Venice: The Currents of Power
From its creation in the fifth century, Venice sought to compensate for its small size through ingenuity, innovation and a regular reinvention of its model. A very useful model of resilience in our time. Guided tour.
The vertigo of history
The history of Venice begins with the announce of the arrival of Attila from the Vandals and the Goths who force the inhabitants to find refuge on the islands of the lagoon. It goes through eleven centuries – from 697 to 1797 – of a very oligarchic “Republic.” A visit to the Doge’s Palace and the dungeons on the other side of the Bridge of Sighs recalls the era’s violence. Venice takes us on journeys to the end of the world with Marco Polo, Francesco Morosini or more recently with the meteoric and tragic destiny of flour magnates, the Stuckys. Here, aristocrats and merchants are one. To survive, Venice multiplied alliances, diplomatic missions and wars – for which it employed mercenaries – not hesitating to join forces in 1204 with the Crusaders to conquer Constantinople, a Christian mission, illustrating the priorities of the time. Venice’s innovations, especially in its Arsenal, allowed the city to build ships industrially and take control of the Mediterranean at a time when it still occupied a central place in the world.
“Here, aristocrats and merchants are one”
The constancy of change
Facing St. Mark's Square, the viewer no longer knows what era he is in, as the image of the basilica and its bell tower has remained unchanged for centuries. But the impression turns out to be misleading because five major changes came to transform the life of this city. Firstly, the discovery of America, which redrew the maps of world trade. Then, progress was made in shipbuilding by the enemies of the Serenissima, inventing larger boats, capable of carrying many guns and causing Venice to lose the hegemony won over the Mediterranean with its fast and maneuverable galleys. In 1797, after centuries of resistance, Venice yielded to Napoleon before falling under the Austrian yoke in 1815. Then, the unification of Italy in 1870 plunged the city into a lagoon where it had already been swimming laboriously for decades. And finally, the advent of tourism with its carnival trinkets, its overnight stays in Airbnb and its cruise ships: This short-term financial windfall representing a real challenge for the inhabitants of the city and the diversification of its economy.
Head above water
When it was built in 1792, the owners found a premonitory name for La Fenice (The Phoenix). The opera house where Maria Callas, in particular like to sing, would be destroyed by fire twice – in 1836 and 1996 – before being rebuilt, just like the mythical phoenix. In the same spirit, after two years of confinement due to Covid-19, Venice is starting to drown again in tides of tourists and peddlers. Global warming threatens its survival and its declining population is melting like snow in the sun. To keep her head above water, Venice will have to reconnect with what made the city famous: Innovation, diplomacy, the spirit of conquest and the exercise of power. And to make its economy sustainable, it will have to find a new 'Doge' capable of uniting local energies around a project for the future, defending it in Rome before selling it to its target population.
A trip to Venice for a few days is absolutely essential. Opt, for example, for accommodation in Dorso Duro and immerse yourself in websites or guides to understand the history of the city. Lose yourself in the meandering alleys and sottoporteghi of Cannaregio, San Polo, San Marco and Castello, taking a guide at least once! The list of must-see points is so long that I propose to share just five of them: The Peggy Guggenheim Museum, the Doge's Palace, a sunset at the panoramic bar of the Hilton, the site of the old 'Stucky' mill in Giudecca, a boat trip in the lagoon – or a gondola ride – and the theater of La Fenice. Not to mention of course visiting the cafes, restaurants and various traditional shops. Just avoid the ultra-touristy avenue that leads from the station to Rialto.
Gian Angelo Bellati: A Walk Around Venice’s History
“Venice can also be described as a sort of ‘Disneyland’ because its whole economy is based on tourism,” says Gian Angelo Bellati, honorary consul of Luxembourg in Venice. He takes us through the narrow streets and the romantic lagoons of the famous city while telling us about its history.
Can you describe Venice in a few words?
For more than 1,000 years Venice represented the capital of an empire. Today it stands as the district of a different and larger city, Mestre, because it has not maintained its autonomous municipality. Furthermore, it has no political representation because it has 50,000 inhabitants compared to the 200,000 of Mestre and cannot manage the complex and typical problems of an island and ancient city. Venice can also be described as a sort of “Disneyland” because its whole economy is based on tourism. Its population is decreasing at the rate of 1,000 per year and has fallen from 170,000 in the 1950s to less than 50,000 today.
“For more than 1,000 years Venice represented the capital of an empire”
How would you describe life in Venice?
You’ll enjoy living in Venice if you love walking, struggling physically, accepting not having a car at home and if you have enough income to live with double the average cost of living compared to the mainland. I have the privilege of owning a parking slot in Piazzale Roma, which was built during fascism when there was one car compared to about 10,000 today. No municipal administration has ever built a garage with reserved spaces at low prices for residents near the houses of Venice! I love living in Venice because it’s a wonderful city where I can row and sail on the lagoon. I also like running into the numerous international characters who frequent the city.
Which visits would you recommend to a businessman visiting your city?
A businessman has little time. I would recommend several activities: First walk around the city for at least one day, secondly visit the Doge's Palace, some Churches, the Correr Museum, lastly take a day trip to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.
Could you tell us a story that illustrates the character of Venice and its inhabitants?
The last “real Venetians” are people who do not want to exploit their city, but to embrace all its diversity compared to the mainland: Use the boat, walk and, in general, make the physical effort to sail on the lagoon. One of the most beautiful episodes in the recent history of Venice is the organization of the “Red regatta.” This independent public art project was born from a collaboration between a great artist from New York, Melissa McGill, and the Associazione vela al Terzo. It shows that the associative world is important for the recovery of traditional crafts, for the preservation of traditional boats, for the protection of the Arsenal, etc.