Venice is bizarre. Not only is the city sinking physically, it seems like the place is becoming a ghost of its former self. Reports released on Saturday indicate that the city’s current population hovers around 60,000, down from over 170,000 in the 1950s.
Where did all those people go? It seems we forced them out. By we, I mean the 20 million of us who love to run through the pigeons in Piazza San Marco every year and marvel that the basilica doesn’t sink into mush every time the piazza floods.
We gawk at the gondoliers, who for the first time in 900 years count a female among their ranks. My first trip to Venice in 2004 included a ride on a gondola. What I noticed, perhaps in the reserved quiet of the late afternoon or the general demeanor of the gondolier, was a propriety and primness that made me almost uneasy. This was a revered tradition – decorum must be maintained – and these chaps took their profession seriously. It was winter; the city was cold and relatively empty. It was silent, too (that was particularly noticeable). This was a city imagined by most to be colorful and forever lively; the reality was somber. Venice, it seemed, was either asleep or hibernating.
Or dying. That is the claim voiced recently: Venice is slowly losing its identity as a living city. Throngs of tourists suffocate both old tradition and old industry. Massimo Zane, a fisherman at Venice’s Rialto market, told the International Herald Tribune that locals would line up in front of his family’s store every morning in the 1960s. Today, he said, just a few elderly neighbors come by. The Tribune also stated that living in Venice has become too expensive for residents. The real estate market has shifted from one centered on a long-term conception of residents to one focused on short-term rentals for visitors. A hospital complex on the Lido was shuttered and is up for sale to developers. A subway is planned to connect Marco Polo airport to Venice. It seems local government infrastructural and monetary-financial strategies are aimed at increasing tourism dollars. What this leaves behind, though, is the fostering of a viable and realistic city. It’s like slapping a layer of paint over a rotting gondola.
What I learned from my second trip to Venice was that the real city seems absent. The raucous buzz I expected of an Italian city was missing. That may have been an incorrect presumption on my part, but I had seen much more life in Florence and Rome. Its absence in Venice was striking. The lack of vibrancy made sense during my first trip; the days were short, gloomy and dark. But the spring of last year in northern Italy was particularly pleasant, and I hoped for more. I was expecting something like the buzz of Madison Avenue or Oxford Street. Instead, what I saw and photographed was an eerie desolation. By distancing from the touristy areas – which can be done if you venture away from the Grand Canal -you will find empty courtyards and quiet streets. Perhaps it was the closed shutters that made the biggest impact on me. They turned those courtyards from sanctuaries into tombs.
y view was only ever the tourist’s view. I can’t know what day-to-day Venetian life is like. Yet accounts like Zane’s indicate that day-to-day life is becoming prohibitively expensive for residents. It seems the government is not helping to alleviate that financial strain, and has focused too much on attracting tourism. Akin to Nigeria and Venezuela’s “resource curse” – whereby economic strength in one area, such as oil resources or tourism, makes a government complacent about pursuing long-term economic growth – it may be that the city government is short-sightedly propping up whatever will keep Venice rich in tourism money. Its old history as the center of a trading empire, an influential free city for centuries on end and a patron of the Renaissance seems very distant when seeing the old city in its current state. The faint smell of what the city was before cheap air travel arrived lingers. But it seems that Venice has become addicted to the easy money lavished upon it for becoming a caricature of itself. It is losing its personality in promoting its novelty. And when considering the type of places people truly love and will revisit, novelty will rarely suffice. Perversely enough, Venice seeks to be a place that visitors will adore and return to, but by choosing the path of novelty, it may often receive only shallow admiration while the rot continues – unabated – underneath.
Udayan Tripathi is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at tripathithehoya.com. History Never Repeats Itself appears every other Monday at www.thehoya.com.
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