Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Venetian View of a Flooded Future?

The buildings overflow the islands, teetering over the canals and crumbling slowly from the unsteady effects of time.  Canals replace roads and laneways, weaving through the city and linking the islands: if you imagine a major city under flood, with water covering the roads and pavements then you can imagine the centre of Venice.  There are no cars or mopeds here, just a road and rail bridge from the mainland that terminates in a station and car-park/roundabout immediately upon reaching the first of the islands.  From here you either walk or float to your destination.  This applies to everyone and everything; wake up early enough and you can witness the garbage barges, the hotel linen boats and the milk boat doing the rounds, not to mention the crane-wielding barges of the building companies working so hard to stop the beautiful old pallazos and grand houses from sinking into the lagoon.  Even the ubiquitous gondolas which carry camera-toting tourists around the city are just ornately dressed up versions of the highly functional (and identical) traghetti boats that ferry the locals across the Grand Canal.  This is a city that floats.  It's married to the sea.

Does Venice offer us a view into a flooded future?  Some sort of glimpse at a world several feet deep in water of our own creating?  There is no doubt that Venice is stunningly beautiful; for a long time the Venetian Republic was one of the most powerful empires in Europe and controlled trade between the West and the East.  But since the mid-1700s Venice's economic might has been dwindling, towards it's current state where the city has to rely on tourism for 70% of it's income and the population is at an all-time low thanks to the offer of drier, more spacious and cheaper to maintain homes on the mainland.  Venice has a melancholic undertone to it; it's a memorial to it's past glories and the feeling of the discrepancy between what once was and what is now, is hard to avoid.  Was it a victim of it's own success?  

An amalgamation of one hundred and eighteen mudflat islands in a lagoon in the North West crook of the Adriatic Sea, the fabric of venice is stitched together by around four hundred bridges, the largest three of which span the Grand Canal, the broad waterway that effectively splits the historic centre in half.

Two hundred thousand people once lived on these islands, which would explain why there is no scrap of natural space.  Narrow alleyways occasionally converge on squares whose sides are briefly bathed in the sunlight that evades the man-made canyons between buildings for all but a short time either side of midday.  The cities buildings are built right up to and over the edges of the low islands, with foundations in the mud and brickwork lining the boundary with the water.  No space is wasted, and there wasn't much to begin with.  In it's heyday the high concentration of people living and working in the centre led to the development of a culture of mask wearing; there was little if any anonymity to be found in Venice.  With a mask covering their faces, the poor could mix with the rich, debtors could avoid their creditors, and love affairs could be conducted in secret.  Masks became so popular that at one stage a law was passed to restrict their use, but they are woven into the story of the city.  These days they appear for Carnevale, the extravagant festival that fills the ten days before Lent, but which usually starts early and finishes late. 

The gondola is the Venetian equivalent of London's black hackney taxis or New Yorks yellow cabs.  It is estimated that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were between eight to ten thousand gondolas moving along the waterways of the city, but these days there are just over four hundred and almost all of them exclusively carry tourists.  They are propelled by a single oar (they aren't punted as the water is too deep) which is held in an elaborately carved oar lock called a fórcola.  The fórcola allows the gondolier to utilise eight different oar positions for propelling and turning the boat.  Because the oar is always located on the starboard side, gondolas are asymmetrical boats with a longer port side to compensate for the one-sided propulsion. 

So what of a city built into the very water to which it is married?  Venice is a grandiose city, beautiful in it's fading glamour that draws on a history of lavish opulence and masquerade balls.  It's like some sort of steam-punk opera, a vision of the future dressed up as the past.  But I like islands and I like boats, and Venice has lots of both.  The absence of vehicles in a city is bizarre, particularly in Italy where the buzz of mopeds is ever-present, and is something that takes a while to sink in and accept.  It's really pleasant to have travel options distilled down to walking or catching a ferry, and for Venetians it's completely natural.  Of that, I am quite envious.

Kate doesn't really like having her photograph taken, but having a camera semi-permanently pressed against my face means that every now and then I turn around and catch her off-guard. 

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