Photo: Lena van Tijen

Photo: Lena van Tijen

Venice is the only town where pigeons are walking and lions are flying.
Marco Paolini, Quaderno del Milione

The last letter to Srdja Popovic

There is one spot on our continent where, by crossing a long and narrow bridge, by train or by bus (if not on board of a ship or an enormous cruiser), one can exit a known, everyday world of contemporary Europe and submerge into the place which belongs to the times long gone. After only ten minutes ride, the hectic streets of Mestre on the mainland, full of cars, busy people and sounds of the present known to us all are replaced by the ancient splendour of Venice, city on the Lagoon, with its fairy-tale-like houses, labyrinth of miniature streets that seem to offer an entrance to magic and secrets of the ancient world, innumerable bridges to cross (some 500 to be more precise), churches to admire, boats and gondolas to take (instead of busses or cars). The sounds, smells and sights are so different that a traveller cannot avoid sort of shock, similar to the one felt by somebody boarding a plane on a rainy day in Amsterdam and landing for the first time, after a few hours, in the middle of a Kenyan summer day. Or maybe the shock is even deeper. Entering Venice, and doing it so quickly, is not just arriving to a different geographical site. It is like falling into the past which accepts you as a strange, unexpected dream. But how long can a dream last? And what will be left of the city when the dreamer wakes up?

Some hundred years ago Gustav von Aschenbach, a writer (and a tourist) created by Thomas Mann and immortalized in his “Death in Venice” published in 1912, thought about Venice as a place to go “if one wanted to travel overnight somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality”. On his last trip there he entered Venice by sea and thus encountered its splendour from another perspective. All looked different and more impressive – stately Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square), the imposing Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace), picturesque Ponte di Rialto, baroque Ponte dei Sospiri (named by Byron), statuettes of monsters and saints, a great basilica, palazzi submerged in dark waters that look much deeper than they really are. In his mind’s eye Aschenenbach realised that the only just thing one can do is to enter the town by ship, over the high sea, and “that to arrive in Venice by land, at the station, was like entering a palace by a back door”. And of course he was right. Even coastal towns much less glamorous than La Serenissima have a tendency to seem more remarkable and special when first spotted as a slowly approaching horizon, elusively framed by the sky above and sparkling light and movement of the water below. Besides, as Brodsky put it in his “Watermark”, there is something primordial about traveling on water.

Many tourists of our times prefer, if they can afford it, the same approach. But the times have changed and with them – types and size of ships (and not to forget a number of people moving around the globe, desperate and able to see all the “right places”, make photographs, enjoy exotic meals, write a postcard home and hurry on to the next “must-be-seen-once-in-a-lifetime” location). The ships entering today into the fragile waters of the Lagoon are rather monstrous constructions that are leaving most of the people a bit frightened by their dimensions. Cruisers (il grandi navi), many hundreds of them each year that have up to fifteen decks (and length of more than three football fields) have become part of the town’s landscape during the last two decades. And nobody came here, in the first place, to see that. (Any decent tourist would prefer to observe elegant skyline of the old town unspoiled and mystical, wishing that HIS cruiser is the only one around!) Two years ago it was altogether close to 2 million people arriving to Venice on cruisers. As Anna Somers Cocks tells us in her excellent article entitled The Coming Death of Venice? (The New York Review of Books, June 20, 2013), these boats are obstructing the view, polluting the air, shaking the houses and displacing water into the inner canals of the town’s islands. “On just one day in July 2011, six of these ships tied up in port and 35,000 tourists were disgorged all at once”. (We are not calculating here travellers who came by other means of transport.) And the number of inhabitants of the city of Venice itself is approximately 60,000 people.

In August this year similar event took place further to the south, along the Dalmatian coast, in Dubrovnik – “Pearl of the Adriatic”, another town protected by UNESCO. Passengers of cruisers, 16,000 strong, invaded a rather small walled centre of the town which resulted in blocked town doors and potentially hazardous situation, not only for the ones prone to attacks of claustrophobia. And, in that case, the number of people living in the old town today is 2,000! (During the last decades less robust citizens started to retreat from the “invasion”, as Croatian journalist Boris Dezulovic correctly describes the situation, comparing it with Turkish, Venetian and Napoleonic attacks over the centuries. But this time, he hardly detects any hope for the battle to be won by the people of the town, cursed by being born in a beautiful spot, at the wrong moment.)

