Coping with Covid-19 in spring 2020: How is Venice doing?

On 18 May 2020, many businesses (stores, hairdressers, restaurants, bars) in Italy will be allowed to reopen, after more than two months of very strict lockdown. What will that Monday, 18 May, be like in Venice? Which shops will be able to open, and what will life in Venice look like in the weeks and months ahead?

During the past two months, the force of nature was overwhelming to watch in Venice, crystal clear waters and fish breeding in the canals. The city looks more beautiful than anyone has seen for decades, incredible reflections are everywhere, and when you leave your house, you are surrounded by the voices of blackbirds, distant cries of sea gulls, and the scent of fresh green leaves mingled with sea tang. It was this special experience of being alone with their city that made Venetians think many things over, so inviting to make plans for the future.

First you need to know that Venice has experience in dealing with epidemics: She survived five major outbreaks of the bubonic plague, the last happened almost 400 years ago in 1630/31. The notions of quarantaine (quarantena) and lazaret (lazareto) were created in Venice in the year 1348. Venetian doctors were first in experimenting with vaccines in the 18th century (read more in our article 20 Facts you didn’t know about Venice).

Our city still celebrates how two devastating outbreaks of the bubonic plague were overcome: Every third Saturday in July since 1576, Venice celebrates El Redentor (the Redeemer), recalling how the city after 14 months of lockdown, opened up tentatively in July 1576. And every year on 21 November, Venetians celebrate La Festa della Salute (the Feast of Health), recalling another deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1630/31.

As a consequence of the epidemic 1575-76, the Republic of Venice set up an early warning system along the Dalmatian coast, sharing information with other European countries. Following the bubonic plague of 1630/31, the Republic set up a corridoio sanitario (sanitary corridor) along the cities on the Dalmatian coast: Ships on their way to Venice from the Levant and Africa had to stop along the Dalmatian coast three times, for 40 days, to make sure no “germs”, as viruses were called by the Venetian Sanitary Authorities, were reaching Venice on board the ships. This system finally worked, and from 1631, the city was spared further outbreaks of the epidemic.

When Venice finally opened up in July 1576, after 14 months of complete lockdown, she barely counted 50,000 inhabitants. She was still recovering from the serious flooding (acqua granda) of 1574, and she was hit by the most serious economic downturn in history. Comparing the epidemics of 1575/76 and 2020, we can notice quite a few parallels, like history is repeating itself in Venice.

Let’s jump from the distant past to the present: Like a warning of critical times ahead, on 2 June 2019, cruise ship MSC Opera crashed into the embankment of the Santa Marta port facilities in Venice: it was the tug boats preventing the huge vessel from crashing into the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. A month later, another cruise ship almost hit Via Garibaldi. Two days later on 5 July, Venice was hit by a tornado, leaving a trail of destruction in the city, disrooted trees at the Giardini and damaged roofs, amongst others, those of the Redentore and Zitelle churches.

July 2019 felt like the colors were clashing over Venice, far from being the harmonious rose and blue sky: Sunsets and their reflections on the water looked deep violet, flashy yellow, and dirty cobalt blue. Like our city, utterly fatigued, was holding her breath: Summer felt cold and hot at the same time, lonely in the midst of a hopelessly crowded city. Venetians felt strangely detached and aloof. Something was going to happen, very soon?

And then, on 12 November 2019, a terrible flood hit the city. When the first Covid-19 cases in Venice were reported in February 2020, a complete lockdown was imposed on 9 March 2020. Now, wasn’t it time to rise again ??

But then came a beautiful sign of hope: On 29 April 2020, a double rainbow appeared over Venice, and it was photographed a thousand times. It was even given a name – l’Arcobaleno della speranza – the Rainbow of Hope. And this rainbow sparkled with colorful ideas ..

Many ideas were shared, personally and in private groups, which I could summarize as going meticulously through the five big “chapters” of which the story of Venice consists: They could represent a matrix for gradually rebuilding Venetia, the living and breathing city:

Most probably, there won’t be a single master plan but several capillary plans. There could be solutions for individual sestieri, parishes and neighborhoods: Layered solutions, from tourism to housing, shops for daily life, to port activities. In short, Venice is one huge workshop in 2020 and is in the process of collecting ideas, along those five Chapters:

  • Chapter 1 researches the distant past of Venice: The story of La Serenissima, how to reconnect with ancient crafts, because the future will be partly handmade as stark contrast to the digital world. In particular, this is about Venetian heritage and the artisans of Venice.
  • Chapter 2 explores the past 30 years of Venice, helping us understand where we came from since the 1980s, how it all evolved, and how to design high-quality tourism initiatives for the future.
  • Chapter 3 refers to keeping the city alive and going now, in 2020: This is about helping families, artisans and small businesses survive economically.
  • Chapter 4 refers to the near future (30 years): There is still no solution for an issue which will show up again by October: acqua alta. How can the Lagoon be redesigned to keep the city healthy and alive? This is the major issue to ensure the physical survival of Venice for the next 30 years, the others being affordable housing and services for the residents.
  • Chapter 5 refers to the mid- and long-term future: It challenges us to dream bigger: How can Venice overcome the issues of Chapters 2 and 3, and build a future based on the strengths described in Chapter 1.

These five chapters aren’t fancy scenarios – I’m mentioning them to summarize into which direction the discussions were going during the lockdown period. And there’s a thing stressed by everyone: Nobody here in Venice wants a return to soulless, alienating mass tourism.

This is where our new story starts, preparing life in Venice the Corona pandemic. A new story will span the whole lifetime of Venice: #riscrivereilfuturo is the new – and lasting – Venetian hashtag. Rewriting the future – we’ll hear a lot about it very soon.

7 responses to “Coping with Covid-19 in spring 2020: How is Venice doing?”

  1. Sally Clark Avatar
    Sally Clark

    Surely, limiting if not abolishing cruise ships is a good plan.

    1. Iris Avatar

      The cruise ships are only the peak of the iceberg. It’s about life and economy being diversified, to bring out the strengths of Venice, such as her artisans and other aspects of heritage. And replacing mass tourism by hospitality and high-quality offers for visitors.

  2. TripFiction Avatar

    A really thought provoking article and beautifully illustrated with exceptional photos!!!

    1. Iris Avatar

      Thank you, I’m glad you like the article and photos.. this is just the first step, now we need to fill the five chapters with stories ..

  3. […] Coping with Covid-19: How is Venice doing? […]

  4. […] Venice is not an “empty or sad city”, but we’ve got accustomed to a different way of life: After ten weeks of lockdown and being alone with the city in spring, Venetians “sort of” recovered in late April, and many are making plans for a different future as I’m describing in this blog post: Yes, there’s still a strong will to rewrite the future. […]

  5. […] a year ago in May 2020, we published an article on “how Venice was doing” after going through the first three months of the pand…. We wrote about the neighborhoods, where residents were planning a new start for their city, and […]

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