Carnevale is about to return, the ephemeral event of events, in a Venice that has a glorious past, a dramatic present and a nightmarish future. The fate of the lagoon city appears to be unequivocally set and inevitable. Beyond tourism, there is little or nothing. No other alternatives, be they economic, social, or organizational. The “vocation” to which the city has been subjected and reduced over the years is all here: in overtourism. There is no escape. It is difficult to retrace your steps and the revisit mistakes made over the years.
Beyond the good intentions and feeble will to reverse the trend, such as the very recent idea of limiting the size of tour groups allowed in the city to a maximum of twenty-five people, and requiring guides to work without microphones and speakers so as not to disturb the residents. As if that were enough… Nor are the tourist taxes sufficient, or the increase in the cost of public transportation tickets (nine euros) for tourists, non-residents and those who do not have the Venezia è Unica card – the cost of which has now doubled, going from fifty to one hundred euros, with a validity of five years. Possession of the card also gives those who are not from Venice the right to pay the same fees on public transportation as do Venetians, 1.50 euros per ride.
This is well understood in these days (the month of January) of stasis in tourist flows, which have slowed down and increasingly thinned out since the Christmas holidays, so much so that there are no or very few tourists in circulation (apart from the weekends). Venice is singularly empty, silent, accessible and livable, so businesses of different types, grades and specialties have seized the opportunity and decided by a large majority to take holidays and close down their activities until the end of January, when – soon – the fateful Carnevale 2024 will begin, scheduled from January 27th to February 13th. Seventeen days of revelry and earnings.
If there is no tourism, why open the doors of bacàri, sauce shops, groceries, restaurants, trattorias, souvenir shops, Friulian slippers, masks and even some hotels? Better to take advantage of the drop in flows, rest and wait for the right moment for recovery. Carnevale, that is.
Empty, the city is free and beautiful. However, the essential services seem to be disappearing, those that make it alive, lively, shared and even populated, even if the electronic sign positioned in via Garibaldi warns us that there are now more beds in the city than inhabitants: 49,474 against 49,146, per the numbers fixed January 13th. Even cultural activity is suspended: there are no exhibitions of interest or importance. Absolutely zero, while the opening of The Worlds of Marco Polo. The Voyage of a Thirteenth-century Venetian Merchant at the Doge’s Palace, on the occasion of the seven-hundred-year anniversary of the death of the “traveler of travelers”, is scheduled for April 6, immediately after Easter, just two months after Carnevale. All calculated, a single break of about a month, in January, to recharge the individual batteries. But once upon a time, until the end of the Seventies – before Venice became the tourist slot machine that it is today – the vacation season went from Easter, whether early or late, until the end of September after the exhibition on the Lido. Thus, there were six months of tourism and six months of respite, more or less, as the photographer Andrea Merola also documents in his photographic memoir, which is social, trade unionist, cultural, political, but also with a lot of writing, Venis Andergraun (I Antichi Editori Venezia, 2022).
But the city at least functioned during the six months of break from tourism. Here’s how it worked. Everyone didn’t go on vacation all together. Local shops closed for only one or at most two weeks, but in stages and with respect for those who lived there, the Venetians, who at the time lived there in far greater numbers than today. And without whom, the true connective tissue, the city is truly destined to die.
Paradox of paradoxes, in addition to the newsstands – which have gradually transformed into just souvenir emporiums without newspapers, also following the crisis of the latter – some old taverns, trattorias and restaurants, typical popular places of the lagoon and city sociality are also closing one after the other. And the empty city, devoid of its tourist masses, also shows itself in all its ghostly beauty as an empty backdrop. Inside and behind, above and below. A mass of uninhabited buildings and abandoned houses, even in their structural condition, in the middle of the historic center as well as in the less traveled districts. Who will ever renovate them, together with the buildings and the heritage of its industrial archeology which is slowly disappearing into the city, or will be able to afford to do so, if not banks, insurance companies, large industrial or construction groups, trusts and real estate empires? Bodies, structures, companies with solid and ample economic means, potentates ready to invest in their transformation. And in that of the city, in every sense. This can only favor depopulation, incentivize the change in zoning use of spaces and properties, and therefore lead to the consequent increase in sales and rental prices. Between B&Bs, Airbnb and short-term rentals, it’s all in favor of income, of position, of those who have the assets.
