By Eugène E.

October is said to be a lovely time to visit Venice, and I spent a number of days in the Italian city last month, though less with the intention to confirm the clemency of Venice’s autumnal weather (it was indeed lovely) than to enjoy its masterpieces of Western art and to summon the erstwhile grandeur of the Venetian Empire. Alas, that last bit – the summoning of grandeur part – was problematic. Like the water that is its defining element, the zeitgeist of the Serenissima remained elusive, opaque, and inscrutable.

Don’t get me wrong: Venice is exquisite, and I found the city as well preserved as a city of its age could have been. As has been noted by others, Venice must be the only place in Europe where an 18th-century visitor would comfortably find his way three centuries later. The city’s immutability and resistance to time are its charm; and, in this respect, Venice does not disappoint. As it doesn’t elsewhere. The susurrous canals still converse in spasmodic splashes and mysterious whispers; the sinuous streets, bravely struggling to cope with hordes of tourists, have not revealed their ancient secrets; the quaint campaniles and churches puncture the sky of a lachrymose Tiepolo blueness as they always have; and the slightly pungent smell that pervades Venice continues to remind the traveller that the city on the water is a place like no other. The famed beauty of Venice requires no further odes.

Yet a keen student of history might be forgiven for feeling elegiac as he searches for a quiet, tourist-free place to contemplate the city’s glorious past. Venice is not even a pale shadow of its once-great self – after all, a shadow faithfully relays the shape of the host it trails. Contemporary Venice, however, offers nothing but a wispy memory of the formidable maritime power of yore. It was once the mistress of the sea; it is now a tourist attraction, whose dwindling local population is dwarfed by the number of tourists besieging it daily, armed with backpacks, perambulators, and selfie sticks, and whose despotic presence reduces your chances of an encounter with the ghosts of Vivaldi or Goldoni to a big fat zero.

What happened? A number of things. Historians tend to use the 16th century as a starting point when charting the decline of the Venetian Empire. A combination of the discovery of the Americas, with its vast riches, challenged the advantageous position that Venice had enjoyed in maritime trade. The rise of the Ottoman Empire did the rest. And then, with empires, something always happens. Empires are forever in a state of flux. At a certain point, an empire gets too wealthy, too bloated, and too complacent; it’s all downhill from there. I do not intend to delve into the history of Venice, however – there are plenty of sources who have done an excellent and thorough job of it, and the reader can consult them at his leisure. I am more interested in the lessons that the fall of the Venetian Empire has for us at this historical juncture.

I see two.

One of these two lessons concerns the importance of vitality in the life of any society. I’ve written about this vitality before, which to me represents a certain energy that propels society forward. It is the impetus to live and to grow. Sometimes this vitality comes at the expense of other societies. It can be a force for good as much as for evil; perhaps it’s more accurate to think of vitality as a value-neutral phenomenon. But without it, society begins to wither and wilt.

This vitality does not depend on economic health alone. In The Hitler of History, for example, John Lukacs notes the galvanizing effect that Hitler’s prewar reign had on German society. At the time, Germans saw Hitler as a messiah; of course, what came later (or the experience of those Germans who were not deemed to be sufficiently German by the Nazis) is another story. Subsequent events showed the world the kind of messiah the führer really was. But Lukacs makes it clear that the national confidence that Hitler was able to impart to Germans in the prewar years was remarkable. According to Lukacs’s research, the number of suicides in Germany between 1932 and 1939 dropped sharply in number (by some 80%), while birth rates and marriages shot up. Lukacs puts it succinctly: “social conditions are not material conditions, just as social history is not economic history”. Just so. The vitality of which I speak goes far beyond wealth – to refute a catchphrase from a presidential campaign run by one former US president, it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s certainly not just the economy. This line of thinking runs counter to the prevailing consensus among economists and policymakers, who in recent years have stressed the pursuit of economic development to the exclusion of just about everything else. Economic development is no doubt important, but humans are driven by more than just their material needs – the history of human civilization bears out that view. Some intangible things just don’t lend themselves to a calculator and growth models.

