Venice, City Denied – by Tomaso Montanari

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Tomaso Montanari (Florence, 1971), is an art historian and professor at University of Naples Federico II. He is the president of Liberty and Justice (a new political party in Italy). His most recent book is “Italian Constitution: article 9” (Carocci, 2018). This article appeared in La Repubblica, 30 April 2018.

Venice, City Denied

by Tomaso Montanari

The no-global activists of the Morion social center are right about the turnstiles in Venice. They are right in saying there is no need for gates, there is a need for houses. The death of the city cannot be stopped with extemporaneous policing and propaganda measures, but only by returning to governance, once again saying and thinking the most obvious thing, one that is both the most denied and the most revolutionary: Venice is a city. Not a destination, not a huge resort or a giant second home for the rich, not a backdrop for the lethal cruise ships. Not these, but a city.

Venice’s problems cannot be resolved if we start with the number of people entering (the tourists): we need to change the number of those leaving (the residents). In Tiziano’s time the city, with the same dimensions as today, had almost 170,000 inhabitants: today it is barely 50,000. This is the problem. And the solution is to reverse the direction of the policies which have caused this mass exodus. Return to regulating real estate prices and the proliferation of tourist lodgings, re-establish necessary services for those who live here daily, keep up with the maintenance of the city. We have to “allow the co-existence of the artistic monument and the artisan’s shop, the home of the wealthy and the homes of those who were born and live in those quarters, the popular celebrations and the arts festivals with their guests and the tourists who crown them. We require an attentive politics, proportionate to specific contexts, differentiated place by place, quarter by quarter: acceptable and understandable first and foremost by the individual communities, by those who are the sole repositories of the human and historical identity of these places”. These are the words of Eugenio Scalfari, written in this paper in an illuminating article from 1989 which, on the day after the destructive Pink Floyd concert, denounced “the villainous exploitation of Venice in particular and Italian cities of art in general by an inept and uncultured political class”. Words that remain true today: rather they are even more serious and urgent now after another thirty years of grave errors. The article was entitled “The Vandals in the City”: we need to recognize that the administrations of the last decades are largely responsible for the destruction of Venice as a city.

Today we’ve arrived at the final crossroad: either we leave behind the embarrassing diversions of the turnstiles and fixed numbers, and we start governing Venice again with a program for the city in mind, or there will be nothing that can be done.

In St. Mark’s Rest, the last of his grand tributes to Venice (1877 – 84), John Ruskin leaves us with a striking play on words: the decay of the city began when the Venice authorities began believing in the “reign of San Petrolio instead of that of San Pietro”. Ruskin saw that the religion of the market had replaced the civic religion of common good. And he could not have chosen a more prophetic word: petroleum. That of the cruise ships, but most of all referring metaphorically to the sale of cultural heritage, which is also destroying Florence and many other “cities of art” that are no longer governed, and live daily on the fruits of a tourism that is emptying and consuming them. Cities which are reduced to a group of private interests have produced results that are very far from the common good.

Piero Bevilacqua wrote that “the history of Venice is the history of a success in governing the environment, which is based on strict and farsighted State actions in the serious and secular effort to subjugate private and individual interests to the public benefit of the waters and the city”. The lesson is clear: we don’t need police at the entrance to the theme park, we need to transform the theme park back in to a city.

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