The Venetian Doge, back in 1577, called for a celebration to mark the end of a three-year plague that had killed 50,000 citizens--about one-fourth of the population. On the third Sunday in July, the Doge put on his most splendid regalia and gave thanks in the church of Christ the Redeemer, a house of worship he had commissioned local architect Andrea Palladio to create for that very occasion. In order to reach the distant Giudecca Island, where the church stands, a 1,092-foot pontoon bridge was laid across the Giudecca Canal.
On the eve of this solemn religious ceremony, the Doge provided for what is called “a pagan rite,” consisting of free wine and cakes for all plus fireworks afterward over the lagoon.
The two-day event proved a lasting tradition, still re-enacted annually after more than 400 years. Today the Doge’s role in the ceremony is taken by the mayor of Venice. Because there are not enough gondolas to support a pontoon bridge--or enough able-bodied men to assemble it--Italian army engineers construct a military-style floating bridge each year. There was a feeling of chagrin to this July’s procession, however, because of the previous night’s pagan rites. These were primarily a performance by the British pop group called the Pink Floyd, an event that outraged much of Italy. A few days later, without debate, the entire Venice City Council was forced to resign.
The 16th-Century plague was not only tragic (the painter Titian was one victim) but an economic disaster for Venice. And yet we can admire the Palladian church the plague produced. In 10 years’ time, the Pink Floyd show may be remembered as the event that saved Venice from another kind of plague--the avowed intention of the Socialist Party to stage a world’s fair, or expo, at Venice in the year 2000. People who love Venice, and who are concerned about the fragility of that unique community, seriously think an expo, with an extra 80,000 visitors per day, would scuttle the city built on wooden pilings.
Venice had no sports stadium where Pink Floyd could play. Every inch of the island-city has been built up for centuries, and most of those inches are considered irreplaceable. But the Venice City Council ruled that the city “must be open to new trends, including rock music” and a barge the size of a football field was moored in the lagoon, about 200 yards from the Piazzetta San Marco, that rectangular space between St. Mark’s Church and the Grand Canal, for the concert.
The only objection came from the woman charged with protecting Venice’s monuments. She asked that the decibels emitted by Pink Floyd be kept at 60, a considerable silencing of the group’s normal 100-decibel volume. Otherwise, she feared, bits of gold mosaic on the Doge’s Palace might be dislodged by sonar bombardment.
The show was free, as the wine and cakes once were. Italian youths traveled all night to reach Venice by dawn in order to stake out a place in the square. By midday, 200,000 people were wedged together under a torrid sun. Stores shut for their own protection. Water could not be bought. There were no medical services and not a single public toilet; Renaissance monuments and doors to cathedrals served as latrines. The monuments in the square, painstakingly restored over the past 20 years largely by foreign donations, were used as roosts by concertgoers.
The next day’s TV news carried the sight of St. Mark’s Square, post-concert. Carvings on the Doge’s Palace were damaged by too many sneakered feet. Knee-deep debris shocked Italians and humiliated some Venetians. The square has long been called “Europe’s drawing room,” and people were quick to voice rage over its desecration. The City Council, for its mindlessness in allowing the show to take place, bore the brunt.
Venice’s greatest enemies are not frequent floods, polluted air, floating banks of seaweed--nor even the pigeons whose droppings corrode the marble palaces--but politicians, at all levels, who have been in charge of the historic city for the past 40 years. Decent housing is all but unavailable; administrative indecision has led to a 12% drop in resident population in recent years. Young couples must move to the mainland to find living space.
Last month Italy’s Court of Accounts criticized city, regional and national authorities because less than a fifth of the 1,060 billion lira allocated by Parliament between 1984 and 1988 to preserve and improve Venice had actually been spent. This was attributed, as the court noted, “to an intertwining of responsibility, " meaning that expenditures required approval from too many different bureaucratic offices in Venice and in Rome. It may also have meant that, on the lower level, no political party was awarding billions of lira without first getting its cut.
The main promoter of a Venice expo is Gianni De Michelis, a Venetian Socialist and former deputy prime minister (also the author of a guide to the world’s best discotheques) who was recently named foreign minister in the government of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a Christian Democrat. De Michelis’ main argument in favor of a world’s fair is that “experience has taught me that in our country nothing is done without a similar impetus and a deadline.” But Venice already has too many visitors during the warmer months--mainly the 6 million a year who come in the morning, depart at sunset and leave little money but lots of trash. Tourists now occupy 57% of the city; some have to be turned away before they even get on the 19th-Century causeway linking Venice with the mainland.
Indro Montanelli, a nationally popular journalist, spoke for many Italians when, after the Pink Floyd affair, he wrote: “The Venetians are bastards, the unworthy keepers of their treasure.” That judgment provoked only some whimpering sounds in Venice; no one so far has challenged him to a duel. Montanelli said he loved the place too much not to feel that way about its people and their governing class.
Some say Venice needs a modern-day Doge, one who loves the place and who would use absolute power wisely--such as limiting the flow of visitors to that fragile environment and restricting rock concerts to mainland football stadiums.