Tourism and Its Discontents. The Case of Venice

Image by Ricardo Gomez Angel.

It’s easy to see why tourists are annoying. You travel for change to a foreign city only to find it filled with people from your own country. And it’s not hard to see why excessive-tourism is very annoying. You can hardly make your way through the streets. As is very often noted, Venice suffers in an extreme way from this problem, for as a small city without any alternative economic base it depends upon the tourist economy. Florence and Rome are much-touristed cities supported by other activities, but Venice has become a Disneyland.

Long lines in the museums are annoying- and crowds in the streets, aggravating. As a traveler, I share these biases. Ideally I could wander freely surrounded by just the inhabitants of Venice. But of course, I would also like to use the internet to navigate and make restaurant reservations; and at my hotel, I would hope to find air conditioning and modern plumbing. Tourism in Venice thus involves a seeming contradiction. Visitors want to see the ancient city of legend, with as few changes in it as possible, but with modern conveniences.

Two most useful accounts of Venetian tourism are Venice, the Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World’s Most Touristed City by Robert C. Davis and Garry Marvin and Meredith Small’s Inventing the World,. Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization. Both of these intelligent books tend to treat Venice as a victim, as if the present state of tourism was imposed upon Italian by some foreign colonial power. No doubt that’s how excessive tourism feels. But if there are too many visitors, that’s because of choices which Italy has made. Already during the last years of the Republic, Venice, already a touristic center, failed to develop alternative sources of support. So now change is difficult.

Why do so many people choose to be tourists? Travel is frequently uncomfortable, commonly exhausting and often expensive. If you want to take a vacation, why not stop work and stay near to where you live? Why do so many people visit places where they will likely be disoriented and bewildered, and where they certainly will not feel at home? And of course where they create problems for their hosts? In Europe, in the eighteenth-century the Grand Tour was tourism for privileged men. But then, as Lynne Withey explained in Grand Tours and Cook’s Tours: A History of Leisure Travel 1750 to 1915 when the English middle classes became more prosperous, they too took tours. In the late twentieth-century, when Japan prospered, many tourists from that country visited the West. Recently, thanks to the new wealth of their country, Chinese tourists are found in Europe and North America. When they afford to travel, people from these otherwise diverse cultures enjoy foreign travel. Why do so many people from so many cultures enjoy being tourists?

That simple question is oddly difficult to answer. It’s understandable why business people travel. If you are learning a foreign language, you will want to travel. Art historians, historians and other scholars must travel to do their research. And it’s understandable when people whose ancestors were immigrants go aboard in search of their roots—African-Americans to Africa, Italian-Americans to Italy. But none of these concerns explain most tourism. Nowadays most leisure travelers have relatively little knowledge of the foreign cultures they visit. The usual tourist guidebooks offer very elementary information about Italy- describing its culture, food and history in brief summary. Englishmen went on the Grand Tour because going to Italy was thought be an essential part of a gentleman’s education. And also, no doubt, because young men enjoyed getting away from their families. Then in the nineteenth-century middle class tourism was inspired, in part, by emulation of the wealthy. But nowadays that tradition is become too distant to explain fascination with travel abroad.

Perhaps paradoxically, while there are so many tourists everywhere, it’s not easy to understand why people want to travel. When sometimes I question them gently, I’m surprised at how little these travelers know about the fascinating places that they see. I know very well why I visit Italy. When as a philosopher I wrote about art history, I wanted to see the famous artworks. But it’s not so easy to understand the experience of less bookish people. As has often been noted, the problem with tourism today is that too many visitors want to see just a few sights. At the Louvre, tourists come to view Mona Lisa, and often look at very little else. And in Venice, San Marco is absurdly overcrowded, which makes for a poor experience for everyone, while the Academia Museum is underpopulated. But no one seems to have any practical ideas about how to change this situation.

Sometimes, then, tourism is seen as essentially deplorable. And often the case against tourism seems to involve simple snobbery. An impoverished day-tripper is a tourist, while scholar come to do research is not. A recent memorial statement by Larry Gagosian about the abstract painter Brice Madden he represents reveals this point: “Brice was always a traveler but never a tourist.” Like Henry James, who abhorred the mobs of tourists in his Venice, Mr. Gagosian is a snob. Traveling is thought to be bold, admirable adventure, while tourism is just a middle class vacation activity. I too am a snob, for when eavesdropping I prefer that my fellow tourists are debating the political or artistic history. It’s a little discouraging to overhear them astonished to observe that there is water in the streets. But I am old enough to remember that I too once was a naive tourist. If you are not born privileged, you too may be uninformed when you first travel. But when I came to Venice in 1979, I bought Pietro Lorenzetti’s classic guide Venice and the Lagoon, and started walking.

There are two ways that you can learn about the history of another fascinating culture. You can read, and you can travel. The attractions of this time travel are easy to understand. How exciting it would be to attend the premier of Hamlet at the Globe; watch Leonardo work on his Last Supper; or witness the last supper. One obvious reason that Venice attracts so many travelers is its long, grand history. Visitors engage in time travel, seeing the place whose festivals were depicted by Gentile Bellini and other later fifteenth-century artists. And the city whose canals were presented in Canaletto’s eighteenth-century paintings. Visiting Venice thus is like viewing an historical films reconstructing Jane Austen’s novels. I suspect that even visitors who know little about the history of Venice enjoy the experience because of this way that it takes you, as it were, into the past.

Like history, art history gives us knowledge of the past. And in one obvious important way, history is distinctly different from art history. History describes past events, explaining why they happened. When, however, we look at an old work of art, we see into the past. Of course, Venice has been much rebuilt. But just as a tree is the same tree when it grows and ages; and a person the same person who is first a child, then an adolescent and finally an adult: so a city can change and still be the same city. Philosophers’ accounts of identity-over-time matter, for this arcane branch of analytic philosophy offers plausible theories of how change is consistent with the survival of trees, people and cities. Venice has changed a great deal, but the city you visit now is, in relevant ways, the same city in which Giorgione, Titian and Veronese lived and worked. This is one reason why travelers, from intellectually sophisticated scholars to the day trippers, visit the city.

Problems with the rebuilding of an old city are upscale versions of the familiar concerns created by restoration of artworks. Old paintings need to be restored, and there are very familiar debates about what procedure is best. Should the restorer reconstruct the original appearance of a painting or, rather, reveal the age of that object? My book on the art museum discusses this idea. The same concerns apply, in part, to the preservation of an entire city. This parallel between artworks and Venice can be extended. As has often been observed recently, the city of Venice is (or has become) itself a work of art. And so one visits Venice for the same general reason that one goes to see Mona Lisa: It is a great, much written about artwork. In his famous letter to Titian of 1544, written in his house on the Grand Canal Pietro Aretino said:

See first the buildings which appeared to be artificial though made of real stone. And then look at the air itself, which I perceived to be pure and lively in some places, and in others turbid and dull. . . . Oh, how beautiful were the strokes with which Nature’s brushes pushed the air back . . . separating it from the places in the way that Titian does when painting his landscapes. . . . Your brush breathes with her spirit, cried out three or four times: ‘Oh, Titian, where are you?’

Venetian painting inspired him to see the city as an artwork. Here I use this marvelous statement to make elliptically a claim that Venice is an artwork, an idea I will develop in detail in future texts.


Venice and its Lagoon by Giulio Lorenzetti is the classic guidebook. My book on the art museum: Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (2006). Pietro Aretino’s letter is quoted in his Selected Letters, trans, George Bull (London, 1976).

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.