Hit by aqua alta, threatened by cruise ships and afflicted by excessive numbers of tourists, Venice has attracted lots of searching articles in numerous publications. So much has been penned that Venice has become an emblematic case study for understanding the transformation underway in other historic cities. Venice is a symbol of Western culture, one where you walk among centuries of history and masterpieces of architecture and art are at your fingertips. Yet the ineffable beauty is subject to laws of industry, particularly tourism, and these are upsetting the equilibrium of its economy and disrupting the life of residents.
One of the books that best captures this short circuit of a city in harmony with its environment, of a troubled city caught up in times it was not made for, is that by the American journalist Neal E. Robbins, Venice, an Odyssey: Hope, anger and the future of the city (published in 2021 by La Toletta Edizioni).
Robbins’s book comes not from the viewpoint of a disenchanted outside observer. In 1971, thanks to a scholastic exchange program, he lived for a year in Venice, making lasting friendships and living the different life of a Venetian. The adolescent Robbins discovered an affinity with Venice and it waters, learned to row in the Venetian style and explored the canals, islands and mud flats of the lagoon with the curiosity of a visitor and the self-confidence of a native. When he returned almost 50 years later, the two images of the city that the author evokes — one recalling the Venice he remembered and the other the one he found in 2018 — come into perfect contrast.
His reportage is based on many interviews with residents of varying age and professions, ranging from politicians and activists to pensioners and those in tourism and cultural roles. Through this cross-section of Venetians emerges the environmental concerns in the form of higher and more frequent acqua alta. There is great uneasiness with the failure to contain the burgeoning numbers of hotels, AirBnb sharing, holiday homes, restaurants and bars. The hope, shared by all, is that government finds a cure for these ills, restoring services for the city’s inhabitants.
Beyond that, those who choose to live in Venice believe that the lifestyle one can enjoys here — its sociability, the way urban life draws them out into its squares and walkways and onto the lagoon for rowing, how they are enriched by the closeness to water and all the artistic wealth all around — all make the challenges worthwhile. They are so inspired that they want to defend Venice against the growing abuse by heartless economic interests.
The picture painted by the chorus of current inhabitants of Venice, through their stories and voices, is rich in references and anecdotes to its history that lead back to the reason Venice deserves care and attention: It is not a city like others, neither in urban form nor in cultural heritage. Venice was more than the driver of a maritime empire with international political and financial relations, it was a major center for manufacturing. Robbins underlines how this inheritance still lives in the many artisans who produce quality goods even today.
In his reporting, Robbins moves from the tormented Venice of 2018 to the one knew half a century before, making for a sort of counterpoint with the interviews of residents. This gives a measure of the distance between one and the other and, also, serves as a lighthouse that shows the way, a path perhaps toward the possibility of partial change. The challenge that confronts Venice, according to the author, is the same that faces many other historic cities. In an international context, many of these places face similar controversies and politics. The question is how Venice can preserve its unity and remain a living city.
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