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A Venetian’s view of Venice.

by MICHELE CASAGRANDE.

Translated by Hoyt Rogers.

smarcolong499150-rTHE BEAUTY AND isolation of Venice often make it seem unreal to visitors. In fact, they are right: from its origins Venice has always been unreal, an invention of its own citizens. The idea of an artificial island was first conceived by the inhabitants of ancient Altinum, who took refuge in the lagoon from barbarian invasions. After centuries of glory and decadence, the city has now taken on its complex and unmistakable form.

I was born in Venice, and I have spent most of my life here. Over time I have noticed how the city has changed—how it has adapted itself to the new demands of modernity, in its own particular fashion.

I leave the city often, and every time I return to Venice I feel as if I’ve lost my bearings. I’m surprised to see some businesses closing and others starting up, many people leaving the lagoon and a few coming to stay. I seem to find myself in a halfway state, between someone who’s spent his childhood in a place and delighted in its spirit, and someone who feels from time to time like a mere observer in that place.

Over the last twenty years, Venice has been transformed by an increasing emphasis on the tourist industry, with unavoidable repercussions on both its citizenry and the culture of the city. A double vision of Venice now prevails: the local point of view as opposed to the outsiders’ point of view.

AS A VENETIAN I can easily express the local perspective. For two decades now the Venice administration has championed a new kind of tourism. The goal is to maximize the number of tourists, fostering all the services that produce a brief jaunt through the city and enhance the income of the public and private sectors. The result is an illusory picture of Venice, extremely superficial, in which St. Mark’s Square is just a beautiful space before a magnificent church, the habitat of dirty, amusing pigeons. Unfortunately for us, that square is the center of the city where we live, and the huge number of tourists is so dense that it doesn’t allow for free circulation. This blockage basically extends to the entire city, and in narrow spaces becomes even more annoying at times, so that a simple walk turns into an irksome obstacle course. A public policy that stresses quantity over quality can only produce visitors who have “seen Venice” rather than “experienced Venice.”

smarcolong499150Public services are dwindling as well: the splendid central post office will soon become a shopping mall, and various wards of the hospital are being transferred to the mainland. The social fabric of the city is unraveling, leaving the lower middle class high and dry, since it can’t afford the steep expenses of the city. Every year Venice loses an unconscionable number of inhabitants. From 76,000 citizens in 1991 the population has dropped to just 56,000 today, a rate of attrition that shows no sign of abating.

IN THE STREETS and squares I frequently hear people talk of the pleasure of returning to Venice now and then, and of their contentment in finding only minimal structural changes to the city. The paucity of buildings erected in Venice in recent years creates a contrast with the world outside the lagoon that changes constantly, at a dizzying speed. We need only think of how others cities around the world have evolved during the last twenty years: Berlin, Milan, Beijing, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro… an endless list of cities that have adapted their essence to their importance within a reality in flux. But for obvious reasons, Venice cannot shift its external shape; regrettably, in order to evolve it has had to alter its inner nature, letting the fire in the Stucky Mill make way for a large hotel chain. It has had to allow advertising in every corner of St. Mark’s Square, to pay for the restoration of its buildings. It has had to open a passage for giant cruise-ships through the heart of the city, endangering its fundaments, dwarfing its scale, and diminishing the use of one of its principal symbols: the row-boat, more common and more practical than the famous gondola. The best-known examples of this type of craft, the mascareta and the scull, are employed less and less by Venetians to get around. The advent of motorboats and big cruise-ships, as well as the increasing water-traffic, discourage the traditional rowers—who are more and more averse to facing the heavy motion of the waves.

smarcolong499150-lThe city has been forced to this solution by its own development, and by that of the industrial triangle of Mestre, Treviso, and Padova. Sustaining the huge maintenance costs of the city, within an industrial area that absorbs the bulk of production on the mainland, could lead to only one outcome: turning Venice into a museum-city, a city where anyone can plunge headlong into its myriad masterpieces and the spectacle of its unique cityscape. And as in any great museum worthy of the name, secondary exhibitions are also held: space is granted to the patrons of international art, who can display their own importance in lordly palaces on the Grand Canal, magnifying what has always been the city’s touristic vocation.

In this way curiosity grows and the predominant industry reinforces itself.

IN ANY EVENT, every Venetian must strive to understand the standpoint of visitors. They can easily arrive overland or fly into Marco Polo Airport, finding accommodation on the mainland; they can reach Venice from Mestre thanks to the buses and trains that cross the Liberty Bridge. In fact only a wealthy minority of the tourist masses can afford to spend a few nights in the city and try to understand it better. The others dive into a crowded stroll, and restrict themselves to buying Chinese fakes of glass from Murano Island—another industrial area in trouble. I detect a deepening awareness of this situation on the part of the tourists themselves, almost embarrassed by their status as mere numbers. They no longer know whether Strada Nova is a street or an enormous souk. Goethe’s observations on his voyage to Venice still ring true today: we are witnessing a sad decline, a city whose soul has lost its way. But those outsiders—whether from Japan, Australia, or other Italian cities—are sometimes able to grasp the cultural distortion of Venice, and lavishly help to maintain its urban identity. It happened recently that a network of Venice-lovers, citizens but also numerous foreigners, combined their resources in the hope of acquiring Poveglia, an island in the heart of the lagoon, when it was put up for auction by the state. Their plan calls for preserving it for community use. Up till now, in spite of a vigorous outreach campaign, their project has not been approved.

Goethe’s observations on his voyage to Venice still ring true today: we are witnessing a sad decline, a city whose soul has lost its way.

Energetically, many want to change things, yet in everyday life the city’s rhythms would seem to be too slow—extremely light-hearted, but fundamentally lazy. The attitude can be expressed through reactions like the following: Living in such a marvelous city, a center of attention for the entire world, why should anyone want to leave? Why should anyone want to move away from a place that can offer very high earnings to people who are basically manual workers, such as gondoliers and taxi drivers?

crnrgond650In the evening the city starts breathing again, and reveals it actual status more clearly: that of a ghost town. It lives on through a few youthful stragglers, looking for some alcoholic entertainment, but mostly framed by the silence and emptiness of their surroundings. At last you’re able to have an intimate rapport with the streets and canals in a slow, sweet walk in the moonlight or shrouded by mist. It’s precisely in these moments that space and time expand. Not only for a physical reason—the need to spend long periods to cover short distances—but for the pleasure of observation. Venice can make you lazy for good. So much so that it may lull you to sleep in a lovely dream, as long as you’re capable of affection for the city and all its infinite details.

In those special moments both outsiders and Venetians can share the same emotions before the unique beauty of the city. Feeling the same sensations, we cannot help but adhere to a common vision—true, passionate, gratifying, and grateful for a culture that has marked Western history. At heart, any foreigner who really loves Venice is also a Venetian.


Michele Casagrande was born and raised in Venice.  He received his degree in International Relations from the University of Bologna; this year he will continue his studies at the London School of Economics and the University of Beijing.  He has worked as a press liaison for the Venice International Film Festival and as an exhibition curator.  He is currently employed as a researcher on two projects, one on Tintoretto and the other on Venice in the Chinese art market.

The Italian original is here.

Index of the Venice portfolio.

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