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Venice, not only Disneyland. Author Gregory Dowling shares his thoughts

7th September 2017

#TalkingLocationWith….. author Gregory Dowling …Venice, Not Only Disneyland…

Photo: Stuff.co.nz

Doing a Google search with the two words “Venice” and “Disneyland” throws up over a half-million results. Not all of these, of course, link to articles specifically comparing the two but I’m ready to bet a significant number make the connection. I first came across the comparison in a novel by the satirical writer Robert Sheckley published in 1968 (The Game of X) and was amused by it; I had just made my first visit to the city (1979) and being young and jaded thought I could see the point. A recent use of it was in a headline in the New York Times on 2nd August this year: Venice, invaded by Tourists, Risks Becoming ‘Disneyland on the Sea’.” The article was debated hotly in the Italian national newspapers (this was the NYT after all) and, of course, even more so in the Venetian press.

On the very same day The Economist published a similar article (with a wittier picture than any of the ones used in the NYT article, with a giant cruise-ship photo-shopped onto an 18th-century painting of the Grand Canal) with the headline Not drowning but suffocating. Disneyland came into the article a few paragraphs down, with the owner of a well-known delicatessen near the Rialto, Mascari, bitterly making the comparison; the journalist added his own comment:

That’s unfair. Disneyland is sterile and fake, but it is also well run. It separates tourists from their money quickly and efficiently. Venice does so slowly and badly. The average tourist in Venice contributes only €3 in taxes.”

Venice, not only Disneyland

Souvenirs on sale

Ouch. Neither article really said anything new (although The Economist saw the possibility for change in an upcoming referendum on the administrative separation of Venice from Mestre on the mainland – without mentioning that this will be the fifth referendum on this proposal), probably because there really is nothing new to be said. It all comes down to numbers. There are Too Many Tourists. 30 million a year, according to certain surveys, in a city with a population of around 50,000.

All the other problems are contingent on this. And the articles diligently list them: There are the cruise-ships, out of all proportion to the city they are bringing people to admire. There is the ever-increasing number of Airbnb apartments, making it impossible for Venetians to afford to buy or rent property in the city. There are the local bakeries and groceries that close down and re-open as shops selling carnival masks and plastic gondolas. There are the primary schools that close down because of a lack of demand. And there is the growing sense that everything is becoming tawdry, tinselly and tourist-oriented.

In a word, Disneyland.

Cruis ship in town

The overall effect of reading such articles is depressing. And I certainly don’t have any solutions to the countless problems listed by the writers. Entrance-tickets for all visitors to the city? And thereby confirm that it really is an artificial entity, not a living, breathing city – either a museum (if we play up the cultural aspects) or a theme-park (if we play up the Disney aspects). Ban the big ships? Certainly, though the ban would only serve to prevent them from entering the lagoon; they would continue to offload the same number of tourists, whose entrance to the city would just be delayed by a less visually offensive ferry- or bus-journey. After all, there is no way any cruise up the Adriatic would or could omit Venice from its itinerary, because, as every Venetian knows, “Venezia è unica…” Insult and attack the tourists physically, as has apparently begun to happen in certain Spanish resorts? Venetians are too tolerant for such methods, however much they might grumble when unable to board an over-crowded vaporetto.

My real answer (not solution) can only be that despite all these problems, which are real, persistent and possibly insoluble, Venice is an inspiring place to live and not a day goes by in which I do not feel very privileged to be here.

St Mark’s Square in Winter

Maybe it helps that I live in a remote corner of the city, on the island of Sant’Elena (the easternmost tip), where the presence of tourists is never suffocating. But I go to work regularly in the centre; I take the vaporetto every day, and I often walk home, choosing to do so via St Mark’s Square for the sheer pleasure of crossing that immense space, which was made specifically to accommodate vast numbers of people of all possible colours, creeds and shapes. You only need to look at Gentile Bellini’s painting of a procession in the square in the 16th century or at any number of pictures by Canaletto or Guardi in the 18th century to see that the city’s principal public space was always animated by large and lively crowds in exotic clothes, chattering away in exotic languages. There may be more selfie-sticks and more acres of bare flesh on display today, and probably fewer cloaks and wigs, but I’m sure the atmosphere of general festivity is much the same.

