Venice and its tourism has for so long been a victim of misremembering, borrowed memories and certain sense of shared ignorance. I myself came to the city armed with an imagined adoration for its culture, an adulation built on shared stories and passing comments, rather than any real personal engagement or prior visits. It was this fictional adoration that fuelled my first evening in San Marco, and although my first impressions did indeed fulfil much of my enamoured speculations, a closer look reveals a city whose ‘legacy’ sits less than comfortably within the reality of life in Venice.
As I am sure is the case with all spaces so rich in historical and cultural heritage, the relationship between tourism and the permanent residents of Venice is a complicated one. Though I bear no illusions about the essentiality of tourism, not least its ability to create employment and aid the economy, one of the most striking impressions gained from my early experiences in the city is of a kind of blind ignorance adopted by many of its fleeting visitors. Equipped, just as I was, with second-hand convictions about what they must see in their time here, tourists trudge through the crowds in determination to where they feel they need to be, without stopping to contemplate or really see their surroundings. Although based on pure observation, it appears that many operate working from some learned map, flitting from one landmark to another, as if seeing the city through someone else’s eyes rather than their own.
When passing through St. Mark’s Square, where a queue of tourists can be seen to stretch miles across, waiting in anticipation of their entrance into The Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark, the vision of Venice experienced through the sight of a tourist seems one through a very narrow lens. Each day the piazza swells with tourists of this kind, queuing to a place you wonder if they know anything about, in a manner that feels almost ritualistic. Such sites lead you to consider how deeply each individual thinks about their honest response to the landscape, and their place in it, seemingly acting automatically from an authoritative list of places you must go in Venice. It is this atmosphere that transcends the one sided cultural exchange between visitor and city.
When wandering through the less touristic areas of San Marco, this exchange feels all the more raw, almost revealing the inner workings of the cities structure; as locals go about their lives, filling in cracks in the stone slabs, and working to continue the idealistic image that exists in our minds. This transaction is further echoed by the tension felt in the fabric of the streets further from the square, which expose a disaffected working public, who give so much to an industry from which they benefit very little.