Venice: a shifting metaphor for the human condition

In this extract from his new book, Dominic Standish explores how Venice has gone from symbolising brash human vision to being viewed as a victim of eco-degradation.

Dominic Standish


‘Never like today has Venice spoken to historians and men in general in a language more real and universal, offering experience of a microcosm that goes along a path full of dilemmas, of a relationship that is risky and perennially precarious with nature.’ Piero Bevilacqua, Italian historian, La Sapienza University of Rome

Piero Bevilacqua’s book Venezia e Le Acque: Una Metafora Planetaria (Venice and the Waters. A Planetary Metaphor), published in 2000, explores how the city’s risky environment speaks to us all in modern times. Here, I discuss the contemporary international meaning of the Venetian metaphor: Venice as an environmentally threatened retreat from modernity.

The Reconstitution of the Venetian Metaphor

Other authors have concluded that the Venetian political metaphor died with the fall of the Republic in 1797, and that the Venetian metaphor subsequently became more salient culturally than politically. As the twentieth century progressed, intellectuals frequently declared that Venice had lost any metaphorical significance, as indicated by Georg Simmel’s declaration, in 1922, that Venice could only regurgitate motifs and was no longer a creator of meaning. For historian Manfredo Tafuri, writing in 1978, the city lingered as ‘an allegory of a general condition’ in which the metaphorical mask must be worn to save one’s soul. Former Venice mayor Massimo Cacciari draws on Simmel and Friedrich Nietzsche to argue that Venice has lost its metaphorical signification, with the carnival mask emblematic of the loss of direction. ‘All appearance exists in itself and for itself – a perfect mask that hides being, or rather, reveals the loss, the absence of being’, Cacciari wrote in 1995. Similarly, the French journalist and political commentator Régis Debray has signalled his belief that Venice no longer provides vision, offering little more than narcissistic ‘confirmations’ – though he held out the possibility that the city could continue its tradition of anticipating the future:

‘It seems to me that the relic is not sufficiently out of fashion to take a holiday; the graceful, the delightful carries too much weight. Perhaps this egocentric microcosm, which has always been a few centuries ahead of the rest – which invented the ghetto long before the camps, a department for monitoring correspondence long before telephone tapping and the letter of credit long before cashflow – is in the process of inventing before our unseeing eyes the insular Europe of tomorrow, reduced to picturesque features like half-timbering, wrought iron and inns but dead to space exploration, the planet and its century: a monocultural peninsula set in its lagoon, forgetting the open sea, suffocated by memory, and in which the tertiary sector will have eclipsed the primary and the secondary.’ (Debray, 2002)

I take issue with Debray’s presentation of Venice as a post-industrial model for an insular Europe. While it is true that Venice’s petrochemical industry has declined and tourism is growing, the expansion of the port for cruise ships and goods-handling indicates that it is still open to the sea. But the suggestions that Venice has lost its meaning as a cultural centre do seem to be describing real changes. Undoubtedly, the cultural importance of Venice at the beginning of the twenty-first century has diminished in comparison with the nineteenth century and the first 60 years of the twentieth century. Since the 1970s, the Lido has only attracted members of the international cultural elite occasionally, for specific exhibitions or the Venice film festival. There have been recent attempts to revive Venice as a cultural centre: the Lido is being reconstructed as a prime vacation destination and new cultural establishments have opened. In 2009, the renovated Punta della Dogana, the former customs house, was opened to display art from the collection of French billionaire François Pinault for 30 years, and a renovated warehouse in Venice’s salt docks was opened as a museum dedicated to the postwar artist Emilio Vedova. Now Venice needs an exhibition and storage facility on the mainland to support museums and libraries within the city. A bid to be the European Capital of Culture in 2019 is an opportunity to extend Venice’s cultural facilities. These initiatives are welcome, although Venice has not yet regenerated its past cultural magnetism.

