July 2019 holds a special anniversary, which is remembered in the Italian media: 30 years ago in July 1989, the Pink Floyed concert took place in Venice. Drawing more than 200,000 spectators, it is the concert with the largest audience in Italy so far.
This post tells the thoughtful background story of how a (promising) concert to celebrate the Redentore Feast on 15 July 1989 (many Venetians were looking forward to it, and many were opposing it in the first place) turned inadvertently into a nightmare. Lessons learnt to counter overtourism? Yes, and what Venice learnt represents a milestone, and not just for Venice. An opportunity missed to position Venice as living city which may also host concerts and events? No, concerts and events are possible, but with planning the visitor flow and acccess accurately.
It was in summer 1989, when Venetians, for the first time, assisted to, and celebrated the Redentore Feast in a different way. In the eyes of my grandparents’ generation, it was this summer which can in hindsight be considered the onset of “modern tourism in Venice”. This event to the older generation of Venetians represents a milestone, when the slower, that is less crowded, summers of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s finally came to an end.
But were summers in the past really less crowded? I think they weren’t, looking at the family photo albums of the 1980s, which my uncle, a photographer, showed me a few weeks ago.
For the life of Venetians, July 1989 peaking in the concert by Pink Floyd, did represent a kind of milestone, but with a critical connotation. To the people living in my neighborhood, this day represented the onset of a kind of tourism that Venetians living in this city can only marginally shape. They don’t participate in decisions, and in any case, decisions may be overruled as Venezia – Centro Storico represents less than one third of representatives in the city government of Greater Venice (Città metropolitana).
Just like the distastrous floods of November 1966, which brought the “issue of Venice” into the foreground in the international press, while representing an important event in the lives of the Venetians, this concert also represents a turning point. Only that it isn’t viewed as such by the foreign press. It is, on the other hand, by the Italian newspapers and TV stations, and it certainly is here in Venice: Whenever an event or concert is announced, and there were quite a number of these during the past decades, it’s this concert of Pink Floyd which represents the negative peak of a mass tourism completely out of control. And the good thing is that scenes like these were never repeated.
Don’t get us wrong. Many Venetians, including my family, did look forward to this concert. And many recall exactly how they spent this day, 15 July 1989. It’s just that “Summer 1989” started the discussions amongst families here in Venice on which future paths this city should take: Will Venice focus mostly on tourism (it looked perfectly possible back then), or should this be an economically diversified city, holding up traditional arts and crafts?
This topic is on our minds even more so, after two incidents with cruise ships took place in June and July. And it was the topic here in Venice, behind the scenes of this crowded city, in private homes, on the long and hot summer afternoons, during the giornate di solleone, the hottest days of the year in late July, following the Redentore Feast. So what happened in 1989 that made us recall this event so vividly, even 30 years later?
It was the contrast and the unexpected turn that things take when a situation goes out of control. It showed the fragility of our city to the world, for the second time after the terrible floods of November 1966. This event sparked the publications of many books on sustainable tourism and how to set up a future for Venice, like “Salvare Venezia per chi?”.
Many Venetian families recall this evening of 15 July 1989 very well, as I’ve witnessed in stories told during the past few weeks. Venetians do talk about it amongst themselves, so often! And so does our family that was actually looking forward to the concert, listening on the rooftop terrace.
The afternoon of 15 July 1989 was spent cooking, baking the cakes, taking a break in the garden, drinking (mint-flavored orange pekoe) tea and tasting the cakes, and finally setting the tables, not just for the family but for special guests and neighbors. Dinner would start with an aperitif on the altana (mint-flavored spritz made with Select). Everything was ready when the first guests arrived at 7:30 pm.
That night, the Pink Floyd Concert took place on a floating stage about 150 meters from the Piazza. We couldn’t make out the stage from the roof terrace, but we did see the colorful lights of the concert across from the Riva, illuminating the sky behind the buildings of Calle delle Rasse and the Doge’s Palace.
I was a child and cannot remember that night very well, so it’s Lina taking over here to tell this story: In the late 1980s, everything seemed possible in Italy, the Nordest and in particular, in Venice. Venetian Gianni de Michelis became foreign secretary of Italy and also presented his home town Venice to the world. And for the Venetian business people, it did seem like a wonderful opportunity: Many old commercial bonds were renewed, and Venice was back on the international stage, present as business partner even in Far East Asia!
To celebrate this age of buoyant projects in the pipeline, De Michelis invited the Pink Floyd to stage a concert in Venice during the Redentore Feast. Many Venetians were looking forward to this, while others closed themselves in, not opening bottega and putting up signs saying Chiuso per lutto. E’morto il Redentore. Also, on that day, a public transport strike took place, and the 200,000 visitors, mostly young people from the mainland, arrived in Venice on foot, crossing the bridge between Mestre and Venice and walking all the way to Piazza San Marco. What started out as a promising night for many, like in so many walks of life, ended on a totally different note, as you can see in the video below.
The concert was a sight but there’s another takeaway from that spectacular night, in addition to the devastation which followed, when 80 spectators had to be taken to hospital and Venice woke up with young people sleeping on the doorsteps. This events showed to what extent Venetian society was divided on the future of their city, even during the 1980s, and that there were no real plans for the immediate and mid-term future. Focus on tourism, refineries on the mainland, or what?
This is why on last Saturday, the 30th anniversary of the Pink Floyd Concert of 1989, this topic was remembered well and talked about. Grandmother Lina recalls exactly what she cooked for the family on that 15 July 1989. And below we are sharing a video by Rai Uno for you, showing the illuminated Venice, before and after the concert.3