Wednesday, 26 March 2008


This weekend, for Easter, I hopped a flight over to my family’s house in Zurich and we took a train south across the Alps to Venice. Everyone in Europe gets Good Friday and Easter Monday off so I thought I’d take advantage. Having heard that there was going to be a snowstorm all weekend in Switzerland, we decided to try to get away somewhere marginally warmer. It’s always amazing the difference in temperature after you cross the Alps. It’s really a beautiful train ride, we’ve driven across the Alps before but the train ride was actually more scenic I thought. The St. Goddard pass is really just a fascinating route. And the fresh snowfall made for a scenic journey.

We stopped off in Milan on the way, I was amazed by the enormity of the Milan train station. I suppose a massive rail hub like Milan needs a massive train station. The weather happened to be beautiful when we stopped off there, it looked like a nice city but I saw was the central square around the railroad station really. I’ve heard the rest of the city is rather industrial.

Venice is an undeniably fascinating city. Built on a series of islands separated by canals, there are no cars allowed and all travel must be done by boat, including that of the fire, police and ambulance services. The public buses are also giant boats, with routes along the city’s main thoroughfare, the Grand Canal.

I must confess I didn’t know much about Venice before the trip, but true to form I did tons of research before we went. The extent I knew of it before was that today it’s a mainly tourist city with canals, that during the renaissance it was an important Italian mini-state and that it controlled a vast swath of territory in the Adriatic, Greece and Cyprus.

However some preparatory research yielded much that I did not know. For instance, did you know the city of Venice was never taken by Charlemagne? It had been part of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire since the split and the Byzantines successfully defended it from the Franks, keeping just the lagoon away from massive pan-European empire. In fact the city was run by the Byzantines for centuries after that, with the Doge originally set up as a governor sent from Byzantium. As the Byzantine Empire declined Venice eventually established its independence and set itself up as a republic, with an elected assembly, relegating the duke to an elected and mostly symbolic position. Eventually the Venetian Republic even took advantage of its former masters weakness and ordered crusader knights, in exchange for using Venetian ports and ships in their war to conquer the Levant, to attack Constantinople, plundering the treasure for Venice.

The Byzantine influence is definitely seen in the architecture, having spawned a whole separate movement called “Venetian Byzantine.” The mosaics, iconography and domes are all oriental in aspect, particularly in the Basilica at St. Mark’s Square (pictured). In many ways, Venice seems like a 10th century Greek city.

Touring the Doge’s Palace, I was struck by how long and enduring the Venetian Republican government was. Rather than being a monarchical seat of power, the Doge’s Palace was actually the seat of a multi-body government, like the US Capitol Building. Inside were room after room dedicated to specific administrative bodies, such as the Grand Council, the Senate, the Council of Ten and the judge’s chamber.

There were rooms set aside for the most minute activities, such as law clerks, tax collection, and citizen’s petitions (the latter being submitted in signed letters through a large mask’s mouth on the palace wall, pictured). What was even more impressive was that the second most powerful person in the government was a middle-class citizen elected from the people.

It is ironic then that what eventually brought this 1,000-year-old democracy to an end was the spread of the French revolution. Napoleon, ostensibly conquering all of Europe to spread democracy and unseat monarchies, actually destroyed the world’s oldest republic in order to use it as a bargaining tool and hand it over to the Austrian monarchy! Sitting in the senate chamber, where the coats of arms of all the council masters are displayed across the room but they suddenly end in 1797. It made me rather sad.

Venice’s history since that date has been rather sad actually. It was basically traded back and forth between France and Austria for 60 years until it became part of the newly established Kingdom of Italy. But it’s been unable to adapt to the modern world, and today it’s really just a tourist city. Nearly every occupation in the city is connected to tourism in some way, and it is virtually dependent on the mainland for all other activity.

The water level has been rising for some time in Venice, and people have had to abandon the first floors of their homes as a consequence. Global warming is frequently blamed, but the fact is if it weren’t for the massive engineering works undertaken by the Republic, the city would have been under water centuries ago. Rather than the canals being dug through the city, they are actually natural separations between a series of islands. In fact the whole city is built on a series of islands and for most of its history there were no bridges connecting them. The islands are in the center of a lagoon that was formed by rivers draining into the Adriatic, and Roman citizens first set up a city there when they were fleeing the Germanic invaders during the fall of the empire. Now naturally, the rivers draining into the lagoon would have filled it up eventually, so the citizens diverted the rivers away from the lagoon in order to keep this from happening.

No one can say for sure what is now causing the water to rise again, but it is causing the city to fundamentally question what it is. Clearly now the city doesn’t serve an industrial or commercial purpose but rather serves only the hospitality sector. But of course, this purpose brings in tons of revenue. Is it worth the costs of a massive engineering project to preserve the city as a museum? Considering the quantity and importance of what lies on the islands, most would argue yes. But it is an interesting question that Europe faces as we enter the 21st century. What is the correct balance between spending money time and effort preserving the past, and spending money time and effort on building a sustainable future?

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