Venice: Inside the postcard is a real city struggling to get out

“The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” (Francis Bacon)

People love to imagine Venice; I think it must be because it’s so strange.   You can let your fantasies run riot.   But when people ask me, “What’s it like to live in Venice?” with that sort of over-the-rainbow gleam in their eyes, I can’t bring myself to tell them what I think they want to hear.   Over-the-rainbow gleams unnerve me.   I sense that they are seeking confirmation of their fantasies (which I do not want to know about).   Besides, I’ve always thought that the way things are is infinitely more strange and interesting than anything I could ever invent, which is one reason why I’m a journalist and not a novelist.

Of course it’s beautiful, bizarre, fascinating, magical, disturbing, and enchanting.   Why else would I be here?   But the more time that passes, the more that initial dazzle (I had it too, once) has become alloyed with many more elements, elements that have been known to tarnish and even  slightly corrode the old magic.   Elements the rainbow people aren’t interested in.

Yet I do think there are people who want to know what it’s really like here, and they’re the ones I’m writing for.   So here’s my first answer: “It’s arduous.”   It’s hard on everybody, and everybody I know talks about it; whenever the subject of inconvenience, time-and-motion estimates, and general complication of life comes up, Venetians I know are unanimous: “Exhausting.”   “Fatiguing.”   And so on.   It’s demanding physically, mentally, and even emotionally.

Physically:   You walk miles every day, usually carrying (or lugging) bags that get heavier as your daily Ironman of errands and shopping goes on.   I don’t have feet anymore, I have hooves.   It’s wearing mentally, as you work to resist the daily dripdripdrip of the self-destructive actions (or non-actions) of the city’s supposed guardians, who instead of  laboring for its well-being spend most of their time gnawing on its carcass.

And it’s hard culturally, to endlessly connect and reconnect so many strands of the Venetian universe, past, present, and future.   Living in a place which has existed for close to 1,500 years does give you a different perspective in all three of those time frames, it’s true.     By this point the Venetian worldview is an  intricate  tapestry in which pride, even arrogance, and resignation are inextricably entwined.

I’ll tell you right now that I’m not proposing myself as the latest in an endless series of foreigners who has elected herself to make pronouncements about Venice, as if the Venetians were somehow unable to grasp who they are and what their city means.   If you really want to know Venice, even a little bit, you have to meet her on her terms.   No shortcuts, no special tricks, because at some point you (by which I mean me) accept that this is a city that was once a nation that ruled an empire stretching, at one time,  from Milan to the eastern shore of the Black Sea.   The Venetian Republic dominated its world longer than the Roman Empire, longer than the British Empire.   Venice has been admired and feared and adored by people who were infinitely more brilliant and talented than I am (by which I also mean you), so it’s a good idea here to just get over yourself.

By this point in history, there can’t be anything really so special about you.   Therefore, no matter how much you may love Venice, it will never love you back.   It will accept your love,  and even appreciate it.   But it resists being known by people who are just passing through, and I like that.   I respect that.  

A summer Sunday morning on a funky little island, the Vignole, between Venice and Sant' Erasmo.  We all rowed over here to enjoy (A) the row and (B) sitting around in the shade, eating and drinking.  Or perhaps I've got A and B reversed.

A summer Sunday morning on a funky little island, the Vignole, between Venice and Sant' Erasmo. We all rowed over here to enjoy (A) the row and (B) sitting around in the shade, eating and drinking. Or perhaps I've got A and B reversed.

And once you see that, you can begin to find your own place here, and be happy.

What usually  jumps to mind when Venice comes up?   Undoubtedly something involving water, from “canals” to “flooding” to “sinking.”   Some might also throw in “pigeons” and “Carnival.”   Beyond that, the general view of Venice from outside is as a vague romantic swath of gondolas in the gloaming and sumptuous palaces that cry out for candles and Casanova.   “It seems like a stage set.”   I really wish I had fifty cents for every time someone has either said or written that.   But it’s true, it does seem like one.   I’ve said it myself.   Call it a stage set, a cliche’, a dream — in any case, it doesn’t seem real.

Except that it is.   To its diminishing population and beleaguered administrators, Venice is all too real, a classic small town trapped in the body of a fragile and irreplaceable monument, and the millions of tourists passing through each year, some for as little as a few hours, wouldn’t notice that it is in the grip of an apparently unstoppable decline.   So much for fantasy.   I just heard it fall down dead.

 One generation of abuse, neglect, and the wrong kind of love has transformed what it often called the Most Beautiful City in the World into a perpetual line of scrimmage, and to open the daily newspaper, “Il Gazzettino,” is to read a sort of updated scorecard listing penalties, fumbles, Hail-Mary passes, and the number of yards gained or lost in the last encounter, whatever it was.   Is anybody winning?   Or is everybody just losing at  different rates of speed?

So much remains of Venice’s once-legendary grandeur (though less than nothing compared to what it once was) that it’s easy to imagine that it has always been the way you see it today, and that it will remain so.   But just as the tide ebbs and flows in the surrounding lagoon, Venice too is constantly changing.   Small alterations don’t draw attention, but a look at the past 40 years (or a talk with anybody born before 1960, more or less) demonstrates how drastic and irreversible the changes have been.   Many of the city’s shrinking population (1,500 people a year leave Venice) still intimately remember a city which now seems to be from another epoch.   This causes them a good deal of pain.   Povera Venezia,” you often hear someone say — poor Venice — as if they were talking about a childhood friend who had developed a   debilitating disease  and who, for some reason, can’t get the new  drugs.   It’s the typical concluding phrase in most conversations about their city’s plight.   Venetians talk of little else, except each other and food.

