When Napoleon invaded Venice in 1797, bringing about the end of the Venetian Republic, he nicked a giant Veronese painting. The painting now sits in the Louvre, as possibly the most ignored artwork in the entire building. It is displayed, unfortunately, opposite the Mona Lisa.
Happily, some of the the other finest works of the greatest Venetian artist still adorn the walls of palaces and churches on the main island of Venice. The Tintorettos in Scuola di San Rocco are worth a trip to Venice alone. But on my recent trip this January, I found that nothing quite matched coming out of the church into a nearly deserted square doused in watery sunlight. The contemporary image of a city plagued by tourists is not entirely accurate, if you visit at the right time, which is January and February.
There is something le Carré-esque about the place’s dark alleys and sparse lanterns at nighttime. No part of town invokes this sinister feeling more than Canarregio, in the very north of the main island. Just outside a “natural” wine bar on the canal is the spot where there was an assassination attempt on Paolo Sarpi – the theologian and proagandist of Venice against the papacy in 17th century. There is murder in the air.
Just down the road from the wine bar – hint: natural wine is not worth anyone’s time – is the Jewish ghetto, where Jews were made to live by Venetian authorities during the Republic. The ghetto today now boasts some of the best restaurants and bars the city has to offer, and the unmissable Museum of Jewish Art.
It is in these less trodden and unfamiliar areas where Venice comes into its own.
But a narrative of decline has plagued the city in recent years. The Guardian recently published a gloomy outlook on its future, Venice not the Guardian, that is, groaning under the weight of tourism. Around thirty million people visit every year. Around half of those are day-trippers, and that is where the biggest problem lies. They are the tourists who pour off cruise ships, bringing a packed lunch or a snack, to take some photos of San Marco, leaving nothing but trash. They spend too little money and clutter the place up.
The result is a throng of shops selling tourist tat – cheap mimics of the glass wear that Venice is famous for, knock off Venetian masks, a Hard Rock Café looking seedy and incongruous at the base of the Rialto bridge. Too many tourists appear not to interact with the city in a meaningful way, and they certainly make a negligible economic contribution.
But there are moves to reverse this trend. In late December Venetian authorities announced they would charge these day trippers a tax up to 10 euro, depending on the season. The measure should bring in tens of millions in revenue a year – and will be directed to the costly upkeep of the city. It may also act as a disincentive to the day trippers, although this seems less likely at such a low level.
These changes are indicative of the dramatic volte face in government heralded by the election of Luigi Brugnaro as Mayor of Venice in 2015. His predecessor Giorgio Orsoni was the head of a coalition of centre-left government. The left wing traditionally held Venice – but Luigi Brugnaro shook up the narrative, as a conservative with an entrepreneurial touch. On the new tourist tax, Brugnaro said: “We can start addressing Venice’s many extra expenses. That will mean a saving for Venetians.”
“The tax will …allow us to manage the city better and to keep it clean… and allow Venetians to live with more decorum.”
On my trip last month our hosts told us over lunch that Venetians feel conflicted about this change. Public services are in decline following the loss of the high-spending left wing government, they say, but Brugnaro’s entrepreneurial approach could save the city from itself. And the very few permanent residents of the main island will all attest to the pressing need to address the tourism problem.
The real difficulty lies in changing the culture of tourism. European travel has gone through a democratisation over the past 30 years, heralded primarily by the influx of budget airlines. There is nothing wrong with the democratisation of travel, it is a good thing.
But in the case of Venice the overwhelming impression I got from speaking to Venetians was that the trend, best represented by cruise shipping day trippers, needed to be at least partially reversed. Now Venetian authorities are looking to ways to attract a type of tourist who interacts properly with the city – those who spend money in restaurants and hotels, who populate the galleries and the churches. Venice is home to an international film festival, and of course the Biennale. To change the culture authorities are looking to build on these cultural events and offer more of quality all year round.
In any case, the Biennale or cruise ships aside, it is not hard to explain what ultimately draws 30 million people a year to Venice.
Venetian food is notoriously ropey. This is part of the charm. Mashed fish on toast is exactly as delicious as it sounds. Anchovies and artichokes are the currency of choice. You would think Venice is nestled in a raddichio forrest for its rude insertion into every dish. But it’s less the state of the food but the culture of eating which is appealing. The city is adorned with chichetti bars at every bend (we were taken to Osteria Al Squero in the very south of the island by our hosts), where you graze on variations of mashed fish on toast washed down with prosecco or spritz.
It is not a city that wants to be navigated either. Throwing your phone in a canal would be as helpful as google maps to you. A friend who is studying there gave us some invaluable intel – streets labelled “Corte” tend to be dead ends (lots of those), follow the Calles and Sotoportegos and you should eventually find where you are going. This helped, but the endless frustration of going round in circles, dead-end upon dead-end, felt like a rite of passage for a tourist in the city.
Ultimately what draws us to Venice, and will always draw tourists to Venice (day trippers and hardened culturephiles alike) is the city’s ineffable beauty. Getting lost doesn’t matter so much when every corner you turn is a new and empty square waiting to be discovered, a canal with gondolas lazily drifting along near-luminous algae-green water.
There is a lot of talk about Venice’s supposedly doomed fate as a sinking city. Every year we are inundated with pictures of tourists knee high in water traversing Piazza San Marco. It’s an easy narrative to spin, but Venetians are keen to point out that it’s not exactly true. Some parts of the city are slowly becoming more vulnerable to rising tides, but most of the city remains above water throughout the year. The city is built on sand – but it is built to cope with flooding. There is a reason why there are no paintings on the ground floor of the Academia. It’s in the middle of a lagoon, for goodness sake.
Major flooding can be destructive. The mosaics of San Marco suffered “20 years of damage” in the last November floods, the local authorities claimed. And there are frequent debates over how to manage this – do you remove the mosaics altogether, to be preserved in a museum for posterity? Or do you accept their fate – is this what is supposed to happen to them?
New technology is being explored to cope with the changing landscape. And the images of tourists wading through San Marco paint a far more dramatic scene than is actually the case. Venice will be around for a long time to come, and hopefully much longer.
Go there, early in the year. You won’t be confronted with flip-flopped tourists populating knock off glass shops.
Nothing can beat coming out of Scuola di San Rocco into a deserted square and seeking refuge from the cold in a bacari with a suspicious plate of mashed fish and an aperol spritz. The Tintorettos are pretty impressive too.