Today’s blog is loosely based on the Year Abroad seminar that I attended in March 10-14th with my fellow International Business students. However, I won’t be discussing the group presentations we did (Venice sinking, masks industry, Jewish Ghetto and Rialto Market), or rave about the cool guest speaker or our fantastic fairwell party as I’m sure my colleagues have done the fantastic experience justice in their own blogs.
Instead, I’ll talk about the one thing that really struck me about Venice. It is sinking – but for me, it’s less a physical force and more metaphorical kind of sinking. By this I am referring to the shocking statistic brought to our attention by Dr Valerio De Scarpis that the population in Venice was 174,000 in 1951, and today is now under 60,000.
The impact of "foreigners"
During our trip, I heard that the reason for the Venetian emigration were mainly high property and rental costs that were driving locals away, whilst there was some speculation that these rising prices were being caused by rich foreigners buying second homes. Whilst this is a powerful motivating factor, I believe there are others to be considered, such as the 1966 flood that led the ground floors of some 16,000 houses to be abandoned.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, Venice was an extremely important, wealthy naval city in Europe - a hub for commerce, political and economic affairs. By the 18th century, it had become a major agricultural and industrial exporter. As a World Heritage Site, Venice’s economy now relies heavily on tourism and its fine glass-making island, Murano.
With a locals to tourists ratio of 1:1 (on average, 60,000 tourists visit Venice each day) it is no surprise that I felt I missed out on an ‘authentic’ Italian experience. If I had visited 500 years ago, maybe I’d have been more satisfied – even if it did smell of fish, I would at least have been spared the daily tourist tax, which is charged to all hotel/hostel guests.
With tourist-designed menus in restaurants, a distinct lack of supermarkets/corner shops and gaggles of tourists blocking the streets, I wondered how much of Venice’s culture had sunk away as a result of the sharp emigration of its inhabitants and the increasing number of day-visitors. If you do consider culture to be a more enduring set of shared values, beliefs and customs then arguably, the same cultural loss can be arguably conceived to occur in the most cosmopolitan of cities.
Can a city lose its culture?
I asked my Catalan flatmate if he thought this phenomenon had affected Barcelona. He said it had partly, in the sense that there were many beautiful places in the city he couldn’t go without them being full of tourists. For some people, the defining moment of realizing something is no longer authentic is when they see that none of the chefs in a traditional Spanish restaurant are Spanish. For Pol though, this only bothers him if a tapas is cooked by a foreigner who doesn’t respect the flavours and standards of quality he expects.
Fundamentally, people migrate to find a better life. When I asked my flatmate if he could name a city that had lost its culture, he said London. When he lived there in 2006, he said that everyone (bar one) in his workplace was an immigrant, who’d come to the UK’s capital in search of higher wages, or simply in search of any employment. My mother herself came to the UK in her twenties, escaping an unstable Peru that was swinging between democracy and militarism – and was one of the few not to migrate to the US, where there is a comparatively larger South American population.
As for Venice, if it continues to lose inhabitants at the current rate, it will be "empty" by around 2046 – a bitter pill to swallow for a city that once ruled an empire. Matteo Secchi, a local business owner who put up an electronic board counting the population of Venice, even organised a “funeral” for the city to commemorate its dip below 60,000 inhabitants. On November 14th in 2009, a boat procession carried a coffin down the Grand Canal where it was deposited outside of the town hall, nearby the famous Rialto Bridge. Whilst locals claimed Venice was turning into a ghost town, and some town officials argued the people-counter was inaccurate, in my opinion there was one positive aspect. A small group of American scientists used the event as an opportunity to take DNA swabs of the local Venetians, in an attempt to study where-abouts the residents originally came from, as the island is of course, an artificial one. Hopefully, we can all take some solace in the notion that culture is something that depends on people, rather than land mass, to survive.
If this philosophical food for thought is just too heavy for you, then please, sit back and enjoy the pretty pictures :)
- REVIEW: Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott