In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin decries the ways the modern world is destroying the fragile particularity that is Venice. His biggest worries? Train travel and classical arches. God only knows what he would he make of Aqualta 2060, a proposal presented at the 2010 biennale to ring Venice with skyscrapers.
In Salvatore Settis’s newly translated If Venice Dies, Acqualta 2060 represents the ultimate debasement of a human-scale city by a global economic system that reduces everything, even history, to a commodity. Though only ever a pie-in-the-sky proposal, Acqualta 2060 is a powerful metaphor for Settis’s larger argument. The project, Settis argues, reduces Venice to a series expensive views designed to profit real estate speculators. The historic city—animated by the daily use of it citizens for a thousand years—would be reduced to a shell.
A City Without a People
If you’ve been to Venice lately, you know the hollowing out of the city is already well underway. For Settis—an archeologist, art historian and former director of the Getty Research Institute—the imminent danger to Venice is not rising sea levels (though, of course, he acknowledges this as a very serious concern). Much more urgent is the threat that it will drown in the oblivion of a “tourist monoculture”:
Oblivion doesn’t simply mean forgetting one’s own history, or developing a morbid addiction to beauty, which is experienced as though it were a lifeless ornament that should console us. It primarily means forgetting something essential: the specific role that a city plays in comparison to others, its uniqueness, and its diversity, virtues that Venice possesses more than any other city in the world.
Settis gazes unflinchingly at the towering cruise ships that turn Venice into a fleeting spectacle for paying guests, while literally weakening its ancient foundations. And to make vivid in our imagination a Venice without actual Venetians, he takes us on an unsavory tour of Venetian-style simulacrums around the world, from Las Vegas to Chongqing—even a proposal for a theme-park style replica of Venice within (most ironically of all) Venice itself.
A Vitruvian Oath
For Settis, Venice is a vivid case study for a process engulfing historic centers everywhere, and he challenges architects everywhere to stop participating in the accelerating commodification of urban life. In particular, he excoriates the way architects and their clients use purely aesthetic arguments to “mask the cynicism of the financial wheeling and dealing and real estate speculation that triggered them in the first place.”
As an antidote, the classically minded Settis sends his readers back to Vitruvius. Just as doctors take a Hippocratic oath, he argues, architects should take a Vitruvian oath. “No architect,” writes Settis, “should ever agree to building anything—whether it’s a bridge, a terrace, or a window—that might contribute to the death of the historic city by destroying its uniqueness.”
Cri de Coeur
At times, Settis can seem like a conservative curmudgeon, with his extravagant rhetoric and appeal to some golden past. Yet he describes the market’s familiar creep into the public domain with such vividness, and he so forcefully marks out what is stake (not just Venice but civil society itself), that by the end you can only thank him exactly for his apparent faults.
If you stay with him to the last page, you find it is impossible to disagree with his conclusion that, if Venice dies, “the very idea of the city—as an open space where diversity and social life can unfold, as the supreme creation of our civilization, as a commitment to and promise of democracy—will also die with it.”
If Venice Dies, by Salvatore Settis, translated by André Naffis-Sahely, New Vessel Press, September 2016, paper, 180 pages, $16.95.