Bellini Photo: Wikipedia.org

The view from the Rialto Bridge

And in saying that, I have already given a hint as to why Venice has great advantages for an aspiring historical novelist. My chosen period is the mid-eighteenth century. To set a novel in 18th-century London or Paris or Moscow would require not only a great deal of careful research but also great gifts of visual imagination. Naturally enough I have done my share of research but I have the huge benefit of being able to see the architectural settings more or less as they were then. Obviously, I need to be aware of the minor changes that have taken place; I can’t have my characters stopping to admire the view from the Accademia Bridge, which was not built until the 20th century, and I have to remember the churches that have disappeared, the canals that have been filled in and the few areas of the city where some radical rebuilding has taken place. But on the whole, I can set my characters walking through the streets and I can see what they saw without too much imaginative strain.

One reason for this, of course, is that the 18th century was when Venice ceased to be a major power. There is no doubt that cities that play an important role on the world-stage are constantly evolving and transforming themselves, for better or for worse. Any city that looks much the same as it did two- or three-hundred years ago is almost certainly on the side-lines of history – a backwater, to use a suitable aquatic metaphor.

Trying to see the view from the Rialto Bridge

By the 18th century Venice no longer counted for anything in terms of political, military or economic clout. The decline had begun at least three centuries earlier, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks had blocked its routes to the east, and after the opening of ocean-routes to the East and West had made it irrelevant as a major trading-power. Quite simply, Venice could not compete with the rising naval powers on the Atlantic. And so it settled down to enjoy its ill-gotten (and well-gotten) wealth – and it invited others to come and do the same. And by the 18th century the city had fully accepted its role as a tourist-attraction.

Even at the height of its power the city had known the importance of spectacle. The city’s greatest artists contributed to its great shows, designed to impress visiting monarchs and statesmen with the city’s power and wealth; particularly famous was the visit of Henry III of France to the Arsenal in 1574, where he witnessed the assembly-line creation of an entire galley within an hour. By the 18th century the city could still put on splendid shows (a particularly memorable one was put on for the Hereditary Grand Duke of Russia in 1782, with fireworks and theatrical displays), but now they testified only to the ingenuity of the scene-designers. The show was the whole point.

Indeed, a fitting symbol for the city in that age was the great state-barge, the Bucintoro, in which the Doge would set out on Ascension Day to wed the city to the sea, a ceremony that dated back to the year 1000. By the 18th century the barge had become so top-heavy and unwieldy on account of its lavish gilded carvings that it couldn’t set out in rough weather – and could certainly never leave the lagoon. It looks magnificent in paintings by Guardi and Canaletto but that was all it was designed to do – very much like the city itself, now reduced to being a feast for the eyes.

But what a feast. Lavish and unfailingly splendid, with a hint of melancholy that only added (and which still adds) to the allure – and it is a sexy city, too, as Casanova, Byron and many others have made clear.

So although my novels are set nearly three hundred years in the past, the period doesn’t feel remote to me. It is undeniably the same city, facing many of the same problems (people were already complaining about the number of visitors) and asking some of the same questions: what was its role to be? How would it cope in a world in which the old hierarchies and allegiances seemed to be breaking up? Where should it look for security? East or West?

My hero, Alvise Marangon, is a cicerone, or guide, who was born in Venice but who grew up in England; this allows him to feel strong ancestral ties to the city but also to have a certain external perspective on it. Indeed, one of the ways he identifies with the city is that he himself feels something of an outsider. Just like the city itself, which is perpetually poised in a liminal position, between land and water, between God and Mammon, between east and west; once this position constituted its very essence and was the source of its wealth and power; since the 18th century it has been its dilemma – but also an essential part of its charm.

After all, the side-lines of history are not necessarily a bad place to be. You do get a good view.

Thank you so much to Gregory for sharing such a thoughtful and at times sad insight into Venice. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook  And of course you can buy his book from your favourite bookseller through TripFiction

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The author goes on to share some of his recommendations for a trip to the city:
Just coming back with some advice on things to see outside the San Marco-Rialto area:
in the western Dorsoduro district:
San Sebastiano, full of Veronese paintings and frescoes;
San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, second-oldest church in Venice (and the one Donald Sutherland is restoring in “Don’t Look Now”);
Angelo Raffaele, with wonderful Guardi paintings on the organ (they feature in Sally Vickers’ novel, Miss Garnett’s Angel.
in the north-western Cannaregio district:
Madonna dell’Orto, Tintoretto’s parish church;
Sant’Alvise, fascinating old church, with a great Tiepolo Crucifixion.
in the eastern Castello district:
San Francesco della Vigna, with paintings by Veronese, Bellini, and a wonderful flowery Madonna and Child by a little-known painter, Antonio da Negroponte; also a lovely cloisters, and some great Renaissance carvings;
the entrance to the Arsenale, with Greek lions and Renaissance archway;
Via Garibaldi, broad street created in the Napoleonic age, full of life and a number of reasonably priced bars and restaurants;
Via Garibaldi leads towards the island of San Pietro, where the old Cathedral of San Pietro (San Marco only became the Cathedral after Napoleon) stands.
Just a few of the riches that lie outside the most touristy areas…





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  1. User: Glenn

    Posted on: 11/04/2018 at 1:29 pm

    Venice is a wonderful place. Still very easy to escape the crowds.


