For a thousand years Venice held “the gorgeous east in fee” and set its own terms for the West. The Napoleon saw a bluff- and called it. …
Napoleon himself commanded the French armies in Italy. But for five centuries no foreign ship of war had entered Venetian waters without permission. When the frigate failed to answer signals, the fortress commander gave the order to open fire; and so on an April day at the end of the eighteenth century the commander wrote finis to the story of the Venetian Republic.
The ship was halted and boarded. It commander was killed in the melee, and Napoleon was given, as he wished, a “casus belli”. He refused to treat for peace , and on May 16, three thousand hardened French soldiers disembarked upon the Piazza San Marco, the symbolic showplace of Venetian splendor.
Napoleon was the first general ever to accomplish the capture of Venice, for a thousand years one of the marvels of Europe-a water prodigy, an empire, a legend; the loveliest city man had ever built, its natural element the sea, its vocation the pursuit of magnificence. As the French moved into the sumptuous Palace of the Doges, for so long one of the prime movers of European history, the Venetian style and spirit died at last. A tree of Liberty was erected in the Piazza , the lion-flags of Venice fluttered down, and an era limply ended.
Venice was a strange commonwealth from the start; a “country” whose roads were canals dredged from the natural rivulets and channels of the lagoon and whose early buildings of wattles and thatch stood on piles among the reeds. Boats were the only transport, fish was the only natural food, rain the only drinking water. This rude environment was exploited by a cultivated sort of pioneer, for these were settlers brought up to the high, if faded, standards of Imperial Rome.
By the eighth century it was at first a democracy; the republic of the lagoon gradually let an obsession with public stability and security obscure individual liberty and entrusted authority increasingly to a hereditary ruling caste. It was, by necessity, a nation of enterprising and guileful traders; merchants by vocation who turned logically to the sea for their livelihood.
Everything about this developing nation was unique- its history, its manner of living, its geographical situation. It stood on the borders of East and West, on the hazy dividing line between the two halves of the dismembered Roman Empire. Rome and Byzantium vied for its allegiance ; its religion wavered between the Eastern and Western rites; even its architecture was made up of a stylistic mixture in which the domes of one world met the vaults of the other. Venice was a frontier station, and it was this central isolation that was soon to give the Venetian Republic its independence, power and meaning; a sensual and ostentatious city state different in kind from any other.
In the Middle Ages Venice possessed a chimerical quality. She was fabulous among states, like a golden unicorn or a phoenix. She
herself aloof, calm, superior. Saint Mark the Evangelist, whose corpse she claimed to possess, was her protector, and his talismatic winged lion appeared like a trademark on everything Venetian. Venice was essentially a great commercial concern, with an image deliberately designed to impress the customers and stamp itself upon the consciousness of the world.
As the years passed, executive power was taken from the patrician families and put into the hands of a reticent body called the Council of Ten, the real check- secret, swift and often sinister-upon personal ambition and corruption. These secular watchdogs were more powerful than any religious inquisitors and surrounded themselves with a calculated mystery.
Conspirators would be found at dawn swinging from gibbets in the public square, or buried alive head downward among the flagstones. Unsuccessful admirals, swollen headed “condottieri” , were strangled or jailed as examples. Venice was a police state, but instead of worshiping political power , she was terrified of it; the system was designed to forestall both revolution and personal dictatorship, to keep the state stable and competent, and to leave the field clear for profit.
ONCE did she hold the gorgeous East in fee;
And was the safeguard of the West: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reach’d its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is pass’d away. ( William Wordsworth)
Allan Miller: Those billboards sum up Venice’s great conundrum. Piazza San Marco now resembles the website of a venerable publication gradually engulfed by banner ads in an effort to keep afloat. These days, The Death in Venice-style big-spending high culture extended stay has gone the way of the steamer trunk. More and more tourists treat La Serenissima as a day trip; it is cheaper to stay in terraferma, pack a picnic and spend a day in Venice perhaps without spending a single euro (in recent years, revenue from tourism has fallen). Hotels in the Centro Storico, which face higher expenses than those on the mainland, cannot compete, while most Venetian restaurants too unappetizing to compete with a homemade sandwich.
In the light of this situation, the Mayor Orsoni’s frustration is understandable, even if his non-solution — the billboards — is indefensible. Venice’s dream would seem to have become a nightmare of almost sci-fi proportions: a daily invasion of alien house guests who admire and accelerate the city’s crumbling without contributing to repairs. At the very moment when Venice’s serene charms are increasingly unique in a throbbing world, the city is unable to benefit. Venice’s contribution to Italian tourism revenue must be immense, but the money winds up in terraferma, and Rome repays the favor by cutting subsidies for restoration. Far from being the anachronistic parasite it is often portrayed as, Venice is being exploited, even if inadvertently and without malice. It is the same dynamic faced by the Sydney Opera House, which has contributed untold billions to the Australian economy, and yet gets treated as a charity case when it comes time to pay for the much-needed restorations which would make it a better place to hear opera.
It is bizarre to consider that Venice — which is now smaller than Waltham, MA (pop. 60,605) and sixty years ago was larger than Providence (pop. 171,557) — has a housing crisis. The dynamic is tripartite, not between locals and tourists, but between locals, tourists and the vast population of service workers and students who commute across the causeway into Venice each day from, mostly, Mestre (my sources tell me that some students have resorted to renting rooms in monasteries, a scenario which could, depending on the height of the perimeter wall, inspire any number of genial romantic comedies). These working visitors make the city run and yet cannot live in the city or feel truly a part of it….