For Venice, the twentieth century opened with a bang. Literally.
The 323-foot Campanile of San Marco, completed in the twelfth century under Doge Domenico Morosini, had developed a significant crack in early July 1902 after some repair work on Sansovino’s Loggetta at its base. The worrisome fissure wormed its way upward over the next few days, finally reaching the fifth window. Despite numerous warnings and a great deal of discussion, nothing was done. Tourists even climbed up the stairs of the campanile on the weekend of July 12–13. By Sunday afternoon, though, it was obvious to all that the medieval structure was in trouble. The municipal government forbade music in the Piazza that night, fearing that the vibrations from the orchestra would shake the tower too much.
The next morning at 9:45, a crack rang out across the Piazza San Marco and in a moment the campanile had collapsed in on itself, sending up a great cloud of dust and smoke. Fortunately, the collapse was localized. A few shops and a corner of the Biblioteca Marciana were damaged. The Loggetta, of course, was completely crushed. Yet the nearby church of San Marco and the Ducal Palace remained untouched. Amazingly, no one was physically hurt—only the pride of the Venetians. More than one observer cited the collapse as evidence of Venice’s continued ruin, or at least the inability of the Italian government to maintain the great city. In an age of cheap print and newspapers, the image of the San Marco area had become as internationally recognizable as Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower. Laments for the campanile’s collapse and calls for its restoration echoed worldwide.
The city government moved quickly. On the day of the collapse it voted unanimously to rebuild the campanile dov’era, com’era. The builders, however, decided to interpret com’era somewhat loosely. The new campanile, dedicated on the Feast of St. Mark—April 25, 1912—looked precisely the same as the old. Fragments of the Loggetta had been painstakingly collected and reassembled. The golden Angel Gabriel was repaired and replaced at the campanile’s peak. Even the bricks of the new tower were fired to look medieval. Beneath its exterior, though, the new Campanile of San Marco was thoroughly modern. Its frame was made of iron and its old stairs (similar to those in the Campanile of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello) were replaced with a modern elevator.
The modern construction of a medieval building was emblematic of a larger debate that would affect Venice throughout the twentieth century—one between modernists and preservationists. From the international community of tourists that filled the city’s streets, a cry arose in favor of the latter. They came, after all, to see Venice’s best-known sights—San Marco, Salute, Rialto, and so on. It would not do to overtly tamper with any of those. But what of the rest of the city? Could it not be modernized? At the turn of the century cholera continued to be a serious problem in the poorer areas of Venice, yet attempts at updating housing and sanitation invariably met with concerns over preservation.
“The Collapse of the Campanile.” A possibly doctored photo by Antonio de Paoli, 1902.
Even electricity was resisted, since some feared that artificial illumination would sully Venice’s famous moonlight on the canals.
Venetian modernists made the most headway on the periphery of the city, such as with the construction of the Stucky factory on Giudecca. On the barren Lido they were presented with a virtual blank slate. The construction of the Hotel Excelsior Palace and the Hotel des Bains attracted a new clientele of wealthy tourists to these magnificent resorts, and high-end housing and shops quickly filled up the sandbar. Within a decade, the Lido was transformed from an empty breakwater into a posh, modern community within sight of San Marco. The Lido had everything that Venice lacked—automobiles, a tram, and wide, straight tree-lined boulevards.
This stark division between old and new became the inspiration for the twentieth century’s most famous work of fiction set in Venice: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Mann had stayed at the Hotel des Bains in 1911. The novel’s main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, is a successful, yet severe author taking a much-needed vacation on the Lido. While staying at the luxurious hotel, he spies a boy from Poland, who is visiting Venice with his family. Aschenbach is unexpectedly overwhelmed with feelings for the young man, whose name is Tadzio. He soon finds himself stalking Tadzio on the beach and in the hotel—so much so that others, including the boy, begin to notice. Mann used the progressive atmosphere of the Lido to suggest an environment of rational modernity, one that Aschenbach leaves behind as he is pulled deeper into his love for Tadzio. Although cholera has broken out in the old city, Aschenbach is still driven to follow Tadzio and his family there, even adorning himself in makeup and hair color in a pitiful attempt to restore his own withered youth. Entranced by the dark mystery of old Venice, Aschenbach remains there all day, finally contracting cholera from a bad strawberry. He dies on the beach of the Lido, still watching his love, Tadzio. Mann’s novella, published in German in 1913, was later translated into English in 1924, and became an instant hit, appealing to the growing number of well-educated readers who appreciated its philosophical and emotional tensions told against a backdrop of one of the world’s most admired resorts. Mann’s story is one of struggle between discipline and freedom, between repressed desires and the expression of forbidden love. At its core, it is not a story about Venice at all. But Mann’s decision to set it in Venice was important. The youthful innocence of Tadzio on the bright and new Lido contrasts sharply with the secret desires that led Aschenbach to the disease-ridden old city. Although Venetian officials try to hide the epidemic, Aschenbach knows the truth—a “criminal secret of the city which coincided with his own dark secret.” Venice in Mann’s work became a symbol of decay and death. The popularity of Death in Venice would assure that the association was one that would endure.
In 1914 the outbreak of World War I produced as much anxiety in Venice as anywhere else in Europe. The Italian government joined the Allies against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, and (later) the Ottoman Empire. For Venetians the Great War may have brought back shades of previous struggles—against their occupiers the Hapsburgs and their longtime enemies the Turks. But this was a new war, fought with new weapons that killed with industrial efficiency. Like millions of other men across Europe, Venetians marched off to war to fight and die in its hellish trenches.
