Sunday, March 19, 2017

Living Venice, and If Venice Dies

The courtyard of ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian, currently a health care facility

In a much-derided and parodied tweet during the last week of Carnevale, Venice's non-resident Mayor Luigi Brugnaro presented an image of a masked young woman at a private ball as conclusive proof that, contrary to what those dismayed by the steady exodus of Venetians from the historic city have suggested, Venice is a thriving city.

Given that the ball was one of those created by private commercial interests for predominantly out-of-town ticket buyers and staffed by such young women in masks, using this as an illustration of Venice's communal vigor was akin to the mayor of Anaheim, California posting an image of a young woman in a Minnie Mouse costume on Disney's "Main Street USA" attraction as evidence that the city of Anaheim had never been a more vibrant, productive place for its residents.

In fact, living Venice--what's left of it--often goes on unnoticed by visitors. It's the ever-shrinking number of stores where you can buy basic unglamorous necessities (like an ironing board); the storefront children's library near San Zaccaria (which Brugnaro wants to close); and the large old health care facilities: their interiors a combination of the centuries-old ecclesiastical and the modern institutional--the latter usually appearing much more run-down than the former.

Always in danger of being closed in whole or in part--a few years back Venice's residents rebuffed the region's attempt to shut down their already half-staffed Ospedale Civile near the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo; now, in a shamelessly overt bit of symbolism, it's the hospital's maternity department that's been targeted for the ax--these large old institutions have the feel of ghost ships: their skeletal staffs working hard to serve a populace that the mainland-based authorities have already seemed to consign to oblivion.

Yet these are the places where the city's population lives--or tries to. Where it goes when it's ill, when it's dying, or when it's preparing to deliver the next (last?) generation of Venetian residents actually born in the lagoon.

I thought of this last week while waiting in the long, windowed hallway of the ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian for my son to come out of his appointment. I looked outside at the courtyard that you can see pictured above, and enjoyed the sun and the scene. Until after a time the question arose that now always arises here for any resident looking upon some valued (and valuable) piece of their city's property: How long until this, too, becomes a hotel?

You see, as Salvatore Settis explains in Chapter VII of his important book If Venice Dies, every public heritage site in Italy has been officially labeled with a price as part of a legislative decree of 2010 (signed into law by the ever-enterprising Silvio Berlusconi) that turned over ownership of federal properties to individual city governments. That is, properties once held in trust and manged by the Italian government for the sake all Italian citizens, to whom it belonged, have now been gifted to cash-strapped local governments with the explicit encouragement for them to sell them off, or even to give them away, to private interests and investors. Indeed, as Settis notes, so strong is the push for local governments to liquidate public property belonging to their citizens that "another law requires local governments to furnish a yearly report on their 'real estate disposals' alongside their budgets."*

(Hence you end up with absurd situations like the one that played out here in Venice in regard to the island of Poveglia, in which Venetians/Italians joined forces to try to buy a property that literally, according to the Italian constitution, already belonged to them.)

So, looking out upon the Giustinian cloister pictured above, one finds oneself speculating on the exact shape the hotel swimming pool will take once the old well head has been moved to a spot better suited to the changed use of the property.

This is what Venetians are up against. A government quite literally occupied by private business interests, an array of recent laws (many of them, Settis argues, unconstitutional), and an economic system in which the public interest simply does not figure at all. Except, that is, insofar as the public continues to exist at all, as an impediment to profit margins and rapacious speculation: red figures on the wrong side of the balance sheet, ripe for erasure.

But it's not only what Venetians are up against. Venice serves as Settis's canary in the coal mine; in this case a rare bird, indeed, one of the world's most celebrated, whose life is threatened by the same Neoliberal forces running amok elsewhere; threatened by what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls "wantons." As Samuel Scheffler explains in his lecture The Afterlife (the basis for his book Death and the Afterlife, alluded to by Settis), "A wanton... is an agent who is not a person because his actions simply 'reflect the economy of his first-order desires,' and because he is indifferent to 'the enterprise of evaluating' those desires."

Actually, the wantons in power are not merely indifferent to "the enterprise of evaluating" those desires (the capacity for which evaluation distinguishes humans from animals) but blatantly hostile to it. Whether it's Brugnaro in Venice or Trump (Bannon) in America or Putin in Russia, wantons are forever denigrating "so-called" experts and their studies, contemptuous of science and any kind of rational, considered assessment. They sell themselves as "men of action," promising the most stupendous results--if only we give them absolute power. 

Fortunately, this is not a deal everyone is willing to make. And in Venice, as is true elsewhere, there's a determined resistance.


* Of course this kind of thing is not peculiar to Italy; it's a primary aim of the Neoliberal doctrine that holds sway in much of the world. Americans will recognize it, for example, behind the drive by Republicans to turn over tens of millions of acres of National Park lands to state governments.



  1. Steven, although you have lived here in Venice for several years now, I have never met you, which I find a little weird. I try to keep up with your blog to see what you -- an angry, new, vocal American addition to Venice, complete with family -- are up to. When it comes to health care in Venice, and your gloomy outlook, I completely disagree -- especially when compared to health care in the United States(!) I am deeply grateful for the Italian healthcare system, and what great benefits, I, as an immigrant, receive. In fact, someone just tweeted me an article today entitled: Italy’s Struggling Economy Has World’s Healthiest People, which you can read here:

    Cat Bauer

    1. Thanks very much for the link to the piece on Italy's healthcare and you comments, Cat Bauer, but I'm sorry that you perceived this post as a criticism of the Italian health care system when nothing could have been further from my mind. I have no complaints about the health care system and referred to it here, as I have in one or two previous posts over the years, only to show how cuts have been made to essential services needed by residents in Venice. My dismay is over such cuts, and to refer to the "half-staffed Ospedale Civile" (which is what my primary care physician calls it) is not to cast any aspersions at all on the staff that remains there or the jobs they do, but to call attention to the fact that important facilities needed by residents of Venice are being moved to the mainland (or trying to be).

  2. Steven, thank you for this article, which echoes my own feelings very accurately. As a 'part-timer' who visits Venice regularly (just returned to Australia from a 15 week stay on Sant'Elena), watching Venice change and the determined efforts of the remaining 'locals' to retain their city as a real place, not a Disney simulacrum, it distresses us enormously to see genuine stores replaced
    with more leather goods or, as at Via Garibaldi, the sisters swallowed by a Coop section of prepackaged tourist snack food. Oh and re the Italian health system, I didn't think you were criticising it at all, and as you said, have nothing but praise for the staff and their efforts. We have had a couple of visits to Pronto Soccorso and they have been wonderful. I wish I could be more hopeful about Venice's future, but remain eternally impressed with the fortitude and persistence of the residents.

    1. You were lucky not to be here over Easter, Anne, as there was a good deal of dismay at the crowds (headline in a local paper: hotels at 95% occupancy for Easter weekend, with their prices doubled). Ugh, I can't even think about it tonight. But I'm glad you didn't think I was knocking the health care system or the medical people of all sorts who actually are responsible for treating people and those who administer these services in Venice. It's the politicians who are forever it seems trying to cut services and staff in Venice that I'm not too fond of.