I last spent time in La Serenissima about thirty years ago. How time … [insert cliche here.] I was on my way to India via the land route, and stopped for a week or so, drunk with architecture. It was September, and I thought that the high tourist season would be over by then, but I was wrong. I spent my first night on the Lido beach, I recall. The sight of boats laden with tourists gliding through the dark, surrounded by crowded walkways, reminded me of Disneyland, but I knew why I was there.
With daylight, I found my way to the Giudecca, the Jews’ island, where the International Youth Hostel was. I ate for free during the several days of the Festival of Unity staged by the Communist Party – delicious. The irony was tasty too – I am neither an observant Jew nor a communist. Moreover, the Jewish ghetto of Venice was never located on that island, which is home to one of the great Renaissance monuments, the church of Il Redentore by Palladio.
Venice seems to have a special place in the imagination of Europeans, even Italians, as well as tourist hordes worldwide, and it is featured in films often. Two films I like very much that feature Venice are Italian for Beginners and Bread and Tulips, one Danish, one Italian, both romantic comedies. Then there are the films I don’t like, and films I thought were great but that I’m too scared to watch again.
When I was studying the history of architecture, a grad student told me that “everyone loves Venice.” That is, all architects and planners, regardless of their stylistic bent or ideology (and the latter can be pretty fierce among architects – intensity seems inversely proportioned to the number of completed projects…) all point to the city of Venice as the exemplar of whatever they hold most dear. It is often cited as a supreme example of “organic” urban growth, and indeed, from the air, it looks sort of like a schematic fish! I have always thought the Grand Canal, snaking through it, looks like the main intestinal tract in higher animals, and once again, that is, sort of, what it is for the city as a whole.
Now, the city is a fossil, without an economy independent of tourism, although we shouldn’t despise it for that since in our “spectacular age,” tourism is an industry like any other. The sinking has stopped with the cessation of pumping in Mestre and other places, but high water, as always, is a problem. The flood gates are under design to preserve the physical fabric of the place from inundation, but the lower stories of many structures, already sunken to the point that portions are permanently submerged while they were designed for occasional flooding, are crumbling and need shoring up.
I don’t really care – the city is a physical creation unlike any other in the world and should be appreciated for that beyond all else. It is a monument to the amazing creativity of the urban collective, and it provides an ideal point against which to measure any urban fantasy, because it was as real as real can be for centuries. Pity it, laugh at its not-too-clean canals, dismiss it as a decaying urban theme park: what city can claim to have been so powerful, so rich, so influential, and so fantastically beautiful in a way unmatched by anyplace on earth for so long?
Oh, and then there’s that Fourth Crusade, with its never-ending lessons for the rest of us…