Shaul Bassi’s article about his own view of the immediate future of Venice has aroused a great deal of interest. We were asked for an English version and we are very happy to comply. Luminosi Giorni warmly thanks those foreign readers for the kind attention.
I am a Venetian citizen and a university professor. I probably belong to the last generation born and raised in a historic Venice, where schools had eight parallel classes instead of two, and the tourists were the ones you led astray when they interrupted your football matches in the street. I consider it an extraordinary privilege to have been able to remain here, find a job, and raise a child. I know the temptations of nostalgia. Yes, I would also like to go back to the old Venice, which meant the Lido in the summer, the grandparents in Mestre with the magical courtyard full of cars, the pre-match anxiety touring the football fields of the lagoon and the province with our Saccafisola team; dancing to the music of Madonna in Piazza San Marco during the legendary 80s carnivals. But to go back is not possible, and frankly worse than nostalgia – which if nothing else can caress your soul – there is the whining, the hypocritical protest of those who defend their privileges without admitting that one dies of tourism alone, and the lack of perspective. Now, to quote two illuminating recent books, the stark alternative is between the wild touristic extractivism analyzed by Giacomo-Maria Salerno in Per una critica dell’economia turistica (“For a critique of the tourist economy”, Quodlibet 2020), and the myriads of cultural and economic projects mapped in Venezia secolo Ventuno (‘Venice Twenty-first century’, Anteferma 2020) by Sergio Pascolo, who also reminds us how most cities of the world aspire to the liveability standards that we already enjoy here. Venice may be the most livable city in the world but to simply remain a city it needs more residents and fewer tourists. This is why it can and must invest in becoming an international center of art and research. These are hardly new ideas but they need to be placed in the context of the planetary environmental emergency that risks submerging us within my son’s life span. The Indian author Amitav Ghosh has remarked in his fundamental book The Great Derangement (2016) that we live in the awareness that within a few decades Kolkata, New York, Bangkok, Venice could be completely under water, yet our art and culture is mainly concerned with other issues. He warns us that posterity will accuse us of having been blind to this condition and he chooses Venice as the city in which to observe the epochal combination of climate change and mass migration. He considers it a city so important for the fate of the world that he has dedicated to it his compelling novel Gun Island (2019), where his book dealer protagonist’s travels between the Querini Foundation, the Ghetto, and the Salute Church showcase the extraordinary cultural heritage and creativity that characterize our history and contain the key to our future. Venice can repopulate itself by focusing on students, scholars and creative professionals (artists and artisans), a population that is, in the short term, less profitable than the hit-and-run tourist, but which is less volatile and brings extended benefits, creating the need for other services and other types of residents. What did the catastrophic high water of last November and the long confinement of the Coronavirus show us if not that no city can survive without enough electricians, plumbers, inhabited houses, and young volunteers? And even if you decide to cynically eschew any other economy and live off tourism, how long will the Venetian floors, the frescoes and the Istrian stones that make up the beauty of Venice last, if we no longer have the artisans and restorers who know how to take care of them? Now that we are struggling out of the pandemic, let us remember the example of the Serenissima, which after the plagues was able to recover by building magnificent works of art and importing new citizens and knowledge. Here the art of the last thousand years is summarized and the best contemporary art is showcased. Here the effects of the environmental crisis are observed, studied and, alas, experienced on a daily basis. Whether it’s the high water or the deserted streets of the lockdown, the world always looks to Venice, and by questioning Venice, it questions itself. Venice can remain the passive object of this compassionate gaze, or become the subject and guide of interdisciplinary environmental research. Investing in art and research also means investing in a healthy economy that creates new jobs and new residents and, in turn, encourages sustainable tourism. The international institutions that have settled in Venice in recent years are there to prove it: they have redeveloped spaces, hired people, launched programs that involve different audiences, attracted respectful and intelligent tourism, promoted the city in the international media. A virtuous example for all is that of Ocean Space, which manages to concentrate in itself the two cornerstones of my argument, art and environment. This investment in art and research can paradoxically be helped by a side effect of the pandemic, which has made working remotely not only a habit but also a necessity. So why not work in the most beautiful city in the world if what you need is only a good network connection and if when you have finished your eight hours on the computer (maybe in shared workspaces so as to have a healthy separation between home and office) you can be in a city that for hundreds of millions of people in the world is a dream place? Of course, houses and international schools must be offered to help international families make the city their home (with benefits also for local families) and all this requires policies. We must embrace the dimension of a European and international city, not treating foreigners as visitors or, at best, as generous and worthy patrons. It takes a strong alliance between the public and private cultural institutions of Venice, which can only have a political direction capable of intercepting European funding and global collaborations. Here are two intertwined proposals. The first is that Venice, in a desirable partnership between the Biennale, university and public administration, should create a Sustainability (or Ecotopian) Pavilion where scientific, technical, artistic and artisanal knowledge come together to cope with the challenge of the environmental crisis. It will attract visitors from all over the world and will allow us to import and export ideas on how to create more sustainable cities everywhere. The second is that the next municipal administration, reminiscent of the great Venetian diplomatic tradition, should establish a sort of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a group of ambassadors which also include the city’s universities and cultural institutions, and which travel the world to convince their counterparts to set up their programs in Venice. Each institute would create jobs for researchers; researchers would need a home, schools and dentists for their children. Each foreign university would create jobs for teachers, cleaners and accountants, and would bring a constant number of students to live here. The philosopher Bruno Latour has warned us that the Coronavirus crisis could only be the ‘dress rehearsal’ of the real crisis, the environmental one. Let us then make Venice the international capital of thought and action on this looming crisis. Only in this way will the children continue to play in the streets, and will we make a unique contribution to the planet.
Who is Shaul Bassi: Professor of English literature and Environmental Humanities at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where he directs the Center for the Humanities and Social Change).