At the beginning of the seventeenth century the city was no longer building enough ships; its share of the import trade from the Near East was shrinking; the merchants of Holland and England exploited the recently discovered Cape route to trade with the Indies; the German market collapsed, in part as a result of the Thirty Years War. There were only three Venetian merchants in Constantinople. The depredations of sea pirates meant, also, that the mercantile routes were under constant threat.
The Venetian government, in the face of economic competition from other European states, decided that its pre-eminent duty was to maintain standards of production; costs, therefore, remained high. In the face of challenge and competition the city reverted to its innate traditionalism. It retained all the institutional rigour of its existing guilds; the work practices of the manufacturers were unchanged. Laws were passed that gave priority to Venetian shipping in Venetian ports; goods destined for Venice could only be carried in Venetian-owned ships. Its conservatism and its new protectionism meant that it could not effectively confront the quickly changing mercantile world of the 1630s and 1640s. Cheaper manufactures undercut the Venetian markets in such areas as dyeing and printing. Venice retained its hold in the trade of luxury goods; in all other items, it fell behind. The annals are dominated by the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of a once great economic and imperial power.
In the first decade of the seventeenth century Venice was placed under solemn interdict by the pope, thus effectively being excommunicated. The interdict failed of its effect, largely as a result of the indifference of the Venetian people to papal disapproval. When a member of the government told a prominent ecclesiastic that no papal bull was to be opened or read in the territories of the republic he replied, “I shall proceed as the Holy Spirit inspires me.” The Venetian official told him that “the Holy Spirit has already inspired the council of ten to hang all disobedient subjects.” When a priest conformed to the papal edict and closed down his church, a gallows was erected outside the porch on the following morning. “These leaders of your senate,” one pope had told a Venetian ambassador fifty years before, “are tough fellows and need a lot of cooking.” The successful rebuff to the pope materially hindered papal ambitions in the rest of Italy, but the threat of excommunication added to the impression that the independence of the city could never be taken for granted.
The sense of threat was given dramatic expression in the discovery of, and almost hysterical reaction to, what became known as “the Spanish plot.” It is said that in 1618 a mercenary from Normandy approached the Spanish government, and its representatives in Italy, with a plan to destroy the city of the lagoon. On a certain day his agents would set fire to the Arsenal, the Mint and the ducal palace; at the same time all of the Venetian nobles would be massacred, and the Spanish fleet would take charge of all the passages into the city. Venice would fall to Spain. Such was the plan. According to report, it was enthusiastically received by the Spanish ambassador in Venice, the marquis of Bedmar, and by the French authorities. The duke of Osuna, the Spanish viceroy of Naples, was deeply complicit.
Yet, as so often happened in Venice, the conspirators were betrayed by secret informants. The scheme was revealed to the council of ten, who took prompt measures on 17 May 1618. By chance it happened to be the day when a new doge was to be elected. So the city was filled with travellers and interested observers.
On the morning of 18 May the people of Venice woke to find the bodies of two men suspended from a gibbet between the two columns of the piazzetta. The celebrations for the election of the new doge took place, over the next three days, with the bodies of the condemned in full view. Nothing was said about them by the authorities. It became known that they were Frenchmen. Some of the inns, populated by Frenchmen, suddenly found that they had vacant rooms. It was said that five hundred other conspirators had been drowned on that night in the canals. Bedmar was forced to flee. The French ambassador, also under suspicion, took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Loreto.
The silence of the authorities might be construed as embarrassment. It seems very likely that there was no real conspiracy at all, and that the council of ten acted in panic on the basis of false information. Their reaction suggests, however, that the leaders of the city considered Venice to be in imminent danger of destruction.
