Death in Venice. European Style
January 6, 2017 1 Comment
There is no better place to reflect on the malaise of Europe than in one of its grandest cities, one of the continents largest in the late Middle Ages. It’s decline has been lasting for centuries and few places have declined quite as picturesque as Venice. Today the historical Venice has fewer inhabitants than after the catastrophic plague of 1629/31, when a third of its population was killed and the epidemic contributed to the decline of the city.
Only around 55,000 people live in the historic city, some 20,000 more in the islands surrounding it. One has to go back nearly a millennium to find similar low numbers. More people visit the city every day (and half don’t spend the night) than the city has inhabitants.
Venice has been reduced from one of the great trading and political powers of Europe to a sight that visited along a narrowly confined path, a ‘highway’ linking the main sights, without context, selling ‘Italian goods’–made in China–along the way.
Activists and scholars have long criticized the mass tourism, the large cruise ships that flood the cities like iron skyscrapers. But what is the connection to Europe? Venice is just a stop on the Europe in 14-days itinerary for tourists from the US to China.
Just over 100 years ago, the fictional Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer, visited Venice: “He did not anticipate anything else, for the city had always received him with splendor. But the sky and the sea remained cloudy and leaden, at times a fog-like drizzle fell, and slowly he accepted that he would, reaching it by water, discover a vastly different Venice from that which he had approached over land.” Aschenbach is expressing his premonition of his own demise and the discovery of decay and decline in Venice beyond splendor obvious to the visitors’ eyes.
Death in Venice? Closed for the Season.
Some 105 years after the publication of Death in Venice, the Hotel Excelsior still stands on the Lido in which Thomas Mann had Aschenbach stay. Closed for the season. Who wants to stay at the Lido as the sand of the beaches is covered in icy frost?
The Death in Venice was not just the story of an aging writer and his confronting death and decay, it is mirror image of a continent on the eve of its first World War, about tear itself apart. The luxury and the decline of a former grand city were the perfect backdrop for the splendor at twilight of Europe at its time.
Europe’s splendor (or squalor) at twilight could not find a better city, even if a century has passed. Venice’s decline was lasted for four centuries sot that one more is of little consequence. There presumably less splendor and more trash in today’s Venice, but even that is unsure.
Venice appears to be a role model for the rest of Europe: A commercial power that once dominated the world through is skillful trade and politics reduced to a site visited by thousands of selfie-stick wielding tourists with no knowledge of place or meaning of lions, domes and canals.
Europe, just like Venice in particular, has been replicated in the casinos of Las Vegas and in Chinese faux-European cities as a sanitized museum/amusement park. The counter-project to the reduction of Europe to a tourism site has been the European Union over the past half century.Replacing the self-destruction of the continent not with sanitized picturesque sites, but with a shared project that give the continent more than Kodak moment sites.
The continued crises of the EU risk reducing Europe to the trajectory of Venice: Decline, reduction to a site, sanitized, commodified and–ironically–detached from its past (both its glory and its dark sides).
I have argued during the debates around the centenary of World War One, that 1914 should be seen as the zero-hour of Europe, not 1945. It was the moment that the old post-Napoleonic order destroyed itself, resulting in the two world wars and rise of both fascism and communism. Aschenbach anticipated in Venice the end of the old order. What would come to replace was far from clear to Thomas Mann or other astute observers of the crisis.
Over the past two decades, we have come to consider 1989, the end of the Cold War as the other big turning point, the end to the short 20th century that began in 1914, as Eric Hobsbawm argued. Maybe, Hobsbawm was premature. The turning point of 1989 creates a narrative were the post-1989 period is shaped by the absence of ideological confrontation and the victory of liberal democracy. Today, as liberal democracy is under pressure in the United States and the peace project of European integration is in crisis, the question emerges, was really 1989 the end of the 20th century, or will future histories argue that the 20th century was not so short and lasted until 2016? It is too early to tell and we are not only observing history, but also writing it.