Friday, 30 September 2011

Death and Venice

Why I went to Venice...

On the 12 May 1797 Napoleon ended the thousand-odd history of the island city of Venice as an independent City-State. This used to rather irritate me. Venice, I thought, could have carried on into the present time as one of those charming European anomalies like Monaco or Andorra. It could have survived the unification of Italy and stayed as the finance centre of the world - but, in that case, it would all now be skyscrapers, concrete and €7.99 for a cup of coffee. As it is it is nicely derelict with the shades of doges, wobbly bridges ... though it has maintained a bankers view on coffee pricing.
What Venice would look like now without Napoleon - this is the island-city of Malé in the Maldives
Birmingham and Venice

There is no reason to go to Venice.

The only possible reason you might want to go there is to look at it, and you already know what it looks like. But there seems to be something in humans which makes us want to enter into the physical experience, even when we don't stand to gain anything extra, new, or even good from it. The experience alone seems to be enough. I do not understand this, which may be why we've just come back from Venice, where I did discover some new things.
'Decorative decay' is a thing Venice is famous for, but I was astonished at how very derelict the city actually is. Just a few footsteps away from the tourist areas between the Rialto Bridge and St Mark's you'll find street after street of empty, boarded or bricked-up houses, workshops and palaces. Even those that have a room or two in use mostly seem to have abandoned the lower floors to the waters. I suppose this ought to be no surprise; this is a city which, at its height in the 1500's housed a quarter of a million people, but now has only about 60,000, and still falling. No wonder either, because, there's isn't actually much for them to do any more. Venetian merchant ships stopped dominating the seas when the Portuguese found out how to sail round Africa.

Venice got made because its island location kept it safe from the shenanigans of dark-age Europe, and it got rich above the dreams of any city before or since after working-out that Chinese, Arabs, Indonesians and Africans were willing to swap the worthless stuff they found growing on trees for worthless Very Shiny Things. The stuff on trees was spices, worth as week's wage a pinch in Europe, and the Shiny Things were geegaws of Venetian glass. The spice trade works differently now, but making the Shiny Things is about the only industry Venice has left. Venetian Glassware has raised the concept of 'tawdry' to heights which truly have to be seen to be believed, culminating in that greatest expression of the glass-makers art (and I'm not making this up) – miniatures of Homer Simpson on a Gondola.

Anyway, Venice is now dead, but it makes the most astonishingly beautiful corpse. My top tourist tips? There is pretty much no point whatever looking at guidebooks. The book will say that such-and-such church has a must-see Tintoretto, or whatever. Fact is every single church in the city, and there are 117 of them, has a must-see Tintoretto, or something similar, or better. The really interesting bits start where the tourists stop – the Jewish Ghetto, the streets behind the backs. Oh, and you don't have to pay the earth for the necessary ride in a gondola powered by a man in a stripey shirt - for just 50 cents you can get one of the public traghetto ferries across the Grand canal.