The Reportage

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Like a Gondola out of Water

may 5th | diMario Calabresi

The only thing to break the silence is the sound of the oars chopping in and out of the water, two women row a large wooden boat laden with boxes of fruit, vegetables, eggs and bread. They take them to the houses of those who are in quarantine, those who aren’t allowed to leave their homes. The water of the Rio Novo, which connects the station to the Grand Canal and is usually the highway of the taxi-boats, is now stock-still, and the girls of “Row Venice” plunge their oars back and forth through the water with determination. The canals belong to them these days. More than a month ago they transformed their three “shrimp tail”, traditional wooden boats they use to teach Venetian rowing to the curious and tourists, into a service for the community. In the silence, the bells ring out the hours and have begun to mark the rhythm of the day again. Venice is beautiful. Venice is terribly empty. Venice is for the Venetians again.

Venice, 29 April 2020. The girls of “Row Venice” (non-profit organisation for the promotion of Venetian rowing) transport food on their boats to deliver it to the homes of those who cannot go out

«The only good thing about this tragic time is to be able to pick each other out, to see each other, to say hello, it hadn’t happened for such a long time, it was always impossible to recognise each other amongst the throngs of tourists. We hadn’t seen each other for 40 years». Fifty-two thousand residents mixed up in the 25 million tourists who pass through every year. But today the tourists have disappeared, and when I ask Lorenzo Della Toffola, known as “The Viking”, to explain the situation to me, he shows me his hands: «For the first time they are clean, there is no trace of paint or work; this for me is the greatest indication of something being wrong». For two months, Lorenzo’s hands haven’t been dirty because for two months the gondolas in Venice have been stationary, frozen where they were, with no one is lining up to get on board.

Lorenzo Della Toffola’s hands at work again in his craft workshop, the Squero di San Trovaso: here he is repairing the bottom of a gondola

While the whole of Europe is debating and deciding on gradual reopening schedules for restaurants, bars, shops and museums, there is only one city that cannot get back on track: without tourists, Venice’s economy is inexistent. That river of people that arrived every day by train, plane, ship, bus, has been completely drained. Venice suffered under that load of a hundred thousand people arriving every day, an insufferable number, but today it agonises at seeing that number become zero.

«The thing that really cuts me up is the Riva del Vin, that’s what it’s called because the old market was there and they used to unload the wine demijohns there, it’s full of small restaurants. Everything is closed and no one has a clue when it will reopen». Elisabetta Ferrari has been guiding visitors for more than 30 years, her local culture knows no bounds, every corner of the Lagoon has a tale to tell. «The water is crystalline because there are no motorboats. The rowing boats are back, there’s a lot of poetry in this but also a lot of anguish». The mayor Luigi Brugnaro continues to repeat that tourism will return one day, but we must support all the commercial activities so that they have the means to reopen that day and so that, in the meantime, too many people do not lose their lifetime’s work.

Bars and restaurants in the lanes and piazzas of Venice

Lorenzo Della Toffola is in charge at the Squero di San Trovaso, the last remaining craft workshop in Venice where gondolas are built and restored. Historical documents show that this house-workshop has been here since before the 17th century. The so-called “axe masters” – those who transformed the trees into boats – all came from the Cadore region in the Alps, and they built their houses in the only style they knew, that of the mountains. «In these months, we usually work day and night to rebuild the bottom, repaint and perfect every boat. But all the 433 gondoliers in Venice are behind closed doors in their homes, they can’t even begin to imagine when they will be able to start working again».

The Squero di San Trovaso

Lorenzo caresses the frame of a gondola he was working on at the beginning of March, before having to put his craft on hold; he begins to list those who have been let go from work, set adrift: «I said gondoliers, but I should also mention all the motorboat drivers, cooks, waiters, shopkeepers, hotel doormen, porters, shopkeepers, bed and breakfast staff, shop assistants, tour guides, craftsmen. Not to mention the theatres, museums, the Biennale, cinema, construction sites. It’s been a terrible year: first at home because of the high water, something never seen before, now because of the virus. I admit to feeling down in the dumps. I don’t see how we’re going to get out of it».

As he speaks, he tries to familiarise himself with the place he was exiled from seven weeks ago. «I’m finally back inside my workshop, reopening in the hope that someone will come. Every two years, every gondola has to be entirely repainted. It takes a month. We used to use pitch, today it’s wood polish. It required ten coats of paint, all applied by hand with a brush. The gondolas live in water, and if they stay still, they deteriorate even more. Normally they are constantly wet by the waves, those made by motorboats, ships and the steamboat ferries; now that the water is still and it hasn’t rained for two months, the wood has dried up and the gondolas are all cracked or split. Also, if they don’t move, much more seaweed forms on the keel. There would be a lot of work for my workshop, but I don’t know how many gondoliers want to invest in the maintenance of their boats without knowing when the tourists will be back. And I’m afraid we won’t see them again for a year».

