My wife and I watched a documentary on French TV the other night called "The Asphyxiation of Venice," about how tourism is killing off the old canal city. Historians and archeologists took cameras along to view the crowds in the Piazza di San Marco, the tourist hub, where people fed the pigeons in front of signs saying not to feed them. Others ate sandwiches on the steps of the cathedral, another no-no. Some bought trinkets and pennants; most people just stood around gazing up at the campanile and across the vast square. It was a bright day with skies so blue they were almost black. Cops stood around and ignored all those breaking the rules. "It doesn't matter; they paid to be here and it's good for the city," one said.
The cameras followed a historian down the street who pointed out several stores that had been around for fifty years selling fabric and silverware to Venetians. They had been driven out by shops selling masks made in China, of course, and the usual gaudy stuff you find at tourist traps -- sun glasses, hats, umbrellas. Little by little, our guide informs us, the city is giving in to the vulgarizing of a once great power of medieval Europe. This was the place that opened trade with Asia, the Middle East, which enriched Western Europe and changed the diet and artistic tastes of Europe. Now it was being strangled by merchants who provided ersatz goods that erased that history little by little.
Venice is not a great mecca of art, even though its architecture signified a profound shift in western consciousness. To be sure, the mosaics of St. Mark's cathedral merged East and West by taking Islamic non-representational art and putting it alongside statuary and iconography with roots going back to Egypt, Athens, and Rome. Somehow the whole thing works, with its many domes and the sea coursing through its narrow canals. But all the achievements of the Italian Renaissance are concentrated in the towns of Tuscany. Dante made Florentine Italian the tongue of the nation and enshrined it in The Divine Comedy, which came to be known as the dolce stil nuovo, the sweet new style. The mind of Europe could now express itself in a form we recognize today as our own subjectivity. Venice was too entangled in trade to worry about subtlety and spiritual longings.
I must admit I wasn't entirely persuaded by this documentary. Of course Venice was being cheapened and had been for a long time. I wandered those same streets as a teenager and even then dismissed the glass work and switch blades as tourist knock offs. It wasn't that I was more cultivated than a kid growing up in Detroit, it's just that the blade when it sprung out wobbled, and the glass was obviously poured out in some factory mold, not blown by the masters of Vecchia Murano. Way back in the '50s, the cheap, the tawdry, the false were in abundance as part of some desperate effort to survive post-war poverty. And the buyers were Americans from the victorious new super power. Italy had no shame or remorse; it would sell its soul for a mess of porridge, no doubt about it.
An archeologist pointed out a huge ocean liner churning up the Grand Canal with the top decks crowded with passengers grazing on the Venetian skyline. The wake of these big ships ate away at the foundations of the city, which were now so eroded that many basements and first floors were abandoned. The muddy water was like a cat's tongue against the porous brick and stone, and there were pictures of missing blocks and crumbling door fronts. It was all going to hell, and no one seemed to care. And the big ships plowed up the water thirty times a week.
Maybe the 20th century was the story of Venice's slow death. But as an old friend of mine, Craig Kallendorf, a noted Virgil scholar and Venice aficionado, pointed out to me years ago, walk five blocks in any direction and you are in old Venice, the real one. I tested his advice with my wife and found an out-of-the-way restaurant on a minor canal, where no one spoke English, the food was delicious and a third of the price of food in the "zone." It was true then, but probably twenty years later the erosion of taste and authenticity had eaten up a good deal more of the city.
It was the same thing in every European capital and tourist trap. Take Paris, for example. When Mitterand came to power, the rabbit's warren of streets that made up the Latin Quarter, had been hollowed out in places by burger joints, pizza stands, and Greek restaurants where waiters hung on the gate posts coaxing tourists to try the over-priced food wilting behind the plate glass. The alleys were like carnival midways, and still are. The old Paris lost a lot of its medieval character in a scant few years. The Sorbonne is just up the way, and so are the bookstores along the Boule Mich, but Parisians have grown brusque and impatient as they march through the tourist hordes on their way to work or lunch. No one likes to be near Americans who tend to shout when they think their English isn't understood.
The willing tourist is fair game for scamming around the world. When I was a child, my family visited the Holy Land, and we took the tour to all the Bible sites, including the four or five places where Christ was likely born in a manger, the half dozen caves where he roused up Lazarus from his tomb, and of course the place where he was crucified. The guides were everywhere and had the facts at hand, and books to prove them. I stood outside one such tomb entrance where Lazarus was roused from the straw. I heard the guide spouting all his wisdom, and down the street was another such tomb and a guide confidently selling his site. Up the hill came an old woman in nun's habit leading a donkey with a cartload of lemons and melons. The donkey, more out of boredom than lust, let fall an enormous erection that touched the street like a walking stick. That seemed more of a glimpse into history than anything behind me. I had seen what the apostles must have gazed upon.
History is fragile and made of wood and stone, and in time will collapse. And tourism is like an army of crabs nibbling at the decaying tissue of time. The changes wrought by greed find all the weaknesses of a city, and slowly tear it down. Tourists are drunk on the past, and hunger for its smell and touch, no matter how altered and tamed. I can't blame them. I feel it too, sometimes. I love the echoes of wooden floors in old buildings; I hunger for the hemp smells and the old timbers of those fishermen's warehouses in Bergen, Norway. But I also know that you can't have the past in your hands; it's gone. It's vanished into the sunshine, and what remains is the fabrication of time cleverly arranged to give you the sweet smell of death and disappearance.
There's another kind of history which does endure, but it's harder to know or understand. On a trip some years back to Florence with my wife and kids, I parked in the shade opposite the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. My wife had the duty to scour the neighborhood for a hotel room, and took my son with her. It was twenty minutes or so that I waited for them to return. It was closing time for public buildings and many Florentines poured out of the doors on their way home. They passed in front of the car, gazing at me with fascination. I gazed back at their dark eyes, their smiles, and noted the calm poise of the women, and the handsome men with their tailored clothes and carefully groomed hair. I felt my attention distracted by the blazing buildings at this hour, but those faces intrigued me. I don't know why.
The next day I bought tickets to the Uffizi and we ogled our way through the halls of the Medici family. Staring up at all these masterpieces, it struck me at once that I saw the very same faces the day before, passing before me. The same eyes, straight noses, the well-sculpted chins, the long necks of the women, the tawny skin of the men. The painters had captured them four hundred years before, and there they were again, in front of me, staring down at me, smiling cautiously as I looked back. It was hard to believe that what was hanging in the Uffizi was also walking around in the streets. The truth is, nature doesn't devour its young, it perpetuates them in our genes, in our indestructible sameness from one century to the next. It was in Dante's Florence that I found history strolling on the sidewalks, heading for the cafes to sip espresso and smoke a cigarette, unaware I might be astounded to find them on canvas in a museum as well.