SHARE
COPY LINK

CULTURE

‘The myth of Venice’: How the Venetian brand helps the city survive

Many of the stories Venice tells about itself aren't true – but they have helped the city to survive over the ages and will do so again after its latest disastrous floods, writes historian Roisin Cossar.

'The myth of Venice': How the Venetian brand helps the city survive
Venice's legendary myths have attracted travellers for centuries. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The city of Venice was recently hit by the worst flooding in more than 50 years.

Water in the lagoon that surrounds the city rose 1.87 metres higher than normal, very close to the peak levels of the disastrous flood of November 4th, 1966. High winds of nearly 100 kilometres an hour made the situation even worse.

IN PHOTOS: Venice submerged as exceptional tide sweeps through city


Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The city’s pedestrian streets became rushing rivers of brackish water, boats were thrown onto walkways and the crypt of the basilica of San Marco was submerged. The damage is still being tallied, but the mayor currently estimates restoration costs at more than €1 billion.

As a historian of Venice who has spent long periods living and working in the city, I followed the stories of the damage with growing sadness and dismay.

Then I reminded myself that the international community has always responded with great concern to cataclysms in Venice. Assistance from across the world in the aftermath of the 1966 flood allowed the restoration of dozens of damaged monuments, paintings and sculptures, as well as the creation of foundations that still work to benefit the city’s artistic treasures.


The Venice floods of 1966. Photo: AFP

Why does Venice attract so much international attention compared to other cities? I’ve been pondering this question. The city is an undeniably beautiful place, and many tourists remark on the haunting lights and sounds of a city built entirely on water, with no vehicular traffic.

But Venice is also a place with a long tradition of convincing outsiders of its uniqueness. This tradition may continue to shape the way the world sees the city today, and could be what ends up helping the city survive.

A city of great myths

Venice has long been known for its artistic, political and cultural achievements. During its centuries as an independent republic (from 1297 to 1797), it was one of the greatest economic and military powers in Europe.

Venetian merchants (including Marco Polo) were famous for trading activities across Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia, and Venice’s navy was supported by a huge and active shipyard, the Arsenal.

READ ALSO: Venice had its own 'Airbnb problem' during the Renaissance – here's how it coped

The government of the republic was also well-known for its early and extensive bureaucracy. As a consequence, the city’s medieval and early modern archives are among the richest available anywhere in the world today.

But Venice also stands out because its inhabitants have a tradition of telling stories — some would say myths — that highlight its special status while obscuring some inconvenient truths.


Flooding in Venice's Gritti Palace earlier this month. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

For instance, Venetians claim that the city was founded in the middle of the fifth century A.D. by mainland dwellers fleeing before invading hordes of “barbarians” — including Attila the Hun himself.

But archeologists have cast doubt on that tale since they have found that as early as the Bronze Age, people hunted and fished on the mudflats of the Venetian lagoon.

By the fifth century, at least one island in that watery region, Torcello, was home to a thriving community of several thousand inhabitants. More communities gradually took shape nearby, as inhabitants drained marshy land and built it up by driving thousands of wooden piles into the mud.

That prosaic tale of gradual development is overshadowed by the more dramatic story of flight and survival, which continues to be used to emphasize the special status of Venice within the Italian peninsula and in world history.


This handout satellite image shows Venice under 'acqua alta' earlier this month. Photo: CNES 2019/AFP

Another influential story the Venetians told about themselves in the Middle Ages was that of the republic as La Serenissima, or “the most serene”. This “myth of Venice,” as scholars call it, compared the harmony of Venetian civic life to the factionalism of other cities in Italy. It, too, is a fable that obscured real tensions within the republic.

Even the famously well-organized republican archives, a “fact” repeated by Venetian chancery officials and then scholars across centuries, has recently been shown to be more myth than reality. In fact, officials struggled to maintain professionalism within the archive as early as the 16th century.

Separate and special?

As I tell my undergraduate students, just because these stories are not entirely true does not mean they are unimportant. Quite the opposite: they show us what mattered to those who told them.

But they also contributed to a notion that Venice was separate and somehow special. In the responses to recent environmental catastrophes, we can see the positive and the negative effects of that longstanding belief.

On the one hand, Venice will probably get the international support it needs to embark on a huge cleanup and restoration effort. 