The recently deceased historian John Norwich, an authority on Venice, describes in The Paradise of Cities the affluence of Venice in the 18th century – just before the Republic succumbed to Napoleon’s forces and ceased to exist. It was, in many ways, a golden time for Venice. No wars had been fought since 1718, trade was flourishing, well-off tourists were pouring in, and the city basked in an unprecedented period of prosperity. But the Republic was weak, so weak that by 1800 it was no more. The reason for the weakness, Norwich points out, was “certainly not economic”. What, then? In simple terms, Venice “had lost her self-respect”. No longer a seafaring power with an enviable fleet, it had been reduced to a perpetual carnival and a hedonist port of call. It had become flabby and flaccid, and its burgeoning economy was ultimately unable to save the Republic when the enemy showed up at the gates – “the gates”, of course, being rather metaphorical in this case. Norwich calls it the death of the body politic; I prefer to think of it as a loss of vitality.

All this is of relevance at a time when Western societies tend to ignore the importance of non-economic values in its policy-making, choosing to prioritize economic growth to the detriment of other needs. This leads to inevitable mistakes. For example, when dealing with societies or civilizations that are incompatible with the West, policymakers are tempted to believe that economic wealth is enough to win “the hearts and minds” – you can count on Hollywood and McDonald’s to tame the restive youths pouring into Europe from the Middle East. Yet this ignores the powerful thrust of spiritual values that transcend prosaic needs and the enormous void that results in the absence of such values.

Modern European countries, particularly those in the north, are prosperous; yet they lack vitality. They are a bit like retirement homes for the well-heeled. Their demographic situation is precarious; they are not reproducing at a healthy rate and are therefore compelled to rely on immigration. Not reproducing at a healthy rate is a sign of decay, of stagnation, of a lack of vitality. But this is not appreciated. As long as economic prosperity can be sustained, it is assumed, everything else will be taken care of. That’s quite an assumption. Without vitality, the wealth of such societies will eventually dissipate or be seized by other, stronger societies. The history of Venice is clear on that point: consider the looting of the quondam mistress of the Mediterranean by Napoleon and his army.

The second lesson is the importance of unity in a given civilization. The Fourth Crusade, in which Venice was a participant, is an excellent illustration of this. Organized in the early 13th century with a view to wrestling control of Jerusalem from the infidels, it ended in the sacking of Constantinople instead, dealing a deadly blow to the Byzantine Empire from which it never recovered. Under the dogeship of Enrico Dandolo, Venice took part in the sacking. At the time, it was seen as a triumph, which, in the short term, it may well have been; in the long term, it was anything but. The asphyxiation of Byzantium fuelled the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would in turn have considerable implications for the fate of the Venetian Empire later on. Despite their rivalry, Byzantium and the West both belonged to the religion of the cross; their having turned on each other facilitated the expansion of another civilization, which ultimately destroyed Byzantium, and posed a major threat to the survival of Venice and the long-term security of the West.

Are we seeing a similar geopolitical configuration today? Western Europe (the West) is currently at loggerheads with Russia, which has throughout history aspired to offer the Christian world a “third Rome” and can be thought of as Byzantium. How sensible is this antagonism? Both the West and Russia must confront the reality of a violent Islamic world. Both have to contend with a rising China (Russia especially, due to the demographic imbalance along its border with China). Both are facing dire demographic prospects. In these crosswinds, it might make a lot more sense to explore some kind of union. The idea of such a union may seem outlandish, but the story of Europe is a story of gradual consolidation. The Germany we know today was not the Germany of the 18th century, when it was a huge agglomeration of tiny states. And history, as we know, is never static.

While a union between Western Europe and Russia might appear to be a pipe dream now, the EU would have struck many people a pipe dream a century ago. In his memoirs, Sergei Witte, one of the ablest ministers of Nicholas II, that nincompoop of a monarch, recounted how, during a meeting with the German kaiser, he entertained the possibility of an EU-type union between Russia, France, and Germany (it is rather poignant that Witte did not include the UK in this troika). We don’t know what the kaiser thought; he might have well thought that Witte was a madman or a romantic. But it did not turn out to be a silly reverie or a utopian dream – as is common with visionaries, Witte was simply well ahead of his time. The border between France and Germany has been an open one for some years; and if Russia has not been part of that unification process and the EU is currently in crisis, that’s hardly Witte’s fault.