In historical literature “the Spanish plot” has taken its place with the “gunpowder plot” and the “massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s” as an emblematic event. It was, according to Sir Henry Wotton, “the foulest and fearfullest thing that hath come to light since the foundation of the city.” There were various explanations and interpretations of the conspiracy, none of them entirely convincing. It has, for example, been claimed that the Venetian authorities were in league with Osuna, to bring Naples under Venetian domination, but on fear of discovery of the plot they had covered up the evidence by killing all of Osuna’s emissaries in the city. There may have been a conspiracy, and a conspiracy within a conspiracy, with all the machinations of a convoluted plot utterly suited to a suspicious and theatrical city. It became the subject of plays, and pamphlets, of the most melodramatic nature. It inspired Otway’s greatest play, Venice Preserv’d. Venice has always been preserved. It always will be. One Venetian proverb, sempre crolla ma non cade, tells the story. It is always collapsing but it never falls down.
There was a further and major blow to civic harmony twelve years later; in the course of the great plague of 1630 almost fifty thousand residents of the city died. The government undertook a major effort in health care and sanitation; at all costs, at a time of weakness, civic panic or disorder had to be avoided. Yet the population dipped to 102,000, and never properly recovered in the following centuries. This was not necessarily a matter of lasting regret to the authorities. There was of course a fall in tax revenues, but the relative depopulation meant that there were more jobs available for those who remained and that wages increased exponentially. Incomes rose, and prices fell. At times of emergency, too, the city could prove its self-sufficiency.
How in any case can we speak of failure and decline in the context of a city that still survives intact? By the end of the seventeenth century Venice had a working polity. The English ambassador had in 1612 described the senators as “growne fractious, vindictive, loose, and unthriftie”; yet they had held together. In fact Venice experienced a commercial resurgence by the end of the century. Trade with Germany and the Turks of Constantinople enjoyed a revival. The revenues from taxes on shipping increased by some 70 per cent in the last three decades of the seventeenth century. The standard of living in the city had not fallen at all. It may have been no longer an international market, but it became a vital regional port serving the territories of the Po valley. A great scheme of public works was instituted to increase the traffic along the Adige river. New roads were built along the skirts of the lagoon. Projects were formed for legal, educational and technological reform. The functions of the city had changed. It had adapted and survived. It became in every sense a local, rather than a western, power.
By the eighteenth century, at the very latest, the city lost any illusion about its status as an imperial force. It held only Dalmatia, and some of the Ionian islands. But this was not necessarily a matter for regret. It was said of England in the twentieth century that it had lost an empire and had not yet found a new role. This was not the case with Venice. The city acted as the entrepôt for goods destined for western Europe in general and for the North Sea shores in particular. Thirty English, and fifteen Dutch, merchantmen visited the port each year. Trade in the latter half of the eighteenth century was in no way inferior to that of the fifteenth century. Canals were being deepened to accommodate the larger sailing vessels, and new canals were being dug on the mainland to divert the waters of the rivers threatening the levels of the lagoon. In regional matters Venice adopted a stance of studied neutrality, having realised that wars and rumours of wars were not good for business on the Italian mainland. The city, perhaps unwisely in the light of subsequent developments, became accustomed to peace. Yet its removal from battle also helped its reputation as a wise arbiter and a standard of good governance. The constitution was in no way adapted or amended.
In the eighteenth century Venice, as we have already observed, set itself the task of becoming the city of art and the city of pleasure. It redefined itself as the most seductive haven for foreign visitors. The public buildings were renovated, and the churches were restored. New theatres, and new hospitals, were erected. This was the age of Canaletto, whose views of the city have created a perfect myth of graceful urbanism. But this was also the century of Giambattista Tiepolo, born in 1696 and dead by 1770. He inherited all the liveliness and energy of his Venetian forebears, and thus is an apt token of the fact that the spirit and greatness of the city did not die. They revived, and flourished, under new circumstances. The first half of the eighteenth century, too, witnessed the music of Vivaldi. Is there not something more glorious about making music than making war? This was not a dying city. It was a city more vibrant than ever before.
