06 November 2022
The people of Venice
fear they are losing
out to the demands
of mass tourism
The last remaining inhabitants of the historic centre of Venice fear they are becoming like ‘relics in an open museum’ and the population has dropped below 50,000 for the first time.
The main island of Venice has lost more than 120,000 residents since the early 1950s, driven away mainly by the city’s focus on mass tourism and the thousands of visitors who crowd Venice each day.
The population of central Venice fell below 50,000 this August, and the trend seems to be irreversible with no government or local authority willing or able to challenge this catastrophic trend.
The residents who remain say they feel suffocated by an economic machine that focusses on tourism but leaves residents grappling with a high cost of living and without affordable housing. Shops that once sold essential daily items are being replaced by souvenir shops.
Local campaigners worry that Venice has been turned into a cash machine and they fear the people of Venice are becoming relics in an open museum.
An earlier visitor
The first Irish tourist to visit Venice may have been Symon Semeonis, whose name might be rendered today as Simon FitzSimons. He was the author of Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis ab Hybernia ad Terram Sanctam (‘The Journey of Symon Semeonis of Ireland to the Holy Land’).
Symon and his companion friar, Hugh the Illuminator, left Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in 1323 on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In his account, he described his experiences on his journey through Europe. He gives unique descriptions of life in 14th century Europe, with minute details of distances, prices, religion, the value of money and the manners and customs of people and places.
For him, Paris was ‘the home and nurse of theological and philosophical science, the mother of the liberal arts, the mistress of justice, the standard of morals, and in fine the mirror and lamp of all moral and theological virtues.’
He arrived in ‘the renowned city of Venice’ in mid-1323. ‘Although this city is situated entirely in the sea, yet by virtue of its beauty and cleanliness it deserves to be placed between the stars of Arcturus and the shining Pleiades.’
Symon spent seven weeks in Venice, where he travelled along the canals, and visited ‘sumptuous’ Saint Mark’s Basilica, ‘incomparably constructed of marble and other most precious stones, and adorned with wonderful mosaic work reproducing Biblical stories.’
In the Palace of the Doges, Symon said, ‘living lions are kept for the glory of the Doge and of the citizens.’ He searched for ‘the entire and undecayed bodies of Mark the Evangelist; of Zacharias the prophet, father of John the Baptist, whose mouth is open even to the present day and of many other martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins.’
In the lagoon, he visited the monastery of San Nicolò del Lido. Later in the 14th century, the Jewish community was granted a small plot of land at San Nicolò of Lido to create the first Jewish cemetery in Venice.
From Venice, Symon continued down the Adriatic coasts of present-day Croatia and Albania into present-day Greece, travelling through Corfu and Kephallonia before landing in western Crete, then under Venetian rule and a crossroads in the Mediterranean. He describes Iraklion as a prosperous city that ‘abounds in most excellent wine, in cheese and in fruit.’ He was the first writer to record the presence in Europe of Romanies or Gypsies.
From Iraklion, Symon Semeonis travelled through Alexandria, Cairo and Gaza to Jerusalem. But his account of Jerusalem is cut short and we have little or no information about his return journey.
The only known manuscript copy of Symon’s account of his extraordinary journey was presented to the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, by Archbishop Matthew Parker of Canterbury in 1575.
The hidden corners of
minorities in Venice
I find two essential books for any visit to Venice are John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and Jan Morris’s Venice. Jan Morris’s book has been described as ‘classic, witty love letter to Italy’s most iconic city.’ She says the ‘practical tolerance of Venice has always made it a cosmopolitan city, where east and west mingle.’
She identifies three minorities who have always had a place in the life of Venice: the Jews, the Armenians and the Greeks. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice was the world’s first, and I visit it each time I return to Venice, with its synagogues, the museum and the shops, and – of course – staying on to eat.
During my latest visit this summer, I also returned to the Greek quarter at the other end of the city, behind Saint Mark’s Square. The Greek community in Venice dates back to the Middle Ages, when Venice was still nominally part of the Byzantine Empire. There was an exodus of Byzantine scholars and artists to Venice after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Greeks of Venice were the most significant ethnic minority in the lagoon during the 16th century, and they also became the largest community of Greeks living in exile.
The émigrés were teachers, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, academics, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians. They reintroduced the teaching of the Greek language to their western counterparts, and brought with them classical texts that were printed on the first printing presses for Greek books in Venice in 1499.
The Greeks of Venice helped to trigger the revival of Greek and Roman studies, arts and sciences, and they are a key to understanding the development of the Italian Renaissance and humanism. Without this reintroduction of patristic texts – and their rapid dissemination due to the development of printing – would the Reformation that followed in the decades immediately after have been anything more than a damp squid?
For centuries, the Greeks in Venice were not allowed to celebrate the Orthodox Liturgy. However, in 1498, they gained the right to found the Scuola de San Nicolò dei Greci, a Greek confraternity. After protracted negotiations, they received permission in 1539 to build San Giorgio. The work, financed by a tax on all ships from the Orthodox world, began in 1548.
Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593), the leading exponent of the Cretan School of icon painting in the 16th century, was born in Iraklion and later lived in Venice, from 1577 to 1582.
Damaskinos and Emmanuel Tzanes painted the icons and frescoes in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice, known to many for its leaning bell-tower. The fresco of ‘The Last Judgment’ (1589-1593) in the dome is the work of John Kyprios, while the icon screen is the work of many Cretan artists, especially Michael Damaskinos. When Damaskinos returned to Crete, the dome was completed under Tintoretto’s supervision.
Damaskinos was a near-contemporary of the most famous of all Cretan painters, El Greco, and is believed by many to have been El Greco’s teacher. El Greco, or Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), was born in Venetian Crete and moved to Venice in 1567 when he was 26. There, he worked closely with Titian, who was then in his 80s. In 1570, he moved to Rome, where his works were strongly marked by his Venetian experiences. His subsequent influence on western art is immeasurable.
After the fall of the Venetian Republic and the establishment of the modern Greek state, the Greek community in Venice declined. But a noticeable Orthodox and Greek presence remains in the city.
The Church of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice has been the cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy since 1991. Greek landmarks include the neighbouring Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine in Studies in Venice, and the Greek community retains its own burial rights on the cemetery island of San Michele in the Lagoon.
The daily commute
from Mestre to Venice
Napoleon described Saint Mark’s Square as ‘the drawing room of Europe.’ But as the core resident population of Venice continues to decline, many Venetians are moving their drawing rooms – and every other room in their homes – to outlying, mainland towns such as Mestre.
For many tourists, Mestre is merely an affordable place to sleep and leave luggage, a convenient starting point for a day-trip to Venice. Mestre was always overshadowed by its powerful neighbour Venice. Yet this is the most populated borough within Venice, serving as a kind of mainland suburb.
The population of Mestre today is almost three times that of Venice itself. Mestre offers modern houses and apartments, space for children to play, and a place for family cars. There are normal shops with normal prices, including Mestre’s shopping centre, Centro Le Barche.
Mestre is linked to Venice by Ponte della Libertà, the 3.8 km railway and road bridge that crosses the lagoon. Buses run constantly, crossing the lagoon to Piazzale Roma, Venice’s bus terminus, bringing day-trippers and commuters from Mestre to Venice each morning.
Even the gondoliers can be seen commuting each morning from Mestre – a sign of how things are changing in Venice.
Canon Patrick Comerford blogs daily at www.patrickcomerford.com. This feature was originally prepared for the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough)