Flashy patriotic gesturing on the part of assertive yet less-than-independent statelets is rarely a good thing: at best it comes across as crass and faintly risible, while at worst, these first notes of a comic-sounding overture presage not some entertaining opera buffa, but rather tragedy following the usual script of material destruction, fratricidal violence and the energetic fostering of apparently ineradicable emnities, none of it any the less sad for being, all of it, so thoroughly predictable.
Perhaps, then, one should greet the news of the rebuilding of the Bucintoro in muted tones. The Bucintoro was, of course, the famously opulent Venetian state barge, first constructed in 1300 but then successively reconstituted and elaborated, so that the 1728 version (pictured above), the fourth Bucintoro, had swelled into an enormous confection of lion-studded, velvet-swagged, gilded magnificence, manned by 40 sailors and propelled by 168 oarsmen, and equipped with a main salon that could easily seat 90 guests. The vessel played a central role in one of the greatest of La Serenissima’s civic rituals, La Sensa, carrying the Doge out into the Bacino on Ascension Day, so that he could throw a gold ring into the Adriatic, reaffirming as he did so the symbolic marriage which had, for centuries, bound Venice in fruitful union with the sea.
By the late eighteenth century, of course, Venice was scarcely the awe-inspiring maritime power she had been five hundred years earlier. She had lost, at various points, most of her overseas possessions, including the Peloponnese (1718); her merchant fleet, vastly diminished, was beset by piracy; even her status as a major trade centre was increasingly challenged by newcomers like Livorno, Trieste and Ancona. Still, the splendid rite of La Sensa continued, much to the delight of Grand Tourists, amongst others. What did the Venetians make of it? Casanova’s comment is typically cynical, but obliquely respectful too, and the conjunction perhaps thus captures something genuine: he called La Sensa ‘a great and ridiculous ceremony’, the ‘burlesque wedding which even the Venetians regard with superstition’.
As he wrote, however, it was soon — apparently — to an end. Venice, having remained aloof for as long as possible from the mounting conflict between France and Austria, first found its Veneto hinterland transgressed by French troops, then through the course of 1796 lost city after beautiful terraferma city to the French. So on 12 May 1797, with a French ultimatum looming and French forces poised to invade, a meeting (inquorate) of the Great Council voted the Venetian Republic — nearly 1,100 years of it — into extinction.
The French, showing how much they cared, swapped Venice back to Austria within a year. Before they did so, however, they engaged in a remarkable programme of looting, pillage and vandalism. Outright thefts — which at least have the virtue of being reparable — included the quadriga of ancient bronze horses from atop the porch of San Marco, the winged Lion of St Mark that had stood on a column on the Piazzetta since the thirteenth century, about twenty important paintings representing the Venetian School at its finest, and 500 manuscripts, all shipped off to Paris. Other symbolic items were simply burned. These included not only the gates of Venice’s Ghetto — the emancipation of Venice’s Jewish population being the one positive result of French authority there — but also the Libro d’Oro in which the names of the Venetian aristocracy had been inscribed from the fourteenth century onwards, the doge’s insignia, and various other symbols of ducal and aristocratic authority. Almost unbelievably, many precious and historically significant items from the Treasury of San Marco were broken up, stripped of their gems, and melted down for their gold. Pretty much anything of any value that could be taken — not least at the Arsenale, the ship-yard that was once the wonder of the maritime world — was sent back to France to swell the Napoleonic war-chest.
Later, when the French briefly regained Venice from Austria, they initiated various urban ‘improvements’, most of which involved pulling down much-loved old buildings and making off with their various treasures. The creation of the Giardini, for instance, entailed the demolition of at least four churches as well as a hospice for retired sailors. The suppression of religious houses yielded up many paintings for state collections. In the Piazza San Marco, the ancient church of San Geminiano, completed by Jacobo Sansovino in 1557 but consecrated as early as 552, was leveled in order to create a ballroom for the new royal palace — and, coincidentally, one of the more monotonous architectural prospects La Serenissima affords. Straight roads, open vistas and regularity were to be the order of the day — this, in the most sublimely irrational, luxuriously organic cities on earth. Perhaps the only benefit accruing from any of these schemes was a sudden flowering of antiquarian research and documentation on the part of Venetians such as Jacobo Filiasi, the Abbot Moschini and Emmanuele Cicogna. Faced not only with the destruction of their birthright, but with its attempted intellectual reformulation, too, what other form of resistance could have been so apposite?
