Selling Our Cities
If Venice Dies
(New Vessel Press, 2016)
You’d be forgiven for expecting the book If Venice Dies to focus on the impact of the rising sea level and climate change on the water-locked city. But for author Salvatore Settis, Venice’s transformation from functioning historic metropolis to tourist destination amounts to a catastrophe in its own right. Decrying the city’s changes from the perspective of an art historian, Settis mixes statistics with philosophy, and architecture with economic theory to illustrate the at times direct, at times abstract, relationship between urban psychology and urban policy. Perhaps because of his rather poetic approach—which draws from all facets of Italy’s millennia of history—his presented solutions can read as alternately diffuse or sentimental. But in its most interesting chapters, If Venice Dies analyzes our fanatical need to sell cities as products in a global market and, in doing so, strikes flinchingly close to the heart of capitalism. A society that puts its faith in the principles of advertising, fetishizing outward signs of wealth instead of investing in the citizens who created that wealth in the first place, is hopeless in the face of challenges, whether brought on by economics or climate.
Settis describes ways in which Italians have managed to prioritize commerce over preservation at every turn in spite of policymakers’ stated goals to protect their historic cities. While Venice has viewed its status as an in-demand tourist destination as a blessing, in many ways its very appeal has hastened its decline. The proliferation of vacation homes has driven up real estate prices and driven out residents, who, without protection from lawmakers, are leaving the historical city limits for peripheral suburbs in increasing numbers each year. Full-time residents of Venice are so sparse they can hardly be expected to hold political sway. (Vacationers currently outnumber citizens 140 to one.) The city’s current mayor was not elected by citizens of Venice, but by residents of its far more populous suburbs. So it cannot be argued that the reduction of Venice’s once diverse economy to a monoculture of tourism was a process that citizens themselves elected.
Beyond that, laws that aim to protect the fragile city have left gaping loopholes for cruise ships despite evidence of their damage to Venice’s shores. However, of seemingly more importance to Settis than the physical damage cruise ships may cause are the tourists themselves, or, more accurately, the bourgeois values that drive them. People who arrive via cruise ship en masse and stay only a matter of hours, he argues, can be said at best to value the idea of international travel. What they actually expect to find is a snap-shot-ready Venice of their imaginations, an image Venetians provide at great cost. Priced out of their own homes, locals sell trinkets representing a city that no longer exists.
The take-away from a stop on a Venice cruise might neatly coincide with the popular conception of the city: gondolas gliding down canals alongside an amalgamation of accordion music and spaghetti. The image, which signifies luxury and repose, has made Venice hugely valuable to an international economy founded on the principles of advertising, in which the act of duplicating and selling attractive scenes that signify value is itself thought to generate value. Settis laments that, because of these principles, “A fake Venice can be more valuable than the real one specifically because it can be marketed and advertised.”
Indeed Venice’s most iconic scenes can be experienced in recreations all over the world. In addition to Venice Beach, California, or the Venice Hotel in Las Vegas, Settis counts twenty-seven other Venices in the United States and twenty-two in Brazil. In China, the world’s largest shopping mall was built with “seven zones modeled on just as many geographical areas […] including Venice.” Many of the sights constructed in Venice’s image, as in China, were built on top of local and historical architecture. China’s own structures, and with them its history, are supplanted “because they [are] a standing reminder of poverty, whereas […] Italian squares […] seemingly evoke the prosperous societies with which China’s nouveaux riches wish to identify.” Yet despite efforts to signify value and prosperity through Venice’s iconography, the mall remains ninety percent vacant, as mimicking the architecture of past prosperity has, unsurprisingly, so far failed to bring about actual prosperity.
It bears noting that this Venice-themed shopping mall might hold interest for those who take a particular kind of aesthetic pleasure from distorted postmodern landscapes, or even bring legitimate pleasure to the Chinese masses. And although Settis’s disdain is partly rooted in slippery notions of taste and “delicacy,” he convincingly denies the accusation of elitism:
Whatever triggered the race to build theme parks and fake residential Venices […] wasn’t the democratization of culture […] but is actually the same old habit espoused by the privileged classes who wish to keep the pleasures of what is authentic all to themselves, while offering pale imitations to the masses, paternalistically camouflaging them as gifts.
