Contemplating the Unthinkable: A World Without Venice

I recently read a terrific book with the terse, almost accusatory, title If Venice Dies. The book, by the Italian art historian Salvatore Settis, is not about climate change, though my thoughts turned repeatedly to that topic and the difficulty we have even contemplating its likely consequences. Instead Settis focuses on the slow, strangling death of Venice via mass tourism. The book has a compelling cover image: we see a huge cruise ship looming menacingly over the Piazza San Marco, the world’s most renowned public space, as throngs of tourists pack the foreground, like stalled traffic. At a glance, it deftly sums up one of the many dilemmas plaguing that incomparable city.

Some early reviewers have accurately stated that Venice has been “dying” for the better part of a century, but Settis makes a strong argument that this time the Queen of the Adriatic has reached an inflection point. Tourists outnumber residents 140-1—that is not a typo—and the population continues to plummet. Italy, perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, has sold out the city to cruise ship operators, and plans are afoot to widen the canal and permit even bigger ships. And that’s just one troubling aspect of the city’s dire plight. Settis, ably translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely, takes a wide-angle look at all of the political, economic, social, philosophical, and cultural factors conspiring to undermine and destroy the city.


He paints a dreary picture of Venice as theme park, an ancient Disneyland. This is not a new observation, but sadly it’s not inaccurate either. What Settis laments isn’t necessarily the death of Venice as a physical place, a bricks-and mortar collection of some of the best buildings mankind has ever produced, but the slow, excruciating demise of what I would call the living city: Venice, as a real place, with grocery stores, active churches, children, schools, health clinics. All of these features of day-to-day life have been gradually disappearing from the historic core. Settis correctly points out that the living Venice and the physical one—this treasury of astounding buildings—are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. If the soul of a city leaves its physical body, that place becomes a ghost, or perhaps, in Venice’s case, an exquisite corpse.

Settis is undoubtedly right on just about all counts. Even his screeds against global capital and consumer culture, rapacious real estate developers, conscience-free architects and planners—all quite predictable coming from an art historian and academic—make a great deal of sense. It’s undoubtedly true: the rise of the cruise ship biz, Italy’s rampant political corruption, the hotelling of the city, the zombie metropolis  created by a population of part time residents, popping into their second, third or fourth homes, all of these phenomena are indeed connected to flows of global money. The fragile beauty of Venice is a commodity; it acts as a cash machine for a perpetually cash-strapped country.

And yet as dire as all these threats are to the future of Venice, they’re ultimately threats to the living city. Or, more accurately, what remains of Venice as a living city. There is of course another direct threat to the physical city: sea-level rise. Ironically, the Italian government has spent upwards of $8-billion (and counting) on a storm surge barrier to project the city. The project, many decades behind schedule and way over budget (we’re talking about Italy here), resulted in the resignation and arrest of a mayor on fraud charges. Settis provides all of the gory details of Italian corruption run amok, but he doesn’t dwell too much on another crucial point for the city’s long term survival: the storm surge barrier, whenever it is completed, at whatever level of competency, will not protect the Piazza San Marco from gradually rising tides.

The truth is, Venice could probably limp along for several decades, bleeding population, as a tourist-only stage set – except that Venice doesn’t have decades before the graver day of reckoning that climate change portends.

The idea of permanently closing the barrier, once completed, is not a solution either. It would likely result in the ecological destruction of the lagoon (if sea-level rise is in the “manageable” range) or a “Waterworld”-like overtopping (if levels meet or exceed current projections—a real possibility, since actual rise is currently outstripping initial estimates). Regardless of exactly what form the inundation takes, I would argue that this is the more immediate threat to Venice. It’s not the litany of assaults that Settis so thoroughly documents: mass tourism, real estate speculation, global capital, the insane ideas for “modernizing” the ancient city offered by architects and planners. The truth is, Venice could probably limp along for several more decades, bleeding population, as a tourist-only stage set—except that Venice doesn’t have decades before the graver day of reckoning that climate change portends.

Settis has written a serious and important book. But in failing to include the potentially fatal threat posed by rising seas, it feels like he’s pulling back from the unthinkable: a world without Venice. The political, economic, cultural and social machinations that Settis addresses—however clumsy, corrupt and maddening—have been part of the human condition for millennia of human triumph and folly. Climate change threatens to make them a mere afterthought to outcomes more primal and more dire. Settis sees a train barreling down the tracks—toward Venice, toward all of us, really—but neglects to mention the even bigger one right behind it and gaining speed. I don’t blame him; it’s appalling to be part of any living city and contemplate the global train wreck that lies ahead.

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