It is, then, against this background that we should imagine the rationalist, secularised auto-da-fe in which the Bucintoro perished. On 9 January 1798, in a pointedly unpleasant parody of La Sensa, the great barge, having first been stripped of its gold, was towed out into the Bacino to a site near San Giorgio Maggiore and there set alight. It burned, according to legend, for three days. The fire could be seen clearly from the Piazetta. The hull, however, was saved, and in fact served as a floating prison, the Hydra, until its destruction in 1824. If nothing else, this last at least symbolised with some precision the nature of that much-fêted ‘liberty’ delivered by Bonaparte, on behalf of ‘enlightened’ French republicanism, for Venice and her people.
And now, as we have seen, the Bucintoro is due to be rebuilt yet again, with work on a fifth version starting at the Arsenale on 15 March 2008. The scheme is being organised by the Fondazione Bucintoro (although, to judge from their rather out-of-date website, we should perhaps not hold our collective breath as we wait for the splash at the end of the slipway). The plan is to reconstruct, as exactly as possible, the barge that was lost in 1798. As an article in the Times recently had it,
Roberto D’Agostino, deputy head of Fondazione Bucintoro, said that the project would make meticulous use of the original materials, including larch and fir wood, and would even reproduce the gold decorations. The foundation is sponsored by businessmen in the Veneto and Lombardy regions. Tourists, local residents and school groups will be encouraged to visit the Arsenale during construction and talk to Venetian boatbuilders involved in the project.
All of which sounds unexceptionable enough. More pleasing still, however, was news of a letter sent by the Fondazione Bucintoro to the French president Mr Sarkozy, in which it was suggested that France might wish to contribute to the costs of the rebuilding as a goodwill gesture, by way of ‘reparation’ for French ‘vandalism’. Mr Sarkozy’s thoughts on the matter remain, as far as I can see, unreported. Perhaps he’s simply considering how big a cheque France ought to write?
And indeed, it’s easy enough, at one level, to laugh this all off as a clever piece of self-promotion on the part of the Fondazione Bucintoro, combining as it does the worthier sort of regional boosterism (those Lombard and Veneto businessmen) with keen eye for catching a headline (reparations! vandalism!), all under the rubric of Promoting Venetian Tourism.
Because tourism is what Venice is all about these days, isn’t it? Surely anyone with even the faintest interest in present-day Venice must realise by now that while anything up to an astonishing fifteen million people visit the tiny island every year, only about 62,000 souls actually live there, while the population of the entire Commune Venezia (Venice, the smaller islands and the mainland industrial conurbation of Mestre and Marghera) is something like 272,000. This means that the population of Venice is about one quarter of what it was at the end of the Second World War, which was already much less than it was in 1897, let alone 1797. What’s more, the population is ageing fast, as young familes increasingly choose to move to the mainland where housing is cheaper and employment more plentiful. In 1981, 13 percent of the population was under the age of 14, whereas by 2002 that number had fallen to 8.8 percent — not the sort of trend that can continue infinitely.
