Cities and People

by Mark Girouard

Pg. 102, about Venice

Venice also escaped the labour troubles which afflicted other Italian cities. A successful industry in both silk and woollen textiles started up there in the early sixteenth century, and researched its peak around 1600 by when Venice was producing considerably more cloth than Florence. But this was a late arrival. In the Middle Ages, however, Venice had the unique phenomenon of a work-force of, by 1423, 1600 people all working in the same place and for the same employer, instead of being minutely subdivided both as regards employers and place of work, as in the textile and other medieval industries. These were the workers in the Arsenal, a conglomeration of storehouses, workshops and shipbuilding yards which had been first constructed in 1104, had been much enlarged in the early fourteenth century, and which built and serviced the Venetian fleet.

Here, one might have thought, was further potential for trouble, but in fact the Arsenal workers never presented the slightest threat to the security of the state. Once again, their quiescence was partly achieved by giving them a prominent role in state functions. They provided Doge’s bodyguard, which carried his litter in processions, kept the crow in order with wooden clubs, and served as the crew for his great gilded barge, the Bucintoro.

But as much as anything the power of the nobility was due to their own cohesion, and to a life-style which played down individual leadership, or any cultivation of the personality, in favour of loyalty to their order and readiness for public service. Young Venetian nobles were indulgently allowed to let off a little steam, wear extravagant clothes and run around the town. But once they had sown their wild oats they were expected to be sober and hard-working.

Killing the Moonlight

Below are some notes and thoughts from chapter 1 and 5 from the book Killing the Moonlight, Modernism in Venice by Jennifer Scappettone. Contents are as below.


  • 1966, flood in Venice. 2m. 24 hours. key trigger for the city’s notorious population decline. pg4 population halved between 1966 and 2006 (120,000 to 60,000)
  • 1969, UNESCO declared a state of emergency on the city’s condition. It’s report indicated the need … to regard the city systematically – not as a ‘museum-city’, but as a ‘capolavoro attuale’, or ‘current masterpiece’. pg5
  • Recognition of the ‘actuality’ or present tense of Venice has always been a vexed project.
    • The volatile reality of Venice’s topography, and its constatation as fact through tragedy, stand in contrast to received notions of Venetian timelessness (and similarly, contrast timelessness’s double, eternal decay).
      • Timelessness = eternal decay. That is an interesting concept. The expectation for a constant state of decay to last forever for something to be decaying so slowly that you always catch it in a condition of decay-ING, not decay-ED. There is no end to this eternal decay. 
  • … over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, massive infrastructural projects connecting Venie to terra firma and establishing an industrial port (at Marghera…) pushed this evolutionary compromise (and a delicate equilibrium) between humans and environment beyond viable limits, and inverted the problem…: the sea now threatens to overtake the archipelago.
    • Venice is protected from the Adriatic Sea by barrier islands and wetlands.

