Archaeologist and art historian Settis (The Future of the Classical, 2006, etc.) explores how troubled Venice is capable of being the true vision of a city.
As Lucca has a wall and fields beyond, Venice has the lagoon protecting it, acting as its countryside by providing for it. The city is the ideal and quintessential form of human community, an open space where diversity and social life can unfold. However, as the author shows, Venice is under threat: from “tourist monoculture,” citizens leaving their hometown, and other factors. Settis decries the densification and verticalization of cities, and he condemns skyscrapers as symbols of a civilization completely subservient to the bottom line. The value of the relationship between the population and its cultural heritage can’t be monetized. Even as architects—or “starchitects,” as Settis calls them—anthropomorphize their buildings, making them into organic shapes or creating villages with urban forests, they cannot redeem them aesthetically. Cities must grow, but creative destruction has to produce civil capital, and passive preservation merely presages and hastens a city’s death. Settis cites Plutarch in writing that the city is like a living organism that grows as it mutates and yet still remains itself. Happily, Venice has been behind in the race to gigantism—the author cites the horrors of 32 million people living in and around Chongqing, China, among others. But in the past decades, Venice has suffered significant population flight as those who remain only serve tourism and Venice’s own skyscrapers, the cruise ships; often, the tourists outnumber the residents. Settis also chronicles some proposals to help Venice; some are mere examples of Disneyfication, while others are potentially “devastating”—e.g., Aqualta 2060, the plan to build a ring of skyscrapers around the lagoon. The author calls for a code of ethics for architects, who need to build a city and landscape not to look at but to live in.
An impassioned plea that every lover of Venice, urban planner, architect, and cultural historian should read.