An Italian court on Monday last week overturned a ban on 94,000 tonne cruise liners sailing up Venice’s Giudecca canal to get a close-up view of St Mark’s Square. The decision defies belief. Not in modern times can money have so crushingly defeated art; never can commerce have so blatantly sought to strangle the goose that lays its golden egg.
Visitors to Venice have long been amazed, if not horrified, by the vast floating palaces, 15 stories high and twice the length of St Mark’s, that regularly loom over the basilica and the Doge’s Palace, displacing thousands of tons of water to smash against the ancient piles and bricks. Following a rule last year that would have made the liners pass west of the Giudecca to disgorge tourists at Venice docks, shipping operators lobbied so that their customers could continue viewing the city from the comfort of their deck chairs. They claimed the facility was worth a million visitors and 5,000 jobs. It must not be asked on what basis the judge accepted these absurd figures, which amount to the city’s entire cruise industry.
The damage done by commerce to the world’s historic places is fast outpacing the damage done by war. Moscow’s exquisite steel-lattice Shukhov Tower, erected as a radio mast in 1922 and considered “Russia’s Eiffel Tower,” is about to be torn down so the site can be redeveloped. In China, the old Silk Road quarter of Kashgar is at this moment being bulldozed in what is a world tragedy. While chaos is threatening monuments in Syria, Libya and Iraq, it seems crazy to voluntarily destroy those that survive. Both the Tower of London and London’s Parliament Square may be stripped of world heritage status because of the “plutoflats” that London Mayor Boris Johnson is allowing to tower over them.
Venice is special. It has long seemed the preserve of British enthusiasts captivated by George Gordon, Lord Byron’s “fairy city of the heart.” For decades, groups such as Save Venice and Venice in Peril have campaigned for action as the tides grow worse each year and the dampness seeps above the stone footings to decay the ancient brickwork above.
After 20 years of argument, a mobile barrage is being built to protect the city from tidal surges, but a 2010 UNESCO report warned that the mean tide was already a foot above the 20th century average, and “the sea level will eventually rise to a value that will not be sustainable for the lagoon and its old city.”
The impact on the walls from an hourly tsunami from big cruise ships can only be imagined.
If this goes on unchecked, there will one day plainly be no Venice for the deck chairs to watch. The problem, as with most things Italian, lies in politics. When Venice in Peril’s Anna Somers Cocks last year savaged the local authorities for tolerating the liners, Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni pointed out that he did not control shipping in the Giudecca canal. It was a matter for the port.
The ban had been introduced after the Costa Concordia disaster; a similar steering error off Venice would flatten the Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s basilica and its square in a matter of seconds. Orsoni pleaded: “We need to get the ships out of St Mark’s and do it fast... Help me!”
The Italian government banned the ships, but the port authority ignored the ban, and now has the court behind it.
Commercial interests seem omnipotent, parroting the cry of the development lobby everywhere that they are synonymous with “jobs, growth and the future.” Old places are history, even if — as in Venice — old places are their key asset. It is moot how many jobs would really suffer if cruise ships were kept at a distance from Venice, but in short-term economics any old statistic will do to scare a politician or a judge. Real authority apparently does not do long term.
I once thought that as civilization progressed, so did our concern for beautiful things and places. We saved more, studied more, taught more, conserved and appreciated more. I was wrong. Museums are richer, universities bigger and property values higher in historic places. However, pressure of population means that the visual richness enshrined in buildings, cities and the countryside is more at risk than ever. Money talks. The planning regimes that should channel profit to where it is least destructive are ever more corrupt.
The answer must be to mobilize the industry that makes money from the past. According to the UN’s world tourism organization, there are a billion international tourists today, a figure that will double in a decade. The places available for them to visit will certainly not double. Including domestic tourism — for in reality we are all tourists — this is a world industry outstripping oil, cars and electronics.
The tourism industry barely contributes to its core investment — the legacy of the past. There is no global champion for historic cities, sites and landscapes, now a classic wasting asset; UNESCO is next to useless. Those who care for old places seem unable to define and lobby for their cause.
Tourism may be Britain’s second-biggest industry, yet it has no department, no minister, no parliamentary lobby. It enjoys no tax breaks to equate with those available to farming, new building schemes, even filmmaking. The historic buildings, towns and landscapes of Britain are not Venice, but they are equally vulnerable and irreplaceable — and equally popular. Increasingly they will be key to the profitability of Britain’s tourist industry. They have yet to convert that profit into power. British politics still regards beauty as for wimps.
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