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The gondola and the speedboat: Venice as a crucible of culture

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As a melting pot of art and culture, Venice has historically been a source of inspiration for many

On 21 March 1945, Wing Commander George Westlake led the one and only authorised Second World War air raid on Venice. Operation Bowler had been planned by Air Vice-Marshal ‘Pussy’ Foster. He named it so because he knew that if the city itself was damaged, he and Westlake would be ‘bowler hatted’ or returned, that is, to civilian life. The target was the docks that – now that the RAF had made key northern Italian railway lines and major roads impassable – were the one seemingly sure way the Germans could supply their occupying armies, along canals lined with villas by Palladio.

Diving near vertically from 10,000ft, Westlake led more than a hundred Mustangs and Kittyhawks to their target. The operation was a resounding success. One aircraft was shot down, its pilot rescued, while not a single Venetian life was lost, nor, aside from the odd shattered window, a Venetian building damaged outside the docks. My friend and former AR contributor, Tudy Sammartini, a future pupil of Carlo Scarpa at the time and one of the city’s most engaging conservationists from the great flood of 1966, told me that Venetians crowded on rooftops to watch the raid. ‘It was intense’, she said, ‘but we cried, Bravo!’

Crali incuneandosi nell'abitato in tuffo sulla città

Crali incuneandosi nell’abitato in tuffo sulla città

Futurist artist Tullio Crali’s Nose Dive on the City (1939) highlighted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s call of 1910 to ‘repudiate the old Venice’. Source: © Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca Mart

Intriguingly, the Fascist-leaning Futurist artist Tullio Crali had painted the most arresting of all images of aircraft dive-bombing an intensely occupied city. His dizzying Nose Dive on the City (1939) highlighted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s call, made in 1910, a year after his Futurist Manifesto, to ‘repudiate the old Venice’. Away would go the ‘nostalgic dream’ of the past. Now was the time to ‘prepare the birth of an industrial and military Venice’ while burning gondolas – ‘rocking chairs for cretins’ – and ‘abolishing the cascading curves of the old architecture’.

And yet, for all the intensity of RAF air power and pre-war Futurist propagandising, Venice entered the second half of the 20th century all but resistant to modern technology and Modern architecture. Its extraordinary, intensely built-up structure and psyche would only be moved, can only be moved, by the most subtle interventions, by changes that, superficially at least, are unable to ruffle its gilded feathers. This resistance, this intensity, dates back to the very founding of the city when in the fifth century mainland Venetians sought refuge from Gothic assault on the marshy islands of the lagoon separating mainland Italy from the Adriatic.

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Article 1089600 029a4e86000005dc 349 468x286

The destruction wrought on the Venice docks by the RAF during the Second World War

‘You live like seabirds’, wrote Cassiodorus, Praetorian Prefect of King Theodoric the Ostrogoth, in a letter dated AD523 to the ‘Maritime Tribunes’. Few animals live their lives more intensely than seabirds. Bound by conquered land, Cassiodorus admired the Venetians, their determined and, at the time, egalitarian spirit. Venice, even today, can be seen as a tiny island – or forced marriage of islets – crowded like a colony of seabirds. A necessary intensity, Venice rose within its saline boundaries to become one of the greatest city-states and seabound empires the world has known. Unassailable, La Serenissima’s wealth grew, as did that of her architecture, art and prestige. 

Unable to expand, Venice became ever more dense. Unable to expand, its labyrinthine plan, its architecture, its essential fabric has – at the core – changed remarkably little since Carpaccio made his drawing of the Grand Canal in around 1500. Unable to stretch inland, Venice looked to the East, to Byzantium, over seas it made its own, fetching back on tides and chicanery the embalmed body of St Mark, the four horses that for centuries pranced above the portico of the domed basilica that bore the evangelist’s name, and untold wealth. As this wealth accrued in so few acres, so the city we toy with so arrogantly today – with mass tourism and fey adventuring – bloomed a thousandfold.

Dont look now witch red coat

Dont look now witch red coat

The sinister character in the red raincoat exploits the labyrinthine Venetian streets in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now

Inevitably, perhaps, this city of intense art, architecture and civic engineering – to build here has never been less than difficult – attracted not just an ever waxing tide of visitors, but the attention of those who, amazed by the phenomenon of Venice, wanted, one way or the other, to guide her through what became her dotage, a condition that can be dated with surgical precision: 1797 – when Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the age-old Most Serene Republic. 

