Archive for Davide Scalzotto

Aug
21

O Audrey, where art thou?

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I want everyone to stop for a moment and think of Audrey Hepburn.  Yes, one of the most divine women ever to set foot on earth.  Just writing her name is like inhaling a waft of moonflowers and heliotrope from the Isles of the Blest.

Now I want you to imagine her — just for a second, because this hurts — becoming old, neglected, and feeble.  Not demented, just left to deteriorate at random.  You know: The soup stain on the blouse, the dirty hair, the shuffly slippers instead of shoes, the drooping slip, the general all-purpose “Just don’t care anymore, can’t be bothered, nothing matters anyway.  What pile of unopened bills on the kitchen floor?  What half-eaten cans of tuna in the laundry basket? A mouse in the refrigerator?  Is it alive?”

Now I want you to stop for a moment and think of Venice.

Now put the two pictures together.  Not good.  Not good at all.

I hinted in my last post at a certain laissez-faire atmosphere which has taken over what I still am determined to consider the Audrey Hepburn of cities.  Over the years, signs of distressing degradation have been noticed, and even reported to the authorities — each sign existing in its own little capsule in the municipal consciousness, just as each sign of personal neglect can be passed over by benevolent or apathetic eyes.  Each, of course, explained or excused because no ghe xe schei.

Then suddenly the total of them all reveals itself as appalling.

Welcome to the most beautiful city in the world.  Enjoy your day.  (Photo: Gazzettino).

Most beautiful city in the world, the pool at the community center, your cousin’s back yard — what’s the difference?  (Photo: Gazzettino).

This revelation seems to have hit a lot of people lately, if the Gazzettino is anything to go by.  And yes, great lamentations continue to rise from the Venetians concerning the tourists.  But if tourists are the perpetrators, the municipal non-authorities are the enablers.

First, the tourists.  When I use the word, I’m not referring to their quantity, which is distressing though not difficult to understand, but their quality, which utterly bewilders me.

Yes, of course there are millions of wonderful tourists here all the time.  And I don’t want to get into an arm-wrestling match over percentages, or what constitutes “quality tourism,” or the God-given universal human right to come to Venice whenever you want.

But I have to say that I do not perceive a human right to come to Venice to DO whatever you want.

I still do not understand this.  Do you just lie down in front of the church in your own town?  Do the tourists imagine they're invisible, or do they imagine all the people around them are invisible?  I must ask one someday.

I still do not understand this. Do you just lie down in front of the church in your own town? Do the tourists imagine they’re invisible, or do they imagine all the people around them are invisible? I must ask one someday.

Every few days some novel behavior appears which the star of the story inexplicably considers just fine, behavior which in their own city is probably regarded as offensive and possibly also illegal.  Here the same behavior is also regarded as offensive, and is often illegal, and yet Venice, especially in the summer, and especially this summer, seems to attract a type of tourist who thinks that former Queen of the Seas is more fun than the locally-much-reviled Disneyland, although the comparison isn’t very useful considering that the Magic Kingdom is more strictly run than your average penitentiary.  I mean that as a compliment.

Graffiti-sprayers and sun-bathers in the Piazza San Marco are no longer any special big deal, repulsive as they are.  But this year has kicked it all up a notch.  There was the Indian family which hunkered down in the Piazza San Marco to cook lunch on a camp stove. The man who decided to beat the heat by stripping down to his underwear, blithely wandering the streets in his Jockey shorts, or the European equivalent thereof.

A young couple, all tuckered out, who spread their towels on the street in a nice patch of shade and lay down to sleep.  A man who decided to scale the Doge’s Palace, demonstrating a free-climbing skill that would have been admirable if he hadn’t been clinging to pieces of marble and statues hundreds of years old.

A tightrope walker who strung his cord between two lampposts along the Zattere.  Carnal knowledge on the Scalzi bridge.

Do these people think that it’s Carnival here all year?  Did they come all the way to Venice just to do this, or are they merely responding to some sudden impulse?  Or do they intuit, by some imperceptible herd sensitivity, that Venice has become something like homeroom with no teacher, all the time?

Nature calls, and hears no echo in the reptilian-complex area of their brains where dwells some primitive memory of  childhood instruction.  (Corriere del Veneto)

Nature calls, and hears no echo in the reptilian-complex area of their brains where dwells some primitive memory of childhood instruction. (Corriere del Veneto)

Now comes the latest: Two male visitors in the Piazza San Marco whose bursting bladders brooked no delay.  So they relieved themselves into a garbage can.  As in many of the above-noted cases, it was broad daylight.

Much of this revolting behavior is something you’d expect — or not be surprised — to see on the Bowery, Skid Row, the Tenderloin, or whatever is the current term for the devastated section of your city.