For the Venetian economy, the first casualty of war was tourism. The second was shipping, for Venice remained a minor commercial port. The Austrians, who controlled the Adriatic, quickly blockaded the lagoon. The airplane, invented by the Wright brothers in America just a few years earlier, was quickly pressed into service for the war. Austrian aerial bombardment of strategic targets in Venice, particularly the Arsenale and the railroad station, began in May 1915. But accuracy was poor and shells rained down instead on Santa Maria Formosa and the hospital at SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and even destroyed the Tiepolo ceiling of the Scalzi church. Between 1915 and 1918 more than forty air attacks dropped nearly a thousand bombs on Venice, although many (including those that hit San Marco) failed to explode. The damage would have been worse had the Venetians not prepared for the onslaught. In the months before the attacks the horses of San Marco were taken down and hidden, the statue of Colleoni packed away in a wooden box filled with straw, Titian’s Assumption carted off to the mainland, and numerous churches filled with padding and old mattresses to protect their treasures. The Venetians even took some measure of revenge when the poet, writer, and early aviation enthusiast Gabriele D’Annunzio flew his plane, emblazoned with the lion of St. Mark, over Vienna dropping insulting leaflets on the Austrians.
The misery that Venice experienced during the war was redeemed by the Italian victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (October 1918) and their subsequent conquest of Trento, Udine, and Trieste. Italian Irredentists, who believed that Austria must return all lands that had ever been Italian, were plentiful in Venice. With the armistice signed, they had high hopes that Venice would be lifted from its state of poverty and restored to the territories it had held under the Most Serene Republic.
That was not to be, yet after the war Venetians and their allies in Rome were able to persuade the Italian government to restore to Venice an industrial and commercial vitality that it had not had for centuries. The heart and soul of the new initiative was the construction of Porto Marghera—a massive, state-of-the-art naval port and industrial zone on the shore of the terra firma, not far from the rail bridge at Mestre. For more than a century Venetians had debated whether the main port of Venice should be moved from its traditional location in the Bacino San Marco. When the area proved to be incapable of servicing large modern vessels, the first new port had been built at Stazione Marittima on Venice’s western end. Yet Porto Marghera was something much larger. Built on otherwise unused coastal marshes, Marghera was designed to establish Venice as a modern commercial center for industry and trade. And it was to be Venetian in every way. Rather than mar the grandeur of the world’s most beautiful city, Porto Marghera would allow Venice a completely free hand to modernize on the mainland. Large-scale projects of excavation, dredging, and reclamation took place over a period of almost a decade. By 1940 more than sixty factories operated at Marghera, each belching out smoke yet bringing in revenue and jobs. In 1926 the municipal government of Venice grew to encompass Marghera and Mestre, as well as the lagoon islands of Murano and Burano. Venice had at last returned to the mainland.
During the 1920s and 1930s the Fascists, led by Benito Mussolini, took over the Italian government. Although physically Venice lacked a Roman pedigree—always an important component in Fascist rhetoric—it nonetheless benefited from Fascist modernization plans. Industry at Porto Marghera led to a rapid expansion of the city of Mestre. Venetian workers soon found it easier to live there rather than commute across the bridge on trains, which were again crowded with tourists. To allow bus and car traffic between Venice and the mainland, the Fascist government funded another bridge, this one built directly adjacent to the railroad bridge. The Ponte de Littorio (Bridge of Lictors—Roman officers who carried insignia called fasces) diverged from the rail line just as it approached Venice and then made its way to the new Piazzale Roma, a square filled with bus stands and a large parking garage. The Piazzale Roma was derided almost immediately as an eyesore. It remains one today, although an extremely busy one nonetheless.
The most powerful man in Fascist-era Venice was Count Giuseppe Volpi. A brilliant businessman and native Venetian, Volpi had made his fortune by bringing electricity to northeast Italy and Venice. In 1912 he negotiated the peace treaty between Italy and the Ottoman Empire, acquiring for his country Libya and Suleiman’s prize, the island of Rhodes. Thus by his efforts Italy joined the exclusive club of colonial powers. Volpi was a major proponent of the Porto Marghera, for which he took credit regularly. After establishing the world-famous Gritti Hotel on the Grand Canal, he helped form the Compagnia Italiana dei Grandi Alberghi (CIGA), a luxury hotel chain that included the Lido resorts. In 1925 Mussolini appointed him Italian minister of finance. When in 1930 the Fascist government took over the Biennale, the international art exhibition with pavilions in the Giardini, Volpi was made its president.
In June 1934 Volpi hosted in Venice the first meeting of Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s plane landed on the Lido on June 14, and the German leader emerged wearing a simple jacket, tie, and trench coat to meet Mussolini, who was dressed in his magnificent military uniform. It was said that a communication mix-up had led one of them to dress as a civilian and the other as a military officer, but Hitler suspected Mussolini of doing it on purpose so as to make himself look grander on newsreels and in photos. Amid a brass-band welcome, Hitler and Mussolini went to the monumental Villa Pisani, a luxurious estate of Venice’s extinct aristocracy, and then returned to Venice for a tour of the Grand Canal and a concert of Verdi and Wagner in the Ducal Palace. On June 15 Hitler was taken to visit the German pavilion of the Biennale. Its Greek style was not quite to his liking. Several years later the German pavilion was revamped in Nazi style. The delicate Ionic columns were replaced with square Teutonic pillars, and an imperial eagle and a swastika were situated prominently over the door. Minus those symbols, the pavilion still remains as it was in 1938, although there are regular demands that it be demolished entirely. In 1993 the German artist Hans Haacke took a jackhammer to the floor on which Hitler and Mussolini had met. The debris-art was called Without Foundation.
Although Fascism was resisted elsewhere in northern Italy, the Venetians offered little resistance and less criticism. After all, with a champion like Count Volpi, Venice prospered under Fascist management. Anti-Jewish decrees did begin trickling out of Rome in 1938, but Jews constituted less than 2 percent of the Venetian population. Laws forbidding Jews to conduct business or be served in restaurants in Venice were given lip service, but were just as often ignored.
World War II began without Italy on September 1, 1939. Mussolini continued to waver, entertaining offers from both sides of the conflict. Believing that Germany’s rapid victories would bring a quick end to the war, Mussolini finally had Italy declare war on France and Great Britain on June 10, 1940. He hoped to collect something in the expected peace talks. But peace was not on Hitler’s mind. His subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union surprised Mussolini as much as Stalin. As a result, Italy prepared for another long and brutal war.