Of course, grand visions must collide with reality. Post Brexit, the EU is struggling not to fall apart. It is hardly the time to contemplate further unification – with Russia, of all states. As for Russia, its president does not strike me as the ideal man to help orchestrate such a union, despite his assertions to the contrary. But farsighted leaders in Europe and Russia would do well to consider the experience of Venice and Byzantium, and draw such conclusions as are appropriate. They don’t have to, of course. Enemies of historical determinism tell us that nothing is inevitable; we’re free to shape history as want. But we ignore the lessons of history at our own risk.

Venice, in fact, offers more than just historical lessons. It might also offer a blueprint for the future of Europe. This is just the point that the French intellectual Régis Debray makes in his coruscating “Venetophobic” essay, Against Venice, a polemical work that denounces Venice as a cauldron of cultural kitsch. Debray strains for effect (one reads with amusement Debray’s yearning for the faraway industrial eyesore of Marghera and Mestre, which he contrasts with the artificial beauty of Venice); and as one advances through the text, it’s hard not to wonder whether Debray’s attack on Venice is not, in its own way, an admission of helplessness before the city’s timeless beauty.

But, right at the end of the essay, Debray gets serious; the mischief turns to indignation. In this museum of a city, Debray sees the Europe of tomorrow – an economically stagnant, inert playground for rich foreigners, who cavort and play while the locals, reduced to mere stagehands in their own land, look on. Debray points out that when Venice ruled over the Mediterranean, she was not liked at all. This is a very astute observation. One can extend the argument: when Europe ruled over half the world, it was not much liked, either; but it was rich and powerful. It had vitality. I am no apologist for the colonial experience of the West, but there’s no ignoring the truth that, back when Europe had colonies, its streets were not menaced by people from other civilizations who imposed their way of life on the local societies. Europe did not need to rely on the US for national security. When Europeans, for whatever reasons, turned their backs on the concept of empire, they lost their vitality; there was nothing else to offer the world but its picturesque settings.

Debray’s gripes are valid. Europe risks turning into a museum – museums are nice to visit, but they’re not generally designed to be inhabited. Venice is an extreme example of what happens when a place turns into a tourist Mecca, for which it was never really built: impassable streets, high prices, frustrated locals, a surfeit of noise and litter, and other nuisances caused by mass tourism. The population of the city continues to decline; there’s been an exodus of young people. What job prospects exist revolve mostly around the tourist industry. Even local businesses are no longer all that Venetian or, indeed, Italian; I’ve seen ostensibly Italian restaurants owned and operated by small business owners from China and the Middle East. Venice is experiencing a “hollowing-out”; and Debray fears that this will be the fate of Europe. 

The journalist Janan Ganesh wrote an insightful article the other day, positing that the next target of populist movements in Europe might be not the foreign migrant, but the foreign tourist. The reason for that is simple: to become dynamic again, European leaders will need to carry out sweeping reforms. The problem is that they are completely addicted to tourist money, which continues to flow in exactly because Europe is one of the few places in the world that offer history, that do not change. Why change things when you make billions of dollars keeping things exactly the way they are? Tourists are coming to get a slice of postcard Europe, which motivates leaders to choose preservation as its primary policy and do nothing. This is good for cruise ships and tour operators, but it does a major disservice to the locals, who will resent both their leaders and the tourists that overtake their cities. Given what I saw in Venice, Ganesh’s idea of the tourist as the next scapegoat for populists does not seem all that far-fetched.

Debray suggests that Venice is like a cultural Disneyland. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s not even a cemetery. Cemeteries, after all, are only custodians of death; they still live a life of their own. Not long after my visit to Venice, the Serenissima experienced one of the worst floods in decades; as many as three-quarters of the city were underwater. The photos I’ve seen suggest not so much a cultural Disneyland as an Atlantis in the making. Long-term forecasts concerning the city’s survival are not very promising, either. Given Venice’s breathtaking beauty, this is unspeakably sad. The disappearance of Venice would be an incalculable loss to Western civilization. It would be a lot more incalculable still if Venice were indeed a blueprint for the European continent as a whole.