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Cruising Towards Decline

Venice is loved for its state of historic perfection. The city remains largely unchanged due to its floating urban structure, which is not as easily transformed as that of other cities. Skyscrapers just wouldn’t hold up on water. And yet, our modern age seems to have found a substitute. Floating Venice has gained its own form of skyscraper: the cruise ship.

Cruise Ship in Venice (Image: World Monument Fund)

These enormous ships glide with monstrosity across the Grand Canal, almost double the size of the Doge’s palace. Their immense scale is completely disproportionate to the surrounding buildings and people, which, by comparison, are reduced to a sort of ‘theme park’. Even the palace, supposed to represent the city’s pride and power, becomes trivialised. Sadly, the concept of a ‘theme park’ is not all too distant from the purpose of the cruise ships, which quite literally serve as vehicles for mass tourism, shipping a large number of visitors from sight to sight. The city becomes a product of entertainment for the insatiable consumer.

In addition to its absurd appearance, the cruise liner imposes direct threats on the city’s urban composition. Environmental costs are evident; the ships contribute considerably to air and sea pollution, as well as putting a strain on old, fragile buildings. In an article written in response to Salvatore Settis’ book If Venice Dies, Michael Webb asserts: ‘In a recent resolution, UNESCO warned that Venice would be placed on its list of endangered sites if the city did not ban cruise ships by February 2017. Predictably, the Italian government pressured the organisation to withdraw or postpone its decision. It had earlier […] passed a measure banning cruise ships from skirting sensitive sites, but made an exception for Venice, the most fragile of them all’.[i] Only very recently, a cruise ship in Venice’s waters collided with a small tourist boat.

The cruise liner is not the first nor only factor that has put a human, cultural or environmental strain on the city. Venice has, for centuries, been a place whose glory is associated with its slow death. Our admiration of its beauty is invariably combined with our simultaneous mourning of its decline. The morbidity of this city may even have some appeal. We are never able to appreciate anything so truly as when we know it might be taken away from us. The theme of ‘death’ has been tied to Venice in many literary works, such as in Thomas Mann’s famous novel Death in Venice. James Morris argues that the city has already died several deaths, starting with its death as ‘a great power’ in 1498, when Vasco da Gama discovered a sea-based route to the Orient. This was followed by the city’s death as a ‘political entity’ with Napoleon’s invasion in 1797, and finally its death as ‘an island phenomenon’ when the Ponte della Libertà was built to connect the city to the mainland.[ii]

Venice is now dying in two ways. Its material death is accompanied with its, arguably more concerning, spiritual death. In his aforementioned book, Salvatore Settis warns that the city is losing its identity, cultural memory and community. The more estranged Venetians become from their city, the more Venice loses its ‘soul’. The number of citizens living in Venice decreased by over 100,000 from 1971 to 2011, and in the historic centre, the number has almost halved.[iii] Settis argues that the city must be given a new purpose and industry in order to survive, with a creative sector that extends beyond the realms of tourism.

Hopefully, the process of deterioration that Settis describes is one that can, at least to some extent, be slowed down. However, returning to the example of the cruise ships: let us assume that Venice has become a mere projection of its past. Let us assume it has lost its identity, or that it has been reduced to a superficial, beautiful, yet empty, shell. What is left is its exterior appearance, which reminds of what it once was: powerful and proud. The cruise liner now abolishes even this last remnant of dignity.

Through the ships’ aggressive distortion of Venice’s urban structure, the combined threats the city faces become staggering. The fact that Venice is dying is hard to ignore. The ship is no longer a symbol of nostalgia, to be interpreted as a ‘charm’. At most, the cruise ship should be considered a wake-up call. It destroys the last form of life a historic city has; that which lies in its contemplation. If Venice is to die, shouldn’t this wonderful city at least be granted a more natural death?

[i] Michael Webb, ‘Like a critically ill patient, Venice’s wounds are proof of a widespread disease’, Architectural Review (2017) [accessed 17 Jun. 2019].

[ii] James Morris, 'Venice: problems and possibilities', Architectural Review (2018) [accessed 17 Jun. 2019].

[iii] Salvatore Settis, If Venice Dies (Pallas Athene Publishers: 2018).

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