That happy state would not last for ever. Quick bright things often end in confusion. By the end of the eighteenth century Venice had lost its freedom. It did not lose its fabric, or its inheritance, but it lost its status as a republic. Twenty years before the catastrophe, there was already nervous fever in the air. When Carlo Contarini addressed the great council in 1779, he declared that “all is in confusion, in disorder. Our commerce is languishing; bankruptcies continually prove it. Food is extraordinarily dear. That which sufficed to maintain our families and left a margin to help the State, is now insufficient to keep us alive.” In the following year the doge, Paolo Renier, conveyed approximately the same sentiment, “We have no forces,” he told the great council, “neither on land nor on sea; we have no alliances. We live by luck, by accident, and solely dependent upon the conception of Venetian prudence which others entertain about us.” In 1784 the patrician, Andrea Tron, completed the litany of complaint. “The old enduring maxims and laws that created and could still create a great state have been forgotten …” The trade of Venice was now confined to “comforts, excessive luxuries, vain shows, alleged amusements and vices.”
The three men were in their different ways intuiting what could otherwise not have been foreseen. Who could have predicted the rise of the Napoleonic Empire in Europe and the submission of Venice to one man’s will? Yet of course it is not the consequence of one man. In War and PeaceTolstoy enquired, in relation to the phenomenon of Napoleon, “Why do wars or revolutions happen? We do not know. We only know that to produce the one or the other men form themselves into a certain combination in which all take part; and we say that this is the nature of men, that this is a law.”
The “fall” of Venice was just a change in its historical identity. We cannot say that it was a disgrace or a triumph, because we do not know who in the end is triumphant and who is disgraced. That is the flaw in all moralistic interpretations of historical events. We must discount the possibility of ever discerning a purpose in human affairs, except that of blind instinct reaching its fulfilment, and we must admit that any ultimate purpose will be for ever beyond our understanding. Why did Venice “fall”? We may return to War and Peace to understand that an answer is not possible. “Why does an apple fall when it is ripe? Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it?”
The end came quickly. Ludovico Manin was elected the doge of Venice in 1789; it was by far the most expensive election in Venetian history, costing half as much again as the previous ducal election of 1779. The cost was hardly worth it. Manin, the 120th doge continuing an unbroken line of rulers since AD 697, was the last doge in Venetian history. Eight years after his accession the city of patrician government was shaken and destroyed by the conqueror still riding on the back of popular revolution. Bonaparte, twenty-six years old, was annoyed by Venice. He was annoyed that some of its mainland territories had become the centre of French émigré activity, and that the Venetian authorities had allowed the Austrian enemy to pass through its territories. When he arrived in the Po region he sent his agents into the city with the message of “liberation.” The forces of Napoleon were not to be considered as blood-thirsty plebeian revolutionaries, but as a dedicated army ready to remove the injustice and ineptitude of an antique and discredited regime. There were indeed some Venetians who would have welcomed him.
When he crossed the River Po, the end was close. A new guardian of Venetian territories, a provveditore, was appointed with the official purpose of “preserving intact the tranquillity of the republic, and of administering comfort and consolation to its subjects.” It is a most inexpedient turn of phrase, suggesting the onset of panic. When Napoleon occupied Verona, the provveditore and his staff entered negotiations with him; he was apparently affable, and even amicable, but no concessions were drawn from him. It was reported that he threatened, in the friendliest possible terms, to demand a ransom of six million francs for the safety of the city. The Venetians had no troops, and only the remnants of a navy. They were, to all intents and purposes, defenceless. Napoleon, meanwhile, continued his campaign of occupation throughout the Venetian territories.
The stated policy of Venetian neutrality, between France and Austria, now turned back and bit the city. The French accused the senate of aiding the Austrians, and of course in turn the Austrian government denounced the Venetians for assisting Bonaparte. The doge and the senate did nothing. It was as if they were speechless with fear. A Paduan writer, Ippolito Nievo, said of this period that the Venetian nobility was a corpse that could not be revived.