As during World War I, Venetian men left the lagoon to fight. Most of them were sent to Greece or Dalmatia, where the plan was to “restore” those lands to Italian rule. Although Italian forces quickly bogged down in Albania, the offensive proceeded smoothly once the Germans arrived. Dalmatia, the core of Venice’s old empire, was quickly conquered and delivered over to Fascist Italy. Crete and the Aegean islands, which had long been Venetian, were occupied by the Nazis.
For Italy, the tide of the war turned rapidly in 1943 when American and British troops invaded Sicily and prepared for the conquest of the peninsula. By July the Fascist party had been thoroughly discredited. King Victor Emmanuel III ordered the arrest of Mussolini, and soon afterward, the Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies. Hitler, however, was not willing to lose Italy so easily. In August a massive invasion of German forces entered Italy from the north to hold the line against the Allies. Although Hitler attempted to prop Mussolini back up, most Italians refused to accept him. And so Germany simply occupied Italy. Hitler ordered the disarmament of all Italians and seized control of local governments.
Nazi troops arrived in Venice on September 8, 1943. There were arrests of some notable anti-Fascists, but not many. Most of Venice’s Jews had either fled or hid themselves before the Nazis arrived. Since Jews had not been confined to the Ghetto since 1797, hiding was somewhat easier than it would have otherwise been. The de facto leader of Venice’s Jews, Professor Giuseppe Jona, committed suicide rather than obey a Nazi order to turn over lists of Jewish names and addresses. Between December 5, 1943, and late summer 1944 more than two hundred Venetian Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps—most to Auschwitz. They included Venice’s chief rabbi, Adolfo Ottolenghi. Only eight survived the death camps.
Provided one was not a Jew, Venice was the safest place to be in Italy during the war. Whenever possible, the Allies were determined to preserve historical treasures in Italy, and Venice contained multitudes. As war between the Allies and Germans tore apart the Italian peninsula, those who could escape headed to the beauty and comparative security of the city of the lagoon. Venice was at the eye of a storm that was tearing Europe apart, and like the first Venetians, people found safety in its brackish waters. Some local resistance to the Nazis cropped up in Venice, but not much. Anyone who wished to fight Germans joined the partisans in Padua. Occasionally resisters would be discovered in Venice, and in 1944 seven of them were shot on the Riva dell’Impero in Castello—later renamed the Riva dei Sette Martiri. In 1968 a monument to the women of the Venetian resistance was set on the waterfront there. The bronze statue depicting a dead woman lies on concrete platforms where the tide sometimes hides it and sometimes brings it into view, much like the Venetian resistance itself.
The war did not damage the city of Venice, but its new industrial centers were demolished. Allied bombers targeted Porto Marghera, Mestre, and all rail lines leading to Padua and points north. The Germans responded by sending tankers into Venice itself, where they would unload their contents and place them on smaller vessels heading north via canals and rivers. This tactic led to the only Allied air strike on Venice during the war. On March 21, 1945, British captain George Westlake commanded Operation Bowler to knock out German shipping in Venice. It was what we would today call a surgical attack. The Allied commanders let it be known that anyone who damaged Venice in the strike would be “bowler-hatted,” that is, discharged from the military. Westlake led the dive-bombing run, a nearly vertical descent from ten thousand feet, which successfully destroyed the German vessels. Venetians standing on nearby roofs watched the entire operation without receiving so much as a scratch.
By that time, however, the war in Italy was already winding down. U.S. forces under General Eisenhower had captured Rome on June 5, 1944. Henceforth the Germans found it difficult to stop the Allied advance. By April 1945 the U.S. Fifth Army and British Eighth Army had reached the Po Valley and Italian partisans had captured Padua. On April 29, just one day after the execution of Mussolini, Venice was liberated by the British Eighth Army under the command of Major General Bernard Freyberg of the New Zealand Second Division. Before leaving for Trieste, Freyberg “captured” the Hotel Danieli, where he had spent his honeymoon in 1922.
The end of World War II brought a new age in which a devastated Western Europe struggled to rebuild and a victorious United States became its defender against the Soviet Union. The rapid rise of American affluence and the simultaneous development of reliable transatlantic air travel meant that American tourists were no longer an occasional oddity in Venice, but a regular fixture. Indeed, American perspectives on Venice would play a prominent role in shaping the city and its image in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. (One could argue that this history, written by an American scholar, is another brick in that wall.) To name even a few influential Americans in Venice is to leave out thousands. The years immediately following World War II saw, for example, the arrival of Ernest Hemingway, who spent several months there in 1948–49. As with everywhere else that Hemingway frequented, a litany of stories circulated about “Papa” and his stay in Venice. Hemingway was a frequent patron of Harry’s Bar, a frequent hangout of the rich and famous, which he went on to popularize in his novel Across the River and Into the Trees (1950). Like Mann’s Death in Venice, Hemingway’s story threads together the concepts of death and beauty in Venice. Its main character, American colonel Richard Cantwell, returns to Venice, which he had helped liberate from the Nazis, to take stock of his life at its very end.
Although Across the River was not well received by critics, it nonetheless made Harry’s Bar an icon for Venetian tourists. Its founder, Giuseppe Cipriani, had been a waiter in the luxurious Hotel Europa when a longtime American patron, Harry Pickering, asked to borrow ten thousand lire. Cipriani loaned him the money and, against all hope, he was repaid four times over. Pickering suggested that Cipriani found his own high-end bar and further suggested that he name it Harry’s Bar. It opened in May 1931 and quickly became popular with well-to-do tourists. Hemingway had his own corner table, where he drank more than a few martinis. By the mid-1950s droves of Americans were lining up to get into Harry’s Bar and drink a Bellini—the house specialty originally made of Prosecco, pureed white peaches, and a bit of raspberry juice. They still do.
