The idea of Venice
The ‘refoundation’ in romantic terms of the idea of Venice as a city that «can be compared just with itself », enchanted site of an immaterial, unique experience, is already fully included in Goethe. The chapter about Venice taken from his book Italian Journey begins with these words: «It was written, then, on my page in the Book of Fate that at five in the afternoon of the twenty-eight day of September in the year 1786, I should see Venice for the first time as I entered this beautiful island-city, this beaver republic. So now, thank God, Venice is no longer a mere word to me, an empty name, a state of mind which has so often alarmed me who am the mortal enemy of mere words!».
The perception of Venice as an inner place, which in its diversity is able to avoid dissolving in the common rites of the Grand Tour and, on the contrary, becomes prototype of the singular capacity to reflect the aura of its environment and history in the very identity of those who live there, is the key to understand its election to excellent destination (cenacle, articulation), of the new literary, philosophic and artistic culture which is taking shape in Europe.
After Goethe, Venice will charm Byron, and Ruskin, which exactly of Venice will make the landmark of the gothic revival through which last century’s England forced the turn of modernity. Soon it will be the time ofNietzsche, of Wagner, who comes to die to Venice, of Mann who has, maybe, some responsibility in the aversion of so many Venetians of today against the bridge crossing the lagoon, since he wrote in 1912, in his book Death in Venice, that, «to arrive in Venice by land was like entering a palace by a back door, that only as he was now doing, only by ship, over the high sea, should one come to this most extraordinary city». The American writer James tries to sew the threads of some of these convergences in the Aspern Papers, to the memory of Byron’s Venetian season. Marinetti makes of it the paradigmatic target of the controversy held against history, of which the Futuristic Manifesto proposes to make a clean sweep. If in architecture the Liberty style has a free hand only at the Lido of Venice, literature widely fills this gap watching D’Annunzio become Venetian when, during his maturity years, he becomes engaged with the Venetian piano player Luisa Baccara.
This centrality of Venice in the cultural imaginary landscape lasts until the late twentieth century, continuously renowing itself, and always appealing to the exchange between Venetians and foreigners from all over the world: Diego Valeri and Venini, Hemingway and Le Corbusier, Maderna and Nono, Turcato and Vedova, up to the Guggenheim phenomenon, with the cenacle of Ca’ Venier dei Leoni.
Up to cinema, of course: Senso, and again Death in Venice by Visconti, Eva by Losey, a film adapted from a novel by Chandler, Who works is lost and The key by Brass, Saint Michael had a rooster… by the Taviani brothers, to mention just some of the films between the many shot in Venice, and that made of the city much more than a sumptuous scenography, interpreting and at the same time feeding and modifying its most hidden meanings.
The urbanistic standardization
Differently from how the greatest part of the outsiders think, convinced of the fact that Venice is extraordinary also for its building and urbanistic non-homogeneity of the premodern age, the renewal effort put into effect after the loss of independence expressed itself intensely also in the interventions for a phisical modernization of the city.
To the hard economic crisis which holds the city in the second half of the Nineteenth century (in 1866 the Mayor will greet the annexion to Italy declaring Venice to be “coinvited to the banquet of freedom with tore and tattered clothes”, Venice reacts aiming to consolidate its position as third big european port, together with Triest and Marseille. In view of this goal begin the great works designed to change substantially the city’s structure: the railway bridge and terminal, the Stazione Marittima, the industrial poles of Giudecca and Santa Marta, the industrial port of Marghera (after long and harsh controversies) and, in 1932-33, the car bridge.
Within this same process is to be included also the development of Mestre as the city’s modern periphery, free to expand itself practically without restraints, satisfying the same centripetal forces which determined the twentieth century’s expansion of all main cities. To a different extent, and with completely different consequencies, but inside a similar logic, take place in that same period a series of restructurations inside the city. For the fist time since it exists, Venice can be travelled all over on foot. For that purpose many new bridges are built, of which two on the Canal Grande, and several canals are covered with earth, building amongst other things the Strada Nuova and via XXII Marzo; moreover, the ordinary residential building is massively replaced. All these interventions have been repeatedly stigmatized by the most influential architecture historians as short-sighted attempts to homologate the unnatural aspect typical of the lagoon settlement, banal extensions to Venice of the, at that time ordinary, demolition techniques. But are we really sure that it is not possible to see them today also as an adaptation of the city, maybe awkward, but equally effective and still very useful, to the changing of the times?
The new roles of the twentieth century
Volpi, Cini, Gaggia: if in the Porto Marghera crisis the industrial bet of Venice nowadays appears as a lost one, in the context of a decline in the secondary sector, common to the whole western world, it does not seem that in the critical comparison about the city cases the deserved importance is given to the fact that, for several decades and until the last post-war period, the city has acted as a strong propellent for initiative, enterprise, invention, besides being a conspicuous source of work and of motivation for the permanent settlement on part of the Venetian people.