But back to Venice. On 21 and 22 September 18 cruisers entered the lagoon which was the record of the year. As reported in the local daily Il Gazzettino (also speaking about the “invasion”), the impressive protest was organized by association “No Grandi Navi”. Activists and citizens were armed with all objects that can make noise and many of them jumped into the waters of Canale della Giudecca, very close to the centre of the town, in an effort to stop the passages. Finally a number of politicians joined in, not exactly in the water, but promising actions which should make all the difference. Minister Andrea Orlando promises to be ready for the governmental session in October with a demand to diminish and even completely divert the routes of cruise ships; the same declares Minister Maurizio Lupi as well as Prime Minister Enrico Letta. In the meantime, Venetian police is making an inquest against some 40 activists who, by direct interference with the traffic regulations (that is, by swimming where only boats are allowed) managed, even if only temporary, to delay the boats. And the boats in question that sailed in on 21st during the day (and sailed out of the town on the same day) are, to name just a few: Norvegian Spirit, 268 meters long, carrying 1,996 passengers and 965 crew members, Queen Victoria, 294 meters, 2,014 + 900 people on board, MCS Divina, 333 meters, with 3,959 + 1,325 people… (A short film, prepared by Manuel Vecchina, can be seen on

The discussion will surely go on, but in a hectic way, as many political discussions in Italy are held. Only two days after the protest, Mayor of Venice Giorgio Orsoni informed the public that he is not informed about any meeting of the government in October, adding that local authorities have to be involved in the discussion concerning that issue. The course that he finds doable is to gradually direct big boats towards Marghera, and only then plausible long-term plans should be prepared. Most probably, these are really going to be very long term plans if, by miracle, some consensus is not found somewhat before. Anyway, though a month after being announced, government held its session in November (and Orsoni has been informed). The decision is to cut down the number of cruise ships by 20% in 2014 and continue in November 2014 with ban from the city centre of all ships that have more than 96,000 tonnes. Plans for opening new canal routes are in preparation. Activists are certainly formulating their responses. Yes, discussion will definitely go on for a very long time indeed.

From hiding in the lagoon to drowning in it

The Lagoon of Venice covers more than 500 km2 of which 90% is water that is connected with the Adriatic Sea by 3 inlets near the island of Lido. The depth of water (before industrial alterations) is from 1 to 15 meters. Interconnected human habitats are to be found on many of 118 islands, natural and artificial ones. In the past, as today, the main problem for the inhabitants, essential for their lives, was how to maintain delicate balance of the Lagoon waters with its tides that are changing direction every 6 hours. These tides, bringing fresh water from the Adriatic, are ensuring that fish can live, that levels of the canals stay the same but also that town waste doesn’t start to present hygienic problem for the population. During the times of the Republic there existed an Office for the Waters completely dedicated to this crucial point of town’s life. In XVII century it initiated building of murazzi, 20 kilometres of dykes made of white Istrian stone that have been and still are the first line of defence against the high waters.

The history of Venice is one rich with invasions (other than tourists’ and industrials’) and battles won and lost. It all began some 15 centuries ago, when the first settlers from the mainland started building dwellings on the low islands of the Lagoon, attacked by mosquitoes and malaria but protected from enemies coming from the north. They had found security, autonomy and harmony with their exceptional watery surrounding, building a close tribal equalitarian community with its own recognisable profile. Step by step, they constructed the city which is even now considered to be architectural and engineering miracle. Once accustomed to the changing tides and winds of their secluded world, Venetians discovered that trade routes, close to the Lagoon, are offering possibilities not envisaged in the first years. They used them to the maximum, for commerce and conquests, and 10 centuries ago formed an independent Republic that ruled most of the Mediterranean and far beyond. The Republic’s days (centuries) of glory ended only in 1797, with the arrival of Napoleon, an enemy too strong to overmaster. At that point the atmosphere changed; decadence came at the place of prosperity, carnivals and gambling houses took place of serious commerce, foreigners started their investigation of the town. It was made easier for them when, in 1846, Austrians finalized a bridge for railway lines and in1933 another one for cars has been open for traffic. Both bridges are directly connecting the old town with its mainland. In 1917 foundations have been made, not far from Mestre, for what has become today the gigantic industrial zone of Marghera.

Today, many factors are presenting a danger to the equilibrium maintained for centuries, challenges that cannot be taken lightly. Water is polluted mainly by substances used in the agriculture on the mainland, industry and passing ships but also due to the number of people moving through the fragile environment.  The condition of sewers leaves much to be desired and only recently an increasing number of septic systems have been installed. Algae are getting wild in the Lagoon and its fauna is not what it once was. Rising sea levels (some 25 cm in the past century!) caused by geological factors, climate change but also the human intervention, resulted in damp entering brickwork above the stone basis and the state of buildings is deteriorating rapidly. A very real danger was and still is high winter tides. In 1966 the level of water rose to 190 cm in the centre and caused a flood that, once again though from a different angle, brought world’s attention to Venice. The international funds started coming in with the purpose to do something concrete for the town. New protection from the sea has been envisaged and proposed. As murazzi failed in 1966, this new solution should do the work. After two decades of discussions a new project – MOSE – is now under way. A set of mobile gates will be constructed across the three inlets connecting the Lagoon with the Adriatic Sea and will be open most of the time to allow free exchange of water. They will be raised only during high water events in hope that the city can be protected from flooding. Venetians are hoping that it will function as smoothly as the Dutch protection systems do.