For the upwardly mobile Americans of the 1950s and 1960s, Venice came to rival Paris as the most romantic city in the world. Guidebooks poured out of New York presses advising visitors where to eat, stay, and soak up the local charm. American movies reflected this pervasive image. In the very successful Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), American secretary Maria Williams (Maggie McNamara) is swept off her feet by the dashing Prince Dino di Cessi (Louis Jourdan), who whisks her away to Venice in his private plane. One of the first CinemaScope films, Three Coins in the Fountain boasted stunning scenes of what its trailers called “fabled, fabulous Italy.” Likewise, in the movie Summertime (1955) another single American woman, Jane Hudson, played by Katharine Hepburn, is seduced as much by Venice as by the intriguing Renato de Rossi (Rossano Brazzi).Summertime was the first mass-market film to use the cityscape of Venice as a crucial element in its story. Jane strolls through the Piazza San Marco, buys Murano glass, shops for fashionable clothes, and visits the brightly colored island of Burano. Yet, like the dark Venice of eighteenth-century myth, the romantic Renato has a terrible secret. He is married. Although Jane suspects that he has simply used her, she nevertheless remains with him until her departure. In these movies, as in works of fiction for three centuries, Venice retained its image as enchanting, mysterious, and decadent. It was a place that powerfully attracted its visitors, who quickly came under its seductive spell.
In Summertime’s most famous scene, Katharine Hepburn, while attempting to take a photo, careens backward into a canal near San Barnaba. Director David Lean insisted that Hepburn do the stunt herself—and was not satisfied until the fourth take. Shortly afterward, Hepburn developed a rare eye infection, which would plague her the rest of her life. She blamed it on keeping her eyes open while tumbling into the dirty canal. The canal could have been to blame, although it might also have been the gallons of disinfectant that the film crew poured into the water before each shot.
Hepburn’s worries about the health risks of Venice’s canals represented a stark change from the earlier widespread belief in the health benefits of swimming in them. At the start of the twentieth century, posh floating bathing stations were moored in the waters off Salute. For decades after, Venetian children regularly dived into the canals to cool off on summer days. The reason for the shift is not simply one of greater standards of hygiene. The waters of the lagoon really were dirtier in the 1950s. Although new agricultural technologies greatly increased crop yields in the Veneto, they had also led to chemical fertilizers and pesticides running off into the rivers that feed the Venetian lagoon. Heavy industry in Porto Marghera dumped its share of chemicals into the water, too. And, of course, the canals of Venice are, as they have always been, the city sewer. Everything that goes down a drain or toilet in Venice is eventually released into the lagoon.
This had never been a problem during the days of the Republic of Venice. Although the population of the city swelled then to over 150,000, the tides efficiently removed sewage and waste twice daily. Indeed, Venice was the cleanest city in medieval Europe (admittedly, not a high standard). That was no accident. The Venetian government paid close attention to the health of the lagoon, regularly maintaining canals, dredging deepwater channels, and creating breakwaters to facilitate flow. But changes to the city and to the lagoon in the nineteenth century reduced its ability to renew itself. Chief of these was the gradual filling in of dozens of Venice’s canals. The wide avenues of Via Garibaldi and Strada Nuova are only the most famous of these. Each new walkway (often called ario terà) had its own reason for construction. Sometimes it was to make an area more accessible to tourists. Sometimes it was an attempt to avoid the smell of a canal at low tide or the cost of maintaining it. And sometimes it was purely aesthetic. In each case, though, the filled canal further restricted the flow of water into and out of the city, putting increased stress on the other waterways. In 1867 Mark Twain described Venice as a place with “no dry land visible any where, and no sidewalks worth mentioning; if you want to go to church, to the theatre, or to the restaurant, you must call a gondola. It must be a paradise for cripples, for verily a man has no use for legs here.” By the early twentieth century, Venice had become a pedestrian city.
During the early 1960s an increasing number of voices warned of the dangers to the lagoon. Since solutions were expensive, the only ones seriously considered were those agreeable to the region’s two major economic engines—tourism in Venice and heavy industry at Marghera. For some time tourists had complained of massive tankers and barges churning their way through the Giudecca Canal and past the Piazza San Marco on their way between Porto Marghera and the Adriatic Sea. Not only were these industrial behemoths ugly, but many people worried that an accident could cause damage to city buildings or even an oil spill. The route was necessary, though, because Giudecca was the only channel sufficiently wide and deep for these vessels. Visitors to Venice often imagine the lagoon as a watery canvas that is all the same depth. In truth, most of the lagoon is quite shallow—no more than waist-deep. Navigation there has always been confined to clearly marked channels maintained by the authorities. For centuries, Venice stood impregnable because invaders could not navigate those channels, particularly when they were unmarked and filled with debris.
In 1965 and 1966 a new channel was dredged near Malamocco, the ancient capital of the Venetian lagoon. It ran in a straight line through the southern lagoon to the new third industrial zone on the mainland. It was hailed, like Porto Marghera itself, as a way of preserving both the industrial modernization of the region and the touristic beauty of Venice.
But then came the flood.
On November 3, 1966, a powerful storm blew across Italy. Torrential rains and fierce sirocco winds from the south whipped the Adriatic Sea into a churning mass of waves. It was truly the storm of the century. On the morning of November 4 the waves, driven by gale-force winds, forced their way into the Venetian lagoon, increasing the sea level there almost six feet above high tide. Venetians awoke to find their city underwater. Electricity was cut off, heating-oil tanks were swamped, ground floors were submerged, and transportation was almost impossible. Because the winds continued all day, the tide bore nothing out. For almost twenty-four hours the city was paralyzed. When at last the waters receded, the damage left behind was severe. Furniture, garbage, dead animals, and raw sewage lay everywhere. Venice’s fragile buildings were damaged not only by the salt water on the lower levels, but also by the wicking of the moisture to the upper levels.
It is difficult to overestimate the effect that the flood of 1966 had on the way people still think about Venice. Today the most common opinion, held even by people who know nothing else about Venice, is that it is sinking. Before 1966 this opinion scarcely existed. The devastating flood had cast Venice in an entirely new light. It had always been a fragile place of exquisite beauty and slow death. It was now an emergency. Venice was descending beneath the all-consuming waves, and something needed to be done—immediately.
