I know, I know—tourists are ruining Venice. We hear it all the time. They come in and stay too short a time, eat a slice of pizza, drop their empty water bottles all over the place, stop atop every bridge to gawk, and don’t contribute in substantive ways to the economy. There’s a certain truth to this.
But here’s another truth: Venice’s culture is also thriving.
Hear me out here. In June I spent ten days in Venice. I attended two sagre—the neighborhood festivals where parishes come together to raise money for charitable needs in their area. Some of the entertainment was in Venetian dialect. I also attended a regatta, one of Venice’s oldest traditions that showcases its unique culture and carries on generational traditions. Multiple times I saw rowers in traditional boats, dressed in their rowing club colors, enjoying their pastime in the canals or out on the lagoon. I overheard multiple families talking about signing up to learn how to row with Row Venice, a woman-owned local business. And I went on a cicchetti tour that highlighted bacarò bars where food is made the old way. All of these are either keeping alive the traditions or pulling the old into the newest century.
And I’d like to add another consideration: the flourishing art life of Venice.
ArtNight has become a new tradition where museums open their doors for free or usually off-limits spaces invite people in for a glimpse of what they can offer. All across the city, people stroll and pop into these spots, yes, taking advantage of the free entrance, but also sharing in a strong cultural phenomenon.
I began my evening at Happenstance, a free form art space in the Palazzo Zenobio in Dorsoduro, where the organizers have offered the garden to different musicians, artists, and creators every day. I had wandered in earlier in the day to see the wooden installation that looked like an adult-sized playset, and the inside where the remnants of other art projects sat stacked against the walls. I caught the first 30 minutes of the Soul Liberation gospel chorus composed of young African immigrants fostering peace through song. Later in the evening, a free film would be projected against the back wall of the palace.
Besides visiting Marisa Convento’s jewelry shop, which I’ll write about next, I also popped into the Istituto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arte in Campo Santo Stefano. I’ve only ever seen the lobby before, with its collection of busts showcasing important Venetians, from Cassandra Fedele to Marco Polo and Tintoretto. A dj was spinning disco music, while a cadre of young people handed out cups of Prosecco. Heading upstairs, I was treated to the exhibit of ceramics, jars, masks, and jewelry from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and other parts of Central and South America.
Over at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, I followed the crowds upstairs to see the paintings that were produced live that night, a mosaic composed of corks and bottle caps, and the view from the top floor. From there, I could see other palaces along the Grand Canal lit blue and purple and gold. I had a lovely conversation with the Brazilian artist who created the mosaic with the theme “What we leave behind,” and then she introduced me around as her friend. Someone at the door handed me an ArtNight pin as I exited.
I was sorry to miss other events, such as a skateboarding demonstration inside the Palazzo Grassi and free entrance at the Peggy Guggenheim and the Fondazione Cini in Dorsoduro, both of which had lines of people down the street. I also passed a baroque concert and other spots offering free Prosecco.
I walked home the long way past the Salute Church, peeking into the Seminario Patriarcale to see the cloisters, then around the Punta della Dogana to pass the warehouses along the Zattere. I lost count—did I enter three or four of these spaces transformed into exhibits of local artists, meeting places, impromptu bars, and a gathering spot for protesters? The young of the city are out and are sharing their voices and views.
In every place I visited, the majority of voices were Italian. Yes, tourists visited these events too, but so did lots of Venetians and folks from the mainland. A friend told me, in fact, that the city swells with visitors from the Veneto for ArtNight.
So yes, in some ways Venice’s culture is endangered and the city is overwhelmed. But clearly something good is going on as well. Venice is a cultural mecca, with multiple events on any given day, art and music and film and dance and parties created by locals and highlighting so many talents. These spaces invite creativity and dialogue about what Venice can be, what Venice’s future can look like. They inspire hope.