The Venice derive

(On Exactitude in Science)

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.[1]

It has recently been proposed that digital connectivity renders cities, with their dense masses of population and capital, obsolete, and their physical borders unimportant. As the increasing number of new definitions for the contemporary urban condition seems to demonstrate, it is the idea of city itself that has become rather uncertain. While an increasing range of devices and tools are used in the attempt to both understand and represent it, the conviction seems to have taken ground that this will only be possible inside the complex system of relations that form its specific environment. In the sphere of the exact sciences the complexity of a particular system is defined as the degree of difficulty in predicting the properties of the system when the properties of the system’s parts are given. In the case of urban studies, complexity tends instead to be associated to a kind of urban unintelligibility, because already the different parts that compose this system are by themselves very rarely translatable into objective data.[2]

From the mid 1980s, and perhaps in Italy more than anywhere else, this conviction created a fertile ground for a series of experiences and experimental approaches on the study of urban realities which resulted in the introduction of narrative practices of listening, observing, and exploring the city.[3] Even though these experiences are today widely recognised and replicated, the output of their representations remains, apparently, almost exclusively limited to the field of academic research, or, even more remote, presented and diffused through artistic platforms and events. The real tools of urban and territorial planning are still the physical zoning of areas, linked to a more or less sophisticated series of parameters and regulations in order to define their use and to control their development.

The geographer Franco Farinelli has claimed that “Today people still believe maps are a copy of the earth, without realizing that the truth is just the contrary: from the beginning it is the earth that assumed, in our culture, the form of a map, and therefore space and time guided our relation with it”.[4] In this sense, the Venice Altlas is an attempt to reconstruct some of the different maps that not only describe but also gave form to Venice’s actual spatial condition. This condition is understood as a paradigmatic example of the diffused state of contemporary cities.[5] In order to understand Venice, or rather some of the aspects and characteristics that make it an object of interest as an urban environment, the relation between the city and its image needs to be explored. The intrinsic contradiction that lies in between these two, constitutes itself an essential part of Venice’s actual form.[6] A form that is, inevitably, the result of all the different representations that have been developed for it. Our description cannot be anything but another subjective representation.

Today contemporary Venice appears to be simply a huge tourist machine, in which its history and density is treated as global entertainment and an antidote to the sprawling, sterile agglomerations of contemporary urban developments. In this context, Venice is far from alone in finding itself becoming a victim, as Umberto Eco characterised it, of the “hyper-real”. The city appears as a simulacrum of its own self, destined to satisfy not only the curiosity of its visitors, but especially the onslaught of their most basic expectations: a romantic gondola’s tour, an original Murano’s blowing-glass piece, the perfect stage for a two-weeks-all-included honeymoon. Yet, while we find such examples of the hyper-real erasing reality throughout the globe, Venice is unique in that it threatens to be obliterated by both the character of contemporary tourism, and its sheer volume, that at first sight seems to make impossible any other activity as in the last 30 years the population of the historical centre fell from150.000 inhabitants to the mere 60.000 of today.

Throughout its past, Venice was considered an exemplary model for balanced urban settlements. This assertion can probably best be understood by enlarging the scale of observation, most significantly by including the lagoon around the city itself. By considering the city and its lagoon as an unitary and polycentric urban space, then, we propose here the only approach we think sustainable, result of the spatial relation between the city and its territory. The city of Venice is the lagoon.

A lagoon that had always been the stage for a complex set of communications, trades, and settlements, as it formed, from its earliest origins, the natural meeting point of sea and river routes. The lagoon, in fact, has always had a double dimension: as inhabited area and as communications edge between mainland and sea. As Lewis Mumford very clearly pointed out, there is a very close structural analogy between the city and the lagoon around it.[7] On one side, the central city can be seen as a complex of neighbourhoods, constituted as public units (insulae), consolidated around a square (campo), with church, well, school, market, small shops, and connected to each other by main streets (rughe, salizade), from which a dense net of smaller streets (calli) allow the access to private living units (corti). On the other hand, the lagoon itself appears like an “urban constellation”, working as the perimeter wall that had always existed around every city since the Neolithic age. Big and smaller islands stand along the access ways to the city, both from the sea and from the mainland, working as a defensive machine. Moreover, in the lagoon this system was regulated by a functional zoning as well; each of these islands had its proper use in relation to its position and physical characters. The smaller ones provided the city with essential services, like religious, medical, cultural and social primary assistance; the main ones (Murano, Burano, S. Erasmo) worked as agricultural and industrial resorts. The inhabitants of the lagoon must have decided to build their city with a specific consideration of its very special environment, a strategy of settlement based on the capillary differentiation of urban functions. After all, a wall can only contain and enclose, while the water is especially able to connect, and include.