And then there’s Venice’s increasingly dysfuctional, one-crop economy. In the late 1980s and 1990s, while much of northern Italy was enjoying its own little (devaluation-assisted) economic ‘miracle’, Venice lost the Assicurazioni Generali insurance company (2,000 employees), the printing and production works of her very own daily newspaper Il Gazzettino, a number of regional banks, the offices of the local Rai (i.e. state television and radio) station, as well as ‘normal’ small shops and businesses beyond name and number. While the ports of Mestre and Marghera can boast a productive (if environmentally dodgy and spectacularly unaesthetic) industrial economy including not only shipbuilding, steelworks, foundries, and chemical factories, but some hi-tech enterprises as well, and while the wider Veneto region is a sleekly prosperous area with agricultural, manufacturing and service sector interests galore, Venice itself has become hopelessly reliant on her millions of paying visitors: on the cash that comes from housing the curious multitudes, keeping them fed and watered, conveying them from place to place, entertaining and sometimes informing them, and perhaps, ideally, sending them away having exchanged their euros for a bit of lace, or a handful of glass beads. Venice’s fatal addiction to tourism, her precipitous and, we are told, inevitable declension from working city to upmarket floating theme-park, has become such a commonplace that a certain sort of traveller actually despises Venice precisely for the blatantness of her calculating yet disengaged availability, preferring instead the rougher texture of places like Naples or Palermo, whose various deficiencies they construe encouragingly as a trope for the sort of ‘authenticity’ that Venice apparently lacks.
So it is scarcely difficult to imagine the cynicism, no less self-regarding for being so thoroughly unselfconscious, with which such travellers (for authenticity-enthusiasts are always very much ‘travellers’, never ‘tourists’) will greet the news of the Bucintoro’s projected reconstruction: since Venice is no longer a real place and only exists to please the tourists, hence the Bucintoro is nothing — can be nothing — more than some silly sub-Disneyland ‘attraction’ intended to divert, briefly, the attentions of the shallower sort of cash-paying culture-vulture. And who knows — perhaps that cynicism will turn out to have been richly deserved. Time alone will tell. Personally, however, the reconstruction of this potent civic symbol, complete with a flash (playful or otherwise) of sharp-edged historical memory, seems to me something rather different, and potentially more serious. For if tourism is all that this story’s about, why wait two long centuries to send the Bucintoro out once more into the rhythmically choppy, glass green waters of the Bacino San Marco?
Inevitably, one’s views on these things come to have less to do with ‘fact’ than with mildly illegitimate suspicion, sired by anecdote on personal inclination. So let’s explore, just for a moment, the circumstances that helped shape my view of this. Late last year I was in Venice during another one of the city’s age-old civic rituals, La Salute. This is a festival commemorating the end of a particularly dreadful spasm of the bubonic plague, which in the years 1630-31 killed 46,000 Venetians — roughly one third of the city’s population — after which the Venetian senate commissioned from a virtually unknown young architect, Baldassare Longhena, the magnificent domed Church of Santa Maria della Salute (which is to say, ‘health’ or ‘salvation’) that still flanks the entrance to the Grand Canal and constitutes one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks. On 21 November of each year, the Patriarch of Venice is joined by the mayor and other civic dignitaries in a solemn procession which moves from the Church of Santa Maria del Giglio to the Grand Canal, and then across a pontoon bridge (originally made up of boats) and finally up the steps of the Salute. The huge main doors of the basilica are opened, and an image of the Madonna Nikopeia — the one usually kept in her own chapel in the Basilica San Marco — is placed on the High Altar and displayed for veneration.
All for the tourists, eh? Well, it would be hard to think of a more extravagantly photogenic event, insofar as it involves the Grand Canal, elaborate vestments, equally elaborate civic robes, and a building whose curving lines and gently refulgent Istrian stone are never less than satisfying, no matter how inept or haphazard the photographer in question. And certainly, when I was there, there were plenty of tourists present. Their numbers were dwarfed, however, by the huge crowds of local people — some of them, admittedly, having come in from the mainland for the morning — that swelled along the narrow streets leading to the Salute, recognising friends and neighbours in the crush, carrying their tapers, pushing their pushchairs and helping the old with their footing, as progress towards the church slowed from a halting walk to something like the shuffling of a fast queue, before the swarm formed around the Salute and swelled up its tall steps. The festival of La Salute attracts tens of thousands, perhaps more than that, who come every year to stand before the holy image, to buy brightly-coloured sweets and garish helium balloons for their children from the stalls that line the larger calli, but most of all to attract for themselves and their loved ones the benefits of health and safety for the year ahead.
Picturesquely, Venice’s gondoliers — that sullenly glamorous collective Exhibit A for the sort of traveller who continues to insist that Venice is not, simply cannot be in any sense a real place — carry their oars to the steps of the Salute to be blessed. All for the tourists? Possibly. But then it’s also instructive to note that the local emergency services personnel — firemen and police officers, from the mainland as well as Venice — offer up their divisional banners to be blessed in the same ceremony. Old people make the journey, but so do many children, dragged along by parents who were presumably brought to La Salute in the 1970s and 80s by their own parents, all of them apparently enjoying the spectacle, the sense of occasion and the superabundant confectionery. The whole event, it must be said, entirely lacked the highly-charged (which is to say, intensely politicised and self-consciously divisive) theatricality of a Marian street procession I’d once observed in Barcelona, just as it lacked the air of genteel self-deprecation and mild embarassment that sometimes afflicts the crowds lining the Mall for the Queen’s Birthday Parade. In that, as in much else, it was a very Venetian experience.
La Salute is not, it should be stressed, some universal Roman Catholic festival. (If it were, one wonders how much the Venetians, never the most conventionally devout of the Roman church’s offspring, would bother with it.) It certainly isn’t a universal Christian event either, like Christmas or Easter. What it is, in contrast, is local and particular, based on a specific and well-remembered crisis in the city’s history, knit holistically into the fabric of the city’s geography, art and architecture. It is, simply enough, a festival about saving Venice, in which a past event is projected, powerfully, into the here-and-now. Civic leaders participate in it alongside the ecclesiastical hierarchy — the bridge across the Grand Canal is, after all, constructed by municipal employees, who also construct the various walkways and hang them with crimson damask — but anecdote suggests that even hardened non-believers with no official role to play, or, conversely, believers in other faiths entirely, often make this annual pilgrimage to the Salute, for reasons they might themselves find hard to explain. It may, of course, having something to do with being Venetian: ‘A great and ridiculous ceremony …. which even the Venetians regard with superstition …‘
And so we return to the largely empty shipyards of the Arsenale — so quiet, now, sometimes, that one can hear the distant footfalls of some smartly-dressed naval officer, or indeed the sound of clinking glasses over on the Biennale site — and to the Bucintoro, waiting to be conjured out of myth and sacred memory into wooden, gesso’ed, gilded reality. Actually, one sometimes hears the name ‘Bucintoro’ given to something else entirely, the Bissona Serenissima, a much smaller, less significant craft that appears at Venice’s annual Historical Regatta — another event that probably isn’t all for the tourists, but we’ll leave that one for another day. No, the closest one can get to the genuine Bucintoro today is at the Museo Storico Navale (Venice’s former granary) where a scale model of the state barge, made at some point in the middle of the 19th century, is amongst the stars of an odd, highly specialised and shamelessly didactic, occasionally profoundly moving collection. (Through the exercise of considerable self-restraint I’m resisting the temptation to turn this exercise into a review of the Museo Storico Navale. Two statements, stark and lapidary, must suffice: although the Museo is quite clearly the creature of the Italian Navy, rather than of Venice, nevertheless I could never feel anything other than contempt for anyone who professed to find the place ‘boring’, and if I were a Venetian, I don’t think I could view G. M. Maffioletti’s scenographic projections of the Arsenale before and after the French had got to work on it without dissolving into hot tears of patriotic fury and, probably, swearing terrible oaths.) Other relics — the word is used advisedly — include a few salvaged bits and pieces, small and damaged-looking, from the Bucintoro. (The Museo Storico Navale is not, I should add, by any means ‘all for the tourists’, unless of course the market research underpinning it has been almost admirably quixotic.)
