A civil engineer and author whose work has taken him around the world returns to his birthplace and attempts to define its mythic significance.
Barbaro cannot escape the fact that the city is dying. If Mediterranean waters were only a few centimeters higher, it could no longer exist, and indeed many of the small islands making up the city are no more. Once a vigorous trade center full of skilled artisans, it now exists almost solely because of tourism, and the work in the hotels and restaurants is done by young people coming in from the mainland (“terrafirma”), though they can’t afford to live there—only a few old people, property in their families for generations, still live in the city. There are, of course, no cars, and no public transportation except the expensive water taxis; adding to the woes of the ordinary commuter are torrential storms and high tides (“acqua alta”), which turn streets into canals with little notice. Sensibly, a friend asks Barbaro why anyone would try to live in such a place. The only advantage, he says at last, is Venice’s “continual beauty.” Though it’s not large (28 square kilometers laced with 100 canals), Barbaro despairs of describing it and retreats instead to gentle Kafkaesque evocations. “Less than ever do we know where we are,” he says of the immense clash of history with modern ways. Still more inscrutably, of Venice’s insularity from tourists, he says: “On the inside, where she’s still most herself, Venice can no longer be seen.” Such temporal and sensual confusions reduce people to their essences, he concludes, and thus a search for the true Venice is a search for self.
Refusing the usual guidebook conceits, Barbaro never does succeed in “revealing” Venice, and his title must surely be ironic. But he does reveal his own passion for the wondrous place—and his hopes that it can be saved.