However, the main restorations, in general, are not for residential use, but for museum and exhibition purposes. The Biennale also has its faults and responsibilities, as it continually takes away spaces, resources, and heritage from the city in flesh and blood, especially from the less structured residents and younger people. Those among the latter, university students, doctoral students, architects, artists or scholars, are looking for a space to live, work, organize on their own, to delve deeper and research or even just to create associative places for use and consumption by the social fabric of the city, in an attempt to reunify it. These people must compete for the few available and usable places, especially on the lower floors, with those who have more resources and offer greater guarantees or have greater income and economic availability. Money. So, in the end, the potentates always win.
The so-called world of “curators” is constantly looking for available places to hold events or for guesthouse use, offering out-of-market prices in order to obtain them for its own purpose. This leads owners to opt for these decidedly more advantageous offers, more profitable with just a few months of rent, to the detriment of all other requests and offers, including residential. It’s gentrification, baby! A real war. With tens and hundreds of victims, especially among the youngest people, students forced to rent houses for two, three thousand euros and fill them with roommates in order to lower the individual cost of each bed, which is now valued at over €500 for a single person per month.
While the IUAV, the Institute of Architecture of Venice, contributed years ago to the effective restoration of the Crociferi, the former Jesuit convent in the campo of the same name between Santi Apostoli and Fondamenta Nuove, transforming it into a residence for students, professors, which it has now acquired from the Combo chain, also present with similar structures in Milan, Turin, Bologna, Assicurazioni Generali has seen fit to restore the Procuratie Vecchie above the porticoes, on the right side of Piazza San Marco, behind the Basilica, transforming them into a useless and intellectually incomprehensible and rarely played little psychological game entitled A World of Potential, The Home of The Human Safety Net (entrance ticket for non-residents is nine euros – like a vaporetto ticket for those who don’t have the fateful card. Venice is unique – but free for Venetians and metropolitan citizens, according to the declarations on the site), i.e. an interactive exhibition on the third floor of the building focused on “personal awareness”. The experience is defined as “a fun and playful way for visitors to understand and connect with their character strengths, also allowing them to see the best qualities in the people around them”: creativity, perseverance, gratitude, curiosity, hope, social intelligence, hard teamwork, key words and concepts translated into 16 analog and digital interactive installations “for reflection and self-analysis”. A complicated divertissement, an exaggerated expenditure of capital, a very overelaborate restoration, questionable from an aesthetic and even and ethical point of view, beyond the original intentions and declared purposes.
Yet Venice is not completely dead, it is alive and well. If nothing else for its students – the true soul and resource of the city – who populate it, live in it, enjoy it, participate in its life and economic activity and fuel its ingenuity, ideas and research in all fields and disciplines, very often deciding to stop here and stay to live, and even take up residence here. This is a demonstration that they love and are attached to this city more than anyone else. Certainly much more than its own institutions, both political and cultural, which only think about exploiting revenue. Historical, aesthetic and positional. Even if students are also treated like meat or “tourist goods”.
In this regard, it is worth mentioning the ambitious Venezia Città Campus project or Studying Venice, if you prefer, which has “the objective of creating a center of knowledge and excellence in the lagoon city capable of attracting, training and retaining young talents with advanced knowledge, through the quality of the educational offering and research, but also of related services in the context of an inclusive, modern and sustainable community”. A memorandum of understanding was signed for this project at the end of last June at Ca’ Farsetti, municipal headquarters, between Mayor Brugnaro, the rectors of the universities and the president of the Venice World Capital of Sustainability Foundation, the former minister of public administration Renato Brunetta.
This is a pilot project that aims to establish new relationships between universities, businesses and the local area, contributing to strengthening the right to study, innovative teaching and paths that are able to look to the future, that are able to anticipate the needs of the business world and of the society in which young people will have to look for work once they finish their studies,
We read in the programmatic intentions of the project.
In short, the agreement points
at the creation of a campus city of international scope, spread between the historic city and the mainland (in Venice, in the areas of interpenetration between the port and the city, in Mestre, in the area of via Torino, and in Porto Marghera, around the areas of the Vega Scientific Park) through the attraction of students, researchers, teachers and administrative staff from all over the world, [as well as pushing for] an increase in the resident student population.
