Avant-garde is an epidemic. From modern architecture—an added misfortune, like a hunchback struck down by elephantiasis—there is simply no escape, as its creedal symbols pursue me all over the European continent like the fiends of America’s cinematographic industry or the muttering of the witches in Macbeth. “People meet in architecture” is the prophecy of the Architecture Biennale, which opened in Venice last month. Accursed be that tongue that tells me so! I met my wife under the open skies of the Pyrenees.
From the Centrale in Milan to the Santa Lucia in Venice it went without a hitch, but a shock awaited us on arrival. Opposite the station—“half of glass, half of crap,” as the driver of the water taxi explained—there had appeared a new bridge. Completed a couple of years ago, long after I had quit Venice for the wilds of Sicily, it is the work of the famous Spanish architect Calatrava.
Historically there was only ever room for one bridge spanning the Grand Canal, the Rialto, or for three, if you count the Scalzi near the station and the Accademia, tactfully rendered in wood to impress its impermanence upon the local inhabitants. Yet the town that built St Mark’s knew how to build bridges no worse than the portly gentlemen with rat-tail moustaches from Calatrava’s studio who have now given Venice the new Constitution Bridge. In the thousand years of the town’s existence more than 400 bridges of Istria stone have been erected over the smaller canals, each testifying to the mastery of the architect and the generosity of the patron, usually the owner of the nearest palazzo. Yet the link between the two halves of the stone clamshell that Venice resembles remained firmly in the hands—and in the feet—of the gondoliers, manning the multiple ferry stations for those wishing to cross the Grand Canal.
The gondoliers are an ancient guild in some ways reminiscent of London’s black taxicab fraternity, in turn glorying in its famous Hackney antecedent. As visitors to the capital soon hear, it takes three years of study, including a motorbike stint whose aim is to familiarize the apprentice driver with the exigencies of traffic congestion, to obtain the license. As a result, not only are London taxis the best in the world, their drivers make up the single most honest, serious, and intelligent segment of the population of Britain. Were the meretricious posers of the House of Commons replaced with these denizens of the East End, Britain’s fortunes would doubtless mend overnight.
So, too, with the gondoliers of Venice in their collective role of pontiff. Why change the millennial order of things, then, by building another bridge, thus weakening the gondoliers’ guild and pushing them to become the singing, dancing and thieving tourist attraction that ignorant tourists think they are anyway? True, there are 200 visitors here for every native. Yet if the town is to continue to attract them, it must safeguard its identity as a living and breathing relic, not an Italian branch of The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.
“Why? To steal money, of course,” said the water taxi driver as he cut out the engine, mooring the boat by the mossy walls of an estate on the Giudecca, where my oldest friend in Venice, Giovanni Volpi, had offered me a bed and a supper. I thought I detected a Sicilian glint in the driver’s eyes.
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