Invisible City

Dreaming of Venice Before it Disappears

Due to rising sea levels, repeated flooding, and a dwindling population, it’s no longer alarmist to worry about the future of Venice — or wonder how much of one it has left.

I’ve never been to Venice. But I’ve always been fascinated by it. Ever since I first saw it drawn onto those paper placemats at Italian restaurants — wait a minute, the streets are made of rivers? The cars are made of boats? What kind of amazing fantasyland is this? For a kid, it seemed made up, like Atlantis or the capital of some vanished civilization from adventure books. But it was real. It existed. In my lifetime. Which made me wonder, why weren’t more places like this? Who wouldn’t want every city to be like this?

As I got a little older I learned why, and the reason is the same one that explains why we don’t have all sorts of other fanciful things: the maintenance is a nightmare. Add in the destructive, corrosive effects of water and it’s mind-boggling that we even have a Venice to begin with, and that it’s lasted as long as it has.

By the time I’d graduated college Venice had lost some of its magic for me. Somewhere along the line I’d heard that the town had become overrun with tourists and giant cruise ships and that the water was murky. When you’re in your twenties and you’re learning just how big the world is and you’re plotting all the places you’d love to visit as soon as you have a few bucks, it doesn’t take much to knock a destination down your list.

Venice
Photo by Tom Podmore.

Then I read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and my curiosity returned. In the book, a weary Kublai Khan sends for news about his empire. Marco Polo answers the call and describes to the Khan dozens of exotic, incredible, and seemingly impossible cities that lie within the emperor’s vast realm. When Kublai Khan asks why the merchant-explorer has not described his hometown of Venice, Polo reveals that he’s been speaking of it all along, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

Such is the impact and influence of Venice. Even if it wasn’t the flawless fantasy version of itself that I’d dreamt of, the very idea of it — an ancient city built on and of water — could still inspire wonder. And while Venice isn’t the only city with a canal network, I’m glad the scheme hasn’t been attempted en masse. With urban architecture becoming more uniform and nondescript — an assembly line of glass towers — it’s comforting to know that somewhere out there, there is a place like Venice, and there is no other place quite like it.

But what happens when you lose your only copy?

Venice
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Photo of Venice by Karsten Würth.

Last week, Venice suffered its worst flooding in more than 50 years, with water reaching a level of 187 centimeters. It’s the second-highest mark since recording began in 1923 and it comes on the back of a sustained period of increasingly frequent flood events. It’s a cruel irony that the very thing that makes Venice so singular is the thing that might wind up destroying it. It also feels somehow inevitable. Climate change has put on clear display the unstoppable power of the sea. What chance does a tiny cluster of perpetually sinking islands stand against rising tides, intensifying winds, and surging storms?

Even the solution to Venice’s flood problem — massive floodgates, set to be operational in 2021 — will bring problems of their own. If global water levels continue to climb the gates will need to be raised permanently, effectively sealing off the lagoon and turning Venice into “a contained aquatic petri dish” with sanitation issues and health risks.

Venice
St. Mark’s Square during the flood of 1966.

Then there are the Venetians — or what’s left of them.

Over-tourism and a rapidly declining population have left the city “hellish by day and empty by night,” in the words of the Independent. 20 million tourists visit Venice each year — many of them day-trippers from cruise ships — driving up the cost of living for the comparatively meager number of fixed residents. Since 1980, the population of the historic old city has decreased by more than 50% — from 120,000 to just over 50,000 — with predictions that by 2030 it will be so expensive there will be virtually no permanent residents remaining.

You don’t have to live in Venice to be concerned with those numbers, or with the way many tourists are choosing to engage with the city. Tablet is all about hotels, so we’re obviously biased to some extent against the big cruise lines. As a mode of transportation, boats are great, but not when they’re leading to hit-and-run, surface-level interactions that don’t properly support and stimulate the local citizenry.

Whether it’s Venice or some place else, if residents are replaced by tourists, if everything exists only to prop up tourism, from where then does the destination derive its soul and its beating heart? You don’t travel somewhere just to meet other visitors or eat all your meals back on the ship. If you only want to see the facade of a city, to see if it looks like the pictures, you’ll do just as well to go to Epcot, or to the Vegas version. But if you want to be immersed in the local culture, you’ll need locals.

Venice
Photo of Chioggia on the Venetian Lagoon by Federico Beccari.
Venice
Photo of Venice by Dorian Mongel.
Venice
Photo of Venice by Karsten Würth.

If all of that sounds overly pessimistic, especially coming from someone who works at a travel company that’s expected to blindly promote tourism — well, that’s the point. By all accounts the situation in Venice is dire, and potentially heartbreaking. The new realities of our changing climate have amplified the conversation around the attractions and artifacts we treasure. Just because something has been around for ages, doesn’t mean it will be around forever.

