Venice: Introduction

  • © luniversa, iStockphoto.com

    © luniversa, iStockphoto.com

Nobody arriving in Venice for the first time can really claim never to have seen this ‘Wonder of the World’ before: It has been described, sung about, shown in pictures and films so often that it has long made its way into the collective consciousness of Europe as a whole. The palaces on the main canals with water lapping around them really look just as opulent and crumbling at the same time as they do in opulent coffee-table books and travel brochure.

The Piazza San Marco, with the basilica of the same name at one end, is as chic and perfect in reality as it appears on film sets. And the panorama from the quay in front of the Doge’s Palace across the water towards San Giorgio and Giudecca is exactly the same, down to the tiniest details, as the one Canaletto painted. But after only walking for an hour or two through the labyrinth of small streets, squares and back courtyards you will start to realise that you are discovering much more than simply a city of exceptional architectural beauty with more priceless art treasures than any other. No, here you will understand that it is necessary to try to capture the feeling of what is possibly the most wondrous city in the world with all your senses and, hopefully, at your leisure. 

The wonder started to develop in 500 AD when people from the mainland, the Veneti, fled to the lagoon to escape from the Huns and Lombards. Shortly after 800 AD, they began connecting dozens of small islands with bridges and drove millions of wooden piles into the muddy ground to create the 7.5 km² city area that we know today, with its 3000 lanes and 100 squares, around 150 canals and more than 400 bridges.

The most amazing urban settlement on earth

Newcomers can get a first impression of the unique location and layout of this city from a church tower. For example, you have a wonderful view of the outline of the city from the Campanile of the Benedictine monastery San Giorgio Maggiore. To the east, you will see the huge area of the Arsenal, the shipyards. A little further to the east, the green of the Giardini Pubblici, the city park, and the neighbouring Biennale exhibition area beckons a visit.

The concrete carparks and railway station rise up above the rust-red roofs in the west and you will be able to make out the chimneys of the factories in Maghera and Mestre belching smoke into the – all-too-often smoggy – sky in the distance. On the other hand, you will almost be able to reach out and touch the large, reversed ‘S’ of the Canal Grande. A little east of its end lies the heart and former centre of power in the city: the Doge’s Palace, as well as Piazza di San Marco with its basilica.

The melancholic, morbid atmosphere can be felt everywhere

A total of six districts – the so-called ‘Sixths’ (Italian: sestieri) – form the historical city centre (centro storico) and are surrounded by dozens of islands. Some of them are still used for specific purposes – San Michele, for example, is the cemetery island, and Sant’Erasmo and Le Vignole the vegetable islands. Not to forget the glassblowers’ island of Murano and the old episcopal see of Torcello with Burano, the lacemakers’ haven, in between, and the Lido, the narrow sandy promontory between the lagoon and open sea on the southern horizon.

The Venetians are masters at staging exuberant festivals

More than 15 million visitors from all over the world descend on this urban miracle every year and the contrasting feelings it produces gives you an idea of how multifaceted it is. On the one hand, it is melancholy and decadent. You cannot help but think of the lugubrious verses penned by Lord Byron and other poets of his age, the immortal thrillers such as the chill of the city described in Patricia Highsmith’s Those Who Walk Away, Daphne du Maurier’s funereal gondolas in Don’t Look Now, Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice and Luchino Visconti’s filmed version, and of course Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti who solves a never-ending series of tricky criminal cases in the labyrinth of stone – just perfect for TV.

Venice’s potency in matters of love is closely linked to its often alluded to tristezza. Desdemona and Othello, George Sand and Alfred de Musset and, of course, tireless Giacomo Casanova all represent the – often tragic – passions this dream city can arouse. On the other hand, Venice’s mastery in celebrating exuberant festivities stands in complete contrast to all this gloominess and can still be observed today during the carnival season and in the many gloriously colourful regattas held in the middle of summer for the Redentore feast day.

In a manner of speaking, the biological situation of the city is also inconsistent: it is no secret that Venice is noticeably aging. Both in terms of the city itself (it has sunk more than 10cm in 20 years; its buildings are crumbling, shaken day and night by the gigantic engines of an ever increasing number of enormous cruise liners) as well as demographically. In the 1950s, 175,000 people lived in the city; this has decreased to a third of that figure today. And more than a third of these almost 60,000 go to work every day on the mainland.

What is the reason for this exodus, the esodo? After 1945, the cramped living conditions, damp walls and lack of leisure activities were problems that caused young families to leave Venice and move into new, more comfortable, artificially created settlements in the Mestre area. And then, the stream of visitors that started to inundate the city when mass tourism set in with such vehemence in the 1970s washed even more of the locals out of the lagoon. 

Many people forget how arduous it is to live in this city that the masses are now threatening to suffocate completely. The vaporetti and main streets are hopelessly overcrowded during peak times. And, everyday life is really quite difficult. Within a generation, the number of retail shops has decreased by more than 50 percent. In many districts, if the Venetians want to pop out to buy bread and milk, this can mean a long walk over countless bridges – especially tiresome for old people.

All essential goods have to be laboriously brought into the city on barges and then hauled up flights of steps on a sack barrow. The demands of well-heeled tourists have made life unaffordable for many of locals earning average wages. The costs for consumer articles, as well as council taxes, are out of control. The city is constantly threatened with bankruptcy. Another major problem is that wealthy foreigners are purchasing empty flats as second homes causing property prices to rocket – taking rents with them. 

A lively restaurant and cabaret scene

This has caused the population pyramid to become inverted. Today, there are almost five times as many Venetians over 60 than under 20 years of age. Along with this, more recently, a lively nightlife and cabaret scene has developed, especially in Dorsoduro and Cannaregio that has remained almost unnoticed by the world outside the lagoon. This now attracts hordes of young night-owls thirsty for adventure and thousands of guest students from the local university.

Venice has always been able to come to grips with any circumstances. The Venetians have been gifted merchants since time immemorial; this was the case in 1204 when, under the leadership of the 97-year-old, completely blind, Doge Enrico Dandolo, they simply diverted the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople and plundered the treasures of their fellow Christians there. And that is how it continued during the following centuries, when the doges safeguarded the internal and external interests of the Republic with a rod of iron, and Venice raked in unbelievable sums of money as the dominant trading nation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

When the Venetians lost their first foreign possessions in the 14th century, they started to turn their eyes towards the terra firma. Shortly after 1400, Venice conquered Istria, Friuli, Vicenza, Verona and Padua, as well as large sections of Lombardy, and used them to provide wood for its fleet, grain and vegetables for its kitchens, and fabric and silk for its festivals.

The tide has turned in recent decades. Formally, Venice is still the capital of the Veneto but the region’s heart now beats in boom towns on the mainland. Their flagships are Benetton (in Ponzano near Treviso), Stefanel (Ponte di Piave) and Eni (Marghera). All the plans to unite this area of concentrated industry – where around 2.5 million people live and 1 million work – to form a dynamic metropolis and establish a major harbour near Chioggia that could play an important role in Central Europe have been flogged to death without anything coming of them.

However, the advocates of a romantic image of Venice will be really pleased  about the city on the lagoon’s inability to benefit from the progress in its surroundings – something that many criticise. It is precisely the special character of this island people that they enjoy so much: their proud, but somewhat diffident temperament, the strangely melancholic dialect and the years of old-fashioned aversion to the automobile now seem to be really avant-garde.


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