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Death in Venice

At the foot of the baroque campanile of the church of S. Maria Formosa there is sculpted over the doorway a hideous mask of decay and suffering. Ruskin believed that “it is well that we should see and feel the full horror of it in this spot and know what pestilence it was that came and breathed upon her beauty until it melted away.” For him the deformed visage was an image of the decline of Venice from the time of the Renaissance. In fact the stone mask is more interesting than that. It is an exact representation of the face of one suffering from neurofibromatosis or von Recklinghausen’s disease.

Venice is associated with death. It is in large part a dilapidated city, the water lapping against crumbling brick and plaster. John Addington Symonds, in A Venetian Medley, recounts that “the blackness of the water whispers in our ears a tale of death.” It is a city of shadows. The city is linked with pestilence, too, and with the hidden knife of the assassin. There is still a Rio Terra degli Assassini. The most famous narrative to have emerged from the city is still Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Threnody suits the city well. Venice is doomed. That is the tale the waters tell. In the city of faded stone Byron meditated on decay. “Oh Venice!” he wrote:

Venice! When thy marble walls

   Are level with the waters, there shall be

A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls …

It was a place of slime and ooze and mould. Marinetti described it as a “putrefying” city, a “magnificent sore from the past.” For Ruskin it was already a ghost floating upon the sea. Its silence was forbidding. Its ruins were somehow more death-like than elsewhere, because there was no touch of nature about them with the promise of regeneration. These ruins of stone are final. No moss, or grass, will cover them. They are what Shelley described as “a windowless, deformed and dreary pile.” In The Last ManMary Shelley depicted a similar scene of desolation as “the tide ebbed sullenly from out the broken portals and violated halls of Venice.” In a city that seemed to have deserted the changing world of time, the only fate awaiting it is apocalypse. It will be submerged. It will descend into the water silently and permanently. It is the image of the city as the final end of all human achievement and aspiration. Wordsworth wrote a sonnet on Venice that ended:

Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade

Of that which once was great, is passed away.

“I do not feel any romance in Venice,” Ruskin told his father. “It is simply a heap of ruins.” In more remote ages, too, the Venetian chronicles are filled with accounts of churches or bridges or houses suddenly disintegrating and collapsing in piles of dust and broken stone. In the eighteenth century the city became part of the cult of picturesque ruins. There were ruins even in the fourteenth century. Many houses were left in a decayed state and never restored. There are of course no ruins of the classical past—almost alone among Italian cities, Venice has no such relics—but rather the slow and continuing decay of a still to be apprehended beauty. The city does not have the security of great and primordial ancestors. That is why decay and dissolution in Venice are somehow more beautiful than the most splendid edifices elsewhere. They are part of its unique enchantment. They are part of the sweet melancholy of transience. They are reminiscent of the human frame as it moves towards the tomb.

It was for Henry James the most beautiful sepulchre in the world, where the past “has been laid to rest with such tenderness, such a sadness of resignation.” The churches are filled with graves. There was once a Campiello dei Morti, but the name has been changed to Campiello Nuovo. There was a Bridge of the Dead, but it is now called the Bridge of the Tailors. There is still a Calle della Morte. Yet the cemetery may also become a metaphor. In the eighteenth century Venice was described as “a tomb of noblemen in which healthy people are locked up.”

There is now an island of the dead close to the city. S. Michele once sustained a monastery devoted to learning but in the nineteenth century a cemetery was constructed here, so that the cadavers would no longer be close to the living population of Venice. The bodies are placed in little marble drawers like an enormous sideboard of mortality. The church of S. Michele, built some four centuries earlier, is like a whitened sepulchre guarding the site. Its recumbent corpses outnumber by many times the inhabitants of the city. After a certain number of years the dead are taken up, their skeletons removed to an island of bones known as S. Ariano. Is this not the real laguna morte, the dead lagoon? Among the skulls and bones slink rats and reptiles; bony plants spring up amid the decay.

