Tourism and its disadvantages. The case of Venice

Image by Ricardo Gomez Angel.

It’s easy to see why tourists are annoying. You travel for change to a foreign city only to find it full of people from your country. And it’s not hard to see why over-tourism is very annoying. You can hardly make your way through the streets. As is very often noted, Venice suffers greatly from this problem, since as a small city without an alternative economic base it depends on the tourist economy. Florence and Rome are well-visited cities supported by other activities, but Venice has become Disneyland.

Long lines at museums are annoying, and crowds on the streets are aggravating. As a traveler, I share these biases. Ideally, I would be able to roam free, surrounded only by the people of Venice. But of course I’d also like to use the internet to navigate and make restaurant reservations; and in my hotel I hope to find air conditioning and modern plumbing. Tourism in Venice therefore involves a seeming contradiction. Visitors want to see the ancient city of legends, with as few changes to it as possible, but with modern amenities.

Two of the most useful reports on Venice tourism are Venice, the tourist maze: a cultural critique of the world’s most touristic city by Robert C. Davis and Gary Marvin and Meredith Small Inventing the world. Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization. Both intelligent books tend to treat Venice as a victim, as if the current state of tourism was imposed on Italy by some foreign colonial power. No doubt it’s the feeling of over-tourism. But if there are too many visitors, it is because of the choice that Italy has made. Even in the last years of the Republic, Venice, already a tourist center, failed to develop alternative sources of support. So now change is hard.

Why do so many people choose to be tourists? Travel is often uncomfortable, usually exhausting and often expensive. If you want to take a vacation, why not quit your job and stay close to where you live? Why do so many people visit places where they are likely to be disoriented and confused and where they will certainly not feel at home? And of course where do they cause trouble for their hosts? In eighteenth-century Europe, the Grand Tour was tourism for privileged men. But then, as Lynn Whitty explained in Grand Tours and Cook’s Tours: A History of Leisure Travel from 1750 to 1915. as the English middle class became more prosperous, they also undertook tours. At the end of the twentieth century, when Japan prospered, many tourists from that country visited the West. Recently, thanks to their country’s new wealth, Chinese tourists are finding themselves in Europe and North America. When they can afford to travel, people from these otherwise diverse cultures enjoy trips abroad. Why do so many people from so many cultures love to be tourists?

This simple question is strangely difficult to answer. It is understandable why business people travel. If you’re learning a foreign language, you’ll want to travel. Art historians, historians and other scholars must travel to do their research. And it is understandable when people whose ancestors were immigrants go on board in search of their roots – African-Americans in Africa, Italian-Americans in Italy. But none of these concerns explain most of the tourism. These days, most tourists have relatively little knowledge of the foreign cultures they visit. The usual travel guides offer very basic information about Italy – describing its culture, food and history in a nutshell. The English went on the Grand Tour because going to Italy was thought to be an essential part of a gentleman’s education. And also, no doubt, because the young men were glad to be away from their families. In the nineteenth century, then, middle-class tourism was inspired in part by the emulation of the rich. But nowadays this tradition has become too distant to explain the fascination of foreign travel.

Perhaps paradoxically, while there are so many tourists everywhere, it is not easy to understand why people want to travel. When I sometimes question them carefully, I am surprised how little these travelers know about the fascinating places they see. I know very well why I visit Italy. When I wrote about art history as a philosopher, I wanted to see the famous works of art. But it is not so easy to understand the experience of less literate people. As is often noted, the problem with tourism today is that too many visitors only want to see a few sights. At the Louvre, tourists come to look Mona Lisa, and often watch very little else. And in Venice, San Marco is ridiculously overcrowded, making for a bad experience for everyone, while the Accademia Museum is underpopulated. But no one seems to have any practical ideas on how to change this situation.

Sometimes, then, tourism is seen as essentially deplorable. And often the case against tourism seems to involve plain snobbery. A poor tourist is a tourist, while a scientist who has come to do research is not. A recent memorial statement by Larry Gagosian for the abstract artist Brice Madden, whom he portrayed, revealed this: “Brice was always a traveler, but never a tourist.” Like Henry James, who loathed the throngs of tourists in his Venice, Mr. Gagosian is a snob. Travel is seen as a daring, delightful adventure, while tourism is merely a middle-class vacation activity. I’m a snob too, because when I eavesdrop, I prefer my fellow tourists to discuss politics or art history. It is a little disheartening to hear them amazed to notice that there is water in the streets. But I’m old enough to remember that I too was once a naive tourist. If you weren’t born into privilege, you too may be uninformed when you travel for the first time. But when I came to Venice in 1979, I bought Pietro Lorenzetti’s classic guide Venice and the lagoonand started walking.

There are two ways you can learn about the history of another fascinating culture. You can read and you can travel. The attractions of this time travel are easy to understand. How exciting would it be to attend the premiere of Hamlet on the globe; watch Leonardo work on his The Last Supper; or a witness on The Last Supper. One obvious reason why Venice attracts so many travelers is its long, spectacular history. Visitors travel back in time, seeing the site whose feasts were depicted by Gentile Bellini and other artists of the later fifteenth century. And the city whose canals feature in Canaletto’s eighteenth-century paintings. Thus, visiting Venice is like watching historical films reconstructing Jane Austen’s novels. I suspect that even visitors who know little about the history of Venice enjoy the experience because of the way it seems to take you back in time.

Like history, art history gives us knowledge about the past. And in one obviously important way, history is distinctly different from art history. History describes past events, explaining why they happened. However, when we look at an old work of art, we see in the past. Of course, Venice is very much rebuilt. But just like a tree the same tree when growing and growing old; and a person the same person who is first a child, then an adolescent, and finally an adult: thus a city can change and remain the same city. Philosophers’ accounts of identity over time matter because this arcane branch of analytic philosophy offers plausible theories about how change is consistent with the survival of trees, people, and cities. Venice has changed a lot, but the city you’re visiting now appropriately has the same city where Giorgione, Titian and Veronese lived and worked. It’s one of the reasons why travelers, from intellectually sophisticated scholars to day-trippers, visit the city.

The problems of restoring the old city are high-quality versions of the familiar concerns raised by the restoration of works of art. Old paintings need to be restored, and there are many familiar debates about which procedure is best. Should the restorer restore the original appearance of a painting or rather reveal the age of that object? My book on the art museum discusses this idea. The same concerns apply in part to the preservation of an entire city. This parallel between works of art and Venice can be extended. As has often been observed lately, the city of Venice is (or has become) a work of art in itself. So one visits Venice for the same basic reason one goes to see Mona Lisa: That’s great, a lot written about artwork. In his famous 1544 letter to Titian, written in his house on the Grand Canal, Pietro Aretino says:

Look first at the buildings that looked artificial but were made of real stone. And then look at the air itself, which in places seemed to me clean and alive, and in others cloudy and dull. . . . Oh, how beautiful were the strokes with which nature’s brushes pushed the air back. . . separating it from the places the way Titian does when he paints his landscapes. . . . Your brush breathes its spirit, cried three or four times: “O Titian, where art thou?”

Venetian painting inspired him to see the city as a work of art. Here I use this wonderful statement to make an elliptical claim that Venice is a work of art, an idea that I will develop in detail in the following texts.


Venice and its lagoon by Giulio Lorenzetti is the classic guidebook. My Art Museum Book: Museum Skepticism: A History of Art Display in a Public Gallerys (2006). Pietro Aretino’s letter is quoted in it Selected letterstrans., George Bull (London, 1976).

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