Is Venice Dying? The Answer: That’s Not The Right Question

Worries about the death of Venice distract from the issue.

Venice, An Odyssey - Italics Magazine Series on Venice
Photo: Jim Daruvala
Neal E. Robbins’ book, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope, Anger and the future of cities is out now.

Is Venice dying? The question may seem pertinent with acqua alta floods, depopulation and overtourism worries along with new threats posed now by coronavirus.

People first began asking about the death of Venice when it lost out to trade rivals in the 15th century. Then again when the Republic of Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797. The 1912 Thomas Mann novel and spinoff films of Death in Venice, gave the idea new currency. That Venice is dying is something many people around the world believe.

The answer hinges on the definition of ‘death’. What people meant by death has changed over time. In past centuries, it might have meant politically weak. Philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in the 16th century thought Venice was already past it as a power. Venice-watchers for most of the later 20th century thought more in terms of its physical status, of the fact that it was being reclaimed by the sea. In recent decades, death might be more about the city’s hemorrhaging residents at a rate of 1,000 a month; Venice without Venetians — permanent residents — is predicted in a decade or two. Is that death?

Conversely, in what sense does a city ‘live’? A debate on what is happening to Venice also focuses on what defines a living city. Venice has not only over 50,000 regular inhabitants. It has over 25,000 seasonal university students and many thousands of part-time residents, such as retirees, and tens of thousands more who live in Mestre and other places nearby and commute to work in historic Venice.

Or is a city more about who carries forward the local knowledge of the place, who knows how it works, who grew up there and whose families have roots? On this many disagree, with some insisting that threshold has already been passed, and others sure that, for now, Venice still has its memory as a community, even if it’s wearing thin. For others still, the new residents of Venice, many of them immigrants from Asia, are displacing the ‘real’ Venetians, while for some these newcomers are assimilating the traditional cultures and enriching it with their own.

Environmentally, Venice is under threat. While it sinks slowly, the real problem is sea level rise aggravating acqua alta such that the big flood gates being built to protect the lagoon may not be enough. But others insist that the still unfinished dams will work and that Venice has the wherewithal to fortify itself against the rising tides in the longer term.

So where does that leave the ‘death of Venice’? It leaves it where it has always been.

Historically, Venice has died many times. From the 13th to the 17th century it repeatedly lost much of its population to plague — but every time new people came in and the city survived. Despite wars and setbacks, historical Venice thrived, in fact. After the end of the Republic, it reinvented itself economically, expanding into other industries and ultimately tourism.

The determination to associate Venice with death seems to be undying, linked in part to parties interested in encouraging tourism. After the 1966 floods, word went out that we all must see Venice before it ‘dies’. The romantic idea of death of Venice, is constantly renewed as new generations become familiar not just with the Mann’s work, but scores of writers — from of Dan Brown and Jason Goodwin to Donna Leon — who love to associate Venice with death, darkness and intrigue.

Venice is also a place of beauty and calm, where life is organized around walking (with the traffic moving on the canals under bridges). This makes it ideal for living our modern lives, where families and children can live free of the tyranny of the modern automobile, and where social life on the street is more congenial than anywhere else.

And yet, the city is changing. “Is it dying?” is the wrong question. Maybe one should ask if Venice is changing in the right way.

Venice an Odyssey Book cover

Neal E. Robbins’ book, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope, Anger and the future of cities is out now.

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