A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Tradition versus modernity in Venice, and that time Pink Floyd played St. Mark’s Basin

International Review
(Courtesy Interpress Agency, Venice​)
(Courtesy Interpress Agency, Venice​)

On July 15,1989, Pink Floyd held a concert in Venice in front of more than two hundred thousand people. Framed in the foreground by the city’s famous twin columns—of its patrons, St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Theodore of Amasea—and in the background by Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, the band performed from a floating platform in the middle of the Venetian lagoon, while the assembled crowds filled every inch of St. Mark’s Square, the adjoining Piazzetta, and waterfront Riva degli Schiavoni, and even jostled for a front row seat in an ever-growing carpet of boats moored within the lagoon itself. A particularly striking aerial photograph presents the scene a few hours before the band took to the stage, “mechanically repeating,” as Roland Barthes would put it, “what could never be repeated existentially.”

Yet the romantic, almost fantastical nature of this moment is somehow misleading: In spite of the popularity of the concert—a “Night of Wonders,” as certain sections of the press described it—the event provoked an outpouring of opprobrium in Venice’s always tempestuous political quarters. A number of the city’s municipal administrators viewed the concert as an assault against Venice, something akin to a barbarian invasion of urban space. Other voices, such as the local architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, were equally vitriolic. Lecturing at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV) in 1993, just a year before his death, he spoke of how he despised the concert for being nothing more than a “postmodern masquerade”—the epitome of the frivolous discourse that characterized culture in the 1980s—and for the physical damage it had wrought on the city.

The idea for the performance had originated with Francesco (Fran) Tomasi, the band’s Italian promoter. “For their 1989 tour,” Tomasi recalled, “Pink Floyd were looking to perform in peculiar places. At the time, my office was in Venice and so I had the idea of organizing a free concert to coincide with the Feast of the Redeemer, the Redentore, in which the local population, rather than the tourists, always take an active part. The band immediately loved the idea.”

Pink Floyd Venice

(Courtesy Andrea Pattaro / Vision)

The Redentore, held annually on the third weekend of July, was initiated in 1578 to celebrate the end of the terrible plague. At sunset Venetians invade St. Mark’s Basin, from where they watch a fireworks display while bobbing up and down in their boats. In the 18th century it was also common to see gondolas and the smaller sandoli carrying musicians who entertained the crowds before the fireworks. It was this aquatic musical accompaniment that Tomasi hoped to recall with his own concert. The sheer scale of the event, however, called for a corresponding increase in the size of the musical boats. In the end, individual vessels were recast as a vast floating stage, 318 feet long by 79 feet wide and 79 feet high.

Preparations for the event, billed as the latest stop in the band’s “Momentary Lapse of Reason” tour, gathered pace. RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster, agreed to a live broadcast of the show. The big day drew closer. In June 1989, after a fiercef debate about the profanity or acceptability of such an event so close to the Redentore festivities, the city council finally granted its approval (in a democratic vote that went against the wishes of the mayor, Antonio Casellati).

Just three days before the event, however, Margherita Asso, Venice’s superintendent for cultural heritage (nicknamed the “Iron Superintendent”), vetoed the concert on the grounds that the amplified sound would damage the mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica, while the whole piazza could very well sink under the weight of so many people. Tomasi had to think fast. He quickly offered to turn down the volume on the thousands of speakers and to move the stage back 98 feet, in an attempt to dampen the ardor of the crowd. Asso remained unconvinced, and it was not until the arrival of the three band members on July 13 that a so-called compromesso all’italiana (Italian-style compromise), involving decibel levels and crowd fencing, was secured and the concert could go ahead.

The show lasted just 90 minutes but lived long in the memory of those who witnessed it. The next day the local paper, Il Gazzettino, carried the headline “Grandi Pink Floyd, Povera Venezia” (“Great Pink Floyd, Poor Venice”), juxtaposing appreciative accounts of the show with images of St. Mark’s Square covered with litter and young people sleeping rough in doorways. No real damage had occurred, but the city woke with a distinct “after-party” look. The political reverberations were more far-reaching, and a few weeks later the local government fell.

