The Festa del Redentore is one of the most significant and beloved events held in Venice. It falls on the third Sunday of July and, on the night before, thousands of Venetians and tourists dine aboard their boats as they wait for the fireworks to be set off. In the eighteenth century chamber orchestras entertained the locals and visitors alike while they waited. They did this from pontoon bridges and special floating barges were set up for the occasion.
In the summer of 1989 a concert was organized in the lagoon as part of the annual Festa del Redentore celebrations. The organisers drew inspiration from these eighteenth century floating orchestras, but brought them back on a much grander scale: there was a fully-fledged floating stage anchored to the seabed right in front of St Mark’s square, topped with 300 tons worth of musical instruments, lights, and technical equipment. The biggest band in the world at the time, Pink Floyd, performed at what would be remembered as “one of the most iconic concerts in history” as well as “the concert of controversy”. On the evening of 15th July 1989 100 million viewers all over the world watched the show on television, while over 200,000 young fans flocked to the city’s streets, filling St Mark’s square. It was the highest-attended concert Italy had ever seen.
The July 1989 Pink Floyd concert in Venice went down in history as an event with political, social, and environmental implications that reached far beyond that of any ordinary concert. In the weeks running up to the show, the Italian communist party tried to get it cancelled. They saw it as an assault on Venice, something akin to a barbarian invasion of the urban space. Some claimed that the mosaics in St. Mark’s Basilica would get damaged by the sound blasted through amplifiers. Some even went so far as to assert that the piazza could very well sink under the sheer weight of the audience. Organising an event of such proportions in the fragile heart of one the most beautiful cities in the world was a huge risk. No one wanted to take responsibility for allowing it to go ahead, in fact, the final green light was only given a few hours before the live broadcast began. The morning after the concert, Venice woke up engulfed in garbage: 500 cubic meters of empty cans, bottles, plastic bags, and food scraps. A proper rubbish collection service hadn’t been set up. Nor were portable bathrooms installed, since they were deemed to “clash aesthetically with monuments", meaning concert-goers had to relieve themselves on monuments and buildings. [general male voice?] As Tommaso Gastaldi, author of The show of the century, points out: “Fortunately, the disordered mass of people showed themselves to be far more civil than those who were supposed to organize, manage, and guarantee the safety of both the spectators and of the town itself, before and after the show. No major accidents occurred despite the very real danger of something terrible happening.” Only a few sculptures sustained minor damage.
A heated debate followed the event, culminating in a political crisis that led to the fall of the local government. More than thirty years later, the Pink Floyd concert is still fresh in the collective memory. The concert threw into sharp relief an ideological battle about the very nature of Venice and its purpose. Venice has grappled with this issue throughout it’s modern history, as Associate Professor of History And Italian at NYU Karl Appuhn explains:
“There's a very famous incident in the 16th century, in which this Padron, writer, architect kind of polymath, named Cornaro, Alvise Cornaro, he came up with this plan for remaking the entire Lagoon, and the city and, and he didn't really quite want to terrestrialise the city, but he wanted to build an enormous island in the middle of the bacino right in front of San Marco with a theatre and a fountain and a hillside and, and all of these kinds of things. And so he, at that moment, he was reimagining what the purpose of the city was. [...] Venetian trade was in decline and Cornaro was reimagining the city as something else. A kind of version of what it is today, which is a sort of a spectacle that people would come to see [...] At the time he was dismissed, he didn't get anywhere with this proposal, but in some ways he was quite far seeing because he sort of was imagining Venice no longer as a port, as a site of commerce, but as a site of tourism would have not have been a term that he would have understood in the 16th century, but as a site of spectacle for people visiting it.”
At the time, the number of concert-goers - 200,000 - was shockingly high. However, today this is how many tourists visit Venice every single weekend. Can we conceive of Venice today without seeing it as a perpetual stage, its main purpose being to fill its visitors with delight?
Venice is a city of contrasts, in which evolution and tradition, movement and stillness are in constant tension. And yet it appears that only some of these different sides to Venice have been captured in tourist photographs. Because Venice loves putting on a show for its visitors.
It’s a city forced to perform an image of itself over and over again, which is reassuring because it’s always exactly the same. The city’s layout and architecture attest to this. For instance, the rich palazzos lining the canal resemble a house curtain, pulled back to reveal the stage where the performance takes place. And despite the toll the tourism takes on the city, slowly chipping away at its soul, Venice continues to put its beauty on display. As the researcher and activist Giacomo Salerno put it, Venice is like a corpse wearing lipstick.