In this terms water was for this city not only the primary means of defence and communication, it also represented the ultimate reasons for its prosperity and existence. Considered one of the basic elements of Nature, water is fundamental for life, from which is completely dependent. Water is therefore fundamental to creation, a ‘life-generator’ with divine significance. Water is also, in its particular form of the sea, something infinitely moving, a metaphor for the totality of the existence itself (Eraclito), something that is always changing. And it is this constant movement that causes the anti-nomothetic value of the Water, in contrast to the Earth; an element onto which no writing is possible and where thus no human, that is ‘artificial’, law can be definitive. We can only look at it, and at the images it provokes. The surface of the water, similar as a mirror, reflects every image, yet it de-forms the image, as the image is a reflection itself: the reflection of light on objects. It is the light that produces the images we can look at, and it is the light, then, that gives form to an object. However, if for Plato those images are no more than shadows of another reality, a reflection on the water can never correspond to the truth, it is merely a distortion. Water shows an image to which no substance can necessarily correspond, it is never possible to distinguish the real from the mask. Therefore, any relation in Venice cannot be fixed, can only be fluid.

“Rowing along the Grand Canal with a Gondola, we were observing the row of palaces we were passing through, reflecting the light and the time on their sides, changing with them…”, this is Marcel Proust’s description of the trip that the protagonist of his “Recherche du temps perdu” makes to Venice with his mother.[8] For Proust, the concept of fluidity we described before, becomes a state of his ‘I’. Through his complex and seemingly never-ending sentences, he seems to tell us that our way of thinking does not proceed logically; it does not follow any idea (at least not in the platonic sense of the term); there are no intellectual a-priori schemes. Our mind works through unconscious mechanisms and our memory cannot distinguish a dream from a real event as it can only register “infinitesimal unceasing works” that are strictly linked to senses. The human mind is the place of fluidity. In Proust’s Venice, everything is fluid: water, light, sounds, colors, but also the paintings of Bellini and Carpaccio, or the clothes of Fortuny. “…the pale shadows and the green sun were like on a floating surface and evoked the mobile presence, the enlightening, the shiny instability of the wave.” This fluidity, as well for the city as for our mind, “our inner Venice”, creates a sort of mirror gallery, a reflection of a reflection, in which nothing can be considered ‘real’ for any kind of certainty anymore. Moreover, “[…] this color is just in the sounds, moonlight of this noble marble city: it is the light that here creates dreams and makes the facts of the day and the history, in the time and the place where they happen, disappear in a reflection. The stranger who arrives to Venice from the chaos of the world enters a sort of anesthetic liquid of silence and pacified memories (even of things that never happened).”

Even today, Venice is still a place where the feeling of a ‘leap in time’ is immediate for everyone: its isolation and its unique environment have prevented the structural transformations that have upset so many other cities on the mainland. Every street is reminicent of the labyrinth of history, but it is especially its relation with the water, its construction on the water that makes Venice a “place of time”.

The entire Recherche of Marcel Proust is dedicated to time, the time of the ‘I’ and the time of memory. If one reads it as an attempt to stop time through art, artificially re-creating it through the written word, then Venice has a fundamental role in this process of redemption, or liberation. Venice is a sort of ‘living proof’ that this process is possible; it is the place where time becomes stone, comparable to a book where the mankind’s history can be read. And to be able to describe time, or rather its flowing, or rather Venice, the French author needs to use words “as tiny tesserae of a huge mosaic”, in which every image is the reflection of a memory, which is a reflection of a dream, which is a reflection of a feeling … and so forth, almost ‘ad infinitum’. It is only when words would be able to follow this circular process, this reflecting-onto-itself that characterises the moving of the ‘I’ along time, that the mosaic-kaleidoscopic-labyrinth of art could express human existence. It is a re-search, indeed.

