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?


  1. Not to try to answer your question (which I love in and of itself), but to put into writing my own question.... This man chooses to sit a) by himself and b) away from a wall. Where would I have sat myself down in this courtyard, I wonder?

    1. You raise an interesting question, Helen. Now that you mention it, I suspect the man in the image positioned his chair where he did so that he would 1) be out of the sun but 2) far enough beyond the corner of the brick building adjacent to the yellow one behind him to catch whatever breeze might blow through the campiello. So I'd put my chair right about where he did.

  2. Beautifully written.
    I've only visited Venice 5 times and each time for 2 weeks. That may sound like a lot but it only touches the surface.
    It is truly sad to realize that there is little space in Venice for true locals and that many visitors rarely venture out of the crowded tourist spots. I always advise friends that, if they are planning to visit Venice, they must at least stay overnight and get out in the early morning and late evening.
    As a comment on: "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" if I were to choose where to live in Venice, it would be Castello.

    1. Thanks, Melindamele, and you have been here a lot--but in a town so full of details it's hard to feel like you can take it all in. I'm continually noticing things I've never noticed before on even my most frequented routes.

      Having lived at the eastern edge of Castello I'd agree with you about where to live, though Cannaregio would be another good option. But I'm actually enjoying San Polo, as well.

  3. Very nice story.

    Sadly Venetian residents are being increasingly squeezed out by wealthy incomers who move around the world and never live anywhere other than in tax havens for very long. In my travels to Venice over the last 35 years I have always felt closer to what I perceive as Venice on the periphery, in places such us Western Dorsoduro near San Nicolo dei Mendicanti, in Eastern Castello and in northern Cannaregio in some of the bars popular with boatmen.

    Nearer the heart of the place watching the children play as they come out of school as I walk across Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio also gives me hope to think that maybe, just matbe, some of them will be able to afford to live in their home city. I do hope so because they are the ones who care about it, not transient oligarchs.

    1. Thanks, Stephen, I'm glad you liked the piece. I think you're right about all the places you mention, and San Giacomo dell'Orio does somehow manage to maintain a local flavor, not least of all because it is a destination for kids to play in--and it's generally not overrun with tourists.

      What I still find startling, though, is that the pricing out of residents by 2nd- and 3rd-home owners, by the international wealthy looking for investment property, etc, is affecting cities far larger than Venice--cities so large and with such strong idenitites that you'd think (or at least I would) they wouldn't be vulnerable to the harmful effects of the influx of such money: Berlin, Barcelona, New York. But the NYC I've visited in recent years feels little like the one I moved to in 1993. It would have been hard to imagine back then that a place with as distinctive a thrum as NYC could lose it, and yet is has, or is.

  4. The “Venice for Venetians” or “Preserve Traditional Venice” are certainly romantic and intoxicating battle cries. Sadly they reek of xenophobia and racism and also play to a very limited narrative on what constitutes the “real Venice”. This “real Venice”, as with many romantic notions, was one that never truly existed. It also becomes extremely scary to me when a person, or group of people, starts to define what makes up a “real” part of that society.
    This issue is sadly quite popular around the world right now. Look at Myanmar and the Rohingya, the rise of the AFD party in Germany, Sarawak for Sarawakians in Malaysia, and a quick glance over the Atlantic at the country of your birth.
    Since you are American I pose the question; what does the real America look like? This Venice and Venetians against the "outside interlopers" and changing way of life is the opposite, or perhaps even the same side, of the Charlottesville coin. People have an idea of what their corner of the world should look like and how the people that come there should look and/or behave. At what point should a society stop evolving? Should the Native Americans not let the Europeans in? Should we have not progressed to a more modern country? Should we not now let in out Latin and Asian neighbors? Is the real America a traditional white Christian America stuck in the 1950’s?
    In the same vein, is Venice for traditional white families with Venetian roots? Should Venice have stopped progressing and changing with the Romans, the Lombards, the Republic, before the 15th century decline? During the 18th century revival? How about mirroring America for some 1950’s utopia that was never really? If we don’t feel Venice should have been stopped at those stages why do we feel it should be stopped now?
    I love Venice. I think it should be preserved in most ways and wrestle with the alluring protests against cruise ships and crowding and changes. But I also realize there is a lot of ignorance and hate in those feelings.
    The corruption is absolutely unbelievable as well and I understand the substantial amount of anger directed at politicians, but it also seems like the politicians have effectively deflected enough of the anger at tourists/cruise ships/SUPers/outsiders/MOSE/gentrification/changing times/unnamed “others” to maintain the power.

