Friday, May 25, 2007

Venice didn't die

It's very strange to read an old-fashioned "history" of Venice, such as John Julius Norwich's. It ends with the "Death of Venice", by which Lord Norwich means the end of a particular form of government ... Doges, councils and the like. Given that this type of history is really just a long, opinionated editorial on "leadership", "legacy", "credibility" and other hypnotic political hyperbole, of course the "end of the age of the Doge" must seem like the end of Venetian history.

But it's not, of course. Venice didn't die. (Actually, cities do not die easily ... look at Hiroshima.)

And from almost any viewpoint, Venice is living closer to its 18th-century self, than any other city on the planet. After all, it's the people that matter in a city. In Venice, it's addtionally important that the City is still structured around people's needs. Its leaders, and its particular government, are far less important. Of course, no one wants to live under occupation, or without human rights, but these are issues determined by the mass of people, who are only given the rights that they decide to fight for. Those people, and indeed their opinions, were not destroyed by Napolean in 1797. They may have mourned a bit, but life continued. The City did not die. Even its political life continues, uninterrupted -- with major events to be sure -- as it has for 1,500 years.

In one sense, Venice wasn't even colonized -- despite many ocupations, and despite the modern colonizing push known as "globalization". Most Venetian buildings and businesses seem to be owned by Venetians ... and if you ask, they will tell you that, as far as they know, Venice is owned and run by Venetians. And they all seem to know each other, more or less.

In fact, if you compare Venice to other cities -- torn apart first by carriages, then trains, then cars -- reducing people to "markets" and "workforces", moving from the community-feeling of a city to a more anonymous "society"-style interaction -- then, I believe, Venice may be the only city still alive. The rest are only neighborhoods straining to stay alive in the midst of economic development that is anti-city, and anti-people.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The fabric of ancient civilization

Venice is populated entirely by pedestrians and boats ... there are no highways, no skyscrapers, no crosswalks, no streets. And yet, this is a city structure of high civilization.

It has been like this, without break, since before "Rome" fell. Of course, Rome wasn't the Roman empire, when it was sacked in the 5th century. The Roman Empire since the 4th century was what we would call Byzantium, with HQ in Constatinople. Venice gets much of its civilization, its current civilization, from this Roman Empire. And, in fact, Venice famously sacked Constantine's city in its dotage. The Turks finally terminated the Roman Empire in 1453, when much of Constantinople's power, population and influence had already moved to Venice.

What we see, in Venice, is the living fabric of an ancient city. In their monumental architecture, what we call "renaissance neo-classical" is actually classical, because this is what they inherited. In the 14th century, Roman churches were still operational (some are today), and though fashions changed, they changed also in ancient times, with about the same latitude. Add to this the living, working structure of the city in Venice, used today in approximantely the same way as it always was. Accent this with the flair and exhuberance of a madly successful and powerful ancient city, and you get Venice. It's not unchanged -- and there are small modern reminders everywhere. But if you look around, you don't even need to squint to imagine that you're part of an unbroken chain of high civic achievment going back at least to golden age Athens.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Yes, Venice parties at night

Many people wander around Venice after sundown, looking for some nightlife. They look for businesses that might be open, other than restaurants, where people might be socializing. They head to San Marco, and they find nothing but others looking for the same thing.

Well good news. There are two hotspots, awake late into the night.

In Dorsoduro, near Venice's University of Ca' Foscari, is Campo Santa Margherita, an unusually large trapezoidal plaza packed with "late night joints" -- restaurants, bars, gelaterias and pizza places (one of the latter is excellent, and used heavily by natives and students alike).

It's a dense, relaxed crowd of Venetians, of all ages -- along with professors, students, many foreigners but not many tourists. Order a "spritz", and watch the world go by.

The other hotspot is far more wild and dense. It's the vegetable market on the west side of the Rialto bridge. It is packed, and crazy at night.