There is a cult of death in Venice. The Futurist movement of Italy believed that it was the temple of the cult of l’adorazione della morte, the worship of which was the foundation and being of the city. In its manifesto the movement declared that it was time “to fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering infected old palaces. Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots”; the entire city was a “great sewer of traditionalism.”

The funerals were once very magnificent. Even in the beginning the rites of the dead in Venice resembled those of Egypt and of Assyria rather than of any Italian city. The corpse was laid on a floor that had been covered in ashes. The bereaved were obliged to enter all the paroxysms of grief, howling and moaning, and it became a custom for the relict to lie across the threshold of the house to prevent the corpse of the loved one from being removed; he or she was then ritually dragged away. The corpse was generally carried through the streets with its face and feet bare. The funeral processions were accompanied by banners, torches and flambeaux, while the rooms of the house of the departed were draped in black velvet. The family of the dear departed were then expected to cry and scream throughout the entire funeral service. It is another example of the eastern affiliations of the city. Anyone who died a virgin, male or female, was buried with a green garland around the head.

Anyone who has seen the film Don’t Look Now will recall the hearse being carried across the water in a dark gondola. When the cemetery island was first in use there grew up a tradition of almost triumphal processions to the centre of the dead; there were funereal gondolas, designed for that purpose, with five gondoliers in gilded uniforms. One of them stood at the front of the hearse and coffin with a staff of office, while at the prow and stern were the sculpted images of saints and prophets. Even for the more modest funerals the gondoliers wore scarves and sashes of black, while the hearse and coffin were heaped with bright flowers.

There is a genuine morbidity in the folk tales and superstitions of the city. Louis XII of France said that the Venetians were too afraid of death to succeed in war; they had a merchant fear of violence and insecurity. The city is surrounded by islands to which the mad and the dangerous have always been expelled. In Venice Jan Morris wrote that “Venetians are fascinated by dead things, horrors, prisons, freaks and malformations.” That is perhaps because the city itself is a freak and a prison. There is also a suspicion abroad that it is already a dead city.

There are people who seem physically to feel the onset of disease on their arrival in Venice. The French writer, Maurice Barrès, declared that as soon as he had stepped out of the railway station and walked to the gondola stand—feeling the wind of the lagoon upon his face—he knew that “I have taken quinine in vain to protect me. I believe that I can feel within me the re-emergence of millions of bacteria … One sees everywhere in Venice the conquests of death.” Wagner glimpsed this, too, when he stepped into a gondola.

Wagner died in Venice. Browning died here, too. Diaghilev died here. There are some who expire here by proxy; Dante died in Ravenna from a fever he contracted in Venice. Byron had decided to end his days in the city, but events elsewhere overtook him. It is presumably a matter of statistical probability that a certain amount of artists would die in this most artistic of cities, but the truth is that many people come to Venice precisely in order to die. Henry James intuited the fatal appeal of the city in the character of the suffering Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. “I think I should like,” she said, “to die here.” There is something consoling about death near water, in a city that is itself in the throes of decay. To die in a grand Venetian house, as did Wagner and Browning, is to inhabit a vast funerary monument without the expense of building one. The perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death.

It can be a melancholy and enervating place. It is not a city for the old, or for the ill, or for the mournful. The atmosphere can induce lassitude and depression. When the French painter Léopold Robert committed suicide in Venice his compatriot, George Sand, blamed it on the atmosphere. On hearing the music and the singing, during a Venetian evening, Anton Chekhov wished to weep. It has been a city of tears. Wagner was thrown into a mood of “extreme melancholy” when he first arrived in Venice. When the Irish balladeer, Tom Moore, visited Byron he instantly hated the city and declared it to be a “sad place.” That is the reaction of many travellers who become afflicted by a strange and sudden gloom. Even in the carnival air of the eighteenth century the underlying mood was declared to be one of melancholy. Why else would you want to make so much show of gaiety? In the nineteenth century the English residents of Venice warned their compatriots, on their arrival, not to spend too much time in the city. It was supposed that a long residence would lead to a morbid depression of spirits. There is a cultural, as well as a psychological, explanation for this mournfulness. The English travellers believed at the time that the whole history of Venice was one of loss and decay—that the city had lost its purpose, had become hopeless and aimless. It was a way, perhaps, of anticipating the decline of England and of the British Empire.