But this is not them.  Nor is it — despite the sun and water and boats — Panama City Beach on Spring Break.

This is a three-square-mile World Heritage Site.  It’s more like the Louvre, with sun and water and boats.

So if whatever you’re about to do would be disgusting or ridiculous or rude in the Louvre — or even in Horse Hoof, Kansas, or especially in the much-maligned Disneyland — it would be likewise here.

Maybe Venice isn't a city.  Maybe it's some hydroponic social-experiment where the Id is king.  This romantic interlude is on the Scalzi bridge, by the railway station, a place I'd never have associated with overwhelming "From Here to Eternity"urges. (Corriere del Veneto)

Maybe Venice isn’t a city. Maybe it’s some hydroponic social experiment where the Id is king. This romantic interlude is on the Scalzi bridge, by the railway station, a place I’d never have associated with overwhelming “From Here to Eternity” urges. (Corriere del Veneto)

So much for the tourists.

Yet, as the always perceptive Davide Scalzotto noted in a brief essay in the Gazzettino, if the city has begun to look like a slum (I paraphrase), people will act as if it’s a slum.  I believe there are important studies which support this statement.  I won’t start a list here of the dreadful deterioration to be seen just about anywhere because it’s too depressing and also because it would make anybody want to scream.

Hardly any money has been spent over the past decade or more on maintenance, let alone improvement, and now we know why.  It’s because the city fathers were pulling out the money for MOSE through virtual pneumatic tubes for their own purposes.  And the state funds that come via the Special Law for Venice, which was instituted in 1973 specifically to finance measures to protect the city and its environment, are always too little, and too late.

Are there police?  Of course, but not nearly enough.  Are there laws?  Of course, but probably too many.  Considering that it’s impossible to enforce them all, they get enforced on an as-needed basis.  No wonder the once Most Serene Republic has come to resemble Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

But let’s say somebody gets arrested — it does happen, though it isn’t always, or even usually, a tourist.  Not long ago, we read about a crippled beggar well-known around the crowded streets of Venice and the beaches of Jesolo, just across the lagoon.  Hold your sympathy.  The story had to do with the fact that at quittin’ time the homeless, 47-year-old Romanian straightened up, brushed himself off, and briskly walked toward wherever he was going that night. When an angry citizen’s photograph was published — the lame walk?  The blind see?  Is it, in fact, a miracle? — the beggar was hauled in and charged with…. what?  Offending public decency?  Exploiting the public’s natural compassion?  Faking it?  What crime, exactly, had he committed?

None.  The judge ruled that it is not against the law to beg, even if in the process you callously counterfeit a pitiful condition to earn lucrative sympathy.  The mendicant paid an administrative fine, and the judge gave him his cane back.

So: There is no law that forbids a person to present himself as something he is not.  I guess I already knew that. We had a mayor who presented himself as honest, but he was not.  He was sentenced to four months of house arrest, but his crime wasn’t having pretended to be honest, but for having taken bribes.  Ergo, why should somebody be punished for pretending to be a cripple, staggering along, doubled over, supported only by his trembling cane?

So we could all start faking it and still be fine.  I know people who pretend to be intelligent, or caring, or lots of things they’re not.  I could walk around pretending I was Elaine Stritch and I’d never be arrested, at least not until I started belting out “I’m Still Here” on the street.

Here is the YouTube link:  http://youtu.be/CFzmVYNItjU

I started with Audrey and I’ve ended up with Elaine.  My God: It’s the story of Venice in two names.  Maybe “I’m Still Here” ought to be the new national anthem of Venice.

Except that it shouldn’t have to.

My next post, barring some unforeseen calamity, will take us back to happier topics.  I’ve had more than I can take of all this tsuris.

 

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The Piazza is big, but it's not THAT big.  I still don't grasp how 80,000 people got in there.  Or got out.

The Piazza is big, but it’s not THAT big. I still don’t grasp how 80,000 people got in there. Or got out.

Probably nobody is thinking about New Year’s Eve anymore, no matter where they spent it. But here in Venice it’s not over yet, as the papers continue to publish a cascade of ever-more-detailed articles, personal stories, and editorials on how things went.

In a word: Badly.

So I’m going to back up from my earlier post and try this report again.  Because in case you don’t know, the three most beautiful words in the English language are not “I love you” (though they’re not the worst, either).

Nope.  The three MOST beautiful words are “You were right.”  And in my case, its close cousin: “I was wrong.”

I admit that I felt uneasy writing that sunny little post about New Year’s Eve.  Even as I wrote it, I had the strange feeling that I was unaccountably speaking in some unknown language from the planet where life is beautiful all the time.

