Companion and Guild Director Peter Burman reviews and reflects on the book 'Venice Rising – aqua granda, pandemic, rebirth', edited by Kathleen Ann Gonzalez, Ca’ Specchio, San Jose, 2020.
Every Companion of the Guild of St George whose life has been touched by Ruskin and especially by his Stones of Venice should read this book! It reads like a report from the battlefront. Venice, have no doubt about it, is in real peril at this moment and the issues are these: the impact of the rising water levels in the Lagoon and the dramatic increase in the power and levels of flooding that afflict the city through the Acqua Alta[i]; the impact of over-tourism, shared with many other cities and historic towns, Barcelona being another major sufferer, but nowhere so serious and so overwhelming as Venice, to which most visitors come for a few hours and then retreat like the Aqua Granda leaving much detritus behind; there is a serious problem also with people of high personal wealth buying into the architectural heritage of Venice but using their palatial apartments for a few weeks, even only for a few days, but otherwise leaving them empty as one of the several pressure points leading to the dramatic depopulation of Venice; then the ultimate symbol of the ‘wrong kind of tourism’ is the invasion of the city – astonishing that it should ever have been permitted - by the Grandi Navi, the embarrassingly luxurious and over-bearing cruise ships to whose passengers (2,000 to 3,000 at a time) Venice is but a glamorous ‘toytown’ backdrop not respected as a living, breathing organism home to a community of creative and enterprising citizens; finally there is the near coup de grace given by the Coronavirus pandemic.
There are three campaigning organisations which are doing their best to protect Venice’s cultural, ecological and sustainable economic future: We Are Here Venice, No Grandi Navi, and Venice Calls. All three deserve the urgent support of Companions of the Guild of St George. Moreover, in conversations between Guild Directors we have been considering what we can do to call attention to the multi-faceted plight of Venice. Ruskin would have expected no less of us.
I have already read straight through the book twice and re-read some of the 31 contributions numbers of times. It’s a book I want to live with, to be inspired by and to ponder, and above all to be stirred to action by it. There are stories, some in Italian but mostly in English, or both, there are poems, there are memories, there are howls of anguish at the disasters which routinely fall on Venice, there are brilliant suggestions as to how matters could be improved or mitigated. The editor has made a shrewd choice of Venetians from many walks of life including craftspeople, artists and one or two representatives of Venice’s noblest ancient families.
I want to try and give some flavour of the book but above all to encourage Companions to buy it, (click HERE), read it, and tell their friends what they have learned. As the editor says in her introductory essay, after all the disasters many of the contributors have nevertheless felt able to raise their eyes and express hope: ‘Hope for a fresh look at the tourism industry. Hope for gathering with friends once again. Hope for new ways to live together and support the arts and envision a Venice that could thrive anew. Some wrote of an almost mystical love or ethereal philosophy evoked by the dramatic events they have lived through. And all wrote with determination and new dreams.’
An attractive feature of the book is that every contribution is followed by a pen portrait and photograph of the author. The first essay is by Elena Almansi, a female rower, who has been a rowing instructor for over ten years at Row Venice, an association that promotes Venetian rowing in Venice and throughout the world, teaching it to tourists and residents. Companion Ross Burgess and I hope to go to the annual rowing festival in May (if by that time it is possible for us to travel to Venice), at the suggestion of Companion Michelle Lovric, who is a passionate link between Venice and the Guild. Let us listen to Elena’s voice: ‘After two months of deliveries of shopping and medicines to those who could not leave their homes, we can take stock of what we have achieved. We realize that not only have we helped individuals and businesses, but we have also come up with an idea for sustainable transport in Venice – respectful of the environment and the Lagoon – and we have shown its feasibility.’
During the night of 12 November 2019 Venice experienced an Aqua Granda that was well-nigh as traumatic as the notorious one of 4 November 1966 which drew the sympathy of the whole civilised world and was the beginning of countless targeted conservation initiatives. Alessandro Santini is a fourth-generation gondolier and he tells us that ‘The gondolas of our mates in front of the Danieli Hotel were on the Riva, mashed at an angle. Two gondolas were inside the hotel, in the reception area. I couldn’t believe it. Close to these gondole there was a vaporetto on the fondamenta, leaning on one side. A water bus - on the street?’
One of the innumerable Venetians whose businesses were severely damaged by the 2019 Aqua Granda was Paolo Olbi, whose bookbinding business was also savaged in 1966. It is almost unbearable to read the conclusion of his essay: ‘Six months after the Aqua Granda, we still live in the absolute lack of possibilities for our work and in the uncertainty of the future. I also advised my students to find a safer job than self-employment … which is too much subject to the various economic crises that are periodically repeated and to the silence of the authorities who see self-employment, very often, as a source of undeclared work … As for me, after 60 years of work, I find myself forced to surrender: my dream of a Venice has come to an end, once alive with young artisans who with their activities and their skill could contrast with the big names and the junk that invades the city.’