There is melancholy, too, induced by the presence of water. Water represents memory and passing time. Water is an emblem of oblivion. So it attracts those who wish to hide from the world. It attracts those who wish to forget and be forgotten. There is something about the broken state of Venice that acts as a refuge and consolation for those who have failed in the struggle for life. The vast and often silent lagoon still broods over the city. For those departing for the East, merchant or pilgrim, this place was the last port on the western shore. All those farewells, perhaps, have left a tangible sense of nostalgia in the air. Those of an atavistic turn of mind may even regret the loss of the life of the past, so painfully apparent in the sometimes garish streets of contemporary Venice.

Cocteau described it as a sick and fevered city, floating on stagnant waters, discharging miasmal vapours. It was believed that the mixture of salt water and fresh water, at the edges of the lagoon, created noxious air and actively propagated malaria through the agency of the mosquito. In the early centuries, too, the use of fish traps and wooden piles meant that the water could no longer flow freely. Other once flourishing towns and islands were soon surrounded by pestiferous marshes. The mosquitoes of Venice, in the summer months, can still wreak havoc.

The correspondence of Sir Henry Wotton is filled with allusions to what he considered to be the unhealthy air. He was “much weakened by sweats, which are cheap in this air”; his chest pains were “more increased by this vaporous air.” He felt himself prone to hypochondria “by the very inclination of this watery seat.” Venice also induced in him “my infirmity of the spleen.”

The stench of Venice, especially in the summer months, was remarkable. In the eighteenth century the city was known for its filthy state; the rubbish was heaped up in corners, by the bridges, while the canals were the receptacle of human waste of every description. Some of the smaller canals were little better than rivulets of ordure. Throughout the centuries the rubbish was discharged into the canals, in defiance of all the sanitary legislation of the city, on the understanding that the tide would scour them clean. This laxity spread, so that housewives would simply throw their rubbish into the streets.

Hester Thrale, in the 1780s, remarked that “disgust gets the better of every other sensation.” The basilica was filthy and malodorous. All the incense from all the altars could not disguise the rank smell. The prison reformer John Howard, in the same period as Hester Thrale, described the city as a “stinkpot charged with the very virus of hell.” Goethe noticed that on days of rain a “disgusting sludge,” made up of mud and excrement, collected underfoot. The Venetians themselves were considered to be dirty and unhygienic. This was a time when smell was itself considered to be the token of the presence of disease. It filled Gibbon with “satiety and disgust.” It is not perhaps surprising that most of these reports come from the eighteenth century. Venice had not suddenly become noisome—it always was, and in some respects still is, a malodorous city—but it was only in the eighteenth century that travellers began to comment upon such matters. Before that date stench, human or otherwise, was a matter of course.

It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the association between smell and disease was plausibly denied. One doctor, writing in 1899, remarked that the “many odours” of Venice were harmless, “being caused by the decomposition by drainage of the sulphates of the salt water into sulphides, than which there are no worse-smelling gasses.” It was one explanation, but it was not necessarily reassuring. Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth century noticed a smell as of bilge-water and in the late twentieth century Donna Leon, the author of crime novels set in Venice, described in The Anonymous Venetian “the penetrating stench of corruption that always lurked beneath the surface.” This may be taken in a metaphorical, as well as literal, sense. In the same period another crime writer, Michael Dibdin, wrote in Dead Lagoon of a canal where the “fetid odour of the disturbed mud hung heavy in the air, a noxious miasma so strong that it was almost tangible.” The writers of crime are drawn to this noxious city where fugitive odours can be sensed beneath the beauties of the surface.

