Aina and I were touring northern Italy last week. I’ll be doing word tastings with pictures for several of our stops. Venice first.
A map of Venice, in its barest outlines, looks to me like two hands grasping each other in help or contention, or two fish trying to eat each other. Below them is a third thing, a table or piece of cloth or another fish swimming past.
But most people don’t think of the map first when they think of Venice. They think of a grand illusion, the ageless fantasy of a city rising from a lagoon, of glorious palazzi on the Grand Canal, of romance and gondoliers and music and masks and carnivalesque inversions and art and novels and golden light and water, water, water.
They may think of narrow alleys and passages between buildings and a myriad of small bridges.
They may think of the innumerable wooden pilings, permanently submerged, that every building in the city rests on. They probably think of buildings sinking and pavements flooding, problems that are only going to get worse unless – and possibly even if – hands join other hands to apply technology.
People who have been to Venice in the warmer months think of people, endless throngs of people. Especially near St. Mark’s Square you almost can’t get through at times.
The city gets 18 million visitors a year. That’s an average of nearly 50,000 a day (if you assume each visits for just one day, which not all do) – and you know that it gets rather fewer in the winter months, and far too many in the summer months.
The current population of Venice, the island part (not the mainland part), is 55,000.
That’s a third of what it was at its peak, or even a century ago. There’s not much work to do other than the tourist trade there now – not so much fishing, let alone marine conquest – and even people who work in tourism may find it better to live on the mainland and rent out such property as they own in old Venice to tourists. Or sell it to hoteliers.
Venice is being invaded by tourists. Venice is being invaded by water. But Venice is there in the first place because of invasion. The Veneti people took refuge on the islands in the lagoon to escape Germanic and Hun invasions. It was a good move. The citizens formed a republic and maintained independence for a long time. Venice became a military and commercial power, aided strongly by its location – and by its grasp of how to band together to work with the surrounding sea. Finally it was conquered by Napoleon, and then became part of Austria, no wait, Napoleon’s kingdom, wait, no, back to Austria. And finally it joined the Kingdom of Italy, which later became a republic. But through all of it, it accumulated wealth and culture and art.
Many of the bridges between Venice’s 118 islands owe their presence to the Austrians, who preferred to go around on horseback rather than use boats. I don’t think you can ride horses around Venice now. But you can spend all day in Venice without getting into a boat, although boats will still get you from A to B quicker over any real distance (not the gondolas, though – those are slow and expensive and for show; getting places requires motors).
And Venice is most archetypally a city of canals – when another city is called “the Venice of [wherever]” (have a look at how many cities have been called “the Venice of the North”), it’s not because it’s built on wooden pilings, not because it’s pretty, not because it’s sinking, not because it’s beset with impossible throngs of tourists. It’s because it has canals.
The irony of it. Canals are usually things dug into land, interruptions in the prevailing earth. In Venice, the water was always there; the land was built up between it, reinforcing marshy islands by dredging earth from below the water, pounding wooden pilings in to hold up the buildings. Hands joining hands, working together and taking together. Where there were fish, there are humans. The grand illusion and ageless fantasy – still there…