At sunset all cities look wonderful, but some more so than others. Reliefs become more supple, columns more rotund, capitals curlier, cornices more resolute, spires starker, niches deeper, disciples more draped, angels airborne. In the streets it gets dark but it is still day-time for the Fondamenta and that gigantic liquid mirror where motorboats, vaporetti, gondolas, dinghies, and barges like scattered old shoes zealously trample baroque and gothic façades, not sparing your own or a passing cloud’s reflections either. It’s the winter light as its purest. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them behind somewhere in the universe, or in the nearby cumulus. […] It's a private light, the light of Giorgione and Bellini […] And the city (Venice) lingers in it, savouring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.

The Russian writer Joseph Brodsky visited Venice over and over again for many winters. His description of the city at sunset is probably still one of the most touching, revealing the very intimate connection he had to the city. A connection so strong that he called Venice “my version of Paradise”, and asked, at the end of his life, to be buried on San Michele, the island of the dead.

Steering his boat homewards at sunset, Venetian film Director Giovanni Pellegrini reveals that sunset is also his favourite time of the day. In particular, the moment when the last of the sun's rays shine on the Canale Grande, and which Venetians call “the blue light”. It’s a unique sight, all the more breathtaking to behold from a craft on the quiet waters Venetians have been able to reclaim during the pandemic. With the heavy traffic of small boats carrying goods, the noisy speedboats and taxi boats dashing about, and the vaporettos ferrying tourists to and from the Central Station gone due to Covid, Venetians have taken out their own boats again and freely navigated their canals...

And yet, the sense of magic fizzles out quickly. 2019 was the year of the flood and the year tourism reached its climax. In early 2020 Covid struck “like an earthquake”.

Suddenly there was no one in the streets. But here the sensation, the feeling, was different. I heard lots of talking like Italians singing from the window or balcony, or images of entire neighbourhoods with all the people chatting from the window. And here very well, nothing like that. Because the city is almost empty. [...] each five houses, four were empty. [...] you could walk inside the city and just don't hear a word, don't hear notes or sound or anything. Just the scream of seagulls and the [23:22] noise of pigeons flying. Sometimes the bells in the church…

Pellegrini calls it “a man-made marvel, a ghost town made of marble and many other rich and beautiful things, but completely empty…”

Many have welcomed the lockdown as a much needed break from tourism and an opportunity to regain access to public spaces (such as streets and canals). Yet the lockdown has also exposed many of the issues which a tourist economy running at full steam had been masking. Most importantly, it has thrown Venice’s increasing depopulation into sharp relief.

In the 1950s Venice’s inhabitants numbered 175 thousand. Today the figure is down to 51 thousand. Still, the city continues to lose a 1000 residents with every passing year.

The day the number of residents dipped under 60,000, some of the locals put on the “Funeral of Venice”. It was the 14th of November 2009. They lamented that Venice was going to turn into a city of ghosts if something wasn't done soon.

...During the funeral, a black coffin was carried in a procession of boats through the canals, accompanying the procession of mourners. In the end the coffin was carried ashore and smashed. Bottles of prosecco were popped; people drank and cheered.

Risks of extinction / did we see it coming?

We are used to mourning when a person dies, yet we don’t do the same when a place is no more.

Instead, we glorify “ruins”. This attitude often belies the dire reasons that produced the ruins in the first place, be they dramatic events such as natural disasters, or political strife, or migration. Over time, an aura of fascination ends up enveloping such places, preserving them, fossilizing them in the present, so that they appear alive, when in actual fact they have already expired.

The forces of capitalism are prompting Venetians to gradually abandon their city. However, these forces completely overlook the most vital and basic ingredient that keeps cities alive: people. Cities are made of people.

This is how Salvatore Settis puts it in his poignant essay, “If venice dies”:

“Let’s try to think of the city as having a body (made of walls, buildings, squares, and streets, etc.), but also a soul; A city without a soul, made up of just walls, would be nothing but a carcass, a funeral scene, just like what one might see in the aftermath of a neutron bomb that has wiped out all trace of life, leaving the city’s buildings intact and ready to be used by the approaching invader. Instead, as far as our experience shows, the cities of walls and the cities of men coexist side by side. There is a soul inside that city of men: its community. And this community is an invisible city.”

Venetians are famously resilient, in addition to being highly pragmatic. For all their optimism, they know their city is an exception to the rule. For years, they’ve felt death getting closer and closer. There are a myriad of threats hanging over Venice, most notably environmental, but also economic and socio-political. Venetians have already begun to live in the memory of their own city. They know, deep down, that the current model is not going to last..

