Venice is sinking.
For decades, even before reports of global climate change brought attention to the hazards of rising seas, the elegant “water city,” as Hermann Hesse dubbed it in his travel journals, had wrestled with acqua alta routinely flooding canalside walkways and popular sites like the Piazza San Marco, that grand, majestic urban space Napoleon reportedly called “the drawing room of Europe.”
While the French emperor’s quip is the stuff of legend, today a feeling of despair has come to overwhelm many Venetians and sensitive observers who admire their unique floating world; their fear for its survival is something very alarming, painful — and real.
For many years, Venice has struggled with environmental pollution from industrial plants on the nearby mainland; a declining population; episodes of political-governmental corruption; assorted harmful effects of gigantic cruise ships plying its lagoon; the rising cost of living for locals; and unstoppable invasions of destructive hordes of tourists from all over the world, many of whom breeze through its fragile, architecturally distinctive islands for only a day or two before stampeding off to other famous — and vulnerable — locations in search of the same fast food and luxury-brand goods they could easily find back home, all the while snapping those must-have trophies of 21st-century consumers in motion — ego-boosting, I-was-there selfies — as they go.
Only last week, The New York Times signaled just how dire Venice’s current crisis has become, but its news report came late to the alarm-sounding party. In fact, such superficial offerings as the paper’s regular “36 Hours In _____” articles, which guide “travelers” on pass-through junkets through various target cities, help encourage the kind of consumerism-focused incursions that are killing places like Venice.
Perhaps unwittingly, but no less impressively, in response to such news items, along comes Migropolis: Venice, Atlas of a Global Situation (Hatje Cantz), an in-depth examination of what makes Venice tick today, providing a data-filled, revealing analysis of this fabled and alluring place’s complex, interwoven pageant of attractions, challenges, peculiarities, and woes. First published in 2009 in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title that was presented in Venice at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, this is the book’s second edition, in two volumes.
Like the original exhibition, it showcases research findings about the city that were gathered and analyzed by a team headed by Wolfgang Scheppe, a German-born professor of the politics of representation and image theory at the Università IUVA di Venezia, Venice’s well-known school of architecture, art, and design. Migropolis provides a substantive model for how urban studies at their most penetrating may be pursued today, with implications for law- and public-policy-making to be gleaned from the wealth of data it exposes and examines.
Migropolis looks at the causes and effects of many of the crisis issues cited above, but its real focus is Venice’s ongoing role as both a desired destination and transit point for some of the steadiest, and seemingly most ceaseless, flows of migrants to be found anywhere in the world today. With regularity, they pour into Venice from such places as Bangladesh, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, China, and Senegal. With or without legal-residency or work permits, they often end up making their livings as maids, care-givers, dishwashers, waiters, street vendors, or prostitutes.
Writing in the book’s lead essay, Scheppe notes that this study “makes a fundamental distinction between two motion patterns associated with globalization that intersect in [Venice’s] city center.” One reflects a “desired,” and the other a “forced” “movement of place”; the former is that of immigration, while the latter is that of tourism. Scheppe writes, “In the terminology of this [book’s] investigation, they are called leisure-based mobility and subsistence-based mobility.” In short, some people go to Venice for pleasure, because they want to and can; others make the journey for survival’s sake.
Scheppe and his team gathered the information that fed into Migropolis over a period of several years. Most of the people they identified as migrants explained that they had headed to Venice, either en route to other destinations or with the intention of staying there, in search of money-making opportunities. Many were expected to send large portions of their earnings back home to their families. The book includes probing interviews with a range of non-Italians who arrived and stayed in Venice or its neighboring Veneto region, legally or illegally, over the past two decades or so.
Their stories testify to the allure of the strange city (and its surrounding area of industrial tracts and colorless urban sprawl) that, centuries ago, was the center of a wealthy, sea-faring “Most Serene Republic” that ruled over a stretch of the Adriatic and even dared to take on the Ottoman Empire’s navy. Now, Migropolis notes, Venice has become a banalized, commercialized fantasy-myth of its former self, where old, neighborhood butcher shops are disappearing, only to make way for Chanel or Prada boutiques or such abominations as a Disney Store just a fish head’s throw from the famous, open-air Rialto market.
Claudia, a middle-aged migrant from Moldova, followed one of her adult daughters to Venice and worked there for five years as a house cleaner and cook. Bearing a Moldovan passport whose authenticity she doubted, Claudia lived with her daughter and two other people in a small apartment in Mestre, a city on the mainland, northwest of Venice. “[I]n Moldova, you can’t manage to live well. It’s a terrible life,” Claudia told the book’s interviewers. However, living hand to mouth in Italy, she realized that it would be hard to save up for an eventual return to her economically depressed, formerly communist homeland.
