16 November 2018

‘If we can’t save Venice,
how do we save the world?’

Is tourism killing Venice? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Venice is drowning – or that seems to be the impression of most of my friends when they asked me about my visit to Venice last week.

For days, they had seen news reports of Saint Mark’s Square covered in high waters, with images of tourists walking around in the acqua alta up to their hips or even up to their waists.

Earlier this year, the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro proposed a cap on day-trippers. Before the summer season arrived, crowd-control gates were installed at pinch-points in May to distribute the flow of tourists. When the crowds get too thick, the police close the main entrances, limiting access to local residents and workers who possess a special pass.

There are more tourists and fewer residents in Venice, making many wonder whether Venice is danger of drowning, not under the waters of the Adriatic but under the flood of visitors who seem to rise in numbers each year.

A few weeks ago, in a feature on tourism headed ‘Wish you weren’t here,’ the Economist recalled how a study in 1988 found Venice could hold at most 20,750 visitors a day – a figure that is about a quarter of tourist traffic 30 years later. Yet the increased demand has not been met by building better public transport.

Venice has lost more than half its population in the past 50 years. Those who stay are left wondering how they can fight to reclaim and preserve their city. The local population has dropped below 55,000 as Venetians find themselves priced out of their home city. If Venice is in danger of sinking, then it is in more imminent danger of shrinking.

Venice has always been a popular destination, even before the ‘Grand Tours’ of the 18th century. Ever since the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, local people have complained that Venice is being overrun by visitors.

Napoleon wanted to own Venice, and ever since the Victorian era writers and artists have sought inspiration – and romance – in its waters and in its architecture.

But the city is groaning under the weight of tourism and in recent years tension has grown between visitors and local people, who fear their city is becoming just another Disneyland.

The Grand Canal seen from under Rialto Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ryanair, ‘Facebook selfies,’ cheap flights, and towering cruise ships, now mean that on any given day that there are more visitors than residents in Venice. But the majority of visitors are day-trippers, and few stay overnight in the city. This means most of them spend their time and their money in the same small areas.

Venice has 30 million visitors a year, of whom many are grab-and-go day-trippers. It is a timeless city where no one has any real time for her. Few of the day-trippers venture off the tourist trail to explore side streets and quieter piazzas.

Small businesses and local shops are being replaced by souvenir stalls and fast food restaurants to cater for the day-trippers who prefer to munch rather than lunch and are gone once darkness begins to fall.

It is all too easy for me to descend into snobbery about other tourists. I like to think that I have visited Venice because of my cultural tastes, including architecture, history, Byzantine churches and palaces, its influence on shaping the cultural identity of Europe today.

But why should the music of Vivaldi and the musings of Ruskin make my visits more culturally acceptable than the group of young women from northern Europe who want to enjoy a hens’ weekend in Venice or young men who have come for a stag night or a football match?

I watched dismissively what I could too easily see as hordes who had been disgorged from coaches and liners early in the morning, follow the coloured umbrellas and flags from San Marco to Rialto, stopping only to buy cheap Chinese-made reproduction masks, and then leave in the early evening, imagining someone was going to switch off the lights when they left.

Night falls at Santa Maria della Salute … who switches off the lights when the day-trippers leave Venice? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But day-trippers are important in any society. They go home with positive impressions, many want to read and learn more, and some will return. I had been to Venice on three or four-day trips in the past before staying for the best part of the week this month.

On a recent day-trip from Seville to Tangier, I realised it might have been the first encounter for many in the group with a Muslim-majority or Arabic-speaking society, and I had no doubts that they would return home with different attitudes, perhaps even return to Morocco for a longer visit.

However, in Venice frustration with visitors has grown to the point last summer that angry locals plastered the city with flyers that scream out: ‘Tourists Go Home!’ But perhaps visitors are essential to the survival of Venice, if the right sort of tourists are attracted. Tourism could be the problem, but it could also be a solution, keeping businesses alive but also making people aware of the crises that Venice faces and that must be addressed if Venice is to be saved.

Tourists on the duck walks in Saint Mark's Square … is Venice drowning under a sea of tourits? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Recent measures introduced to control tourism and protect the city include bans on new hotels and takeaway food joints in the historic centre. But Unesco’s concerns about cruise ships, mass tourism and damage to the fragile lagoon ecosystem have been met with empty promises but no concrete proposals.