I must have inadvertently disconnected my internal smoke-detector, because the news is demonstrating, in ever more lurid detail, why I will never go near the Piazza San Marco on the night of Saint Sylvester.  And how inexplicably incapable the city is of organizing big events in some reasonable manner.  And when I refer to the organization of big events, I have some small experience elsewhere; for example, the Fiesta of San Fermin at Pamplona, which I have attended twice. And I’d go back again, no matter how much I hate crowds, and one of many reasons is because it is organized and maintained in the most dazzlingly intelligent and diligent manner for nine solid days and nights.  And a mere twelve hours drives Venice to its knees.

From 9:30 PM, rivers of young people arriving by train filled the streets heading toward the Piazza, smashing bottles and setting off firecrackers as they went.

Far from being a scene of frolic and light-hearted conviviality, as the night dragged on the Piazza San Marco (and Piazzale Roma, whence thousands tried eventually to depart the most beautiful city in the world) resembled a war zone, or a frat party of intercontinental dimensions.  Words such as “assault,” “devastation,” and “outrage” highlight the reports of the night, and the morning after.

Piles of shattered glass bottles and pools of biological fluids from either or both ends of homo stupidus prostratus were only some of the abundant remains.  There were also the bodies of comatose sleeping revelers scattered around the streets, lying where they fell when the fumes ran out.

People are fascinated by the damage water can do to the Piazza, but somehow the maxi-posters and the maxi-mobs have slowly come to seem normal.  The water is normal, too, and has been normal for longer than there's been a city here.

People are obsessed by the damage that water can do to the Piazza, but somehow the maxi-posters and the maxi-mobs have come to seem normal.  So millions have been spent to control the water, but virtually nothing to resolve what in fact should be much easier to deal with.  I don’t get it.

The story in figures:

80,000 partyers, 10,000 more than the past two years.  Most of the yobbos weren’t Venetian, but from everywhere else — what in New York are called “bridge and tunnel” people.  I’ve seen them there at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and it’s not lovely. It’s no lovelier here.

50 interventions by the 45 emergency medical personnel from the Green Cross, Civil Protection, and SUEM, the ambulance entity; most crises related to alcohol drunk, alcohol spilled (rendering the already wet pavement dangerously slippery), cuts by the broken glass of bottles blindly hurled into the air, blows to the head, and panic attacks caused by the mob and the explosions of firecrackers at close quarters.

100,000 euros ($135,868) the estimated cost to the city, excluding fireworks.  This approximate number comprises: 60,000 euros for the collection and removal of 135 cubic meters  (4,732 cubic feet)of garbage, of which 20 cubic meters (706 cubic feet) were of glass; 15,000 euros for the 60 Municipal Police agents on security duty.  And the cost, not yet quantified, of the extra transport personnel (50 bus drivers and an unspecified number of vaporetto pilots). And the fuel required by the 20 garbage barges.

60 extra buses coming into Venice from the mainland; 123 extra buses between midnight and 7:00 AM from Venice to the mainland.  Does this sound like a lot?  Au contraire; the ACTV, in its wisdom, put on extra vaporettos, which worked well, but reduced the basic number of bus runs on a holiday eve.  Because it’s, you  know, a holiday, and the drivers want to be at home. New Year’s Eve in Venice, with reduced bus service.  Explain this to the masses of tired, cold, exasperated people who were trying to get back home, who even overwhelmed the relatively few taxis in Piazzale Roma.  Explain it to anybody, if you can. And I still can’t figure out how 50 extra bus drivers were sent to work if there were fewer buses.  Or were they put to work scrolling the “Out of service” sign onto the buses’ forefronts?

 The story in voices:

“It was hard, if not impossible, to move.  Funky air, a mix of piss and drugs, the pavement “mined” with bottles, cans, and every sort of garbage…The Piazza was a disaster.  Electronic music at full volume incited the crowd that was already drunk and out of control.  A great number of young people had taken over, armed with every type of alcohol…the center of the Piazza was an inferno.  Not just fireworks, but young people, Italian and foreign, were competing in a new entertainment: the launching of bottles…I didn’t see any security agents that would have forbidden this behavior…The day after, the marks remained on our city, heritage of humanity, devastated by barbarism.”  (Margherita Gasco)

“According to a recent international survey, the night between the last and first of the year shows Venice to be among the principal capitals of the festivities on the planet.  This shouldn’t prevent us from … reflecting critically on how these events are carried out — if they’re worth the trouble, if they still have their original sense.” (Gianfranco Bettin, the assessore for the Environment).

