Tuesday, October 24, 2017

City of Falling (and Leaping, Climbing, and Swimming) Tourists

The beings falling earthward around Venice these days bear little resemblance to this fellow high up on the facade of the church of Santa Maria della Salute

The other day, on one of the less-frequented calli leading from the Rialto Bridge area toward Campo San Cassiano, my son and I were stopped in our tracks by the sight of a large young man standing on the parapet of a small stone bridge and giving every indication he was about to jump.

It was a bridge we had to cross to get home and as he looked about to jump into the center of the bridge, rather than into the canal below, we had no choice but to stop. The young man's girlfriend was poised with a smart phone on the crown of the bridge, waiting.

After checking that she was ready, the young man leapt with a yowl, landed heavily, then bounced up to see if his girlfriend had captured his heroic leap in all its glory, demanding "Did you get it?" As this digital-age American Narcissus gazed at the little screen, Sandro and I seized on our chance to pass, before they could set up to do another take.

It's not easy being a tourist these days.

In the old pre-internet days you might have anticipated showing the images you took on a trip to friends (and/or victims) when you returned home, envisioning their favorable response.

Now, you can make yourself subject to those responses immediately, by posting images online as soon as you capture them and receiving instant real-time feedback on how well they're going over. 

This, in my shamefully outmoded way of thinking about things, seems awful. For it has the potential to make all of us obsessed with our "ratings." Not so long ago, this would have been considered a terrible thing. In movies from the 1970s such as Network, or even from the 1980s, such as Broadcast News, an obsession with ratings was presented as the defining (and corrosive) feature of a soulless, intellectually vacant corporate culture, and depicted as being antithetical to creativity, freedom, justice, and truth.

In the 1960s such quantifiable responses were the sole concern of advertising firms on Madison Avenue.

But I suppose we are all Mad Men now.  

We accept such an obsession as a matter of course, as unavoidable, and replicate it even in our own personal lives. The basic human need for social acceptance has been quantified, and turned into a mother lode of information to be mined by the likes of Google, Facebook, et al.

How it actually profits us, as human beings (rather than brands), is open to debate. 

What makes all of this worse, though, is that the same social media that quantifies responses to what we post, also makes us continually aware of the infinite competition we have for anyone's (even our closest family members') attention.

To some of us this may not matter. It's enough to know that Uncle Anselm or Aunt Latifa, no matter how far way they may be from where we are, has seen our travel image.

For others, however, it means that only an image of yourself flying through the air--rather than merely standing--before a picturesque Venetian backdrop will do. Or climbing up the facade of the Palazzo Ducale. Or shimmying up an old lamp post in Campo San Pantalon. Or any of the many other simian (or aquatic) tourist feats you're likely to encounter when you live in Venice.

In other words, you can't live in an international destination like Venice and not be reminded of how technology and social media have profoundly altered how we view and experience the world--and what we value.*

And even when the ostensible aim of our travel is to "get away from it all," or at least from our regular workaday life, we carry the cultural ideals of the workplace with us: self-advancement, competition, and the inclination to judge our efforts by how we profit from them. Thanks to smart phones and social media, even our "free time" seems like work, as we (consciously or unconsciously) construct and disseminate the brand of ourselves. 

The most venerable and fragile of historical, cultural and/or religious sites become merely location shoots, or sound stages, for the show that is our self.

And what won't some people do for ratings? As television series are said to "jump the shark" to increase their audience share, so tourists jump all kinds of other things. Sometimes even each other.

As John Berendt recounts in his 2005 book on Venice, the heavenly host of statuary adorning the facade of the church of Santa Maria della Salute was in such bad repair in the 1970s that a sign beneath it warned "Beware of falling angels."

These days in Venice, as Sandro and I were recently reminded, the beings likely to crash down upon you from out of the sky are of a purely terrestrial sort.


For an interesting article on "museums" specifically oriented toward being the perfect backdrop for social media selfies see: https://www.wired.com/story/selfie-factories-instagram-museum/  But this trend is evident in traditional museums and art galleries as well.


  1. As one who often travels to Venice ( be there again in a bit) Tourist behaviour often saddens me, and I try hard not to even think of behaving like them.

    1. Some tourists do behave badly, Ella, but it's a very small percentage. The "tourist problem" is actually a problem of governing or management--or misgoverning or mismanagement. As the old bitter joke goes: "It's ridiculous to say that Venice has become Disneyland. If it were Disneyland it would be run much better!"