Since “immediately” is not a word that one normally associates with Italian government, other organizations and institutions moved boldly ahead. Indeed, it is surprising how quickly the flood ended the debate over how much responsibility the outside world had for the preservation of Venice. The United Nations immediately opened a UNESCO office in Venice and began paying for studies on the flood and the repair of its damage. Affluent private individuals with an abiding love for Venice founded charitable organizations to support the city. The first was organized by the former British ambassador to Italy, Sir Ashley Clarke. Later named Venice in Peril, the organization would grow to become one of the largest of its kind, pouring thousands of pounds into conservation and restoration across the city. In 1971 the well-known British author John Julius Norwich became the chairman of Venice in Peril, a position he held until 1999. Its most successful fund-raising effort was its partnership with the English restaurant chain PizzaExpress, which donated a portion of every sale of its Pizza Veneziana (with red onions, capers, olives, sultanas, and pine nuts) to the preservation of Venice.
Venice in Peril was the first, but by no means the last, of the charitable organizations that responded to the need. Twenty-nine of them in eleven countries were organized into the Association of Private Committees for the Safeguarding of Venice, an NGO that works closely with UNESCO and the municipal government to identify worthy projects. The giant of these organizations, not surprisingly, is American. Save Venice Inc. was founded in New York in 1971 and later added chapters in Los Angeles and Boston. It single-handedly pumps about a million dollars per year into Venetian projects—more than all the other APC members combined. Its major fund-raisers come not from pizza sales, but from gala masked balls and exclusive lectures and tours of Venice for America’s wealthiest people. Save Venice is frequently criticized for catering to an extremely affluent elite circle who know nothing and care less about Venice itself. And, of course, it is true that if one wants to dress to the nines for a Carnevale celebration at New York’s Plaza Hotel, it really should be for some sort of charitable cause. But, at the same time, there is no denying the good work that Save Venice has funded and continues to fund. The extraordinary restoration of the convent church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli was entirely bankrolled by Save Venice. If not all of the partygoers have a firm grasp on where their money is headed, it is nonetheless used for a worthy cause. And many of them do have a firm grasp—to suggest otherwise is simply to engage in a peculiarly American reverse snobbery. Whatever the case, Venice is certainly no stranger to opulent luxury. If some of the fruits of opulence still make their way to the city of the doges, there is something altogether fitting about that.
Not all of foreign largesse since 1966 has gone to physical preservation. Some of the private committees fund art historians seeking better approaches to restoration. The most important organization for the scholarly study of Venice is the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. Founded in 1976 by Delmas and her husband, Jean Paul Delmas, the foundation is primarily devoted to funding all aspects of research into Venetian history and civilization. Although dwarfed by organizations like Save Venice, the Delmas Foundation has made it possible for hundreds of American and British Commonwealth scholars to undertake original and innovative research in the Venetian archives, the Marciana library, and any of the other repositories of Venetian history and culture. It is no exaggeration to say that the Delmas Foundation has made possible an extraordinary flowering of Anglophone scholarship on Venice that continues to this day (indeed, even to this book).
Foreign organizations helped repair some of the damage of the flood, but offered few answers as to how to avoid another one. After some wrangling, the Italian government passed the Special Law of 1973 that guaranteed funds to preserve “the historical, archaeological, and artistic environment of the city of Venice and its lagoon.” Just how this was to be accomplished, of course, would remain a source of debate among Venetians and other Italians. The general consensus among lawmakers, as well as political groups such as Italia Nostra, was that Marghera was principally to blame for the flood. Decades of pumping water out of the aquifer for industrial use had, it was argued, lowered the ground level of the lagoon. In addition, the creation of the Malamocca channel and the third industrial area had restricted the lagoon’s ability to absorb additional water. To combat these problems local groundwater pumping was prohibited and strict laws on industrial pollution enacted. The Special Law also provided funds to upgrade Venetian residences to natural gas in order to reduce air pollution and the possibility of heating-oil contamination in the lagoon.
Not everyone agreed that Marghera was to blame. The historian Wladimiro Dorigo in his book Una leggo contro Venezia (A Law Against Venice) insisted that industrial modernization was the salvation of Venice, and that the Special Law was merely a reactionary attempt to keep the area embalmed in historical stasis. Others pointed to factors not directly connected to Marghera, such as the creation of Tronchetto (an artificial island used for car and tour bus parking) and the building of the car and rail bridges to the mainland. Since 2000 Venice has also become a football in the climate-change debate, as rising sea levels would clearly exacerbate its problems. In truth, however, no consensus yet exists about the real reasons for the flooding. Science quickly became mired in a morass of political and economic agendas, each espousing the preservation of Venice.
There was never any doubt, however, that something was going on. Although Venice often flooded during the Middle Ages—sometimes, as in 1110 or 1240, even higher than in 1966—it did not do so as often as it has since 1970. Acqua alta was occurring more than fifty times a year by 1980 and sometimes much more often. During the winter months, when the winds whip up from the south, sirens warning modern Venetians of the coming acqua alta quickly became a common occurrence. At Piazza San Marco, the lowest portion of the city, gangplanks (known as passerelle) were provided so that people could cross without wading through the waters. They have since become a permanent fixture of the area.
Just as there was no agreement on what caused acqua alta, there were fierce disagreements about what to do about it. Predictably, things moved slowly. It was not until 1994 that the Higher Council of Public Works approved a roughly six-billion-dollar initiative known as the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico (Experimental Electromechanical Module), or MOSE—a name meant to conjure Moses, the great parter of the waves. When complete, MOSE would consist of networks of submerged gates lying flat on the seafloor beneath the three openings of the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea (Malamocco, Lido, and Chioggia). When the tide rises above 110 centimeters (3.6 feet), the gates would be inflated with air, causing them to elevate to a forty-five-degree angle, thus completely closing off the lagoon. Opponents (and there were many) insisted that MOSE would cause more problems than it solved. If the tides were halted, how would the lagoon refresh itself? It would become like a toilet that cannot flush. Environmentalists insisted that MOSE would upset the fragile ecosystems of the lagoon, causing the disruption of fish and waterbird life cycles and leading to the growth of harmful algae. MOSE proponents countered that the gates would be elevated only for short periods, insufficient to cause any environmental problems. They rejected outright the environmentalists’ depiction of the lagoon as a natural sanctuary, countering that it was instead completely artificial. Had nature had its way, Venice would have become as landlocked as Ravenna centuries ago. The lagoon, like MOSE, was man-made.