The World Monument Fund put Venice on its watch list in 2014 because ‘large-scale cruising is pushing the city to an environmental tipping point and undermining quality of life for its citizens.’

In the 1850s, John Ruskin warned that this city was being so abused and neglected that it would eventually melt into the lagoon ‘like a lump of sugar in hot tea.’ He launched an alarm signal that is still resonant today as ‘the fast-gaining waves … beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice.’

Venice is dwindling away. Around 1,000 residents move to the mainland every year, unable to afford rising rent demands, pushed to find employment outside tourism, or unwilling to live in a city that is losing a sense of community.

Vivienne Westwood once asked: ‘If we can’t save Venice, how do we save the world?’

The churches and mosaics
of Torcello are reminders
of the beginnings of Venice

The mosaics in the main east apse in the Basilica in Torcello are among the finest Byzantine mosaics (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

My island-hopping venture through the Lagoon of Venice last week, visiting the islands of San Michelle, Murano, Mazzorbo and Burano, finally brought me to Torcello, just five minutes from Burano and the most northerly island in the Lagoon.

This is the island to which Venice traces its cultural and ecclesiastical roots, and the seventh century cathedral is the oldest building in the Lagoon.

The first people settled on Torcello in the fifth or sixth century, and over time it grew into a thriving colony with a cathedral, churches, palaces, and a population that peaked at 20,000 people.

Today just a few dozen people at most live on the clustered islands that make up Torcello, and they depend mainly on tourism for their livelihood. But this remains an attractive island, with its historical sites, restaurants, cafés, vineyards, and tiny bridges crossing from one islet to the next.

From the pier, a seven-minute walk leads along the banks of the main canal, beside attractive restaurants and footbridges, to the square and the surviving sites of Torcello.

Mist and fog descend on the canal beside the basilica in Torcello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Along the way, the avenue passes the ‘Devil’s Bridge,’ and a little further on a second bridge leads into the town square, unpaved and covered in clay and gravel and lined with a small number of souvenir stalls and – even in November – an ice-cream stall.

Torcello was the largest and most important settlement in the Venetian Lagoon. It was first settled in 452 and is known as the parent island from which Venice was populated. It was a town with a cathedral and bishops long before Saint Mark’s Basilica was built.

After the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, Torcello was one of the first islands in the lagoon to be populated by people who fled the mainland to seek shelter from wave after wave of barbarian invasions, especially after Attila the Hun destroyed the city of Altino and the surrounding settlements in 452.

A small vineyard on Torcello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Although the Veneto region belonged to the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna from the end of the Gothic War, it remained unsafe because of frequent Germanic invasions and wars. During the following 200 years, the Lombards and the Franks drove urban refugees to the relative safety of Torcello, including the Bishop of Altino.

Torcello became the bishop’s official seat in 638, and it remained so for more than 1,000 years. The people of Altino brought with them the relics of Saint Heliodorus, now the patron of the island and now kept in a Roman sarcophagus below the High Altar.

Torcello had close cultural, political and economic ties with Constantinople. However, it was a distant outpost and established de facto autonomy from the Eastern Empire.

Torcello grew rapidly as a political and trading centre, and for centuries was a more powerful trading centre than Venice. In the 10th century, it had a population of up to 20,000 people. Thanks to the salt marshes in the lagoon, salt became Torcello’s economic backbone and its harbour developed quickly into an important post in the profitable east-west trade, controlled largely by Byzantium.

The Church of Santa Fosca seen through the arches and the colonnades of the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Black Death devastated Venice in 1348 and again in 1575-1577. In three years, the plague killed some 50,000 people. In 1630, the Italian plague of 1629-1631 killed a third of Venice’s 150,000 citizens.

Another crisis for Torcello developed when that the swamp area of the lagoon around the island increased from the 14th century, partly because of the lowering of the land level. Silt from rivers on the mainland filled up the shallow waters around Torcello, navigation in the laguna morta (dead lagoon) was impossible before long and traders ceased calling at the island. The growing swamps also seriously aggravated malaria.

Many people left Torcello for Murano, Burano and Venice, the bishopric was transferred to Murano in 1689, and by 1797 the population of Torcello had dropped to about 300. Many of Torcello’s numerous palazzi, its 12 parish churches and its 16 cloisters were purloined for building material by the Venetians and almost all have disappeared.

The only remaining mediaeval structures are one small palazzo, the cathedral, its bell-tower, the adjacent church, the town’s former council chamber and archives.