Imagining Venice

For many centuries Venice managed to preserve, almost intact, its original urban structure and not just parts of it – the entire city. Only this fact could make it unique in the world. (In 1987 Venice was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) An Italian author stresses that this uniqueness can be understood better when one compares smallness of the town with the measure of its glory. But however small (often referred to as a town made in human proportions), it was home of the world’s first publishing house, one of Europe’s most famous schools of painting, a meeting place of artists and intellectuals, a place dedicated to free exchange of ideas and respect of culture. Even today (though our times introduced substantial changes, often not to the best), it can be described as a city of beauty, atmosphere and art. Beauty is not to be found only focusing an eager gaze on the imposing houses reflected in the muddy waters of the canal Grande, but also in darkish alleyways, narrow passages opening to the small illuminated campi (squares) with cosy restaurants, terraces on the rooftops, houses without cellars or underground at all, laundry in front of the windows… Visitor is submerged in an atmosphere that no other place can offer. And the fact that one is walking above millions of pillars (some 100,000 only below Basilica della Salute) that are reinforcing fragile static of the town is adding to the aura of the place.

Concerning art, Venice is offering numerable museums, from 1895 world known Bienalle of Art, Film festival, theatres, concerts of classical music, Murano glass, rare artefacts. And yes, all that confirms its importance on the soil of Europe. As a town so well-known throughout the world, it was always attractive to foreigners. Almost two centuries ago, tourists (first the very rich ones, mostly of noble origin) started coming here, primarily to Lido, to touch other dimensions in an effort to enrich their own worldview. They appreciated the fact that many great people were born here and walked the same streets, hardly changed with time. Some of them are Titian, Giorgione, Tiepolo, Goldoni, Vivaldi… Other ones, not less famous, came to Venice and stayed for a short or life-long visit, often not omitting to immortalize the town through their work or creating there the pieces that became parts of world heritage in their own right. To name just a few: Dante, Petrarca (Petrarch), Shakespeare, Monteverdi, Albinoni, Mann, Lord Byron, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Guy de Maupassant, Henry James, William Turner, Wagner, D’Annunzio… Some of them had found their ways how to relate to the place which inspired them, inventing for it new names. For Petrarca Venice was “city of excellency”, for Byron “the fairy city of the heart” and “the island of my imagination”, for Mann “sunken queen of the Adriatic”, for Brodsky it was “Penelope of the city”, for Diogo Mainardi “celebration of immobility”, for Le Corbusier “sacred city”…

Joseph Brodsky came to Venice every year for almost two decades, mostly in December because for him beauty at low temperatures was the only real beauty! He described contours of the city on the map as two grilled fishes sharing the plate, but didn’t omit to be more poetic while speaking about place’s paradisiacal visual texture and effect it makes upon one’s self-awareness and notion of afterlife. Though after Russia he lived mostly in America, his tomb is at the cemetery of Venetia’s island San Michele. Not surprising for the one who wrote: “By rubbing water, this city improves time’s looks, beautifies the future. That’s what the role of this city in the universe is.”


But how long can this city improve time’s looks and beautify the future? In other words, what is the future of the town itself? Today, Venice is still the city of allure, but it also shows signs of unmistakable decadence. Disenchantment in and with Venice comes only as a very slow and partial process. Stench of the lagoon water is often unbearable, garbage of all kinds is mixt with dark seaweeds, chemical pollution of the water is raising, more and more dwellings are deserted, masses of tourists are present all year around (approximately 80,000 daily). Something has gone seriously wrong and the town itself is not to blame. Then, who is?

Every year, 30 million visitors are marching through the streets of Venice. When big groups reach the top spots of their itinerary, the town seems to shrink. Observing St Mark’s Square from the boat, while thousands of people are crowding it, leaves impression of a doom. It looks as a moment of imminent danger for the structure of the town, serious challenge to the tired pillars below it. Can they support the weight or are they about to collapse? For now, luckily, they are resisting. But above them, on the surface, dangers and anxiety are more present with each passing day. Big boats are obstructing the views and polluting the water, small ones, vaporetti, are too numerous for the dimensions of the town (and not numerous enough for the locals and tourists that are waiting for them), 500 gondolas are fighting their way through the narrow canals. There is not much of romantic, otherworldly atmosphere left in the town where many of its visitors are searching precisely for that.

