The Changing Face of Venice, Italy: Restoration Efforts Beget Commercialization

Venice is sinking, but will restoration efforts affect your visit?

Credit: John Thomson

Venice’s Grand Canal continues to be the city’s number one attraction

Venice is an architectural treasure, but efforts to keep it afloat may affect your visit

It’s been called the Floating City and the Canal City. How about the Undersea City? A recent study confirms what scientists have been saying for decades; Venice is sinking. Mind you, at a rate of one to two millimetres a year, it’s safe to say Venice will be around for a little while yet.

Venice is all about water. That’s its charm and its curse. Back in the ninth century, when Venice was a city state, building a community in a lagoon connected by a string of bridges that could be easily defended was considered a good idea. Little thought was given to population growth and the impact that would have on sewage, transportation and tourism. A visit to Venice reveals this tension between decay and renewal.

Walking the Streets of Romantic Venice

Venice is comprised of 117 islands of various sizes connected by 409 bridges. The Rialto is perhaps the most famous.

Constructed in 1591, the Rialto is one of four bridges crossing the Grand Canal and is noteworthy for the high-end boutiques and jewellery shops that line its walls.

The Ponte dei Sospiri or the Bridge of Sighs is also noteworthy. That bridge leads to a city prison, and legend has it that prisoners being transported to jail looked down at the water and sighed at the thought of never seeing the canal and freedom again. Fact or urban myth; it doesn’t matter. The romance of Venice endures and Venice is a very romantic city. It’s easy to picture the many artists, musicians and playwrights who called Venice their home walking the cobbled streets. Vivaldi, Titian, Wagner and Pallidio crossed these bridges. So, too, did Giacomo Casanova. He was imprisoned here for awhile, until he escaped; one of the many who crossed the Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs, to jail on the other side.

Getting Around by Vaporetto

Access to Venice is by train or bus from the mainland. Once on the island, it’s transport by foot or boat. Gondolas are synonymous with Venice, but they’re primarily used by tourists. Vaporetti or motor boats get people from place to place.

Piazza San Marco with St. Mark’s Campanile (Image: John Thomson)

The Grand Canal, which runs from the train station to the Piazza San Marco, the home of St. Mark’s Basilica and its famous campanile, continues to be the city’s number one attraction. Cruising the Canal by vaporetto is a favourite way to see the city. The express vaporetti shuttle passengers quickly and efficiently. The slower vaporetti are essentially water busses. They make 14 stops enroute and take half an hour to complete their journey. Outdoor seats at the prow of the boat are the ideal viewing positions to see the unique structures that line the banks, most of them in an architectural style unique to the city called Venetian Gothic, a mix of Gothic and Byzantine influences. The Grand Canal was the place to be when Venice was at the height of its power and those magnificent palaces along the waterfront are the former homes of the high and the wealthy.

Offshore, the larger islands in the lagoon are destinations in their own right. The island of Murano, for instance, is world famous for its glass. Lido is where the wealthy reside and was the setting for Thomas Mann’s classic novel Death in Venice.

But it’s the main island that people flock to, drawn by the architecture, the artworks and the sheer fascination of being on a man-made community supported by thousands of wooden piles sunk into the marshy seabed hundreds of years ago.

Venice’s Restoration Plan

Being a city on stilts does have consequences. Restoration is now a year-round activity and it’s taking its toll. Anxious to finance its many restoration projects, Venice has turned to an advertising-for-cash deal with the multinationals. Many buildings under wraps are in effect giant billboards. The restoration of the Bridge of Sighs, for instance, completed over three years at a cost of $3.7 million, was financed in part by Coca Cola, which only infuriated the locals who decried the commercialization of their heritage. Travellers are advised to check the restoration websites to see what structures are under repair and plan their sightseeing accordingly.

Visitors should also be aware that the city has instigated a hotel tax, anywhere from one to five extra euros a night, to help pay for the restorations.

Is Venice Decayed or Delightful? You Decide

How this commercialization of Venice will impact future tourism is difficult to tell. Back on the Grand Canal, the vaporetti continue to ply the waters. As the boats glide past 600-year-old grand hotels and palaces, proudly standing in the water and peeling paint, one is left wondering whether Venice is elegantly decayed or perpetually delightful. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.