I concur with Debray that Venice has not yet retired as a creator of meaning. Although death became the dominant Venetian motif in the twentieth century, the city has retained a potent impact. ‘The ruin of Venice was a given for the Romantics, but it was the death of Venice that was perpetrated in the twentieth century. Venice had become the very allegory for history, decay and the threat of the elements, powerful still at the onset of the twenty-first century’, writes Margaret Plant (emphasis in original). These comments identify environmental dangers lurking within the Venetian metaphor. Likewise, John Eglin acknowledges the role of environmental issues for interpretations of Venice, and recognises the potential for the reconstitution of the Venetian metaphor through environmental criticism: ‘The Venetian metaphor – the transfiguration of the myth of Venice – occasionally manifests itself even today. The Prince of Wales’s 1989 jeremiad against modern and post-modern architecture approvingly cited John Simpson’s “Venetian” design for London Bridge City, and nostalgically evoked the Canalettian London, “one of the architectural wonders of the world, a city built on the water like the centre of another great trading empire, Venice”.’ (Eglin 2001).

So, environmental activists have assisted the reconstitution of the Venetian political metaphor, especially through the campaign against the mobile dams that reached its height in 2005. Such campaigns have helped Venice become synonymous with an environmentally threatened retreat from modernity.

I have identified two long-term themes that have contributed to the symbolic revival of the city: Venice as the expression of decadence, death and degradation of humanity; and Venice as representing the dominance of conservationism over modernisation. In the twenty-first century, these themes have become central to Venice’s association with a threatened watery environment. Venice’s environment is a reference point for cities worldwide: other cities are often referred to as ‘the Venice of the North’, or of the East, Asia, the America. As Robert Davis and Garry Marvin have remarked, nobody refers to Venice as ‘the Amsterdam of the Adriatic’. Robert Browning coined the term ‘Little Venice’ for the network of canals in the London Paddington area, which is currently being redeveloped. Venice in California has its own replica canal and neo-Classical buildings. And how many other cities have been reproduced as a hotel? The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, with its gondola rides along clean canals, may be a perverse reproduction of Venice, but it demonstrates how the Venetian metaphor has been stretched. ‘Venice’s image has been appropriated and replicated by cities from Las Vegas to Macau’, notes a report in 2010 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Venice expresses international metaphorical meaning for watery environments and increasingly for threatened environments, too. Rinaldo (2009) describes Venice as a ‘planetary metaphor’ with ‘global resonance’. Why is the contemporary Venetian metaphor so influential?

Venice as the Crisis of Human Civilisation

André Chastel, the French art historian, refers to ‘the Venetian challenge: the central episode of the crisis of modern civilisation’. Venice has come to represent an escape from the human-created modern world. This is largely due to the historical legacy of the Venetian Republic. Venice has a long history as a symbol of Western civilisation, dating back to its days as the gateway to the Orient. The pessimism that followed the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 weighed heavily on the minds of influential thinkers about the city. As the nineteenth century progressed, human intervention in nature was frequently interpreted as problematic. Culturally, Venice was depicted as a haven for conservationism against modernity. During the twentieth century, cultural associations with Venice as a place of death, decadence and human degradation were consolidated into Venice’s representation of the fall of man, as depicted by John Berendt’s 2005 book The City of Falling Angels. By the early twenty-first century, the sinking of Venice came to be seen as an allegory on human failure. ‘It will be submerged. It will descend into the water silently and permanently. It is the image of the city as the final end of all human achievement and aspiration’, writes Peter Ackroyd. Such profound pessimism about human intervention in nature became a vital component of conservationism, as Rinaldo describes:

‘Venice, as the epitome of the global environmental challenge between natural environment and constructed environment and the central episode of modernity, gives authority to worries and hopes. For this subject, pessimism, indeed, has been the norm for centuries. Lord Byron already heard the screaming of nations about the sinking palaces, however from Ruskin until Braudel, Chastel and Indro Montanelli a lot has been done for the conservation of the city and its environment.’ (Andrea Rinaldo, 2009)

I have discussed how the transformation of conservationism into environmentalism required overcoming the modernist dichotomy between man and nature, which was central to conservationist protection of the natural world. Dissolving this dichotomy has been perceived as an essential part of rediscovering a past equilibrium in Venice. ‘Establishing a modern environmental culture must begin with a change in direction which leads from the current anthropic conception of nature to a biocentric attitude, by recovering the concept that man is part of nature. Furthermore, man is a conscious part of nature, and therefore one which must become active in order to recover the equilibriums lost’, write Mauro Bon, Danilo Mainardi, Luca Mizzan and Patrizia Torricelli. These observations depend more on Venice’s ancient myths about political equilibrium and harmony than on environmental reality. The existence of a past natural equilibrium in Venice or anywhere has been questioned:

