Venice and Death
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Echelon.
A city born to die – by drowning.
Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley visited Venice and sent a telegram to David Niven: “Streets full of water. Advise”. The city is certainly flooded these days – with tourists.
Writers and Venice
In his novella, Death in Venice, Thomas Mann describes the fetid atmosphere of the city and the cholera outbreak that kills his protagonist. Other writers apart from Mann have been inspired by Venice. Shakespeare set Othello and The Merchant of Venice in the city. Venice inspired the poetry of Ezra Pound, who wrote his first literary work in the city. Pound died in 1972 and his remains are buried in Venice’s cemetery island of San Michele. The city features prominently in Henry James’ The Aspern Papers and The Wings of the Dove and is also visited in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The English writer, artist, photographer and eccentric, Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian VII, died in Venice in 1913. Mark Twain wrote about Venice in The Innocents Abroad:”The Venetian gondola is as free and graceful, in its gliding movement, as a serpent.”
Henry James visited Venice 15 times and used the city to explore themes of the contrast between the new world and the old.
At the Hotel Danieli, the famous affair between the French novelist and playwright George Sand and poet Alfred de Musset was consummated. At different times Goethe, Byron and Dickens also stayed there.
Geoff Dyer was born not far from me in Cheltenham. He now lives in Venice Beach California where he was reminded of his mortality recently when he had a stroke.
The Venetian Empire thrived between 1206 and 1450. In its heyday, it stretched down the Adriatic, along the Peloponnesian coast, across to Crete and Corfu and Cyprus, up the Adriatic and into Asia Minor, with its eastern outpost at Tana on the far end of the Sea of Azov beyond the Crimea.
Centre of Commerce
In the Middle Ages Venice was a major centre for commerce and trade, a leader in political and economic affairs. Venice created an institutional basis for commercial capitalism, creating political and legal institutions that guaranteed property rights and the enforceability of contracts. It was a pioneer in developing foreign exchange and credit markets, banking and accountancy. It created a government bond market, starting with compulsory loans with regular interest payments. Its fiscal system was efficient and favourable to mercantile profits and the accumulation of capital.
The biggest enterprise in imperial Venice was the Arsenale, a public shipyard created in 1104. It was operative for centuries, and employed thousands of workers. Some small boat building is still carried out there and the rope factory is today one of the venues of the Venice Biennale.
Wealth and Art
The wealth of the Venetian Empire attracted great artists such as Giorgione, Tintoretto and Titian. Glassworkers, woodworkers, lace makers and sculptors made satisfactory livings. Venetian Gothic architecture, as seen in Doge’s Palace and the Ca’ d’Oro, has attracted visitors for centuries. During the 16th century, Venice became one of the most important musical centers of Europe, marked by a characteristic style of composition and the development of the Venetian polychoral style. Venice was famous for the splendour of its music, as exemplified in the “colossal style” of Gabrieli, which used multiple choruses. Venice was also the home of many famous composers during the baroque period, such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. Opera was born in Venice through the works of Monteverdi.
In 1171, the city had about 66 000 inhabitants, and was one of the three biggest cities in Western Europe until the sixteenth century. In 1557, the population of Venetian territories was about 1.5 million. Venice experienced three demographic catastrophes. A final one may be underway now. The other three were plagues. The modern plague is tourism. The numbers of the native population have been falling for centuries, but the pace of decline has quickened. The population fell from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 in 1996, prompting fears that the city’s days as a sustainable community are numbered. The danger point was thought to be 60,000 and the population has now dipped below that.
The city of Mestre, on the mainland connected by rail and road over the lagoon, supplies what Venice’s tourist industry needs most: people. Since the end of World War II, Mestre grew quickly and chaotically into a vast human settlement, which now includes migrant workers from Romania and Africa. Unlike Venice, Mestre has normal shops with normal prices.
Built on Sewage
It might seem like a crazy idea to build a city at the centre of an empire in a waterlogged space. Water gave Venice life and water will be the death of Venice. The current city administration is ignoring the rise in sea level that global warming will bring. On November 4, 1966, an abnormal occurrence of high tides, rain-swollen rivers and a severe Sirocco wind caused a flood that left thousands of residents without homes and caused over six million dollars worth of damage. Climate change will bring regular flooding twice a day, because of tidal oscillation.
Many visitors comment on the smell of Venice. The current sewage disposal system is a patchwork of old and new and does not fully meet the needs of a modern city catering to thousands of tourists. Some houses and apartments still discharge untreated sewage directly into the canals. Significant levels of hepatitis A and enteroviruses have been detected.
The 12th edition of the Baedeker guide to Venice published in 1903 noted that the vaporetti were introduced in 1888. These new steamboats churned the water below the surface and increased erosion. Today motor boats have a worse effect.
Worse still are the huge cruise ships, most of them three times the length of an American football field, with gross tonnage of 100,000 or more (the Titanic was only 46,000 tons). In 1997, 206 cruise ships came to Venice, in 2011, 655. In 1990, 200,000 cruise tourists disembarked in Venice; in 2011, it was 1.8 million. On just one day in July 2011, six of these ships tied up in port and 35,000 tourists disembarked at once.
The cruise business provides 1,600 direct jobs in services for the ships and passengers, 2,600 jobs in supplies, maintenance, repairs, bunker sales, etc., and 1,270 direct jobs created by tourist spending in Venice (at least €363 million a year).
St Mark’s Square has hundreds of people milling around. You cannot enjoy a quiet coffee at Quadri or Florian’s. A huge queue obscures the façade of St Mark’s. The acceptable maximum number of tourists for Venice is 33,000. In 2011, the average number of visitors to the city daily is 60,000. Tourism destroys that which gives it existence.
Much of Venice’s appeal lies in its air of unreality. Canaletto and Turner captured the dream-like quality of ancient buildings reflected in water in the constantly changing light. Proust said his dream had become his address. The film Don’t Look Now captured the sinister aspect of Venice, the fog from the canals drifting down the maze-like alleyways hiding who knows what dangers.
Venice is a good example of anicca, impermanence. It was born to die and this gives it its beauty. Venice’s death warrant was signed at its birth by its very location. The city has always been sinking, frayed by the salty air, the thrusting marine current, the sirocco and the oscillation of the Adriatic Sea. Now it has a plague of tourists with which to contend.
How much longer can it live?