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CULTURE

‘The myth of Venice’: How the Venetian brand helps the city survive

Many of the stories Venice tells about itself aren't true – but they have helped the city to survive over the ages and will do so again after its latest disastrous floods, writes historian Roisin Cossar.

'The myth of Venice': How the Venetian brand helps the city survive
Venice's legendary myths have attracted travellers for centuries. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The city of Venice was recently hit by the worst flooding in more than 50 years.

Water in the lagoon that surrounds the city rose 1.87 metres higher than normal, very close to the peak levels of the disastrous flood of November 4th, 1966. High winds of nearly 100 kilometres an hour made the situation even worse.

IN PHOTOS: Venice submerged as exceptional tide sweeps through city


Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The city’s pedestrian streets became rushing rivers of brackish water, boats were thrown onto walkways and the crypt of the basilica of San Marco was submerged. The damage is still being tallied, but the mayor currently estimates restoration costs at more than €1 billion.

As a historian of Venice who has spent long periods living and working in the city, I followed the stories of the damage with growing sadness and dismay.

Then I reminded myself that the international community has always responded with great concern to cataclysms in Venice. Assistance from across the world in the aftermath of the 1966 flood allowed the restoration of dozens of damaged monuments, paintings and sculptures, as well as the creation of foundations that still work to benefit the city’s artistic treasures.


The Venice floods of 1966. Photo: AFP

Why does Venice attract so much international attention compared to other cities? I’ve been pondering this question. The city is an undeniably beautiful place, and many tourists remark on the haunting lights and sounds of a city built entirely on water, with no vehicular traffic.

But Venice is also a place with a long tradition of convincing outsiders of its uniqueness. This tradition may continue to shape the way the world sees the city today, and could be what ends up helping the city survive.

A city of great myths

Venice has long been known for its artistic, political and cultural achievements. During its centuries as an independent republic (from 1297 to 1797), it was one of the greatest economic and military powers in Europe.

Venetian merchants (including Marco Polo) were famous for trading activities across Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia, and Venice’s navy was supported by a huge and active shipyard, the Arsenal.

READ ALSO: Venice had its own 'Airbnb problem' during the Renaissance – here's how it coped

The government of the republic was also well-known for its early and extensive bureaucracy. As a consequence, the city’s medieval and early modern archives are among the richest available anywhere in the world today.

But Venice also stands out because its inhabitants have a tradition of telling stories — some would say myths — that highlight its special status while obscuring some inconvenient truths.


Flooding in Venice's Gritti Palace earlier this month. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

For instance, Venetians claim that the city was founded in the middle of the fifth century A.D. by mainland dwellers fleeing before invading hordes of “barbarians” — including Attila the Hun himself.

But archeologists have cast doubt on that tale since they have found that as early as the Bronze Age, people hunted and fished on the mudflats of the Venetian lagoon.

By the fifth century, at least one island in that watery region, Torcello, was home to a thriving community of several thousand inhabitants. More communities gradually took shape nearby, as inhabitants drained marshy land and built it up by driving thousands of wooden piles into the mud.

That prosaic tale of gradual development is overshadowed by the more dramatic story of flight and survival, which continues to be used to emphasize the special status of Venice within the Italian peninsula and in world history.


This handout satellite image shows Venice under 'acqua alta' earlier this month. Photo: CNES 2019/AFP

Another influential story the Venetians told about themselves in the Middle Ages was that of the republic as La Serenissima, or “the most serene”. This “myth of Venice,” as scholars call it, compared the harmony of Venetian civic life to the factionalism of other cities in Italy. It, too, is a fable that obscured real tensions within the republic.

Even the famously well-organized republican archives, a “fact” repeated by Venetian chancery officials and then scholars across centuries, has recently been shown to be more myth than reality. In fact, officials struggled to maintain professionalism within the archive as early as the 16th century.

Separate and special?

As I tell my undergraduate students, just because these stories are not entirely true does not mean they are unimportant. Quite the opposite: they show us what mattered to those who told them.

But they also contributed to a notion that Venice was separate and somehow special. In the responses to recent environmental catastrophes, we can see the positive and the negative effects of that longstanding belief.

On the one hand, Venice will probably get the international support it needs to embark on a huge cleanup and restoration effort. 

READ ALSO: Italy's ancient cave city of Matera left in desperate need of emergency funding

On the other hand, other storm-damaged communities in Italy that lack the Venetian “brand” might not receive the same assistance, especially from international organizations with substantial endowments.

Of course, restoring the historical treasures of Venice and ensuring that the city is safe from future catastrophe is important. It must happen.

But if we look just a bit critically at why we think of Venice as exceptionally worthy of attention, we might find that Venetian myth-making has struck again.

Roisin Cossar, Professor, Department of History, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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CULTURE

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres. 

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