What a mix, though, those visitors were, and had always been. What they had in common over the centuries was an immediately revealed sense of the often unfathomable nature of this city on water. William Lithgow, the Scottish wanderer and author of Rare Adventures and Painefull Peregrinations (1632), disembarked at St Mark’s in 1609 to find a sexually incontinent friar burning between the pillars of St Mark and St Theodore. He saw an arm of the agonised cleric drop into the flames. ‘And I cannot forget’, he wrote, ‘how after all this, we being inhungred and also overjoyed, tumbled in by chance, Alla capello Ruosso, the greatest ordinary in all Venice, neare to which the Friars bones were yet a burning: And calling for a Chamber, we were nobly and richly served.’

‘Venice has long been the stuff of exotic dreams, a city as fictional as it is real’

Those pillars, where so many executions took place, remain in situ. Effie Ruskin took a gondola from here to the Lido in 1849. She wrote a letter home about the fun she had racing with friends across the beach with its ‘pretty shells’ to the sea, its green waves and white foam. ‘John’, she wrote, ‘is very busy in the Doge’s Palace all day and yet he has only drawn one capital of one Pillar and there is something like hundreds on each side.’ And, yet, although drawn to the architectural intensity of Venice, John Ruskin played here, too. As Effie wrote on another day that summer, her husband enjoyed an energetic game of tag around Torcello Cathedral with friends after a champagne picnic in its Romanesque shadows.

Poster 02

Poster 02

Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912) is set in the city in the throes of a cholera epidemic

These languid and dynamic extremes of Venice were expressed, baroquely, by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, written a century and two world wars on from John and Effie Ruskin’s picnics. His narrator, the artist Charles Ryder, recalled, ‘The fortnight in Venice passed quietly and sweetly, perhaps too sweetly. I was drowning in honey, stingless. On some days life kept pace with the gondola, as we nosed through side-canals … on other days with the speed-boat bouncing over the lagoon in a stream of sun-lit foam; it left a memory of fiery sunlight on the sands and cool, marble interiors; or water everywhere lapping smooth stone … of melon and prosciutto on the balcony in the cool of the morning; of hot cheese sandwiches and champagne cocktails at Harry’s Bar.’

For many outsiders, Venice has long been the stuff of exotic dreams, a city as fictional as it is real. ‘Opium couldn’t build such a place’, wrote Charles Dickens on his first visit to the city in 1844. The chimerical intensity of its art, its concatenation of churches, a sense of its reality struggling with its mythical aura, prompted Jean-Paul Sartre to write an unfinished manuscript, The Prisoner of Venice (1957), wrestling with the life and meaning of the artist Tintoretto: ‘Left to himself, he would have covered every wall in the city with his paintings, no campo would have been too vast, no sotto portico too obscure for him to illuminate. He would have covered the ceilings, people would have walked across his most beautiful images, his brush would have spared neither the facades of palaces nor the gondolas.’ 

Venice valued its artists, its artisans – so much so that for many centuries glass blowers who left the city remained under threat of execution for the rest of their lives. Venice’s allure has been deadly and, in a twist of events, no more so than today when the city is being smothered by mass tourism, by those attracted by her beauty and yet, in their actions, oblivious to it. By the same token, Venice keeps the modern world at bay – even as its last few seabird citizens fly away – barring most new development in case its image is damaged in the selfie-stick eyes, the Instagram minds of those crowding on Rialto or Accademia bridges who spend, at best, just several hours here.

Premiere prometeo luigi nono

Premiere prometeo luigi nono

Enter image captionAbove: the 1984 premiere of Luigi Nono’s Promoteo took place in the church of San Lorenzo, Venice – a timber arch structure by Renzo Piano

I remember spending several difficult hours in the deconsecrated church of San Lorenzo during which the composer Luigi Nono premiered his orchestral piece Promoteo, performed in an engaging wooden arc designed by Renzo Piano’s Building Workshop. There could have been no Venetian event more intense than this, perhaps not even Operation Bowler. Such was the suffering of the architect sitting next to me that he broke a treasured Montblanc pen he had been toying with between his agitated fingers during the unrelenting performance. Unlike the bombs dropped by Wing Commander Westlake’s Mustangs and Kittyhawks, Nono’s notes verged on the edge of inaudibility. Venice, in the extremes of her days as a tourist playpen and threatened by inundation and corruption, wants us to see her and hear her – and not – in one and the same intense aesthetic instant.

Leading image: Andrea Vicentino’s Battle of Lepanto (1603), a famous naval battle against the Turks that concluded with the victory of the Venetians and its allies over the enemies of Christianity. Image courtesy of Hercules Milas / Alamy

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy