Vanishing Venice

The world tugs at the lovely hem of the city Thomas Mann called "half fairy tale and half tourist trap."

This story appears in the August 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Nowhere in Italy, where calamity comes embellished with rococo gestures and embroidered in exclamation points, is there a crisis more beautifully framed than Venice. Neither land nor water, but shimmering somewhere in between, the city lifts like a mirage from a lagoon at the head of the Adriatic. For centuries it has threatened to vanish beneath the waves of the acqua alta, relentlessly regular flooding caused by the complicity of rising tides and sinking foundations, but that is the least of its problems.

Just ask Mayor Massimo Cacciari, broody, mercurial professor of philosophy, fluent in German, Latin, Ancient Greek; translator of Sophocles' Antigone; a man who raises the level of political intellect to just short of the stratosphere. Ask about the acqua alta and Venice sinking, and he says, "So go get boots." Let them wear boots.

Boots are fine for water, but useless against the flood that causes more hand-wringing than any lagoon spillover: the flood of tourism. Number of Venetian residents in 2007: 60,000. Number of visitors in 2007: 21 million.

In May 2008, for example, on a holiday week­end, 80,000 tourists descended on the city like locusts on the fields of Egypt. Public lots in Mestre, a mainland part of the municipality where people park and take the bus or train to the historic center, filled and were closed. Those who managed to get to Venice surged through the streets like schools of bluefish, snapping up pizza and gelato, leaving paper and plastic bottles in their wake.

La Serenissima ("the most serene one"), as Venice is known, is anything but. The world steps into the exquisitely carved font of the city, guidebook in hand, fantasies packed along with toothbrush and sturdy shoes. Splash! Out spill the Venetians. Tourism isn't the only reason for the accelerating exodus, but one question hovers like a haze: Who will be the last Venetian left?

"Venice is such a lovely city," said the director of a cultural foundation. From his window you could look across the San Marco Basin—with its unending flotilla of speedboats, gondolas, and water-buses called vaporetti—and beyond to the Piazza San Marco, epicenter of Venetian tourism. "Really, it is a huge theater. If you have the money, you can rent an apartment in a 17th-century palazzo with servants and pretend you are an aristocrat."

Please take your seats. In this play, Venice assumes a dual role. There is Venice the city where people live and Venice the city tourists visit. Lighting, sets, and costumes are so beautiful the heart aches, but the plot is full of confusion, the ending uncertain. One thing is certain: Everyone is madly in love with the title character.

"Beauty is difficult," Mayor Cacciari said, sounding as if he were addressing a graduate seminar in aesthetics rather than answering a question about municipal policy. He quoted Ezra Pound (the American poet, buried in Venice) quoting Aubrey Beardsley's line to William Butler Yeats, a kind of literary game of telephone—but then indirection is as Venetian as the curves of the Grand Canal.

Cacciari, whose reputation for arrogance rivals his reputation for eloquence, seemed to be in a mood as black as his hair and luxuriant beard. (Not a streak of gray on his 63-year-old head. "Does he dye his hair?" I asked a press officer. "No. He is very proud of that," she answered.) The day before, a torrential downpour had flooded Mestre. Rain caused the flood, not acqua alta, Cacciari said, sitting in his office. "MOSE [the flood barriers under construction; see our interactive] wouldn't have helped. High tide is not a problem for me. It's a problem for you foreigners." End of discussion on flooding.

No, he pressed, the problems lie elsewhere. The cost of maintaining Venice: "There is not enough money from the state to cover it all—the cleaning of canals, restoration of buildings, raising of foundations. Very expensive.'' The cost of living: "It's three times as costly to live here as in Mogliano, 20 kilometers away. It's affordable only for the rich or elderly who already own houses because they have been passed down. The young? They can't afford it."

Finally, there is tourism. Of that, Cacciari the philosopher said this: "Venice is not a sentimental place of honeymoon. It's a strong, contradictory, overpowering place. It is not a city for tourists. It cannot be reduced to a postcard."

Would you close it to tourists? I asked.

"Yes. I would close Venice—or perhaps, on reflection, a little entrance examination and a little fee." He looked bemused.

Add the little fee to ridiculously high prices. Tourists pay $10 to ride the vaporetto, $13 for a soft drink at Caffè Florian, $40 for a plastic Carnival mask, probably made in China.

Or you can buy a palazzo. "Grand Canal is prime," said Eugenio Scola as we sat in his walnut-paneled real estate office overlooking San Marco. He wore a beautifully tailored black jacket, a crisp white cotton shirt, jeans with an alligator belt, and black loafers with the luster of polished calf. For years, buyers were Americans, British, and other Europeans, Scola explained. "But now we are seeing Russians. Also Chinese."

Among his offerings was a three-bedroom restored apartment on the piano nobile, or main floor, of a small 18th-century palazzo, or palace. "Molto bello," Scola said, pulling out the plans. There was a studio, library, music salon, two living rooms, a small room for the help, and a fine view from three sides. Only nine million euros. If I preferred, there was an entire palazzo—the 60,300-square-foot Palazzo Nani, to be offered with a permit allowing its conversion to another use. "It will probably become a hotel," Scola said. When I asked for something more affordable, I was taken the next day to see a 388-square-foot studio that would give a sardine claustrophobia, but it was only 260,000 euros. Someone would buy it as an investment or pied-à-terre. But probably not a Venetian.

If you are a Venetian, and not part of what Henry James called the "battered peep-show" of tourist Venice, if you are a resident who lives in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment (elevators are rare in Venice), someone who gets up, goes to work, goes home, Venice is a different place altogether. The abnormal is normal. A flood is routine. The siren sounds, protective steel doors come down. Boots, essential to any Venetian wardrobe, are pulled on. The two and a half miles of passerelle—an elevated boardwalk supported on metal legs—are set up. Life goes on.

Here, where everything anyone needs to live and die must be floated in, wrestled over bridges, and muscled up stairs, time is measured by the breath of tides, and space bracketed by water. The mathematics of distance, an accounting of footsteps and boat timetables, is instinctive to every Venetian.

When Silvia Zanon goes to Campo San Provolo, where she teaches middle school, she knows it will take 23 minutes to walk there from her apartment on the Calle delle Carrozze. She leaves at 7:35 a.m. Memi, owner of a neighborhood trattoria, seated at a table reading the newspaper, looks up and nods. The young man collecting trash for the garbage barge mumbles a greeting. She turns onto the Campiello dei Morti and passes a wall draped with a white climbing rose; a bridge, two squares, another left in front of a former movie theater, now a trendy restaurant, and she proceeds on to the Frezzeria. Ahead is the Correr Museum and cleaning ladies on hands and knees with buckets and brushes. She crosses the Piazza San Marco, blissfully empty in early morning. "I step on the paving stones and fall in love with the city all over again," she says. Another bridge, a brisk walk across the Campo San Filippo e Giacomo, and she arrives. It is exactly 7:58 a.m.

Listen. Venice should be heard as well as seen. At night the eye is not distracted by the radiance of gilded domes. The ear can discern the slam of wood shutters, heels tapping up and down the stone steps of bridges, the abbreviated drama of whispered conversations, waves kicked against the seawall by boats, the staccato of rain on canvas awnings, and always, always, the heavy, sad sound of bells. Most of all, the sound of Venice is the absence of the sound of cars.

Often Franco Filippi, a bookstore owner and writer, cannot sleep, and so he gets up and threads his way through the maze of streets, flashlight in hand, stopping now and then to play a beam over facades of stucco and stone until the cylinder of light picks out a roundel of carved stone, called a patera, depicting some fantastic beast that slithers, prowls, or flies. It is then, while the city sleeps and he is rapt in the contemplation of a touchstone of its past, that he reclaims his Venice from the crowds that fill the streets, squares, and canals when it is day.

Gherardo Ortalli, a professor of medieval history, finds his path less poetic. "When I go out in the campo with my friends, I have to stop because someone is taking a photograph of us as if we are aboriginals," he says. "Perhaps one day we are. You go and see a sign on a cage. 'Feed the Venetians.' When I arrived 30 years ago, the population was 120,000. Now it is less than 60,000."

The decline seems inexorable. Last year alone, the resident population fell by 444. Ortalli thinks Venice will end up as simply a theme park for the rich, who will jet in to spend a day or two in their palazzo, then leave. It is 10 a.m., and he is headed toward a kiosk in the Campo Santa Margherita to buy a newspaper before going to his office, though you can hardly find the papers for the jetsam and flotsam of tourist kitsch: miniature masks, gondola pins, felt jester caps. "Everything is for sale," he sighs. "Even Venice."

Meet the official charged with the solemn duty of managing the wear and tear of tourism. His name is Augusto Salvadori, and his card introduces him as

Director of Tourism

Promotion of Venice's Tradition,

History, and Culture

Protection of the Town's Propriety

and Cleanliness

Prevention of the Wear Caused by the Waves

Street Signage

Love is not too strong a word—in fact, it is inadequate to describe how Salvadori feels about Venice. He is not just the city's director of tourism and promoter of tradition; he is its defender. If Salvadori could command it, every balcony would be draped with geraniums. (He distributed 3,000 plants with that in mind.) Once, dining at a canalside restaurant, he leaned over the table to reprimand a passing gondolier for singing "O Sole Mio," a Neapolitan, not Vene­tian, song.

In fall 2007 he dispatched a commando of volunteers to spread the gospel of neatness in the Piazza San Marco, to remind visitors to follow the commandments of good behavior: not to eat, drink, or sit anywhere other than in designated areas. "We are fighting for the dignity of Venice," Salvadori says. In spring 2008, he announced decorum week; 72,000 plastic bags were distributed to residents so that they could dispose of dog poop. Useful, except that no one provided extra trash cans for the used bags.

"The city is consumed by tourism," says Salvadori, seated in his office in the 16th-century Palazzo Contarini Mocenigo. "What do Venetians get in exchange?" A frown as his brow plummets. "Services are strained. During part of the year Venetians cannot elbow their way onto public transportation. The cost of garbage collection increases; so does the price of living." Does it ever, particularly when it comes to residential property. A 1999 law that eased regulations on the conversion of residential buildings to tourist accommodations exacerbated an ongoing housing shortage. Meanwhile, the number of hotels and guesthouses since 1999 has increased by 600 percent.

"Perhaps to help," Salvadori says, "we put a city tax on hotels and restaurants. They say tourists will not come—but I say, tourists won't come for a few euros?" He glares. "I cannot be worried about hotels. I have to think of the Venetians. My battle is for the city. Because Venice"—his voice softens, he touches his chest—"is my heart."

Tourism has been part of the Venetian landscape since the 14th century, when pilgrims stopped en route to the Holy Land. With the Reformation of the 1500s, tourism lagged, but regained momentum in the 17th century as upper-class Europeans, intent on acquiring the fine sheen of cultural experience, embarked on a "grand tour."

So, what's so different about tourism now? I ask Ortalli, after he has settled into his office. "Yes, there was the grand tour," he replies. "But then people were invested in hospitality. Now, Venice gets giant cruise ships. The ship is ten stories high. You can't understand Venice from ten stories up. You might as well be in a helicopter. But it's not important. You arrive in Venice, write a postcard, and remember what a wonderful evening you had."

The malady is chronic. The onset of infection, says art historian Margaret Plant, dates to the 1880s, when the city "was fetishized, and its face was turned resolutely to the past. At that point zealously guarded Venice became a commodity city, a package of the totally picturesque. Its own citizens were confirmed as a lower order."

The contagion seeps down streets, climbs bridges, and crosses the piazza. "There goes another piece of Venice," Silvia Zanon, the teacher, said sadly when La Cami­ceria San Marco, a clothing store located near the Piazza San Marco for 60 years, had to move to a smaller, less prime spot because the rent had tripled. The shop, quintessentially Venetian, tailored pajamas for the Duke of Windsor and sport shirts for Ernest Hemingway. "It's like leaving the house where you were born," said Susanna Cestari, who had worked there 32 years, packing boxes for the move.

In August 2007, Molin Giocattoli, a toy store so popular an adjacent bridge was called the Bridge of Toys, closed. Since December 2007, ten hardware stores have gone out of business. In the Rialto market, souvenir sellers have replaced vendors who sold sausages, bread, or vegetables. Tourists will not notice. They do not visit Venice to buy an eggplant.

They do, however, come to get married. The tourist machinery has incorporated weddings—720 in 2007. Predictably, nonresidents who married in Venice that year outnumbered residents by nearly three to one. Should you wish to tie the knot, the marriage office of the City of Venice will oblige for $2,400 on weekdays. On weekends, $5,500. Would the happy couple like the ceremony broadcast on the Internet? One hundred ninety dollars, if you please.

