Some cities are so famous that, after you‚Äôve seen photo upon photo, you think you know exactly what you are going to encounter. For some, London for me, the image fits so neatly with reality that it feels familiar on your first visit. For others, say, New York, my preconceptions did not do the city justice, and the reality stood out in a way my imagination didn‚Äėt. Venice
, sadly, had the opposite effect on me, my image of a vibrant city livings its heritage now forever drowned out by a hollowed out characture of the city.
Venice was the king of the second age of cities. After cities across Europe were abandoned following the fall of the Roman Empire, 500 years went by where Europe was a continent of peasant villages.
In the 6th century CE, the constant invasions of Germanic tribes pushed the peasants in north-east Italy to move into the lagoon. For 1000 years before-hand the sea had been the primary threat, with maritime powers striking at every coastal city, so that the great cities were all on inland rivers, with access to the sea but the ability to control enterance. The Goths, Huns and Vandals changed all that, making the inland routes the source of danger, so the Venetians found security by living on the very edge of the sea, with seven deep lagoons separating them from mauraders. The city grew rapidly (the first of the second age of civilisation), and in 726 CE the city elected its first Doge, starting a 1000 year period of stability and prosperity. The position of Venice on the shores of the Adriatic gave it a maritime orientation, but the true trading success of Venice lied in two factors.
Firstly, the Venetians pooled their shipbuilding expertise into a single public shipyard, the Arsenal, capable of building three ships a day to ensure maritime supremacy. Secondly, the Venetians developed elaborate financial tools for risk-spreading, which drove cooperation rather than competition between the merchant princes, and gave staggering capacity to empire-building schemes. As an aside, the saying ‚Äúsailing the seven seas‚ÄĚ originally referred to those captains with mastery over the tricky depths of the seven lagoons of Venice, not some global ocean-going experience. After leaving a Venetian imprint on coastal cities around the eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years, the independence of the Venetians crashed in 1797, with Napoleon finishing off the city state, and in 1866 Venice joined Italy.
Today Venice is a tourist Mecca, attracting 20 million tourists a year. Even though most only day-trip, staying 5-6 hours, tourists still vastly outnumber the 60,000 residents. 60 years ago the city had 150,000 residents, but the population has been dropping by 1000 every year. The area around San Marco square is obviously tourism central - unfortunately it seems that the Venetian Hotel in Los Vegas is now a surprisingly accurate depiction of central Venice - but no part of Venice is untouched by the constant bombardment of tourism. During the day the push and the artificial characticture of the city made me feel dirty to be a part of a violation no less than that imposed by Venice on Constantinople. In the evening, as the crowds thinned and we wandered over to the area around Santa Maria dei Miracoli I could take pleasure in the beauty and richness of the city, but the pleasure was bitter-sweet.