Book Review: If Venice Dies
by Salvatore Settis
translated from the Italian by André Naffis-Sahely
New Vessel Press, 2016
It’s like that one elfin great-aunt who’s been showing up at family gatherings for as long as anybody can remember and only ever discussing one subject: her imminent demise from “the thrombosis.” On the one hand, it would be churlish – and asking for trouble – to outright disbelieve her, but on the other hand, anybody who’s been on death’s doorstep long enough to see her own great-grandchildren perhaps has some explaining to do. And, as the inimitable Yogi Berra used to say, on the third hand, might there be a pitiless but natural calculus at work, suggesting that this great-aunt might in fact profit from a fundamental change? That if not she then certainly the world might benefit from the full-stop of her perpetual invalid status?
So it is with the grand city of Venice: it’s been teetering on the brink of its own annihilation for the past five hundred years, with the world’s pundits lamenting the marauding Turk, the barbarous Bonaparte, the rot of urban decay, the rising of the waters, and the onslaught of tourists – each in their turn declared the final nail in the city’s coffin, sure sign that the end has come. On the one hand, it would be churlish to deny some of the grosser facts involved; many districts of Venice are now experiencing worse and more frequent flooding than every before, and the city is trampled by millions of tourists every single year (and thousands more who don’t even bother to trample, being content to take cellphone photos from the promenade deck of their massive cruise ship, which is parked 100 feet from the front door of St. Mark’s). But on the other hand, the city endures – and has been enduring these and other daily indignities for a long time. And on the third hand, in a world that has always held sack and fire in minimal abeyance, can a dreaming city over a thousand years old really rightfully complain if fundamental changes are finally in the offing? Hasn’t Venice had a good run?
The whole complicated subject of the city’s life and death and afterlife is the main obession of a new book from New Vessel Press, If Venice Dies, an English-Language translation (by the very capable André Naffis-Sahely, himself Venetian-born) of Salvatore Settis’s 2014 Se Venezia muore. Settis is an archeologist and an art historian, and here he writes with flash and passion about the present and future of Venice. It’s a grim but downright thrilling short book that dashes around a dozen fascinating aspects of the struggle that Venice has been having with modernity for the last thirty years or so.
He venomously dislikes the boutiquing of the city, its gradual transformation from a living, breathing place of markets, churches, and schools into an “embalmed city” acting mainly as a picturesque backdrop for tourist fantasies, and many stretches of If Venice Dies are animated by the tension between those two alternatives. He fulminates against the kind of blind modernization that would blight the city with towers of steel and glass:
Can Venice’s uniqueness (being one of the only cities on earth where the sound of one’s footsteps isn’t drowned out by the rumble of traffic, where one can still hear the sound of the water washing against the quays and the “stones of Venice,” which Ruskin so dutifully explored) still be considered an antidote to the monoculture of skyscrapers?
But he can also be impatient with the timidity of the alternative, arguing instead for a more nuanced approach to the history of what he calls the “poetics of reutilization”:
The architect doesn’t professionally study history, but his or her profession is both empty and miserable without it, all because history, meaning the awareness of our collective cultural memory, is the foundation of the notion of responsibility. Conversely, anyone who places aesthetics above history is advocating a kind of architecture that is both socially irresponsible because it harms society and essentially servile because it is beholden to its customers.
In pursuit of the elusive balance between aesthetics and history, Settis half-jokingly proposes that architects swear the Virtruvian Oath, their own equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath that, with a little luck, guides the medical profession in the struggle between tradition and modernity, between its own progressive and conservative tendencies. Professionals taking the Virtruvian Oath would then be duty-bound to consider their cities as living, breathing things rather than blank canvases – with the results being, ideally, a more holistic approach to extremely historical places like Venice.
Such an oath wouldn’t address the aforementioned hordes of trampling tourists, and neither it nor anything else can do much about the rising seas. But it’s a start, and If Venice Dies is its most passionate discussion yet.