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An exhibition by a master photographer highlights Venice’s fragile liaison with modernity

by Andrea Carandini

The Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano (FAI, usually referred to in English as the Italian National Trust) showcases in an exhibition in the heart of Venice, in the historic Olivetti store in Piazza San Marco, the gigantic ships navigating the lagoon captured by a great master of photography, Gianni Berengo Gardin.

The twenty-seven images in black and white encapsulate what cannot be grasped through an ordinary gaze, or in color photos.

The exhibition does not have provocative spirit, but expresses the hope that the city's problems can be increasingly investigated and addressed in accordance to the extraordinary variety of human life.

Tourists can here see ships that are taller than the tallest bell tower, and a city - Venice - that has shrunk to a scale model, so somberly accurate that we are made to look at it in a detached way, with a single glance, like an artificial background for very real mastodons.

As we look at these photographs, we understand, first of all, that Venice cannot be turned into a modern city in the usual sense of the word “modernity,” i.e. as an irreconcilable rift with tradition.

The reason for this can be found in the extraordinary fragility of its stilt house buildings and in the horizontal walls that surround it, i.e. the lagoon, which is also created by a miraculous, troubled and always threatened balance: “Whoever brings harm to the city's water supply will be judged as an enemy of the homeland and receive no less a punishment than those who have violated the holy walls” (inscription at the Correr Museum, 1473-1553).

The first ancient cities originated from a project (the people existed before the city), from an incontrovertible definition of the city limits (the walls), from a differentiation of spaces (sacred, inviolable, residential, funerary), and from a differentiation of the days (in the calendar).

Romulus built a wall around the Palatine that was “sanctus” (i.e. inviolable), killed Remus who had trespassed it, and beat back Titus Tatius, the Sabine invader. The ships are proof that Venice is still waiting for its Romulus.

It would be a mistake, however, not to go any further than these floating icebergs, because Venice's problems are far-flung, complex and serious, although not so blatantly looming.
The town is still well preserved, but while in 1760 its population reached 149,000 inhabitants, today it is reduced to one third, and the city is flooded with voracious and “hit-and-run” tourists.

For Ancient people, population was much more important than city walls, temples and houses, and Troy was indeed destroyed, but the symbol of the city's unity, the fire rescued by Aeneas, allowed to move Troy to the Lazio region.

Foreigners' holiday homes - catering to the immediate needs of a volatile tourism - often left empty, rising water levels and further difficulties have driven two thirds of Venice's inhabitants to the suburbs, in the mainland.

The transition from one God to a single tyrant, Mammon -- money is the Devil -- was easy, and the doors to a bad modernity were opened wide. It is a kind of modernity based on the individual, and thus flattened by uniformity, in an immensely vulgar cosmopolitanism: that of the endless megalopolises scraping the skies and of the dormitory suburbs sprawling around town centers.

There is also a good modernity, pluralistic with respect to spaces, functions and people, also in relation to their different historical fates. Venice's fate implies, first of all, tolerance for what is different; this challenges bad modernity and calls for the good one, that is envisaged but never actually implemented.

Venice exemplifies the problems faced by our cities. The very idea of the city, first conceived in the eighth century BC and persisting until early Industrialism, is surely not dead, but are our scattered and chaotic conglomerates still “civitates”? It looks like a 3,000-year long string of civilizations might be over, and what awaits us in the future: barbarity or a decent society?

Italy has focused on the preservation of its heritage, left by the dead, and has done nothing to support the communities that have kept that heritage alive, nor the relationship between people and things that is only possible today through the promotion of the traditional heritage that comes from the dead and of those traditional skills still practiced by the hard-working living population.

These people love crafts and workmanship, and enjoy discovering nearly lost treasures that can be resurrected in order to build a more flavorful future. For this, we must give more value to exceptions than to trivial rules (Davide Rampello, Countries, landscapes, Skira 2015).

Is it possible to stop the exodus from Venice, to repopulate it with young families, to renew it with handicraft productions and creative services, to give it up-to-date community spaces for medical and recreational needs, instilling new life into the city's hideous abandoment every evening?

Is it possible, furthermore, in this iconic city, to open a city history museum - possibly using historic buildings on the islands of the lagoon - where we can reeducate ourselves to memory?

Venice belongs not only to its citizens, but also to visitors, because the world longs for Italy's cities, in that they illustrate steps in humanity's path that are hard to find elsewhere, and this eminently applies to Venice.

After the Ancient Romans, it is in Venice that in the Middle Ages the importance of the exchange value was reaffirmed, as well as the commercial assets, knowledge and skills from which commercial and technological developments that have now become global - unfortunately under the sign of excess - originated. And the ships symbolize this disproportion.

Good modernity requires, therefore, both a revival of civic spirit and the birth of responsible tourism that enjoys without spoiling, that understands and doesn't flee, that likes to think critically. The city's rebirth within tradition will only be possible with well-educated tourists. It is our task to make the world aware of this.