When a truce was declared between France and Austria, Bonaparte waited for Venice to fall into his hands. He tested its responses. He sent a ship into the harbour of the Lido, on 20 April 1797, and a Venetian galley attacked it. That was enough to signal war. The senate met in permanent session. Napoleon instigated popular risings against Venetian rule in the cities of the mainland. Two Venetian nobles were sent to Bonaparte on 25 April. He was magnificent in his assumed wrath. He blamed the Venetians for atrocities against his soldiers. “I will have no Inquisition, no antique barbarities.” He ended by saying that “I will be an Attila to the Venetian state.” He knew something of Venetian history. Then over dinner he asked for reparations to the amount of twenty-two million francs from the Venetian treasury.
On 29 April the French soldiers occupied the Venetian frontiers. As the guardians of the city anxiously convened on the following day, the sound of the French artillery could clearly be heard. The doge walked up and down the hall of his private apartments, where they had gathered for safety, and told them that “tonight we are not even safe in our beds.” The procurator then rose to his feet. “I see that it is all over with my country,” he said. “I can certainly be of no assistance. To an honest man, every place is his country; one may easily occupy oneself in Switzerland.” He was persuaded to stay for the time being, and comforted himself with snuff. The nobles then agreed that they would introduce any democratic changes that Bonaparte required of them, in the hope that this would forestall an invasion.
The great council met on the following day, 1 May, when the doge addressed them. He told them that it was necessary to make peace at any price, and that they must resort to prayer. So matters stayed for the next few days, with Venetian envoys going to and from the camp of Napoleon. They capitulated on every point. The great council met on 12 May to ratify their proceedings. Those present did not meet the required quorum of six hundred members, but they decided to go ahead anyway. They had just got to the point of debating the measure to accept “the proposed provisional representative government,” a French government, when the sound of musketry was heard. It was in fact the parting salute of some sailors leaving the Lido, but the patricians believed it to be the noise of an invading army. They fell into a panic. The doge called out “Divide! Divide!,” to conclude the vote. They did so, and promptly left the council hall never to return. Ippolito Nievo recorded that
after sixty years I still see some of those frightened, dejected, alarmed faces. I visualise the deathly pallor of some, the discomposed almost drunken aspect of others, the nervous hurry of the majority, who seemed as though they would gladly have jumped out of the windows to escape this scene of infamy.
It is reported in the histories of the period that the doge returned to his apartment, and gave his ducal bonnet to his manservant. “Take it,” he said. “I shall not be needing it again.” So ended the republic of Venice. The last Carnival before the end was supposed to have been the most magnificent, and the most expensive, in the entire history of the city.
The French army occupied the city on 15 May. An official report to Bonaparte, on this occasion, reported that the ordinary people of Venice “retired in silence to their homes, exclaiming with tears—Venice is no more! Saint Mark is fallen!” The lion of Saint Mark was indeed toppled from its column, and a “tree of liberty” erected in the square. The ducal insignia, and the “Golden Book” of patrician membership, were ritually burned. The former doge, and members of the great council, joined in the dancing around the tree. Thus ended a polity that had endured for more than a thousand years. The most ancient government in the whole of Europe was another indirect casualty of the French Revolution.