venice aerial.jpg

  • The lagoon’s contents also literalize the challenge of reconciling this fabled cityscape with an incommensurable ambient temporality, or of “framing certain fundamental exigencies of today’s rhythms and production with something that is too far past – to be conserved – or too far in the future – to be reinvented.” pg9
  • Modernism had always been subject to stress in this place – a city that offers, in the words of … Manfredo Tafuri, ‘a subtle challenge that affects the very presuppositions of modernity.’ pg11
    • Once the heart of the city was consolidated as a fish-shaped complex of islands around the beginning of the 14th century, all further development was conditioned by the need to reutilize the existing foundations, which had been laid out at great cost with wood, bricks, and stone imported by river, lagoon, and sea. Lagoon inhabitants were obliged into adaptive reuse, both of these foundations and of existing architraves, capitals, cornices, and columns fabricated in different places and periods – so that even when buildings were renovated during the Renaissance and beyond, they retained a certain Byzantine shape, or an odd eclecticism of languages and styles. The urban fabric is thus inherently and uniquely anachronistic and polycultural. pg14
    • Venice resists rational intervention and synthesis, Haussmann ideals
    • … morphological features are outgrowths of organic development: alleys, being less important historically than canals, conduct pedestrians at cross-purposes wherever land reclamation joined the distinct land masses, as if accidentally; and buildings were actually designed to ‘float’ on the wet sand and mud to accommodate the constant motion of the tides. pg16
      • Georg Simmel: … concludes that the apparent harmony of the city is a radical lie … “without causality in the reality of what occurred before, and without effect in the reality of what comes after” – rending time eternally out of joint.
    • Because it cannot be apprehended by way of standardized coordinates and is notoriously resistant to being charted accurately, modern visitors to Venice must call upon memories of visceral experience in order to ‘know’ and read it. Venice obliges cognitive mapping to coincide with corporeal mapping. pg17
      • Is it then an always an architect’s wish to understand the space rationally? To map it and explain the reasoning behind spaces. Is it inherently contradictory to map experience? 
  • Amsterdam…: the modern ‘intellectual recognition of the city as an object of design’. Venice, by contrast, continues to stand as a contradiction to the rational design of both Rome and the Renaissance. St. Petersburg: … persists in the Romantic imagination as an imperial monument, ‘comprehensively mapped’ and only sporadically undercut. pg18
  • John Ruskin: also influenced by the ‘myth of Venice’… securing distance from myth in favor of documenting more substantive, animate forms of Venetian history becomes a core impulse in their writings, registering at the level of form as well as ‘plot.’ pg23
  • Responding to the city embroils the modernist enterprise in an eclectic, digressive historical reality, wherein the pressure to recuperate the past for present purposes gives rise to countless filtrations and detours. Venice, ultimately provides routes through which to recover a vitally nonlinear form of history. pg30
  • Venice permits us to explore the aspirations, repressions, critiques, and failures of both modernity as ideology and development and modernism as aesthetic response.
  • Venice has always been exposed to external influences. pg32
  • Carlo Levi on spatial diversity in Venice: ‘If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows – perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way.’ The digressions that the anti-Euclidean city obliges us to follow dilate time, Calvino suggests; by dodging, they stave off the ending inherent in linear temporality. pg261
  • Lewis Mumford in The Culture of Cities (‘Venice versus Utopia’) and The City in History: Venice represents a vital alternative to the medieval fortress city and paves the way towards a possible, if neglected, future for metropolitan order… Venice constitutes ‘a new type of urban container, marked by the etherialization of the wall.’ pg262
    • … recognizes that Venice’s form and content are ‘the products of cumulative urban purposes, modified by circumstance, function, and time: organic products…’ pg264
    • contemporary phenomenon that Mumford identifies as the ‘de-materialization, or etherialization, of existing institutions‘ and accompanying abstraction of relations.
  • Calvino: … Venice’s heterogeneous morphology literalizes the recombinatory potentialities and voids of language. He remarks that while the Venetian dialect’s lexicon for streets is of an unparalleled richness, the local vocabulary does not ‘rationalise the variety of forms in which ‘the lagoon labyrinth is introduced’ by coining terms for waterways. He deduces from this lexical lacuna that water unified the city, whereas Venice’s rising and descending walkways and bridges ‘introduce the discontinuous element which is exactly that of language.’ The water come to signify the invisible, the ineffable, the unknowable matter that unites the cosmos, while the human construction for traversing these gulfs emblematize the discontinuity of human attempts to rationalize experience through language: the varieties and divagations of signification. pg265
  • Carlo Scarpa: subverts critiques of Venice as a ‘dead’, institutionalized ‘museum city’ through his experimental restructuring of just these sites – museums, university spaces, and cemeteries – by making revolutionary use of Venetian material fragments and dynamics such as natural flooding.
    • What does institutionalization entail? What does making into a single entity of institution detract from the city? Institution assumes that time is fixed – there is a control on the changes made to the parts of the institution – it is NOT organic. The institution is eternal. 
    • What does an organic institution mean? Are the two terms contradictory? 
  • There are two completely different strands of interpretation of Venice – one that it is organic and beyond rationalization. The other is that it is institutionalized and mummified into a museum (Against Venice, Marinetti, Régis Debray, Garry Marvin and Robert Davis). Modernism has reacted against the willful Venice through masters like Le Corbusier. But Modernism has also accepted the institutionalisation of Venice as a necessary step in rationalising the city. Carlo Scarpa is not a modernist and he very much goes to interpret Venice through retaking some of its literal and ephemeral qualities. Although working during the same periods and reacting to the same Venice, they have picked out different versions of the truth to react upon. 
    • Is the whole truth then necessary for architecture? Isn’t each architect creating his own narrative that serves his purpose?
  • Frank Lloyd Wright‘s project in Venice: ‘space is not felt as a close form, but as a continuum which proceeds through time.’ pg274
  • Le Corbusier‘s hospital plan: its attempts to operate on the wounded city was later eulogized by Peter Eisenman as ‘one of the last anguishes of heroic modernism,’ symbolising ‘modernisms’ remedial ideology’ – as if a modernist hospital could heal the city whose liquid vulnerability led to so many meditations on illness and death in the earlier half of the century. 


