06 November 2022

The people of Venice
fear they are losing
out to the demands
of mass tourism

The resident population of Venice has dropped below 50,000 for the first time (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Symon Semeonis from Clonmel visited ‘sumptuous’ Saint Mark’s Basilica in 1323 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

An earlier visitor
from Clonmel

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 Jewish Ghetto in Venice was the first-ever ghetto in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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?

San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice is known to many for its leaning bell-tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


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.

Michael Damaskinos and Emmanuel Tzanes painted the icons and frescoes in San Giorgio dei Greci (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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.

Mestre has always been overshadowed by its neighbour Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Canon Patrick Comerford blogs daily at www.patrickcomerford.com. This feature was originally prepared for the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough)

7, A gondolier and gondola below the Rialto Bridge … even the gondoliers can be seen commuting each morning from Mestre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG
and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:
Sunday 6 November 2022

The poet TS Eliot in a portrait by Gerald Kelly

Patrick Comerford

This is the Third Sunday before Advent (6 November 2022). In many parts of Ireland today is also the Feast of All the Saints of Ireland. Later this morning, I hope to be present at the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford.

But, before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection based on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ first published 100 years ago, in 1922;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘Now there were seven brothers’ (Luke 20: 29) … Seven Brothers Taverna on the harbourfront in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Luke 20: 27-38 (NRSVA):

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

TS Eliot is the greatest poet in English in the 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Waste Land (Introduction):

TS Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the youngest child in a prominent Unitarian and academic family. He studied philosophy at Harvard (1906-1909) and at the Sorbonne (1910–1911) before returning to Harvard (1911-1914).

In 1915, Eliot moved to Merton College, Oxford, which I was writing about in this prayer diary yesterday (5 November 2022). However, he left after a year, remarking: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.’ By 1916, he had completed a PhD in philosophy for Harvard, but he never returned for his viva voce exam.

Meanwhile, in 1915 he had been introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Their tragic marriage was a catalyst for ‘The Waste Land,’ and inspired the movie Tom and Viv (1994). Eliot held several teaching posts, including one at Highgate School where his pupils included John Betjeman. By 1917, he was working at Lloyd’s Bank.

In 1922, the same year as James Joyce published Ulysses, Eliot published ‘The Waste Land.’ The poem includes well-known phrases such as ‘April is the cruellest month,’ and ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’ Recent studies see in ‘The Waste Land.’ a description of Eliot’s pilgrimage from the Unitarianism of his childhood to his life-lasting Anglo-Catholicism.

In 1925, Eliot joined the publishers Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, and spent the rest of his career there. His major poem that year, ‘The Hollow Men,’ is indebted to Dante and wrestles with the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and with his failed marriage.

On 29 June 1927, Eliot was baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Finstock, outside Witney in Oxfordshire, by the Revd William Force Stead, a fellow American, a poet and chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. Stead had encouraged Eliot to read the poems of George Herbert and John Donne and the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes. A day later, he brought Eliot to be confirmed by Bishop Thomas Banks Strong of Oxford in his private chapel.

His poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927), the first of the Ariel Poems and written shortly after his baptism, begins with a quotation from a sermon on the Epiphany by Andrewes in 1622. He was influenced too by Nicholas Ferrar’s life at Little Gidding, and by the works of Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor.

Eliot soon became a British citizen, and served as a churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road, London. He would describe himself as a ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.’

‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), Eliot’s first long poem after becoming an Anglican, has been described as his conversion poem. But he regarded the Four Quartets as his masterpiece, and the collection earned him his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. His plays included Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949).

In 1958, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury appointed Eliot to a commission that produced The Revised Psalter (1963). CS Lewis, once a harsh critic of Eliot, was also a member of the commission, and during their time on that commission their antagonism turned to true friendship.

Eliot’s reputation has been plagued by accusations that he held anti-Semitic and anti-Irish views. In a study of Eliot’s impact on Anglican theology, Professor Barry Spurr seeks to deal convincingly with the accusations of antisemitism.

