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Pilgrims and Tourists

The city needs people. It demands to be seen. The pilgrims of the Middle Ages were the first tourists. They were given guided tours, and certain state officials had the task of inspecting taverns and checking merchandise sold to tourists. These inspectors were also supposed to lead the strangers to the most expensive shops, where they could buy glass beads or silver crosses. There were other guides and agents known as tolomazi who offered a range of services from interpreting to money changing. The owners of the various galleys set up booths in Saint Mark’s Square, each with the flag of their ship prominently displayed; the masters of these galleys offered snacks of food and glasses of wine to the passing custom while “each abused the other and defamed him to the pilgrims.” The pilgrims themselves were lodged in especial taverns and hostelries such as the Little Horse and the Lobster. It was said of some crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land, that they never got further than the Luna Hotel. The Luna was on the quay down from the piazzetta. It was full of guests by 1319. The White Lion opened its doors five years later.

Venice has been the cynosure of all eyes for almost a thousand years; some figures suggest that at the beginning of the twenty-first century it attracts three million residential tourists and seven million “day trippers” each year. Other estimates vary from fourteen to sixteen million annual visitors. It is safe to conclude, therefore, that millions upon millions of people enter a city that has no more than sixty thousand inhabitants. At any one time there are more strangers than citizens. This is not an unusual situation, however, since by the 1840s tourists began to outnumber residents. Yet the imbalance has never been so large. It has been claimed that in twenty-five years, at the current rate of dispersal, there will be no native Venetians left in the city. It will be a city of tourists and of those who serve them. It is no wonder that Venetians feel themselves to be under threat. Yet through the centuries Venice has passively colluded in its own fate.

At the free fair held on the feast of the Ascension, in the fourteenth century, it was claimed that two hundred thousand strangers came to the city. The authorities invented a season of festivals and fairs, from the end of April to the beginning of June, which could be used to inveigle more visitors. By the fifteenth century there were more than twenty hostelries, most of them situated near Saint Mark’s Square and the Rialto. They offered good food, clean linen and a plentiful supply of prostitutes. Engravings, of festivals and of processions, were sold as tourist souvenirs. A city where everything is for sale will naturally wish to sell itself. So the eventual fate of Venice was being decided at a relatively early date. By the end of the fifteenth century a Milanese priest, Pietro Casola, complained that it was a city “about which so much has been said and written … that it seems to me there is nothing left to say.”

A sixteenth-century tourist, Fynes Morisson, said that Venice was another word for veni etiam or come again. The natives were always friendly, and in the early sixteenth century Sir Richard Torkinton said of his hotel in Venice that “the good man of the howse seyd he knew me by my face that I was an englysshman. And he spake to me good englyssh.” In a similar spirit the Venetian authorities encouraged any form of entertainment that would entice visitors to the city, including plays and operas and festivals. They also countenanced, even if they did not actively encourage, the belief that the city was the centre of illicit sex. The Venetian courtesan became famous throughout Europe. But anyone, from boys to transvestites, could be purchased in Venice. And of course Venetian hospitality came at a price. A Huguenot tourist of the eighteenth century, François Misson, commenting upon the large number of foreigners in the city, wondered “how much Money all this Multitude must bring to Venice?” It was said that every fifth house had a bed to let, and such was the press of boats that “you need but cry out Gondola and you have them launch out presently to you.” The first guidebook, Venetia, città nobilissima, was published in 1581. In the seventeenth century Venice became the centre of the Grand Tour meant to form an essential element in the progress of an English gentleman.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the English ambassador, Lord Manchester, reported of the Venetians that “the chief part they intend to act here is to amuse the rest of Europe and do nothing.” This was the century in which Venetian artists began to create images of their city expressly designed to appeal to tourists. Francesco Guardi, for example, saw his city as a tourist might see it as a place of romance and of quasi-theatrical scenery. Canaletto specialised in idealised topographical views that were then exported to the rest of Europe in general and to England in particular. In that period there were more than thirty thousand visitors at the time of the Carnival, but the true acme of Venetian tourism was reached in the nineteenth century. The Grand Tour had given way to upper-middle-class travel with Venice as the most desirable destination of all. By the 1840s tourist guides to the city were being written; the first “Cook’s tour” of Venice was arranged in 1864. “The Venice of today,” Henry James wrote, “is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking …”

