Letter on Venice

Not a letter from Venice, but a letter on Venice: for during the two months I passed in Venice, I never really felt like I was doing anything from Venice, though my sense of being on Venice never dissipated. On clear days, which proved exceedingly rare, I was struck by how closely the Alps hovered beyond the plains of the Veneto; on foggy days, which proved the rule, I was reminded that the city is nothing if not a series of loosely connected marshy berms soaking in the northern reaches of a fickle tidal lagoon.

Snow, already a quiet phenomenon in any setting, falls even more quietly in Venice. When it rains above a dry St. Mark’s Square, the stones echo with the sound of falling water, and when it rains above a flooded St. Mark’s Square, the floodwaters amplify the sound of the downpour. But when it snows there are no plows to be heard, and scarcely even a shovel. Reluctant schoolchildren in Venice do not pray to the god of snow: they pray to the god of fog. For snow has a minimal effect on the circulation of people on foot or by boat, whereas a sustained fog can alter or even shut down water traffic, confining the amphibious Venetians and their bewildered visitors to a most peculiar land habitat.

Rather than living by the Rialto, or along some other stretch of the Grand Canal, I stayed in the far eastern end of the city, on the island of San Pietro di Castello, which was described to me as one of the few remaining instances of the real Venice. There were scare quotes placed around either “real” or “Venice”; I can’t remember which. The land route to San Pietro runs along Via Garibaldi, a wide swath of street—a filled-in canal, really—unlike anything else in the city. At one end of the street the vista opens to the Campanile of St. Mark’s Square, the Santa Maria della Salute, and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore; at the other end the canal re-commences with a picturesque vegetable boat. The narrow walk beyond leads to a wooden bridge for San Pietro, the seat of ecclesiastical authority in the city for many centuries, far removed from the temporal locus of power at the Ducal Palace.

Is Venice modern? At a glance, the scarcity of automotive traffic would seem to suggest against it. Thus a young Jan Morris, writing as James Morris, found “the idea of Venice to be unreconcilable with the modern world.” But was Venice modern, at one point? Seen in another key, the early separation of church and state would seem to earmark the Venetian Republic as an early harbinger of what Jennifer Scappettone calls the “digressive invention of the modern.”

At the crux of the transition from the medieval to the renaissance, Venice encapsulated the contradictions of capitalism and the contradictions of modernity with complete indifference: once upon a time, it was just as mercenary and just as modern as anywhere else on earth. Pilferer and pillager in its own day, Venice didn’t wholly escape Napoleon, or the ravages of time, but it was largely spared from the bombardments of Europe during the World Wars. Even so, it was at the very eye of the hurricane in both conflicts: it was from here that legions of Italian soldiers departed to the Alpine killing fields of the First World War, and it was here that Hitler and Mussolini first met in 1934.

Venice is also at the center of the poem that tried to make it all cohere. The Cantos of Ezra Pound are essentially Venetian poems; he lived and died in Venice, and is claimed by the city as its own. His grave, on the island of San Michele, is tucked away in an uassuming spot, and bears no epitaph; his house, in Dorsoduro, is even harder to find. At the Guggenheim Museum I was given bad directions to the site at Calle Querini; at the nearby Libreria Toletta they had no idea where to direct me. Pound’s obscurity is very un-Venetian; more characteristic and more conspicuous are the commemorations to Lord Byron on the Grand Canal and to John Ruskin and Joseph Brodsky along the Zattere. Brodsky’s grave, not far from Pound’s, attracted far more attention than Pound’s during the hour I passed in the vicinity: for the ten visitors who sought out Brodsky’s grave, and found it with little difficulty, there was only one who went looking for Pound’s—and she required my assistance to find it, after I myself had spent ten minutes on the errand.

In his day Pound was a frequent visitor to the world-renowned Biennale, which brings together a surfeit of art and architecture from around the world, or, at least, from the more established portions of the world: the graffiti on the canal wall, tagged in a thoroughly Poundian spirit, read VECCHIA GUARDIA. If much of this work is inspired, more of it is barely up to standard, and some of it looked to have been thrown together rather hastily. The Biennale thus functions like a sort of Olympiad of the art world: Australia and France offered sophisticated entries programmed in painstaking detail and projected on high-definition video displays, while Egypt, Poland, and Uruguay resorted to more quotidian effects like gold-plated metal, wooden pencils, and calfskin rugs.

