Venice: The Impossible City

Earlier this year, at the end of April, I was packing and preparing to move to Venice for two months. I’d been hired for an internship with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and I was excited to be going back to Italy: in 2013, I’d lived in Rome for a summer and studied in Bologna, but I’d hardly spent any time in Venice other than a day trip, which largely amounted to visiting St. Mark’s Square. My Italian was more than rusty after several years out of practice. But having lived in Italy before, I figured I would have a handle on navigating a move there.

Palazzi on the Grand Canal.

Upon arriving in the city, I was quickly reminded that Venice is a world unto itself, and there is really no other city like it. How I managed to get a vaporetto (water bus) pass and board the right one to get to the apartment I’d be living in, I’ll never know. At the end of April, Venice was cold and rainy with many Italians still wearing down coats. I was a sorry sight dragging my suitcase along the canal and over a bridge in the rain to get to my apartment. Once inside, I wondered what exactly I had gotten myself into.

In the weeks that followed, as I learned the ins and outs of narrow Venetian streets and canals, that sense of strangeness and wonder never really went away. Navigation was disorienting: there is no straight line between any two points, except maybe in Campo San Marco.

As a history nerd, I found myself thinking about Venice as a city: how does this city exist? How did this city not only come into being and survive, but become a powerful republic and maritime empire for almost 1,000 years? [For context, the Venetian Republic endured (far less powerful than it had been) until 1797 when it fell to Napoleon.]

Most of all, I wondered how Venice deals with the pressures of being a modern city on a largely medieval framework.

Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal in Venice. Source: the author

Venice has been a destination and cosmopolitan center since the Middle Ages, thanks to its extensive trade networks and position as a kind of gateway between Europe and Asia on the Adriatic Sea. Goods and people of all kinds passed through Venice, and trade made it an incredibly wealthy and powerful city, which paid for the great works of art and architecture that still draw people today.

Though Venice eventually lost its political power, it retained its status as a destination and cultural locus. In the 19th century, European and American expats, artists, writers, and intellectuals flocked to Venice to take in the Venetian sights and that intangible “Venetian style,” documenting their experience in countless paintings, drawings, essays, and poems.

One pleasant discovery on my second day in Venice was the Campo Sant’Agnese. John Singer Sargent had painted this little campo, something I only knew because the painting now belongs to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, and I’d written a paper on it for an introductory art history class. Remembering the painting, I walked until I was more or less standing where Sargent had, and found that very little had changed other than the trees and a coat of paint.


Tourism in Venice is nothing new, but I saw firsthand how the pressures of modern tourism are quickly taking its toll. Venice is truly mobbed by thousands of tourists in the summer months, and a city already pressed for space is nearly overwhelmed. Tourists outnumber Venetians something like 5 to 1. Prohibitively high rents and limited job opportunities are driving more and more people out of the city to mainland Italy.

And yet tourism and the businesses catering to it (cruise ships, hotels, tour companies, restaurants, etc.) make up a huge part of the economy of Venice. Then there are the ubiquitous souvenir carts and shops along the Grand Canal and the major routes between landmarks: innumerable shops selling “authentic” Murano glass, Carnival masks, “genuine” leather goods, and other cheap souvenirs that have little or anything to do with Venice itself.

Cruise ship towering over Venice on the Giudecca Canal. Source: the author.

A second problem taking its toll on the city is climate change. Venice is synonymous with its canals, and the line that the city is sinking. Which it is, but very slowly. The greater problem is that water levels are rising. High tides in Venice are called “acqua alta” and already when they occur the lowest-lying parts of the city are flooded (think inches, not feet of water). These usually occur in the late fall and winter months, and when they do the Venetians wear rain boots, put up temporary walkways and alternate routes, and life goes on.

Acqua alta in Campo San Marco. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

But acqua alta is occurring more and more frequently, and rising sea levels threaten to bring more and more water into the lagoon and Venice. The controversial MOSE project (named after Moses and the Red Sea chapter) proposes to construct retractable flood gates on the sea bed to restrict the amount of water coming into the lagoon. However, the project is stalled thanks to funding issues, government corruption, and scientific evidence that suggests that it wouldn’t even work.

From its unique position on the lagoon, Venice has historically commanded and enjoyed an ineffable appeal. Countless artists and writers attempted to capture the mystique of Venice in their works, and that elusive quality clearly still draws tourists today. But while Venice may appear to be a city frozen in time, no romantic gloss can disguise the fact that it is threatened by very real and unglamorous problems. The sea and tourism that have long been the lifeblood of Venice are also playing significant roles in its destruction. It’s clear that Venice will have to find a way to balance its needs as a historic city with its needs as a modern one.


3 comments on “Venice: The Impossible City

  1. I really like the mix of visual potency and environmental urgency in this post. My fascination for Venice was recently piqued when I had to research about a Venetian poet-cum-physician who was the first to write a scientific account of syphilis, through a poem! And having read this entry (and seeing the beautiful pic of the Grand Canal), I feel a certain push that makes me really want to trace his steps (or rows, if he frequently traveled by gondola) in Venice. If not now, maybe in the future, though sadly, with scuba gear on.


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