Tourists are seen at St. Mark's square in Venice, Italy, April 15, 2108. \ MANUEL SILVESTRI/ REUTERS

The Demise of Venice as a Cautionary Tale for Modern Day Europe

Italian art historian Salvatore Settis sees the decline of Venice as a metaphor for Europe’s classical values



Salvatore Settis began his 2004 book “The Future of the Classical” with a description of a lecture by Italian-Jewish historian Arnaldo Momigliano delivered to high-school students in Erice, Sicily in 1967. Momigliano asked the question, “Why study ancient history?” – a basic issue for anyone involved in areas of study that are increasingly seen as being not “practical” or that don’t produce immediate economic benefit to society. Settis gives his own, complex reply to that question in the book (which was published in English in 2006), and it is apparent that the Italian intellectual, who celebrated his 77th birthday this month, devoted years trying to find the proper wording.

An art historian, archaeologist, curator and academic – Settis is himself the precise answer to the question as to why society needs people like him in order to place urgent problems in historical, cultural and artistic perspective. He was president of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, the most important humanist university in Italy, and director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. At present he is chairman of the Scientific Council of the Louvre Museum.

Settis isn’t shy about participating in the public discussion in a way that isn’t purely academic. When the heads of the Prada Foundation invited him in 2015 to curate and exhibition at their headquarters in Venice and in Milan, he displayed a row of reproductions of the “Farnese Hercules” statue in various sizes – from a huge plaster copy to a 15-centimeter statuette. There was something hypnotic, but almost depressing, about that row of gradually shrinking classical heroes. Is that the path from which there is no exit, from the glorious classical past to faded copies?

Settis provides many answers to this question, which are not unequivocal. In 2014 he published “If Venice Dies” – a pessimistic work that describes not only the process of the self-destruction of Italy’s most beautiful city, but also ideas about the death of ancient world culture.

Leonardo Cendamo / Leemage / AFP

“Cities tend to die in three ways,” he writes at the start of his book, which appeared in English in 2016 (in a translation by Andre Naffis-Sahely), and he elaborates: “When a ruthless enemy destroys them (like Carthage, which Rome razed in 146 BCE), when foreign invaders violently colonize them, driving out the indigenous inhabitants and their gods (in the case of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, which the Spanish conquistadores destroyed it in 1521 to build Mexico City atop its ruins); or finally, when their citizens forget who they are and become strangers to themselves and thereby their own worst enemies.”

Settis goes on to give the example of Athens, “which after experiencing the glory of its classical periods – the Parthenon marbles, Phidias’s sculptures, and the cultural and historical events shaped by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Pericles, Demosthenes and Praxiteles – lost its political independence (first falling under Macedonia’s sway, then Rome’s) and later its cultural initiative but also became oblivious to its own identity,” writes Settis.

In that case, present-day Venice is a metaphor for what is happening across the continent.

“Venice is a supreme example of what is happening in European cities. Today the historical city has become an empty shell, living on its past and cut off from its soul. And the beauty can’t save it. The Venetians have lost their identity, the memory of the unique and diverse place occupied by their city in comparison to other cities.

“In demographic terms as well, the city is undergoing dramatic changes: If in 1951 Venice had about 175,000 residents, in 2015 only 56,000 remained. Many residents of the historical city, especially the young people, have left the lagoon and wandered to the towns of Mestre and Marghera, which are close to the airport and have more convenient transportation, but in no way resemble the urban jewel across the canal. Many celebrities have purchased palaces or luxury apartments in Venice as status symbols, have themselves photographed in them to great fanfare, and live in them only a few days a year.

“In the historical city, the only industry is tourism: People work for 8 million tourists who tour along the alleyways and the canals and accumulate a total of about 34 million nights a year in hotels, in a city that can contain about a third of that number. Venice is incapable of producing anything other than bed & breakfast services, hotels and restaurants, and cheap souvenir stalls. And all these lend a feeling of an amusement park, an artificial carnival.”

Is that a phenomenon unique to Venice?

“In Italy and throughout the world, I can discern a model with three dimensions. The first is the spread of the city far beyond its borders, until it becomes a ‘megalopolis.’ Today there are over 40 megalopolises in the world – huge cities each with over 20 million residents. There were no such cities 100 years ago.

“The second dimension is high-rise construction. The ‘skyline’ of the skyscrapers is a clear symbol of money and ‘modernity.’ In a classical and moderate city such as Milan, ‘modernity at any price’ is high-rise construction.”

