Haven’t you heard? Venice is dead. We all have known it for years: what we are witnessing is the slow and painful decomposition of the Queen of the Seas. Which unfortunately passes by episodes of tourists pissing in her majesty’s streets, bathing in her majesty’s canals and eating her majesty’s palazzos alive. Their rooms, that once echoed Veronica Franco’s poems and Henry II of France’s cries of admiration, have died and are now in a purgatory called airbnb.
Haven’t you heard? Venice is a whore, selling her loins to the highest bidder. These days, usually an American tourist. Gone are the days when Francesco Petrarca said “Venezia, unico albergo a dì nostri di libertà” (Venice, the present day only house of freedom). La Serenissima’s sovereignty was based on commercial hegemony over the Adriatic and the Eastern Mediterranean Seas. Nowadays, young Venetians grow up dreaming of past glories.
In our dreams, we fight and sail side by side with Francesco Morosini. We make love and decant poetry to Veronica Franco. And most of all, we hate and despise Napoleon, the man who took our land’s freedom away. In the night we are fierce, roaring like the lion on our flag. But as the light of day slowly lights up our bedrooms, we are faced with a disconcerting truth. A truth that would have left our ancestors, high on the pride of their independence, speechless.
Most of us will leave. Since the majority of the last three generations have been faced with the same dilemma, Venice will soon be empty. Echoes of juvenile joys will no longer resound in the calli, coming from the nearest campo, where our grandmas run tirelessly after us, screaming “ È ora di pranzo!”, it was time for lunch. They will be replaced by the sound of the crowds, roaring through our little streets, amazed by the beauty of our city. Of our palazzi, our churches, our mosaics.
I left too. The pandemic made me find my way back home. Once a rebellious adolescent, blinded by the anguish of youth, I used to see Venice as I saw my own home: a limit to my roaring joie de vivre. Now, I was back in my family home, where two of my grandparents were no longer waiting for my return. Three months of lockdown stretched before me, my parents and their past as my main interlocutors.
As the pandemic raged our civilisation, I dived into our family history. Because my brother and I both have the blond-hair–blue-eyes combo, not many would guess we are descendants of Sephardic Jewry. Indeed, as Christopher Colombus touched land in the “East Indies”, our ancestors were thrown out of Spain and made their way to the Italian Adriatic coast. First in Ancona, and then, around the beginning of the 18th century, La Serenissima.
However, as I imagine my family arriving in a city that was the beating heart of Mediterranean commercial routes, I walked on a town inhabited only by ghosts. Many have praised the pandemic as a breathing moment for Venice, a break where one could stop and look at the beauty. As I wandered in an empty Piazza San Marco, my eyes rejoiced, but my heart was already mourning the end of Venice. My Venice, an alive city. The pandemic was a warning, a flash from a not so distant future.
So here I am. For a twist of fate, having wandered around Europe and the Middle East, on the look out for my one true identity, I find it in the family home, in a dying city on a island that is probably sinking, looking at the pictures of a woman that is no longer walking on Earth, and with whom I fought until her very last day. “Partire per imparare a restare” , I left to learn how to stay.
However, choosing Venice doesn’t mean that the feeling is reciprocated. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine who emigrated to Paris told me “We all keep saying that we should save Venice, but frankly, who the hell would want to live there?” I wished I acted bolder, I wish I replied “Who would not live there?”
Funnily enough, my angered thoughts were not far from reality. For Venice is a phoenix: in her decadence, one can glimpse at her resurgence. Not even tourism could obfuscate the beauty and the richness of the artistic heritage of the lagoon. As historic citizens leave, a new wave of young architects, artists, curators and creatives are flooding into the city, opening a much needed window of hope.
Loulou, a London-born 30-years old artist, moved here at the end of the pandemic. “The city is so small yet so international that it might be aggressive at times, it allows you to engage in relationships in a way you wouldn’t be able to do elsewhere” she says. “It is such an intense place, it drives you to extremes”. She laughs, “My friends ask me : why Venice? Why have you chosen such an impossible place? And I reply” that is exactly why. Living in Venice is a challenge, an example of the power of human endeavour”.
Yasmine, a 25-years old curator from Beirut, echoes her: “Venice is a vortex” she says, “it inspired me”. “It is a special city, full of opportunities, even though it is an open air madhouse. To live here requires a healthy dose of folly”.
Let us hope we will be crazy enough to think we can save Venice, the city the rest of the world has deemed as lost underwater. For a new Atlantis will be all but useless for the next generation on a quest for their identity.