READ ALSO: Italy's ancient cave city of Matera left in desperate need of emergency funding

On the other hand, other storm-damaged communities in Italy that lack the Venetian “brand” might not receive the same assistance, especially from international organizations with substantial endowments.

Of course, restoring the historical treasures of Venice and ensuring that the city is safe from future catastrophe is important. It must happen.

But if we look just a bit critically at why we think of Venice as exceptionally worthy of attention, we might find that Venetian myth-making has struck again.

Roisin Cossar, Professor, Department of History, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

VENICE

EXPLAINED: How will the tourist-control system work in Venice?

Venice is introducing a new system to discourage day-trippers in hopes of curbing problems with overtourism in the popular hotspot. Here is what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How will the tourist-control system work in Venice?

After years of discussing a possible “tourist tax”, the city of Venice has confirmed it will make day-trippers pay from €3 to €10 for access to the city centre starting on January 16th.

Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro said the goal of the new tourism fee is to discourage day tourism at certain times of the year and encourage overnight tourism. Day-trippers will have to pay a fee, but those who stay overnight continue only to have to pay the city tax of €2 to €5, according to a government press release.

The Commission and the City Council will now examine the regulatory text for the final green light scheduled for the summer.

“We are the first in the world to introduce this system, and we are aware that not everything will work well from the beginning, but we will be ready to improve in the course of work. We want to guarantee the tourist the best quality of the visit and make sure that the city is able to give visitors all the services they need”, said Tourism Secretary Simone Venturini.

READ ALSO: After flooding and coronavirus, is it time Venice stopped relying on tourism?

How much will I have to pay?

The contributo di acesso, or access contribution, will cost from €3 to €10, depending on factors such as tourism numbers for the day and season.

The city will determine a certain threshold of tourists, after which people will be required to pay higher sums. Travellers are encouraged to book in advance to avoid price increases.

Does the payment have to be made in advance?

The government said that nobody would be denied entry to Venice, meaning a pre-registration is not necessary. However, the mayor said that those who book their visit in advance would be “rewarded”. The reward will likely discount the fee.

How will the system work? Where do I pay?

According to the City of Venice, the payment is an alternative to the city tax. It will be required from every person that goes to the old city centre of Venice, as well as other major tourist destinations and islands in the region.

READ ALSO: 16 surprising facts about Venice to mark 16 centuries of the lagoon city

A single payment guarantees access to the old town and the smaller islands.

Tourists will be able to pay through an online and “multilingual” platform where they will receive a QR code to present in case of controls. Tickets should also be available to buy in connection with public transport – so if you are arriving by train, it will be possible to buy the train ticket and the entry pass together.

Who is excluded or exempt from the payment?

There are several exceptions to the payment, according to the website. Among them are residents from the Comune di Venezia, those who work or study there, and those who own homes in the city.

Additionally, exceptions include those born in the Comune di Venezia, children under six years of age, people with disabilities and their accompanying person, public workers, volunteers, people visiting family members, prisoners, or attending funerals, and many others.

Residents of the Veneto region “up to the thresholds that will be set by a specific Council resolution” are also exempt.

Those who stay overnight and, therefore, already pay the city tax through their hotel or short-term rental booking are also exempt from the fee.

The city of Murano, in the metropolitan region of Venice (Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash)

What about people arriving on cruises?

Venice is a very popular stop for cruise ships and people visiting the city on a cruise tour will also have to pay the fee as they disembark in the old town. However, the City of Venice said they might determine a lump-sum measure in agreement with the relevant carriers.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

Which smaller islands are included?

Only one ticket and payment is required for those travelling to multiple islands, including Venice. The islands that are part of the group are:

  • Lido di Venezia
  • Pellestrina
  • Murano
  • Burano
  • Torcello
  • Sant’Erasmo
  • Mazzorbo
  • Mazzorbetto
  • Vignole
  • S. Andrea
  • La certosa
  • S. Servolo
  • S. Clemente
  • Poveglia

What if I simply don’t pay?

If you fail to produce proof of payment or that you are exempt from the fee, the sanction is from €50 to €300. The fine is the same in the case of people making false statements trying to obtain exemptions or reductions.

Additionally, visitors who don’t pay in advance will have to pay the full €10 fee.

For more info click here.

SHOW COMMENTS