The Carnival is a vivid example of this contradiction. This festival dates all the way back to the 9th century. Historically, it was an opportunity to subvert rigid social norms. For a few weeks each year, the poor could pretend to be rich, women could be men, the sane could act like they were mad, all by simply wearing a costume which made them unrecognizable.
In its heyday the Carnival was a time to be playful, transgress rules, and subvert power dynamics. These days it has become one of the most lavish festivals in the world, a money-making enterprise which generates over 100 million euros each year, attracting around three million revellers to the city in the space of a fortnight. During the festivities Venice becomes far too crowded and too expensive to be enjoyed. The carnival costume, stripped of its original spontaneity and joy, has lost its original revolutionary force and gained a new, crystallised meaning.
In his essay If Venice Dies, the art historian Salvatore Settis wonders what would happen to the city if its soul were to be completely ravaged.
“Already in the 80s,” he says, “people had crazy ideas about Venice. Some saw the transformation of Venice into Disneyland as something that could mark the passage into a way of living that was more creative, fun, happier”.
Unfortunately, this process is already underway; in fact the commodification of Venice began long ago...
In 1999 the famous Italian actress Sofia Loren took part in the opening of The Venetian in Las Vegas by arriving at the shopping mall aboard a motor-powered gondola. If it weren’t for the sound of the engine, someone uncharacteristic, you would think that this really was Venice.
Another “little Venice” was built in Asia: The Venetian Macao Resort. Turkey is home to two more: the Venezia Palace Deluxe Resort and the Viaport Venezia (Istanbul). There are 24 Venices in the US alone. The list goes on...
Complete with canals, gondolas, and gondoliers in striped tops, all these sites replicate Venice’s most iconic features, and as a consequence, all look very similar. In Vegas you can even find an exact (or almost exact) replica of Saint Mark’s basilica bell tower. The one in Venice, after all, is only a reconstruction of the original, which collapsed in 1902. An identical replacement was erected the following year.
Each site offers you an authentic experience of a fake Venice.
“The most interesting thing about the multiplication of fake Venices is that as soon as a fake Venice is created, we need to banalise. Venice’s urban complexity is incredible, and the sheer number of churches, monuments, palaces it is home to is extraordinary. Within this intricate urban fabric we find buildings dating back to the Middle Ages, both those inhabited by the rich and those the poor lived in. Both need to exist within the same space because if any one of them were to disappear, the complexity would be lost. This is what’s missing from the copycat Venices: the complexity. There is always a pseudo-campanile of San Marco, which is the easiest thing to imitate. There’s often a pseudo-Rialto Bridge, sometimes a pseudo- Palazzo Ducale as well…”
These artificial Venices help to keep the performance going, they commodify the city. These replicas erase all of the complexities, presenting the postcard version of Venice to the world. But they also play a part in boosting the value of the original Venice, thereby creating a sense that it’s worth paying more for the real thing.
Meanwhile, the real Venice increasingly resembles its replicas. What began as a dream in the 80s is now slowly becoming reality. Rather than Venice inspiring the replicas, the replicas themselves are having a profound impact on Venice.
“The urban signposting invites the crowds to follow just a limited number of paths to get around. It makes it seem like there is only one way of experiencing Venice, when in reality there are many different ways. we could direct urban foot traffic to other areas [...] for example, the famous Venice of the Carnival, - which, who knows if it’ll even ever come back, and when - during the parade, it’s impossible to even just walk around, you’re pushing against thousands of other bodies. But why does the entire Carnival have to be contained within the Piazza San Marco? I’m sure that in the 1700s the Carnival was spread throughout the entire city, that it was a very different event. During the Carnival… even the real Venice becomes a fake Venice…"
Long-standing traditions now attract an overwhelming number of tourists. The vogalonga, a rowing regatta for amateurs and professionals, the Redentore fireworks, and, of course, the Carnival, are examples. Restaurants, cafés, hotels, and souvenir shops have replaced fishmongers, locksmiths, and grocery stores. Even the acqua alta, when it happens, fills the visitors with a mix of awe and enchantment, rather than genuine fear..
Being seen and visited by tourists has been part of Venice’s identity for centuries. However, these days the number of tourists per day is far above the number of inhabitants, in fact, it’s almost double. Venetians are well-aware that tourism has contributed to depopulating Venice’s city centre. And yet, because it’s one of Venice’s biggest industries, public opinion remains split. As Salerno clarifies:
“In a single-industry city, you don't have many alternatives, you are forced to live off the only industry there is in your area. Obviously, not everyone works in tourism or related industries, so there is already an important division there, it’s a source of tension between those who make a living from tourism and those who are seeing their living space eroded by tourism. [...]"