That was not the only bet in the field of innovation. In the tendency to diversification typical of the city’s history, the same entrepeneurial forces and the same combinations of public and private capitals which were protagonists of the industrial option, tried to bring Venice in again in the twentieth century, also by means of giving it a sophisticated system of services, concentrated on the immaterial exchanges sphere, which up to today constitutes, at least potentially, an excellent opportunity at international level. The difficulties tormenting today the system Biennale/Venice International Film Festival must not allow to forget that it has been in the past a vanguard system with no equals, fully autoreferential when appealing to the force of gravity of the name of Venice in the world in order to obtain a double dragging effect: in the relaunching of the city’s image and in the promotion of the at that time new big hotels circuit, with CIGA and the Belle Epoque atmospheres of the Lido.
If the initiative to bring to Venice the big chemical industry can today be seen as a strain and a mistake, not only for the impact on the environment, but specially because of the extraneity of that specific production genre to the traditions and calling of the city, on the other hand it has to be said that the Biennale has taken root on one of the constitutive factors of the modern urban identity, thus assuming the idea of a Venice deeply rooted in the international culture and art.
The effectiveness of the invention is reflected in its longlasting success. The Biennale was one of the last lights to be on in Venice, making a good score also recently. And, talking about the Venice International Film Festival, since its beginning it bet on the new art of the century, widely exploiting the resource offered by the role of Venice in the imagination created by enchant and illusion. There has been a moment during which it seemed that the showcase Venice, the city of cinema, should become also a factory of dreams: it was in 1943, when the transfer of Cinecittà on the lagoon was not just announced (from the Salò Republic) but also started, with the placing in Venice of the Scalera Studios, where Luigi Chiarini, who was also the director of the first Biennale of Cinema, shot his film La Locandiera.
The fact that this capacity of Venice to create an image and a global quality mark by playing the card of cultural circulation has remained active through all the Fifties is proved, amongst other things, by the easiness with which some commercial inventions, just by being born in Venice, have quickly conquered the world’s stage.
But nowadays also that cycle is ended. Except for the University, the Cini Foundation and a few other dim fires, Venice exists and works just as a standardized touristic destination, helped by a network of low-level workers, lacking both a particular professionalism and personalization.
The reinvention of a real self-reference
The last suggestion that will be given here, is a change in the view on the recent history of Venice. If the reason of its decline does not lay in the efforts to modernize it, but in a totally different size of events, which shifted the balance axes of the ancient mediterranean world, then the effort in order to modify the last two centuries could be seen under the light of a positive behaviour contrasting the catastrophe, instead of seeming like a suicidal conjure.
The Biennale, the International Film Festival, the hotels of San Marco and of the Lido of Venice and, in a completely different way, the double bridge crossing the lagoon, the mill Stucky and the industrialization of Marghera, have been not only production instruments of vital profits but also, and most of all, the new symbols, the stars of the contemporary city. They have represented the productive moments of the building of an economic and social alternative, and of an alternative of image which up to now feeds the parts of Venice that still survive to the monoculture of the so-called «bite and run away» of group tourism, and to the monoculture of assistentialism which obviously derives from it, and which is assigning to the insular Venice a role similar to that of an ordinary town of 70 thousands inhabitants, where the historical and environmental heritage becomes an additional and not a constitutive variant of urban identity.
In order to change, and to continue to live, the problem which has to be solved is not merely the improvement of the present situation, maybe through a requalification of tourism by means of little overstructural changes.
Instead, the problem is to rethink recent history of the efforts made to equip the city once again: both those thought in view of an impossibile homologation, such as heavy industry, and those more adherent to the specific self-referentiality of Venice, such as the Biennale of flows, to make sure that it is not impossibile to intervene in Venice and to obtain good effects from the intervents.
It is not a question of forbidding something, or to fear that something be done, but it is a question to distinguish and choose, looking without fixed ideas to the effects that can be foreseen of the different possible actions.
The turning point seems to need also a reorganization of the imagined self-reference into a real one. But to what can the real self-reference appeal for the present, if it is rooted to the key resource constituted by the exceptionality of the past? Maybe, to the transformation of the past not in a good to be sold, but in a resource to invest upon: an engine of innovation.
Maybe, on the bringing in again of what made that past so great: the fact of Venice being a city of flows, of international exchange, a cosmopolitan city.
What is most needed is, to sum up, to create a system with the now more than ever necessary innovation, and the real self-reference, assumed with the role of resource more than of bond.
To be able, thus, to reinvent onself, still remaining or rather returning to be a city which is heart of exchanges, of flows; in this case, acting with the new specific keys of the contemporary world, which demands and repays the international scale, the communication, the immaterial production.
To the objection that now almost all western cities are concentrating on similar goals of the services sector, that is to say that there is a strong competition, Venice can reply presenting unique qualifications, which belong exclusively to the city, to its history and to its not extinguished ability of image: Venice as city of the water by excellence; bridge of Europe towards the east and the Orient, with centuries of tradition in making exchanges; Venice as a business unique all over the world, which only its self-reference could maybe bring to life.