In the years that followed, MOSE remained highly controversial. Lawsuits, appeals, and demands for additional environmental impact studies slowed its implementation. A host of alternative solutions were presented, ranging from the raising of Venice’s pavements, to the erection of barriers along the islands, to the pumping of groundwater back into the aquifer. All were rejected. The question became more bedeviled by the close association between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and MOSE. The prime minister had laid the first stone of the project in 2003 and he remained its strong proponent. Those who opposed Berlusconi and his center-right party tended also to oppose MOSE. Nonetheless, the project continued to move forward. When (or if) it will ever be completed is currently anyone’s guess.
Despite the dire warnings, acqua alta did nothing to slow Venice’s tourist industry—an industry that now produces more than half the area’s revenues. Indeed, the waters covering the Piazza San Marco became a tourist draw, yet another reason to visit this most remarkable city. The stunning growth in the number of tourists visiting Venice in the latter half of the twentieth century is directly related to a similar rise of world affluence, particularly in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe. When American audiences watched Katharine Hepburn fall helplessly into the Venetian canal, very few of them could ever hope to visit Venice. That has changed. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were 25 million international arrivals in 1950. In 2005 that number had skyrocketed to 806 million. In the twenty-first century one need not be rich to see Venice. Indeed, one need not have much money at all.
During the 1950s and 1960s tourism in Venice was largely limited to the summer months, when the package tours would book their groups into Venice’s many hotels. Visitors would generally divide their time between the historical center of the city and the beach resorts on the Lido. During the 1970s and 1980s the arrival of budget travelers (many clutching their copies of Let’s Go!) led to a steady increase in the numbers, but not a corresponding increase in revenue. Before cheap international flights, it had been nearly impossible to get to Venice without money in one’s pocket. By the 1970s that was no longer true. Student travelers and others watching their wallets would frequently stay in a low-cost pensione in Padua or Mestre and simply take the train into Venice. These day-trippers wanted to get into Venice, see the major sights, and get out before it was late or they had spent too much money. They crowded the railroad stations, the calli between Rialto and San Marco, and the No. 1 vaporetto route running the length of the Grand Canal. They poured into the Piazza San Marco, filled up the church there, crowded onto the Molo to have their pictures taken, and then left behind tons of sandwich wrappers and paper bags. During the 1970s a number of new laws were passed to prohibit sleeping in the campi and train station, sitting in the Piazza San Marco, and generally loafing in such a way that made the city look bad. McDonald’s restaurants were even forbidden to offer their food to go.
Venetians also began to think of ways to attract a higher-quality clientele and to spread their visits beyond just the summer months. The idea that they came up with was both old and new: Carnevale.
Extinguished by Napoleon in 1797, Carnevale had made a few reappearances during the nineteenth century, although it never really caught on. Without a ready supply of Grand Tourists, opulent opera houses, dark ridotti, and a legion or two of prostitutes, the famous celebration simply fell flat. But with the return of more affluent travelers, perhaps it was time to try again. In February 1979 a small four-day celebration attracted a handful of tourists, curious about the local festival. Word spread quickly. In 1980 Carnevale was expanded to one week with activities scattered across the city. On Fat Tuesday that year some fifty thousand, mostly Italian, visitors crowded into the Piazza San Marco for a night of music, dancing, and costumed revelry. It was hailed by the Gazzettino (a Venetian daily paper) as a beam of light in the otherwise dreary gray Venetian winter.
By the mid-1980s the Carnevale crowds were large enough that hotels and restaurants that used to close for the winter decided to stay open instead. Rapid growth, though, brought its own problems. There is no admission cost to Carnevale, since it theoretically takes place everywhere in Venice. But the city government nevertheless accrued larger and larger expenses for police, garbage collection, and street maintenance during the fair. To pay those expenses, it needed to collect more taxes, which naturally upset Venetians, who thought that shop, hotel, and restaurant owners should pay the cost. The matter became so contested that in 1988 the government approved no funding at all for the event. In effect, Carnevale was canceled. It did not matter. The tourists came anyway—by the thousands. And so, too, did the media, with lights and cameras ready to film the world’s best-known party. Although the Gazzettino had a good time with the headline “Crowd Gathers Around Nothing,” the organizers and officials nevertheless broke down and put up some stage acts for the thousands of people who arrived in Venice expecting something.
Carnevale was subsequently extended to almost two weeks before Fat Tuesday. The crowds took up the challenge. In 1994 around 450,000 people came to Venice for Carnevale. In 1995 that number jumped to 600,000 and reached 700,000 by 2000. By 2010 Carnevale was attracting more than a million visitors. Because of the extraordinary expense of dealing with such crowds, the city government began accepting corporate sponsorship. With a million pairs of eyes watching, there was no shortage of takers. Dozens of companies poured money into the event, placing their logos and ads wherever they could. Among the largest sponsors were Volkswagen, which sometimes placed its new models at various locations in the carless city, and Coca-Cola, which placed itself virtually everywhere. Indeed, in 2009 it won a contract to place Coke machines at key locations throughout Venice. Some Venetians complained that their Carnevale had become “privatized,” but there was no disputing the revenues generated for Venetian businesses. In 2010 most estimates put gross receipts at approximately a hundred million dollars.