As for Carnival—once a charming, neighborhood event, now a commercial frenzy ("a cultural hijacking," Robert C. Davis, a professor of history at Ohio State University, wrote in Venice, the Tourist Maze)—sensible Venetians leave town.

One thing the Venetians haven't abandoned is their cynicism. When the exodus is complete, if the city ends up as nothing more than an exquisite, gilded bonbonnière, "Who will be the last Venetian left?" a woman whose family reached back generations was asked. "I don't know," she replied. "But certainly the last Venetian will want to be paid for it."

Meanwhile, plans for the city's salvation appear and disappear with the regularity of the tides, but the stakes couldn't be higher: Tourism in Venice generates $2 billion a year in revenue, probably an underestimate because so much business is done off the books. It is, reports the University of Venice's International Center of Studies on the Tourist Economy, "the heart and soul of the Venetian economy—good and bad."

Some people suggest that Venice's wounds are self-inflicted—the sequelae of the drive to wring every last euro, yen, and dollar out of tourism. "They don't want tourists," observes a former resident, "but they want their money. American tourists are best. They spend. Eastern Europeans bring their own food and water. Perhaps they buy a little plastic gondola."

There is talk, always talk (this is Italy) about limiting tourists, taxing tourists, imploring them to avoid the high seasons of Easter and Carnival, but tourism—intertwined with the loss of resident population, complicated by the power of hoteliers, gondoliers, and water taxi drivers, who have an interest in maximizing the influx of visitors—defies simple solutions.

"Let me remind you, the loss of population … is not only a problem in Venice but in all historical towns, not only Italy," cautioned Mayor Cacciari. "The so-called exodus, which dates back very far in time, is deep rooted in the lodging issue."

Redemption may be out of reach. "It is too late," Gherardo Ortalli, the historian, says. "Nineveh is finished. Babylon is finished. Venice will remain. That is, the stones will remain. The people won't." But for now there is still life as well as death in Venice. Franco Filippi walks at night in search of carvings on weathered walls. Silvia Zanon leaves for school, crosses San Marco only to fall in love with the city again, and, assuming it is in season, you can still manage to buy an eggplant.

"Venice may die," Cacciari insists. "But it will never become a museum. Never." Perhaps. In 1852 art critic John Ruskin wrote that the Doge's Palace would not be standing in five years. A century and a half later, it does.

To glide from the slate green waters of the lagoon past San Giorgio Maggiore to the San Marco Basin, to approach the Doge's Palace with its tracery of arches and columns, to see it as the doges must have—enthroned on a gilded barge surging through a silver sea, oars dipping and rising, banners pulled taut by wind—is to see that beauty, difficult and bruised, survives.

As does romance. What is Venice—so seductive, so lethally attractive—except the most sublime setting for the thrilling of the heart?

For example, one fall day not long ago two children, 12 and 13, from Grosseto, a town in Tuscany, decided to run away. Their parents disapproved of their romance, so they saved and spent their allowance on a train to Venice. They walked narrow streets paved in stone and lingered on the bridges that vault the canals. Night approached, and with it the need for a place to stay. They arrived at the Hotel Zecchini, a modest guesthouse with an inviting orange-and-white awning. The clerk heard a small voice ask about a room, looked up, saw nothing, leaned over the desk, and looked into the faces of two children. Skeptical of their story about an aunt who would arrive soon, he gently questioned them, listened, then called the carabinieri.

"Such innocence and tenderness. They just wanted to be together," said Elisa Semen­zato, the hotel manager. When the carabinieri arrived, they took the pair on a tour of the city in their boat, then to district headquarters in a former convent and put them to bed in very separate rooms. The next day they were served a three-course meal on a table set with linens in a hall facing the 15th-century courtyard.

Romance triumphs; reality intrudes. The parents, less than enchanted with the Romeo and Juliet narrative acted out by their children, arrived that afternoon to take them back to Grosseto, away from the soft ache of first love and the gilded beauty of Venice.

Kisses end. Dreams vanish, and sometimes cities too. We long for the perfect ending, but the curtain falls along with our hearts.

Beauty is so difficult.