Sunday, November 8, 2009

Public Space in Modern Venice

Santa Lucia, Venice, 2002, from Senza Posa by A. Chemollo and F. OrsenigoAbove: Alessandra Chemollo and Fulvio Orsenigo, Santa Lucia, 2002

Under the republic, public space was crucial in defining a political identity for Venice. Sixteenth-century guidebooks boasted that the preservation of Piazza San Marco at the city’s heart was in itself a sign of liberty and communal vitality. Today, Venice remains uniquely open. Even if the city’s alleys are cramped and confusing to visitors, the absence of barbed wire fences and ‘Keep Out’ signs is just as notable. Most Venetian thoroughfares are uncomfortably narrow, but they remain footpaths in the sense that they link shared spaces, and in that sense Venice is truly a city for walking (even if it only actually became so in the nineteenth century, when many canals were filled in). It is not, however, a utopia, and in this, as in so many other ways, it is not immune to the more negative aspects of economic development. At the city’s periphery, and on some of the islands in the lagoon – that is, in the areas whose development status is currently under debate – there are gated communities, where barking dogs (the protectors of suburban respectability as well as of privacy) and sullen, self-important security guards shadowed my every move. Here walking was not a pleasure, but a constant source of frustration.

Further development can presumably go either way: towards ever greater privatization of the Venetian experience in luxury hotels and apartments, or a reaffirmation of an expanded sense of community, which can and must include people such as students and new immigrants.

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