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Venice: problems and possibilities

A special issue devoted to the plight of Venice which predicted ‘the revival of Venice, the restoration of her new true dignity, the safeguarding of her purposes and the honour­ing of her heritage’

Originally published in AR May 1971, this piece was republished online in May 2018 to coincide with the opening of Grafton’s Venice Biennale 

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Front cover of the special AR May 1971 issue: the problems faced by Venice nearly 50 years ago still resonate today

My own solution for the problem of Venice is to let her sink.

She has died several deaths already. As a Great Power, she died prematurely in 1498, when Vasco da Gama found a sea route to the Orient. As a political entity, she died posthumously in 1797, when Napoleon’s cockaded soldiers disembarked in the Piazza San Marco. As an island phenomenon she died in 1846, when the railway causeway was built across the lagoon. As a working city she is dying all the time, as her com­mercial and industrial energies are drained away to Mestre on the mainland, and she is left to the degradation of mass tourism.

Letting her sink would redeem this long and squalid decline. Imagine her there at the end, La Serenissima, Bride of the Adriatic, enfolded at last by the waters she espoused, her gilded domes and columns dimly shining in the green and, perhaps at very low tides, the angel on the summit of the Campanile to be seen raising his golden forefinger (for he stands in an exhortatory pose) above the sandbanks. This would be the true Venetian end: an end in the grand manner, such as Tintorettos would portray in vast brown canvases on rotting chapel walls, and Byrons celebrate in romantic elegy:

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The best evocation ol the unique and romantic character that brings devotees to Venice fom all over the world

‘O Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls / Are level with the waters, there shall be / A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls, / A loud lament along thy sweeping sea!’

It is a counsel of perfection, and it will not happen. For one thing it would take too long – one cannot hang around for the apocalypse – and for another the world would not allow it. Far from letting Venice sink, the world community is beginning to see the survival of that astonishing city as an allegorical necessity of our time, anal­ogous not so much to a civic preservation scheme, as to the saving from extinction of some prodigious zoological species.

‘Is Venice condemned either to be a museum, artiflcially preserved for the aesthetes and the sightseers, or to be systemati­cally ruined in the interests of modernism?’

This is scarcely because of Venice’s intrinsic importance. In geo-political terms the old place has long been insignificant. Venice, say the gazeteers, population 808,000, Italian port and manufacturing centre: but most of the docks, nearly all the manufactories and at least half the population are now at Mestre – which, though statistically part of the Venetian municipality, is certainly not Venice in the world’s sense of the name. It is agreeable, but not vital, to see Carpaccios or Canalettos on the spot; and though architecturally, it is true, there is no substitute for the peculiar water-majesty of Venice, still nobody yet immolated himself, so far as I know, to save a piazza from destruction.

Yet for Venice, people might conceivably die: and this is because the city is more than mere substance. Venice is, as J. A. Symonds once observed, the Shakespeare of cities. She inspires emotions commanded by no other place: a sense of magic still, as though one has been wandering trough ethereal back-canals; a sense of release from the ordinary or the logical; a sense of ill-explained but ecstatic yearning; and a blurred perception of the absolute that is art, nature, age, surprise, pathos, intricacy, triumph and melancholy all mixed up. One does not often weep for the poor waddling Dodo, which was palatable enough, we are told, when salted: but what would we not give, to restore the Phoenix to his fire?

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Venice is subsiding in two senses: physically, because of a rise in her surrounding waters and the dereliction of her ancient structures; metaphysically, because the vigour and self-esteem of the city is ebbing away to the modem and exceedingly nasty mainland conurbations.

Restoring her physically will be enormously expensive, but feasible; restoring her spiritually will be harder; reconciling the two processes will be most difficult of all. Venice is a city built for action and material influence. The Doge’s Palace was not a pleasure-pavilion, but a power-house – Kremlin, Pentagon, Westminster all in one. The Rialto stood, in its great days, not for water-colour composition, but for financial expertise. Until Venice once again finds a purpose more virile or ennobling than tour­ism, no brilliance of engineering, no devotion of architects, will save her from the rot. And if such a function is found, will it be compatible with her unique and fragile presence? If she is to play a part in twentieth-century affairs, must she conform to twentieth-century patterns? Will consequence return to a city without cars, or will the visiting executives cable distraught to their home offices, as Robert Benchley cabled long ago, ‘Streets Full Of Water. Please Advise?’ Is Venice condemned either to be a museum, artiflcially preserved for the aesthetes and the sightseers, or to be systemati­cally ruined in the interests of modernism?

‘My own solution for the problem of Venice is to let her sink’

It is this dilemma that gives the problem its allegory: for it is, in paradigm, a dilemma of the world at large, dramatically crystallized in the loveliest of all the settlements ever erected by man. If we cannot make proper use of Venice, what hope is there for mankind’s less marvellous possessions? If technique cannot adapt to such beauty as this, should civilized people compromise with technique?

All true addicts of Venice like to imagine, now and then, that she is an independent State again, her passports emblazoned with the Lion of St Mark, her missile destroyers at anchor in the Basin. Only an intemational effort of wills and disciplines, though, can rescue her from her present predicament. The challenge is partly social, partly historical, partly economic, partly technical – a national challenge, because Venice is after all the fifteenth city of Italy, a supra-national challenge because for a thousand years Venice has occupied a unique position in the imagination, the affection and the distaste of all the nations.