I sat in Hotel Caneva’s small reception area, chatting to Stephano, the night time receptionist. Water, displaced by passing boats, lapped up against a rudimentary wooden barricade, erected to keep guests from the slimed over steps leading down to a small canal. Gondoliers, standing stiff above tourists, shouted echoing “Hoys!” as they twisted blind past the building’s dark exterior.
Stephano had worked in London, which he explained his easy, if imperfect, use of English. “I remember,” he told me, “when I arrive, I tell the owner of the hotel that I will be staying two years. He did not believe me,” he laughed, “but I stay two years. Exactly!”
A marble pillar, not far from where we sat, bore the mark of winter’s high water: when the reception desk is abandoned at high tide and the furniture taken upstairs, to be returned at low tide. “Hard work,” I remarked. Stephano shrugged. “When I was a boy, 13… maybe 14, the water rose to two metres inside San Marco. In Firenze… in Firenze it was worse.” Guessing his age, I assumed he was referring to November 1966, when the Arno burst its banks and flooded central Florence, damaging and destroying a fortune of art. The same heavy rains had obviously raised the water level in Venice’s secluded lagoon.
I asked if he was from Mestre, the start of the mainland, called terra firma by locals. “No,” Stephano told me, sitting straighter. “I was born in Venice, I live in Venice, and… I think I would like to end my life in Venice.”
Venice is sinking. These three words, meant literally, are being quickly imbued with hidden meanings, and, as quickly, becoming clichéd. Venice is sinking, literally, because fresh water has been drained from its underground aquifers, leaving parched and contracting sand below the city, and because, each year, global warming raises the high water mark on its glut of crumbling historical mansions. Venice is sinking, metaphorically, below the weight of its own history.
The Queen of the Adriatic, inheritor of Ancient Greece and Rome, the city state that sacked Constantinople and controlled the spice trade, has become little more than an open air museum, dependant on tourists and wealthy foreign donors, who dole out the fortune required for its maintenance, happily exchanging chunks of their wealth for a parcelled piece of Venetian glamour.
Its residents are leaving, and character changing. The city’s population, which peaked at 171 000 in 1951 – when Ezra Pound and Peggy Guggenheim were residents – has dropped to under 62 000. An estimated seven million tourists visit each year, in groups of up to 100 000 each day – outnumbering locals by almost two to one. Property is extortionate and shops selling knickknacks to tourists have crowded out local retailers, pushing up the price of essentials. A people who once felt a refined sense of local identity, who could tell what part of their small island someone came from by their accent, must now travel to far ends of the city for a decent baker.
Although a dead and bloated rat had floated past our dangling legs at the same rudimentary wooden barricade, Claire and I felt quite smug. Most budget travellers choose more affordable accommodation on the mainland: we had found an affordable hotel, for €10 more than Mestre’s best offer (the cost of two vaporetti, the Venetian equivalent of a bus), in a grand old building on the water’s edge. We opened our shutters in the morning to inadvertently enter photographs, being taking from the succession of bridges beyond our window. Leaving, after a perfunctory breakfast served by the owner, we had only to weave our way through a few short alleys to arrive, depending on our direction, at St. Mark’s Square or the Rialto Bridge.
Venice is, to me, not a city of sites. It is a city to walk through, smelling the absent exhaust fumes, hearing the absent throb of traffic, looking out all the time for less apparent details – until a wrong turn leads to the dead end of a bridgeless canal, forcing you to contemplate the rippling water and buildings reflected by the changing angle of the sun.
John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, chose to open his book about Venice, The City of Falling Angels, with the words of Count Girolamo Marcello: “The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm – the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves…”
Venice remains close to nature. The ancient waterways and mouldering palaces, which tourists find so beautiful, have prevented the city from expanding and fully entering the modern world. Venice is perhaps the finest achievement, and remnant, of pre-industrial society.
It seems strangely fitting that the environmental consequences of rapid industrialisation, which left Venice largely unchanged, should now threaten it with a slow, drowning death. Crack scientists have been asked, with the help of large budgets, to ensure that the city does not disappear beneath the water. The MOSE project, which will be completed by 2011, intends the construction of inflatable pontoons at the lagoon’s three entrances, basically creating a seasonal dam. The project is controversial because the stagnant water and walls will damage a fragile ecosystem. Others favour pumping water back into the aquifers, to raise Venice, but this could further destabilise the city’s foundations.
Literally, Venice still floats. Scientists and money will probably keep it above water for many years. But should Stephano die in Venice, fulfilling his wish, he will be buried at San Michele, the tiny island that serves as the city’s cemetery. Space is, typically, at a premium: after about 12 years his corpse will be exhumed and cremated, or reburied on the mainland, to make way for a generation of dead Venetians that, sadly, may never come.
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