A very well known metaphor says: “words are like stones”, and it usually means that language (the ‘words’) refers to and depends on what is not language (the ‘stones’), in a fixed codified set of relationships. The crisis within contemporary discourses originates from the crisis of language: from the moment where not only metaphysical meaning is no longer possible, but also the words no longer directly correspond to their ‘intrinsic’ meaning. In other words, when they are increasingly becoming empty groups of sounds. Venice is the place where this collapse of language is made explicit. Its Being cannot be told, cannot be explained, and it is therefore impossible to know Venice. “We are here entirely among untellable things”, wrote Rilke in one of his letters from Venice. “We would like to deny the abyss, and to acquire dignity, but, despite all our attempts, it irresistibly attracts us. […] Knowledge, dear Fedro, has neither dignity nor rigor; knowledge is wise, comprehensive, capable to forgive, without character nor form; it likes the abyss, it is the abyss”. The inedible crisis of Venice as a city in the last two centuries became the concrete expression of the crisis of the faith in the capability of language to describe, and thus to understand, reality.[9]

Referring to the previous metaphor, the description of the conditions of when and how “words are stones” is not relevant in this context. Rather, if and in which sense stones may become words is what matters here. If a city cannot be a language in itself, it is definitely plausible to consider it as a writing, able to send messages, and to tell stories.[10] Is it still reasonably possible, now, to read something on the book of Venice, or has it already tragically ended into the Nietzschian nihil, into a “mortal silence of sign”? Hopefully, it is never too late.


[1] From Jorge Luis Borges, “El Hacedor”, Buenos Aires 1960, English translation by Andrew Hurley, copyright Penguin, 1999.

[2] Warren Weaver, “Science and Complexity”, American Scientist 36: 536 (1948).

[3] I mention here the explorative walks of Bernardo Secchi (“urban planning is done by foot”); the works of photographers, such as Guido Guidi and Gabriele Basilico; the practice of active commitment to “the actual territories” made by the group Stalker; and the transversal researches of Stefano Boeri and the Multiplicity agency.

[4] Franco Farinelli, “Geografia”, Torino 2003.

[5] The ‘Venice Atlas’ was the title of an architectural research and design studio for the Border Conditions programme of the DUT, with the aim of investigating the urban conditions of contemporary Venice. Via an internet-based analysis focusing on both generic and specific socio-spatial data and information, a generic atlas of Venice was generated, depicting both its real and virtual relations. In order to ‘deal’ with the ‘problematic’ of Venice, like indeed of any other city, a reconceptualisation of this urban entity is required. If this Atlas strives to reveal and represent some of the complex relationships that constitute the Venice ‘agency’ as part, anyhow, of its bigger metropolitan, European and global context, a true understanding of the urban environment implies especially a deeper -very local- experience of this reality. The results of this analysis were confronted with the personal experience and an on-site understanding, through a two weeks multidisciplinary workshop. Different groups of artists, students and researchers, with different backgrounds and perspectives, were invited to experience Venice’s present-day urban conditions and to represent them, using to their own disciplinary knowledge and skills, based on exploration as research tool, and mapping as intentional practice, intended as the necessary premise to allow the definition of a possible alternative future.

[6] The meaning of the term form, here, refers to Erwin Panofsky: “History of art as a humanistic discipline”, in: Meaning in the visual arts, Doubleday, Garden City 1955; and Perspective as a symbolic form, New York 1924. Using the iconological method of analysis in the history of art, he says, it is possible to discover the intrinsic meaning of the work of any artist. As a symbolic form, referring himself to the sense that Cassirer gave to this term (“Philosophie der symbolischen formen”, Berlin, 1923), it becomes also expression of the Weltanschauung of the artist and of his own time, showing especially the processes that generated his work.

[7] Lewis Mumford, The City in History, chapter XI, New York 1961.

[8] A whole chapter of the volume titled Albertine Disparue is dedicated to the permanence in Venice of Marcel, and the references to Venice, and to its artistic magnificence, are several in his whole work, so that Peter Collier dedicated an entire essay, namely “Proustian mosaics; Venice in the Recherche” on the influence of Venice in the process of the re-born of the I through the arts made by Marcel. See Marcel Proust: “Soggiorno a Venezia”, in: “La Recherche du Temps perdu”, volume VI, “Albertine desparue”, chap. III, edizioni del Cavallino, Venezia, 1945

[9] “About what we cannot talk, we need to remain silent”, Rudolf Wittgenstein “Tractatus logicus-philosoficus”, Berlin, 1923.

[10] To this concern it appears unacceptable to consider architecture as a self-standing language, The study of language, in fact, implies concepts like “sign”, “signal”, “canal”, “source”, “receiver”, “transmission”, among others, which are all (with maybe the exception of “sign”) coming from the theory of information. These terms, like already de Saussure demonstrated, are applicable to architecture (and so to all the materials and objects forming a city), only in an extensively figurated way. See Michel Butor “La ville comme texte”, in: “Repertoire V et dernier”, Les editions de minuit, Paris, 1982, italian translation in Casabella 679, Electa, Milano, 2000, and also Tomas Maldonado “Architettura e linguaggio”, in Casabella 679, ibidem