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Italy Revisited

January 11th, 2013

Over a century ago, Henry James captured the mood that I feel now as I return to Italy, a country that both inspires and frustrates me, as it did James. Revisiting the country in 1877, just several years after Unification, he wrote:

The old has become more and more a museum, preserved and perpetuated in the midst of the new, but without any further relation to it. . .than that of the stock on his shelves to the shopkeeper. . .The Italy that we sentimentalise and romance about was an ardently mercantile country, though I suppose it loved not its ledgers less but its frescoes and altar-pieces more. Scattered through this paradise regained of trade. . .we see a large number of beautiful buildings in which an endless series of dusky pictures are darkening, dampening, fading, failing through the years. By the doors of the beautiful buildings are little turnstiles at which there sit a great many uniformed men to whom the visitor pays a fee. Inside, in the vaulted and frescoed chambers, the art of Italy lies buried as in a thousand mausoleums. It is well taken care of; it is constantly copied, sometimes it is ‘restored’. . .Like it or not, as we may, it is evidently destined to be; I see a new Italy in the future which in many important respects will equal, if not surpass, the most enterprising sections of our native land.” (From “Italy Revisited,” in Henry James’s Italian Hours, Ecco Press, 1987, pp. 112-113.)

The Piazza San Marco, Venice, seen from San Giorgio Maggiore. Restoration theorist Cesare Brandi wrote in 1963 that the Venetians should not have reconstructed the bell tower of San Marco after its 1902 collapse but replaced it by an abstract “vertical element.” Like Brandi, modern architects can rarely resist the impulse to dramatize the rupture between new and old, impoverishing new environments and driving a destructive mass tourism in historic places like Venice (with, thankfully, its campanile rebuilt). Photo: Steven W. Semes

The good news is that Italy has become a prosperous country, and the fading paintings and beautiful buildings are, for the most part, well preserved and maintained. Visitors to historic centers and restored sites, at first glance, see a world where the new and the old seem to have struck a truce; but a closer look reveals this is illusory: The old things constitute an immense museum collection that has even less relation to the contemporary life of most Italians than it did a century ago. As in most Western European countries, the modern Italian economy continues to depend on tourism for a significant percentage of its income, though this comes at a high price.

We can see the destructive effects of tourism on the social life of Italy’s historic centers, where even many churches charge admission. In Venice, of course, this transformation into a kind of amusement park has been going on for centuries, as James recognized, though it now seems to have reached a crisis point. The tourist economy inexorably displaces every other activity, so that the foreigners strolling through the Piazza San Marco see only one another and the few locals still visible all seem to wear uniforms or period costumes. The wear and tear on the buildings and artworks is obvious and costly to mitigate, and the balance between the costs and benefits of tourism becomes increasingly hard to sustain. Over the long term, unchecked tourism is self-destructive, ruining the very attractions that make places worth visiting, driving out the local population and crippling other parts of the economy. Our very presence as tourists has directly and indirectly contributed to the problem.

The Rome tourists don’t see: Condominiums and shopping center on Via Aurelia, M. Coronelli, architect 1971-76. This must be one of the ugliest buildings in Rome, though it is highly regarded by historians of Modernist design. The urbanism is that of suburban New Jersey, and the ubiquity of this kind of development has rendered the historic center unaffordable for most Italians. Photo: Steven W. Semes

The other side of this coin is the conspicuous contrast between the historic places we like to visit and the built world most Italians occupy today. We travel thousands of miles, only to find that some of the most beautiful places on earth are surrounded by some of the ugliest. Most of today’s Romans, Florentines and Venetians spend their lives in suburban sprawl, participating in a global culture little different from our own. Like us, they want a higher standard of living (at least in terms of modern conveniences) than the historic centers afforded before their restoration, but the ensuing environmental, cultural and spiritual losses are increasingly evident.

An enforced contrast between the historic and the modern built world (enshrined in the Venice Charter of 1964) impoverishes newer neighborhoods but also threatens historic areas. Mass tourism is driven by demand: The unrelieved ugliness of modern cities prompts millions of people to travel to environments that a century ago were accessible to nearly everyone but which can now only be enjoyed by those who can afford the entrance fees. If their own neighborhoods were more beautiful alternatives to suburban sprawl, perhaps they wouldn’t need to overrun Venice. In this sense, the harms done to historic sites by mass tourism are a consequence of the failures of Modernist architecture and urbanism to create a built world that satisfies human needs and allows architecture of different eras to coexist in harmony.

This problem is worsened by the intellectual and artistic elite who, like their counterparts in other Western European countries, have a love-hate relationship with their cultural heritage. On one hand, they revere it as an invaluable inheritance and a source of communal identity; on the other, they persistently mock it. The urge to subvert any traditional practice, belief or symbolism is nearly irresistible in contemporary “high culture.”

On New Year’s Eve, I attended the Ballet of Rome’s production of “The Nutcracker.” In it, Clara’s dream of a Kingdom of Sweets was rendered as a grunge-inspired nightmare in which the Sugar Plum Fairy – a male dancer in drag – appeared as a repulsive character reminiscent of the hippopotamus in a tutu in Disney’s “Fantasia.” Being Italian rather than, say, French, the ballet’s put-down of the traditional imagery of Tchaikovsky’s romantic ballet is played for laughs, but the artistic impulse is the same as Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 painting of a moustache on the Mona Lisa. The same reflex drives both the need to subvert the beauty of all traditional art and the refusal to build a contemporary urbanism in which the present and the past can live together in harmony.

Some Italian cultural officials believe the way to make places likeVenice more authentic is to install contemporary art around the city, making it a center for the “art of our time,” rather a museum of antiquities. However well intentioned, such initiatives inevitably fail for two reasons. First, the new art does not bear comparison with the artistic heritage but, on the contrary, only further dramatizes the rupture between the historic and the contemporary. Second, the problems of Venice are not going to be solved by competing with Basel or New York for the contemporary art market.

Instead, what the city needs desperately (apart from a solution to the ever-present danger of flooding) is an economy based on something other than tourism. It must become a real city again, a place where the residents make things and provide services that support human flourishing. Historic preservation, new architecture and new urbanism could work together to build an environment in which such a community could thrive – perhaps with appointments for visits by a limited number of tourists awarded by a lottery – but, more important, we need to make living in a place of beauty the birthright of those of us elsewhere who do not live in historic places.


  1. Assen Assenov
    January 15th, 2013 at 12:22 | #1

    Wonderful the parallel with Henry James experience, in many ways apparently similar to Steve’s. This blog, and topic, constitutes the seed for a much larger discussion that needs to happen in Italian circles and is very much connected to the politics in Italy, with all its urban and social implications.

    The great evolution of human culture in recent decades, due to mass media and the internet, has changed radically the relationship between the ‘elites’ and the masses, rendering maybe less impacting their positions, at least in coherent ways.

    The ‘mocking of past’ in this love-hate relationship is almost to be expected. The exercise we assist on part of the ‘elites’ seem to have more to do with the need to attract attention by a breaking from the past or the ‘traditional’. In that light we have the Maxxi, or its true father, the Balboa Museum. At least Frank Gehry was a true pioneer in that ‘deviation’.
    Grazie, Steve

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