Many a city which we call beautiful is by any objective measure not beautiful at all. Very often, as with London or New York, they’re simply gigantic and dynamic enough to admit opposites. Others are dystopias which we’ve trained ourselves to manage in by assigning them labels – enchanting, lovely, beautiful – which don’t apply.
You realise this when you come to Venice: the City of Water is a separate case altogether. Any survey or poll taken regarding the question of The World’s Most Beautiful City, which didn’t show Venice the winner by a comfortable margin would be immediately suspect and void. No other city does terracotta reflected in the water and Gothic windows like this. But it’s also the place of the chance discovery: the Madonna above the doorway; the disappearing spire; the gondola yard; the washing on the balcony.
It hits you rightaway. As you cross from Marco Polo airport towards the lagoon, a new standard presents itself. We can call it beauty, but it’s also to do with an unusual degree of respect for the past. The past, you continually reflect, as you tour Venice’s bridged intricacies and tucked-away glories, may simply have been better aesthetically. The difference between Venice and elsewhere is that Venice has kept its commitment to the past as close to absolute as a city can, while everywhere else has made significant accommodations.
I recall coming here in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008. It occurred to me then that the very last city on earth to know that there was a recession on would be Venice – and the last person on earth, a Venetian hotelier. It comes as no surprise to learn that tourism is by far the biggest sector in Venice, though the region still has a lively shipbuilding sector, in addition to being the largest exporter of Italian luxury goods.
Unemployment here remains high, meaning securing jobs is competitive. I recall another visit here in 2006, and on nights in the piazzas found the common thread among the young was their tendency to be living with their parents with no serious prospect of employment any time soon. Occasionally one wonders what happened to that generation: perhaps they had to go abroad; maybe they become part of the radicalisation of Italian politics either nationally or as part of the Venetian nationalist movement; or perhaps they inherited their parents homes, and still hear their footsteps echoing as they leave the bars of the Piazzale Michelangelo, now thirtysomethings their static lives having been spent taking all this for granted.
For non-Italians who happen to be mobile, and perhaps looking to run their businesses from abroad, the property market is rather inflated in Venice itself compared to properties nearby in Padova and Vicenza. Everything’s Giotto in the first city, and Palladio in the second – and both are in easy reach of Venice.
But relocating to Venice is not impossible, and there’s more life than you might imagine. Readers of Donna Leon’s excellent Commodore Brunetti series will know that the idea of Venice as mere museum and cultural fossil has tended to be exaggerated. In those books, we find a vivid, almost Dickensian cast of characters: the detached aristocrat, somehow managing to afford the upkeep of the palazzo; the shadowy criminals moving their money around; the owners of the gondola companies; the close-knit community which keeps La Fenice running.
But Brunetti’s mysteries often take him beyond Venice itself onto the mainland, as if only there might the real network of relationships which lead to an intriguing crime be found. You sense that if Leon didn’t do this, too many of her stories would be centred on hotels, restaurants, or gelaterias.
For those looking to relocate, I can recommend the Lido. Every night, the vaporetto from the mainland disgorges true Venetians from their day jobs in hospitality onto a sleepy promenade whose veneer is touristy, but which the longer your stay feels lived-in and viable as a home. Accordingly, the place has a sense of community which you only occasionally glimpse on the lagoon. Housing here is affordable – for the Londoner, almost laughably so – and so the international entrepreneur is in theory only a Visa application away from an affordable lifestyle with Venice on their doorstep.
And what does it mean to have Venice on your doorstep? It’s to be among the very wonders of the world. Almost every church has at least something by Titian, Carpaccio, or Veronese and most have at least two of them. Then there are the big-hitters such as the Scuola Grande which is known as the Sistine of Venice, with its grand dramatic ceilings painted by that scrappy hustler Tintoretto. We don’t always like to hear it, but it was the product of a worldly ruse. When the possibility of the commission came up, there were four other artists in contention, including Tintoretto. When Tintoretto displayed his submission, he took the opportunity to announce that it was a donation, knowing full well that the regulations stipulated that all gifts had to be accepted: he went on to do 60 paintings, a large proportion of them deathless masterpieces.
You could spend your life only looking at those – and scores of lifetimes inspecting all the glories elsewhere in the city. If you stand very still on the Ca d’Oro and pay proper attention, you can feel it moving slightly. Look down at the floor at the Basilica di San Marco, and you’ll notice that the stones are uneven and therefore hand-cut – nothing is ever completely even in the Venetian aesthetic, it always admits room for growth. In this beautiful untidiness, it mimics the laws of the universe itself.
Of course, there is another side to Venice, which you can glimpse in the Doge Palace itself. Here you meet the truth that there’s such a thing as a painting which is too large – Tintoretto’s gigantic Last Judgement seems as though it must forever draw attention to its size, and therefore to the ambition of the painter. To paint on that scale you need a better reason than that you’d like to be considered great (and be paid in the process).
Here too are some of the more forbidding prisons imaginable, reminding you that to fall foul of the Doge was never a particularly good idea. The famous Bridge of Sighs is named not, as many think, after the delighted exhalations of lovers seeing the possibilities of La Serenissima. Instead it refers to the regret of prisoners who saw this view on their way to their executions, to when all those possibilities had been closed.
But perhaps there’s a lesson there. If Venice is infinite and we are not, then it’s always to some extent a mystery to anyone mortal. A relocation might be for you if you’ve come to the conclusion that the occasional scratching of the surface isn’t enough.