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‘Like a critically ill patient, Venice’s wounds are proof of a widespread disease’


A deeply depressing and urgent analysis offers previous few glimmers of hope that must be seized if Venice is to survive

This is an impassioned plea to save Venice from the ravages of mass tourism, commercial exploitation and municipal corruption. Salvatore Settis is a scholar with a mission, an archaeologist and art historian who demands action to avert the destruction of a unique city. In this book, as in his articles and lectures, he seeks to raise public awareness of a crisis that – like climate change – is building slowly and can thus be denied by fools and those who profit from ignorance.

Venice has been sinking, physically and politically, for centuries. A city-state that grew from a scatter of mudbanks to become a maritime power of extraordinary wealth, it was in decline long before Napoleon abolished the Republic and left it to be colonised by the Austrians. In The Dunciad, Alexander Pope described it as a pleasure resort in which,

‘… Cupids ride the lion of the deeps;
Where, eased of fleets, the Adriatic main
Wafts the smooth eunuch and the enamour’d swain.’

All that was left of imperial glory resided in the enchanting combination of palaces and canals, neighbourhood campi and a labyrinth of narrow lanes. As a work of art protected by the lagoon, it became a spectacle, adored by travellers and connoisseurs. There were a few dissenters. ‘There are many disagreeable things in Venice but none as disagreeable as the visitors’, grumbled Henry James, more than a hundred years ago. He would be rendered speechless by the tide of tourists that now sweeps over the city like an invading army and outnumbers the residents, 140 to one. For, as tourism has grown exponentially, the population has dropped precipitately, from 175,000 in 1951 to 56,000 in 2015.

‘Venice no longer seems capable of creating anything other than bed-and-breakfasts, hotels and restaurants, souvenir shops and phony carnivals’, writes Settis. ‘The tourist monoculture that has driven Venetians from Venice continues to hold sway, so much so that the 2,400 hotels and other overnight accommodations the city currently has can no longer satisfy its appetites … the total may soon reach 50,000 in the city’s historic center and thereby take it over in entirety.’ That may prove an exaggeration, but hit-and-run tourism is destructive in itself and in its unforeseen consequences. Property prices have risen to the point where few of the people who daily work in the city can afford to live there. Palaces are bought as second (or fifth) homes by the rich, who seldom occupy their apartments, and the few remaining shops selling useful things die for lack of custom, as do all the other services that make a city viable.

Settis roots Venice in the context of a country that lurches from one political and economic crisis to another, with the highest level of fiscal evasion in Europe, and an unemployment rate that is twice the European average. He castigates the Calderoni Act of 2010, proposed by Silvio Berlusconi and approved by a supine legislature, which transfers ownership of historic monuments and other priceless assets from the State to cities, and allows them to sell or redevelop those prizes. The Italian Constitution correctly identified them as national property, held in trust; now they can be privatised and bought up by an oligarch making a tempting offer, just as monuments are blanketed in ads for luxury brands in return for the sponsorship of restoration. Of course, if Italy were to collect the estimated $150 billion a year in unpaid taxes it would be better able to maintain its heritage.

‘The few remaining voters who still reside on the islands of Venice are far outnumbered by those of Marghera and Mestre, industrial cities that are part of the same constituency’

It can be argued that Italian unification was a great mistake and that a confederation of semi-autonomous cities and provinces would better reflect the loyalties of its inhabitants. Settis cites the constitution of Siena, promulgated in 1309, as a model for Venice today. It includes the stirring clause: ‘Whoever rules the city must have the beauty of the city as his foremost preoccupation, and in fact our city must be honorably decorated and its buildings carefully preserved and improved, because it must provide pride, honor, wealth and growth to the citizens, as well as pleasure and happiness to the visitors from abroad.’ But that is to ignore the irresistible pressure of special interests in a depopulated city. The few remaining voters who still reside on the islands of Venice are far outnumbered by those of Marghera and Mestre, industrial cities that are part of the same constituency.