Once you realise that the society you inhabit is not tenable, you understand that the end isn’t imminent - you’re already living it.

Back in 2009, as the funeral was drawing to a close, someone pulled a flag out of the coffin. It was emblazoned with a phoenix, a mythological symbol of rebirth and resurrection. Undoubtedly, this bird is of particular symbolic importance for Venetians. La Fenice (the phoenix), is also the name of Venice’s opera theatre. Destroyed by fire twice, on the 13th of december 1836 and again on the 29 of January 1996, both times the theatre was rebuilt, rising up from its ashes.

The fear that Venice might disappear and nothing, or very little of it will remain, is justified. When a place runs such a risk, its memory becomes increasingly valuable. All the more so in Venice, since what’s at stake is not just memory, but also the city’s very identity. Perhaps this is why, with the future up in the air, uncertain, there is an acute awareness of all things past and a desire to document the city in its entirety and to preserve all of its constituent parts.

The history of Venice’s archives is long and distinguished. Not only did they hold majestic collections of volumes throughout the centuries, they also preserved the memory of many other cities. Right up until the Vatican archives were opened in the late 1880s, Venice’s archives were the biggest in all of Europe. According to the Professor of Early Modern History Filippo De Vivo, the estimated size of the archives dating from the Middle Ages and the early modern era is 400,000 volumes or files, arranged across 78 kilometres of shelving.

The Venetian archive was a sort of Eldorado from 19th century historians because everyone knew that it was very famous. That the Venetian Republic had collected information from all over the world, not just about itself

Archives are the synapses of collective memory. Frenchmen wanting to find out more about Paris would go to Venice, as would German and English historians wanting to learn about their own countries’ pasts. At the same time, Venetian historians would also visit the archives in Florence, Rome, or Istanbul in order to find information about their own city which Venetian rulers had attempted to expunge from history by erasing it from Venice’s own archives.

Archives are produced, built, and accumulated in the course of human activity. And in archives you find traces, sources about every aspect of human activity throughout history.

Archives are not just sources of information about the past, but in and of themselves, they tell us something about the past, about the past they wanted, about people who in the past cared about their own past and wanted to preserve its memory. Thus archives also record the way facts are selected and organised, providing insight into the way the societies of the past experienced their own era, as well as how they wanted to be remembered. It is not just the records, but also the omissions therein that tell the story of our civilization.

An archive that recorded absolutely everything is not just impossible to set up, it would also be useless. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges recounts such an attempt in his short story “On Exactitude in Science”: an empire sets out to draw a detailed map of itself, but the cartographers ended up creating a map as vast as the empire itself as vast as the empire itself. The venture is deemed futile and is ultimately abandoned.

During the last acqua alta, on the 12th of November 2019, some of Venice’s archives were badly affected, including the basement of the Querini Stampalia Foundation and the Conservatory of Music library. Marigusta Lazzari, director of the foundation, remembers how over 400 Venetians quickly gathered, volunteering to help rescue the manuscripts as a gesture of solidarity.

The fragility of ancient manuscripts falls prey to the passage of time. To temper the effects of the passing years and centuries many physical archives have begun digitising their material. Interestingly, these projects demonstrate that thanks to digitisation and subsequent analysis it’s possible to do much more than just record and preserve a digital surrogate of an artwork. We can actually improve the way we study and protect the city. For instance, by getting a more accurate picture of the details therein, or by monitoring damage more closely.

From 6th to 17th July 2020, a team from the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation spent twelve days in Venice recording the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore in its entirety. The result is a grand and innovative ARCHIVE project, a virtual rendering of the island executed in collaboration with the Cini Foundation, one of the biggest cultural institutions in Venice, as well as the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne. Thanks to the project, buildings, artworks, and furniture on San Giorgio Maggiore can now be accessed in digital format. Director of Factum Arte Adam Lowe explains...

We decided that we will be doing long-range LIDAR scanning, to capture the overall shape of the buildings and the external views and the internal views. We then use high resolution photogrammetry to add the surface detail to that. That would enable us to study for example, on the facade of San Giorgio, the church of San Giorgio, the sculptures and the inscriptions that are high up, are difficult to see,

The entire territory of the island is being recorded, including its relationship to the environment, the surrounding lagoon, and the winds. The passing of time is being factored in as well. This has fostered new interest and opportunities in the application of digital technologies to cultural heritage preservation. Lowe explains further that the render will be key when monitoring the state of Venice’s historical landmarks.