“Such a high number of people wasn’t predicted, nor predictable,” said Angela Vettese, the assessore of Culture and Tourism Development.  (It wasn’t predictable? Does she not read tourism surveys?). “In the future, more prudence is necessary to protect the Piazza, and to invest in more surveillance, so that the police can check, count, and keep access to the Piazza within a determined limit. Furthermore, it’s necessary to organize only high-quality events, with spectacles that involve the public (more involved than they already were?), maintaining greater tranquillity.”  She’s still new on the job, or she wouldn’t be talking like that; all these things have been said before, and before, and even before that.

A tranquil morning in late October.

A tranquil morning in late October.

Social network comments were divided between those who think New Year’s Eve in the Piazza is the greatest thing ever, and those who think the care and protection of the already fragile city is more important; those who insist it was just a normal night of festivity, and those who characterize is as another example of sheer lunacy.

“I urge the church to make itself heard, seeing that the civil authorities don’t feel any special need to safeguard the Piazza San Marco…Can we imagine an event like last Tuesday in the Piazza San Pietro in Rome?”  (Franco Miracco, art historian).

“San Marco can’t be the only stage for events” (Mons. Antonio Meneguolo, diocese of Venice).  “It’s not the number of people which creates bad behavior,” he said.  “We can increase the security but it would be better to organize other activities elsewhere, and remove the emphasis of the publicity for “New Year’s in the Piazza,” seeing how the event ends up.”

“Venice continues to be seen as a city to exploit touristically down to the bone,” said Lidia Fersuoch, president of Italia Nostra. “More than limit access to the Piazza, it’s necessary to limited access to the city itself, because it’s impossible to contain more than a certain number of visitors.”

“Certainly, if we take as the limit the Pink Floyd concert of 1989, anything even just barely below that is considered tolerable…But hurling bottles, explosion of firecrackers, people who urinate and vomit in the streets, are these part of the normal course of public socializing?  For some people, yes, but for us, no.  Especially if it happens in the Piazza San Marco, which isn’t just any piazza, but a monumental area, as it was defined when concerts were stopped (because they have an excessive impact on the Piazza itself)… But why no to concerts, and yes to New Year’s Eve? We speak of “outrage” precisely because it’s a monumental area; you can’t remain indifferent seeing people climbing up the 16th-century columns of the Loggetta of Sansovino at the feet of the campanile.  The piazza has always been the place for socializing, for events.  But what events?” (Davide Scalzotto)

I think the Piazza looks wonderful like this.  It's not that I'm anti-social, but on days like this it looks peaceful, and clean, and safe.  I don't mean I feel safe, I mean it looks safe from us.

I think the Piazza looks wonderful like this. It’s not that I’m anti-social, but on days like this it looks peaceful, and clean, and safe. I don’t mean I feel safe, I mean it looks safe from us.

Here is what I ask myself and anyone who might be listening:  There is a Superintendency of architecture, of art, of treasures. There is the Polizia di Stato, the carabinieri, the municipal police, the Guardia di Finanza.  There are ordinances forbidding almost every dangerous and tumultuous form of behavior and the hazardous objects associated with them.  Why is there no evident point at which any of these elements meet?  The behavior and objects are at Point A, and any uniformed persons authorized to intervene are at Points Q, X, and Z.  All told, there may have been more garbage collectors than anybody else at work in the Piazza, which seems backwards, to me.

In theory, if there were more agents of public order on duty, there would be less need for the First Aid stations, not to mention the ambulances and garbagemen.

But let me move on to a much more distressing thought.

Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which, unlike many of the 981 sites on their list, is a real place where real people live and move and have their being.  This presents special problems which nobody seems able to anticipate, or resolve. I am at a loss to say why, except that with ten fingers per city councilor, there’s plenty for pointing at other people.

There are 49 UNESCO sites in Italy, more than any other country on earth.  So far, none is marked as being “in danger.”  I think Venice should be.  I cannot conceive of shenanigans such as New Year’s Eve in the Piazza San Marco being tolerated in Angkor, or Machu Picchu, or the Alhambra, or the Red Fort Complex, or the Etruscan Necropolises, or the Potala Palace, or the Galapagos Islands.  And this is not the first time.  And yet, it goes on.

And I’ll say one more thing, as long as I’m on the subject: Of all the “properties” on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, only two, so far, have been de-listed.  The reasons are given on this page of their website.

Between the catastrophes visited upon Venice under the ever-fresh rubber stamp of the Superintendency of Architectural Treasures (the tormented issue of the maxi-posters in the San Marco area has only been moderately resolved, among other things), and the continued abuse of the lagoon, which is also part of the World Heritage designation (from the Canale dei Petroli to MoSE and now to the imminent approval of the digging of the Contorta canal), I don’t think it’s inconceivable that eventually Venice could see itself de-listed from the UNESCO panoply.

This is not the most improbable scenario I’ve ever come up with.  Except that I’d love to be able to say “I was wrong.”

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