At times of famine and dearth, particularly in the early decades of the sixteenth century, the poor were struck with fever before they suffered from malnutrition. Fever was in the air. There were other diseases. Gastroenteritis, typhus and influenza came and went with the various seasons. Diarrhoea, and weakness of the eyes, were considered to be endemic. A sixteenth-century physician blamed the ailments of Venice on sexual excess and gluttony. Then in 1588 a previously unknown disorder, known as grippe, laid low the whole of Venice. The great council was for the first time in its history empty. Grippe seems to have covered a multitude of symptoms but the available evidence suggests that it was a virulent form of influenza.

And then of course there was the disease known colloquially as “the death.” It is reported that the plague came first to Venice, of all European cities. When a Venetian galley returned to its home port in the autumn of 1347, after a trading voyage to Caffa on the Black Sea, it carried within its hold certain black rats troubled by a flea known as Yersinia pestis. The market of trade between East and West became the entrepôt of death. Venice exported the epidemic, too. (It is said that the Great Plague of London, more than three centuries later, began when two Venetians expired in a tenement house in the north of Drury Lane.) So the “black death” of Europe began. By the spring of 1348 the Venetian authorities, appalled at the massacre of its citizens, appointed a board of three men “to consider diligently all possible ways to preserve the health of the city and avoid the corruption of the air.” This is the first recorded instance of public health administration and legislation in Europe.

From an early date, too, a network of public hospitals was established in the city. There were many pious and charitable institutions catering for poor women, for infants, for orphans, and for the dangerously ill. By 1735, for example, special wards had been set up for patients suffering from tuberculosis. These were the first in the world to be so determined. There was already a guild of doctors and apothecaries by 1258, and fifty years later the state was paying an annual salary to twelve doctor-surgeons. In 1368 an Academy of Medicine was established. In that century doctors were treated very well. They were lightly taxed, and were permitted to dress in any fashion they wished. So they wore white silk stockings and coats of lace. They were also allowed to sport as many rings on their fingers as they desired. They were under strict instruction to supervise the work of pharmacists and apothecaries, but on no account to share in their profits. The pharmacy was of ancient date in Venice, sustained in part by the flow of remedies from trading ports such as Cairo and Byzantium. From the East came that most magical of cures known as triacle, a potent mixture of amber and Oriental spices that was supposed to treat all ills from plague to snake bite. From this came the English word treacle.

The economic and social consequences of the first onset of the plague were profound; but there was a difference in the city of the lagoons. The Black Death indirectly triggered the revolt of the Jacquerie in France and the Peasants’ Revolt in England, but there was no such insurrection or rebellion in Venice. The people remained quiescent. Nevertheless the shortage of workers was so severe that in October 1348 the Venetian government announced that it would grant citizenship to anyone who settled in the city within the next year. It was an unparalleled, and unrepeated, offer.

In the annals of the city there are recorded no less than seventy visitations of “the death.” A plague of 1527 took off one fifth of the population, and Venetian diarists noted that the afflicted were dying on the streets and that their bodies were floating on the canals. But the worst distemper of all occurred in 1575 and 1576, when it is estimated that a third of the population was lost; from July 1575 to February 1577, 46,721 people died in Venice. For fear of contagion wives abandoned husbands, and sons left behind mothers. Titian, who had in the course of his long life never suffered from any dangerous sickness, was one of the victims. The nearby islands of Lazzaretto Nuovo and Lazzaretto Vecchio, previously the home of lepers, were given over to the victims of the plague. Those who were healthy but suspect, such as travellers who had just returned from foreign cities, were confined to Nuovo for twenty-two days. Those caught flouting the restriction were banished from the city for several years. Those already suffering from the sickness were despatched to Vecchio, where the conditions were predictably fearful. The dormitories were filled with screaming; some of the sick threw themselves into the surrounding water; clouds hung over the little island from the burning of the dead.

The city itself was plunged into one of those fits of self-hatred that were the dark side of its belief in its sacred destiny; the undefiled virgin had suddenly become, in the eyes of one Venetian poet, orrido mostro or fearful monster. The vice and luxury of the citizens had called down the vengeance of God. Yet the status of Venice as the ultimate model of the city was also held against it. All cities are meant to be sick. All cities are supposed to harbour death and disease. So in myth and story Venice itself had to be an actively unhealthy place.

