Modernity and Venice

Posted August 30th, 2007 by Andrea Vianello

I have already mentioned in a previous post some of the challenges and problems faced by architects in Venice, Italy, in occasion of the discussion about the fourth bridge on the Grand Canal designed by architect Santiago Calatrava and being built in these days. The bridge is almost complete and it is now possible to see it in its settings.



Perhaps there should not be much debate on a new bridge, which is not the tallest or longest, especially in a city that counts over 400 bridges, three already in the same canal. And to be honest, the bridge does not seem ugly. The real issue, open to debate, is whether there is space for modernity in cities likes Venice, where ancient buildings, the architectural, artistic and archaeological heritage, are still intact. Can a living city stop its development? Truth is that modernity is creeping in Venice, let’s examine for one moment the following picture.


Can you see anything ancient? The bridge where it has taken is quite recent, in metal, and also close to another one crossing the same canal; in the Grand Canal it is only possible to see modern watertaxis (in front) and waterbuses (in distance); the reddish building is the railway station, which has been built in 1844 by the Austrian government clearing a quarter and demolishing the ancient church of St. Lucia; and the white building seen in distance is a garage for cars.

The area has been heavily modified in 1933 by Mussolini, who built the Ponte della Libertà (Freedom Bridge, it runs parallel to the railway bridge connecting Venice to the mainland), Piazzale Roma (the terminal for cars and buses) built destroying parts of the Papadopoli gardens and most of the St. Chiara church (what remains is now a hotel) and opened a new canal, Rio Novo (New Canal). Mussolini was influenced by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the ideologue and poet who founded the futurism movement and in 1910 published with painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo the manifest Contro Venezia Passatista (Against Past-Loving Venice) to change Venice. The result is not nice: today Piazzale Roma is essentially a parking space for the public buses to the mainland, whilst cars can only park inside the aforementioned building or in a new island built nearby, Tronchetto. The Rio Novo was meant to be a shortcut for boats and waterbuses to St. Marks, but it has been closed to waterbuses and motorboats because the nearby buildings are too delicate for the waves produced such traffic. Thus, parts of Venice were destroyed, first to let trains in, and then for cars. However, whilst the railway was less destructive and proved useful from the start, the car terminal ended up to be a parking lot. What happened in 1933 was justified by the need to facilitate access to the heart of the city for the needs of the industry, though the industry back then was the denigrated (in Marinetti’s manifest) tourism, and still is.

In 2008 the new bridge will be open, and there will be another touch of modernity as well: the people-mover (driverless tram) will connect Piazzale Roma to the island of Tronchetto, currently a short walk or bus ride away. At that time all people coming from the mainland should converge at Piazzale Roma; there will be people coming from Tronchetto (cars) via the people-mover; the buses from the airport and mainland; and the people from the railway station via the Calatrava Bridge. Piazzale Roma should then become the main terminal for the waterbuses. All this reveals the real reason for the bridge and the other changes: the hope is to create a single terminal for access to Venice, which could help in managing the arrival of tourists, or produce chaos by concentrating too many people in a small space. Excessive numbers of tourists often plague Venice. Ironically Piazzale Roma, which was created to promote industrialism and discourage tourism (the Rio Novo being a fast lane alternative to the “Romantic” Grand Canal), may become the entry point for most tourists. Obviously, there are questions regarding all this from the Venetians, who may be forced to slow down at the leisurely pace of tourists if not queue with them to access their own city, and people concerned with heritage, who are excluded from decisions and can only watch modernity progressing in Venice.

Venice, like all cities in the world, changes, and has always done so: it is a living city. However, it is also a World Heritage Site that requires protection and caution due to its uniqueness. Singularly, the threat it faces does not come from within, it is not a case where modern citizens have to be constrained to maintain a balance between architectural and archaeological heritage on one side and the needs to maintain high standards of life with modern facilities as everywhere else. All the new architectural developments, whether a bridge designed by a famous architect, a stylish tram, or the new facilities for the International Film Festival are camouflaged as art. Perhaps because of this, architects and archaeologists, who should assess the impact of modernity into historical centres, are silent.

Archaeology is not just about digging to rediscover the past, it is also about protecting the existing heritage. The spaces left to modernity have a long history, which may be irremediably lost; and the new developments may affect older structures, as it has been the case for the Rio Novo. Thus, the issue that I can see has nothing to do with modernity, art, or tourism: it is about safeguard and protection. Considering the fast pace of progress, this issue will probably become the main concern for future generations of archaeologists.