Claudia placed her trust in young men who regularly drove a van from Mestre back to her hometown in Moldova. Through them, for a fee, she sent her family “money, clothes, and pasta” she bought “by the kilo.” She cried when she told the book’s researchers, describing the van’s drivers, “They’re honest. They don’t steal anything.” Eventually, when her passport expired, Claudia left Italy. She had fallen ill and felt that, “as an illegal immigrant,” she would not be able “to get proper treatment” there.
Migropolis also examines the experiences of Mbaye, a 39-year-old from Senegal who earned a degree in urbanism at a university in France before making his way to Venice, where he works as a doorman at a posh hotel. Armed with the proper documents, he, his Senegalese wife, and their son live legally in Italy; Mbaye and his cousin own the house in which the family lives on the mainland.
Like many immigrants in adopted countries around the world today, Mbaye and his family stay in touch with their homeland by telephone, the internet and satellite television. “Venice is a welcoming city, and I have personally never experienced racism,” Mbaye told Migropolis’s researchers. Still, as an activist at heart, he helped create a Senegalese-Italian cultural association and he has aided new arrivals from his native country, most of whom have ended up peddling fake, luxury-brand handbags on Venice’s streets.
The book also profiles day-tripping tourists from Britain, the United States, and other countries, or those who stay for a few days, like three Chinese women in their twenties who were studying at a university in Spain and traveled to Venice for a quick sight-seeing jaunt. To prepare for their trip, they explained, they viewed Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, an arty horror film from 1975. “It was painful to watch,” one of the Chinese students said, adding, “It was horrible, and we didn’t catch the real meaning.” Asked about their activities in Venice, one of the women replied, “We’re buying a lot of presents: masks, necklaces, silver handmade boats, to take to our friends.”
In fact, as Scheppe points out in the straightforward but still unmistakably critical tone that characterizes the texts in Migropolis (many of which are long captions for photo-essay spreads or imaginative charts and graphs presenting economic, demographic or other data), almost all of the “typical” Venetian souvenirs for sale in the city’s shops today are mass-produced in China.
In Migropolis, Scheppe and his research team take their critical-analytical cues from the Situationist theorist Guy Debord (1931-1994), who regarded the modern world as a kind of “spectacle,” in which authentic elements of social life had been replaced by mere “representations” of various kinds of gestures or cultural expressions. As Debord saw it, in modern society, genuinely meaningful relations between people had been replaced by relationships between humans and commodities — consumer products, staged-for-the-media events, or meaning-imbued brands.
Scheppe writes, “Venice has become the sum of its own images, making its visual reproduction the main guarantor of the city’s economic viability.” Nowadays, though, the façades of many of Venice’s iconic old buildings are routinely covered by advertising billboards, obscuring their architectural details. Still, selfie-snapping is incessant. Each day, day-trippers and overnighters combined nearly double Venice’s permanent population of roughly 55,000 (which is becoming ever older as young people leave in search of non-tourism-related job opportunities and affordable housing).
Scheppe suggests that all the fake Venetian tchotchkes tourists scoop up today (often sold by Chinese immigrants to Chinese visitors) may be seen as symbols of what the once-powerful city has become — “a commodified image” of itself. Thus, he explains, it’s not the actual Venice, a once-glorious city-state whose fortunes and power began waning centuries ago, that some 20 million tourists a year come looking for; it’s their romanticized, media-nurtured idea of the place they’re seeking instead. They encounter even more evocations or representations of an imagined Venice in the real city once they arrive.
In an e-mail interview, Scheppe responded to my questions about the real Venice’s fate in his characteristically sober tone (tinged, perhaps, with just a hint of bittersweet irony). The genuine city, he pointed out, should not be blamed for its current conditions. Its transformation from “a unique medieval urban fabric” into a commodity that is “constantly [being] remodeled […] for maximal commercial exploitability” is an ongoing process, he noted, which cannot be stopped in the face of “the prosperity of business interests.”
Thus, he concludes, if it’s “Venice” you’re after, you might be better served by heading to one of the authentically fake Venices that have also become big tourist draws elsewhere on the planet — hotel-resorts called “The Venetian” that have been built in Las Vegas and Macao, both of which feature replicas of such icons of the real city as its Rialto Bridge, Campanile, Doge’s Palace, and gondola-filled canals.
Scheppe informed me that, although he abhors what has befallen the real Venice, for now he finds its “slowly fading traces of a premodern territory” to be “truly enlightening.” But its loss, he added, “is inevitable.”
Oh, that sinking feeling…