. For years a place apart (it was only connected in 1846 with the mainland), with its distinctive dialects (these used to vary between different sectors of the city) and culture it is in danger of becoming a city, which in belonging to everyone, belongs to no one. As such it epitomises the impact of globalisation which is steadily eroding the sense of local identity on which so much of human culture is based. Is it possible to cherish Venice as a “living museum” without destroying its intrinsic heart and soul and leaving nothing but a “thinking man’s Disneyland”? More generally can tourism (which I have enjoyed as much as anyone) promote the mass appreciation of the world’s treasures without, at the same time, leading to their destruction?
The city is not dead yet. The last couple of times we have visited we have stayed in Cannaregio, the quarter (or more accurately sixth) of Venice furthest from St Mark’s Square and, as a result, still retaining an element of normal Venetian life. There is a joy in the city in just walking around. In addition to the churches, museums and famous monuments, Venice is full of hidden gems – the winding alleys, the square you stumble into when you’ve lost your way or the view looking down a canal of a familiar landmark. Different weathers bring different moods. Nowhere looks more atmospheric in rain or mist. A touch of sunshine brings the city to life and makes it the photographer’s dream. I always feel when I visit Venice that this is how I would imagine a city in my dreams if I had no other template to base it on.
Beyond the Piazzale Roma (a rare intrusion of ugliness into the city) a dominant experience is the absence of the car. It is intriguing to see how every activity: ambulances, deliveries, waste removal) has to be done by water. That proximity to water, much more significant elsewhere until the 20th century, is still the essence of Venice. There is something intrinsically beautiful and calming about this phenomenon.
So Venice still resplendent in its decline epitomises the challenges of how we reinterpret human and life and culture in the 21st century. The city has survived many threats in the past. Can it retain its character and charm in the age of globalisation or like an ancient Dowager will it fade gracefully into the mists of the lagoon and the past?