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City for sale.


I’VE LIVED IN Venice permanently for over three years — and for the past forty years since early childhood I’ve spent an average of three weeks a year in the city. It’s fair to say that my love affair with Venice and the honeymoon that followed are long over — and have deepened into something a little more significant. Much less time is spent musing on bells and bridges or taking moonlit walks in misty alleys beneath Tiepolo or Guardi skies. It’s all about the nitty-gritty now: barking dogs in the campo, scallops from the local fishmonger, rowing on the lagoon, trips to the bodega to fill a demijohn with bubbling young raboso. There is little time for those long meditations on Marcel Proust and Reynaldo Hahn, on Hemingway, Visconti or Brodski. These days, late-night conversations with my Venetian pals usually revolve around the impact of tourism, the cost of living, pollution, the environment, political corruption, the sense in which locals think the city has been ‘sold out’ and vandalised both by local government and unscrupulous entrepreneurs. How have we come to this?


Venice 1650. Click here to enlarge. Image: Wikimedia (H-P Haack).

In the early years of the 20th century the entrepreneurs Giuseppe Volpi and Nicolo Spada successfully regenerated Venice, swiftly recreating it as the international destination it had once been in the high days of the Republic, before Napoleon’s conquest in 1797 and the doldrums of the nineteenth century under Austrian occupation. Spada developed the grand hotels — the Excelsior and the Hotel des Bains — both of which were opened in the first decade of the twentieth century. Volpi expanded the Venice Biennale by founding the Venice Film Festival in 1932, a clever move designed to capitalise on the rise of the ‘talkies’. He was also responsible for the ecologically disastrous but highly profitable industrial complex at Mestre on the mainland. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Volpi’s or Spada’s initiatives, by the twenties and thirties Venice had become a destination on a par with the French Riviera in terms of plutocratic decadence and glamour: visitors were few but rich, an ideal combination for a small but beautiful city with a thousand-year history of sophisticated self-marketing. Moreover, in comparison to other European cities, Venice fared well during the two world wars, suffering only minimal damage from Austrian bombardment in the first war and next to no damage at all in the final stages of the Italian Campaign in the second war: by the fifties the city seemed fair set for a bright and prosperous future, its economy stable, its fabric more or less robust — and since only well-off tourists were able to buy her favours, the Serenissima was easily able to accommodate her clients without placing unwelcome stress on the infrastructure of the city.


Venice 2010. Click here to enlarge. (Image: via

By the sixties, however, the picture very quickly changed. There was a frightening increase in tourism throughout Europe, largely thanks to airlines like British European Airways (BEA) who rolled out faster, bigger aeroplanes every year — and increasingly cheaper package deals. The Costa Blanca in Spain is usually cited as the worst casualty of the travel boom, but other countries suffered too, among them Greece, Italy, Turkey and Germany. For over half a century Venice had been adequately served by nothing more than the grass runway at the Aeroporto Nicelli on the Lido. That — and the railway station — had been sufficient to cater for the steady but manageable volume of visitors. Now that tourism had become big business, something altogether more substantial was needed. 1960 saw the opening of a new international airport on the mainland — and later the Stazione Marittima was expanded to accommodate the ever-increasing number of cruise liners plying the Adriatic. It was at that point that the rot, as many see it, set in. Gone were the days of Venice as the personal fiefdom of writers like Henry James and playboys like Oswald Mosley. We now saw a new breed of tourist, referred to contemptuously by Venetians as bestiame (cattle): gawping German backpackers, camera-toting Japanese, brawling English and Australian drunks, supercilious Frenchmen, phlegmatic Scandinavians, brash Americans from the Midwest with huge wives and out-of-control children. And the stampede brought with it the unwelcome appearance on the scene of other non-Venetians in auxiliary roles: African tinkers selling fake handbags, Chinese shopkeepers selling fake Murano glass, whole families of Romanian beggars, desperate Indian itinerants with fixed, perpetual grins and sad eyes, vainly attempting to sell single roses to honeymooners.


Gimcrack design. Image: dagoos via wiki.)

IT HAS TO be said that Venetians themselves contributed vigorously to the new hell: magnificent palaces and houses were carved up into rentable apartments or cut-price alberghi; restaurants began to serve cheap, anaemic and barely edible versions of local cuisine; the cost of everything from coffee to public transport was set at astronomic levels in the sure knowledge that the dazed visitor was faced with no option but to pay up; commercial premises in Rialto and San Marco were and are progressively sold or rented to the highest bidders, most often the Chinese; the Venice Carnival, in the eighteenth century a spectacular and beautifully-styled piece of civic theatre, has become a sorry example of gimcrack design and disappointing events: a perfect example of a hit-and-run operation designed to remove money from unwary tourists. It comes as no surprise that for over twenty years, in the wake of this vandalism, there has been a deadening sense of paralysis and resignation in the city.

There is still, perhaps, a little hope…the younger generation of Venetians is increasingly critical of what it sees as the disgracefully poor husbandry of the city, both by its government and by the private sector.

Nevertheless, despite all this, there is still, perhaps, a little hope. To begin with, Venice is a tiny island, composed for the most part of important listed buildings that can no longer be materially altered at the hands of commercial property developers or other vandals. In this sense it certainly has the edge on London, Paris, Berlin or New York, where grotesque new shopping malls and apartment blocks appear by the day or week. Moreover, the younger generation of Venetians is increasingly critical of what it sees as the disgracefully poor husbandry of the city, both by its government and by the private sector. Crooks and opportunists are routinely named and shamed in the local and national press and on special-interest blogs and websites — and only a couple of weeks ago over thirty prominent businessmen and politicians were arrested on suspicion of fiddling the funds in Venice’s ambitious tidal barrier project, the MOSE. The fragile economy of the Venice lagoon, very nearly wrecked by intense dredging to make way for ever larger cruise liners, is now a matter of international, rather than merely local concern.

Yesterday I called in for a drink at a small and ultra-traditional bar near the Giardini Papadopoli. The clients were elderly Venetians and the three co-owners, all of them on site, were a Venetian, a Chinese and an Albanian. It was an enjoyable encounter and seemed to me to embody the true spirit of Venice as it once was before the fall of the Republic: a spirit of internationalism, cooperation and friendliness, perfectly balanced by honest graft and responsible stewardship. As long as this spirit remains, there will be hope for the city.


rsaikiaRobin Saikia is a writer and historian based in London and Venice. He grew up in Britain, Zambia, India, and Italy, and was educated at Winchester College and at Merton College, Oxford. He is a good cook, an adventurous traveller and an accomplished classical pianist. He is also the author of The Venice Lido, the first ever full-length historical and cultural guide to Venice’s glamorous beach resort, along with several other Blue Guides. His website is here.

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