  • Eisenman’s ‘Three Texts for Venice’ specify, to’embody the emptiness of rationality and of modernism’s nostalgia for the future. pg278


  • Eisenman’s project: A diagonal cut in the ground at odds with the hospital grid – its ‘skin’ peeled conceptually back – recalls that wounds such as those inflicted by modern urbanisation ‘cannot forever be suppressed by or submerged under the rationality of an axis’ pg278
  • Fenice theatre is cited routinely as a symptom of a morbid Venetian tendency to live the need for rebuilding as tragedy – as ‘a devastating loss of collective memory, an unfillable void in the city’ – rather than an opportunity to create new spatial contexts within the historic frame. pg276
  • In Tafuri‘s account, both forms of modernist subversion, aesthetic and critical/political, eventually lead to the instrumentalization of modernist utopianism by capitalist development, manifesting itself ultimately as ‘form without utopia.’ For Tafuri, that is, architecture as a discipline in this period becomes no more than ‘an ideological climate for fully integrating design… into a comprehensive Project [or ‘Plan’] aimed at the reorganization of production, distribution and consumption within the capitalist city. pg276
    • Is this not the same also in the urban village when conservationists and city planners comes into create a fully imagined design that reorganises production of the city? 
  • Venetian tempos ebb and flow at odds with both nostalgia and positivism – but also with the annulment of space and time that results from the random, unthinkingly cannibalistic historicism of pastiche. pg277
  • Rossi: This supple understanding of architectural temporality and ambience pits ‘pathological’ permanences in the city – monuments that have become museum pieces – against what Rossi calls the locusThe locus is at once an urban artifact and an event that links past to present, hosting historical and ongoing events while granting apprehensible form to the singularity of place. It harbours the collective memory of the past while propelling the potential memory of the future.
    • Can something be pathological if it resists to die and survives as a mummified museum? How can you judge that something has died?

Venice and its Ephemerality

Is Venice really set in stone like what John Ruskin says in his book? The unconforming strength and materiality of the city is traced brick by brick in the Stones of Venice and yet, the city is more temporal than ever. Centuries of making, unmaking and remaking is not only visible through the decaying stucco on the facades of its buildings, but also in the slow death of the cosmopolis.


Before going back to Venice for the third time, I want to understand it. The watery city was always summarisable in one word – pretty. Like a reality TV show, it is a place for the eyes. Your eyes feast on the vibrant colours of Murano and the ruin porn of the devoured wall. It is very easy to dislike Venice. Just take it for its face value and it is nothing more than a touristic spot for consumption and decadence. But this time, I want to see Venice under the mask that I have carelessly placed on its face.


  1. Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice by Jennifer Scappettone. Killing the Moonlight
  2. Richard Murphy’s Lecture on Carlo Scarpa from Youtube. Carlo Scarpa (in Richard Murphy’s Lecture)