Presenting: Venice, An Odyssey — Hope And Anger In The Iconic City

The exclusive Italics Magazine series based on a new book looks at what makes Venice tick.

This is the first in a series of articles ranging over society, politics, history and environmental matters in relation to Venice

Nigh on 50 years ago, I was sent to Venice as an exchange student, and it changed my life. Then a 17-year-old American high school student, I lived for a year with a Venetian family, making a frescoed salon in their palazzo my bedroom and attending school at the liceo classico, though at first I knew no Italian. Over the year, I learned to speak the language, and I lived the life of a young Venetian, making friends and going about in a little boat, as people do there. Then, it was over, and I went away, and I moved on to university, a job and family, and the decades slid by.

After a long career as a journalist, much of that spent as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe, I decided a few years ago to read up on Venice and revisit, initially out of curiosity about how it had changed in half a century, but also because by I had a feeling that the city might be a bellwether of where big world trends — political and environmental — were heading. Over 2018 and 2019, I returned for some months.

The result in summer 2020 will be the book Venice, an Odyssey: Hope and Anger in the Iconic City, a non-fiction profile describing Venice as it was, as it is and what its future may hold. It is based largely on over 150 interviews with Venetians, including artisans, historians, a retired banker, authors, parents, an archaeologist, ecologists, a funeral director and a former rock star. They added to my journey of exploration their many voices, and while I act as the main guide, I tried to reflect the thinking of these people who love and know Venice best.

My lifetime exposure to Venice spanned a transformative period for the city. When I lived there in 1971-72, the population was close to 120,000 and tourism brought a comfortable, sustainable number of visitors a year, under 10 million. When I was putting the final touches on my book in 2020, the number of residents had dropped to about 52,000, with a totally unsustainable deluge of 30 million tourists a year, interrupted only by the Corona virus. The pressures of recent decades have changed from a viable community, carrying on traditions and ties going back centuries, to one on a knife edge, facing threats to its survival from out-of-control market forces, globalization and climate change.

Back in the 1970s, when I was still a teenager, I struggled to understand Italy, but I learned something vital by living among the Italians at such a tender age; that we are all in a brotherhood of man, that I could see beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’, and that our traditions and habits, regardless of culture, grow from a common humanity. (That may seem obvious, but unfortunately not everyone learns that lesson.) It was with this frame of mind, bolstered by my years of experience in other cultures as a foreign correspondent, that I went about finding out not only where Venice is now, but how it got there and how Venice’s experience shines a light on what is happening around the world today.

I tell the story of Venice from its beginnings, discovering recent archeological finds have brought on a little revolution in the understanding its history. Venice was in reality a less Roman and more pirate nation than many like to admit. I look into its growth as an empire, trying to understand the outstanding fact: that Venice’s government lasted longer than any other in history. But mostly I focus on Venice today, on its challenges, the forces driving the depopulation of the city and degradation of the lagoon that it depends on.

I will share some of this journey in the series to be published here over coming weeks.

Neal E. Robbins’ book, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope and Anger in the Iconic City, is out now!

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