Venice presents a spectacular example of the city as a continuing story of ingenuity, involving first a challenge to the forces of nature, then a perfect harmonisation with them. As generations of travellers have perceived, it ought not to be there but somehow, astonishingly, is. Resting on the most fragile of foundations – basically matchsticks in mud – its essence defies the imagination via an incomparable sequence of bravado architectural gestures. St Mark’s Basilica and Campanile, Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore and that sinuous parade of palaces along the Grand Canal exalt and inspire every soul, except a few cussed oddballs and contrarians.
Yet what John Evelyn in 1645 called ‘the surprising sight of this miraculous city, lying in the bosom of the sea’, nowadays embodies a warning to us, even as we celebrate its unique allure. How can lovers of Venice expect to be transfigured by this beauty without accepting responsibility for its impending destruction? This question provides a starting point for Salvatore Settis in If Venice Dies. The writer is an admired art historian and cultural commentator, foremost among Italy’s public intellectuals and a noted campaigner against the opportunism and mendacity of politicians in his own country. Like many of Venice’s most eloquent interpreters, he speaks with greater conviction through not being himself a native Venetian.
The ‘what if?’ scenario Settis invokes, the unthinkable made hideously real by the increasing possibility that Venice might soon perish as a living community, has a variety of dimensions. One is the simple fact that the resident population has shrunk to barely half of what it was fifty years ago. The only previous example of such a rapid decline took place after the dreadful plague epidemic of 1630, commemorated by Baldassare Longhena’s magnificent domed church of Santa Maria della Salute. Settis mourns the loss of ‘men and women that a real city needs: the lifeblood that flows through the veins of its streets and squares; the makers and guardians of its memories; a community that identifies with the physical shape of the city and its ethical reasoning’.
Replacing this authentic citizenry are what the author rightly labels ‘termites’, products of a tourist monoculture comprising second-home owners, Airbnb renters and the transient clientele of an ever-growing number of hotels. Add to these the swarms of day-trippers from coaches, trains and the giant cruise liners crowding the Bacino di San Marco, the expanse of water between Venice’s main island and San Giorgio. The ships’ enormity, in every sense of the word, is fair game for Settis. Blasting the ‘pompous arrogance’ and ‘tacky bulkiness’ with which they defy the venerable ensemble of the Piazza, the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s bronze horses, he sees these mega-vessels as physical embodiments of rape and trespass, offering fraudulent salvation through toxic consumerism.
We are back, ironically, to where the town took off a thousand years ago, in a world of expediency, short-termism and fast bucks that has changed little since the days when its merchants looted gold, icons and saints’ incorrupt bodies from Byzantium. Settis scornfully enumerates for us the wizard moneymaking wheezes dreamed up by recent civic administrations, from a proposed sublagunar metro system aimed at fusing Venice with Padua and Treviso to form a modern megalopolis to the grotesque Palais Lumière project devised by the Veneto-born designer Pierre Cardin. This was to consist of three 820-foot skyscrapers erected on the mainland, connected by shopping malls, convention centres and a so-called ‘fashion university’, the lights of which would permanently pollute the nocturnal skyline. A recent mayor of Venice, when asked for his verdict, feebly opined, ‘It’s horrible, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’
What destiny can possibly be envisaged for a place that has so swiftly fallen victim to the global marketplace’s most insidious menaces? It may be that organisations such as Venice in Peril (which I currently chair), doyen among a group of international committees dedicated to safeguarding the precious fabric and profile of the city, are on a fool’s errand. Perhaps the Italian Futurists were right in wishing this ‘magnet for snobbery and universal imbecility, a jewelled bathtub for cosmopolitan courtesans’ to founder in the Adriatic whence it arose. The utter nervelessness, venality and wilful ignorance of those who are now in charge seem to be hurrying Venice all too swiftly towards the depths.
Salvatore Settis’s nobly resonant, take-no-prisoners polemic (in an excellent English translation by André Naffis-Sahely) is, thank God, not merely a sustained howl of pain at all that has overtaken his beloved city in recent decades. If Venice Dies ends with a fervent summons towards another kind of future altogether, one that validates the claim of native Venetians to their home ground, the restoration of communities within it and their rights to meaningful work and affordable residence. The frenzy of the market can be curbed, Settis suggests, by showing ‘that non-violent forms of modernity are available’. The closing assertion, that if indeed Venice should perish then with it goes our whole idea of the urban environment as a redemptive space, committed to democracy’s best aspirations, presents a formidable challenge. We have been warned.