Photographing Venice is easy, so easy. Every year millions of people do.
Usually you put your family against a pleasant background and shoot; you can use a compact digital camera or a mobile phone, and voila, you got your photo. May be not well exposed, wrongly backlit or partly ruined by unpleasant facial shadows but your souvenir is grabbed and everyone is happy.
Many years ago, I had in mind a book on tourist behavior, and I did a few hundred shots in black and white. Then it all came to nothing. Yet on a closer consideration, it was highly instructive to see -and understand- what and how normal people photograph this city.
Venice clichés dominate so it is difficult to do something original, to give a sense to a sequence of photos. Certainly, the changing Venetian light, the succession and the variations of the atmosphere help. Each different situation provides insights: the rain and the play of reflections on shiny flooring trachyte, fog, high water, snow, sunsets are occasions greedy for the avid photographer.
At this point, however, we must make a serious talk. The photograph has infinite values, the aesthetics, the documentation, the pleasure of looking and searching for (and then to find out); It requires motivation, intelligence, culture, sensibility, personality. Finally, a powerful tool of communication, which is photography, the main issue is to transmit a message inherent in that sequence, in a slideshow, in the Facebook one-man show. Here is, usually, the rub.
All photos are beautiful, but in a way are not satisfactory unconnected, decontextualized, lackluster results. You know the Carnival of Venice. Recent festivals – 40 years ago were children who threw flour to each other, Zorro kids and little fairies – are a feast of colors, of beautiful masks, anonymous exhibitionist posing happy to meet the photographic paroxysm of tourists. Once back home the content of the Memory Cards in transferred into a Pc, then the torment of the family and the friends begins, and lasts for a couple of nights. Finally – perfect shots, right lights, elegant colors, and intriguing subjects – you store everything for future reference. Practically, it all ends there.
Not least, the historical background of Venice and its people in the timeline. In a contradictory stratification of styles, ages, wealth and poverty, radical changings mostly today when all is subdued to an interested bias and distortion of a civilization we must admit is definitely dead, and we are unable to represent.
In its external medieval appearance, the aquatic city is unlike any other, it is curious and surprising. Perhaps it is not as beautiful rhetoric imposes: the bell tower of San Marco and the Rialto Bridge are ugly, the St. Mark’s basilica is a poorly risen cake, the Piazza is wrong, closed on the best side, that is, to the south; for the rest the city looks emptied and closed. There is a bakery to pay gold. Only cheap junk everywhere, poor quality masks and glasses; in the center, the usual ultra-luxury shops which are located – in photocopy – in Dubai, Atlanta, New York and Singapore.
Yet Venice has two things that make it unique: charm and mystery. In addition, here, strongly blurred and almost imperceptible, is the soul of this city. You can very well say that the last two centuries history has deleted, destroyed, obscured this ancient civilization, its traditions, its luminous aura.
Venice lost its inhabitants, the city that “never become a museum”, has become only an incomprehensible mess of unsorted breadcrumbs to feed the cultural fast food of uncultured crowds.
Venetians? Almost nowhere.
The bitterness of the Venetian in me does not dissolve before restorations poorly made, albeit I remember well the miserable and dilapidated city of my childhood. The Venetian pride that sometimes emerges in someone translates into blunt hatred, in trivial and pathetic revanchism.
Thousands of houses and buildings are closed and uninhabited, a safe haven for foreign owners who become richer every year for the increase in real estate value.
Now, wandering through these deserted streets with a camera can be desperate, along canals there are only plastic motor boats moor, pizzerias intercalate with cafes, and again other pizzerias.
Yet the soul of Venice is still there, hovering like a mist that blurs the present and reminds the mythical dimension of the people and life of the remote republic of the Doges. The glory belongs to eight centuries before, in the XIV century, at the age of doge Enrico Dandolo and the crusades; the splendor of the sublime Quattrocento until the catastrophe –at the time of Doge Foscari who turned his back to the sea. While Columbus landed in the Caribbean – thinking he reached India – the world allied against this small but renowned Republic, putting it down on knees. Venice was able to survive but a profound change started, quickly taking it to the slope of the precipice. Venice could stand again, living from illusion into illusion, for two more centuries. Bloated stone architecture to witness a power boasted but vanished, poverty and nobility, splendor of appearance, the play in and out of theaters, art the most sublime, the mess, the feasts, the country holidays.
Then the absolute misery, to boil cats and mice, while Napoleon was in breach of the Piazza, building, in the place of a church a royal palace and a huge ballroom, chiseling away arms and memorial stones. He robbed furnishings and artwork to the Louvre, destroyed with cruel and arrogant determination the Bucintoro, the symbol boat of the doges, the Arsenal, the ancient shipyard, and in the whole the dignity of the Republic. Under the rule of the Austrians, who followed, the sale for little money of the imperial noble titles started, filling the city with counts and countesses, which never existed before. The Lands of the Lion, Istria, Kvaerner and Dalmatia, Illyria harbors and the ionic islands were abandoned and forgotten, with the last flag of St. Mark buried under the altar of the church of Perasto in the Bay of Kotor. Venice was gone and the last cry was that of the faithful Dalmatians: “Ti con nu, nu con ti” , that is “You (St. Mark) with us, we with you”. These crews were the very ones to shoot their cannons against Napoleon’s fleet, which Venice was unable (or unwilling) to do.
Then the forced annexation of the Savoy Family in a new state, Italy. The historic city for more than half demolished and rebuilt, with construction of new entire modern neighborhoods, gutted, landfilled and unrecognizable. With my grandfather who funneled over me descriptions and stories of his grand-grandfather.
However, to photograph “this” Venice is anything but nostalgic, and it is impossible to those not born here and do not have the cultural tools needed. It is an ongoing investigation of ethereal elements, small but significant evidence, often only atmospheres. Sometimes you just climb up the steep stairs on bell towers in certain well-defined areas, the less distorted, to rediscover the eternal Venice. Alternatively, wandering in the Mainland, close to Mestre, where hamlets of terraced houses echo the dialect talk of Castello, Dorsoduro, Giudecca and Cannaregio.
In some cases, it is best to document for the history (which makes sense) rather than playing to do the artists (which is fun, fulfilling, but sterile).
Looking at my forgotten photos of 40 years ago, the most exciting are exactly these: not perfect pictures, but damn, Venice was so. Another thing.