Sunday, May 19, 2013

Love for Sale, Revisited

A carabinieri examines some of the many locks on the Accademia Bridge
It seems Venetian authorities have begun a crackdown of illegal vendors on the Accademia Bridge. Sort of.

I found only two vendors on the bridge the other evening--compared to the half dozen who'd comfortably set up shop on the days I first wrote about the topic in March ( And within a few minutes of my arrival up marched two officers side-by-side and very smartly from the direction of Campo San Vidal--and down the steps of the bridge's other end went the two vendors, toward Rio Terrà Foscarini, with many a backward glance, but in no particular hurry. The vendors certainly didn't run, or even jog, despite the impressive bearing of the officers, nicely turned out in their blue and white uniforms. If were a tourist I probably couldn't have resisted the urge to snap a photo as they approached, to show friends and family back in the States how most American cops look rather slovenly by comparison.

The officers walked to the Accademia Gallery-side of the bridge's crown, briefly scanned the scene below in the direction in which the vendors had disappeared, then turned back the way they'd come. At this point one of the officers broke from the other and made a desultory inspection of some of the locks on the bridge (as you can see in photo above): whether with the lofty impassive air assumed by someone who's actually disgusted by what he sees, or the critical disinterest of a professional examining a crime scene, or just the tepid curiosity of a guy checking out what's new since last time he passed this way, I couldn't really tell you.

Our old friend the indefatigable lock salesman of the Accademia Bridge
In any case, the two vendors seemed less impressed by this show of authority than I, as the officers barely had time to descend the stairs toward Campo San Vidal than the intrepid businessmen were back again, just a few steps below where I stood at the Accademia end of the bridge's crown, pitching their wares to passers-by as if there'd been no interruption at all.

And so it goes, I imagine, all day long. 

Is this a solution? There were fewer vendors on the bridge than when I'd passed by before. But it seems more like a dance: a farcical bit of Sisyphean choreography whose endless futility the police officers themselves seem all too aware of. It can't be good for their morale.

Venice, some people like to claim, is not a real city--but it certainly has real problems, many of which it shares with other indisputably real cities around the world.

A Venetian I recently met during lunch at a friend's house said that he was out one afternoon near Piazza San Marco and observed a vendor of roses approach a group of three locals who'd been chatting.

One of the locals told the vendor in Venetian: "Don't come toward me with those. I'm a racist. I would burn all of you [ie, all the immigrant vendors]."

A second man in the group told the vendor in Italian that he was not interested and to please go away.

The third addressed his two friends in Italian, saying, "Have some pity, these guys are just trying to scrape by."

The Venetian recounting the scene said that there in a nutshell was the full range of local attitudes toward the problem.

Another man at the same lunch, an extremely well-educated well-traveled visitor to Venice, a native of India who'd grown up there and still lived part of the year there (the other part in New York City), said that, ultimately, he couldn't understand how grown men could bear to spend every day of their lives throwing gooey splat! toys onto pieces of plastic or launching lighted plastic projectiles into the night sky of Piazza San Marco. He was talking about the young men from Bangladesh, whose language he could understand, and who whiled away their lives hitting up tourists and their young children and joking among themselves to pass the time.

This man obviously knows immensely more about the region, culture and language of Bangladesh than I will ever know, and yet I thought the answer to his question seemed rather obvious. If the young men are willing to spend their days in Venice in this way, then one can only assume that their employment alternatives in their home country are much worse: as the recent collapse of a clothing factory in Dhaka Bangladesh that killed 1,127 workers clearly suggests.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, Bangladesh has about 5,000 clothing factories employing 3.6 million workers. "Working conditions in the $20 billion industry are grim," the paper reports, "a result of government corruption, desperation for jobs, and industry indifference. Minimum wages for garment workers are among the lowest in the world at 3,000 takas ($38) a month."

Against this background, pitching even the goofiest of cheap toys in the open air of Venice really doesn't seem so bad, does it?

In any case, I hope to find out a little more about these vendors and their lives, first hand, in the coming weeks. 

For more on this same topic:


  1. Migropolis. Venice/Altas of a Global Situation; Wolfgang Scheppe & the IUAV Class on Politics of Representation. Hatje Cantz, Stuttgart 2009, 1.344 p.

    This book is quite enlightening, though it's expensive (I bought it cheaper while the exhibition was going on in Venice) and reading requires some focussing.
    Maybe you could find it in a Venetian library.

    Kindest regards Brigitte

    1. Thanks so much for the suggestion, Brigitte, it looks extremely interesting, and I'm always happy to see more of what is coming out of IUAV. One way or another I'll get my hands on a copy.

  2. But The Boy With A Frog is gone, finally!

    1. If only they would have replaced it with the bench that Tiziano Scarpa said once used to be there instead of a replica of a lamp post... My biggest problem with the "Boy with the Frog" was that it turned what had once been a beautiful public space/vantage point, where people were free to have their own experiences, into a private venue under armed surveillance. Of course, maybe the bench would never have been free anyway...