Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Farce and Tragedy

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.


  1. Bondì Siór Nonloso,

    Even if I agree that charging entry fees at St. Mark's might not be the most brilliant of ideas I do feel that something must be done about the overcrowding and as others have pointed out there is nothing strange about paying a fee to see and also protect, for instance, Maccu Picchu, but there are no citizens of Macchu Picchu to take into account.
    I love Venice and I come every year as a tourist but because of that I would also like to help preserving the unique city. I'm afraid that Venice has to become more unfriendly to mass tourism in a way. The recent ban on fast-food is, maybe, a step in the right direction. I guess there is still plenty of places to have some cihchetti and a few ombre, but there will be less slobbering on the streets. Increasing the city tax and, of course, banning the grandi navi would also be a good thing I think. Venice should be savoured over a longer period than just running around like scoulded ferrets. The vigili urbani could also be more harsh on the strange creatures suffering from the delusion thet they are in some kind of theme park where no rules of civilized behaviour applies, like taking a swim in the canals.


    1. They've ended up doing away with the idea of an admission fee to Piazza San Marco, Andreas, after widespread criticism of it, but as you suggest there are plenty of other ideas they might pursue in order to make the city a better place for both visitors and residents. Especially in the heat of summer I can't imagine that many people who find themselves crammed into calli are really having a very good time or experiencing the "Romantic Venice" they probably hoped to find. As long as the numbers of mass tourism continue to increase, however, I don't suspect those in charge will see any reason to change things much. The kind of businessmen who run for elected office, or finance those who hold elected office, rarely have much in the way of imagination.

  2. I'm on board with you on this - the idea of entry turnstiles to St. Mark's Square is just non-productive and silly. Instead, you need turnstiles into Venice, period! I only slightly jest. As you've pointed out, Venice can't elastically accommodate an infinite number of tourists. And yet, every year, the number of visitors grows. I can still recall a time when those giant floating cities (aka 'cruise ships') weren't the main method of entry to the city. Instead, it was the train. Venice would still get crowded during the high season, but you could easily escape the crowds; and the off season was just the locals, quiet, intimate and charming. These massive cruise ships disgorge thousands of passengers (per ship) each day - people who rush about to hit the highlights in their one day in the city, with no real understanding of the history of the city, nor any time to meet and get to know a local or two. They arrive in t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops and fanny packs, looking like they took a wrong turn on the way to Disneyworld. In fact, that's the mentality that a lot of them bring to the city - it's merely a staged 'quaint' location, and where the hell is the McDonald's or the Italian version thereof (plenty of really awful ristorantes exist around St. Mark's Square, just to serve the non-discerning tourist). Yeah, I know, I'm coming off as elitist. But I really, really miss the Venice that I first saw some 35 years ago - and even that was nothing like the Venice that my grandmother visited and briefly lived in during the 1920s and 30s.

    I do think that Venice is in a bad spot, between a rock and a hard place. The city is completely dependent on tourist dollars, so forcibly cutting back on the allowed number of tourists that can visit the city each day, or limiting the cruise ship berths, will undoubtedly negatively affect Venice's economy. But I think something like this has to be done. In my perfect world, cruise ships would be banned - only ships that carried fewer than 300 or so people would be allowed to dock in limited number of berths. Is that possible? I doubt it. Here I am, just a guy from Los Angeles, who loves Venice - but I'm afraid that it's being loved to death.

    1. I know what you mean, Chapps. Cruise ships are a problem for a number of reasons, but perhaps in fairness it should be noted that even during those months when they do not come to Venice (during the winter, for example), the city still often faces issues of overcrowding and poor or short-sighted usage. Alas, there is no "off-season" here any more. Or rather, it's reduced to a few weeks before and New Year's Eve, before Carnevale. And I suspect folks like Brugnaro are racking their narrow minds to come up with some cliched, pseudo-historical, easily-marketable events to get them here during those periods as well. Maybe off-season jet ski rentals on the Grand Canal?

      I also suspect it's not only Venice that suffers from visitors who think of it merely as a backdrop for selfies or a "beach town"; the narcissistic celebration of the self and pursuit of one's own "personal" (even if mass-marketed) experiences seems to be a defining element of Western culture (I don't know about the East). Those who control Venice simply follow the trends when they market it in such ways (as Settis argues in If Venice Dies). And I think the only way to offset such trends, to reassert the "reality" of Venice, is to re-populate the city; as then there would be enough locals in at least a neighborhood or two to remind even rather dim-witted visitors that they weren't in a theme park. But in spite of promising to (magically) lure 30,000 residents back to Venice during his campaign, the mayor and those around him show little actual interest in resident life.

    2. PS There seem to be some questions, too, about who actually benefits from mass tourism, and how much of the income remains in the city.