For a holiday respite, I’m devoting my Friday posts through December and into January to recounting a trip I took to Venice in 2007. Using photos and notes from the trip, I’m highlighting the urbanist issues of day-to-day life in what may be the most famous car-free city in the world.
Today, I’ll write about what I think it means to be a Venetian in the 21st century. To me, it provides insight to what it means to be a citizen of any contemporary city.
I’m not a sociologist. I can’t offer any profound or scholarly insights. But I’ve studied the history of the city and observed its inhabitants for a couple of weeks. And I can assemble that information into thoughts that I find reasonable.
Venetians have a sense of their past. Venice is the longest-lived republic in the history of the world. For a thousand years, the improbable city in the lagoon at the head of the Adriatic was a major player on the world stage. Mainland kingdoms came and went, but Venice and its people persevered. The United States, particularly John Adams, looked to Venice for guidance in establishing the fledgling republic that entered onto the world stage just as Venice was departing.
Today, the history of the Venice Republic is fading into the mists of the past, much as Venice itself is settling into the mud of its lagoon. But the people of Venice haven’t forgotten. They know that their ancestors helped create the world we know today, even if Venice is now only a curious city that is barely relevant to Italian politics.
Despite their reduced importance in the world, Venetians are confident and sure of themselves. During my stay in Venice, I took several day trips to other Italian cities, including a Friday trip to Florence. With a two-and-a-half hour train ride both directions, I didn’t return from Florence until late dusk. Taking the vaporetto down the Grand Canal, I could gaze at the canal-side windows of the grand palazzos as they came alive with Friday evening entertaining.
I recall one particular palazzo. From within, the sounds of a string ensemble floated out. On a balcony, a couple had stepped away from the party and were chatting, sipping wine, blissfully unconcerned about the hoi polloi gazing upon their conversation from our humble vaporetto.
In silhouette, their ages were indeterminate, perhaps early forties. But their bearing was impossible to miss. Proud and confident. The Venetian equivalent of Gatsby and Daisy standing on the pier. Their domain may have slipped away, but they weren’t willing to acknowledge it. It was an attitude that I noted often during my stay.
Venetians can experience joy, even if transitory. Other than occasional head nods in the stairwell, I had no interaction with the married couple living two floors below me. They seemed quietly middle-class and childless, perhaps in their thirties. If they possessed any English skills, they didn’t choose to practice them on me. And I certainly had no Italian skills to practice on them.
So I had no background on which to rely when, on the first Saturday night of my Venetian stay, I was awakened at 1:30am with the sound of singing from their apartment. My guess is that several couples had gathered in the apartment for an evening of dinner and conversation. Late in the evening, shortly before breaking up, they began to sing Italian folk songs. I couldn’t make out the words, but the melodies were familiar. Their voices weren’t exceptional, but competent, with joyfulness overcoming any tonal shortcomings.
As I lay in bed and listened, they sang for perhaps fifteen minutes. The party then broke up. Several of the guests continued to converse loudly as they walked away. Throughout the singing and the conversation, I didn’t hear a single complaint despite the late hour. Perhaps others were as willing as me to use the joy as an excuse to forgive the volume.
The population of Venice has been declining for years. The revenue that can be made from tourism is encouraging building owners to convert from apartments to tourist rentals, displacing Venetians who must move to the mainland to find lodging. Also, there are some Venetians who cherish the American dream of past generations of a backyard with a barbecue. They find the lifestyle of Venice limiting and believe that the suburbs will somehow be better.
That knowledge was in my head as I listened to the singing and later chattering. It was likely that one or more of the couples would leave Venice before their lives were over, perhaps willingly or perhaps because they had no option. And yet tonight, they were living a life that they would remember with fondness for as long as they lived. It made me happy to listen to them and sad that their good times would come to an end.
What are lessons that can be drawn from these few observation of Venetian life? There are several. One, know the history of one’s city and take pride in it. Few cities have the long and gloried history of a Venice, but every city has reasons that it exists and vivid personalities who were a part of its past.
Second, be confident in the future. If there is no obvious reason to be confident, then work to make changes until confidence can be found.
Third, be joyful in city life. Perhaps it won’t last forever, but neither do cherry blossoms. Both are still worthy of swelling hearts.
Venice is gloriously unique in the history of the world, but even in its uniqueness, its residents have lessons to impart to other city dwellers.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)