What happened?   This is a question people always ask me when I’m taking them around and describing the city that  Lino, my guy, and his brothers and sisters  grew up in.    How did Venice become the hostage of the very things which once seemed to guarantee prosperity and progress?   Motorboats brought speed and efficiency but they churn up waves which are pounding the city’s foundations to rubble.   Tourists provide money and employment, but now come in quantities which are nearly impossible to manage while increasing the costs and difficulties of daily life.  

One solution to a problem almost always creates new problems.   One example:   The need to transport increasing thousands of people every day on public waterbuses, or vaporettos, has meant a dramatic increase in the number of these vehicles; good for the people, disastrous for the city.   An urban organism which once functioned with coherence and something resembling efficiency has become a disheartening spectacle of anarchy and decay.   Today, despite erratic and frequently expensive stopgap measures, which are badly conceived and poorly executed, the major problems remain  fundamentally unresolved.   The city lurches along in a state of medium- to high-grade emergency.

The city’s struggle to survive is generally depicted as a simple confrontation with the occasional high tide.   But to an ordinary Venetian, high tide isn’t  even on the list of the first 100 things to worry about.    The real enemies of  Venice’s well-being are the same unromantic yet urgent components of cities everywhere: Jobs, housing, maintenance, transportation, pollution, all complicated by the presence of  3 per cent more tourists each year (2008 counted some 21 million) and a city government in which it’s every man for himself.   Oh, and the mayor, Massimo Cacciari, doesn’t mind letting the citizens know that he thinks they’re morons.

Venice — or its politicians, or whoever it is who actually decides things — displays the classic symptoms of passive-aggressive behavior, which a clinical handbook lists as including intentional inefficiency, fostering chaos, making excuses, losing things, obstructionism, procrastination, resisting suggestions from others, sarcasm, stubbornness, sullenness, and willful withholding of information.   True, a lot of these traits are just human, and they’re easy to find in bureaucracies everywhere.   But Venice’s fragility makes each of these, not to mention all of them together, especially perilous.   The saga of the building of the fourth bridge over the Grand Canal, till now simply called the “Calatrava bridge” for its designer, Santiago Calatrava, deserves a chapter in itself.   A very long chapter.

I haven’t yet abandoned the idea that Venice could be managed, protected, and even improved.   “Saved,” if you prefer.   Why?   Because it has happened before.   All of these  problems didn’t appear suddenly, or even very much in secret.   But they have happened without control, in a random, opportunistic sort of way.   So now we’re at the point where plans routinely unravel, schemes crumble, enforcement is haphazard, persistence fades.   Why?

The general public, even in Italy, assumes that Venice is some kind of special-needs child because of all that supposedly uncontrollable water, and now all those tourists.   But is it?   The city looks very different from the inside out, through the eyes of her own people, the people for whom it is still a home town.   Even Lino, who you might think would be pretty blase’ after a lifetime here, sometimes will be caught short by something extraordinary and just say, “This city is magic.   Magic.”

Mayor Cacciari, now on his third and last term, says that Venice has to stop being a city of the past and become a city of the future.   Of course all mayors say that.   But what would it look like in a city whose only real value is its past?   And what if Venice’s future gets stuck in the present, preserved as a sort of architectural saber-tooth tiger, mired in a bureaucratic tar pit, a city whose only appeal is its strangeness and which ultimately has become too expensive for everyone?   Venice isn’t battling the elements so much as battling itself.

Well, I love my Venice, even if sometimes I do want to pinch its little head off.   And I’m not saying that my Venice is the only one there is.   I realized long ago that there are plenty of Venices — the Art Venice and the Music Venice and the Food Venice and the University-Student Venice, and so on.   “People want to believe in Venice,” my friend Cristina commented the other day; “the ones who go to Ve-NEET-sia.   When I travel and I say I’m from Venice, they say ‘Oh I’VE been to Ve-NEET-sia.’   They invent this Venice that only they like.   I’ve had people ask me, ‘Don’t all Venetians live on the Grand Canal?’   I say, ‘No, we also live other places….”   All these Venices  don’t often intersect, but for each group theirs is obviously the real Venice.

I’m not sure what  you’d call my Venice.   Me, I think of it as living  in a ship down below the waterline, stuck in the bilges with a bunch of other ordinary

(Left to right) Alberto Benini, me, Lino, and many other unseen people crammed onto the club's caorlina, eating the traditional boat-borne picnic on the feast of the Redeemer (third Sunday in July).  Thousands of people are anchored with us in the Giudecca Canal, waiting for the midnight fireworks.  At this moment, we're eating little snails in oil and garlic, also part of the traditional menu.

(Left to right) Alberto Benini, me, Lino, and many other unseen people crammed onto the club's caorlina, eating the traditional boat-borne picnic on the feast of the Redeemer (third Sunday in July). Thousands of people are anchored with us in the Giudecca Canal, waiting for the midnight fireworks. At this moment, we're eating little snails in oil and garlic, also part of the traditional menu.

people.   We hear the feet of all the people in the other Venices tromping around over our heads.

But look at it this way.   Everybody here, including me,  is here on purpose.    Living in Venice isn’t for everyone, no matter how alluring their fantasies might be.   It’s more like a vocation.     Because we could all be somewhere else, at least theoretically.   So while it’s possible to  criticize Venice without loving her, it’s impossible to love her without criticizing, at least sometimes.

So I dedicate this blog to the fascination of Venice as a city, a place to live and which deserves to be loved for being —  and not merely for having been —  much more than the simple stuff of a million snapshots.