Massimo Cacciari, Mayor of Venice, is the Don Quixote of our times, tilting not at windmills but at tourism.
As with so many visionaries and dreamers, his cause, though irretrievably lost before begun, is a worthy one for all that. To awaken one day and find yourself titular head of the Jewel of the Adriatic, albeit for a fleeting moment in the great rush of time, is a heady experience.
To preside over a city whose shimmering beauty inspires painters, poets and musicians and whose sons number Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian must make a man preen himself and puff his chest. But what does poor Massimo see when he throws open the shutters each morning and breathes the scented air of his lagooned domain? Yes, there are canals, bridges and gondolas aplenty. True, there is the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Basilica. As for palazzos, well, who’s counting?
But there are other things that meet the eye and assail the nostril, things that no custodian, however temporary, of the world’s greatest architectural and cultural treasures should tolerate. Massimo, a former professor of philosophy, gazes upon the vista and knows instantly what these things are Â day-trippers. Hordes of them. Viewed from the high Campanile, they are like amoeba on a slide. Focus in closely and you will see bum bags, flip-flops, baggy shorts, glistening pores and tongues snaking out to embrace dripping ice-cream. The air hangs heavy not with 2,000 years of accumulated history, but the vast, rising aroma of coagulated humanity.
Massimo turns away and paces the room, he clutches the air with impotent rage. He slumps into a gilded 15th century masterpiece of the furniture maker’s art, and, beneath a wall sicklied o’er with Canalettos, ponders the fate of a city that miraculously survived plague and flooding, but cannot for long withstand this latest monstrous assault.
And lo! the answer comes to him, in a flash of divine inspiration of the very kind that sparked the creative spirits whose legacy lives in the very fabric of the golden city. Advertising!
If Coca-Cola and McDonald’s can rinse minds and conquer the world through the power of imagery, Massimo can rid the world, or at least his treasured corner of it, of the new plague that afflicts it. And so he commissioned Oliviero Toscani, the photographer famed for outraging sensibilities on behalf of Benetton, to portray Venice as an unattractive prospect for the casual visitor.
A billboard campaign called Against Venice for Venice features drowned rats, dead pigeons, pickpockets and rubbish-strewn canals. Its unspoken subtext being, “Please stay away, it’s horrid here, you’ll hate it”. And beneath that text lies another, “You sods are responsible for the rubbish and squalor that blights our fair city. Ideally, we would have you put down. Denied that solution, we will have you put off.”
Alas for Massimo, the former is the only answer. As the Egyptians have shown, shooting tourists has no rival as a deterrent. Any lesser measure is destined to fail.
And while advertising assists the sale of Benetton’s gaudy garments, its potency is not without bounds. To launch a billboard campaign against tourism is akin to answering thunder with a ripple of flatulence. The Venetian authorities claim the average day-tripper spends 20 minutes sightseeing and four hours and 40 minutes eating, drinking, going to the toilet and blocking the alleyways around St Mark’s Square. The local population of just 68,000 can no longer afford the cost of clearing up the mess. Hence the notion of cleansing the city of the steaming masses and encouraging instead the arrival of intelligent, cultivated, long-staying visitors.
It is all a dream of course. Nothing on earth can arrest the absurdity of mass tourism nor stem its ill effects. In any case, many Venetians disagree strongly with their mayor, not least the tour operators, the pickpockets, the thieving waiters, the gondoliers, the street vendors, the guides, and the ice-cream salesmen.
Lord McAlpine, former Tory Party treasurer and resident of Venice, says the local rubbish collection service is excellent. “It’s obviously not a bad job,” he adds, “because the dustmen tend to be attractive 19-year-old girls.” Like Sir Joshua Reynolds, of whom it was said all his geese were swans, all Lord McAlpine’s dustmen are women, and pretty ones at that. Oh to be in Venice, when there’s garbage in the streets.
Toscani, the photographer, says that while he was researching the seamy side of Venice he discovered remote canals where people have back-seat gondola sex. “You see,” he adds by way of explanation, “they don’t have cars.” Which, when you think about it, is like peeing in the Grand Canal because there isn’t a bucket to hand.
Looking to the future, there is one hope. If all the world’s beauty spots are not to be choked by tourism and if all that the day-trippers can manage is a few minutes of sightseeing before getting down to eating, drinking, and copulating, the solution lies in the skies above. Richard Branson is groping towards the answer with his airline beds for two. Eventually, tourists will take off, do whatever they have to do far above the ground, before landing back where they started. If they want to see Venice, they can look out of the windows.