Venice can reasonably handle approximately 20,000 tourists per day before the narrow streets become jammed and the vaporetti fill up. During Carnevale 2010 around 150,000 people descended on the city each day, and it was worse on the days just before Fat Tuesday. As a result, Carnevale has long since ceased having any real Venetian participation. The residents are simply submerged in the flood of foreigners. Instead, Venetians who do not have to work during Carnevale often flee the city to avoid the whole thing. Media pictures of Venice’s Carnevale invariably feature the richly dressed revelers with golden masks and elaborate silk costumes. Yet these people are not Venetians. They are, like the crowds taking their photos, visitors. Like everyone else, they have come for the party. It is a party with a Venetian theme, but largely devoid of Venetians.
Not surprisingly, after Fat Tuesday few Carnevale revelers head home to take up their Lenten fasts. Either they remain in Venice or others come to take their place. Because Venice is both small and one of the world’s top tourist destinations, the explosion in world tourism since the 1980s has made it a place where foreigners frequently outnumber residents. In 2010 an estimated eighteen million tourists arrived in Venice. The city’s population at that time was only about sixty thousand. The summer months, of course, are the worst. That is when the tour buses pull up at Tronchetto or the Piazzale Roma in greater numbers and the trains increase their frequency. There are also the cruise ships, some of which hold three thousand passengers each. These fifteen-story floating hotels, some of which are manufactured at Marghera, dock at the Stazione Marittima on the west side of the city. More than a million tourists come to Venice annually by cruise ship. To get them more efficiently into the city center, a light rail similar to those used in major airports was opened in Venice in April 2010. The futuristic “People Mover” runs on an elevated track between Tronchetto, Marittima, and Piazzale Roma. A new, sleek footbridge—the Ponte della Costituzione—was also built across the Grand Canal between Piazzale Roma and the train station in 2007.
One of the attractions for cruise ship tourists is their vessel’s journey through the Giudecca Canal and across the Bacino San Marco before leaving the lagoon. Because of the enormity of these ships, passengers get a splendid view of the entire city. But these floating mountains, of course, spoil the view for everyone else. As a result, there have long been calls for banning cruise ship traffic through Venice’s historic center. Opponents of the giant vessels cite the danger to Venetian buildings and waters should an accident occur. These warnings were given greater credence after January 2012 when the cruise liner Costa Concordia struck rocks and partially capsized off the coast of Tuscany. Activists insist that something similar could happen in Venice and that the results would be catastrophic. Although plans were subsequently drafted to phase out cruise ship traffic in Venice, whether they are ever implemented is an open question. There is a great deal of money at stake. And the dangers are not quite as dire as the activists suggest. Cruise vessels are tugged through Venice, allowing no possibility for pilot error. Because the deep channels are relatively narrow, any ship drifting off course would only become mired in mud, as occurred in 2004 near San Giorgio Maggiore when the Mona Lisa ran aground. It is hard to see how Venice’s buildings could be harmed. As with so many other arguments in modern Venice, this one seems to have more to do with aesthetics than practicalities.
The new bridges and light rail were designed to increase traffic flow, and they do but only on the periphery of the city. Deep in the gnarled calli of Venice there is nothing to be done about major bottlenecks. Most tourists follow the ubiquitous yellow signs leading them between the train station, the Rialto Bridge, and San Marco. Routes between San Marco and the Accademia can also become snarled. During peak seasons these streets become so crowded that they simply stop moving. This is naturally irritating to Venetians who are trying to get to work, to an appointment, or simply back home. Venetians, of course, know shortcuts and alternative routes, but at certain points along the way, such as near the Rialto Bridge, they have no choice but to plunge into the flow of people. It is rather like commuting to work on a highway where drivers periodically screech to a halt when they spy an interesting shop or beautiful vista.
For these and many other reasons, Venetians have developed a strong love-hate relationship with tourists. On the one hand, the city of Venice cannot survive without them. It literally has no other industries except tourism and those that service the tourists or the tourism industry. On the other hand, Venetians see their city regularly swarmed by millions of visitors. To add insult to injury, about 75 percent of the tourists are day-trippers, contributing little to the local economy. Indeed, the 25 percent of tourists who stay more than one day are responsible for generating more than 60 percent of the overall tourism income. Since 1990 the city government has attempted various methods to persuade visitors to stay. In 2001 restrictions on bed-and-breakfasts were lifted. Vaporetto ticket prices were also dramatically increased, particularly on the much-touristed No. 1, in an attempt to extract more money from the short-term visitors.
So much tourism in such a small area has led many observers to compare modern Venice to a theme park, with an army of workers that maintain the sights and service the tourists but little else. The exodus of Venetians for the mainland has led some to conclude that like a Disney resort, Venice has become a fake city in which people work, but do not live. The creation of imitation Venices in Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center and at the Venetian in Las Vegas has also led many Venetians to ask what differentiates the theme copies from the original. Indeed, tourists can even experience the real Venice through the eyes of Disney “cast members,” with the creation of Adventures by Disney, which began touring the city in 2008.
Of course, there is a fair amount of hyperbole in these comparisons. People do live in Venice. Yet an increasing number of them are “resident tourists.” These are the visitors perpetually seeking the “real Venice,” away from the crowds—the hidden city that theNew York Times often features in its Travel section. And despite the frequent complaints, it does exist and can be found. Each year has seen more and more of Venice’s residential areas filled with these foreigners. Wealthy resident tourists often purchase second homes in Venice, usually carved out of refurbished palazzi. Because they are vacation homes, they stand empty most of the year. And because they are a limited commodity, their price has skyrocketed since the 1990s. In 2011, for example, two-bedroom apartments near San Marco sold for well over two million dollars each.
The buying up of Venice’s residential spaces has had two complementary outcomes: There are fewer homes for Venetians and their cost is much greater. When the other difficulties of living in a city without cars are factored in, a great many Venetians have made the logical choice to move to the mainland. There one can find a home for a fraction of the cost, own a car, and shop at the big-box stores without fighting through waves of tourists. Since 1950 the population of Venice has decreased from approximately 150,000 to around 60,000. Venice is also aging, as schools close and children become rare. Although this is an Italian, not a Venetian, problem (Italian birthrates in 2011 were 9.18 per 1,000 population), it hits Venice particularly hard. Indeed, in 2009 a group of Venetians led a mock funeral procession, bearing a coffin representing the corpse of Venice. They claimed that with the population dipping below 60,000, Venice was no longer a city, but a village. Authorities disputed their figures, contending that 120,000 people live on the other islands. But the protesters’ point had been made. Venice was sinking beneath successive waves of both acqua alta and tourists.
