Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An exact model of Venice in 1744

Venice is a strange place.

I get this sense every time you see paintings of it from hundreds of years ago. This, for instance, is St Mark's square around 1742/1744

(image credit)

So how does it look today?

Well, something like this:

(image credit)

In other words, it's basically identical. The clothes of the people are different, and there's now cafe seating in some areas. There's also pigeons, which don't seem to feature in the early paintings. But that's about the only differences.

This isn't just for this particular view either. In lots of cities, there are some buildings that haven't changed in a long time - Notre Dame, the Houses of Parliament, the White House. But in Venice, virtually every famous painted scene in Venice looks nigh-on identical today, hundreds of years later.

I can't think of any other place remotely similar. In 1744, Manhattan was a few buildings. Sydney was nothing but bush, save for a few Aboriginal dwellings.

So why did Venice get frozen in time, when everywhere else changed?

I have only crude ideas.

One of them, though, comes from the massively different cost of new buildings. If you have a house that's situated on a canal, even today it ain't exactly simple to get a bulldozer in there to knock it down. It's probably easier to maintain it in roughly its current state. In addition, the original buildings were incredibly beautiful. This didn't stop people elsewhere knocking down glorious Victorian architecture, but it at least reduces the incentive somewhat.

I imagine it also helps that Venice has been on a path of economic decline since the 15th century.When there's increasing demand for land, people will bowl over formerly valuable buildings to make way for new ones. But if the place is in decline, there's less desire to build more valuable structures on the same scarce land. By the time Venice did display some economic liveliness in the 20th century, it was largely as a tourist town, by which point the buildings and scenery were the source of revenue.

But in the end, sometimes the what is more interesting than the why. It's only when you see how similar everything was hundreds of years ago that you realise you're walking through a living museum.

History has ultimately given us the answer to the question posed in Robert Browning's wonderful poem,
"A Toccata of Galuppi's". Browning's narrator is reflecting on what became of the past splendour of Venetian society, with its lavish hedonism of masked balls:
"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
What was left, indeed?

The buildings.

When a society is strong, they are the badge of its vitality, the mark of economic dynamism that can produce exquisite architecture in the middle of the ocean.

When the society has decayed, they stand as a sombre reminder that decline arrives first in production. Eventually, everything from a fallen society crumbles to dust. But before that comes an intermediate stage - the monuments are still there, but the means to produce new ones has disappeared. All you can do is cling on to what remains of the past, forever cognisant of the rebuke it provides to the present.

Charles Krauthammer recently noted something similar about the retiring of the space shuttle.

I wonder if one day people will walk through Manhattan in the same way.

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