Napoleon also plundered the art and treasures of the city, just as Venice had plundered Constantinople and the dominions of its empire. There is something apposite about the transference of the four bronze horses to Paris; they had been snatched by Venetians from Constantinople six hundred years before. They were always the spoils of victory. Then Napoleon bartered Venice itself. In the autumn of 1797 he handed it to the Austrians as part of the Treaty of Campo Formio. Eight years later, having defeated the Austrians, he took it back. In 1805 it became part of his unified kingdom of Italy. For Venice, accustomed to stand apart from the mainland, this was a further humiliation. It had never played any part in the burgeoning national consciousness of the Italians, and only reluctantly accepted its status as a peripheral part of a nation. In 1814 the city again returned to the control of Austria. It suffered these changes of regime with docility. It bowed its head. It was now a spectator of its own fate.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Napoleon had instituted a policy of public works. A new royal palace was erected at the west end of Saint Mark’s Square. Churches and monasteries were pulled down to create public gardens just beyond the Arsenal. A new road, the Via Eugenia, now known as the Via Garibaldi, was built along the waterfront towards the gardens. The public works continued under Austrian occupation. The lagoon was fortified. The Accademia bridge, only the second bridge across the Grand Canal, was erected in 1854. Yet the most radical change of all consisted in the building of a railway bridge that connected Venice to the mainland; the city was no longer an island, and it lost its hallowed status as a refuge from the world. This meant, too, that the prime significance of the water had gone for ever. It became a city of mechanical, rather than of natural, time. It had, perhaps, been prophesied. In the early 1500s the doge, Andrea Gritti, consulted the Delphic oracle. He had been assailed by rumours concerning the imminent collapse of Venice. There appeared to him, beside the statue of Apollo, a panorama showing Venice surrounded by green fields rather than by the sea. The priest told him that this signified one thing: the republic would die when Venice became part of the mainland.
Throughout this period, in fact, there was an accelerating economic slump from which the city scarcely recovered in the twentieth century. The patrician class was emasculated, and one family in three simply died out. Some of the remaining nobles were awarded honorary titles by the Austrian government. But these were empty forms. They fooled nobody except their holders. The general population diminished, too, as a result of epidemic sickness and migration. There had always been beggars in Venice, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century the poverty and mendicancy became the most obvious aspect of city life. It was estimated that a third of the population depended on charity. This was precisely the time when the English Romantics became interested in Venice. They were drawn to decay and desuetude.
In some ways it was the most interesting period in the history of the city. The grass and weeds had sprung up in the campi, and the various palazzi had been converted into ruined tenements for the poor. The stone steps and bridges were covered with green algae, and the wood of the mooring posts was rotting away. The houses crumbled. “Venice indeed appears to be at her last gasp,” an Englishman wrote in the winter of 1816, “and if something is not done to relieve and support her, she must be soon buried again in the marshes from whence she originally sprang. Every trace of her former magnificence which still exists only serves to illustrate her present decay.”
A generation later, however, some of the prosperity of the city was recovered. It reverted to type. It became once more the haven for travellers and tourists; eleven large hotels, and innumerable smaller hostelries, were opened to serve them. Gas lighting was introduced to increase the romantic charm of the nocturnal city. This was the Venice that Turner depicted. The population began to rise. The merchants, and the glass-makers, and the gondoliers were prosperous. By the 1850s there were no less than eighty-two shoe-shops and one hundred retailers of silk. Yet the city was still part of the Hapsburg dominion, with the principal social and economic decisions being taken far away in Vienna. Venice had become only one distant and subsidiary limb of a large empire. Of course the Venetians resented their loss of status. There were complaints concerning high taxes, and oppressive censorship. The Austrian soldiers, in particular, were not liked. They were even compared unfavourably to their French predecessors. “There is hardly a Venetian house to which an Austrian is admitted,” the English consul general wrote. “Persons supposed to have a leaning towards the government are held up to public execration and their names are written upon the walls as traitors to the country.”
Shelley believed that the Venetian people themselves had forfeited their identity under the occupation of the French and the Austrian armies. “I had no conception,” he wrote, “of the excess to which avarice, cowardice, superstition, ignorance, passionless lust, & all the inexpressible brutalities to which human nature could be carried, until I had lived a few days among the Venetians.”
Yet it would be quite wrong to say that the Venetians had entirely lost their spirit or their energy. These human characteristics are stubborn and persistent. When the test came, in a few months of 1848, they rose to the challenge. This was the time of the siege of Venice.
