Cruise Liners, Crypts and the Paradox of Venice

by Helen Kingstone (Leeds Trinity University / University of Leeds)

Cruise ship engulfing Venice
Cruise ship looms over Venice

Standing in the majestic Council Chamber of the Doge’s Palace, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Venice was still thriving as a Renaissance maritime empire. But suddenly a shadow falls over the room. The view from the window is obliterated, and filled instead with a different image: the huge white side of a cruise liner. This is a common occurrence in Venice, whose population is more than doubled each day by tourists, half of whom are day-trippers. It’s the paradox of the marsh-sited city: the very leviathans that bring the city’s income are shaking the foundations of its iconic buildings.

As part of last month’s supernumerary ‘The Global and the Local’ NAVS/BAVS/AVSA conference in Venice, we were given the unique opportunity of a private night-time tour of the Basilica San Marco, that glittering golden temple of Byzantine plunder and extra-papal authority. Thanks to Robert Hewison’s enlightening keynote on Ruskin’s campaign to protect San Marco’s south front from insensitive ‘restoration’, we could appreciate the significance of such details as the direction of the grain of the marble (Ruskin’s treasured stones had distinctive undulating lines, whereas the grey replacements had vertical). At the end of the tour, our guide took us down into the crypt. Not a ‘true’ crypt, she explained, because that would have to be underwater. Instead, this was fitted under the raised dais of the altar. The strong chemical aroma of this quasi-crypt, however, was part of a perpetual effort to keep San Marco from drowning: pumps constantly remove the water that would otherwise flood it, while the smell came from resin injected into the columns to keep them water-resistant. We began to see how the notion of the city as a ‘must see’, to which Ruskin’s international campaigns gave added impetus, might have unwittingly added to its structural and sustainability problems.

The suitably Ruskinian question asked by Professor Hewison in his keynote was: what is the responsibility of the present towards the past? He described how when Ruskin returned to Venice in 1876, he found a city much changed from the one he had eulogised in The Stones of Venice (1851–53). Now part of a united Italy, it was, to his dismay, joined to the mainland by a railway (the striking banner image of our conference). In the process, Ruskin felt, the romance of Venice had been lost! In an era when the Doge’s Palace can be overshadowed by an oil-fuelled floating city, this anxiety has become endearingly relative.

The throngs of cruise trippers who look across at the city from their drifting wall of white portholes and balconies are there because they, too, want their chance to clap eyes on this most iconic of cities. There is a circularity here, the on-going ‘observer’s paradox’ of anthropology and sociolinguistics that has also become the paradox of the tourist industry. It does not seem possible for us to ‘observe’ Venice for ourselves without disrupting the very marvels we came to admire. With travel relatively cheap, and a worldwide pool of potential visitors, can a World Heritage Site such as Venice wear its mantle of ultimate art lover’s paradise, honeymoon destination and photographer’s dream, while still remaining fit to serve the same role for the next generation, and the one after that?

In ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’, Ruskin famously declared of historical buildings that ‘We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.’[1] Knowing how to tread that fine line between economic profit and posterity has been a growing problem ever since the Industrial Revolution: where should priorities be dispersed among technological development, human livelihoods and material sustainability? The largest cruise liners each displace up to 90 000 tonnes of water, inevitably raising the water level in the canals and under San Marco’s crypt. While there have been fierce protests against them by environmental and cultural campaigners, these have been met by equally impassioned counter-protests by local port workers. But cruise liners cannot take all the blame. The biggest threat to this city is rising sea levels, something to which all our flights – whether to Venice or not – contribute.

In relating the story of the 1870s campaign for San Marco’s South Front, Hewison highlighted the relatively unsung contribution of a local nobleman, Count Zorzi. Ruskin was delighted to find in him a devotee of his teachings, and consequently helped publish his monograph, which advocated conservation rather than restoration. Zorzi provided an important focus of local support in counterbalance to Ruskin’s rather heavy-handed internationalism. Ruskin got up a petition that included both Gladstone and Disraeli, but managed to offend the Italians in the process, since for them, this was a local matter. For Ruskin, by contrast, it was a global one. He demanded protection for Venice on the grounds that it was ‘the property of the world’. As representatives from NAVSA, BAVS and AVSA, we could hardly avoid demonstrating and embracing that maxim. We also came to see daily proof of its challenges.

Helen Kingstone is in the final stages of her PhD at the University of Leeds, based at Leeds Trinity. Her research focuses on Victorian contemporary-history-writing, including historiography, retrospective novels and utopias set in the future.

[1] John Ruskin, ‘Seven Lamps of Architecture’, in The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, ed. by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903), viii, p. 245.

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