Nestling in its lagoon, Venice an essentially aquatic city with its network of canals; can appear almost beyond reality. Occasionally, when cold air from the Alps meets the warmer air of the lagoon, sea mists roll in and covers the islands, so that only the tallest buildings, bell-towers and spires may be visible; a magical effect. Such a different atmosphere invoked.
Venice is tantalising blend of East and West reflected in its history and culture. It was Italy’s most powerful and influential city state and centre of the Eastern Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium.
The Republic of Venice led by a series of elected Doges, thrived for 700 years because the city elders worked for the common good to create a thriving hub of business, exchange and interests. Above all else they understood the importance of maintaining the balance between man and nature; essential for the city’s survival.
Above: digital capture – 2017 Below: transparency film-stock, digitally scanned – 1977.
It’s history is one of resourcefulness in the face of adversity – trade and exploration supported by naval prowess and strategic warfare; architectural and artistic brilliance. The development of the fleet drove its rise to supremacy. This legendary city grew rapidly, overtaking Rome and freedom from the dictates of the Vatican; to emerge as the leading economic power in the Mediterranean Basin. It was also the “Gateway to the Orient”; a home to peoples from around the world – Byzantines, Italians, Jews, Arabs, Slavs, Armenians and Turks. Perhaps the original “multicultural city”. This made possible the technical, scientific and cultural progress; so evident in Venetian architecture, painting, literature and music.
For several millennia this group of low-lying islands (highest point 2m above sea-level) was sparsely populated by fishermen. Around 8-9th C it was settled by mainland immigrants fleeing from successive waves of foreign marauders like the Visigoths and Attila the Hun; following the fall of the Roman Empire. It reached its peak of power and influence in the 15-16th C Renaissance period. Conquered by Napoleon in the late 18th C and twice handed to the Austrians, the city finally became part of the new United Italian State. Following Napoleon’s fall, decline and decadence characterised the 18-19th C “Romantic” period and the influx of travellers, writers, poets, artists and moral decline.
At its peak, Venice had a population of over 200,000 inhabitants. Now, the population is around 55,000 and is dependent on tourism, having over 17 million visitors annually; many of the staff servicing this industry commute daily from the mainland. In tourist hotspots such Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge, one can be overcome by the sheer weight of humanity and its modern cultural icon the “selfie”. Yet within a few minutes, peace and solitude can be found in the city’s maze of back streets and canals.
A declining population and workforce, subsidence, pollution, global warming and ironically too many visitors that strain its infrastructure; are all problems that needs to be addressed. A new balance between living and working must be found. Venice financially dependent on tourism needs to reassert itself; to avoid becoming some sort of historic theme park. Its future probably lies as a Centre of Excellence for culture, academia and business.
It is ironic that historically for over a millennium the lagoon has ensured its security and survival, yet due to our changing climate; increasingly frequent high tides and flooding, now threatens this historic city. Let us hope that the new tidal barriers edging towards completion, will secure the city’s future.