Of course, Venice has a long history of political farragoes, just as it does of floating, ephemeral architectures, from Alvise Cornaro’s almost surreal 16th century proposal for a theater and artificial island on the lagoon, or the triumphal arch built near the church of Santa Lucia on the occasion of Napoleon’s visit to the city in 1807—a project famously depicted in a painting by Giuseppe Borsato—to the floating bath constructed by Tommaso Rima in 1833 and moored off the city’s Punta della Dogana, and, most celebrated of all, perhaps, Aldo Rossi’s highly poetic Teatro del Mondo, built in 1979.

Pink Floyd Venice

(Courtesy Andrea Pattaro / Vision)

Tafuri’s first edition of the Renaissance book, Venezia e il Rinascimento—published in 1985, just a few years before Pink Floyd’s floating stage (also witnessed from the Piazzetta)—articulated a characteristically political argument in presenting the history of Venice as a constant battle between those who wanted to restructure and renovate the city (whom Tafuri dubs the primi) and the traditionalists who only wanted to uphold its established principles and structures. The book was not written as a contemporary allegory, at least not explicitly, but the parallels are obvious, not least in the ongoing clash between the more progressive Venetians who defend the Serenissima’s artistic patrimony but also endorse more modern solutions, and those who seem only to consider the city as a kind of frozen museum. Like many entrenched oppositions, the two sides are actually not all that different, but the debate centered (and still centers) on striking a balance between the city’s delicate ecology and its economic viability. In this debate, tourism and spectacle are both the agent of destruction and the city’s salvation.

More than Palladio’s San Giorgio, then, this was the real backdrop to the Pink Floyd concert, confirming the music promoter Bill Graham’s famous adage, “politics uses and abuses rock music.” Even Mason himself revealed the ambivalences and overlaps endemic on both sides when he admitted, “I must say I like the idea of carrying on a tradition rather than being totally unique.” It was no coincidence that 1989 was also the year Venice was preparing its bid to host the 2000 European Expo, which was expected to attract upward of two hundred thousand visitors a day and act as a springboard for a new, modern city.

The project was backed largely by Italy’s Socialist Party (PSI), and more particularly by Gianni De Michelis, then the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Ranged against them were the traditionalists, including a number of key members of the opposing Christian Democrats, who were keen to block the expo bid by whatever means. If the former group had secured an initial victory in clearing the way for the smaller, metonymic rock concert, the latter soon took their revenge, using Pink Floyd as a Trojan horse to point to the city’s inability to accommodate a crowd. In fact, this apparent inability was not unconnected to the city’s refusal to provide either city cleaners or portable toilets for the concert. The day-after hangover, depicted in all its squalor by the local newspapers, had therefore actually been designed.

Despite his passion for Renaissance architecture and enduring fondness for Cornaro’s seemingly perverse theater project, Tafuri, as we have seen, was vociferous in his objections to both the Pink Floyd concert and to Venice playing host to the European Expo. For Tafuri, the theatricality of both events concealed a darker ambition to transform the city into a purely political and economic object. Venice, he countered, is a particular city that negates the possibility of an absolute modernity—a theme he returned to repeatedly, but especially in the same 1993 lecture in which he lambasted Pink Floyd.

In this talk, presciently titled “Le forme del tempo: Venezia e la modernità” (“The Forms of Time: Venice and Modernity”), he argued that the concert relied not only on the splendor of the city but also on the perfectly Italian splendors of blackmail and bribery, and the ascendancy of economic and media interests. However, perhaps because this was the school’s Lectio Magistralis (the inaugurating lecture for the academic year), he concluded more optimistically with the notion that the imago urbis of Venice is sacrosanct and impossible to recalibrate, ending defiantly with “The battle is not yet finished.”

But in many ways the battle has finished, and is one that has seen a victory of sorts for a kind of synthetic Venice that is both traditional town-museum and a contemporary hub—for what are the vast cruise liners that today pass through the Grand Canal if not a recalibrating imago urbis fundamentally reliant on both the historic and the commercial? And what, for that matter, is the Venice Biennale if not a repeating ritual that under the theatrical guise of art and architecture maintains a thriving, even defining, economic model? The vast numbers of people these different tourist attractions draw in dwarf all of the figures ascribed to that moment in July 1989 when Pink Floyd ended their set with “Run Like Hell.” The historian in Tafuri would no doubt see this as further confirmation of all those Italian splendors, and in this, as ever, he may well be right.

Léa-Catherine Szacka is also the author of the forthcoming book Le Concert with Sara Marini, which will be published by Editions B2 in 2017. A longer version of this paper was originally published in AA Files 69, 2014: 12-17.

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