For some time now Venice has been able to see in Neal E. Robbins something more than one of its many “foreign friends.” For the city that he has known and loved he provided on Dec., 10, 2019 a lucid newspaper article in The Guardian, one that was able to give to English-language readers a dramatic evaluation of the problems faced by Venice. You would have read that the second major acqua alta of Nov. 12, 2019, the aqua granda 2.0, stuck a terrible blow to an organism already on its knees due to the Mose affair, the cruise ships and the devastation wrought by overtourism.
Now Neal has dedicated to the city a work more extensive and complex with his Venice, an Odyssey, Hope, anger and the future of the city (La Toletta).
He defines the work as non-fiction, but in reality it is a gripping narrative that falls between diary and reflection, between coming-of-age novel and in-depth report. It photographs and explains the fifty years in which Venice risks — for the first time — the loss of not only its physical self — houses, churches, palaces and monuments — but its “being a city”. That is to say, its living community of inhabitants.
It is the fifty years that separate the two points of crisis of “contemporary Venice”, which some consider the end of its history: the major acqua alta of 1966, the first aqua granda, and the 2018-2020 combination of the aqua granda 2.0 and the corona virus pandemic, a period that spans practically perfectly the author’s relationship with the city. That is, from Neal’s “first visit” to Venice at the age of seventeen in 1971 and his return in 2018, his (evidently never diminished) interest in the city helped him understand how it had changed through the words of those who have lived the events of these years.
Neal Robbins spent one year in Venice in 1971-72 as a guest of a family (father, mother and four children, and even after fifty years he still considers them his own parents and siblings). He was a key character in one of the pioneering cultural exchanges that, today, with much greater ease, brings young people from one end to another of the world.
At that age he had the chance to immerse himself in the world of Venice of that time, going out with the friends of his Venetian sister, taking outings on boats in the lagoon and attending Liceo Marco Polo high school as a member of class II-b, which I also attended.
We met not very often, back then. My head was into politics — beginning with changing the school as a way to begin changing the world. Also, having played basketball with the Reyer team, I was mad about this sport. When I learned that an “American” would be with our class for a year, I thought finally our class, with few males (and most interested in football), had finally a chance of doing well in the basketball tournaments. But Neal didn’t play basketball and didn’t get involved (or maybe we didn’t manage to get him involved?) in the United Political Collective. At that age, you are too taken by those things that “really interest” you to encompass any more… So I never developed a relationship with him that went beyond exchanges in class.
In the following fifty years, his Venetian family, his classmates and friends, we all went our various ways, Neal his.
In that time, he developed a curiosity about the world and the capacity to insert himself in the local situation and describe it with perspective and sensitivity, which perhaps contributed to bringing him here.
After university, decades of journalism: he started with a period in Hong Kong, and then he worked for news agencies in India and Washington DC, before teaching journalism in Chicago and Taiwan. After moving about the world for 20 years, he took a job as a foreign correspondent in London and settled down in Cambridge, where his wife works. Then he spent another two decades of family life, during which he was dedicated to more ordinary digital editorial activity.
But Neal had become Venetian for reasons noted by Giorgio Crovato in the preface:
It is not important where you are born or which culture you belong to: if a person understands this city he or she is Venetian. It’s a way of being, a way of existing, a way of perceiving the benefits of a city built on the water, a city that lives on the water, made its fortune and its myths on the water, and has always and will always share these benefits with whoever lives there or appreciates it when they go there.
And, as he says, his first encounter with Venice at age seventeen left him with “abiding questions.” even though he had had an opportunity to visit briefly as a tourist.
He was left with a desire to understand it in depth. The moment had arrived when (to use his words:
I found my children had grown up and a long-nurtured internet publication I had set up came to an end. I was free to return to see what difference all that time had made to the city. And so I did.
Wondering with his friends what had changed and why.
A precious work of inquiry on “the critical half century”
So there he was, “returning” and asking questions, investigating and writing, putting himself back into play, because the idea was to return not just to the city, but to the people, to the same people he had met at age seventeen and other new people. He aimed to to see things through their experience of how things had changed in Venice in the fifty years that separated the two “great crises”: that following the 1966 “aqua granda” and that of the “aqua granda 2.0” with the pandemic of 2020.
These two are also the moments that triggered (the crisis of 1966) and wiped out (the period between 2018 and 2020) the troubled development that he had grasped in his article in the Guardian in 2019.
And it is precisely this living character, so to speak, of “an inquiry with the perspective of time” that qualifies Neal E. Robbins’s contribution as a work that analyses and elaborates on the future of the city. It is an innovative contribution that puts together (with his capacity in exposition as a journalist and creativity in narration) the eyes of a foreigner and the heart of a “Venetian”.
Perhaps it is not by chance that the book comes out in the La Toletta edition, which in 2020 has published two important books (the first by Giovanni Benzoni e Salvatore Scaglione, and the second by Benzoni).
Sotto il segno del Mose — Venezia 1966-2020 (Under the shadow of Mose — Venice 1966-2020) — a lucid examination that explains why and how the then corrupt Consorzio Veneziano had an absolute domination of the city for such a long time.
Del Caranto della Laguna (Of the muddy edges of the lagoon), is the response of 88 Venetian men and women to the question of “if and how the rebirth of this city is still possible”.
However, this book has an additional element: the liveliness of the opinions does not end at the (understandable) complaints about what doesn’t work or grumbles about the fact that politics doesn’t do what it should (attitudes that are held by many Venetians — and also many Italians…).
