While Venice spends a great deal of energy preserving its past, this city is also entrenched in the here and now and modern Venetian life has many fascinating facets. Specifically, Venice . . .
… feels the influence of immigration but still retains its cultural integrity
Venice, like the rest of Italy, has recently experienced an influx of foreign immigrants, but unlike other Italians, Venetians are fairly open to these newcomers. The city has a proud cosmopolitan tradition. Renaissance Venice had one of the largest, and richest, Jewish communities in Europe, and the Greek, Turkish, Armenian, German, Albanian, and Slavic communities have given their names to important streets and buildings in Venice. Pressure upon immigrants to assimilate culturally is much less intense here than it is in other Italian cities. They are hired and befriended, and some even learn Venetian dialect, but they are not expected to become Venetians. Local Venetian culture has, overall, maintained itself pretty well. The local dialect is spoken by all levels of society. Venetians still enjoy the 18th-century dialect comedies of Goldoni, and it’s not uncommon to hear dialect spoken by elegant operagoers at La Fenice. Local festivals, such as the Redentore, Salute, and la Sensa, are celebrated with enthusiasm.
… is a city of piscivores
As is to be expected in a maritime republic, fish plays the starring role on the traditional Venetian table. Certain fish, such as sardines, are plentiful and always fresh, and working class neighborhoods are frequently pungent with the perfume of grilled sardines, which you can frequently also find in inexpensive restaurants. Or you can try the traditional Venetian classic, sarde in saor, fresh fried sardines marinated in olive oil, sautéed onions, vinegar, raisins, and pine nuts, an ancient recipe from Venice’s time as part of the Byzantine Empire. Another classic and inexpensive fish dish is seppie in nero, cuttlefish stewed in a sauce made with its own ink, generally served with creamy polenta. The one classic Venetian pasta dish is bigoli in salsa, thick homemade whole wheat spaghetti, with a sauce featuring anchovies, fried onions, and cinnamon; the anchovies are totally transformed by the sweetness and pungency of the onions and cinnamon.
… goes crazy for fresh vegetables
Venetians are passionate about vegetables from the islands in the Venetian lagoon, especially from the island of Sant’Erasmo, and those from the adjacent mainland. In the spring Venetians wait anxiously for the castraore, the tiny white artichokes from Sant’Erasmo, with as much zeal as the Piemontesi wait for the white truffles of Alba in the fall. But the castraore are even rarer. Since they grow only one to a plant, their number is very limited, and each year’s crop is consumed almost totally in Venice. Springtime also brings the plump, succulent white asparagus from Bassano, in the foothills of the Dolomites north of Venice, and in the fall there is the famous radicchio, a red and white endive, from Treviso, just a stone’s throw from Venice on the mainland. Pasta e fagioli, bean soup with pasta, is enjoyed all over Italy, but in Venice it is frequently made with beans from the mainland Veneto town of Lamon, which have a delicate and complex taste and beat out the beans from other places hands down.
… is one with the sea
Venetians historically have taken great pleasure from rowing out into the lagoon to gaze back at their city. They are acutely aware of the beauty of Venice—they, just like the visitors, never tire of it—and there are few views more breathtaking than sunset on the lagoon with the domes and towers of the city in the background. Venetian youth take to the waters for fun. Although soccer, the Italian national passion, is widely followed in Venice, Venetian youths seem to prefer sailing and cruising in motorboats on the lagoon or duck hunting in the salt marshes, and a Venetian swain will take his girlfriend out for a moonlit sail on the lagoon. Many Venetian young men, and now even some women, join rowing clubs and learn how to row “alla veneta,” standing up in the stern, like a gondolier.
… does not live by tourism alone
Because of the hordes of tourists, many visitors get the false impression that Venice is simply a tourist attraction and is no longer a real city. While tourism is obviously important for the economy, most visitors are unaware that Venice is also a major educational center, home to three major institutions of higher learning. The largest of the three, Ca’ Foscari, has more than 17,000 students; the School of Architecture is one of the most prestigious in Italy; and Venice International University (IUV) attracts students and scholars from all over the world. Venice also has thriving glass, fishing, shipbuilding, and petroleum-refining industries.
… battles rising waters
While Venice may be sinking slightly, it is raising water levels that are the main problem. Industrial land fill in the lagoon and the channels dug to accommodate the oil tankers and cruise ships have increased the frequency and intensity of the floods, as have the rising sea levels caused by worldwide climatic change and an increase in the frequency of the sirocco winds from North Africa that force the waters of the Adriatic up into the Venetian lagoon. The city is pinning hopes on a long-term solution: the construction of movable dikes at the entrances to the lagoon on the Lido is underway, with completion scheduled for 2016.
… strives to combine the new with the old
Most visitors to Venice enter into a world of the past, and the city seems more suited to life in the 18th century than to the exigencies of modern life. Nevertheless, Venice is also a center of contemporary artistic creativity. There is, of course, the Biennale dell’Arte, Venice’s biannual international festival of contemporary art, its annual festival of cinema on the Lido, and the Biennale dell’Architettura. Even more significant for everyday life in Venice, however, is one of the first things visitors see when they enter the city: the elegant and graceful bridge crossing the Grand Canal and linking the bus station at Piazzale Roma with the train station, by noted Spanish contemporary architect Santiago di Calatrava. At the other end of the Grand Canal is Tadao Ando’s inventive remodeling of the 17th-century customs depot to house contemporary art. But modernity in Venice has its limits: protests prohibited the construction of two concrete obelisks at the entrance to the collection, and Charles Ray’s contemporary statue of a nude boy holding a frog, which had become an icon of the collection, had to be removed and replaced with a traditional lantern.
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