It began in “the year of revolutions,” 1848, when the dynasty of the House of Orleans fell and the second republic was instituted in France. The contagion of liberty spread all over Europe. Most significantly there was great unrest at the heart of the Austrian Empire, Vienna, and the emperor was forced to grant a new constitution to his entire dominions. On receipt of this news, brought by a postal steamer from Trieste, the Venetian people rose up against the Austrian army of occupation. They congregated in Saint Mark’s Square and demanded the release of a Jewish lawyer, Daniele Manin, who had been imprisoned for uttering patriotic Venetian sentiments. The Arsenal was captured by the local people. In the face of general insurrection, with which they could not adequately deal, the Austrian army agreed to withdraw from Venice and retired by sea to Trieste. On 22 March Manin was declared to be president of a newly formed republic. When he was told that the people were idle and self-indulgent he replied that “Neither you nor anyone else knows the people of Venice. They have always been misunderstood. My boast is that I know them better. It is my only merit.” It seemed at the time that Venice had once more risen from the depths. An editorial in the Gazzetta di Veneziaannounced that “We Are Free!” It took up the ancient cry of “Viva San Marco!”
But there can be no certainty in human affairs; all is miscalculation, error and confusion. What is predicted does not take place; the unforeseen, and the unexpected, make up the life of the world. In 1849 the Austrians defeated the nationalist forces on the Italian mainland, and reoccupied the Veneto. Venice once more stood alone against a threatening world. It was the crisis that throughout their history the Venetians had always most feared. Their fears then took material shape. The Austrian army laid siege to the city. It lasted for seventeen months.
Yet popular feeling demanded resistance at all costs. It was the ancient spirit of independence reasserting itself in a city that had for two centuries been dismissed as effete and inglorious. The Venetian people were ready to risk everything in order to defend themselves from foreign oppression. They gladly gave up their plate and jewellery to help in the noble cause of saving Venice; even the poorest of them donated their thin bracelets and silver hairpins. The workers of the Arsenal laboured through the night to produce more vessels of war. There were rumours at one stage that the city was about to be bombed from the air, by means of balloons, but the threat was lampooned mercilessly in cartoons and street placards. Some air balloons were released on 12 July, but they lived up to comic expectations; they fell into the lagoon or drifted back to the Austrian side.
At the end of July, however, began a serious bombardment that continued for twenty-four days. All of the palaces along the Grand Canal were struck. Most of the Austrian bombs fell in the northern Cannaregio district, but the fire and smoke dominated the entire city. Many citizens built towers or turrets on the roofs of their houses, so that they could eat or rest at the same time as they enjoyed the spectacle. The Venetians had always enjoyed fireworks. The spirit of the Venetian people, like that of Londoners during the “blitz” of 1940, remained cheerful and steadfast. They would hold out, it was said, “until the last slice of polenta.” The children chased the Austrian cannon balls, as they landed, and then brought them to be used in the Venetian batteries.
The horrors of this period are well documented. In the face of famine and an epidemic of Asiatic cholera the Venetian people refused to surrender, consoling themselves with the chant of “Viva San Marco!”; but, in the end, resistance became impossible. On 24 August Manin signed the articles of surrender. The Austrian army returned to the ravaged city, and Manin was arrested. He was despatched as an exile to Paris. His dream of republican independence, based upon the remote history of the city, had come to nothing. Yet for a time Venice had once again become the emblem of republican liberty, and was admired by all those who despised Hapsburg imperialism. That support was short of material benefits, of course, and was not enough to save the city. Yet the bravery and endurance of the Venetian people were enough to dispel for ever the belief that they were spineless and spiritless.
In retaliation for the rebellion the Austrians removed the status of Venice as a free port. It was the final phase in the maritime life of the city. The occupation of the Austrians, after the siege, lasted for seventeen years. It was essentially a city in mourning. “There is no greater social dullness and sadness,” the American consul wrote in 1865, “on land or sea, than in contemporary Venice.” It was the home of “despondency”; it resembled “a sepulchre of the living.” In early photographs the city has a slum-like appearance, the women in shawls and the men in battered hats.
