Saving Venice from and for ourselves

“Venice is not so much a city as the representation of a city,” writes Peter Ackroyd in Venice: Pure City (2010). Variously called La Dominante, Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, City of Water, City of Masks, City of Bridges, The Floating City, and City of Canals, Venice and its lagoon are listed as a World Heritage Site. With such a reputation, what would we not do to save it?

VeniceWriting in The Art Newspaper (24 June 2013), Anna Somers Cocks argues that every tourist should be charged €30 ($40) to visit the city. She says that entry to the city should be strictly managed in terms of numbers of visitors per day or week and that management necessarily involves some kind of ticketing – as at a major art event. She makes the following points:

  • “The city is immensely fragile and under attack by the waters. It needs very large sums of money to maintain it and will need even more as the sea level rises, so it is right that those who come to enjoy its beauty should make a direct contribution to its survival.”
  • “Central government funding for the maintenance of Venice has become inadequate and unpredictable over the last decade.”
  • “The lack of funding has severely reduced the power of the mayor and the town council, which is serious as it is they who are most directly responsible for the city. A ring-fenced fund, into which the tourist contributions were paid, would go a considerable way towards giving them back the power to act.”
  • “The concept of managing and limiting access as well as making a financial contribution to the maintenance of a site is already well established in ecotourism (for example, at the Galapagos Islands). As to the ticket price, I have suggested €30 ($40) because it costs $25 to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Venice is so much more than one museum.”
  • “Charging is therefore potentially a game-changer as it gives Venice a regular, predictable source of funding, and if presented properly, would not be a hard sell to visitors, who can all see how vulnerable the ancient buildings are. But for this same reason, the money would need to be seen to be spent on protecting Venice, so it would have to be ring-fenced to prevent it being deviated or just disappearing into the black hole of Italy’s public finances.”

GondoleCocks proposes an independently monitored trust with a publicly accountable international board to oversee the fund. It seems clear, however, that unless the Italian government is willing to meet its responsibilities – as do other governments in relation to their national heritage – Venice will sink less than gracefully beneath the waves and no one will be able to repeat Bob Hope’s one-liner in Casanova’s Big Night (1954) when he dips his hand in the water, sniffs it, and remarks, “Ah, Canal No. 5.”

Mark Twain had this to say of Venice in The Innocents Abroad (1869):

“In the glare of day, there is little poetry about Venice, but under the charitable moon her stained palaces are white again, their battered sculptures are hidden in shadows, and the old city seems crowned once more with the grandeur that was hers five hundred years ago. It is easy, then, in fancy, to people these silent canals with plumed gallants and fair ladies – with Shylocks in gaberdine and sandals, venturing loans upon the rich argosies of Venetian commerce – with Othellos and Desdemonas, with Iagos and Roderigos – with noble fleets and victorious legions returning from the wars. In the treacherous sunlight we see Venice decayed, forlorn, poverty-stricken, and commerceless – forgotten and utterly insignificant. But in the moonlight, her fourteen centuries of greatness fling their glories about her, and once more is she the princeliest among the nations of the earth.”


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