In Venice

Peter Campbell

Venice is an astonishing survival, preserved from change above all, perhaps, by everyone’s desire to save its fair face. Although Venice in Peril: The British Appeal for the Preservation of Venice works for the good of the city’s fabric, the symposium it arranged there a couple of weeks ago under the title ‘Residential Vernacular Architecture in Venice: The Other 90 Per Cent’ was as much about people as buildings. I came to it ignorant – it was my first time in Venice – but paintings have made views from bridges and out across the lagoon familiar. Familiar and unchanging: St Mark’s appears now much as it does in work by Bellini, Canaletto, Turner and Monet. Hundreds of years pass, new views are created when new buildings rise, but these changes seem small in comparison with what does not change: the broad turns of the Grand Canal, the floor plan which the palaces built along it nearly all follow, the layout of streets and waterways.

But as the people in the pictures change, so does one’s sense of the part the buildings play in their lives. Bellini’s black and red frocked citizens are representatives of a great commercial power: the ground floors of their palaces along the Grand Canal are warehouses and counting-houses. Then power drifts away. Longhi’s masked ladies and card-players dress to please and to take pleasure, they will seek out entertainments and gaming houses, the palaces now seem places to hold parties; the coats of the men in Canaletto’s idle crowds flare above stockinged calves, those in Guardi’s flutter in ragged brush strokes. Things have become casual, unbuttoned, easy: the buildings are being squatted in, decorated perhaps, but not added to.

And now it is us, less elegant and more numerous, who, as tourists and students, support the city’s main business: being its beautiful self. We also bring problems. The points made by the speakers at the conference are as simple as the problems are intractable. They are not unique to this city but this city, being the most perfect, most famous, most desirable, most ancient magnet of its kind, makes them worse.

Start with economics. Space in Venice is finite. Many people want to have a share in it: a hotel room, a time-share apartment, a weekend retreat. They are willing to pay for it. Living in a work of art is a luxury always available to the rich, but also within the grasp of anyone who is in the habit of saving for a holiday. In the back pages of this paper you will find advertisements for lets in Venice: small apartments into which four or five people can pack cheerfully for a week, but which are too cramped for a family of three actually to live in. Tourism is a cuckoo. The money it brings persuades the inhabitants, whose presence gives life to the city, to direct their attention towards visitors. As it grows, the tourist cuckoo occupies more of the space residents once used. Yet prosperity becomes greater. The propertied become richer, the class that tends the cuckoo busier. We, as tourists, transform the life of the city even as we insist on the preservation of the fabric. What was a living creature gradually becomes a beautiful shell. We were shown graphs that quantify the effect the hunger for a place to stay has had in raising rents and diminishing the local population. And when we, the travellers, do get to Venice we are profligate in our spending: the shops and restaurants our casual money attracts can pay higher rents than those serving a local population.

Maximising the return in rents from living space would, taken to extremes, turn Venice into a sort of holiday camp in which the ‘other 90 per cent’, the matrix of ordinary buildings in which the palaces and monuments are set, would no longer house citizens at all. Again, the problem is universal: the people who fought to preserve the buildings in Covent Garden thought they were fighting for a community: what they achieved was a tourist venue. But why shouldn’t this be? Are we asking for the preservation on aesthetic grounds of a decorative peasantry – something along the lines of the hermits 18th-century landowners hired to meditate in grottoes?

Decisions about things like this are not the business of lovers of Venice but of the Venetians. Only they can decide on, and procure support for, housing ordinary people can afford. The Peabody Trust’s Director of Development explained some of the moves the Trust makes in London to achieve that end: for instance, how money borrowed against property that does not need to give a commercial return on the capital it represents can be used to increase the Trust’s housing stock. But in Venice you do not build. The suggestion by one participant that a substantial remaining open space – the Arsenal – might become an area of public housing was met with amused incredulity. Restoration not replacement, bringing the derelict back into use, altering old buildings to make them attractive to a new generation – these are the available moves.

We were told about preliminaries, shown how information is gathered, how databases are constructed that make it possible to map the age of plaster, the form of buildings and their condition, and how existing information – technical and archival – is being assembled. Even with perfect information, however, the decisions that follow would be difficult. As critics from Ruskin onward have observed, the beauty of Venice lies in part in what has crumbled, in the evidence of decay. We were shown the wall of a church where tiny flakes of the original plaster indicated not only that the brickwork had been covered, but that the covering was neatly inscribed with lines – like the brick wallpaper you can get for doll’s-houses. Making any part of the city just as it was when new would be unacceptable. The present, preferred way of doing things – preferred at least by architects whose heart is with the history – is to keep what you can, patch rather than replace, and as far as possible use the methods and materials of the original builders.

We were taken out to sample the kind of thing that can be done in the kind of building that is in need of it. A narrow staircase in a late 16th-century apartment block – a speculative development on the then outskirts of the city – led to a set of modest rooms that are as agreeable and functional now as they were hundreds of years ago. In the attic, beams had been replaced that could have been made good. Builders will often prefer the first option: it pays better. More dramatically, we looked over the house that Venice in Peril have had surveyed as a preliminary to the city repairing it and dividing it up. The survey drawings are exquisitely detailed – no crack in the plaster or brick left unrecorded. The building in the flesh is so run-down that the desire to restore it seems both heroic and quixotic: an act justified only by perfect faith.

I read Richard Goy’s Venetian Vernacular Architecture – mainly about traditional housing in the lagoon but a wonderful introduction to Venetian building in general – and lying in my hotel room, looking up at the high ceiling, I knew that the large, square-cut, close-spaced beams were there to support the weight of the terrazzo floor of the room above; the demand in Venice for timber ate up the Istrian woods. The handsome wellheads – they look like capitals from giant columns – in squares and courtyards stand, I find, above cisterns, clay-lined and filled with sand which filtered rainwater gathered from the roof on its way to the well shaft. Venice, a city surrounded by water, had no natural water supply. A symmetrical pattern of fenestration in the main storey – three or more larger central windows lighting the long hall, smaller ones lighting the rooms to either side – repeats at all scales from the largest palaces to modest houses. The sense that the fabric of Venice is still all of a piece makes the restorers’ passion for authenticity and modest intervention seem more than antiquarian pedantry.

When the outside world does impinge visually it is all the more dramatic. Walking down a narrow street I caught sight of the side of a ship as it moved past: towering above the buildings, it made the city seem not a playground but a plaything. And we, the tourist parasites of Venice, attract parasites of our own who, like us, invade all its public spaces. African street traders lay out white sheets and set out handbags with fake Dior and Prada labels on them; the police and the people object. I saw one group of traders run off like a startled herd, humping their bags of bags, while three police, like a pack of hunting dogs, scragged the least nimble. Around the streets in places where they might have set up shop, people have laid out their own sheets and put large white plastic bags on them inscribed with complaints about the illicit trade our presence encourages.