“To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius”
Alexander Herzen, Russian Writer
The city of Venice, Italy, may be the most unique city in the world. Sharon and I recently had the opportunity to visit this beautiful city, where we celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. Ironically, the last time we were in Venice was 35 years ago for our honeymoon.
Not much had changed.
The city of Venice is situated on a group of 118 islands, all separated by canals, and all connected by 400 bridges. There are no cars, there are no bikes, so therefore Venetians walk everywhere, which might explain why most look so fit. The city itself only has a population of 55,000 living in the historical city, that’s it!
While most areas of Europe were ruled by Kings and Queens, Venice was historically ruled by councils. For over 11 centuries (697 to 1797), the Republic of Venice was a major financial and maritime power, during the Middle Age and the Renaissance. From the 13th Century to the end of the 17th Century, Venice was an important centre of commerce (notably silk, grain and spices). Venice is considered to be the first real international financial centre, and reached its apex during the 14th Century.
This made Venice a very wealthy centre throughout most of its history. Famous Venetians include explorer Marco Polo, and the more scandalous Giacomo Casanova.
The Black Death devastated Venice in 1348, and again in 1575 and 1577, and the 1630 plague killed a third of Venice’s 150,000 citizens. As a result Venice began to lose its position as a centre of international trade.
After the Napoleonic Wars, Venice was annexed by the Austrian Empire until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. The city is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Venice is spectacular not only for its engineering and design, but its beautiful settings. There’s something about cities on waterfronts in my mind, but imagine a city entirely of water.
Venice is also known for its culture. The music centers around its famous Opera House, where Maria Callas was a regular. Antonio Vivaldi was born there, and Mozart spent much of his final years there.
Like most Italian cities, the art is amazing. In churches, in galleries, in palaces, everywhere. Peggy Guggenheim had a residence there which is now a public museum. Here’s me in front of a Jackson Pollock (1947, Alchemy), reportedly worth somewhere close to $300 million Cdn.
Venice’s economy is driven entirely by tourism. It is estimated that the annual number of tourists varies in between 25 to 30 million. This “over tourism” has gone from a blessing to a curse, and the city is facing some major challenges including financial difficulties, pollution, pressure on its infrastructure, and problems caused by the many cruise ships sailing in too close. It has gotten so bad that the locals now organize protests against the tourists (and especially the cruise ships). They’ve even talked about putting daily limits on the number of cruise ships allowed to come into port.
Ironically, during my informal “polling” through many conversations with shop owners and restaurants, it was pretty well unanimous that their peak year was 2007, before the Great Recession. Many shops were shuttered, even around the tourist hub of Piazza San Marco.
There are numerous attractions in Venice, many well-known like St. Mark’s Basalica, the Doge’s Palace, the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco. The island of Lido across the way is famous for its beaches and annual Film Festival. The Carnival of Venice lasts for two weeks and the costumes and masks that come with it have few rivals. The island of Murano, is of course, known for its world renowned Murano hand blown glass.
As one can imagine, Venice’s layout makes even the simplest tasks tough. Deliveries have to be made, manually loaded onto boats, delivered by the canals, then manually moved again. Even the fire departments and ambulances are on the water.
Venetian cuisine is focused on seafood (as expected), garden products from the islands of the lagoons, rice from the mainland, and polenta. The Italian dessert tiramisu is credited to being created in the area in the 1970’s.
Venice is also home to the oldest Ghetto in the world. In fact, the word “ghetto” allegedly originated in Venice. In ancient times, Venice’s Jewish population was forced to live in a segregated area of the city. Both the Ghetto Vecchio (old) and Ghetto Nuovo (new) are in Cannaregio, which was my favourite part of Venice. The area is still a heavily Jewish community, with several synagogues and many Kosher restaurants.
There is no place on earth like Venice. This city built on the waters of the Adriatic Sea is almost dreamlike with its elaborate yet complicated architecture, art-filled palaces, and a history that dates over 1200 years. Everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.
Vito Finucci, B.COMM, CIM, FCSI
Vice President and Director, Portfolio Manager
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