Dream of Venice Robert Schonfeld

Venice on Her 1,600th Birthday

We native Venetians and long-term residents number just over 50,000. We are dying out. Soon, we will disappear. The city prefers to be inhabited by someone else: not so much by other categories of human beings but by another way of being in the world.” – Tiziano Scarpa

March 25, 2021, dawned quietly in Venice. The city was still in full lockdown, a Zona Rossa. The Piazza was empty, the calli were eerily still. It was a subdued day to celebrate the birth of Venice. According to 16th century Venetian historian Marin Sanudo, the city was founded in 421 AD. In a city brought to a halt by the pandemic, the joyful clamor of bells ringing out across the city commemorating 1,600 years of existence was a welcome respite from the dreaded silence.

The following day, there was a birthday surprise. The Italian government issued a decree banning cruise ships from the Lagoon and requiring them to dock at Porto Marghera until a permanent solution outside the Lagoon could be found. Comitato No Grandi Navi, a citizen’s group that had been fighting the cruise ships for almost a decade, claimed victory. No more ships passing in front of San Marco. No more ships menacing the city as they’re towed through the Giudecca Canal. No more ships flailing in storms, potentially damaging smaller vessels and the fondamenta. No more noise, erosion, and pollution billowing from these noxious floating hotels. 

Gary Stewart, 2012, courtesy of leitmotifgallery.com.


The victory was short-lived. Within 15 days of the ban, cruise ship companies began announcing their summer schedules, including a return to Venice in June and full navigation through the Giudecca Canal. It was as if the ban never existed. As it turns out, Marghera, an industrial port, was not ready to accommodate cruise ships. Rather than respect the decree and divert cruise ships to Ravenna or Trieste (as several cruise companies have voluntarily done), the mayor of Venice welcomed them back with open arms.

In 2019 I wrote about the crash of the MSC Opera, a ship carrying nearly 2,700 passengers: “The cruise ships account for less than 10% of annual tourists to Venice but they claim 100% of our attention. Their presence is so deeply antithetical to everything Venice represents, that we have to wonder if the obliteration of Venice is not the by-product of poor governance but the actual goal.”

Tony Sellen, 2017, “Wade,” courtesy of London Fine Art Photography.


Now, three years later, nothing has changed, except public-health issues exacerbated by the pandemic. Life for remaining Venetians is arguably worse: The cruise ships continue their destruction, tourism continues to monopolize the economy, and palazzi continue to become hotels. And without affordable housing, services, and meaningful employment, the depopulation continues; the bricole used to navigate the Lagoon continue to disintegrate; and the coated steel in MoSE, the already-obsolete 6-billion-euro steel gates meant to keep Venice from flooding, continues to corrode. 

Emerging from 16 months of isolation, Venice is now awakening. The Architecture Biennale has opened its doors. But when Hashim Sarkis, curator of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, asks, “How Will We Live Together?” he is ignoring the crisis at his feet. The irony of the world’s most prestigious architecture biennale ignoring the progressively worsening emergencies in Venice is profoundly myopic. The question we need to ask is: How will Venice continue to live? Because without Venetians, it will no longer be a living city. The current population of 51,000 residents declines by 1,000 per year, and this is expected to accelerate with time. Venice is becoming an empty shell, an unwilling participant in Alberto Toso Fei’s fabled ghost legends, bereft of the permanent residents that give her life.

While the national, regional, and local governments continue to disagree, the port, unfettered by any concerns for the city, will continue to prioritize profit and palazzo owners, unable to rent their facilities to cover the insanely expensive maintenance on their properties, will continue to sell to hotel chains. It is the Venetians, however, left to their own devices, who will continue to innovate, explore, and create as they have done for centuries.

Cristina Marson, 2017.


There is a dual reality that exists today. Venetians are finding ways to thrive despite the dire neglect of their government. Losing her entire income when Venice went into lockdown, official tour guide Luisella Romeo embraced technology and started offering virtual walking tours, bringing Venice and her treasures into people’s homes. Marisa Convento, a renowned Impiraressa (bead artist), developed an e-commerce site. Deprived of the conversations which she wove into her work as the resident artist at Bottega Cini, Marisa was forced to improvise and initiate. Against all odds, Tommaso Scocco opened fruit and vegetable stalls at the Rialto market, just as other vendors closed their doors. His presence signaled hope for Venice, an emotion in short supply. 

Venice will need to find the courage and ingenuity to reverse her demise. It will be residents, in their ever-dwindling numbers, who will insist on change and adaptation. Otherwise, we are at risk of Venice becoming nothing more than an empty destination for voyeurs to admire, shaking their heads in wonder that once-upon-a-time there existed a sublime civilization. We must face the reality of this fragile place, but rather than give in to despair, continue to seek ways to keep her alive. ##


Are you planning to visit Venice? Good. The city is still dependent on respectful visitors who understand the fragility of her stones. Learn how to assess your decisions to visit consciously and sustainably. La Venessiana is a platform created by Venetian culinary historian, sustainability and green finance expert Iris Loredana and her 98-year-old grandmother, Lina, a Venetian hotelier, chef, gardener, and member of the Associazione Cavalieri di San Marco. Their Venetia Heritage virtual class prepares you for understanding the city beyond the gondola, with explorations in heritage, food, art, design, secret gardens, and relevant resources to explore Venice from a Venetian point of view.

Jutta Kreuzer, 2016, “No Grandi Navi,” courtesy of the photographer.


The Venetian author Tiziano Scarpa wrote in his introduction to Dream of Venice in Black and White, “The movement of citizens who oppose the entrance of the big ships into the city is very active. But there are too few Venetians.” The activists fighting the cruise ships cannot do it alone. Comitato No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships), the nonprofit activist organization, was recently fined 28,000 euros for a demonstration in 2017. As long as the cruise ships dock in the Lagoon, they will continue their work to remove them. You can donate to their legal defense fund here.

Venice is the Lagoon and no one has made this more clear than We Are Here Venice, a nonprofit led by environmental scientist Jane Da Mosto. The group focuses on Venice’s challenges as a living city, specifically through the unique synergy between the Lagoon, the city, and its residents. WaHV produces exhibits, conducts research into environmental restoration, and collaborates internationally with scientists and organizations seeking solutions to biodiversity. They rely on memberships and donations to fund their programs.

Featured image: Robert Schonfeld, 2008, “After Church,” Cannaregio, courtesy of Instagram seeing_while_blind.



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