...I mean, for me, one of the most particularly interesting areas was watching in the Palladian Cloister, the way that the plaster covering on the walls was being affected by salt and was peeling off, gave a chance to carry out really detailed recording of the breakdown of a surface. And that data will be vital to monitor the speed at which the cobalt coverings are being blown off by the salt, the speed of decay, and to really look and create the data to discuss how best to preserve the material heritage on the island.

Digital technologies show how architecture and artworks aren’t simply frozen in the specific point in time when they were made, rather, they’re living records of the passage of time. Often paintings and buildings also record events and phenomena that postdate their own creation, carrying them into the future.

The researcher in atmospheric physics and cultural heritage Dario Camuffo has conducted a scientific analysis of the works of Venetian painters depicting buildings and compared them with the state of the very same buildings today in an attempt to calculate the impact of land subsidence in Venice.

“In general paintings provide a qualitative image, but in Venice’s case, a quantitative evaluation of the apparent sea level rise is possible, thanks to accurate paintings by Canaletto and Bellotto, drawn with the aid of the camera obscura. The paintings accurately reproduce all of the details with a high degree of precision, including the algae belt. […] By analysing these paintings, and comparing them with the algae level we see today, we can extend our knowledge of Venice’s submersion, reaching back in time almost as far back as three centuries.”

Cities have a memory of their own. It isn’t stored on the pages of a volume in an archive, but in their very architectural fabric. The way some streets intersect, the squares, or churches, or wells, and how all these elements come together, tells us a lot about the history of a city. Sofia Psarra, Professor of Architecture and Spatial Design, explains how spatial transformations are never accidental. The spatial layout of buildings and urban spaces exerts a powerful influence on human behaviour. The way that people move, interact and transact is in part a product of how they, being units of space themselves, connect as networks of space. Studying the evolution of spaces reveals stories about the people who inhabited them.

when I started analysing Venice and I looked at the map, what struck me was there were squares in Venice, which are many, and these urban squares have churches, they have wealth wellheads, because there was a systems assistant in the centre of the squares that was collecting water, we've got to think of Venice's islands in the middle of the lagoon with no access to water, so the y had to collect rainwater, since the early days

As Venice’s merchant society flourished and claimed more land, the city took on the compact form we see today. Nonetheless, the squares somehow retained the memory of the island's original connection with the water. The only trace of it left in the present day is the water distribution system throughout the city.

So when the analysis was performed, the results showed that these squares are all interlinked through a system called a measure between a centrality, which in graph theory, allows us to measure the shortest paths between all origins and destinations. This is a spatial characteristic that captures the evolution of the memory of the city since the early days…

what these works showed was that there is something like a collective mind in the city that recognises patterns. Yeah. And with time, adjusts its relationships in a way the parts and holes can work together. [...] So in a city that was very concerned about trade, about communication, about distribution of movement and goods. These squares, yeah, had to be located in a way that they would really capture the buzz and trade. That's what I call the collective imagination, the collective mind of the city.

Rather than behaving like a museum, the city of Venice seems to comport itself more like a modern archive - animated by a collective consciousness, a mind continuously re-reading its own pages, constantly undergoing transformation.

In Albertine Disparu, the sixth volume of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche de temps perdu, the stones of Venice have a life that’s inextricably linked with that of the narrator’s soul. Drawn to Venice by his interest in Ruskin’s work, Marcel’s nocturnal wanderings through the city make him see it in a different light.

Here [this architectural ensemble] seemed deliberately hidden in a network of little streets, like those palaces in oriental tales where a person is led by night and then taken home before morning, so that he won’t remember how to return to the magical place, which he finally believes he visited only in a dream.

When he goes out to trace his way back to the small square, he cannot find it. He searches for it again and again, but always ends up back where he started. Venice’s urban fabric becomes a metaphor for memory and movement through it becomes an attempt to remember.

Albeit elusive, Venice will revisit Marcel at the end of his journey, in Paris, when the act of stepping on an uneven paving stone will trigger, again, that very act of remembrance... was Venice, of which my efforts to describe it and the supposed snapshots taken by my memory had never told me anything, but which the sensation which I had once experienced as I stood upon the two uneven stones in the baptistery of St Mark's had, recurring a moment ago, restored to me complete with all the other sensations linked on that day to that particular sensation, all of which had been waiting in their place–from which with imperious suddenness a chance happening had caused them to emerge–in the series of forgotten days…