Devoted in alternate years to art and to architecture, this year’s theme, “People Meet in Architecture,” offered a formulation nearly sonorous enough in its inelegance to reach the sublime heights of Japanese English. Perhaps the Biennale draws a combination of the blasé and the jaded, but given their contours and their peculiarities, it was remarkable how little attention was paid to the national pavilion spaces themselves. For an event that consisted in large part of people milling about and looking at models of the exteriors and interiors of buildings, scarcely any energy was expended in looking at the actual exteriors and interiors of the buildings that housed the exhibition itself.

Among the most resplendent of the national spaces was the Russian pavilion, constructed in 1914 and restored just this year. It made a striking contrast to its immediate neighbor, the Venezuelan pavilion, which stood barred, locked, and vacant, whether by decree or mere happenstance. Another striking contrast between neighbors came in the form of the Korean and Japanese pavilions: while the Korean entry celebrated the “integral city” to be found in the apartment lifestyles of Seoul, and posited a turn to democracy via the smart-phone crowd-sourcing of customized interior design, the Japanese entry scrutinized the “metabolic city,” comparing and contrasting the urban fabrics of monarchism and capitalism, while provocatively suggesting that “‘urban public spaces’ are authoritarian devices for suppressing people.”

As the 20th century taught us, and as we’ve been reminded in the months since the Biennale concluded: It’s one thing to give people more control over their bedrooms and their living rooms, quite another to give them more control over their squares and streets.

The Biennale offered many other attractions, from an extraordinary cloudscape in the Arsenale to an ark of Mediterranean foods and spices in the Greek Pavilion, but the star was Rem Koolhaas, of Rotterdam’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture, who offered up an incendiary critique of historic preservation. Noting that 1 percent of the earth’s surface has now been designated a world heritage site, Koolhaas predicted further annexations of this type to come, and even posited the emergence of “prospective preservation,” whereby edifices might be preserved before they have been manifested in physical form. Perhaps the wryest note of the exhibit came in Koolhaas’s curt rhetorical question: “Should China save Venice?”

Anyone familiar with the historical record will recall that Venice did not save Constantinople. Quite to the contrary, Venice in its most r
esplendent key was built upon the spoliation of the Byzantine capital, described by Brooks Adams in The Law of Civilization and Decay as “one of the most awful sacks of the Middle Ages.” And yet, while not bound by precedent to save Venice, the Chinese certainly seem taken with the city some 800 years later: it’s common to witness flotillas of ten or twelve gondolas drifting down the grand canal, with groups of four or five Chinese to a boat, being serenaded by the strains of a single cantiere launched on yet another rendition of “Santa Lucia” or “Volare.”

Gondoliers aside, Venice would not be Venice without the sack of Constantinople, and the sack of Constantinople would never have come off without a fearsome navy. In this respect, the most revealing exhibits in Venice are not to be found on the walls of the Accademia, or the Ca Rezonnico, or the Palazzo Mocenigo, but rather at the Museo Storico Navale. When one reckons with the Venetian Republic as a naval power, one realizes that Venice was never defined by its immediate environs alone, but by a web of connection spanning from Trieste to Ravenna, from Treviso to Verona, from Spalato to Zara, from Corfu to Crete, and on into Marco Polo territory. The whole of the Adriatic was the Gulf of Venice, the Adriatic was the key to the Mediterranean for the Europe of the Crusades, and the Mediterranean was the key to the Holy Land and to the Asian trade routes beyond it. To say as much is to say nothing new, but simply to marvel at how thoroughly rail and air travel has undone so much of it.

There are famous topographical namesakes in California and Louisiana, there are micro replicas of the city in Las Vegas and Macau, there is a postindustrial fragment in Luxembourg, near Esch-sur-Alzette. But perhaps the most impressive faux Venice of all never came to pass. In 1990, a proposal to build a second Venice off the coast of the historic city received serious consideration as the would-be centerpiece for a bid to host Expo 2000. That plan was eventually scrapped, and the bid failed, but the idea was sound in conception. For if a second, newer, more fabulous and more resplendent city was to be built alongside Venice itself, one wonders if the original Venice would still hold sway, or if the copy would somehow eclipse it, displacing Venice much as Venice displaced Torcello, and relegating the historical Venice to the status of a sort of quasi-Murano.

