VENICE, Italy—On November 14th, 2009, an ironic protest was held in Venice: the funeral procession of the “city of Venice” borne in a hot pink coffin. This semi-satirical event was organized and carried out by Venessia, a somewhat renegade group of concerned Venetians devoted to preserving Venice as a functioning city. The funeral was inspired by the city’s census count drop to just under 60,000 inhabitants, the protesters arguing that a city of less than 60,000 is more of a village. Though this number rather snobbishly discounts the Venetians living on the Lido and surrounding islands, the protest evocatively highlights the strangeness of living in Venice, a strangeness that surpasses even its beauty.
The city is visited by 18 million tourists every year, a number that astronomically exceeds the number of people actually living in the city. When divided by the number of days in the year, this number averages out close to 60,000. The city is thus overwhelmed by masses of visitors, many of whom seem vaguely bored, yet desperate to “do” Venice, to see it all—an impossible, and seemingly shallow goal.
But while tourists are the economic lifeblood of the city, their presence has rendered the city too expensive for the average Italian—leading some to categorize it as merely a theme park. An Italian recounts being asked by American tourists “excuse me, when does Venice close?” While such a question may seem insensitive or unintelligent, from a more philosophical perspective the question is entirely pertinent. What will happen now that Venice is a city that lives by parodying itself? Can it survive as a viable, living city?
In contrast with the mobile hordes of strangers who every day lay siege to the city exists another Venice. The quiet, self-effacing Venice, the Venice that groups like Venessia are trying to preserve. In many ways the critique that Venice is a “village” is all too apt. At night, a serene silence, such as one might find in a remote mountain hamlet, descends upon the darkened, narrow alleys, punctuated only by the susurration of water in the canals and the inebriated shouts of foreigners and students as they search for bars, lost in a truly Byzantine maze of canals and alleys. In fact, this silence surpasses anything one might find on the mainland: Here, the only motors are on boats. During the day, just as in a village, you meet everyone in your immediate neighborhood, seeing them every day on the vaporetto or as you go about your daily routine. This is the “real” Venice, augmented in glamour by its status as an “international city,” the Biennale, and the Venice Film Festival.
Just two centuries ago Venice was a city to contend with, a city that had to be vanquished by none other than Napoleon, a city with its own peculiar but highly successful form of independent governance, a city that defied every rule of logic, forcing its existence against the will of the Pope, empires, and the sea. All this, and to be, almost coincidentally, a city that some claim is the most beautiful in the world. To end like this, vanquished by modernization, with the images of Kate Moss and Emma Watson pouting at us from giant billboards that cover storied buildings such as the Accademia and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, seems an ignominious end to a city that ruled the waves for so many centuries—killed, as it were, by the world’s relentless fascination with its beauty.
Catherine A. Morris, a Crimson arts writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House.