The mayor said on June 29,
With the attraction of human capital, the arrival of new investments will be automatic, to which we must give the utmost confidence in respecting the rules. It’s time to move forward, roll up our sleeves, face the challenge for a Venice that grows and renews itself for the future of the new generations,
“Venice has an opportunity. From the tourist monoculture, an economy with low added value, we can really hypothesize about rethinking the socio-cultural fabric of the city”, Brunetta added and emphasized. But seen in this way, the operation presents itself rather as a hypothesis of a “substitution”: exchanging the exit of its residents for the entry of students, researchers, professors to whom – treated like tourists – to rent homes, residences or ad hoc guesthouses at the appropriate time. Of course, young people in Venice can contribute to “revitalizing” it, there is not the slightest doubt, but for how long? Permanently or temporarily, occupying beds seasonally or permanently? We don’t know. Or will the guesthouses, once disused in the summer, when students, teachers and researchers return to their official residences or go on holiday, be introduced into the seasonal tourist market circuit…? Venezia Città Campus is an operation which appears more nominal than real. A bit of decoy, a bit of propaganda, a bit of smoke and mirrors… Where Venice risks always remaining the same old “shop window”, where goods and products are displayed season after season, setting trends, but where the shop windows change only for scenography, every three months.
What seems to continue to be missing in the planning is the actual market, the structural one, beyond purely day-tripper tourism or the constantly changing tourist market. What does market mean? The reflection to be made is all here. Take, for example, the culture sector. Beyond providing seasonal employment to young students as a form of supplemental income to work as room attendants at the Biennale Gardens, at the Corderie or in museums as ticket office workers or perhaps even arrangers working as laborers for some exhibitions or, again, the entertainers for the interactive games at Generali’s A World of Potential, The Home of The Human Safety Net, what seems to be missing is Venice’s ability to have or create a “market”. In the field of art, for example. Paradoxically, looking at it from the outside, it would seem that the life of Venice was based or supported precisely on cultural production and the art market, or rather on these two economic sectors.
But that’s not the case. There is no production or market. Whether it’s art or anything else, excluding tourism, the true monoculture. At least it doesn’t consider its exhibition system an art market. But from a production point of view? For example, there are no large galleries or contemporary art fairs. But the same can be said to be true for music. Who does it? Where is it done, excluding the Conservatory or the Teatro La Fenice, or the Luigi Nono Foundation? There are no places where music is made or where one can perform, apart from the mainland, a bit in Marghera. What about the Arsenale project, for example? But the same can be said for theatre, regardless of the fact that the Biennale has a specific sector that deals with it. But what does all this give and what remains in the city? And who distributes the various productions that are eventually born and live in this city?
Meanwhile, the big investors at Benetton are more interested in investing in the renovation of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi to turn it into a super-luxury shopping center rather than investing in the production of culture on site. It’s the same discussion for cinema, beyond the catwalk and the red carpet during the ten or more days of the Festival at the Lido.
The same is true for those who manage Punta della Dogana or Palazzo Grassi, the French like François Pinault. Yet, while there is a prestigious institution – among the best in the country – such as the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, where can the young artists and painters who come from there exhibit their work? Who can they produce for? For which commission? And who will select them? In Venice, the suggestion is that only an event that is linked to tourist production is of interest, and there is very little interest in whether something structural remains, “beyond the structure that must produce the ephemeral”.
Yet there is no lack of raw material for production, starting from the possible and imaginable spaces; the abandoned areas of the industrial area of Porto Marghera, the old, disintegrating Austrian forts, the Arsenale itself in the lagoon, spaces on the islands, Punta Sabbioni, Cavallino, Treporti, Lido. It is a long, strenuous, bottom-up job, made up of meetings and discussions between large and small, spontaneous, organized, structured social and cultural realities, which are not lacking. Which should be connected with the University and research. Between work and training, whether high or low. But who is interested? Not the city of easy tourist income that makes the city rich but at the same time plunders it, stealing its future – unlike what happens in cities like Milan, Turin, Bologna, and Rome itself.
If Venice is a fish (Venezia è un pesce), as Tiziano Scarpa says and writes, it is not an island. He lives in a metropolitan context which is also created by the mainland, to which Venice has wanted to remain strongly attached, despite the numerous referendum attempts in these past four decades that wanted to separate it… Politics, instead of shrugging its shoulders, even if contradicted and denied by the popular vote on separation, should instead be able to read the indications it has been given by those who live in Venice and also by those who, for the most diverse reasons, have had to or wanted to leave Venice.
Cover image: Demonstrators belonging to the Social Housing Agency and other local associations during the demonstration for the right to residential housing in the historic center of Rialto, November 18, 2023. © Andrea Merola
Translation by Paul Rosenberg
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