That’s why today I’m writing about Venice even though I’ve never been. That’s why I’m remembering those paper placemats and my childlike dream of river streets and boat cars. That’s why I’m thinking of Calvino’s Kublai Khan — forced to imagine what the city must be like, content to rely on second-hand descriptions and left to wonder if I’ll have a chance to get there before the things that make it special all but disappear.

Of course, never having seen a city doesn’t mean it’s invisible to you. So much of travel is the idea of travel — the anticipation of what you will experience and the hope that it will live up to your imagination. And sometimes, there’s real value to what we must invent in our mind. Or, as Marco Polo explained it:

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.” 

Most of us can’t travel wherever, whenever we want to. But maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll visit enough places in our lifetime that they’ll all start to blur together just a little bit. So go and see everything you can, while you can — and never forget the places you can’t.

 

Written by Mark Fedeli, Marketing & Editorial Director for Tablet Hotels. You can find more of his Agenda stories here and you can reach him directly on twitter @marrrkfedeli.

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13 Comments
  1. Venice has flooded for thousands of years as it was built on a marsh. This nothing new, just more inconvenient for today’s society.
    While visiting Venice 4 months ago, the residents I spoke with cited the unpredictable and extreme taxes for the reason most leave.

  2. For heaven’s sake, why would you assign a story about Venice to someone who has never been there? This story should have been written by someone who knows the city well, even if not a citizen, and has a real feeling for the challenges currently facing La Serenissima. You really missed the boat (pun intended) on this one!

  3. To have an inexperienced person who has never been to Venice write about it is absurd….unless you have no standards what connoisseurs would write.

    This article is paste and copy without reaching the soul of Italy’s gem. I hope people like this stay home and watch their computers. Or be like some tourists I heard in ROME speak about why statues aren’t as clean as she saw them in Las Vegas… Never realizing one is marble, the other plastic.

    Venice was, is and will be!

  4. I was lucky enough to travel to Venice 6 times. Most recently last summer. It is more magical every time. I love when the cruise ships depart in late afternoon. So sad about all the corruption and greed that keeps the barriers from being completed. Game of Thornes has ruined Dubrovnik. Many other amazing places are being destroyed. Let’s all travel responsively.

  5. Utterly disappointing point of view. No soul, no love for Italy. I totally agree with Jojo Capace, how could you publish this story with the author never having been to Venice, the most beautiful city in the world, deserving our respect and admiration, not contempt . Let us hope and pray that Venice will survive .

  6. I also find it surprising that you would have someone write an article on Venice who has never visited. I have been there four times – each time irresistibly drawn back. Surely there is no other place on earth quite like this. Walk along the Riva degli Schiavoni and into the Piazza San Marco at 5:00 in the morning and find it eerily empty of tourists; other than the pigeons you’ll have it to yourself. And that is the secret of enjoying Venice – explore the main areas early and then when the tourists are in full control escape to one of the many sestiere (districts) such as San Polo and Santa Croce and enjoy the enchanting Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, or walk along the Riva degli Schiavoni the opposite way to all of the tourists and cross the bridge to the island of San Pietro di Castello. Venice tugs at my heart, reminding me of countless iconic scenes and moments I have experienced. For as long as there is a Venice I will be planning to travel there.

  7. As someone who has been to Venice many times to work and exhibit and thus engages with the local community, I also find it surprising and very problematic that you would engage a writer who has never been to Venice. This is clearly no fault of their own, but at this crucial time in the city’s history, when Venetians are enduring extreme conditions and an uncertain future, the article requires a voice of deeper understanding and greater sensitivity earned from living in the city. If Tablet and their readers really wish to contribute to one of the most extraordinary places on earth they might consider donating to one of the amazing not-for-profit organizations that are working hard to preserve and restore the city- Venetian Heritage- Save Venice Inc- and connect with the instagram venezia_non_disneyland
    It is a truly dangerously glib act for the city to align it to a fantasical themepark. It is an ancient city- there is a difference. Thank you for reading.

  8. So sad to see my very favorite city with so many problems. Whether you have been there or not, it is still the best and most unusual place. Back in 1977, our son told us to go to Venice before Venice disappears. Our next trip included the city and we loved it. Went back three more times and still loved it. Our daughter went there, and loved it, and our granddaughter went in 2018 and felt the same way. So as bad as it might be, Venice is still the best!!

  9. the great photo by Photo by Federico Beccari from Unsplash, is not a photo taken in Venice, it is in fact Chioggia, twenty miles south of the great city, a twin city to Venice, a fishing port, a vibrant community, and a great place to visit and, despite a few problems with high tides, its population are not going anywhere

  10. A really unimaginative article written by someone with no soul.. a pointless exercise in travel writing by someone who hasn’t travelled to the destination.

  11. The greatest song about Granada Spain was written by a Mexican in 1932, who never went there. Agustín Lara visited 22 years later. Mind You there wasn’t Google maps then. Y daugther visited 4 years ago & said it’s a tourist trap. Want more for your money come to Mexico we have a Venice of our own. Mexcaltitán.

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