Because the author knows how to channel his pleasant and informed narration to make it assume the character and the form of a real and proper inquiry, one that involves 150 people. He does it while untangling the story in 28 steps and a final “retracing the footsteps of history.”
This is possible first because he has retained and cultivated from his “first visit”, some good friends that help him satisfy his curiosity with their direct responses and by helping him widen the range of his network.
If it is true that from this book emerges a fascinating picture of the “report on the transformation of Venice and its system (of water and land)” in this critical half century, this is because Neal has the capacity to know what questions to ask and how to ask them. Always unifying and keeping the narrative going, with his point of view and reflections, which mature through the network of relations and exchanges on the street, in houses, in historically and environmentally symbolic places, while rowing boats and over dinners and over an infinite number of caffès and spritz drinks.
Advice for the reader: Enjoy the parts and understand the whole
The reader can keep the book by their bed (or in a bag) and read an episode from time to time, based on what chapter titles and subtitles arouse their curiosity (the list is given in the summary). And if that is not enough, you can always read a little further. Or, you can read the chapters in order, from beginning to the end.
In either case, in the end the connections of the “parts” will be clear as will how each piece makes up a necessary part of a single mosaic.
It doesn’t seem to me useful to give examples here, or quotes or to group the 28 scenes: from the parts of the book that matured on water to those of land, from the historical-artistic chapters and on Venetian humanism to those on today’s problems and on the necessary and difficult solutions (many mostly open), from chapters originating from meetings with old friends and classmates to those created starting from meetings with personalities from the world of culture and politics…
Whatever keys to the text you choose, the volume will certainly be of great interest, whether you are Venetian and/or someone who knows the city. You will find — as happened to me in certain locations and situations — you are discovering new aspects or reading of things with new eyes. Or, if you are coming to the city for the first time and you know it only from a distance and/or you want to see what it would be like to visit, even for an hour, virtually, you will be transported in what is both a simple and complex way into its story, beauty, art and culture, but also amongst its problems, not like what you read in the press or see on TV, but in the way they are experienced by that those who live with them and come to terms with them.
And this is the proof that the author is a “foreigner” who has become Venetian…
The “return home” of Ulysses.
Is it still possible to subdue the suitors of Venice?
In this sense I believe someone has talked of a “Venetian Ulysses” because he was thinking of a curious traveler who feels the need to “venture” and the even stronger need to “return”.
In his journey, from place to place and intellectually, Neal Robbins left very young from Chicago, to “take off” from Venice, returned to finish his studies in the United States, then lived for a long time in Asia, to finally settle down in England.
And, in the end, he felt a need to come to terms with the city that “launched” him and that he had not forgotten.
Notwithstanding all the inevitable differences — changing times and means of transport, substituting international airplanes for galleys that roam the Mediterranean and go even further — Neal Robbins embodies a modern version of the Venetian voyagers in the golden age of the republic. He has perhaps always thought of a “return” and, built it a little at a time, with the help of his navigator “mates”. In this case Venetian men and women accompanied him: to the bar for a caffè, walks and dinners, rowing and hikes, responding to his questions and giving him new ideas.
In the end, “Venice, an Odyssey” tells us that Ulysses has returned. Now it remains to be seen if he succeeds in “freeing Venice from its suitors”. That depends on us Venetians, if we want and know how to help him… Neal Robbins does not use a bow and arrow but he offers us an in-depth look at the fifty-years of degradation of Venice as a city, a period that, combined with climate change, has exposed it to the risk of sinking, not only and not mainly by sea-level rise but from a monoculture of tourism that takes over everything (and pulls everything else down to ruin).
Until before 12 November 2019 Venice, a city of theatre, was staging the bad comedy that was its external face, with the inhabitants, one-time protagonists in the play, ever more destined to play the extras. It was a spectacle of “extracting” money based on values increasingly linked to speculative profit, with an external director and some local actors, ranging from profiteers to government officials.
Then arrived the “horrible biennial of 2019 to 2020,” that from the acqua grande 2.0 and the pandemic continues until the present day and has upset tourism in Venice and globally.
I have already said what I had to say about the opportunity and necessity of understanding the lessons and of moving from the monoculture of tourism to a diversified economy.
In this regard, this precious collection of Venetian stories, culture and adventures is worth reading because it is written well and because it can help Venice live.
I hope it has a wide readership abroad in the English-speaking world, given that it has come out in English, as well as Italian, and the author is a respected journalist who has written for The Guardian. But I hope it can also be distributed and read in other languages because it explains authoritatively to the world (not through the “usual protests” of the Venetians — that always end up either too commercial or too environmental, according to who is criticizing them) that today Venice needs much more attention (and perhaps resources) internationally.
This is not just to save the monuments, but also for the survival of the city as a social body. It is a city that should be kept dry, but faces the enormous problems of Mose, a project that suffers from problems ranging from corrosion of the hinges to wave resonance, as it works to achieve equilibrium of the lagoon. But Venice needs to develop work from within that goes beyond tourism, for example, linked to culture, environment and research and to artisanal work and local commerce. The houses inappropriately reserved for tourists must be returned to residential use because saving the remaining Venetians and revitalizing the city with the entry of more younger residents is — as is stated in the narrative — the way to renew the lifeblood of the city.
Opening image: John Singer Sargent, San Giuseppe di Castello, 1903
Venice, an Odyssey (English edition) and Venezia, un’odissea (Italian edition) is on sale at the La Toletta book store, Dorsoduro, 1214, 30123 Venice. [For information 041 52 32 034 or firstname.lastname@example.org]. Shortly they will also be available on the main online book sellers.