Another author is Vera Brunello, a teacher of gymnastics with a deep love of Venice who says sensibly ‘… perhaps we should start with the simplest things, like digging the bottom of the canals, which over the centuries have filled up a lot. Venice must be treated with great care and delicacy. Big ships must no longer endanger the city. Tourists must arrive with reservations, so there are not too many of them all together, but all must be able to enjoy the magic of the city.’
During the relaxations of August and October my partner and I dared to visit such major tourist attractions in England as Stonehenge, Chatsworth House and the cathedrals of Salisbury and Wells. We found that having to book ahead was not only sensible for us – we were committed to the visit, we prepared for it by reading and reflection, as Ruskin would have done – but also good for the places we visited. They seemed calmer than in the past, it was obvious that visitors were behaving respectfully, both towards one another and towards the very special places we were visiting. We thought of Portmeirion, that delectably picturesque village in North Wales, where the charges are gradually raised when visitor numbers are rising to what might become uncomfortable levels. Tourism has to be an invisible contract between those visiting and those being visited in such a way that all will feel that the visit has been a success.
One major reason why this book is so important is that it has a resonance far beyond Venice. Just like SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the three organisations to which I have drawn attention are piloting innovative and enterprising ways of running their campaigns. As we noticed on our visit in February-March 2020, We Are Here Venice ingeniously made use of the City of Venice’s bill posting service to install a host of posters with very serious and pertinent messages.
One which I recorded read: ‘As a cruise passenger your energy consumption and waste production are several times higher than those of a resident.’ This is a very neat way to bring home to the individual cruise-ship visitor the likely consequences of their generally too-superficial visit. Themes have gone from the specific environmental consequences of the cruise ships to more general topics like air quality and safeguarding the Lagoon, the arguments always evidence-based. As Jane Da Mosto, who runs We Are Here Venice, says in her contribution: ‘More than 50 unique posters have emerged, each made by hand. Participants range from acclaimed artists to toddlers, while suggestions include putting Venice forward as the capital of smart working and increasing traditional rowing transportation.’
Whenever we are in Venice, I find myself longing to see more of the historic gardens of palaces and monasteries which hide behind their tall brick walls. They need to have a very specific range of trees and plants which can cope with regular inundations of salty water at the times of the Aqua Granda. So, it was with a very specific anticipation that I approached the contribution of Iris Loredana, an authority on Slow Food and author of La Venessiana – The Fragrant World of Venice, who with her grandmother Lina runs La Venessiana, a slow travel, garden and food guide to ‘show visitors the hidden Venice, never told in guidebooks, her forgotten stories, gardens and recipes’. I suspect that what they have so abundantly to share will be immensely sympathetic to many Companions of the Guild of St George!
First, though, I read of the terrible damage to the garden of their palazzo, the oldest garden in Venice. Imagine their distress at the following: ‘The oleander falling off the terrace hit the ancient silver-purple rose that Lina had received as a gift from the monks of the Lagoon monastery on San Lazzaro degli Armeni. For more than 40 years, she had been using its petals to make fragrant jam, tea and syrup.’
Then I read of how the ever-increasing visitor numbers have impacted on one particular family: ‘During the past four summers, my family and our neighbours in Venice had become accustomed to avoiding crowds during the day. We only leave the house in the morning for a short cappuccino break and to buy groceries. During the day, we stay inside, on the terrace and in the garden.’
Finally, towards the end of Iris Loredana’s essay, she explains how during the lockdown, by April 2020, ‘the city looked like one huge workshop, with residents discussing ideas for the future and ready to get started.’ It felt as though the ‘Age of Responsible Living’ had already dawned.
‘But (and this is a huge ‘but’ for all of us), for these initiatives and ideas to become true, the government, associations and residents MUST finally find a way to work together.’ How easy it is to say those words, ‘work together’, and how difficult it is to bring it about.
Iris Loredana’s conclusion from the time of the Covid-19 lockdown is that ‘… none of the extremes is good for Venice and her residents: the overcrowded city makes us feel alienated and sick, and the city wasn’t built to be empty. We need to negotiate a balance between those extremes, and we need to accept that solutions won’t come overnight, but slowly and gradually. There are always signs of hope and encouragement if you know where to look for them.’
I plead with all readers of this article, and especially Companions of the Guild of St George, to do whatever they can to raise awareness of the quite frightening challenges faced by Venice at the present time. The actions of the three campaigning organisations deserve our support, financial but also moral and practical, and they need to know that we understand what they are attempting to do, not only through our words.
Finally, as Catherine Kovesi, a historian at the University of Melbourne, Australia, with a great knowledge and love of Venice, says: ‘If we cannot save Venice, what can we save?’
PETER BURMAN, 10 January 2021
Peter is a Director of the Guild , with portfolios for International Relationships and for Craftspeople & Craftsmanship.
[i] Aqua Granda is the Venetian term for specific and devastating historic floods like those of 1966 and 2019. Its use in the subtitle of Venice Rising is because much of the book is about the consequences and sheer terror of the flood of November 2019