The Byzantine-Italian Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta dates from 639 AD (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The magnificent Byzantine-Italian cathedral, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, dates back to 639 AD and rises above the island, with the Bell Tower and Church of Santa Fosca alongside.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was founded in 639, but underwent radical rebuilding in 1008. The present basilica is of basilica-form with side aisles but no crossing. It includes many earlier features, and has much 11th and 12th century Byzantine work.

The Domesday mosaic depicting the Last Judgment covers the entire west wall, but is hidden from view by scaffolding during restoration work (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

One of the most moving mosaics in Venice is the 13th century mosaic in the central apse of the Virgin Hodegetria or the Virgin Mary in a blue robe with gold fringing, cradling the Christ Child, with the 12 Apostles at their feet.

A highly decorative and vivid Domesday mosaic depicting the Last Judgment covers the entire west wall, although it is being restored at present and is hidden from view by scaffolding.

The mosaic in the right apse depicts Christ Pantocrator enthroned between two archangels (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The mosaic in the right apse depicts Christ Pantocrator enthroned between two archangels, Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel, with the Lamb of God in a medallion of the vault.

The pulpit is made from fragments from the first, seventh century church. The Byzantine marble panels of the iconostasis or rood screen are carved with peacocks, lions and flowers. The finely carved capitals on the nave columns date from the 11th century.

The floor of the basilica is a vivid swirl of colours (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The flooring of the basilica is a vivid swirl of colours in bright tesserae of stone and glass, with cubes, semicircles and triangles laid in square designs.

The Church of Santa Fosca dates from the 11th and 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Church of Santa Fosca, standing beside the basilica, dates from the 11th and 12th century. It is built in the form of a Greek cross, is surrounded by a five-sided, semi-octagonal colonnaded portico, and a Byzantine interior.

Inside the Church of Santa Fosca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The central dome and cross sections are supported on columns of Greek marble with fine Corinthian columns.

The central dome in the Church of Santa Fosca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

On the left side of the square, the Museo Provinciale di Torcello is housed in two 14th century palaces, the Palazzo dell’Archivio and the Palazzo del Consiglio, built in Gothic style as the seat of government of the island.

A marble stone chair in the square is known as Attila’s Throne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A marble stone chair in the square is known as Attila’s Throne. Legend says it was used as a throne by the fifth century King of the Huns. It is more likely that it belonged to the Bishops of Torcello, or the podestà, a city governor, or, perhaps, the seat where chief magistrates were inaugurated.

Ernest Hemingway stayed at the Locanda Cipriani when he was working on ‘Across the River and Into the Trees’ in 1948 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Many artists, musicians and film stars have spent time on the island. Ernest Hemingway stayed at the Locanda Cipriani, a guesthouse, when he was writing parts of Across the River and Into the Trees in 1948.

Torcello is also the setting for Daphne du Maurier’s short story, Don’t Look Now, made into a film starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie (1973).

There are many legends about the name of the stone bridge known as the ‘Ponticello del Diavolo’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

As we walked back to the pier, we stopped at the stone bridge known as the Ponticello del Diavolo or the Devil’s Little Bridge. The bridge attracts the curious attention of many visitors who are spun a number of stories about its name. One legend says the devil appeared here one night by the devil to win a bet.

Another legend dates from the time of Austrian rule in Venice. A young woman fell in love with an Austrian soldier, but he was killed by her family who regarded the relationship as unpatriotic.

The distraught young woman sought the aid of a witch who agreed to meet her on Torcello as an isolated island. The witch called upon the devil who brought the young Austrian back to life, and the two lovers were reunited. But the devil forced the witch to promise that for the next seven years she would bring him the soul of a dead child who had recently died on Christmas Eve each year.

The witch died soon after in a fire and was unable to keep her pact. To this day, it is said, the devil comes to the Devil’s Bridge in Torcello each Christmas Eve in the guise of a black cat and claims in vain the souls he was promised.

In reality, the bridge may have taken its name because there are no protective sides on the bridge, leaving those who cross it with a feeling that it was built in a hurry, without attention to the risks and dangers it may have created.

As we walked on, we stopped to linger a while in the Taverna Tipica Veneziana, before catching the waterbus back to Burano, and on to Venice as evening darkness closed in.

In the semi-octagonal portico of the Church of Santa Fosca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)