Legendary history writer John Julius Norwich knows Venice better than most, if not all. Having recently edited The Great Cities in History (Thames & Hudson; see more info here), an epic ramble through the pioneering places in human history, he has also penned A History of Venice: The Rise to Empire and Venice: A Traveller’s Companion – and was, until recently, on the board of the Venice in Peril Fund. No surprises, then, that Venice occupies its own page in Great Cities, at the pinnacle of renaissance culture.
Yet Lord Norwich, speaking to Heritage Key in this exclusive video, confides his worry for Venice’s future. And while no-one can fully predict the tempestuous seas around the city, Venice’s tourism troubles are all too apparent. “Venice is now becoming a very uncomfortable city,” he says, “largely because there are so many tourists in the summer. They outnumber the natives by about five or six to one.” This is an understatement: just 60,000 Veneziani still live in the lagoon, down from around 150,000 just 50 years ago. Conversely, in 2007 over 20 million tourists stepped off giant cruise liners into Venice, which crowd around the city like overbearing school bullies.
Centuries of history and beauty
Woven into a shimmering lagoon at the brow of the Adriatic, no city on earth can claim to be as unique as Venice. Dubbed La Serenissima (The Serene One), the city is a thing of immeasurable beauty: its myriad waterways, streets and squares mashed together in a vibrant tangle of energy and enigma. Yet Venice is in danger, and not just from the acqua alta (high water) which encroaches higher and higher each year. Many say a sea of tourists is sinking the city, robbing its culture and leaving it a hollow mirror image of the greatness it once achieved.
Inhabited since Roman times, Venice flourished in the 9th century AD, and ruled seas and trade routes from east to west for centuries thanks to its invaluable geography. An epic 13th to 15th century renaissance brought much of the stunning scenery still standing today, but the discovery of alternative trade routes to India, and costly wars with the Ottomans in the 1400s brought the once-mighty Republic of Venice to its knees. Independence was finally pillaged by Napoleon in 1797, before the city became part of the fledgling Kingdom of Italy in 1866 – and has stayed Italian ever since. But a modern foreign legion is wrecking Venice more than ever before, and they’re armed not with swords and guns, but cameras and clipboards.
Poorer for wealth
Venice’s hirsuit mayor Massimo Cacciari, an internationally respected philosopher, frets for his beloved home town’s future. “(Venice) cannot be reduced to a postcard,” he tells National Geographic. Strangely, this is a view echoed by the city’s chief of tourism Augusto Salvadori. “The city is consumed by tourism,” he moans. “What do Venetians get in exchange? Services are strained…the price of living (rises). “
This is an odd view to the outsider – you’d assume the one thing Venice could claw back from its hoards of invading sightseers is piles of cash. Yet Lord Norwich shares Salvadori’s grim view. “Apart from buying some little souvenir and a bottle of hugely priced Coca-Cola, and more and more birdseed for those revoltingly overfed pigeons, they spend very little money” he says, visibly saddened. “And Venice just gets worn away, and gets no compensation virtually at all.”
Yet Venice still has something for the traveller wanting some authenticity from a city which ruled world trade for around 500 years, from the ninth century AD onwards. “You only have to walk five minutes in any direction from Mark’s Square and you’ve got the place practically to yourself,” says Lord Norwich, who insists that in more spritely times he’d never sleep without walking the streets for up to two hours; getting lost in the lagoon’s labyrinthine lanes. But there’s no doubt the city needs help. Any suggestions? Some residents want to see taxes levied on tourists, but this is always an issue wrapped in reams of red tape. Cacciari moots the idea of closing Venice completely – “or perhaps, on reflection…a little fee.”
Past breaking point?
Is Venice doomed to become nothing more than a shell of glories past? Lord Norwich is skeptical: “In another 20 or 30 years it will actually be the thinking man’s Disneyland, a millionaire’s playground,” he says. “There won’t be any people there: it will just be a museum city.” Rising tides may yet claim Venice, but unless she gets help soon the city as we know her will have long since disappeared.
More Lord Norwich videos to come!
Lord Norwich is one of Britain’s greatest storytellers, and he told us much more than the history of his beloved Venice. Watch out for two more videos coming soon to Heritage Key: about the world’s great cities, as explored in his latest book; and on some of history’s lesser-known tales – including the fall of empires and female Popes! Of course, we’re always releasing videos here at HK – keep checking in for the latest from the ancient world. You can also keep track of our latest news, views and videos via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and iTunes – not to mention subscribing to our feeds. Exploring the planet’s ancient past has never been easier with Heritage Key: Unlocking the Wonders.