Urbanists often use European cities as a model for everything that’s right and true and good about cities. American cities are spread out, so people have to drive along, instead of standing on a public transport next to a man who is muttering about chemtrails and has the personal funk of a Dumpster outside a urinalysis lab. European cities are compact, with everyone living on top of one another in picturesque piles with the square footage of the average American auto trunk. European cities are Walkable, which is the chief virtue nowadays. Well, ancient Rome was Walkable. A collection of Neolithic huts was Walkable. Apparently American cities are strewn with tacks and rattlesnakes and feature large open pits with spikes on the bottom. No one can walk there.
There’s one city no one seems to hold up as a model, and that’s Venice. I was just there for a while, and it’s an astonishing place — for reasons we can surely adapt here.
One. No cars. It is simple to ban cars from all streets with Venice-style zoning, which ensures that most streets are three feet wide. You couldn’t get Orson Welles down these passageways without greasing both sides and shooting him out of a cannon. There are streets in this town where two people who meet going the opposite way cannot pass, but local customs dictate that the person who is taller gets down on hands and knees and the other person climbs over him. No car can enter the streets of Venice unless you lower it into a plaza with a helicopter.
Two. It is quite walkable, and your journeys will give you that marvelous sense of discovery and surprise the urbanists seek. By which I mean, you will be lost. The maps are no help; you’re on a small street named Contradore Della Caravaggissimo Magiori di Luchese, and the map shows C. del Car.Ma.Lu, if you’re lucky. And it’s in the type that makes the bottom line of an eye chart look like a tabloid headline the day war is declared.
Three. It is better than walkable: it is swimmable, and thus provides an excellent form of exercise. Remarkably, the concept of swimming from your house to work never seems to have been popular, for the same reason most people don’t bike to work: You arrive at the office wet and smelly.
Four. It is dense, but with many open spaces where people can congregate and do public-type things, like have a gelato or hang a thief, depending on your era. These squares are called campi, from the old Latin word for “field.” In the early days of Venice, when each island was its own political unit, each campo had a palazzo for the local bossman, dwellings for the citizens, and a church from which the campo now takes its name. There is also a cistern that supplied water not completely contaminated with natural pathogens, and they’re usually decorated with allegorical carvings that depict cherubim holding forth goblets, worn by time into indistinct shapes that remind you half a millennium has passed since the artist put down his tools.
“Half a millennium,” in fact, seems the average unit of time that’s elapsed since anything was built. When we took a water taxi to the airport at six a.m., we stepped down stones that may have predated the first American colony, and looming above in the morning light was a baroque edifice of such ornate extravagance it brought to mind Goethe’s characterization of architecture: frozen music. If you walked 100 paces you’d find another, and another beyond that; if the door was open, the crepuscular interior had visual riches that stunned you to silence and reverence — if not for God, then for the mind of man who could conjure such froth and frosting out of stone, throw the ceiling high in the air, and decorate it with clouds and robed saints twisting up into the empyrean beyond. They are places of joy and wonder.
They are also deserted.
Not just because showtime comes later. In Europe you get the sense that religion is an outdated operating system that won’t load on modern terminals. There’s no way Venice, a city of 50,000 souls — roughly, Fargo, N.D., in 1976 — can support this many enormous churches. The weekly take on Sunday isn’t enough to cover the cost of floor wax, let alone patching a roof from the days of Christopher Columbus.
#page#Still, they’re impressive. Solid and eternal. Less so the housing: The ground floor of Venice is packed with restaurants and shops, but above are beaten shutters with peeling paint, flaked stucco, cracked walls; it has a ruined charm, the sense of a long decay that measures the tick of the second hand in decades. It’s only when you look down from the hotel roof at night that you realize the city is dark. As far as you can see, there’s nothing to see. The lights are off. No one’s home.
Well, not entirely. The city has residents, but as the tour guide explained, they’re the uno per cento. The occupied palazzos and apartment buildings cost vast quantities of Euros. A fortune is required to rehab the ancient structures, and many end up as hotels. Tourists, you sense, are the real residents of Venice, a population that streams in from ships and planes, and mills around like interchangeable red-blood cells through the stone capillaries, replaced every day.
One night we came across a university graduation in San Marco. Hundreds of chairs, a big stage, banners congratulating the studenti. Afterward almost every campo and every street had a knot of grads carousing around, singing a ditty that began “Dottore, Dottore” — you sensed that if someone started singing it, everyone had to. (The lyrics are utterly obscene.) The highlight of their lives, perhaps — to be young and newly graduated in Venice on a warm summer night, the 19th-century lamps glowing above, the plosh of the gondolier’s oar in the water below the bridge, the narrow streets alive like no other city in the world, really. It puts to shame your own tenure at a flat Midwestern school, where the columned mall was an ersatz retread of this. Of Europe. Of the real thing.
Then again, you have a job, which is why you can afford to visit Venice. What’s ahead for the students? The next day we went to a small art museum on an island where they’ve put the modern art, as if to quarantine the stuff so it doesn’t infect the churches. The exhibition was dedicated to abstract glass. One room had four wavy mirrors the size of record albums, hung one per wall, as if they were Old Masters that needed proper space to breathe and reveal their mysteries. There were about ten staff members and four visitors. Five young women ran the front desk. Each gallery had a young fellow in a nice suit standing around waiting for someone to touch something. They looked horribly bored. You suspected that each had a college degree. Or two.
It’s always unwise to extrapolate anything about a place based on a fortnight of wandering and gawking, but you can’t help but think that Venice is southern Europe incarnate: lovely, old, its churches great sets for a play that closed years ago. It doesn’t make anything except dinner and good coffee. Maybe that’s enough. It had a good run. It would be rude to expect it to invent something or create a new industry. It’s just enough for it to (a) be Venice, and (b) not sink.
The last day we were there, San Marco plaza flooded. The water came up and the tourists splashed around and took pictures, like people at Disneyland playing in the fountains that spray water from jets in the pavement. A storm rose around six, and apocalyptic clouds rolled in and lanced the sea with lightning bolts. The downpour began; the street vendors put away their fake bags and started selling genuine umbrellas; people fled for cafés, and the city was empty.
I took shelter in a church by our hotel, expecting the usual astonishments, and was not disappointed. An altarpiece depicting the life of Moses rose above like stone smoke unraveling into the heavens. Heard some Latin; in the corner, a priest was finishing Mass for a half-dozen people. So it wasn’t over for them after all. There were still a few who came here for shelter. Afterward the priest and the congregants had a conversation, and I eavesdropped.
They were all Americans.
— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.