Fortunately, the rebuilders of the Bucintoro have quite a lot of information with which to complete their project. They have the model mentioned above, old drawings and written descriptions, plans and account-books. And they seem to have attracted at least some of the necessary funding. What remains slightly less clear, in all of this, is what motivates the Fondazione Bucintoro. For what it’s worth, my own suspicion is that the motive forces here are impelled by the same heady cocktail of local antiquarianism, technical geekery and scattergun public spiritedness that drives people in other places and conditions to the various expedients of reconstructing derelict steam engines, or decrepit Spitfires, or the Bluebird. Which is to say, nothing of what follows relates in any way directly to the individuals who conceived this project, found the cash to carry it out, and who are presently executing it. Rather, I’m thinking about the ripples that might spread from the point at which the golden prow of the Bucintoro slips, for the first time in two centuries, into the bracingly brackish waters of the Bacino. For what if the Bucintoro isn’t, after all, meant just for the tourists? What if, somehow, it ends up meaning something to Venetian observers instead?
In the United Kingdom, where patronising fantasy regarding the political cultures of other states remains the cornerstone and standard of our national birthright, Italian politics are habitually treated as sixty percent shambles and thirty percent joke, with the odd fascist relative, faded porn star or comedy communist thrown in for extra added triviality, while a light whiff of venality, corruption and organised crime permeates the air. It may not be fair — okay, it isn’t fair, at any conceivable level — but it seems a reasonable summation of our collective narrowness upon the subject of Italian political life.
Thus, how are we to understand actual Venetian separatism when we encounter it — especially when even local observers cannot entirely work out whether it’s meant to be a joke? Back in 1997, for instance, when eight young men made their way to the Capanile of San Marco in a rickety home-made armoured car, scaled the tower, flew from it a Venetian flag, set up a pirate radio station and claimed thus to have initiated the liberation of Venice, how was this to be regarded — as the sort of eye-catching prank one remembers from student union days, or as the much-less-funny first-time outing of some infant Red Brigade or baby Baader Meinhoff gang? Even thoughtful commentators seemed, at the time, unsure, and I’m not sure the answer is much clearer now.
At least, perhaps, we can agree that this wasn’t something put on for the tourists. But then political activity is one of those rare compartments of Venetian life which tourists have not yet found a means of spoiling. Amongst my various visits to Venice there was one, circa 1999 or so, that coincided with a major Lega Nord rally. This came as a bit of an eye-opener. The problem wasn’t, I should hasten to add, that I hadn’t heard of Umberto Bossi and the Northern League, because actually I had heard of them — Radio 4, at the time, was fascinated by them, and for various reasons I spent a lot of time listening to Radio 4, so that was fine. The problem, actually, was that, although I had ploughed my way through many thousands of pages of John Julius Norwich’s learned oeuvre and could probably have lectured at some length about the contributions of the Venetian State Papers to the historiography of the English reformations, I hadn’t fully connected Venice, which for me remained a hazy dreamscape of exoticised late-medievalism, with present-day Italian politics. So the banners, the slogans, the counter-demonstrations, the flags flying from window-boxes and the heavy (and armed) police presence all came as a surprise. Venice, for once, turned her back to her lucrative guests. On that day there were squares which the tourists were not allowed to enter, bridges they could not cross, posters they could not begin to decipher, issues on which their views were not only ill-informed and vague to the point of non-existence, but frankly wholly irrelevant as well. For once, in other words, Venice wasn’t about us.
Now on one hand it is surely unremarkable that the citizens of Venice occasionally worry about the economy, employment, the cost of housing, the quality of state-run public services, crime, immigration, and whatever is meant by that dismal catch-all diagnosis, ‘social breakdown’. Such issues, whatever their localised inflections, are the staple stuff of political hand-wringing pretty much everywhere. But on the other hand, once an outsider has absorbed the visceral shock of realising that Venice might be more than just a sequence of literary allusions, art exhibitions and photogenic backdrops — that what we persistently read into it, in other words, says more about ourselves than it does about Venice — then it’s hard not to see little glimmers of reality, for want of a better word, appearing in the most peculiar places — even in the rebuilding of the Bucintoro.