    1. I agree about the xenophobia and racism, Prancer, and have gotten into hot water with one local group by suggesting in a previous post that their slogan was promoting such things. In fact, it lead to an exchange with the group's leader in which he clarified what his group meant by "Venetian" and who could qualify as one. He assured me that in their mind it applied to anyone who lived or worked in the city, regardless of where they originated, their language, their religion, how long they'd been in the city, etc. But of course this is not the case with all people who talk about "real" Venetians, and this is something of which I'm aware, and by which I'm troubled. Though to be honest I'm still troubled by certain slogans, which are easily misinterpreted.

      When Lega Nord supporters, or those of their ilk, refer to "real" Venetians I have little doubt what they mean. But I'm also well aware that, as many local groups point out, "traditional" Venice depended upon, and was built up by, one of the most cosmopolitan groups of peoples and cultures of any in Europe.

      I have no illusions about going back either to some made up Venice or made up America, and am very aware of the real agenda behind such calls. The "old" Venice could not have survived without its Slavs, Muslims, Jews, Germans et al, and I think that anyone with any sense knows a narrow definition of what it means to be Venetian are not only fictional constructs but deadly. Venetians are those who live and work in Venice--the big problem is creating ways to allow people of all types to live and work here.

      And, yes, the corruption is almost unfathomable and, along with that comes an almost palpable sense that those in power here would be quite pleased to rid the city entirely of its bothersome residents and sell off public buildings to their cronies and themselves at bargain basement prices.

      Thanks for your long comment. I agree with your points, but only feel the need to assert that not all those who call for, say, "A Venice for Venetians" or however one wants to phrase it, are doing so with a racist, xenophobic agenda.

    2. Your response is on point. I admit some knee jerk reaction on my part when I see any article, protest, or group relating to defining Venice. I wish nothing more than to see Venice continue as a viable entity and feel, many times, that the most vocal groups have no practical plan and tend to hate anything involving change or tourism. I swear they believe there will be a resurgence in boat making, fishing, and that the Hilton will be turned back into a working mill.
      My personal discovery of Venice is the textbook case to rile up some of these groups. I discovered Venice as part of that most hated group, the cruise ship tourist. As the stereotype goes; all cruise ships are filled with the worst thing on the planet, day tripping retired uncles and aunties who clog vaporettos and only stop in St Mark’s for a few photos and some mass produced trinkets before hurrying back to the ship to eat on board.
      Except I wasn’t, and neither were most of the people on board with me. I was a masters student in my 20’s who had just finished an international program in the Czech Republic. I was self-financed, and on a shoestring. This broke student, and several others, got a 12 day med cruise for less than $400 (booked 4 to a room right after the Costa Concordia disaster). It’s the only way we could visit so many places for so little money, in so little time, including a 2 day stop on Venice. For far less money and far less hassle and lost time than a train we would see 7 amazing places from Barcelona to Croatia. We could spend an entire day or two self-touring each of the cities, come back shower, sleep, and wake up in a new place fully rested.
      Contrary to the stereotype propagated by many groups, the ship was used for sleeping and transport only. Our group was one of the first ones off the ship in ports and our group was literally the last one on 2 days later. We weren’t going to be walking in Castello at lunch and decide to hurry back to the ship to eat just to save $10, and we were pretty broke (I can’t imagine many people doing this actually). We walked miles and miles through streets almost never using the vaporetto, spent almost no time in St Marks, dined at cheaper local places throughout Cannaregio, San Polo, and Castello, went to bars and hung with other local students near Campo Santa Margherita. Even on our shoestring budget we brought a decent amount of money into the Venetian economy, the vast majority spent in less touristy places.
      It was my introduction to Venice, a place I may have never tried had it not been for a cruise. Initially our group of international students was the least excited about Venice. Prior to departure we sought advice from what we thought were older wiser travelers and backpackers (not tourists). They had tried to discourage us about our Venetian sojourn and the cruise too. The bemoaned the high prices of Venice, the touristy feeling, and “oh the smell”. Real “travelers” don’t go there just as “real travelers don’t cruise”. The same stereotypes that apply to cruise ships also apply to Venice as a whole for many people. I found both stereotypes to be “mostly” wrong. Yes there are people who fit the cruise stereotype and there is a Venice that is awful (overpriced terrible restaurants, imported cheap junk, etc). But there are great seasoned travelers who cruise for a variety of honorable reasons and there are amazing places in Venice that can enrich one’s life.
      Since my original trip I have made yearly trips to Venice, and not by ship (although I would if the price was right). I will spend a week or two there far away from the Rialto or St Marks or other touristy sites. I wander the alleys, still searching for cheap local places and revisiting those of my first trip. I mourn the passing/closing of loved restaurants and bars and get excited when I find new ones that have popped up. Without the dreaded cruise ship I would never have discovered the Venice I love. I would never have contributed to the economy, the same is true scores of people over the past several years.