Then the events of the outer world, to which the Venetians had become largely indifferent, cast a new light upon the city. In 1866 the Austrian troops withdrew, and the province of Lombardy-Venetia became part of the new kingdom of Italy. The air of gloom and abandonment that had hovered over Venice began to lift. The success of the Lido as a pleasure resort, from the 1880s into the twentieth century, opened up new vistas of trade and prosperity for the lagoon. Two luxury hotels were built on the island. Venice had once more become a pleasure ground for the rich and for the famous. There were any number of dethroned members of royal families, dukes and duchesses, popular singers, film stars, and what were once called “playboys.” The Astors and the Desboroughs came. The middle class followed. In 1895 the first International Exhibition was organised. This soon became known as the Biennale, inaugurating what has become a thoroughly Venetian tradition of art, money and celebrity.
From this time forward it became clear to everyone that the only future for the city lay in tourism. The creation of the industrial zone on the mainland at Mestre and Marghera in the early decades of the twentieth century, just within the purview of Venice, only served to reinforce the belief that the developments of contemporary life were somehow to be kept in the margins. It was only the latest manifestation of the ancient instinct of the city to banish its industries to the borders. Venice had come to rely upon its history, real or imagined. The actual past was not specified. The city simply encouraged a sense of “pastness.”
The decayed fabric of the thirteenth-century palace, known as the Fondaco dei Turchi, was purchased by the municipality (as it now was) and restored to a symmetrical elegance it never actually possessed. It was, in the language of architectural historians, “hypervenetianised.” In 1907 the new fish market was built on the Rialto in the style of the fifteenth century. There was a “Gothic” revival, and a “Byzantine” revival. New hotels were built in “classical” or “Renaissance” style. New palaces rose up along the Grand Canal that, to all outward appearances, might have been designed and erected in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.
During the First World War Venice’s old masters, the Austrians, came dangerously close to the city when its army moved ever nearer to the borders of the lagoon; barrage balloons could be seen from the campanile, and the port was closed for fear of enemy attack. But the city did not fall. In fact it emerged almost intact from the ravages of both world wars; there was very little bomb damage, and through all the years of hostilities there were only two hundred fatalities—most of whom had fallen into the canals during the hours of “black-out.”
But there were other victims. The Jews of Venice were destined to suffer on the orders of Mussolini and of Hitler. The city had been quick to embrace fascism in the 1920s, and organised groups of Mussolini’s supporters were soon a powerful force in the city. The racial laws of 1938, and the active persecution of the Jews from 1943 to 1945, opened a wide wound in Venetian Jewry. Jews were dismissed from their jobs and were not allowed to use the beaches of the Lido. In public buildings there were signs stating “Dogs and Jews prohibited.” The historical tolerance of the Venetian people had come to an end.
When the German army took over the city in 1943, approximately two hundred Jews were rounded up and deported to the concentration camps of the mainland. Some were sent on to Auschwitz. The mentally ill were taken from the hospital islands and despatched to their death. The world beyond Venice, the real world, had taken over.
The last half of the twentieth century was marked by the exodus of Venetians to the mainland, where industrial expansion promised better paid jobs and less expensive housing. The industrial activity of Mestre and Marghera has also helped to poison the waters of the lagoon, emphasising the vulnerability of the environment of the city.
Yet the city continued, and continues, to be beset by bureaucratic timidity and ineptitude. Gianfranco Pertot’s study of modern Venice, Venice: Extraordinary Maintenance (2004), chronicles the “non-fulfilment of obligations, the failure to programme or to plan, and consequently to act” on the part of the Venetian authorities for many years. It is part of the “inertia, this immobilismo” of the city, allowing and even encouraging “scandalous exploitation, speculation, destruction and decay.” Bribery and general corruption are said to be rife throughout the city. Yet what community has not been invaded by corruption? It is the human condition. And it has been the condition of Venice itself for many centuries.