“And the third dimension is gentrification,” he asserts. "The luxury neighborhoods in the most beautiful cities in Italy were home to aristocratic families that only added monetary value to these lots. The veteran owners were persuaded to move to neighborhoods outside the cities in exchange for money, the value of the lots increased and that started a process in which the nouveaux riches bought homes at outrageous prices but didn’t live in them, thereby emptying the city of its soul. That’s happening in Venice, Naples, Florence and Rome too.”

How do you see the future of those legendary cities? Is it still possible to save them?

“We have to think about the future of the historical cities that are slowly but surely turning into soulless amusement parks. The residents – or at least those who haven’t left yet – must internalize and deepen their knowledge of their past and of the soul of the city. In order to repair them, even if only slightly, we have to think about the fact that in the 21st century, we tend to nurture differences: gender, religious, linguistic differences. Why not nurture the differences between the cities? The future of the megalopolis is uncertain; modernity must respect the soul of the historical cities, their beauty and their culture.”

REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/Files

Settis gives an example of damage to the “soul of the cities,” which he is glad was not carried out. “When they started high-rise construction in Milan, fashion designer Pierre Cardin proposed giving Venice three integrated towers of 150 meters each, and demanded that they be situated on the lagoon. I wrote an open protest letter to the Italian president – and the project failed.

“The desire to be modern at all costs led in 2018 to the construction of a fourth bridge over the Grand Canal, by architect Santiago Calatrava. He’s undoubtedly talented, but apparently he didn’t study the city’s DNA, and the bridge he built of glass and metal doesn’t suit the spirit of Venice. Already a year after its construction it looks neglected and out of place. The considerations for choosing Calatrava were modern and tourist-oriented, unrelated to the soul and tradition of the city.”

In what direction should we go?

Settis arrived in Tel Aviv after a stimulating, three-day stay at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. “Everything looks familiar from photographs, but also unexpected, surprising, and it leaves a strong impression,” he says, noting that he was particularly surprised by the physical density of the places sacred to the various religions and the tension that exists due to the “sense of ownership” of each of them in such a small space.

This was his first visit to Israel, where he was scheduled to lecture at an international conference, “The Renaissance of Origins,” organized by the art history department of Tel Aviv University and the Paris Sorbonne. The subject with which the conference concerned itself was, the origins of the world and of human existence, from the unique point of view of Renaissance art.

Dr. Sefy Hendler, an art historian from TAU and one of the event’s organizers, said that Settis’ presence was of great significance. “He has a cyclical perception of the Renaissance – not only as the era of the ‘rebirth’ of the arts. Due to the fact that the Renaissance vehemently insists that there was a ebbing and a cessation during the Middle Ages, and that only following that came the ‘rebirth’ of the arts, it includes an inevitable promise of another ebbing, followed by another renaissance – and so on. That may also be a ray of light in Settis’ thought, namely that despite the pessimism with which he reads the present era, there’s a promise of another Renaissance.”

In early June a new government was sworn in in Italy. The two main winners in the election, the Five Star movement and the Northern League party, are both populist and Euro-skeptic. Settis believes that the new administration will also affect the cultural atmosphere of the classical cities.

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“A few days ago I sent an open letter to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who declared in a speech in the senate that he will be the guarantor for a coalition between the two parties,” he says. “His goal was of course to prove to Italy’s confused citizens that he knows in which direction to go. But the constitution doesn’t allow the prime minister to serve as the ‘guarantor’ of a coalition contract between two parties.

“The guarantee has to be for the implementation, and not the agreement itself. I expressed my surprise that not a single word was said about culture, universities or art.”

What’s your opinion of the deputy prime minister and interior minister, right-winger Matteo Salvini?

“Salvini is a populist who used racist language that I’m not happy to hear in my country. It’s disturbing and infuriating to hear refugees called ‘thieves’ and be informed brutally that ‘the good life is over.’ I don’t think that this government will last for long.”

French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, in an interview with Haaretz, expressed his confidence in such classical European values as human rights and democracy. What’s your opinion about that in a period when populism and right-wing parties are capturing a large part of the continent?

“The mistake, in my opinion, was to fight populism with values that were correct a decade ago. We have to examine the reasons that led to populism – unemployment, a younger generation that lacks horizons, religious extremism, poverty, the social disparities that have been created. Those who don’t identify with populism would do well to examine what led the populists to become populists, and only afterwards to try to preserve the old values of human rights.”

Before agreeing do come to Israel, weren’t you concerned about the BDS movement?

“I didn’t hesitate about coming for even a moment. We have to separate what politicians do from the country itself. I don’t like Trump, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t visit the United States. A general boycott doesn’t make sense.”

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