‘And went on in sunlight, … And drank coffee, and talked for an hour’ … coffee and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ in the Rectory garden in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘The Waste Land’, which I am reflecting on throughout this week, was first published 100 years ago at the end in 1922. It is a masterpiece of modern literature and one of the greatest poems in the English language. Its opening lines are often quoted, even by people who have never read all five sections and 434 lines of the poem.

‘The Waste Land’ was published in Eliot’s The Criterion in October 1922 – this was the same year James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris. ‘The Waste Land’ was then published in the US in the November issue of The Dial, and was published in book form in December 1922.

Well-known and oft-quoted phrases in ‘The Waste Land’ include ‘April is the cruellest month,’ ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust,’ and the mantra in Sanskrit, ‘Shantih shantih shantih.’

The poem draws on the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King and on the thoughts of Saint Augustine and Dante, shifts between voices of satire, prophecy and judgment, and constantly changes speaker, location and time.

The poem has long been read as a statement on the post-war atmosphere, although Eliot claimed it was not. He wrote most of ‘The Waste Land’ in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world.

Between 1918 and 1920, as many as 100 million people around the globe died from the Spanish flu, far more than were killed in World War I. In England, a quarter of the population was infected with the disease, and more than 200,000 people died.

Eliot and his wife Vivienne caught the Spanish Flu in December 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery. Literary critics are only beginning to explore the profound influence that the global pandemic had on ‘The Waste Land.’

Eliot’s case of influenza was not a serious one, but he recorded that he was ‘very weak,’ Vivien noted that afterwards he was haunted by the fact that ‘his mind is not acting as it used to do.’ The heavy death toll did much more than even war to shape this masterpiece.

The first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair. Re-reading ‘The Waste Land’ in the light of that pandemic a century ago sheds new light on lines such as:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson! “You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

If Eliot did not have the pandemic in mind as he wrote these lines, he certainly evokes the atmosphere of the time, and the sense that the dead were so plentiful that they overflowed the boundaries of the living, while the physical and emotional senses could believe the living were only the walking dead.

But, by the end of ‘The Waste Land,’ we catch a glimmer of the faint possibility of hope. By 1930, the glimmer of hope becomes a bright flare in ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), Eliot’s first long poem after becoming an Anglican and described as his conversion poem. Even when April seems to be the cruellest month, pandemics end, rain falls again, and Spring rains renew the earth every year.

‘The Waste Land’ is divided into five sections:

1, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair.

2, ‘A Game of Chess’, employs alternating narrations, in which vignettes of several characters address those themes experientially.

3, ‘The Fire Sermon’, offers a philosophical meditation in relation to the imagery of death and views of self-denial in juxtaposition, influenced by Augustine of Hippo and Eastern religions.

4, ‘Death by Water’, includes a brief lyrical petition.

5, ‘What the Thunder Said’, the culminating fifth section, concludes with an image of judgment.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, and I plan to dip in and out of these five sections of The Waste Land in this prayer diary each day this week.

Inside the chapel in Merton College, Oxford … Eliot left after a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Sunday 6 November 2022):

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of all:
govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘A New Commandment.’ This theme is introduced this morning by Sue Claydon, chair of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. She writes:

Two of the definitions of armistice are ‘a state in which there is no war’ and ‘peace’. This week, Armistice Day remembers not only the ending of war in 1918, but also all the victims of wars in the 104 years since. When we look at what ‘peace’ means, it is more than the absence of war.

An essential factor in peace-making is reconciliation, which takes full account of justice and is built into all aspects. This is not an easy or quick process. It takes commitment and time. 2022 has seen war in many places. The victims of war have filled our media but have we the commitment to work to see the tragic consequences of war cease?

While the impact on humanity of violence is clear to see, the work of those who are following the call to be peacemakers around the Anglican Communion is rarely emphasised. Jesus gave a new commandment, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ This week let us think about how as individuals and churches we can truly follow this commandment.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

‘Though the mountains be shaken and
the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you
will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

No 24 Russell Square, London, where TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber, is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

A plaque at 24 Russell Square, recalling TS Eliot’s working days (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)