On brief trips to Venice, the dream of timeless aesthetic delight may override reflection on social change. My 2012 stay there with the Li band was largely untrammelled by such thoughts—partly because I was preoccupied with my daily tasks as minder, roadie, and stage manager. Like most visitors, I was just thrilled to be there, especially with them.
Some months later, staying with Li Manshan in his village, I go online to show his next-door neighbour some images of this magical place, unimaginable to Yanggao dwellers. As I reinforce the myth, the Li band’s visit there indeed seems like a miracle.
But Venice makes a notable example of the conflict between image and ethnography. Among the vast corpus of writings, Jan Morris’s Venice is a classic. I realise I should also seek writings by Venetians, or at least Italians, to supplement the outsider perspective. But here I’ll dip into Polly Coles’s book The politics of washing: real life in Venice (2013), which explores “the uneasy relationship between the Venice in which a few thousand people live out their daily lives and the Venice that is an impossibly beautiful stage set”.
It may seem like living in a museum, or a theme park. Most of the twenty million visitors each year are day-trippers. Over the past three decades the fixed population has dwindled from 120,000 to 55,000—fewer than a thousand years ago.
Yet despite the constant fall in population, real people also live here. One may dismiss their real lives as merely “hideous encounters with domestic necessity”, to cite Compton Mackenzie’s wonderful recollection of his meeting with Henry James. Beset by ordering washing machines and taking the kids to school, Polly Coles begins to feel guilty about the sheer quantity of art that she has not looked at since she became a resident. “The Venetian dream lasts only as long as you can keep it detached from reality and, most particularly, from the reality of modern Italy”. Finding a haberdashery shop shutting down, Polly Coles observes the ineluctable usurping of the variety of suppliers of daily needs by shops selling pizza, ice cream, glass, and masks—a monoculture in which “people are constantly re-enacting the same limited roles: as purveyors or consumers of the city as museum or playground”. “What kind of beauty is barren? Is dead beautiful?”
After a while one almost forgets “the inestimable privilege of a daily life without cars”. Greetings between friends are no less gentle, kind, and humorous than in any Italian town. Given that thousands of strangers are traipsing through their living room (literally) every day, I’m amazed how courteous and laidback Venetian dwellers are; one feels no more ripped off than elsewhere. While they are long accustomed to outsiders (they have no choice), perhaps it’s partly because one can never be in a hurry here—although residents and “infantilized” tourists can still be recognised from their pace, their whole body language. As Polly Coles observes, the shared necessity of walking lends an illusion of classlessness.
By contrast, she also comments well on the wider issue (in Italian, and other European languages) of choosing lei or tu, as opposed to the deceptively classless English “you” (pp.155–9). Meanwhile, the Venetian language (rather than dialect) seems cool, indeed zany (an English borrowing from Venetian), with lots of z and weird stuff going on (see also here). I like drio (“busy”).
Not only are the sestieri like separate villages, but even recently I heard of a 100-year old woman who had only ventured twice as far as San Marco.
While Venice has long been celebrated as a racial and cultural melting-pot, Alexander Lee’s The ugly Renaissance can warn us against celebrating its multi-culturalism too naively. Polly Coles goes on to note the current ethnic contradictions, with its white tourists serviced by East European cleaners and African street vendors (163–70). She’s good on ritual too—like her dissection of Midnight Mass in San Marco during acqua alta, “neither hushed nor holy”, with a “general air of distraction” (pp.111–113). And Carnival: “somebody has organized an enormous party in your backyard but it’s not your party and you don’t know any of the guests”.
After my stay there with the Li band in April 2012, I went back that August to flat-sit on the Guidecca for friends, allowing me time both to reflect on Venice and continue writing my book.
From my diary:
Senses heightened, changing light—large drops of rain, clouds, sunset, gulls bobbing on the waves. Simple pleasures. How long might it be before one began taking for granted the panorama of churches and pastel palaces and windows and balconies and bridges? Even the street signs are delightful.
I emerge from a narrow vicolo into a broad campo. Many canals are as narrow as alleys too.
Just using the wooden shutters is a delight, with their little head of a man, like a chess piece, to hold them in place.
Where does all this arty sensibility get us? How does listening to Monteverdi in an elegant flat on the Giudecca differ from listening to Abba in a council flat on the North Circular with flying geese on the walls? The shared goal, presumably, is happiness.
Supposing some waggish sculptor decided to pre-empt the pigeons by designing a pigeon on top of Our Lord’s head at the apex of a church, would a pigeon come and perch on that too? How many pigeons would he have to sculpt on top of each other for the pigeons to decide, “Stuff this for a lark“? Or would it only be grist to their mill?
It comes as a relief to see some typical ugly modern buildings on the Giudecca, tucked away behind the elegant facade. The walk to my local supermarket, through miniature courtyards bedecked with flowers, has to be the most picturesque ever—but once inside, the standard produce of daily necessities brings a welcome semblance of normality.
From a certain distance on what passes as terra firma, the sight of passengers on a vaporetto evokes a silent search for truth, some mysterious voyage, a pact. I don’t think this comes entirely from Don’t Look Now. Of course it’s not quite like that for the passengers on the vaporetto (cf. Coles, pp.118–24).
Cruise liners have become common, another nail in the coffin. One morning as I emerge from the flat I have a surreal vision. Usually I’m blessed with a wonderful glimpse of the Zattere across the canal through the archway at the end of my narrow alleyway, but today all I can see is a gleaming white tower-block, seemingly constructed overnight, obliterating the pristine view, blocking out the sky “like a genetically reconstructed dinosaur that has escaped from Jurassic Park and is wreaking havoc in the world of human beings” (Coles). And it’s moving too—or is it the Giudecca moving?
I hope it would be unfair to say that the Chinese are adopting tourism wholeheartedly as an unmitigated blessing, but the march of “progress” and “development” seems unstoppable—compounded by the commodifying agendas of cultural heritage projects. All this is one reason why even scholars of Daoism might pause before adding to the unchanging image of ancient grandeur, and incorporate ethnography into their accounts.