In August this year Joachim Vogel, a German tourist, was crushed to death while riding a gondola with his family. He was trying to save one of his three children when a vaporetto hit them near Rialto station. The town was in a state of shock; the association of gondoliers stressed that this was to be expected in dangerously overcrowded waters. A group of them went to Germany to attend professor Vogel’s funeral. But no solution which could prevent a similar tragedy to happen in the future is yet in sight.

Marco Paolini names tourism a heavy industry that numbs the brain, tramples conscience and crushes the face of a city. “Locals” are on the brink of their nerves. Simple, everyday things like going to work or to school, doing shopping or visiting friends have become an unpleasant adventure. Besides (and understandably enough), they don’t appreciate the fact that a few thousands chewing-gums are glued below the arch of ponte del Vinante, to mention only one of the low bridges below which, some years ago, Venetian author Tiziano Scarpa took the trouble counting these additions to the elaborated reliefs of the place. In the same time, Venice is going through its second wave of demographic collapse (the first one being plague of 1630 which killed 50,000 or one third of its inhabitants); young people, and not only them, are going away in search of work and some less hectic, les expensive and more hygienic place to live. The others are resisting the impulse and continue to defend their right to a decent life and seek ways to protect their town. Only 20,000 of the inhabitants of Venice today are “really Venetians” by origin.

What now?

We can state again: the town itself is not to blame. Then, who is? The list of culprits is not short; decision makers (politicians and industrials), wrong legislation and management plans, too many organisations (of the state and local) with conflicting priorities, interests of big industries (mostly from Milan) located in Marghera, lack of alternative plans and/or willingness to consider them as part of the solution, short reach of international (even UNESCO) recommendations… Many researches, analyses and proposals have been prepared over the years, but what is obvious in theory is still out of reach in practice.

To make a long story short and (almost) simple; number of tourists has to be limited at any cost. Respecting the right of movement, anybody can come and see Venice. The question is – when? What could do the trick is control of the daily entrances, obligatory reservations, tickets. After all, any other space, open or close, has a right to decide what is possible and what is simply out of proportions. Further, growth of industries around the Lagoon has to be stopped, controlled, directed elsewhere. The ecosystem of the Lagoon simply cannot take any more. And cruisers have to stay on the open sea, body of water more appropriate to their dimensions than the shallow waters around the city itself. (Not very far away, some politicians of Trieste are eagerly offering to accommodate big boats.) To divert cruise ships to Marghera can partially solve some of the town’s problems but the threats to the Lagoon will remain. And Venice and its Lagoon are so closely interconnected that one cannot survive without the other. Failing to act now is the same as to encourage urbicide of one of the world’s most precious places.

One of the art works which attracted considerable attention at this year’s Bienalle is to be seen in the British pavilion. “We sit starving amidst our gold” is the title of a big mural created by Jeremy Deller. It depicts William Morris, the Victorian socialist and designer, throwing into the water an impressive yacht. The yacht in question is Luna, property of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who decided to anchor it exactly in front of the Giardini, entrance to the Bienalle, two years ago. To oblige request for privacy of a respectful (and rich) guest, local police blocked the quay thus obstructing free passage of visitors and citizens. It is worth mentioning here that Venetian banks where the first in the world to create money (in paper form) some 7 centuries ago. Obviously, local authorities are still very enchanted by it. And their support should nowadays be directed far away from servile obedience to the powerful, no matter how well they are ready to pay.

By the way, Grand Hotel des Bains as it once was doesn’t exist anymore. The space, so well described by Thomas Mann, was a known resort of the rich elite. But it was also a symbol of some other times, now long gone, when Venice did look old but not so tired with itself as she does now. Grand Hotel was bought by a big real estate fund and closed down in 2010. Two years later it was opened with another, “modern” face; as a luxury apartment complex. City authorities claimed they cannot afford to maintain town’s historical buildings. So, in the future, is Venice going to be sold to the rich or to be drowned by the less rich? Or both? It seems it is sinking in any case.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Brodsky spoke about pigeons’ maddening gambits on the chessboard of a vast square. Nowadays there is not much place left for pigeons to walk and the flying lion on a tall column on Piazza St Marco will shortly be visible only from the distance, through the lens of a camera (strong enough one). What will soon be left to see in Venice is tourists filming other tourists. Only the ones more prone to jumping will be able, levitating above the others, to make an impressive photo of a town’s skyline. With some luck, they can even catch a few rays of sun not yet completely hidden by a mighty ship or two slowly but decisively passing by or already resting in a port cradle more fit for a good, old-fashion sailboat.

Pešč, 28.11.2013.