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June 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1455

La Serenissima

Henry James famously wrote in his Italian Hours (1909) that there is nothing more to be said about Venice. As so much ink has been spilt over its charms you can see his point. However, James then proceeded to rhapsodise at length about its beauty; and it is imperative that we, similarly, keep talking and writing and championing it, not least because all that it represents seems to be more precious and precarious than ever. 

Tourists understandably want to experience the history and cultural wonders of the city and, as a consequence, as many as thirty million visitors are thought to pour in annually – the vast majority being day-trippers who arrive by train. This influx has a sustained and detrimental impact on the urban fabric and presents profound challenges in terms of conservation, as well as numerous practical issues. What might be the solution? One possible answer, which is being tested now, is to charge travellers who arrive at Stazione Santa Lucia a €5 entrance fee to the city. This idea is being trialled between April and July on certain days. It should be noted that residents, children and those visiting for professional purposes are exempt; however, the scheme is challenging to organise and appears to underline the view that Venice in its entirety is now regarded – at least by the city’s authorities – as a monetised heritage site, rather than being a place where people live and work and thrive. What next: purchasing tickets at the city walls before exploring Florence? Or perhaps buying access to Rome’s centro storico? 

On the first day of the ticketing, local opponents held up signs saying ‘Welcome to Veniceland’, highlighting what they see as the reduction of their home to a Disney-like commodity. If the Venetian plan is intended as a disincentive to making a visit, this is unlikely to work, as surely a far higher ticket price would be required in order to achieve that. If the monies secured are directed at the conservation that the city endlessly needs, then it seems more attractive as an option – but this outcome is far from certain. Solutions to this apparently intractable problem should be sought and undoubtedly are not easy to find. However, this one, when scrutinised, does not appear to be fully considered and in symbolic terms sends mixed messages about the priorities of the city’s custodians. 

All this is happening in the context of a highly politicised, protracted and divisive discourse about Venice’s future. In 1987 the city was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List for its ‘outstanding universal value’. After articulating all its unique qualities, Venice’s listing noted that the most pressing issues it faces are related to high tides, pressures from tourism and the maintenance of good practices and techniques for restoration. In 2023, following a warning that not enough was being done to protect the city, a vote was held to determine whether the status of Venice should change from UNESCO’s perspective and, in particular, whether the city should enter the World Heritage in Danger List. Fifty-six sites globally are currently categorised in this way, including the historic centre of Vienna. The recommendation for Venice was not agreed, because it was felt that projects such as the MOSE barriers – which are intended to protect the lagoon from inundation and the acqua alta – were proving effective. This was a cause of delight for some Italian politicians and dismay among conservation lobbyists. The recent ticketing initiative must be regarded in connection with this debate as a gesture to help solve the city’s problems, albeit a misconceived one. 

Other battles have been fought and successfully won in recent years in relation to Venice’s world heritage status and the imperative to retain its special character, most importantly over the monstrous intrusion of vast cruise liners, which caused physical damage and obliterated views of the wonderful skyline on a daily basis. Protecting the unique ecology of its beautiful, embracing lagoon has also received far more attention than hitherto, as this aligns with increased awareness of the destructive consequences of climate change and importance of natural resources. 

While such issues are very much in the public eye and undoubtedly address acute concerns, there are also quieter initiatives, which proceed at a stately pace and attempt to address the formidable conservation requirements of the glorious concentration of cultural riches that the city embodies. There are various international charities and campaigning groups that carry out this important work; the most familiar to readers of this Magazine will probably be Venice in Peril in the United Kingdom and Save Venice Inc. in the United States. Examples of their current projects are undoubtedly inspiring.[1] 

Venice in Peril is planning to conserve two Marigole – richly illuminated manuscripts that record the rules that applied to members of Venetian Scuole; these documents had been stolen after the Second World War and have recently been returned to the collection of the Archivio di Stato. It is also raising funds to stabilise and conserve the splendid and ornate reliquary altar in the Frari, a key work by the Venetian sculptor Francesco ‘Cabianca’ Penso (1665–1737). Meanwhile, Save Venice is currently supporting the restoration of the Sala delle Quattro Porte, a magnificent reception room in the Palazzo Ducale, which features frescos by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518–94) and other artists. The benefits of another Save Venice campaign, which focused on the conservation of prints, have become visible recently through their inclusion in the important exhibition Rinascimento in bianco e nero L’arte dell’incisione a Venezia 1494– 1615 at the Ca’ Rezzonico and the Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa. It is reviewed by Thomas Dalla Costa in this issue (pp.631–34). (We also include on pp.570–79 new research by Flora Turner-Vučetić on Orazio Fortezza, a Renaissance metalworker, who found patronage across the Venetian empire). 

The projects of Venice in Peril and Save Venice involve close collaboration with local authorities, experts and collections. There are also, of course, other Venetian schemes that actively seek to counter the city’s fragility and shape its future. Among the most compelling of these is the work of the not-for-profit organisation We are here Venice, which is dedicated to conserving Venice as a living city, undertaking research, shaping policy and forging local and international partnerships.[2] 

Venice has long been a symbol of hubris: its political power declined, as that of all empires must. It then became a delightful, cultural playground. Its fate now seems to be as a global icon in an alarming sense, as an illustration of the consequences of a collision between mass tourism and the climate crisis. The most serene of cities is struggling to retain its very special status.

[1] See, accessed 13th May 2023; and, accessed 13th May 2023. 

[2] See www.wearehereven