And that is not all that is upsetting Venice’s dwindling population. For many years a general suspicion has grown that municipal leaders are selling Venice to the highest bidder. One example is the infamous Pink Floyd concert in 1989, held on the night of the Redentore festival just before the fireworks show. The popular rock band, which performed from a floating stage in the Bacino, attracted some two hundred thousand rowdy fans who filled the Piazza, Piazzetta, and the entire Riva degli Schiavoni along the water’s edge. Thousands climbed onto roofs, where they tore apart roof tiles. When the crowds finally departed the next day, they left behind a wasteland of vandalism and more than a thousand tons of garbage.
Some point also to the gigantic billboards that began appearing in 2009 over the scaffolding used for the restoration of Venice’s buildings. These tennis court–size advertisements covered buildings such as the Ducal Palace (Coca-Cola), the Procuratie Nuove (Breitling), and San Simeon Piccolo (Calvin Klein Jeans). The most infamous of all, though, was a billboard that covered the facing corners of the Ducal Palace and the prisons and both sides of the canal between them. Along the canal sides the billboard depicted a panorama of blue skies and white clouds. Tucked securely in the advertisement was the Bridge of Sighs, which had been transformed into a feature in the billboard called Il Cielo dei Sospiri (the Sky of Sighs). The billboard was then made available to advertisers such as Coca-Cola and Sisley, among others. Despite numerous protests, Venice’s mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, defended the scaffolding billboards scattered across the city as an efficient way to pay for much-needed restorations and repairs to Venice’s architectural treasures. Indeed, in 2010 he even allowed the billboards to be lit at night. A letter from the directors of museums worldwide and a protest from Venice in Peril claimed that the advertisements violated Venice’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In March 2011 Italy’s newly appointed minister of culture insisted that the “mega-ads” must come down, although the economic tensions that led to them still remain.
The Venetians have a saying: “Sempre crolla, ma non cade” (It is always crumbling, but it never falls). Death and Venice have been so conceptually bound together during the last two centuries that it is hard to conceive of them apart. At the beginning of the twenty-first century Venice’s demise was blamed on (among other things) global warming, environmental degradation, industrial pollution, greedy corporations, fleeing citizens, and rampaging tourists. It seems that Venice is always just one mistake away from utter destruction. In the popular James Bond movie Casino Royale (2006) the exciting climax takes place in a Venetian palazzo on the Grand Canal. The palazzo, like all of Venice in the movie, is floating on enormous air tanks. (After all, if Venice is sinking, does that not suggest that it must be floating?) When gunfire ruptures the tanks, the entire building drops beneath the waves without a trace. In the modern mind, Venice has become so fragile that a well-aimed bullet can sink its most magnificent buildings. It has truly become an endangered species, something that can only survive by means of an international effort to restore its natural habitat.
But is Venice really that fragile? Is it truly dying?
In one respect, Venice is already dead. The Republic of St. Mark, which is the reason that Venice exists at all, died more than two centuries ago. The Ducal Palace is no longer a seat of government. The Most Serene Republic no longer commands the city or the empire that it built. Instead, the buildings are maintained by other people—some the descendants of the republic’s citizens, others not. In that respect, then, Venice is indeed a corpse—an exquisitely beautiful corpse, but a corpse nonetheless.
Yet in another, more important, respect, Venice still lives. The spirit of Venice, what made Venice beyond just the Great Council, the Senate, and the republic, is still vigorous and vibrant. Modern Venice faces many challenges, it is true. But what city does not? And for Venice, the challenges are as old as the city itself. The waters of the lagoon threaten the city today, just as they have done since its foundation. As a struggle between man and nature, the Venetian lagoon is perpetually a work in progress.
Foreigners are also nothing new to Venice. It has ever been a city brimming with people from all corners of the world. During the Middle Ages the strangers came to do business or find passage to faraway locales. But they also came there to live. Indeed, the Middle Ages saw large immigrations of foreigners who settled down in Venice and eventually became Venetians themselves. The problem was so acute that one of Doge Enrico Dandolo’s first actions in 1192 was to evict all foreigners who had lived in Venice for less than two years. Although Venice’s population during the Middle Ages exceeded a hundred thousand people, a good portion of them were foreigners. In fact, DNA tests of Venetians who took part in the “mock funeral” of 2009 proved that two-thirds of them were of European origin, with most of the rest coming from the Balkans or Asia. As the lead scientist, Fabio Carrera of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, concluded, Venice was a “melting pot.”
Venetians leaving Venice is also hardly new. During the medieval and early modern centuries the majority of Venetians lived outside their city. They were scattered across an empire that reached to the Middle East and across mainland Italy. Some Venetians lived their whole lives and never once visited Venice! The Venetian people, who were the world’s most experienced travelers, have always welcomed other world travelers to their home.
They still do—as the millions of foreigners who visit Venice annually attest. This does not mean that relations between visitors and natives always go well—as Dandolo’s law suggests. But it does mean that they have continued and for one very important reason: profit. Venetian doges swore to promote the “honor and profit” of Venice. Modern Venice is still true to that promise. For all its challenges, Venice is still a place of majestic beauty and vibrant commerce. The postcards and cheap plastic masks hawked at the vendors’ carts may not seem laudable to the sophisticated traveler, but they are profitable. A medieval Venetian merchant would have understood that business model perfectly—and applauded it. That so many people today find modern Venice’s commercialism distasteful is not surprising. So did the popes, kings, nobles, knights, and pilgrims who visited the city throughout its long history. It did not, however, stop the Venetians from going about their business.
As a republic in an age of monarchy and a capitalist economy in a time of agrarian feudalism, Venice has always stood apart from the world while simultaneously catering to its needs. In that respect, nothing has changed.
Then, as now, Venice remains a city of honor and profit.