Lorenzo’s eyes take in the scene that surrounds him, and he repeats to himself the question I put to him: «What am I going to do now? I was building a gondola, it’s almost finished. I guess we’ll build another one after that; it’s going to be the year of the new boats».

Stationary gondolas on the Grand Canal; in the background, the Ponte di Rialto

While “The Viking” – the nickname was given to him because he is blond, has blue eyes and is a bit of rough diamond – was at home with his clean hands fretting about what to do, Giovanni Pelizzato walked through the narrow lanes and over bridges, his arms full of books. His bookshop is called “La Toletta”, his grandfather opened it in 1933 and it is a family point of pride that they never closed it, not even during the most gruelling months of the Second World War. So, on Thursday, March 12, when the order came down from on high to close up shop, he opened the shutters before dawn, about ten minutes before six o’clock, and to avoid breaking down in floods of tears, he prepared a sign to put in the window: «We will deliver the books to your home every day, except Sunday, between 1 and 5 p.m., after collecting requests from 9 to 11 a.m.»

«My hand was driven by desperation and instinct», says Giovanni. «I had no idea if anyone would call, if anyone would want a book. Instead I found myself walking non-stop, even 20 kilometres a day. I always provided same day delivery, faster than Amazon, and, at 53 years-old, I discovered hidden corners of this city that I didn’t know».

Giovanni Pelizzato’s “La Toletta” shopfront

His book-laden walks have safeguarded almost 20 percent of his sales, but without the remaining 80, many employees will be laid off and the mortgage will have to keep being postponed. The shop is about to reopen, but tourists and students from the nearby Ca’ Foscari university, closed like all the other universities, will be missing from the picture.

The floods from the high waters of November 12, 2019 dealt the first blow: «I’m of an anxious disposition and, every time an alert comes in, I move all the books to the highest shelves, one meter and seventy above sea level, because the high tide in the previous worst case scenario reached 150 centimetres. But this time the water reached 187 centimetres, destroying 3,800 books». Giovanni’s story is one of the many we are hearing in this period in which the words “despair” and “breath” turn up, because the challenge for the future is to keep the water clean and to be able to hear the sound of the oars without the city around it dying.

A mural which has appeared in Venice in the past few days

To think that only a few months ago, the debate was about how Venice could live on tourism without dying of tourism. «The impact of the last few years has been too intense, the city was losing its identity; today – Elisabetta Ferrari has the courage to say – is a moment of drama but one for reflection. This is a city to understand, to stroll around, to enjoy, it’s not an amusement park or an “albergo diffuso”».

To understand hit-and-run tourism, just crunch a few numbers: 80% of visitors don’t stay even one night, and Palazzo Ducale, the museum with the most visitors sells one million three hundred thousand tickets a year. Only one out of every twenty-five tourists enter this symbolic place of the city.

Stefano Croce, president of the Tourist Guides of Venice association, someone who makes a living thanks to foreign visitors, doesn’t mince words: «These huge groups arrive, 40 or 50 people all together. They spend a few hours here, clog the streets, snap a selfie in St. Mark’s Square, grab a bite to eat in a fast food restaurant, buy two magnets and leave Venice with nothing but garbage. It’s not true that all tourism brings wealth. And the curious visitors, those who would like to know the city’s history and discover it, get out fast».

But it is the Venetians who are the first to run away – they can no longer live in a city where shops are vanishing and where the Airbnb phenomenon is making it impossible to find a house to rent: «Normal businesses are closing one after the other, there is only one men’s shoe shop left in the whole city. To buy anything, a Venetian has to go to the mainland or buy online. Every closure of a historic shop is mirrored by the opening of a fast food restaurant, whether it’s kebabs, pizza by the slice or sandwiches. The houses are transformed into bed and breakfasts or are rented on Airbnb, which today offers nine thousand accommodation options in the city, or about 20 percent of the available housing citywide. This is why young couples or those who come to work can no longer live in Venice».

From Ponte dell’Accademia, I observe the Grand Canal – nobody sails it and nobody crosses it, until a DHL boat appears: here too Amazon deliveries have become the number one market.

The deserted Grand Canal, the lone navigator a DHL delivery boat

There are a myriad of proposals for how to enact lasting change, from limiting the number of houses to be allocated to Airbnb to a reservation system for daily visits: «Many people have reflected on the issue, and the crucial point is that the number of tourists must be compatible with the number of residents, i.e. between 50 and 70 thousand presences per day. Today we have zero visitors, a year ago it was one hundred thousand». There is a risk that after the great thirst for tourist that will afflict the city in the coming months, an “anything goes” scenario could be witnessed, one with no rules. But that would be a slippery slope for Venice. Far-sighted policies should have the ability to build change from the word go.

Finally some rain starts to fall, a godsend for the sun-dried gondolas of this quarantine; then a rainbow appears over the Grand Canal. A portent for a bright future, I’d say.

Venice, 29 April 2020. The rainbow over the Grand Canal