Image: Brijesh Patel
July 15 2010
I try and visit Venice in the winter and this week I remembered why. The full horror of the mass tourism of August had yet to descend on every campo, calle and ponte, filling the delicate tracery of capillary-like alleys with the plastic shoes and polyglot babble of daytrippers seeking their own version of Venice, in slices of cheap pizza and plastic gondolas, before retreating at dusk to their prison hulks of cruise ships. I felt sorry for La Serenissima much as I would if a once grand Hollywood actor – say for argument’s sake Liz Taylor – were reduced to doing TV commercials for incontinence underwear.
Of course, if I am honest (which I am sometimes), I too benefit from the democratisation of travel – although to be fair to myself I avoid travelling by budget airline – so it is a bit rich to complain about other people enjoying the liberating power of Boeings and Airbuses.
Nevertheless to see industrial quantities of visitors being disgorged into this city is to understand that the daytripper phenomenon is the worst kind of tourism: they descend in hordes, usually bring their own lunch (sandwiches made with food cunningly purloined from the breakfast buffet and clandestinely assembled in their rooms). Once they have recorded their visit digitally and purchased a fridge magnet they are gone, only to be replaced the following day by another horde – the city writhing under the Promethean agony of mass tourism. Of course there is little that I can do to stop this, although I did wear a suit in Prince of Wales checked linen with a voile shirt and knitted silk tie as a sort of one-man sartorial protest.
I suppose it all has a historical inevitability. Venice has always been in decline, or at least it has been heading that way since the collapse of Byzantium and the fall of Constantinople back in the 1450s. However I would argue that for the ensuing half-millennium Venice put a brave face on things; it was still potent enough in the 1850s to inspire Ruskin to write his influential three-volume treatise The Stones of Venice and a century later in the 1950s it was the epicentre of European glamour, the setting for such epic social events as the fabled fancy dress ball given by Carlos de Beistegui at the Palazzo Labia in September 1951 and the wedding of Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe and Princess Ira von Fürstenberg in 1955. The glamour clung on until the 1960s, with James Bond giving the city a clean bill of chic in the film From Russia With Love.
I reckon the decline of Venice became vertiginous only relatively recently – on May 3 1999, to be exact, when the Venetian casino opened in Las Vegas, rendering a city that is a distillation of centuries of European art and culture into a theme park for slot-machine users.
Venice may indeed be in peril, but it is not the waters of the lagoon that threaten it, rather the legions of cheap tourists destroying the soul of what they come to see by forcing everything to conform to the lowest economic denominator.