Doom-mongers decry Venice as a city in terminal decline but the voluptuous dowager has life in her yet. By visiting her more wisely we can help save her – for the Venetians and ourselves.
In this floating, insubstantial world, “most visitors move through her wonders mindlessly,” claims Jan Morris. Tourism is as ancient as the city itself but we are conditioned to experience La Serenissima in similar ways. The decadence of the stage set bewitches us and many never stray far from the Bermuda Triangle of St Mark’s Square.
Venice can feel like a city of ghosts, all gently wafting you in different directions. Why not bargain in the Rialto market with latter-day merchants of Venice? Or roam the world’s first ghetto with a wily Shylock in tow. Capture Canaletto’s canals with a camera. Sip a Spritz with Proust’s ghost in Florian’s or down a Bellini at Harry’s Bar, the haunt of Hemingway. Play roulette in Wagner’s death chamber, now the city casino. Thread Casanova’s canals with an uninhibited lover (or two) to hand.
Do follow some of these seductive sirens but also heed the voices of flesh-and-blood Venetians. While not shunning the classic sights, I’d like you to see Venice through the eyes of residents I respect for their tenacity and integrity. The high cost of living, lack of affordable homes and the challenges of surviving in such a fragile setting have sent many Venetians scuttling to the mainland. `Like rats from a sinking ship’ runs the bad joke. The “zoccolo duro” (hard core) are left and are fighting for survival. Battered by mass tourism and priced out of their own city, Venetians increasingly fear they’re living in a theme park without an entrance fee.
Venice in Peril claims that upto 60,000 visitors can enter the city on any given day, doubling the population. When the population dipped below 60,000 two years ago, activists from Venessia staged a funeral for Venice, with a coffin borne down the Grand Canal on a pink gondola. Matteo Secchi, the leader of this radical protest group, is not against tourism but against vested business interests that disregard Venetians’ wishes. Instead, bubbly designer Michela Scibilia heads 40xVenezia, the more moderate pressure group, playing the Beatles to Matteo Secchi’s Rolling Stones, as he wrily puts it.
From Michela’s sitting room overlooking the lagoon, we see ferries bearing down on us, but sometimes it’s hulking cruise ships, which shake the foundations of her ancient palazzo. Michaela bemoans the unbridled expansion of cruising and “passengers unaware that they are destroying the destination they’ve come to see.” It’s also the sheer numbers of cruise passengers, all deposited in St Mark’s Square, that the city is struggling to cope with: “We’re a theme park but we don’t have the infrastructure of a theme park.”
Michela perks up when news comes in of a victory for common sense, partly prompted by her campaigning. The blatant billboards that disfigure the Doge’s Palace are being replaced by soft-focus architectural designs. As Michela says, “We’re not killjoys or earnest environmentalists, we simply want a sustainable Venice.”