The distemper repeated its visits. From July 1630 to October 1631, 46,490 people expired; in the summer of that first year, 24,000 people fled from the city in order to escape the peculiar cloying and oppressive heat that is itself an inducement to fever. At the time of plague a range of saints was invoked, to provide divine protection, but the saints were of no great assistance. The doctors of Venice clothed themselves in black robes, coated with wax and aromatic oils; they wore a hood and cowl over their head, large glasses to protect their eyes, and a long beak-like nose with a filter at its end. They looked themselves like ghouls. But by a curious act of transference this sinister outfit became a popular costume of the Venetian Carnival. It was a memento mori, so natural to the carnivalesque, but it was also a manner of laughing at death.

Yet, in general, those who mastered the climate of Venice enjoyed extraordinarily good health. The patrician population of Venice, at least, characteristically lived to a great age. The mildness of the climate was supposed to lead to lassitude and sensuality; in appearance the Venetians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and perhaps beyond) were characterised by softness of flesh and roundness of form. Their skin was considered to be of a velvety whiteness. Yet appearances can sometimes be deceptive. The chroniclers of the city remarked upon the vivacity of spirit and the impulsive nervous energy of the citizens. Just as the Venetians had formed a city out of adverse circumstances, so they had formed a firm character out of the constant need to defend and maintain it. Life, as was claimed in the nineteenth century, is sustained by excitation.

Many of the doges of Venice were elected when they had reached their nineties. The city was the nurse of old men, and has rightly been considered to be in essence a gerontocracy. “I never in any place observed,” Fynes Morisson wrote in the early years of the seventeenth century, “more old men, or so many senators venerable for their grey haires and aged gravity.” There is a report in the Venetian archives of the abbess of a convent delivering a complaint to the reigning doge in the summer of 1521; the abbess was 106 years old. Titian died at the age of ninety-one, while Tintoretto was seventy-six and Bellini eighty-six; Guardi was eighty-one and Longhi eighty-three. These were great ages in their respective epochs. Their age is a measure of their endless activity, that elasticity and energy that are the hallmarks of the Venetian genius.

It was said, in general, that Venetians lived longer than other men. The citizens and the poorer population, according to Machiavelli, kept illness at bay through their continual industry. The expenditure of energy in the business of life might withstand the assaults of sickness. The absence of transport, in the modern era, means that it is necessary to walk through the streets and over the bridges. So contemporary Venetians suffer from relatively less high blood pressure and heart disease; the damp air, however, makes them more liable to rheumatoid afflictions.

It was a city of death in quite another sense. Its judicial murders were renowned throughout Europe for their secrecy and swiftness. Those who had offended the state were despatched with efficiency. On a March morning in 1498 the Venetian diarist, Marino Sanudo, heard mutterings on the street to the effect that justice had been done. When he passed through Saint Mark’s Square he saw a high government official hanging between the two columns of the piazzetta. The official, accused of treason, had been hanged in the night without notice given to the populace. He had been dressed up in his uniform, with great billowing sleeves. Almost three hundred years later the English artist, James Northcote, was shocked to discover a body suspended between the columns bearing a notice “For treason against the State.” It was reported that, if the supply of the condemned grew low, the authorities would borrow corpses from the hospitals and string them up in order to overawe the populace. This is very doubtful.

The ceremonies of public execution were designed to emphasise the fact that the state itself took on a quasi-religious role as avenger of evil. The condemned was accompanied to the block or gallows by the members of a Venetian guild of death wearing black hoods. He or she then turned to an image of Venice, and intoned the Salve Regina before the last act. The doge was present, wearing his richest and most elaborate clothes. The people stood in silent order, as if they were members of a congregation. It was a sacred ceremony, designed to purify the collective state of an errant individual. These public executions had nothing of the disorder or gaiety of Tyburn, where individual felons were cheered and applauded as they made their path to the gallows. In Venice they were solemn communal rites.