It’s an argument strengthened by the knowledge that the same privileged class advocating unchecked cruise ship access, citing economic benefits, would never themselves be caught dead on Carnival Cruise line.
Settis sees an analogy in a phenomenon known to anthropologists as the “cargo cult.” During World War II, when certain indigenous societies encountered ships and planes for the first time, they believed these technologies to be “gifts from ancestors or gods,” which had apparently brought great prosperity to the societies that created them. They hoped that by building life-size replicas of modern amenities, such as planes, radios, and telephones, and practicing military salutes they’d witnessed Westerners performing, they would incur similar rewards. For Settis, the cargo cult comparison applies both to developing Chinese cities adopting Venetian architecture to signify prosperity, and to Venice’s devotion to the tourism industry. Both cultures build the visual effects of wealth but not the underlying causes.
Venice’s uncertain future in the face of climate change and population decline has made it a fashionable cause for architects, and Settis fixates on several proposals utterly repugnant to his sensibility. One such scheme, a theme park within the city limits, would be called Veniceland. And though this proposal comes vaguely from “the internet” (potentially rendering his outrage premature), to Settis, it reflects actual plans already enacted throughout Italy. Pompeii, for instance, has planned a Pompeii Experimental Park, which Settis describes as “a sort of facsimile of the actual archeological site which one can only assume is now deemed too boring.”
Another proposal, this one presented at the prestigious Venice Biennale (which, to Settis’s horror, implies serious consideration), imagines the historic part of the city preserved for visitors and ringed by residential towers, skyscrapers where citizens would live safe from the danger of rising tides. Settis loathes the proposal, first for reducing the historic city center to “a panorama to be glimpsed from afar, whose only real function is to raise the cost of each apartment sold,” and second, for the cargo cult-like mentality that building skyscrapers in or around historic Italian cities requires.
Settis sees the skyscraper as a symbol of the mindset that drains historical cities of real value, replacing it with market value. The skyscraper, Settis explains, was invented to serve industrialization as a strategy to boost urban density, effectively packing in workers and stacking them up, to minimize their commute and maximize their labor. Visually, in Settis’s opinion, skyscrapers reinforce the notion of exploitation by “dwarfing” the historic city below, a word that he notes literally means “to make dwarfish; to prevent the due development of.” Today, skyscrapers are constructed simply to signify modernity, regardless of real need. In a series of charts and graphics, Settis shows that the number of skyscrapers in Milan has grown in inverse proportion to its population year after year. Many of the buildings remain empty, even as they flout zoning laws. “It is assumed,” he writes “the mere existence of skyscrapers will lure people and prosperity to Milan […] when the city has actually been steadily losing inhabitants, taking this fiction for granted, as though Milan were on the cusp of some great economic boom; yet the sole boom the city witnessed was reaped by those who profited”—namely real estate developers.
Venice’s structural limitations have so far prevented the skyscraper’s encroachment, but Settis sees in the cruise ship a clear visual analogy: a massive structure that represents the most superficial (and most seductive) aspects of capitalism towering over the historic city center. Just as Venetian architecture in China, airplanes made of sticks in primitive civilizations, and skyscrapers in Milan have all failed to generate the wealth they supposedly signify, cruise ships will fail to bring real growth and prosperity to Venice’s citizens. Instead of embracing the natural processes that made Venice flourish for thousands of years, we choose to operate on faith and fetish.
Given the high quality of his analysis, it is almost a shame that Settis bothered to present possible solutions, which hardly help his legitimate case against elitism. His proposed Hippocratic oath for architects, a “Vitruvian oath,” in which architects would vow to build beautiful and ethical structures that also respect the city’s history, is immediately recognizable as unenforceable, as are his genuine but generalized pleas for “thoughtfulness” or “delicacy.” But even if we don’t share Settis’s horror in the face of global recreations of Venice, or his belief that the skyscraper represents an inherently oppressive structure, it is hard not to see the logic of his claims. If selling Venice as a commodity hasn’t worked in China’s it is unlikely to work for Venice itself.
ARTIE NIEDERHOFFER lives and writes in Ridgewood, Queens.