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Venice Observed

Canals, commerce, and Carnival.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By SARA LODGE
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“People call it the Exodus,” said Marina Scibilia, president of Forty for Venice, a social networking organization that is trying to revive a sense that Venice should be run for and by its residents as well as tourism. “The trouble is that young people simply can’t afford to live here any more.” In 2000, the council decided to develop more hotels—leading, ironically, to falling room rates. Many butchers and other shops necessary for locals have turned into mask shops, selling only to tourists. The more I spoke to Venetians, the more I realized that, behind the mask of serenity, Venice is angry. There were notices in the market on the Rialto complaining about the effects of a proposed removal of the wholesale fish market to the mainland. They read: “Rialto, just for tourists. Thank you Mr. Mayor.”

I asked Marina what the solution was.

“Tourists themselves want this to be a living city,” she replied, “not Disneyland, not a theme park. In order to keep it living and breathing, Venice needs residents and the council needs to support them, to prize quality over quantity in goods and services, to foster responsible tourism, local artisans, and the long-term future of the lagoon.” Her words made me thoughtful. I recalled the 1866 account of Venetian Life by William Dean Howells.  He notes:

I found it a sad condition of my perception of the beauty of Venice and friendship with it, that I came in some unconscious way to regard her fate as my own, and when I began to write the sketches which go to form this book, it was as hard to speak of any ugliness in her, or of the doom written against her in the hieroglyphic seams and fissures of her crumbling masonry, as if the fault and penalty were mine.

You may go then, as I did, in the spirit of Carnival to play in Venice, but the city of mirrors may make you reflect on authenticity, on what you can best do to keep its beautiful fabric alive as more than a theatrical backdrop for the antics of strangers.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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