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Venice is the only city on earth going backwards

Stephen Bayley rejects the sentimentality that locks the city in the past and that resists every invasion of modernity except tourism. The place is a corpse

6 February 2008

12:00 AM

6 February 2008

12:00 AM

The peril in Venice is the people trying to save it. But save exactly what for precisely whom? Venice is a corpse. It died in 1797 with the last, preposterous old Doge eased out by the French. Napoleon then insulted the Venetians by calling the Piazza San Marco Europe’s finest drawing-room. Now the drawing-room has become an undisciplined, overpriced, fatigued international playpen. In 1494 an itinerant Milanese canon, Pietro Casola, said there was nothing new to say about Venice. I’m not so sure. They say Venice defeats cynicism. Let’s see.

Those cute street signs in the vernacular? I daresay there are study groups in South Kensington which practise the old language over an ombra or two of Waitrose prosecco, but Venetians themselves are quite happy with modern Italian. Since most ‘Venetians’ live on the mainland, they have to. The signs were only put there very recently by a local authority with an eye to tourism’s lust for folklorico. It is rather like Llangollen Council struggling to express ‘internet cafe’ in the language of The Mabinogion. Which is to say, utterly absurd.

Venice is stuck in reverse, the only city on earth going backwards. Clinging tenaciously to its past, contemporary Venice resists almost every intrusion of modernity — except, that is, tourism: the one that damages it the most. Tourists have been fed images of a Virtual Venice for 300 years. As Henry James observed, ‘Of all the cities in the world it is the easiest to visit without going there.’ That does not seem to stop them. Preserving the fiction has become destructive of the very spirit that made Venice a miracle.

Virtual Venice is so powerful, it is not always easy to see it afresh. Before the booming cadences of Henry James and Ruskin before him, there were nay-sayers, including Edward Gibbon, who visited Venice while he was preparing to write his Decline and Fall. He writes:

Stinking ditches dignified with the pompous denomination of canals, a fine bridge spoilt by two rows of houses upon it and a large square decorated with the worst architecture I ever yet saw.’
But Ruskin’s influence came to dominate. He was the last Hebrew prophet. Or some would say the first Jeremy Clarkson. He deplored factories, but did not disdain the modern daguerrotype when it suited him.

It was Ruskin who indexed Venice for almost all subsequent visitors. Applying a nihilistic and absurd rejection of wealth-producing modernity to the Pearl of the Adriatic, Ruskin fiercely opposed the creation of the vaporetto service to the Lido. When he was in Venice to finish Portrait of a Lady in 1881, James was also cross about democratic water transit systems, raging about the ‘accursed whistling of the dirty steam engine of the omnibus’.

This same vaporetto, reviled by Ruskin and James as intrusive modernism, is the one we enjoy so much today. James also found poverty useful for his art and conducive to his pleasure, a disagreeable example of the retardataire snobbismo that has frozen Venice in the past. In 1872 James was complaining that the Lido was being ‘improved’ and the deserted beaches and dunes were turned into a mere ‘site of delights’ for visitors less worthy than The Master. These improvements, of course, eventually comprised the splendid Hotel Des Bains and the Hotel Excelsior.

Ruskin and James wanted Venice kept in a state of picturesque poverty. James resented modern plumbing because it would deny him the sight of washerwomen struggling with huge ewers and pitchers. He resisted the industrialisation of glass-making because it would reduce the number of bead-stringers whose back-breaking labour he enjoyed contemplating. Never mind that vaporetti and factories might help Venetians prosper — filthy old conditions were better for art. ‘The misery of Venice,’ James said, ‘is part of the spectacle …it was part of the pleasure.’ To James, Venetian beggar girls were at their very best when starved and wearing thin, exhausted, limp clothing: ‘it would certainly make an immense difference if they were better fed.’

The dubious morality here has its equivalent in our own uncertain responses to conservation. Native Venetians, maintained in a state of grinding poverty and denied every modern convenience, might be a terrific artistic stimulus for American and British writers cocooned in the Danieli or the Gritti, but did little to help Venice itself prosper in a meaningful way. Something similar is happening now.

Nineteenth-century writers and artists were the prototypes for generations of later English and Americans visitors who wanted a delicious dalliance with a Venice preserved with the fastidious accuracy of Canaletto. Italian nationalists differed. The slightly potty futurist F.T. Marinetti thought Venice a ‘jewelled hip bath for cosmopolitan courtesans …a great sewer of traditionalism’. On the evening of 8 July 1910 Marinetti ambushed travellers arriving home from the Lido, shouting ‘We want electric lamps brutally to cut and strip away …your mysterious, sickening, alluring shadows! Your Grand Canal, widened and dredged, must become a great commercial port. Trains and trams, launched on wide roads built over canals that have finally been filled-in will bring you mountains of goods and a shrewd, wealthy, busy crown of industrialists and businessmen.’

Well, that never happened. Even the mildest modernist has a hard time getting a hearing in Venice. And, to be frank, the cause of modern architecture is not well served by what already exists there. New buildings have a patchy record in Venice. The Strada Nuova, cut to connect the railway station with San Marco is hideous. Le Corbusier had an unrealised design for a new hospital at San Giobbe. The Biennale brought some decent architecture: Josef Hoffmann in 1934, Gerrit Rietveld in 1954 and Alvar Aalto in 1956, lately Zaha Hadid et al., but it is a passing show. The best modern architecture in Venice, Carlo Scarpa’s 1970s additions to the Querini-Stampalia looks tired and dated.

And you may breathe a sigh of relief and say thank goodness Venice is left as it was. But wait a minute. If you read Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice it has little — in fact, I think, nothing — to say of architecture after La Fenice. (The current theatre is a copy of the 1837 original.) If you look at an authoritative book on 20th-century culture — Peter Conrad’s mighty Modern Times is an example — you find no reference to Venice. But, then, corpses tend to be inert.

As Ruskin realised and feared, since Venice is an over-built island with unnegotiable geographical containment, you cannot build anything new without destroying something old. The opposite camp, of course, wishes to see Venice live at least partly in the future and not wholly in the past, no matter how glorious. People argue about the numbers, but in 50 years the population of Venice has dropped by perhaps 80 per cent. If present trends continue, Venice will become wholly depopulated. Although tourists will still visit.

Venice embraced the wrong sort of modernism. It rejected new architecture and organic growth, preferring the far more corrupting forces of mass-tourism. Meanwhile, Virtual Venice enslaves the dwindling local population who tend to go home to Mestre, to drive and visit supermarkets.

Here we have the reduction to absurdity wrought by policies of Total Preservation. Venice’s past is no longer in danger. But its present is difficult and the future precarious. Or preposterous. Venice became rich and beautiful through adventure and risk. Just to recite the names of gallant old Doges is to approach poetry: Giovanni Partecipazio, Ottone Orseolo, Marino Zorzi, Alvise Mocenigo, Pasquale Cicogna. They are gone and we are left with

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