Back in 2009 the former philosophy professor and then mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, summed up the task of preserving his beloved city with those words, ‘Beauty is difficult’.
I know exactly what he meant. That is, for me this feeling is something that comes over me when touched by perfect beauty in any form. A thing of exquisite loveliness can be painful to bear.
In a recently discovered copy of the National geographic published when Cacciari was mayor, the writer Cathy Newman reports on how the beauty ‘difficult and bruised’ of Venice survives despite being threatened for centuries to vanish beneath the waters of the aqua alta. Shocking to see in 2009 but even more alarming in the light of 2017 are the ten story high cruise ships in the Giudecca Canal she reports on, still coming eight years on an even greater threat along with the commercial over exploitation of the Carnival when all sensible Venetians leave town, those that can still afford to actually live there that is. A small 18th century palazzo is for sale for 9 million euros.
It is a long way from the 17th century Grand Tour to airbnb and the increase in tourists now outnumbering the inhabitants and causing increasing unrest. I often wonder if I would not have preferred to have lived in the 19th century, at least been a young adult when Henry James published The Aspern Papers set in the city of the Doges.
In case you have not read this little gem I will not reveal its ending but the protagonist travels to Venice in order to track down, and obtain the love letters of a dead poet. To this end he contrives to rent rooms from the recipient of these letters. This mysterious and reclusive lady is now living at a great age, most certainly on the point of death, in dire poverty alone with her niece in a rambling Palazzo with a garden attached on a forgotten canal. ‘The walls turned pink with time and crumbling plaster.’
His friend tells him that, ‘Dilapidated old palazzos can be had for five shillings a year’.
In the days when currency was still pegged to gold he offers to pay, in gold, the amount of 3000 Francs a month for an entire floor and the use of the garden. I researched to try to find out todays value. Possibly inaccurate, my only reference was to its value in 1875 twenty-five years or so earlier. At that date 1 US Dollar being around 50-100 French Francs and for this sum, at the maximum rate quoted he would have paid approximately 30$ or 25.50 Euros by todays reckoning. In the story at the time this was grossly in excess of the going rate as the old lady, not without reason cannily suspects that her proposed lodger has ulterior motives and those motives are to get his hands on her precious jealously guarded letters.
How I sigh with regret for those days when one could have a dilapidated old palazzo in Venice with faded rose-pink walls enclosing a garden for five shillings a year, when one could live as the residents then;
‘living on nothing for they have nothing to live on.’
Who can afford ices at the Café Florian today far less or to keep a private gondola? Back then they already complained of the tourists with their Baedeker guide-book in hand wandering aimlessly through the Piazza San Marco. I shudder to think what Henry James would say today.
I understand why people must see Venice once in a lifetime, I do not understand how anyone could consider for a moment that it was acceptable to go there on a five-story cruise ship, a sort of obscene violation of beauty and ethics. Even if most tourists go for short periods and flock only to the most famous sights in the most popular seasons Venice’s mayors past and present cannot yet hit on a solution to the conflict of interests between preservation and the revenue they generate to keep the city afloat.
I admit, I want to go back one more time. Out of season, alone, to wander the undiscovered Campos off the tourist track, the forgotten calles , to buy fruits in season and flowering purple basil in the corner markets, To linger languorously, setting all my senses free to catch every nuance, reflections of water on stone, scents and colours. Beauty is difficult.