Venice has received substantial global real estate investments compared to other similarly-sized cities. Foreign capital has flooded in to snap up a large number of properties, which are subsequently rented out to tourists. But the situation is even more complex, because these investment flows have a knock-on effect on the owners of small properties. Andrea Segre, director [38.40]:
“If you have a 60 square metre flat, it’s not an easy decision to rent it out to a local for 600 euros a month, when you could earn 3-4 thousand euros if you turn it into a bed and breakfast. If you go for the prior, it will be because of your political convictions, or because you can afford it, but you would hope that this is supported by a shared political project and by laws that encourage it. For example: you rent it to a local and you don't pay all of your taxes, or, I don't know, you have a free berth for your boat. But it's clear that leaving this to the private initiative doesn't work, it's not possible. What’s needed is political drive.”
The city has closed its doors (quite literally) to Venetians and opened them to the rest of the world. The OCIO collective, a group of activists working to protect Venetians’ right to affordable housing, laments the exodus of locals from the city. Few locals can afford the inflated rents, and even if they could, no one would want to rent their flat out to them. In fact, most property owners outright refuse to rent to locals - some go as far as hanging up the phone when they hear the Venetian dialect on the other end of the line - because they know that tourists will pay exorbitant amounts to stay in the city centre. As a consequence, Venetian families struggle finding a place to live in the historic city. Students face the same predicament, and also have a hard time finding employment in any sector besides tourism, which is why most leave the city as soon as they’ve completed their studies.
The pandemic gave the citizens of Venice a break from tourism. Many have welcomed this opportunity to reclaim their city. They also saw this as a chance to stop and think about “what comes next”. Yet most property owners seem reluctant to make any changes to the existing model. They’ve remained firm in their unwillingness to rent to locals as they wait for tourism to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.
While small property owners and shopkeepers in the city centre have been hit hard by the pandemic as business ground to a halt, big hotel groups are thriving, buying up the islands in the lagoon and building the Veniceland empire. The former seaside hospital on the island of Lido, for instance, a gem replete with historical value, was sold off to Club Med and will be turned into a luxury hotel.
The impact of touristification isn’t only symbolic and economic, it’s also environmental. As the Pink Floyd concert demonstrated, the entertainment machine’s effects on the city are immense.
The damage is visible both above and below the surface. In 2020 Fantina Madricardo, a researcher from the National marine sciences research institute, decided to make the most of the absence of lagoon water taxi and water bus traffic resulting from the pandemic. She recorded underwater sounds in the lagoon and compared these to the pre-pandemic baseline. Her study is still in its early stages. However, it could help to introduce noise limits, thereby preventing the lagoon’s ecosystem from sustaining any further noise-induced damage.
Similarly, pictures of Venice’s crystal clear canals and sea life thriving anew made headlines throughout the pandemic. Hitting pause on the hundreds of polluting vaporettos and water taxis criss-crossing the lagoon also meant that Venetians could reclaim the canals and go out rowing. A clear illustration of what a difference a reduction in tourism has on the city’s ecosystem.
“I Need a map” “It won’t help. This is a living city. Things change.” “Villanelle, cities, don’t.” “Henri, they do” [...] “The cities of the interior do not lie on any map…”
Villanelle is the main protagonist in Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Passion. She’s a Venetian and the daughter of a boatman. She is born with webbed feet, which, according to legend, is an attribute typically passed down from Venetian boatmen to their sons. Because of this trait, she is more agile when driving the boat on the water. Woman by day, Villanelle cross-dresses at night, when she works as a croupier at the Casino near Saint Mark’s Square. There, women and men alike flirt with her, enchanted by her mysterious beauty.
In many ways, Villanelle is Venice. She moves comfortably between different elements, at ease on the water and on dry land. She wears disguises and most importantly, she charms everyone she meets. The very essence of her charm being that she is many things at once, that she flourishes in a state of fluidity. Villanelle can’t be pinned down and neither can Venice...
“In this enchanted city all things seem possible. Time stops. Hearts beat. The laws of the real world are suspended. God sits in the rafters and makes fun of the Devil and the Devil pokes our Lord with his tail. It has always been so. They say the boatmen have webbed feet and the beggar says he saw a young man walk on water. If you should leave me, my heart will turn to water and flood away…”