Many internal enemies of the city were strangled in the cells of the ducal palace, however, their bodies secretly consigned to the waters of the lagoon. When a nephew of the doge was in 1650 seen in a gondola with a Spanish diplomat, he was taken to the cells of his uncle’s palace and swiftly despatched. Behind the island of S. Giorgio Maggiore was a deep channel known as the Canale Orfano, where the bodies were released into the sea. One general, a mercenary lured by vast pay to the Venetian side, was suspected of dealing with the enemy. He was recalled in great state to the ducal palace, on the pretence of consultation, and on arrival was directed towards a secret door. “That is not the way,” he said. “Yes, yes,” he was told. “It is perfectly so.” The corridor took him to the prison cell. “I am lost,” he is supposed to have said. There was an old Venetian saying, “A dead man makes no war.” There was no mercy, either, for any Venetian admiral or commander who failed the state.

The sentences were often very severe. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, false coiners were burned alive. The sons of two senators, convicted of singing blasphemous songs, had their tongues ripped from their throats and their hands cut off. A friar convicted of impregnating no less than fifteen nuns was burned at the stake. Two priests accused of treason were buried alive, face down, on top of one another. The cruelty is somehow reminiscent of eastern practice. There was a novel method of death by starvation. The condemned man was placed in a wooden cage with iron bars, which was then suspended from a pole above the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square. He was fed on diminishing amounts of bread and water, conveyed to him by a cord, until he expired from thirst or hunger or exposure in full view of the crowds that thronged the area.

The Venetians were also well known for their methods of secret assassination. In 1421 the council of ten decided to poison the duke of Milan, and agreed to test the liquid on two pigs; the results are not recorded. In 1649 a Venetian doctor concocted the “quintessence” of plague to use against the Turkish enemy; it is the first instance in recorded history of an attempt at biological warfare. It was in fact popularly supposed, in the capitals of Europe, that Venice employed a trained band of assassins ready to strike at their enemies wherever they could. The story was not true, but it represented the deep suspicion that Venice aroused in other states. As the power and wealth of the city began to disappear, the hostility also abated. It was said, in the eighteenth century, that the poison used by the officials of Venice had congealed and that the recipe for its manufacture had been mislaid.

If the reports of state violence were ever true, do they reflect a state of violence also? The nature of the violence is in itself important. It was identified by the authorities as that which abrogated the peace and honour of the society. The rights of the victims, to use a contemporary expression, were seldom invoked. Crimes against the state, such as treason, were treated with swift and brutal punishment. Lesser crimes against the state were treated with no less severity. Some of the most telling punishments, for example, were reserved for those who insulted the city. A Genoese sailor, on arrival, was heard declaring that he would like nothing better than to wash his hands in Venetian blood. He was immediately seized and hanged, the soles of his feet cut off so that his own blood might be sacrificed to the stones of Venice. When in 1329 a Venetian, Marco Rizo, declared that he wished to throw the nobles or “dogs” into prison, he was arrested and his tongue was cut out before he was banished from the city for ever.

Crimes against property were considered more important than crimes of passion. Torture was regularly used in cases of theft, for example, but not in cases of murder. Anyone convicted of robbery more than once was automatically hanged. It seems likely that rape was relatively common, particularly the rape of working-class women by patrician men. But the crime merited only the mild punishment of eight days’ imprisonment, the rapist being freed when he had forfeited a sum equivalent to the woman’s dowry. It was not considered to be important. The court records show that women under attack would often call “Fire!” rather than “Rape!” because the threat provoked more interest.

The patricians were often the most violent class of Venetian society, although their peers were inclined to moderate any punishment against them if their crimes did not threaten the status quo. The young patricians, in particular, could be ferocious. Casanova always carried a knife with him that, as he said, “all honest men in Venice carry to defend their lives.” The citizens, and the people, were more docile. There was a large police force, and the popolani were themselves vigilant and fierce in protecting public safety. In a heavily populated mercantile city, it was in everyone’s best interest to maintain order. There was room for party faction, but not for gangs. The individual criminal was not fêted, as, for example, Jack Sheppard was in London. In any case, in a city ringed with water, where was the criminal to flee?