‘The concept of natural equilibrium, in the static sense of maintenance which the notion suggests, does not feature at all in any natural evolutionary phenomena. However, if such a statement is true in general it is even more evident in the case of the Venice environment (its lagoon and drainage basin), which has been the object of much intervention for centuries. It has been maintained completely artificially only at the price of decisive transformations carried out by man.’ (Rinaldo, 2001)

For Rinaldo: ‘Venice, like Gaia, teaches that there cannot exist, in the life of complex systems like lagoons, a general notion of equilibrium.’ Notwithstanding the popularity of Gaia theory in green thinking, the re-establishment of equilibrium in Venice has been a key demand of Venetian environmentalists. Campaigners have claimed that the mobile-dam project is violating natural equilibrium, while UNESCO has suggested that it will re-establish equilibrium: ‘MOSE will also help restore the equilibrium of the ecosystem of the lagoon; it will protect the surrounding marshes and help keep the canal banks in Venice’s inner city and on the nearby islands from further harm.’ (UNESCO 2009).

The mobile-dam project is only one point of tension in many drawn-out battles between modernisers and conservationists in Venice. The city built on the architectural and engineering pioneering that developed during the Venetian Republic to experiment with many innovative projects. Yet conservationism prevailed by the early twentieth century and, by that century’s end, Venice had become an emblem of the struggle between environmentalism and modernity. Environmental claims drew on a pervasive cultural unease with modernisation and reticence about human intervention in nature. Defending Venice from sinking has become a specific focus for debating the perceived crisis of modern civilisation.

For some, the creation and maintenance of Venice represents the triumph of human civilisation. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) describes how Venice ‘symbolises the victorious struggle of mankind against the elements, and the mastery men and women have imposed upon hostile nature’ (UNESCO, 2009). While this was true during the Venetian Republic, the observation feels dated when every attempt to construct in Venice is subject to conservationist resistance. Numerous contributors to an article in the 27 June 2009 edition of the daily newspaper Il Gazzettino di Venezia bemoaned Venice’s condition as a conservationist city. ‘To conserve can also mean to leave degrading, and the Costa-Cacciari “reign” has registered a worsening of Venice’, wrote Riccardo Calimani. For Antonio Alberto Semi, president of the scientific and cultural institution Ateneo Veneto, Venetian conservationism is merely representative of a wider climate: ‘It is true that there is resistance to change, but everywhere is like this.’ Venice has become synonymous with conserving the past against modern change: as John Julius Norwich comments, ‘[no] city in the world has changed less over the last 200 years’. However, the contemporary Venetian metaphor is not free of contradictions.

Current Venetian Paradoxes

The belief that human intervention should be restrained against nature has created a sense of vulnerability. In Venice, this has become focused on the sea as a threat, which is fundamental to the contemporary Venetian metaphor. But the first Venetian paradox is that the sea is interpreted as threatening the city, when in fact it is a source of wealth and attraction.

The ancient Venetians celebrated their relationship with the seas, especially during the Marriage to the Sea ceremony, which expressed their dominance over the sea and wider sense of power. Dominating the seas enabled Venice to become Europe’s financial and trading centre. By the end of the fourteenth century there was scarcely a single major commodity that was not largely transported in Venetian ships (as shown by Norwich). Venice became necessary to all European lands active in trade during the fifteenth century. The city was at the heart of Christian Europe, with its Rialto commercial district relying heavily on overseas connections. ‘The Venetians had made themselves masters of “the gold of the Christians” because all of Europe was directly or indirectly supplied from there’, writes Élisabeth Crouzet-Pavan (2002).

Given the importance of the sea for ancient Venetian power, the overriding concern was its retreat. Fears that rivers into the lagoon would fill it with sediments plagued the ancient Venetians, and huge projects to divert the rivers Piave, Sile and Brenta away from the lagoon began in 1324, to be largely concluded by 1683. The loss of the lagoon would have made the city highly vulnerable to direct attack from the sea. Despite these mammoth efforts to maintain Venice’s lagoon, Venetians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries feared that the sea would retreat as it had at Pisa (as shown by John Eglin), and that this would unite the city with the mainland, threatening its island identity.