  2. I'm an American girl who would give a vital organ and possibly an arm to live in Venice. I go back once or twice a year, every year, for as many weeks as I possibly can. It's not just an interest, it's not just 'travel,' it's a part of me that I think about every day- and practically everything I do is with the intention of setting myself up to return there. I even minored in Italian in University (and still study it consistently every day, 5 years post-graduation- I can now read novels in the language and speak pretty well) so I could learn even more about it and communicate with people better while I'm there. The behavior of that pair of tourists is abhorrent. On behalf of those of us from the US who aren't so idiotic and irreverent, and those of us with a sincere love for this city, I'm truly sorry you have to deal with that and people like them. And thank you for the continuous effort you put in to this blog!

    1. I hope you'll have the chance to live in Venice, Anonymous, not least of all because Venice really needs new residents--from everywhere and for every reason (well, at least lawful reasons--drug dealers aren't needed). But it's really not a "problem" to deal with tourists, even if it can sometimes be frustrating if one is in a hurry. There have always been troublesome tourists--I think of the Egpyptian temple in the Sackler Wing of NYC's Metropolitan Museum with its graffitti from the first years of the 1800s inscribed by English tourists. And the really troublesome tourists do a lot more damage than this fellow leaping off the bridge. What struck me about this guy wasn't that he was an example of a "bad" tourist, but that his behavior was motivated entirely by social media, and by the demands of social media. And I do mean demands. The sense that it's not enough to be seen in a beautiful place, it's just too boring, but that one must really, well, make a spectacle of oneself to even merit attention. Like something someone posted on FB (an extreme case) of a Russian model who dangled from the arm of a male friend some 1,000 ft above traffic off some building in, I think it was Asia (it's not something I really wanted to see, so I missed details). This is the kind of thing which is specific to the age of social media. But our technology, as Paul Valery wrote about nearly 100 years ago, affects us in less extreme ways as well.

  3. I agree with Anonymous. There are many of us American tourists who love this city and do all we can to preserve and respect it when we visit. We buy local products and frequent shops which are run by Venetians. I pray that acting like a civilized human being will possibly rub off on these people.

    1. Venice really needs visitors who have some interest in being part of the city or contributing to its life in some ways, however small, for however short a time, rather than trying to simply take something from it or leave "their mark" on it. Sometimes, alas, quite literally. Visitors such as yourself are appreciated wherever they're from, and the percentage of visitors who actually do damage is quite small. Indeed, though climbing the facade of San Marco will get you in the headlines, the real "damage" of tourism comes from great masses of people who, as individuals, aren't really doing anything "wrong." It's just the sheer quantity and the wear and the demands such uncontrolled masses make on the city, while returning little in way of actual income, for example. This kind of damage requires city planning and good government--even something as simple as making sure there are adequate toilets or seating etc. Alas, good government is what Venice has lacked. Thus, sometimes it's better for those with decision-making power to focus on the few bad apples among the tourists, rather than be held accountable for their own choices.

  4. So glad to hear Anoymous and Nancy. Congratulations for falling in love with Venice, as many have done in the past and manny will do in future.
    But I'm afraid that barbarism is innebitably bond to tourism. And it is not only today, It has been since tourism started around late eighteen hundreds.
    The problem is that in those days tourists were a tiny fraction of our society, and today millions of us are, so we will find barbarians any place, any time. We have progressed by being able of be anywhere in the world within hours, for a popular price, but we never thought that we had to teach people for having such responsibility.

    1. I hadn't read your comment before replying to the above, Jon, but as you say hooligan tourists aren't exactly new, but, yes, the numbers have changed. And in Venice it's more a matter of those sheer numbers than of some guy leaping off a bridge for a photo. Though, I was struck less by that act in itself, than by what seemed to me to be the influence of new technology on his need to make such a leap--and its influence of all of us, in less dramatic ways.

      All in all, I see immensely fewer acts of barbarism committed by tourists than by those, both here in Venice and elsewhere, holding the highest positions of power. The great crime against human civilization that is the MOSE watergates project, a swindle from the get-go, has done far more damage to Venice than some drunk guy trying to climb up a lamp post in Piazza San Marco or urinating on a wall. The latter two acts are short-lived and may even be halted as soon as they start; the historic and barbaric swindle that is MOSE shows no sign of ever ending.

  5. This is a brilliant post, Steven. Thank you for writing it. I had just caught myself quantifying something that should not be quantified, so this topic was forefront in my mind. What havoc have we wrought simply by being unconscious and allowing media to guide our expectations? So much of our energy seems to be outward directed, for the pleasure of pleasing others....often even strangers.

    1. Thanks, JoAnn. It's hard to avoid, technology shapes us at least as much as we "use" it, as Paul Valery was writing about nearly a century ago--as does our economic system, as Marx was writing about even longer ago.