Is Venice to be embalmed, or will it be allowed to be a living place?
Opinion: A petition protesting at cruise-liners entering the lagoon has divided natives and foreign Venetophiles
‘Anna Somers Cocks proposes an entrance charge to the city. Mayor Orsoni is opposed, arguing that this would turn Venice into a museum. But isn’t there a danger that it is becoming one already? Or if not quite a museum, then a theme park?’ Photograph: Getty Images
The Architecture Biennale in Venice has been curated this year around the theme of “Fundamentals”, and it sounds fascinating. Nothing could be more fundamental, though, than questions about the future of Venice itself, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1987.
Architect Norman Foster is among over 60 signatories of a petition sent two weeks ago to the Italian prime minister. Along with international museum directors, he is joined by actors Julie Christie, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton and Michael Caine, protesting against enormous luxury cruise liners in the shallow Venetian lagoon. Towering above the spires of the city, these vast ships with up to 5,000 passengers currently come close to St Mark’s Square, travelling along the Giudecca Canal.
Local protests have been staged by the No Grande Navi (No Big Boats) organisation and feelings run high. In March, a partial ban proposed last November by the Italian government was overturned by a regional tribunal in the Veneto, pending a review in the autumn. It is in this context that the petition has been written to maintain international pressure.
One of the signatories is Anna Somers Cocks, editor of theartnewspaper.com, and former chairwoman of the London-based Venice in Peril organisation. Last year she wrote an article for the New York Review of Books in which she drew attention to the threats facing Venice, not only from cruise ships, but also mass tourism and the accelerating rise of sea levels as a result of climate change. Responding to her article, mayor of Venice Giorgio Orsoni stated that he wants to see cruise ships banned from St Mark’s Basin and the Giudecca Canal, but he disagreed with Somers Cocks about solutions to the problem, and bridled at what he called “sermonising”.
Inevitably tension recurs, especially between natives and foreign Venetophiles, in reconciling the desire for income from tourism and the need to ensure the tourist industry does not destroy what it sets out to showcase. In Dear Tourist, a pamphlet published in the excellent Italian “Eye on Venice” series, Venetian author Paolo Lanapoppi presents quantitative research on the current numbers of annual visitors, and asks how many more the city – and its inhabitants – can take. In addition to a ban on giant cruise ships, he proposes limiting the number of visitors, beginning with tour groups making day-trips, who should be required to make reservations on a waiting list – which seems more than reasonable.
Somers Cocks goes further and proposes an entrance charge to the city. Mayor Orsoni is opposed, arguing that this would turn Venice into a museum. But isn’t there a danger that it is becoming one already? Or if not quite a museum, then a theme park? And this, surely, is the central, urgent question: is Venice to be embalmed, or will it be allowed to be a living place?
Death and decayIt doesn’t help that metaphors of death and decay have been associated with the city since the early nineteenth century. Historians have charted the rise and fall of “the most serene” Republic of Venice (La Serenissima), which lasted for over 1,000 years. The narrative of decline reflected the city’s dismal fortunes after 1797 when it passed into the hands of Napoleon’s army. The French plundered its art treasures before handing Venice over to the Austrians, who incorporated it into the Hapsburg Empire, under whose rule it remained, in a state of inertia, until the creation of the unified state of Italy in 1866.
The idea of Venice as a lost paradise is present in the influential work of Victorian art critic and architectural historian, John Ruskin, author of The Stones of Venice. And Venice’s association with loss, grief and yearning pervades the work of nineteenth-century writers and artists, from Henry James’s novels The Aspern Papers and The Wings of a Dove, to Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice, later adapted in Benjamin Britten’s opera and Visconti’s film. In the film, Dirk Bogarde brilliantly portrays an ageing writer, Aschenbach, whose sense of his own failing body is mirrored in the decay of the city itself, in the grip of a cholera epidemic. More recent works set in Venice are also tinged with a sense of sadness, foreboding, or both: Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.
Visitors have long been captivated by Venice, its magical combination of water, light, colour, art and architecture making it a place of fantasy and reverie. But we need to wake up. This petition to the Italian government is one way to galvanise collective ideas about the sustainable future of the city and lagoon, but more are needed. While the death of Venice might be a seductive myth in cultural terms, the reality is more complex and more exigent.
Helen Meany is a journalist, critic and arts consultant