Since the fall of the Venetian Republic, fears about sinking and flooding have proliferated. Nineteenth-century thinkers including Ruskin, Byron, Shelley, Dickens, Rogers and Moore popularised the idea that Venice was heading for a watery grave: a fear that seemed to be confirmed by the collapse of the bell tower on St Mark’s Square in 1902, and the high floods of November 1966. As Cesare Scarpa discerned, these floods were caused by a very rare combination of factors:

‘What happened in 1966 was extraordinary and will not happen again. Then there were two big sea tides that went on top of each other and they were pushed by the wind. Together with this, it rained a lot and the water inside the lagoon increased. So there were these extraordinary conditions in 1966. We have never had another condition like that. It was atypical.’ (Scarpa, 2005)

Despite these well-documented ‘atypical’ causes, John Keahey has called the events of November 1966 ‘inevitable’ and predicted that they will be repeated: ‘While subsequent storm surges have not yet equaled that 1966 ferocity, scientists believe it is only a matter of time, wrote Keahey in 2002. His negative assessments were not caused by consulting poor scientific forecasts, but by a more general environmental pessimism.

Flooding in Venice has indeed increased over the past century, but its impact was much worse during the Venetian Republic than it has been over the past 200 years. Whereas the ancient Venetians celebrated their dominance over the sea in defiance of devastating floods, the contemporary tendency is to cower to the threatening waters. When the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre visited Venice he reflected on the decline of the city ‘castrated’ by the Adriatic Sea.

Fragile, vulnerable humanity is well-established within the modern Venetian metaphor, as indicated by the titles and principal themes of recent books about the city, like Keahey’s Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged (2002) and Plant’s Venice: Fragile City, 1797-1997, both from 2002. Modern depictions of Venice tend to perceive the sea and lagoon as problems to be avoided: ‘[T]he vast, shallow and placid water surface of the lagoon is today considered more as an obstacle, that can be criss-crossed by fast, and often huge, destructive motorboats racing from land to sea and back. Or maybe bypassed with rapid underground connections, as some local planners propose’ (Caniato, 2005). The attitude of the ancient Venetians was that the sea and lagoon were resources to be celebrated. Waters were a means of transport to trade, to prosper and for exploration, as well as a source of salt, fish and protection.

Today, the sea and lagoon continue to function as resources providing wealth for Venice, as container traffic connecting with China, India and Eastern Europe has supported the port’s economy. Nonetheless, celebrations of Venice’s revival as a gateway to the East have been conspicuous by their absence since writings by the celebrated Italian author Italo Calvino. A similar pessimism is attached to tourism. The sea, lagoon and its canals provide Venice with its unique environment, attracting numerous tourists: they are now fundamental for the city’s economy. Venice is one of the busiest ports and tourist destinations in the world. Yet the second paradox in the contemporary Venetian metaphor is that tourists have been depicted as causing the death of Venice.

The current paradoxes are not due to fundamental changes between the city and its physical environment; nor are they caused by the city being swamped by tourists. These paradoxes have been created because human resilience has been replaced by vulnerability. When the ancient Venetians were faced with environmental hazards, they typically responded with resilience. Likewise, the ancient Venetians realised that visitors to the city were resources and devised festivals to attract them. The spirit of resilience that prevailed during the Venetian Republic until the seventeenth century contrasts with the contemporary stress on human vulnerability. To address Venice’s contemporary environmental challenges, we need to revive this spirit of resilience. For Venice and the surrounding territory, the OECD also recommends resilience, which it defines by the following features:

  • Robustness: strength, or the ability of systems to withstand a given level of stress or demand without suffering degradation or loss of function;
  • Redundancy: the extent to which substitutable systems exist that can satisfy functional requirements in the event of disruption, degradation or a loss of functionality
  • Resourcefulness: the capacity to identify problems, establish priorities and mobilise resources when conditions exist that threaten to disrupt some element
  • Rapidity: the capacity to meet priorities and achieve goals in a timely manner in order to contain losses, recover functionality and avoid future disruption

Venice needs to embrace tourists and to see its surrounding waters as resources rather than threats. It must urgently move away from a redundant model of development on its outskirts and conservation in the city centre. To achieve this end requires a critical challenge to the three key components of the contemporary Venetian metaphor: sustainability, climate change and the risks of tourism.

Dominic Standish lectures for the University of Iowa (USA)/CIMBA in Veneto, Italy. The above is an edited extract from his new book, Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality published by University Press of America. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Visit Dominic’s website here.