|If Venice's leaders have their way you'll see less of the above in Piazza San Marco, and more everywhere else in the city and the lagoon|
History repeats itself--Marx famously claimed in his essay "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon"--"first as tragedy, then as farce."
Well, maybe in the 19th and 20th centuries. But these days it dismays me no end that both Venice, in which I've lived for six years, and America, my native land, seem so determined to invert and abbreviate Marx's old temporal two step. In Venice, and in Trump's America, decisions of great historical import appear first as outright farce, before flowering into full tragedy.
In both places the would-be satirist, no matter how clever and keen his or her sense of the absurd may be, is forever being trumped by policy makers, pursuing their disastrous follies (or crimes) in all earnestness.
In Venice, for example, the novelist, essayist and literary critic Gregory Dowling, author of a number of well-regarded novels (including this new historical one set in Venice on my To-Read list), and a resident of the city for over a quarter of a century, recently posted an account on his blog of "the gleaming new turnstiles installed at the entrances to St Mark's Square", complete with a very convincing photo of these turnstiles in the archway beneath the clock tower.
Though the post appeared on April 1, it was so well done that a number of people took the account and the photo-shopped image to be true.
But, really, an entrance fee into St Mark's? Who would take such a ridiculous idea seriously?
Well, last week, we received an answer: those sagacious folks in charge of governing the city, that's who.
Response to this new plan was swift. With one writer, Jackie Bryant, declaring "Why I'll Boycott Venice If It Charges Entry", and two others coming out in favor of the idea or similar ideas ("Why Venice Needs to Charge Entry" and "Do We Love Italy Too Much?").
Each writer makes interesting points. Each, I think, misses the single most important problem with charging an entrance fee to Piazza San Marco: It is a solution to an imaginary, or at least a secondary, problem.
Are there too many people in Piazza San Marco? Yes, sometimes there are. And on holidays or during special events the overcrowding in and around the Piazza can be so extreme as to be a public health hazard, with a real threat of deadly stampedes in the case of a panic of some kind.
But the cherished response of people like Mayor Brugnaro to such concerns about dangerous overcrowding in the historic center--their fond fantasy of spreading ever-growing crowds into less trafficked areas of town and out into the lagoon--strikes me as disingenuous if not plain cynical.
Studies have been done on the maximum number of people the city can tolerate on any given day without having its very fabric compromised, and these numbers, no more than the city or lagoon itself, are not infinitely elastic (see Chapter 3, for example, of The Venice Report, Cambridge University Press, 2009).
But a belief in such infinite elasticity is exactly what underlies the main "solution" that Brugnaro is trying to fob off on UNESCO as a serious response to that organization's concerns about the physical, environmental, social, and cultural destruction of the city and its lagoon.
An entrance fee to Piazza San Marco strikes me as a diversionary solution. One whose function is to contain the debate, providing a nicely circumscribed little topic to heatedly argue about, while the larger issue, the real issue, about the proposed exploitation of potentially every meter of the city and the lagoon remains in the shadows--where such proposals can be carried forward without international interference, or even awareness.
And, despite the best intentions of the three writers on the entrance fee proposal cited above, this diversionary solution seems, thus far, to be working rather well. Commentators are taking the most impassioned stances in regard to one or two trees--arguing in the terms set out for them by those with clear economic interests in mind--while all around them, unnoticed, the rest of the forest is brought under the ax.