As a result, Settis asserts, ‘Venice is a textbook case of public corruption’. Cruise ships resembling floating skyscrapers churn their way to the heart of the city, dwarfing its monuments and eroding their foundations. The present mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, sees nothing wrong in this and tried to suppress an exhibition of photographs that documented the assault. He instructed the director of the Doge’s Palace, which the city owns, to cancel the exhibition, which was later presented by the Olivetti Gallery in Piazza San Marco. Brugnari (whose predecessor was arrested for extortion and money-laundering) is eager to enlarge the cruse-ship terminal and the airport to attract even greater numbers of daytrippers, most of whom contribute little to the city’s revenues. A former mayor heads the port authority, and the public body that maintained the ecological balance of the canals and the lagoon from the Middle Ages was judged incompetent and shut down. Acqua alta, the seasonal floods, are becoming ever more frequent. There are plans to dig even deeper channels across the lagoon, and MOSE, the massive gates intended to protect the city from tidal surges, are way over schedule and budget. As if Venice were not already becoming a theme park, there is a proposal to build Veniceland, a digitally enhanced surrogate, ‘to titillate those whom the real city fails to excite’.

It’s a deeply depressing analysis, but Settis offers a few glimmers of hope. ‘Like a critically ill patient, Venice’s wounds … are proof of a widespread disease’, he observes, ‘and, just like a celebrity patient, it attracts more attention than any other city in the world.’ He argues that the crucial task is to bring the city back to life, providing creative jobs and affordable lodgings, especially for young people who are willing to accept the challenge of living in a watery paradise with limited amenities. Visitors should be taxed to benefit residents, and provide funding to repurpose historic buildings, especially to house students of the university and foreign institutions who are now forced to commute daily from the mainland. Settis would restrict the number of second-home buyers, as has been done in Swiss cities, to repopulate palaces year round and drive down property prices. Even families with children could be encouraged, through tax breaks and subsidies, to return to the city.

It’s hard to imagine any of these reforms being accomplished without concerted pressure from without. In a recent resolution, UNESCO warned that Venice would be placed on its list of endangered sites if the city did not ban cruise ships by February 2017. Predictably, the Italian government pressured the organisation to withdraw or postpone its decision. It had earlier – in response to the wreck of the Costa Concordia on the Tuscan island of Giglio – passed a measure banning cruise ships from skirting sensitive sites, but made an exception for Venice, the most fragile of them all.

Tall buildings that would intrude on the skyline of Venice pose another threat to its integrity. When Pierre Cardin, the Venetian turned Parisian couturier, proposed a gaudy tower in Marghera, Settis blasted the project in the newspaper La Repubblica and was invited to address the Académie Française, of which he is an honorary member. That august body sent a resolution to the Italian prime minister, which prompted a letter of support from French statesman Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Both were published in Italy and, just as Cardin was about to receive approval for his eyesore, the process was halted and he huffily declared that he would take his tower to China. This shows what one determined individual can achieve.

‘Every Venice lover and non-profit support group needs to lobby the Italian government and the Venetian authorities to ban the cruise ships and reinvigorate the city as a living entity’

I found myself deeply moved by the reasoned anger of Settis and recalled the intense pleasure the city has afforded me on visits extending over more than 50 years. I remember when the campi were alive with children at play, mothers keeping a watchful eye from café tables. Arriving late at the Antica Locanda Montin, I sat all night on the doorstep waiting for it to reopen, listening to the soft lap of water on stone. Exploring the fish market in the early morning light, watching the sun set over a trio of Palladio churches from a rooftop terrace on the Zattere, and savouring the tranquillity of the Scamozzi docks in the Arsenale; those and a hundred other fond memories crowd in, from repeated encounters with this masterpiece of urban design.

Venice – as UNESCO recognises – is part of the world’s cultural heritage, and foreigners have been among its most ardent admirers and benefactors. A recent book, Dream of Venice: Architecture, demonstrates how much is at stake. JoAnn Locktov, an American who has settled in the city, commissioned seductive images and comments by visiting architects to portray the city as we would all like it to be. If our grandchildren are to share that experience, every Venice lover and non-profit support group needs to lobby the Italian government and the Venetian authorities to ban the cruise ships, reinvigorate the city as a living entity, and protect the treasure that has been entrusted to them.

If Venice Dies

Author: Salvatore Settis

Publisher: New Vessel Press

Price: $16.95