  2. User: Stephen Killick

    Posted on: 17/10/2017 at 2:52 pm

    As someone who has been visiting Venice regularly for the past 35 years the most disturbing thing in Mr Dowling’s story is the pitifully low collection of taxes raised from tourists.

    Much of this, I suspect, lies with the enduring Italian (and Venetian) hostility to paying taxes of any kind coupled with innate corruption in both local and national government.

    My wife and I regularly pay €12 to €15 a night each when staying in four and five star hotels together with far higher charges on vaporetti and traghetti than residents. I do not have any objection to this but where is this money going?

    And why aren’t cruise line passengers charged when they are moored in the bacino di San Marco given the environmental damage the big ships have caused and are still causing? And the paucity of income these day trippers bring to the city.

    Mayor Brugnaro seems more concerned in creating a giant luxury shopping centre in Venice rather than doing anything about sustainable tourism. Similarly hotels and oligarchs are snapping up property thus making it even less affordable for local Venetians, many of whom are now marginalised in far flung parts of Santa Croce, Castello, Cannaregio and Dorsoduro.

    Similarly the glass and lace that Murano and Burano has been famous for is just as likely these days to be made in Taiwan.

    Unless some honest politicians who care for this famous and extraordinary place are found soon then high water will be the last of Venice’s problems.


  3. User: lindamac1

    Posted on: 08/09/2017 at 9:30 am

    As someone planning a second trip (ten years since previous) I am alarmed to read this. I love island holidays and know that if the property-balance (hotels included)shifts too far in favour of tourists, then the character of a place changes and may be spoilt. Perhaps regulations regarding property ownership are the answer? Plus a limit on the number of cruise ships that can visit at any one time?



    • User: Gregory Dowling

      Posted on: 09/09/2017 at 7:04 am

      Hello, Lindamac1. I thought I had sent a reply yesterday but it seems to have disappeared. You’re right that regulations of some kind are needed. I think it would be difficult to put restrictions on property ownership. However, there are cities like New York that have forbidden renting properties for less than 30 days, which is effective against the excesses of Airbnb.
      As for the big ships, most Venetians would agree that restrictions are needed. Unfortunately the current mayor of the city is not among them…
      My only other advice, if you want to see the city without too many tourists, would be to come in January. My favourite month…


    • User: Gregory Dowling

      Posted on: 08/09/2017 at 8:18 pm

      Regulations of some sort are probably necessary although putting restrictions on property ownership might be problematic. Other cities have managed to pass laws forbidding the renting of apartments for less than a certain length of time; I have heard of this being the case in Manhattan, for example, as a way of combatting the phenomenon of Airbnbs.

      The cruise-ships: yes, some sort of limit needs to be imposed. I think most of the city agrees on that. Unfortunately the current mayor is on the other side on this question.

      The only other suggestion I can make for someone planning a visit is to come in January… My favourite month in the city.


  4. User: Judith Works

    Posted on: 07/09/2017 at 4:09 pm

    Venice is truly a dreamscape but the last time we were there, about 4 years ago, I vowed we’d never return. It’s totally overrun by cruise-ship passengers. When we got off the airport shuttle in Piazzle Roma, all we heard was American English in the jammed area. (And yes, I’m an American)



    • User: Stephen Killick

      Posted on: 17/10/2017 at 2:58 pm

      The key is to avoiding that part of the city, from the Piazza to the Rialto bridge, that heaves with tourists, Judith. Within a 10 minute walk I could show you places where the only voices heard are Venetian. So do consider returning and enjoy the likes of Campo S Giacomo dell ‘Orio, the haunting ghetto and the Madonna dell’ Orto chucrch in Cannaregio and western Dorsoduro where a terrific meal can be enjoyed at Pane, Vino e S. Daniele and some glorious churches such as S. Nicolò dei Mendicanti and S. Sebastiano can be enjoyed without once being asked where one comes from.


    • User: Gregory Dowling

      Posted on: 07/09/2017 at 8:44 pm

      That can often be the first impression. But it doesn’t take much to get away from the crowds. There are still many parts of the city where you can be, if not alone, at least not overwhelmed by the numbers of tourists. And you can still hear Venetian…


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