Venice throws everything at the visitor – tottering ornate Gothic palazzi, metres of glittering gold mosaic, hours of meandering alleys for the romantic and pompous overpriced cafes for the extravagant. But some visitors remain just a little underwhelmed. Here are some of the greatest Venice cynics.
A Moated Imprisonment of a Town
Stinking canals, unstable boats and adding half an hour to your journey because a canal is lacking a bridge, some visitors just longed for a good, solid road. In fact, it seems one visitor in the 1950s, Robert Benchley, humorously misunderstood the concept of Venice completely when he cabled home “streets full of water. Please Advise”. Others simply found the canal waterways excruciatingly inconvenient. Indeed, the Grand Canal only had one crossing point until last century, the Rialto Bridge, and it has had its fair share of disastrous collapses (one during the wedding procession of the Marchioness of Ferrara in 1444) . Joseph Forsyth derisively comments that the visitor feels themselves in a “moated imprisonment of a town, where their walks are incessantly crossed by canal, and their thread of talk or thinking is cut at the steep steps of a bridge.” He would certainly abhor the popular guidebook advice that the best way to experience the city is to toss away the map and ‘lose yourself’.
While Joseph Addison, travelling to Venice in the early 1700s, praises the designs of bridges, he is ever the pragmatist saying were “without any Fence on either side, which would be a great Inconvenience to a City less sober than Venice.” (Addison, 28). Luckily authorities have wisely added railings to (almost) all bridges due to the increase in inebriation of Venetians and visitors thus preventing too many drunken plunges into the murky water.
Finally, the romantic appeal of gliding silently through murky canals in flickering lamplight was not appreciated by all. Chateaubriand considered Venice a severely inconvenient place calling it, “a city against nature – one cannot take a step without being obliged to get in a boat!” (Morris, 16). And although Venice may boast the graceful, swift and surprisingly strong gondola, perhaps it was a little too whimsical for some. John Evelyn, reporting on a gondola that was gifted to King Charles II of England as a wedding present in 1662, says it was “not comparable for swiftnesse to our common wherries” (Morris, 118). Clearly a fancy design and a couple of muscular, tanned gondoliers was not impressive.
Devoid of Amusement
An undeniable attraction of Venice is the morbid fascination with its precarious relationship with the sea. It wouldn’t surprise me if visitors started paying more for authentically damp accommodation equipped with the characteristic smell of salt and mould and perhaps a few dramatic ceiling cracks. But several visitors have been singularly unimpressed by this great tangle of crumbling masonry. Lemaistre, travelling in 1802, found Venice a desolate place, its patrician families having abandoned the city and left it devoid of ‘amusements’ and commerce.
Not even St Mark’s, the epitome of fading glory so characteristic of La Serenissima, escaped the scathing criticism of Forsyth, who considered it “dark, heavy, barbarous, nay poor, in spite of all the porphyry and oriental marbles”. (Forsyth, 333). And Palladio’s constructions are reduced to feeble, awkward attempts.
Indeed, money washes in and out of Venice as dramatically as its fatal tides, absorbed by osmosis into the city fabric and regurgitated as waste in the lagoon. By the 19th century modernists, lovers of the machine and efficiency, where growing weary of this perpetual plea for international funds. There was, in fact, serious thoughts about tearing the whole stinking, decaying mess down in the 1860s. As one Victorian writer commented, “three peoples have been pre-eminently great and powerful – the Romans in ancient times, the Venetians in the Middle Ages, the English in modern days”. Venice was tumbling from its great heights, its reign over and its admirers growing thin.
See Venice and Die
This adage has been dedicated to Naples but it applies rather morbidly in a literal sense to Venice. It has always been a city a shrouded in the mystery of death and decay with its rotting foundations, perpetual smell of damp and macabre history of public hangings and gibbet cages just metres from the rosy elegance of the Doge’s Palace. But an eerie number of celebrated visitors and enchanted poets have met their end in this watery labyrinth. I suppose we might say these were the most disillusioned visitors to La Serenissima:
Wagner died in palace that is now the winter casino. Browning died in the Ca’ Rezzonico, … Diaghilev died here, and Baron Corvo, and so did Shelley’s little daughter Clara … Even Dante died of a fever contracted during a journey to Venice. The angry Venetian modernists like to say that this has become a city ‘where people come to expire’. (Morris, 143)
Modern visitors may complain about a host of other inconveniences: prices, taxes, dictatorial rules regarding rubbish collections, crowds, pickpockets, rose vendors, masks Made in China, queues and pigeons, but there are few that do not experience that spinal shiver when they first breathe in the damp, salty air and glimpse the particular scintillating light on the Grand Canal found so abruptly after exiting from the shade of the railway station.
Morris, Jan. Venice. Faber and Faber Limited, 1993.
Addison, Joseph. The Works of the Late Right Honorable Joseph Addison. Volume 2. J and R Tonson. Birmingham.
Forsyth, Joseph. Remarks on Antiquities, Arts and Letters during an excursion in Italy, in the Years 1802 and 1803. Associated University Presses, 2001.