For starters, the reconstruction of the Bucintoro shows every sign of being a scheme dreamed up in Venice and her historic terraferma hinterland, by Venetians and for Venetians. In this, it is more unusual than one might suppose. For when it comes to projects, much seems to be foisted upon La Serenissima from outside. Often, this is done for the most generous and attractive of motives. Venice In Peril, for instance — the British Committee for the Preservation of Venice, set up with the encouragement of UNESCO in the wake of the great flood of 1966 — has funded and supervised a great deal of restoration and conservation work on the city’s historic fabric. Similar private organisations exist in Sweden, Australia, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, the USA and Italy itself. One hesitates to frame a thought that might in any way sound critical, but here goes anyway: laudable though their efforts have often been, there is something about this whole ‘in peril’ rhetoric that tends to reinforce the idea of Venice as a frail, romantically moribund beauty, whose attractive suffering (in terms of built environment, anyway, for these groups seem far less fascinated by the living manifestations of Venice) can only be ameliorated by help from somewhere else. And indeed, the image of an imperilled Venice, all past and no future, which can only be understood or saved by non-Venetians, has a lengthy lineage indeed, reaching all the way back to Ruskin, Goethe and beyond. Sometimes, it must also be said, the outside interventions are less benign and more obviously self-interested. Some are simply the consequence of Venice’s subsumation into the state of Italy, with the result that all sorts of ventures — the proposed flood barrier, for one, which has happily now been postponed for the forseeable future — are now contingent upon approval, oversight, and indeed funding from Rome.
On the other hand, the Venetian authorities are more than capable of deciding that the only solution for their city’s various woes reposes in some très grand projet, the more dramatic and controversial, the better. Particularly egregious examples in recent memory include the Expo 2000 scheme (scuppered, thank heaven), the plan for an underground tube train to ferry visitors to and from the airport, or the dysfunctional and expensive Calatrava Bridge over the Grand Canal (which is now built, over budget and for no obvious purpose, since there is simply no conceivable reason why anyone already in Venice would wish to move from the railway station to the car park, or vice versa). Oddly, one feature these latter three plans all share is the underlying assumption that infrastructure needs to be created or modified in order to serve the ever-swelling ranks of tourists. The notion that tourist numbers might simply be limited, or reduced to the more value-added end of the spectrum, rarely seems to feature. This is, perhaps, a mistake.
The rebuilding of the Bucintoro, in any event, does not appear to follow either of these well-worn scripts — of Venice either as perpetual passive victim, or Venice existing as the plaything and projection of its tourists. In this context, the letter to Mr Sarkozy — wryly assertive verging on aggressive, rather than pathetically grateful — takes on a marginally different meaning. And while at one level the project involves replicating something old and lost, at another level, it involves creating something new. The preservation not just of built fabric, but of hard-won artisan skills and traditions, seems to be part of the scheme. This, in turn, would seem to connect the Bucintoro with a set of desiderata as disparate, yet emotionally congruent, as the preservation of rare livestock breeds, age-old methods of managing field verges and hedgerows, non-industrial fishing and farming techniques, the use of natural materials and local idioms in building practice, an interest in traditional medicines, do-it-yourself community projects, a low-key yet resolute rejection of the EU’s standardising tendencies, and a preference for darker skies at night. It comes, in other words, right out of the lexicon of whatever one ought to label the conjunction of the environmental movement, organic vegetable box schemes, Prince Charles and Christopher Booker: that almost aesthetic affinity with the small-scale, handmade, locally specific, traditional yet innovative, organic, holistic and uncynical. By way of William Morris, this might almost take us back to Ruskin, but at any rate it sets us at an angle not only to the wretch Bonaparte, but also, in a sense, to aspects of the Italian state, and certainly the EU, more generally. And this is why, put bluntly, I do not think it is absurd to look for something political, in the broadest sense, in the reconstruction of the Bucintoro. But if those hammers and chisels and adzes are somehow ringing out a polemical message, if there’s a faint hint of didacticism in the heady smell of the ether that rises off the gilding, what might Venetians hear in it?
But before we go any further, let’s stress one point again: that as far as I know, the Fondazione Bucintoro is in no way political, and simply consists of people who love a particularly famous, sadly no longer extant old boat.
It’s important to insist on this. Not least, as soon as anyone starts to use the dreaded word ‘separatism’, the main real-world manifestation that streams into mind is the less-than-ideal Liga Veneta, a Venetian regionalist group sometimes associated (depending how various personal feuds are progressing at any given moment) with Bossi’s Northern League. (And if this isn’t strong enough stuff for some of you, try this link to Raixe Venete, which takes a benignly fraternal view toward e.g. Sinn Fein. No, not very encouraging, is it?) Lack of curiosity regarding the lessons that the former Yugoslavia affords to separatists notwithstanding, the Liga Veneta, anyway, has a number of problems of its own. Some of its motivations— the fact that the Veneto pays an awful lot of tax compared with what it ever gets back from Rome, for instance, or a general dissatisfaction both with the corruption-afflicted parties of the Left and the ideology-free zone that is Forza Italia — are doubtless fair enough. Other aspects, however, are less attractive. Notably, to say that its stance towards immigration is negative would be an evasion. All too often, the Liga comes across as fixated on the idea that Venice and the Veneto ought always to be kept wholly blond, fair-skinned and linguistically correct — a nonsense, self-evidently, in a city that has benefitted even more than most from its admixture of different ethnicities, cultures and customs, but sadly the sort of dream to which a particular strand of unapologetic, unreflective underachievement will always attach its manifestly, culpably unsatisfactory self.
All this, we can agree, is ugly. More attractive is that other strand, if not of ‘separatism’ exactly, then of local particularism, all the more wholesome for being unconsidered, relaxed, and rarely defensive. This is, perhaps, part of what one felt amongst the crowds at La Salute, or in neighbourhhod restaurants where the menu (if it exists in written form) is in Venetian dialect, or the general Venetian familiarity with boats, or indeed the wry humour with which even the most courteous and amiable Venetian will make references to blowing up the bridge that connects his dreamlike city with the earthbound mainland. There is something reactionary in these impulses — the long memory for family names, the lovingly-compiled antiquarian volumes cataloguing age-old recipes and different types of lagoon-based wildlife, the frank nostalgia for a sort of connectedness with the facts of water and weather which, although doubtless in itself a symptom of modernity, seems always to arrange itself in opposition to modernity’s more distinctive forms — and yet also something positive about them, if only because they so clearly assume the existence of a future, all the better for being so very like the best of the past.
In short, if the rebuilding of the Bucintoro speaks to the historical specialness of Venice in this latter, only most implicitly political sense, rather than in the more strident and anxious separatist one, that can only be a good thing. Heaven knows, Venice faces enormous challenges in the years ahead. The vague and chiliastic litanies of ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ heard elsewhere, for instance, are in Venice translated into the slushing specificity of the acqua alta, foundations suddenly unstable after five hundred years of sturdiness, a precariously-balanced ecosystem and the ever-present danger (for such is the price of Marghera and Mestre’s industrialised prosperity) of massive, irreparable environmental catastrophe. And then there’s tourism. It is not, surely, impossible to imagine gloomy circumstances — widespread economic collapse, serious global instability, that sort of thing — under which Venice might, in the not too distant future, be forced, rather aggressively, to diversify its own freakishly narrow, and hence highly insecure, economic basis.
Well, not all Venetians would miss the lumpish behemoths of the cruise-liners which daily impose their pointless hideousness upon La Serenissima’s famous horizons, or indeed the herds of migratory adolescents who snog each other mournfully between slices of lukewarm day-old pizza, or the visitors who complain vociferously and drearily because, in essence, Venice does not, in its opening hours or cuisine or social mores, exactly resemble wherever it is that they’ve come from in the first place. Nor have the sort of activities at which Venice has historically excelled — publishing, art and design, the production of unimaginably precious luxury goods, international trade, creating profitable linkages between the worlds of East and West — lost any of their relevance in the age of the internet. The future such enterprises offer looks more promising, somehow, that a dreary eternity of servicing a malfunctioning museum of historical Venice, or staffing a full-scale if crudely moralised performance piece relating to the rise and fall of nations. In other words, as with so much else in Venice’s past, present and future, the Bucintoro, and the fact of its rebuilding, is poised between possibilities. Symbol or substance? Unreal city, or real one? The choice, however, is not ours to make.