by Michael Stoessinger for Stern Magazine
The light, the canals, the Palazzi. Venice is wondrous and unique but now the magic of the city is about to become its curse
“Nothing in this world ever appeared to me as beautiful as this city that will one day be destroyed because of its beauty.”
Julien Green, Writer
The morning comes with all its glory. The waters of the Laguna are flat and calm, there is a slight breeze coming from the sea following the first rays of the sun that rises between the Doge Palace and the National Library towards the Piazza, swirl around and escape upwards. The Riva degli Schiavoni is immersed in reddish light, Canal Grande and Marcus Square are still in cool shadows. At the final table of Caffe Florian, towards Campanile, is sitting a group of Mexican tourists. They remain from the night before and are paying two musicians of the orchestra of the cafeteria since two hours for a private concert. On the table, there are bottles of red wine, coke, vodka and paper cups. The violin and clarinet player improvise „Contigo Aprendí“ by Mexican composer Armando Manzanero: „With you I learn to see the light at the other side of the moon”. In less than five hours, the world will sweat here and the masses will surge between Basilica and Procuratie. Will push and force itself through the narrow streets that were never meant for this. Passing Hermès and Bottega Veneta, Ermenegildo Zegna and Diesel. Leaving behind nameless shops which promise in their shopping windows „Tutto a 1 Euro. “ Chinese travel groups will stop in front of the displays of the discount shops and will meet their domestic export philosophy: Tutto made in China. On the piazza, at the narrow passages and the stairs to the bridges towards Rialto, there will be street vendors that boldly urge tourists to buy selfie-sticks. So that the individual at least finds some distance to itself while taking pictures.
However now, just after 5 am, the Mexicans own San Marco. The only event that disturbs the idyll is the fight for survival of a single dove that is being brutally attacked by the huge beak of a seagull. After a long fight, the dove manages to free itself and is fluttering close to the ground, followed by the seagull and now also a young Mexican that jumped up and is the only that is willing to help. Across the completely empty Piazza, he is running behind the fighting birds until they vanish into a narrow street. The bleeding dove, the screaming seagull, the screaming man. Then there is silence again, and the violin sets in: „Bésame, bésame mucho, como si fuera esta noche la última vez. “ Kiss me, as if tonight were the last time. “
Invasion and Exodus
He was born here, has never lived anywhere else and even wants to die and be buried here. On San Michele, the cemetery island. He travelled the world and has never found a city quite like his. Venice. He is licensed to judge: Stefano Boato teaches Urban Studies at the University of Venice. Now, at the beginning of June, he is correcting the final Diploma thesis, and then he is going to retire. “Venice is a city in the water that can only be experienced by foot or by boat. You leave home and start walking and you see people walking.”, says Boato. “You walk slowly, because it is narrow everywhere. You meet and greet people. This is how it was once and this was how it was meant to be. And today?” Instead of an answer, Boato removes the tarp from his little out boarder, checks the fuel tank and takes a long rudder blade into the boat. “You have to be right in the middle to see the problems of this city.” Boato lives in San Croce and far enough away from the train station, bus station and the main parking lot where the day tourists arrive. He navigates his boat through a picturesque side arm towards the Canal Grande, the main road of Venice. And just a few minutes later, nothing is like it was a moment ago. Vaporetti – the public waterbusses – , water cabs, gondolas, and in between numbers of small and bigger private boats. A hustle like in the center of Munich. Boato heads towards a palazzo, slows down the motor and points to the stairway. The lower stairs are under water. “They were made to arrive at the palazzi with dry feet. Nowadays, the water level is more than one meter higher. Moreover, this is not the end of the situation, since they are making the water streets still deeper and wider for bigger and bigger cruise ships. With dramatic consequences.” Die flow velocity increases, attacks the foundations, there is more and more high water, the infamous “Acqua Alta”. In 1996, Rome decided to construct a giant barrage at three lagoon inlets: the Mose-Project (see p.54). The government of Berlusconi handed the giant project to a private consortium – without public tenders. Part of the union of companies is also – surprise, surprise – Berlusconi’s company “Fininvest”. The costs grew to nearly six billion Euro since the start of the project in 2003. Nobody was able to keep an overview in the end, Venice mayor Giorgio Orsoni and 34 other politicians and building contractors were arrested in the meantime. The prosecution is investigating for corruption, money laundering and abuse of authority. Nobody knows when the project is going to start. In the meantime, Stefano Boato navigates into a small side canal towards Cannaregio, the most original area – if one could speak of originality in a city that dedicated itself to tourism and is now run over by it. “Until the mid-90s, industry, harbor business and tourism were in balance with city life.” Then, laws were drastically changed. Private accommodation was facilitated, flats were made into second homes, and second homes into holiday homes, and cruise ship tourism was boosted. “If I rent a flat to tourists, I can make more money within a few days than with the monthly rent of a venetian citizen.”
According to UNESCO, Venice is in clear and urgent need of a rich, diversified and sustainable cultural tourism policy and better tourism management that considers, first and foremost, the wellbeing of the local community. Every year, Venice is visited by approximately 26 million tourists, of whom just four million stay in Venice overnight, and only two million visit one or more cultural attractions, such as museums or art exhibitions. It was thus pointed out that tourism in Venice is not to be considered as ‘cultural’ at all; in fact, tourism in Venice could be better described as “free-riding on the city’s cultural beauty”. In all art cities, tourism is a key economic factor, but it needs to be dealt with wisely to avoid the devastating effects of mass tourism, which include, among others, pollution, congestion, gentrification and the crowding out of residents and non-touristic activities. With the rise in ‘do-it-yourself’ tourism, facilitated by varied accommodation offers and low-cost flights, and coupled with the lack of proper planning and management of tourism flows, Venice is attracting an unsustainable quantity of visitors that harms the city’s wellbeing. During ten days of the year, total demand amounts to more than 100,000 visitors per day. Peaks of 200,000 visitors on special occasions are no exception in a city like Venice that has about 56,000 habitants. In fact, during two-thirds of the year the number of visitors easily surpasses the social-economic carrying capacity of the city.