Lewis Mumford (see May 23rd.) claims that Venice, a republican state and city in its great days, had many of the features of a modern city, more by accident rather than design. Grown out of the grim realities of forced immigration, war, conflict, piracy and trade, it commanded the allegiance of its citizens over the generations. “ By its splendour and order, it made no pretences to being an ideal city; it was merely the best that a succession of energetic merchants and industrialists, who courted money and power…were able to conceive.”
For numerous people, however, Venice is indeed today the ‘ideal’ city. Everyone wants to go there at least once; a friend of mine has gone many times because for him there is no place so full of life, pleasure and yet also – strangely – peace. You can’t arrive (preferably by the Grand Canal) within sight of Venice without having an acute a sense of the historical and legendry magnificence of the place. It is a city to see but also a place where many people live (almost all of them Italian in origin), and the local life and the tourists who flock there somehow coalesce to make a huge if temporary community celebrating an amazing legacy of beauty and power.
Venice is world-famous for its canals. It is built on an archipelago of 118 islands formed by about 150 canals in a shallow lagoon. The islands on which the city is built are connected by about 400 bridges, and my wife and I have walked across several, notably the famous Rialto Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs. In the old centre, the canals serve the function of roads, and every form of transport is on water or on foot. Beyond rail and road entrances at the northern edge of the city, transportation remains entirely on water or on foot. Venice is unique in Europe in remaining a sizable functioning city in the 21st century entirely without motorcars or trucks.
We were there on a very hot and humid day and did exactly what tourists shouldn’t do – came and went in a matter of a few hours. We climbed the tower opposite St. Mark’s and watched the moving crowds below who looked like heads on legs. And of course we visited the great cathedral itself, the façade more impressive for me than the cavernous interior. But we saw the four famous bronzed horses and their replicas outside and were suitably impressed. Warned about excessive prices in restaurants we nevertheless enjoyed some good food without being grossly overcharged.
Being in Venice feels like walking with Canaletto, being drenched in Renaissance history and culture, remembering Ruskin, recalling numerous TV programmes and many films, notably Nicolas Roeg’s powerful ‘Don’t Look Here’. Venice is part of everyone’s inheritance.