Often it seems that Venice is a city of ghosts and guests. But ultimately, while one can learn about a city like Venice from the many famous residents and visitors who have left records of their impressions—from Casanova and Vivaldi to Ruskin and Wagner—such learning would be incomplete without a corresponding lesson from the ever dwindling number of contemporary inhabitants (whose number recently dipped below 60,000). In this second category falls Wolfgang Scheppe’s Migropolis, a brilliant two-volume set that describes its analysis of Venice as an “Atlas of a Global Situation.” Scheppe, an artist, designer, and philosopher, produced Migropolis in conjunction with artists and students from a small graduate workshop devoted to the “politics of representation” at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia.

Melding qualitative accounts with quantitative evidence, Migropolis is a seductive book not only for its photographs, but also for its charts, graphs, and maps, which cover a vast range of topics: air passenger traffic, billboards, cargo traffic, cruise ships, the nuances of global investment, the dimensions of human trafficking, and the militarization of the border, among many others. Following the lead of Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas, Scheppe and his charges extend the seminar-cum-case-study into a truly interdisciplinary sphere that should provide a model for works of cultural geography to come. As the recent work on culturomics by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Leberman Aiden demonstrates, the age of data has arrived. If one cannot depend on humanists to take data into account, one can only hope that more social scientists will make further forays into the humanities.

Data represents in Migropolis, but it does not rule. Juxtaposed with the numbers are suites of photographs devoted to city parks, cosplay, and street vendors, as well as interviews with numerous “case studies” of all ages, occupations, and origins, representing a wide swath of immigrant and tourist Venice. Along the way we meet an Albanian interpreter, an Egyptian pizza maker, a Jordanian kebab shop owner, a Senegalese glassmaker, and a Stateless student, among many others. They are some of the inhabitants—or, at least, some of the commuters—of the city of the poor, which Migropolis distinguishes from the city of the rich. Whereas the eleven nations that send the most tourists to Venice account for 61 percent of world GDP and 47 percent of world oil consumption, the eleven nations that send the most immigrants to Venice account for 1 percent of GDP and 2 percent of oil consumption. Once upon a time, the wealthiest residents of Venice feasted on meat, and the rest of the city fed upon the offal; today the economies are much more thoroughly segregated, and in fact the city of the poor no longer lives in the historic center of Venice at all. For the most part the city of the poor has been removed from the lagoon and on the mainland of the Veneto, stretching from Mestre to Padua and beyond.

As for the dozens of Chinese being serenaded in gondolas? Migropolis teaches us that most of Venice’s—and, indeed, much of Europe’s—Chinese diaspora originates from Wenzhou; reminds us that Venice was the site of the original situationist derive; and returns us to the century-old reverberation of Marinetti’s futurist call for the destruction of the city he decried as “past-loving Venice.” That reverberation is weakly heard today, for Venice seems to be loved in a proportion that is unrivaled by other major urban tourist destinations. While the proportion of inhabitants to visitors is over 20 to 1 in Paris, and just under 10 to 1 in London and New York, it is fast approaching parity in Venice, with the current ratio nearing 5 to 4.

Stat facts are nice, but essays are relatively scarce in Migropolis: in addition to Scheppe’s contribution, there are offerings from Giorgio Agamben, Valeria Burgio, and Angela Vettese. Agamben considers Venice as the representative site of the refugee, which he extrapolates as the default condition of the present moment. In an odd and ultimately empty gesture toward the rehabilitation of city-states along the lines of the Venetian Republic, he makes a pitch for “reciprocal extraterritoriality,” which would seem to be a self-negating proposition. Meanwhile, in identifying Venice as a “Generic City,” Burgio suggests that Venice is best taken, in the terms of Migropolis, as “a terrain of privileged observation from which one can infer global dynamics and anticipate trends.”

Is it really so? Has Venice become a city that tells us less about itself than it does about everywhere else? Does that make it a city like (or, rather, unlike) any other? Calvino’s Invisible Cities suggested as much, through the person of Marco Polo. But who needs to read? You could always travel to Venice and see for yourself: Carnival has just passed, but the next Biennale is always on the horizon. Of course, you need not take the trouble, for as Henry James famously noted, Venice “of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there.” The corollary must be that of all the cities of the world, Venice is the most difficult to visit upon arrival.

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