Next Saturday Venice will be holding its own funeral. As far as publicity stunts go, it’s quite an unequivocal message that the city is on the brink. Only this time the threat is not from the rising tides and the island city’s subsiding foundations; the danger comes in the form of the rapidly shrinking population it seems that the Venetians are migrating to the mainland faster than you can say ‘just one cornetto’.
According to one group of locals members of the online community venessia.com – the population has now fallen below the threshold of 60,000 people (down from about 150,000 in 1960) and the city’s inhabitants are being driven out of their ancestral homes by property, food and transport prices far higher than those on the mainland. The main reason for the soaring cost of living is the relentless flow of tourists to the small city. As a result the local Venetians are being priced out of their historical island city.
The funeral will take place in two stages: the first is a procession taking a bright pink coffin by gondola through the city’s canals to the Rialto bridge, followed by a ceremony and public eulogy. A more upbeat tone is set for the second part of Saturday’s ceremony, as the Venetians will be campaigning for the rebirth of their city. They will launch a project called ‘Looking for Venetians’, where they will be collecting signatures as the first step of a scheme to find new inhabitants. Each person who signs up will be asked if they would live in Venice if the cost of living was acceptable and there was fiscal help available. The responses and signatures will be logged and presented on the eve of the local administration election in March, as part of a petition asking them to create living conditions that will attract families back to the city.
As part of the initiative to highlight Venice’s heritage and situation, a group of scientists from the Genographic Project (run by National Geographic and IBM – read here for more info) will be carrying out DNA tests on local Venetians after the funeral to establish more about their provenance and their ancestral migratory routes thousands of years ago.
A Modern Pompeii?
It is hoped that the funeral will bring the problems of Venice into the public eye – and to international attention – with a media-grabbing message. Matteo Secchi is a native Venetian whose parents and grandparents were also Venetian, but he has now been forced by exorbitant prices to live on the mainland. He told a local news site aqvaalta.com: We want to show the world, that behind the romantic postcard image of the Venetian gondola, there are lots of problems and there is a risk that Venice will turn into a modern Pompeii ie, a city with no vitality or inhabitants. We want to send a message to the local Venetians that we need to take action and do something for our city. We also hope to influence the local government administration because we’re not happy with the way they’ve handled the local residential politics over the past 20 years.
Locals Priced Out
The members of venessia.com are mainly Venetians with a passion for their beautiful city (although there are members from all over the world who simply want to support Venice). They all have a common goal of campaigning to save the way of life there. The group was set up by Matteo Secchi and several friends and now has 850 members. Some years ago they set up an electronic population-counting sign in Rialto. They vowed then that if the population actually fell below 60,000 (seen at that time as a dangerous threshold), then they would hold a symbolic funeral for their city, which they fear could be on the brink of becoming uninhabitable. According to Matteo Secchi, the funeral is a humorous way of symbolising what the group believes is the end of Venice as a city and one-time centre of a powerful empire. With a population in decline, Secchi believes the city is now a shadow of its former self.
This isn’t the first time in the city’s history that its population has dropped dramatically. During the 16th century, it fell from 175,000 people in 1575, to 124,000 by 1581, according to John Julius Norwich‘s A History of Venice. However, the current level is far lower than the population during the city’s heyday during the republic.
Investors Distorting the Property Market
Part of the problem with the large numbers of tourists is not the people themselves but the fact that they are not encouraged to spend significant amounts of money with local businesses and many stay for just a day, avoiding the expensive Venetian hotels, restaurants and gift shops. Exasperating the problem is the penchant that rich international investors have for buying property in Venice and then leaving it empty for several years before selling it on at a profit. According Secchi, the city is being used as a stock exchange by the rich. Whether the comparison is to a museum, a stock exchange, ‘thinking man’s Disney Land’ or with an abandoned relic such as Pompeii, the prognosis paints a bleak future for the city unless successful regeneration efforts can be put in place.
The Venetian Republic
It would be a very sad end to the long and colourful history of this lagoon culture that has its roots in the Roman empire. Mainland inhabitants first started settling on the group of islands in the Venetian lagoon after the mainland city of Altinum was sacked by Huns and then Lombards in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. From that time on, an island colony began to grow and within a few centuries it became the powerful Venetian republic that endured for a thousand years until 1797. It was the wealth and power of the republic and the trade routes it controlled along the Dalmatian coast that enabled Venice to become the beautiful renaissance city that today attracts so many tourists.
That Sinking Feeling
Of course Venice also faces the problem of rising sea levels and subsidence of the great wooden piles that make up the city’s foundations. The sinking is caused by water wells that were drilled during the 20th century, causing the foundations of the city to start to subside. While some research has found that the city has actually stopped sinking, this has not yet been confirmed. High tides flood the city centre at Saint Mark’s square regularly and climate change isn’t likely to improve the situation. Several solutions have been proposed to stop Venice from sinking, including a project to install 79 inflatable barriers that can be inflated when a high tide is predicted, keeping the water out of the city. Another plan is to pump water into the soil beneath the city to elevate it above sea level. Venice suffered with severe flooding even before the 20th century in 1604 officials introduced the first stamp tax in an endeavour to raise funds to repair flood damage.
The mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, has caused outrage by saying It is ridiculous to think that Venice’s population is decreasing. He argues that other cities such as Milan, Turin, Bologna and Florence are also losing headcount and at a higher rate than Venice. According to the members of Venessia, the population counter on display in Rialto tells another story one that could spell the end of the city’s community as soon as 2030.
The Funeral of Venice, organised by Venessia.com, is taking place on Saturday, 14 November.
The water procession will leave from Santa Lucia Station at 11.30am and will convene at Ca’ Farsetti at 12pm.
There will be a funerary oration given by Cesare Colonnese, after which the ‘Venetians Wanted’ initiative will begin.