For centuries, also, it was almost impossible to locate the source or centre of power, which was always distributed among overlapping governmental bodies. Was it the doge or the senate? Did it reside in the council of ten or in the great council? The present bureaucratic arrangements of the city have inherited that complexity and that obliquity. To quote from Pertot once more: “Who is in charge in Venice is a question that has still not been settled.” It was always thus. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries new laws accrued upon old laws. This history is still repeating itself. In the late twentieth century “special law” followed “special law” concerning the preservation of the city. There were delays and obfuscations in every part of the administrative machinery. There is still no general agreement, among all the interested parties, about the future of Venice. Should it be a museum city and research centre? Should it be simply a tourist haven and stage set for the various international exhibitions that have gravitated to the lagoon? Or should it attempt to restore its past as a living city of residents?
It is perhaps too late for the last proposal. That great migration of the Venetian population to Mestre began in the 1950s and has continued ever since. By the early twenty-first century the inhabitants of Venice had the lowest incomes in the whole of the Veneto region. One third of the population was over the age of sixty. The death rate had overtaken the birth rate by a factor of four. That is why, at night, Venice now seems so empty. It is empty. It is hard to imagine a time when it was a city full of local people. Of course, in the day, it is full of tourists. But paradoxically tourists empty a place by their presence. They turn it into a spectacle without depth. There are now approximately sixty thousand residents within the city, and demographic experts have suggested that the last Venetian will leave in or about 2030.
Most young Venetians have migrated to the mainland, where there are jobs other than those within the “service sector.” Venice has become too expensive for them. Foreigners have been buying, or renting, the houses and apartments. So affordable housing is scarce. Many houses have been turned into pensions or hotels. Many of the local shops have become little more than souvenir kiosks for tourists. Butchers and bakers have gone, while ice-cream shops have multiplied. Contemporary Venetians are under siege in another sense.
Away from the main tourist routes, however, the fabric of the city seems neglected. The stock of private housing has been deteriorating under the twin threats of subsidence and water seepage. The pollution from the chemical plants and petroleum refineries of Marghera, on the mainland, has also taken its toll on the brick and stone. Fissures appear; walls shift and crack; stonework falls off the buildings. The plaster peels in an air laden with salt. One recent study of Venice by John Berendt is entitled The City of Falling Angels, derived from a sign posted outside the church of S. Maria della Salute. In more general terms, it is hard not to detect a mood of cynicism among the remaining inhabitants of the city.
The great flood of 1966, when the afternoon tide rose more than six feet (1.8 m) higher than its average, reminded Venetians that their city was still precarious. The world shared the general sense of anxiety, and organisations such as “Venice In Peril” were established to raise funds for the restoration of Venice. As the city gradually subsides, the incidences of flooding increase. It has been estimated that Saint Mark’s Square is flooded on fifty occasions each year.
The sea is still rising; the silt continually piling upon the floor of the lagoon, and the extraction of methane gas from the Adriatic, have combined with the more general threat of “global warming.” The sea is returning to its old domain, unless it is prevented by assiduous and energetic human enterprise. A scheme is now under way, for example, to erect seventy-nine barriers at the tidal inlets where the sea and the lagoon meet; these would be raised, by means of compressed air, at the time of dangerously high tides. The proposal is controversial, however, and is opposed by many Venetians who claim that a tideless lagoon would be in danger of becoming a stagnant pond. It has also been argued that so much money has been expended on this project that the needs of the city itself have largely been ignored. But Venice is now, for better or worse, part of Italy. When it lost its autonomy, it forfeited its authority. It cannot control its own destiny. And, when it lost its uniqueness, did it also lose its energy? Peggy Guggenheim once said that “when Venice is flooded, it is even more truly beloved.” Like Ophelia it seems to float expiring on the water, all that is hopeless and all that is hoped for.
Yet we have seen throughout this book that Venice has always been in peril, its existence most fragile. It is a man-made structure relying on the vicissitudes of the natural world. Yet it has endured. Its survival is exemplary. Let us hope that its will to survive will remain a potent source of energy.
Here ends the history lesson.