Se Venezia Muore – If Venice Dies

This is a book about the dangers of amnesia collettiva – losing one’s collective memory. What if we forget about Venice, if Venice is dying this variant of slow death? It’s not just the visible signs, the buildings, it’s also about the invisible heritage of Venice. Culture, language, recipes, modi di dire, ways of thinking.

Se Venezia Muore is a book about dying this slow death, and it cites examples of cities who died before. There’s so much ancient wisdom living on in Venice. The way Venetians built their homes, for everyone to see. Less obvious ones  – how the Lagoon acts not just as doorstep but as lifeline of this city. And the hidden wisdom, not for everyone to see, and even less for the turista frettoloso, the distracted tourist as Lina puts it.

There are a number of ways for historical cities to survive, but first we must be aware of the issues. Which roles do historical cities play in our times? And how can we proceed to avoid losing this city’s identity? Losing identity is just the first step towards losing memory, as Settis explains in his book.

First, a town can be physically destroyed, like the Romans destroyed Carthage in 146 BC. Second, towns are destroyed but a foreign population settles around the ruins. This happened to Tenochtitlan when Mexico City was built in 1521. Third, the inhabitants of a town lose their “collective memory”, forgetting about their historical and cultural identity. It will be decisive for Venice not to lose her soul, her anima!!

Le città storiche sono insidiate dalla resa a una falsa modernità, dallo spopolamento, dall’oblio di sé. Di questa minaccia, e dei rimedi possibili, Venezia è supremo esempio. Dobbiamo ritrovarne l’anima, rivendicare il diritto alla citta. – Salvatore Settis

Basta l’indifferenza – no who-cares-mentality. This concerns us, the Venetians. But would there be an impact on other countries if we lost Venice forever, and her identity and culture?

We must not forget that the buildings are the material shell of our city, and that they were the stage of the stories of their inhabitants, and the unwritten laws of Venice, called Venezianitudine – Venetianness. 

And here are the allarming figures we’ve collected after exploring the lost world of Venice since 1945 (Lina and her husband started this quest), relegated to libraries. The know-how of Venetia, the Republic of Venice is still here, but .. 80% of it is not readily available to the Venetians. This percentage is much lower with tourists who usually don’t take time to dig deeper. By now, we miss valuable knowledge on botany and natural remedies made from herbs and spices, accumulated during almost 1400 years when the Republic of Venice was the prime merchant nation and had the best physicians and spice masters in the world.

We even dismiss the know-how the engineers of the Republic left us on Lagoon stewardship, that is, on how to keep the Lagoon and thus the city alive. Without careful management, the Lagoon would have turned into an arm of the sea 1000 years ago, and would have become an uninhabitable swamp in the 1630s. This is a sensitive environment, forever shifting, and today, we’re unable to manage it in a sustainable way. We destroy its ecological balance by building dams (Mose) and dredging canals without taking into account the consequences.

Third, we must stop the exodus of the population. In a city focused on mass tourism, it becomes difficult and often impossible to continue one’s business in case it is not in the tourist sector. But a city cannot survive without proper infrastructure, as Settis stresses in his book.

Venezia senza popolo. There’s no Venice without the people who coined this environment and have been living here for more than 1600 years. The solution is certainly not part-time inhabitants and holiday dwellers. Only the Venetians will be able to turn this historical city into a role model for post-modern society.

The historical center of Venice is still intact, and there are no “outskirts” and their sprawling shopping centers. Of course they exist as well, but they are located on the mainland and are not where people go shopping every day (perhaps 1-2 times per year!).

Venice could teach how humane cities work by integrating the countryside in a meaningful way (in this case, the countryside is the Lagoon, the lifeline of the city as we mentioned above). Venice is a naturally grown, healthy and humane mixture of components from both worlds.

This “liquid plain” is home to Venice, a city embedded in the Lagoon. Each part, and each island (!) had a function to fulfill to make the ecosystem work.

Towns can’t survive without connecting with their surroundings. Satellite towns and favelas cause social and environmental problems in the mid-term. According to Settis, this is the most important lesson that Venice can teach us, as by the year 2030, 80% of people will live in towns (compared to 3% in 1850 and 54% in 2014).

Listen to Salvatore Settis at his book’s presentation Se Venezia Muore (9 December 2014, Istituto Veneto).

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