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How Venice is Dying

Venice.

A few moments after Italy dashed French hopes with that disappointing coda of penalty kicks Alya and I took a five-minute stroll to the Piazza San Marco to see the locals celebrate their nation’s capture of the world cup for soccer. As we left, the tv in our hotel was showing Rome, Naples and Milan exploding in triumph. Alya’s niece, staying in Milan, told her the next day that sleep had been impossible. The racket of cheers and honking horns had lasted all night.

In Venice, looking east across the vast expanse of the Piazza San Marco we could see a knot of maybe three hundred people down the far end, near the Basilica. As we drew nearer they turned out to be tourists leveling their digital cameras at a knot of maybe 50 Italians lofting the national flag and dancing round in a circle.

Things weren’t much livelier in front of the Doge’s palace facing the Grand Canal. On the Ponte della Paglia, opposite the carving of drunken Noah and his sons, an Italian woman commented irritably that she’d been in Rome when Italy beat Ukraine, and it had all been a lot more fun.

We ambled back to the hotel through the warm Venetian evening. Snatches of German, Japanese, English and even Russian drifted from couples peering at their maps. An American woman showed me a postcard of the Rialto, stabbing it with her finger, and said slowly, in a loud voice, “How get there?”

There were almost no cheering Italians because Italians don’t live in central Venice any more. Walking around the city for five days, we could see easily enough where ordinary life, as expressed in the form of grocery stores, bakeries and so forth, ends and the international enclaves begin.

We’re not talking here of a few blocks round the Piazza San Marco. We’re talking about half of the six districts ­- “sestiere” — that make up the city.
Venice, which gave us the word “ghetto” five centuries ago, to mark the little island on its north-western edge where the Jews were required to live, is fast becoming the world’s first tourist ghetto, city-wide.

The writer Andrea di Robilant, author of a marvelous chunk of eighteenth-century Venetian romantic history in the form of his best-selling “A Venetian Affair”, confirms this. When he was writing that book three years ago di Robilant and his wife Alessandra lived in the Dorsoduro district, west across the Grand Canal. These days, said Andrea sadly, the Dorsoduro is dying.

When neighborhoods in Venice die it’s not because huge vulgar concrete condos replace delicate eighteenth century facades. The rules protecting Venice’s exterior appearance are rigidly enforced. Nor does death merely come in the vulgar form of t-shirt stalls featuring underwear with the genitals of Michaelangelo’s David painted on them (plentiful this year on the Lista di Spagna).

Death comes respectably, in the form of moneyed quietness. There’s no bustle of every day life, no local kids in the streets, few old folk, no little food stores or wine shops, just the bland, well maintained exteriors of high-end international homes, part of a portfolio that might include a condo in Mayfair, or Vail or Hana.

The locals have been moving out for quite a while. The city’s population is down to 70,000, from a high of around 200,000. Di Robilant now has a delightful apartment on the island of Guidecca, a district of Venice half a mile south towards the Lido from the main part of Venice.

Rich Venetians used to have summer homes there a hundred years ago. Then the island slowly nose-dived and became a dangerous slum. Clean-up began in the 1990s, with artists and writers ­ as so often ­ pioneering the rehab.

If the histories of zones like Manhattan’s SoHo are any guide, next usually come the fancy restaurants, the art galleries, the clothes stores, the antique stores. The rents soar and the artists and writers become real estate operators. The locals leave.

In Guidecca’s case di Robilant is optimistic. He thinks there are too many modest-income locals who won’t quit the island. I hope he’s right, but I fear the worst. At the east end of Guidecca there’s already the very high-end Cypriani’s, and at the west end a consortium including Hilton has just bought the vast old nineteenth-century mill.

Whines from tourists like me about all the other tourists have been a staple of travel literature for centuries. And tourists stick to a modest number of worn trails, as anyone hiking in Yellowstone knows well. In Venice in early July it’s hard to push through the crowds on the Rialto, but a quarter of a mile away in the Scuola Grande de San Rocco, the morning we were there, there can’t have been more than thirty people, looking at the Tintorettos that are among Venice’s greatest glories. Over towards the Arsenal, still one of the nicest parts of the city, there were maybe ten others in the tiny Scuola di San Giorgio, admiring the Carpaccios.

Most tourists seem to want to get to a well known object, put themselves and their partners in front of it, take a few snaps and move on. In the case of many Americans these days, trading fistfuls of scrawny dollars for muscular Euros, travel is a miserly affair, storing away a breakfast croissant for the thrifty lunch on a park bench.

For now, old Europe can creak at the seams with summer tourists. Soon there’ll be two million Chinese a year doing the Grand Tour, joining the Asians who fill three out of every five gondolas passing our hotel window (at $125 per couple, for half an hour). In the end, absent a really bracing plague or huge world depression, the biggest tourist destinations will have to develop some sort of rationing system.

The toxic effects of well-bred international money are more sinister. It’s easy to scare off the day-trippers. Shoot a few, as they did once in Jamaica and later in Luxor, and the place empties out for months, if not years. Money just keeps quiet. It’s not dangerous, in the way Guidecca was fifty years ago. But it’s turning cities like Venice into cemeteries.

 

 

 

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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