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Dispatches from the present


Death in Venice


In front of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice there stand three towering flagpoles, which shoot up from the pavement like the masts of a ship. The cathedral looming behind them resembles a great galleon, encrusted (to use Ruskin’s perfect word) with treasures from far away and long ago, riches from around the Mediterranean that cling to its sides like so many barnacles. These days there are no flags flying. The only sound you hear in the wind of early evening is that of the cords beating against the flagpoles, a ghostly percussion in an empty Piazza San Marco.

This evening, I run my usual route from the working-class stronghold of Castello, up the broad promenade of the Riva degli Schiavoni, and into the older, wealthier and taller center of the city. Normally I’d be weaving through crowds of locals and tourists, hearing a Babel’s worth of languages. But now there’s no one. I continue through deserted alleys to the Accademia Bridge—the one that looks like it’s made of Lincoln Logs—and look out onto the Grand Canal: not a single boat, not even a vaporetto. I head back, through Campo Santo Stefano, past the statue of the lexicographer Niccolò Tommaseo, whose pile of books, snaking up under his long coat, has earned him the loving epithet Cagalibri (“bookshitter”). When I return to St. Mark’s, the square has the stillness and geometric perfection of an engraving. I decide to run the perimeter, under the ghostly colonnade. At the base of the big brick bell tower, a woman stops to take a picture of the square. I look back: a single man hurries through the wind across the vast space. A single soul! Photo taken, the woman turns and starts in my direction. We meet eyes and smile.

The pandemic has driven the world away from Venice. But it brought me here. In those feverish days of early March, when I was living in England, I moved in with an Italian I had met not very long before. We watched from afar as northern Italy suffered, and as Venice, taking no risks, weathered the storm in total lockdown. She taught me her language. Then, last July, when the city partially reopened, I followed her back home. This strangely private Venice is the only one I’ve ever known; I look at pictures of crowds and cruise ships with the disbelief of a child looking at a history book. Still, the present emptiness feels like a beautiful and costly anomaly.

Right now, Joseph Brodsky’s observation has never been more true: there are probably more putti than people in Venice. In fact, it’s probably been about a millennium since there were so few souls on this little island. Venice has been depopulating for a long time, but the pandemic made frighteningly clear just how little life remains when you shut the restaurants, the souvenir shops, the art galleries. The historic center is now home to some 55,000, according to the latest numbers; that’s even less than the population was in 1200, and about a quarter of what it was at the city’s peak size and power, around the beginning of the seventeenth century. There are surely fewer now that so many tourism jobs have been lost, and so many have died. The Venetian Republic was once a great power, ruler of the Adriatic and overlord of Cyprus (as you’ll remember from Othello), a city-state whose constitution was an object of envy and fascination across Europe, and even an inspiration to the American founders. La Serenissima Repubblica, the most tranquil republic, free from domination, was proudly, fiercely independent for a thousand years. Now it feels like an abandoned nautilus: the expression of an organic, fractal beauty, but empty.

So much has been written about Venice—so much waxing, so much philosophizing, so much mystifying—that it practically constitutes its own genre. There could be a German word for it: Venedigliteratur. James, Proust, Mann, Calvino, Brodsky, not to mention the scores of art historians and architects. There was a time when Venice was the future: home to the most important publisher in Renaissance Europe, Aldus Manutius, to composers like Monteverdi and Vivaldi, to painters from Titian to Tintoretto. There was a time when the Myth of Venice—“rich in gold but richer in fame, mighty in her resources but mightier in virtue, solidly built on marble but standing more solid on a foundation of civil concord, ringed with salt waters but more secure with the salt of good counsel,” as Petrarch panegyrized in 1364—was ideology, not nostalgia. But that time is past, was past even before the Republic fell to Napoleon’s troops in 1797. For the moderns, the city’s antimodernity has become its chief appeal. Since Ruskin, it’s almost impossible to see the city as anything other than a monument to past greatness. There’s a reason that “death in Venice” has become a commonplace.

Venice died long ago: it’s turned from a place into a topos. In this palimpsestic city, the metaphors are too easy, and they’re irresistible. One of the joys and (if you’re a foreigner like me, trying to convince yourself that you’ve got something to write) obligations of living here is talking Venice: getting drunk on the city’s beauty, on its fecundity, and soliloquizing about the way the canals flow like capital used to, the way every inch of this city is architecture, the way the city seems at once primordial and futuristic, ashes to ashes translated onto water. The symbolism is intoxicating enough to make you forget the melancholy of a city preserved as little more than a curiosity. The Republic may have fallen, but every year shores up the empire of the mind.

The pandemic has only made the city more poetic. I don’t mean romantic: that people have seen dolphins and octopuses in the newly clear canals, or that the city’s residents are, for the first time in a long time, getting their streets to themselves. I mean, quite literally, poetic: the emptied-out city is all form and no content. It’s a set with no players, with just enough life to seem uncanny in the manner of a de Chirico. The formal beauty of the city has eclipsed what happens here, like some modernist poem. The city has never felt more invisible.