But do we really give a damn about Venice?

Do we still care about Venice? Reflections on the sidelines of the dramatic tide that hit the city on the night of November 12-13.

In the long list of editorials that all the newspapers have dedicated in these hours to the drama of Venice, no mention has been made of a fact that dates back to the beginning of this year: on January 31, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, with a special decree, established the constraint of notable cultural interest on the Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Basin, St. Mark’s Canal and Giudecca Canal. This was a significant event, and not only for Venice, since, for the first time, the state notified a system of aquatic communication routes. In response, the Venice City Council approved a resolution to initiate an appeal to the Tar against the ministerial measures: in fact, it was believed that the ministry had invaded in an “unnecessary and ineffective” manner the competences on the protection of residents’ interests that should instead be attributed to the municipality. The late Edoardo Salzano, who dedicated much of his life to the preservation of Venice, interpreted the move by the municipality as its opposition to the protection of Venice. And the topic would come powerfully back into the limelight not even three months later, when a cruise ship struck a tourist boat in a frightening accident in the Giudecca Canal: many residents held the mayor against the municipality’s opposition to a measure intended to keep large ships away from Venice.

Episodes like this are dotted with the recent history of Venice, and at least for the moment the conditions do not seem to exist for a turnaround, for a change of mentality, for a reversal of the trend that would put the good of Venice and its citizens before the inevitable economic interests that the city attracts. Brodsky already spoke of this in his Foundations of the Incurables: everyone has some aim at the city, since nothing like money has “a great future ahead of it.” “rivers of words flow about the urgency of reviving the city, of turning the whole of Veneto into an antechamber to Central Europe, of putting the region’s industry into orbit, of expanding the Marghera port complex, of increasing oil tanker traffic in the Lagoon and therefore lowering the Lagoon’s seabed, of converting the Arzanà immortalized by Dante into an equivalent of the Beaubourg to make it the warehouse of the newest international junk, of hosting an Expo there in the year 2000, etc., etc. All these ciacole normally flow from the same mouth (and perhaps seamlessly) that blathers on about ecology, preservation, redevelopment, cultural heritage and whatnot. The purpose is always the same: rape. There is no rapist, however, who wants to pass as such or, much less, be caught in the act. Hence the mixture of goals and metaphors, of sublime rhetoric and lyrical fervor, that swells the mighty chests of honorable men as well as those of commendators.” And that was just 1989.

Since then the situation has certainly not improved. In thirty years, the historic center has lost almost thirty thousand inhabitants, from 76 thousand in 1991 to 52 thousand in 2018, mainly due to the development of an economic model that is incompatible with the aspiration to remain a city as such, that is, a place where a certain number of inhabitants are born, grow, live, work, and have access to certain services. Incompatible also by virtue of the fact that Venice has insurmountable limits, beginning with the fact that its territory is, for obvious reasons, unexpandable, and its building stock correspondingly limited. An article published a few months ago in Ytali explained well, examples in hand, how the reasons of tourism and income (areas and properties intended for hotel use or luxury residential projects, which no Venetian could afford) clash with the demand for services that a city should have (schools, parks, theaters, cultural centers). The result? “Venice,” writes the article’s author, Mario Santi, “is getting closer and closer to its ’death as a city.’” And, conversely, to the completion of its transformation into a tourist park.

Piazza San Marco sotto l'acqua alta

Some faint hope of salvation might come fromUNESCO, which, however, at the moment has proved impotent in the face of the problems gripping the city: it has not even managed to include Venice in the list of endangered properties (despite being clamored for this summer), a move that would be extremely useful to officially certify the risks that the city is running, and to open a serious discussion about what Venice needs to combatovertourism, depopulation, the alteration of the balance of the lagoon, and the economic interests that could suffocate it. The inclusion of a site in the Unesco World Heritage list should be an acknowledgement of its uniqueness and therefore its preciousness: on the contrary, we tend now to consider it as a kind of tourist stamp, a kind of starred guide of art and nature, at best good for planning a trip. But if we want the recognition to be meaningful again, pressure must be brought to bear to ensure that UNESCO does not hide the situation of Venice and declare, at last, its endangered status.

The profusion of platitudes about Venice that, in the so-called day after, have been repeated and will continue to be repeated (an uninterrupted flow from which, of course, the present contribution does not escape), had at least the virtue of reminding us, for the umpteenth time, that Venice the day before yesterday did not wake up battered because of thehigh tide, but because of decades of wrong and lethal choices. The first step toward safeguarding the lagoon city is to achieve this awareness. After that, the second is a question: but do we really care about Venice? Meanwhile, at the risk of stating yet another platitude, we can state one certainty: interest in Venice is not manifested by the trite rhetoric of beauty, by the usual, faint-hearted clichés about its atmospheres, by the heartfelt whining of day-after-day prefects. If we really care about Venice, the first way to show it is to have respect for it. Put in somewhat less obvious terms: the uniqueness of Venice lies above all in the fact that it has not yet become an “open-air museum” as perhaps many would have it, but fortunately it is still a living organism. Certainly assaulted, harassed, raped and wounded, but still able to breathe. In his book Non è triste Venezia, published last year, journalist Francesco Erbani spoke of a “city that resists,” of projects such as La Vida, a collective of residents of the historic center who have mobilized to save the Old Anatomy Theater at risk of alienation, and who continue to organize meetings and working groups to reflect on an alternative development model for the city. But resistance can also start from those who, while not from Venice, care about her: by informing, inviting awareness and understanding, avoiding pressure on the city (recall that, in 2018, CNN listed Venice as one of the tourist destinations to avoid: traveling to the city in the summer or during peak periods is now an experience bordering on masochism), and vice versa by lobbying policy.

A policy that, to give a signal, could right away adopt a relatively easy measure: the blockade of large ships in the lagoon. It will not be a decisive measure, because the protection of Venice also passes through other ways: investments on maintenance, on local defense systems and on the rebalancing of the lagoon, a model that avoids considering tourism as the only option for the city, the creation of spaces and services for citizens, the shifting of tourist flows. But it could be a way to inject confidence in citizens and anyone who loves Venice, to not let statements that so far have appeared more like catch phrases than clear stances fall on deaf ears, to show that, after all, even politics cares about Venice. Without something being done immediately, all talk about the importance of cultural heritage, the protection of Venice, the preservation of its assets and whatnot, becomes vacuous and useless chatter. Will the drama of these days, given its exceptionality and unpredictability, be able to lead us, if not yet to a reversal of the trend, at least to a discussion based on the assumption that Venice is everyone’s asset?

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