“I would have put the coffee in two paper cups if you had told me!” spluttered the red-bearded Venetian. Err … I did tell you. And your mono-syllabic, similarly bearded colleague. On two occasions. In Italian and English.
And there, in an instant, lies the problem with Venice – this historic city that draws over 2.5 millions tourists a year to view what I call an ‘urban museum’ for those seeking a nostalgic slice of culture. Mass tourism has become a source of frustration for its 60,000 residents, who perceive travellers as invading hordes swamping the fabric of their city, culture and heritage.
To a certain extent, I sympathise. In my years teaching in Venice, I have similarly grown frustrated with the day-tripping, selfie-stick wielding couples who create congestion on the narrow bridges. And with the ugly sight of the polluting, mega cruise-liners at the mouth of the Grand Canal. But at the same time, the locals are biting the hand that feeds them – even if that hand is clutching a selfie-stick in one and a “Venice boarding pass” from the cruise ship in the other.
I have had a special affinity to this city since my Grand Tour days. Having studied it for over 20 years, I now teach an annual, week-long master class called Sustain & Retain – an immersive programme of art, architecture, literature and gastronomy that delves into the hidden, unspoken side of Venice. The city is examined in talks, walking tours, events, and prosecco-fuelled guest lectures by luminaries in their field. (This year, it was Mario Charalambous – hairstylist to British celebrities and the royal family. His offbeat talk? The Architecture of Haircutting).
The obligatory St Marks Square and the Rialto Bridge are on the agenda, but not as they are commonly seen by the day-tripper. On this occasion, my colleague, Professor Stefano Croce, an architectural historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of Venice deftly avoided the crowds and pointed our group to gems hidden to the casual observer. Think the striking interior’s of Carlo Scarpa’s Fondazione Quirini Stampalia, and the intrigues and machinations of the various doges of Venice. My tour of the Rialto covered the artisans, from Murano glassblowers, to a maker of the furlani – the velvet slippers with recycled bicycle tire soles worn by gondalieri so as to not scratch the wooden veneer of the gondolas.
Another shop dates to the 1930’s that hand carves cameo – an early form of portraiture made from sea-shells.
A short train ride to the city of Padova further revealed the majesty of the Veneto region. The class walked through the city’s aged university campus, the second oldest in the world, and caught the spectacle of some poor doctoral student in an oversized suit running the gauntlet of backside kicks from friends and family, along with jeers comprising earthy Italian equivalents of “up your backside” and “eff off”. It’s a tradition that adds to the colour, character and identity of the place.
You see, dear reader, cities cannot be rushed – especially those like Venice, and its environs. They need immersion and an ability to take a step back – to observe, experience, record and only then remember.
Prof Jason Pomeroy is the founder of Singapore-based urbanism, architecture, design and research firm Pomeroy Studio. He also hosts the television series Smart Cities 2.0, City Time Traveller (Series 1 & 2) and City Redesign and believes that travel is a fundamental part of education. Read our full interview with Pomeroy here.