Venice is a singular, different, atypical city. Its existence has always been marked by two features: its physical conditioning, derived from the watery reality in which it is immersed – the sea, the lagoon, the rivers – with which it has always had to come to terms and, on the other hand, the economic basis for the survival of its population, which had no agricultural hinterland and therefore had to invent other means of sustenance. And Venice has continued to invent and reinvent itself since the Dark Ages down to the present day, adopting the characteristics of an aggressive economy, based on imagination and innovation, positively exploiting the factors that are negative in themselves, and which an unyielding nature and isolated geographical location had given it.
Alongside more natural productive sectors for a coastal city, such as fishing and maritime traffic, this lump of human energies, this community of refugees tempered by adversity, gave itself to piracy, to the slave trade, to the production of salt, while defending itself from assaults by the sea and the overwhelming violence of the rivers. Later, it devoted itself to trade with the East, importing spices, silks and all sorts of exotic products into the European markets. But at the same time, it developed the production of high craftsmanship, working gold and glass.
Everything that could help make money was adopted and developed, based on a secular and mercantile mentality. This ranged from a monopoly in organising pilgrimages to the Holy Land lasting three centuries after the Fourth Crusade to the explosion of the printing industry, when it was realised that with culture one could eat – and which for three decades saw three quarters of the publishing production of Europe concentrated in the lagoon city. With the conquest of the mainland, this was followed by the development of avant-garde agriculture centred on the model of the villas (there are still four thousand standing today) and, in the mid-eighteenth century – on the eve of the collapse of the Serenissima – tourism, which, within a century, also included the first example of beach tourism in the world. The twentieth century saw the development of the industrial area of Porto Marghera; at the price of a horrendous environmental impact, this has given work to tens of thousands of people for a century.
Stimulated by a hostile nature, Venetians have therefore always made money in any way possible, and especially by doing things others were not yet doing. Today Venice is more alive than ever, because far from falling wearily back on repeating models of the past, it is experimenting with new frontiers, and for many decades these have focused increasingly on art and culture.
Year after year, new cultural and artistic institutions and centres arise or arrive from outside, bringing economic and human resources and outlining a new model for growth, while assuring good business for the city, highly-qualified employment and international visibility, with positive repercussions for all of Italy and Europe itself, since a visit to Venice and the Art Biennale (over 600,000 visitors in 2017), and to all the rest too, motivates travel to Europe from other continents.
Contemporary art, combined with the extraordinary appeal of this unlikely city, constitutes the new salt trade that already marked Venice’s central position in Europe and the world more than a thousand years ago, and manages to export a universal cultural language throughout a global world in acute need of such.
Marino Cortese has been president of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia since 2004