Saturday, June 24, 2017
What Does the Real Venice Look Like?
A central paradox of Venice is that the very sights and places universally considered to be the most representative of the city, the most quintessentially Venetian, often have the least actual Venetian life left in them. There are times, for example, when I've walked out of our apartment near the Rialto fish market and encountered anywhere from 30 to 50 camera-toting or luggage-pulling tourists before spotting the first resident--even as I make my way down calli that epitomize what people think of when they think of Venice.
How long has it been since any Venetians took their evening stroll (or passeggiata) through Piazza San Marco? It was the place to be seen even during Austrian occupation, as William Dean Howells recounted in the early 1860s, and I think it remained so to a lesser extent even into the days of Jan (then James) Morris at the end of the 1950s. But the Piazza and the area all around it are now occupied more absolutely by tourists (in their hotels and B&Bs, both legal and illegal) than the mighty Austrians ever imagined possible.
A friend once told me about the year he spent living just off beautiful Campiello San Vidal at one end of the Accademia Bridge. What could be more picturesquely Venetian, he thought--before he moved in.
But he said the only neighbor he had during his dispiriting time there was an accountant whose office was just down the calle from his apartment. Otherwise, he lived in a ghost town, except for the occasional tourist drifting through, or some second- or third-home owners who'd show up for the Feast of Redentore or some other weekend now and again. He was happy to move to a less picturesque but more populated area of Venice when his lease was up.
Of course the absence of local life has spawned its own commercial opportunities and sales pitches beyond merely the tourist-rentals that contribute to the emptiness. Guidebooks, guides, tours, and, yes, blogs like this one promise to lead you to the dwindling number of sites where Venetians can still be observed in their native habitat. Everyone is looking for leads to unknown or hidden Venice, a Venice off the beaten path, or the real Venice.
Then there are others of us who pride ourselves in being to sniff out on our own local enclaves in even the most over-run of tourist destinations.
What do we look for? Well, language, is an obvious sign, and we'd listen for the sound of Venetian. Activities are another. But not the picture postcard activities of gondoliere or fishmonger or glass blower, but the everyday ones of parents or grandparents taking their children to school or picking them up.
At other times, dress can serve as clues.
Though this method can lead to some questionable conclusions.
For example, I usually motor our little boat down the Grand Canal without attracting any notice. But the other day when the sun was especially brutal I resorted to wearing a rather rustic straw hat and found I'd suddenly become picturesque in the eyes of any number of visitors. I couldn't pass a crowded vaporetto without finding a couple of cameras aimed at me.
Here was a real Venetian sight!
Though the lone element that qualified me as such--the only difference from how I usually puttered down the Grand Canal in our 6 hp outboard--was a hat I'd bought from a cheap tourist stall in Croatia while on vacation there, which had been made in China.
Perhaps what I'm ultimately thinking about here is the way in which we travel in order to see things--but rarely think much about how we are actually and actively looking for certain things.
Or, to put it another way, is it possible to see what we're not looking for?
If I remember correctly this is a central theme in Proust's In Search of Lost Time--a novel all about memory that I can only remember, as it's been in storage in Brooklyn for the past 6 years. According to that book a certain place--and sometimes only the name of a certain place--has magical associations for us and we go there looking to find, or re-find them.
We may not even feel that we've really been in Venice till we capture (and post on social media!) our own image of, say, that much-seen view of gondolas moored along the molo near the Palazzo Ducale, with the church of San Giorgio Maggiore all majestic in the background.
A bored gondolier leaning his stripe-shirted torso against the parapet of a bridge is the very image of Venice.
However, a Bangladeshi hawking splat toys in front of that very same parapet is not.
In the terms of my last post such a street vendor may be one of the elements we leave out of the picture of Venice we're constantly composing in our minds--and composing far less consciously than any painter composes the views he or she is painting of the city.
Insofar as such a vendor suggests intractable questions about, say, immigration and acculturation at play both in Venice and beyond, he is rather too real.
The real Venice we're looking for wears an instantly recognizable costume--each element of which we can now buy from stores in the historic center and is emblazoned with the new logo of the gondolier's association, attesting to its authenticity.
An elaborate taxonomy of touristic discernment could probably be plotted out according to the type of subjects considered photo-worthy by visitors. Some people might focus on the most famous sights (Piazza San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, the Rialto Bridge); a tendency probably more common in the era of film cameras. Others might limit themselves to what strikes them as the obscure and little seen. Some might shoot, say, gondoliers and glass blowers but not work boat drivers and taxi drivers; while others, reasoning that the latter two groups play a larger part in the actual economic life of the city, would do the inverse. Some people might focus on the colors and textures of the city, abstracted from any larger sense of the whole. Others might become "meta-tourists" and take as their subject other tourists and the tourism industry itself.
Some people might do a little of all of the above, and more. And some, myself among them, might take an image like the one at the top of the page and not be quite sure what they're doing.
Has the depopulation of the historic center reached such a point that the "realest" Venice are those areas of town where the population is densest, regardless of whether they look much like Venice or not?
Or is isolation or boredom or fatigue without a recognizably Venetian backdrop too much like the isolation or boredom or fatigue we've left our own home town in order to escape to be worth a picture?
Is the above image one of real Venice or too real Venice?