The city became for the Victorians an acceptable relic of the past, a place of cultural respectability; it offered a refuge from the horrors of industrialism that were even then afflicting England, and a cosy metaphor for an admired and much-lamented past. The “Gothic” architecture of nineteenth-century England found some of its meaning and context in the churches and grand houses of the city. It was already a place of historical nostalgia. The Victorians were in a sense the new pilgrims, the ancestors of those who had gone on a spiritual journey to Jerusalem; yet the pilgrimage now ended at Venice, and its religion was that of art and history. It was in this century, too, that the conventional image of Venice was fixed for ever in the public imagination—the gondolas, the pigeons, the open-air cafés of Saint Mark’s Square. It had become a peep-show, a diorama, a bazaar. But there were some who anticipated that the city itself would be altered in the process. In 1887 the English periodical, The Builder, warned its readers that the tourists of Venice “had no right to require the inhabitants of any old city that they should be content to reduce themselves to the condition of the custodians of a museum.”

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the project of Venice may be said to be complete. It has been called the “Disneyfication” of Venice. Venice has been true to its destiny. That is all. It is still a working city but it has acquired a new character. There are those who speak of “decline” or “decay” but there is no real evidence for this. In some respects Venice is the most successful city in the world. Cities are of their nature artificial. Venice will simply take the urban concept to a new height. The nineteenth-century American writer, Francis Marion Crawford, put it best when he declared that “it would not surprise those who know her, to come suddenly upon her and find that all human life was extinct within her, while her own went on, as strong as ever.” It is no good pretending that the tourists do not see the “real” Venice in the way that tourists do not see the “real” London or the “real” Paris; the tourist Venice is the essential, quintessential, Venice.

Some tourists are more famous than others. Everyone who is anyone has now been replaced by anyone who is everyone, but in the past the famous and the notorious have been drawn to the city as a stage on which they could perform. Shelley came to lament, and Byron came to ejaculate. Aretino came to celebrate, and Ruskin to denounce. Nietzsche, Proust and Dante all visited the city. Petrarch came here on many occasions, and declared it to be “the most marvellous city that I have ever seen.” Turner and Whistler painted Venice, as have hundreds of other foreign artists. In his “Ten O’Clock Lecture,” in describing London, Whistler conjured up the image of another city:

And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses become palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy land lies before us …

By the late nineteenth century there was not an inch of Venice that had not been painted.

It has also been a city of literature, if not exactly a literary city. There are forty references by Shakespeare to Venice and its dominions, not all of them complimentary. Two of his plays, The Merchant of Venice (1598) and Othello (1602), are set wholly or partly in that city. The first act of Othello, with its dark street and its shuttered house, well captures the imaginative ambience of the place. It has been proposed by some scholars that Shakespeare actually visited the city, but that is most unlikely. He did not need to do so. Venice is pre-eminently an imagined city. Sir Politique, in Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1606), boasts that after the first week of arrival:

All tooke me for a citizen of Venice:

I knew the formes, so well.

He is also well aware of the predatory habits of the Venetians:

For your Venetian, if he sees a man

Preposterous, in the least, he has him straight;

He has: he strippes him.

The early nineteenth-century English poets were instrumental in creating what might be called the mythography of Venice. Byron composed two historical dramas set in the city, but his enduring contribution to Venetian sentiment is to be found in poems such as Beppo, Don Juan and the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage where he associates the city with the melancholy outcast who is also the quintessential romantic hero:

In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more,

And silent rows the songless gondolier;

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,

And music meets not always now the ear:

Those days are gone …

Yet romance can turn to romanticisation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there appeared a number of somewhat whimsical and self-indulgent travelogues or diaries devoted to the picturesque possibilities of the city. Many writers have composed the same sentence under a Venetian sky—the solemn movements of the gondolier, the market boats at dawn laden with fruits and vegetables, the beautiful children, the marble tables of Florian’s, the honeysuckle against a crumbling wall, the solemn mellow tone of the great clock in the piazza, the clangour of the bells of the campanile …

In the more serious works of literature, however, Venice appears in quite another guise. It becomes a setting for the secret life. It becomes a place of self-discovery, too, when the usual boundaries between outward and inward, private and public, become blurred. It is a setting where unconscious or repressed desires come forward. It is a place of strange meetings and unexpected encounters. One of the first English novels to be set in Venice, Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), has as its plot an adventure in disguise and masquerade when the earl of Surrey exchanges identities with his servant in order to sample the delights of the city unobserved. Venice was already supposed to be the city of lechery and of doubleness or ambiguity. The central part of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) takes place in Venice. Although the author herself never visited the city, she imagined it so intently that her descriptions have the utmost verisimilitude. It is a place of intrigue and of danger, of horror and of extravagance.

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