Is it surprising, therefore, that many people go mad in Venice? This author has heard howling, as if from the damned, coming from the tiny tenement houses of the district of Castello. Madness afflicts islanders more insidiously than others. There has never been a madhouse in the city itself; that might be considered to be too provocative. The insane were instead incarcerated on the various islands of the lagoon. The female mad, for example, were from the eighteenth century locked up on the island of S. Clemente where for various transgressions they could be suspended in cages above the water. The male asylum on the island of S. Servolo was immortalised by Shelley:

“What we behold

Shall be the madhouse and its belfry tower,”

Said Maddalo, “and even at this hour

Those who may cross the water hear that bell

Which calls the maniacs, each one from his cell

To vespers.”

From the grated windows of their cells the mad used to call out to the passing gondolas.

The city itself can be said to exhibit certain psychopathic tendencies. It has always been a city in a state of high anxiety. Ever since its difficult and dangerous origin in the waters it has felt itself to be besieged by all the forces of the world. It was once literally isolated, and it has always suffered from great ontological uncertainty. It is not difficult to understand the reasons for this; if you can imagine New York, or Paris, suspended upon water you may be able to understand the deep fear engendered by the position. Water is unstable. Water is unpredictable. That is why Venice has always emphasised its stability and permanence.

Throughout its history it has considered itself to be under threat. It conveys images of fragility and vulnerability, and thus insistently elicits responses of caring and nurturing. In the twelfth century a number of earth tremors sent the citizens into a panic. In 1105 the island of Malamocco was overwhelmed by water, and it was believed that the city of Venice would suffer the same fate. In the thirteenth century the danger of fire was almost hysterically emphasised; it was considered to be the enemy within, smouldering in concealment, ready to break out in the shadows of the night. In the fifteenth century the city was considered to be in great danger from the silting of the lagoon and the drying of the canals. It was said that it became more fragile with every passing year. In the latter half of the century it was believed that Venice was in imminent peril because of its sinfulness; the judgement of God would not be long delayed. There was a terror of total submersion as a sign of divine anger.

There has never been a time when Venice was not in peril. In every century it was concluded that the city could not survive. Deep and endemic anxiety is perhaps the key to all of the city’s actions—its absorption of the mainland and its acquisition of an empire were attempts to reduce uncertainty. The slow grave government of the patricians was in effect a defence mechanism. The Venetians hated unpredictability. There was a genuine fear of the future. The acquisitiveness of the city, the lust after gold and other riches, can perhaps be explained as the miser Scrooge of A Christmas Carol was explained—“You fear the world too much.” Yet its great triumph, the essential source of its civic pride in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its claim to enduring fame, lay in one simple fact—it had placed itself in a vulnerable position, and yet it had remained inviolate. What other nation on earth could claim as much?

It has always been a self-conscious, indeed a self-obsessed, city. It has also been a self-deluded city. It has lied about itself. It has woven myths of itself. It has fabricated a history utterly at odds with the true one. It was at the mercy of conflicting impulses; it preached civic liberty, for example, at the same time as it demanded total control over its population. It could give all the appearance of festive gaiety, but at the centre of its polity was commercial calculation. There was self-hatred, too, in the numerous calls for the people of Venice to eschew the temptations of luxury and sensuality and prodigality. The message was that “we must be pure.” We must ourselves be inviolate like the city. We must be above reproach. That is why any threat of disorder or danger was expelled to the margins. The fluctuations in the public mood were severe. Any sudden reversal or unexpected defeat threw the people into despair. The sixteenth-century diarist, Marino Sanudo, often used the refrain that “the whole city was mightily downcast.” There was always the fear of conspiracy. In a human being, this would be considered a dangerous symptom of psychic disorder.

Yet Venice can be said to represent all cities. It embodied the anxieties that afflict cities—the fear of disease, the fear of contamination, the fear of being for ever cut off from the natural world. It represents, too, the anxieties concerning cities—their luxury, their power, their aggression. It is a fearful place.

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