America’s Venice

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhat could be more different than Venice and an American city? One pretends to represent the continued existence of the past. The other pretends to represent the ideal of progress, of the future. In their separate ways both are illusions, but no matter. The relationship of the Old and the New Worlds is not simple. It is like that of the sexes: Opposites may repel, but often they attract. Thus there are towns named and emulating Venice across America. And there exists a long record of American presence in Venice, reaching well beyond what brings American tourists there today. The history of Americans’ attraction to Venice is more than 200 years old.

In 1789, when the United States was born, there were but two other republics in the entire world. One was the Republic of Venice, the other the city-state of Geneva. Many of the Founders were aware of their existence but had no wish to emulate their examples. They were aristocratic republics, with constitutions that had little appeal even for the more conservative of the Founders. At least Geneva was Protestant, but the government and the society of Venice seemed to represent much that was corrupt in the Old World. Many Americans were acquainted with Venice Preserved, a popular, often performed play by the English dramatist Thomas Otway: “Curs’d be your State, cursed your constitution/The curse of growing factions and divisions.” No, the new American Republic had to incarnate something that was the very opposite of Venice.

Still, it was the task of that new Republic, for reasons commercial even more than diplomatic, to establish consulates abroad, especially in the main ports of Europe. In 1796 Timothy Pickering, Washington’s Secretary of State, wrote William Willis, a proper Philadelphian, instructing him to take the post of the first American consul in Venice. Willis, who was involved in a business dispute with a dubious Italian middleman in Leghorn, was about ready to move across Italy and establish himself in Venice when Bonaparte marched into that city in May 1797, putting an end to the Venetian Republic after 1,300 years. Willis never got to Venice. He turned around and sailed first to the West Indies and then to New York, where he wrote a detailed letter to the Secretary of State about Venice and the French. In November 1798 he was posted American consul at Barcelona. By then the Republic of Geneva had been eliminated too, annexed to France, and Bonaparte had traded Venice to the Austrian empire.


William Willis had missed a great experience: the approach to Venice. Two hundred years ago the only way to get there was by water, from the lagoon or the sea. And that way was—and remains—incomparable. Allow me, then, to suggest something to American travelers two centuries after Willis—that is, if they will afford a small amount of extra time. The dazzling approach, the literal revelation, of Venice is that from the lagoon to the south. There is the fishing town of Chioggia, on a spit of land, not difficult to get to, a few miles from Vicenza, at the end of the Brenta Canal, which is dotted with Palladian villas. Chioggia is a little Venice, its canals lined with fishing boats even now. A small steamer wends its way north from there, calling at a few of the lagoon villages, and then makes straight for the pier at St. Mark’s. An hour or so before the traveler’s arrival, Venice rises from the sea, a coruscating beauty immediately recognizable, the fabulous vista immortalized by its own Canaletto and Guardi and by hundreds of other great painters, including Americans. If one elects to spend the night at Chioggia and take the morning boat, the eastern sun paints the grand theater of Venice with gold.

The approach by train is not bad either. Once you emerge from the crowded Santa Lucia station, there is the Grand Canal, with a plenitude of color and waterborne business. From the airport north of Venice you will arrive by water: again, not a great loss, since, as with a beautiful woman, every side of Venice, including her back, is admirable. (Don’t take a private motorboat from the airport; it will cost you a small fortune.) One thing is to be avoided, if possible: the approach by car. The enormous parking garage at the western end of Venice is nowadays often so full that many motorists must leave their cars at a garage in the mainland industrial port of Mestre and, panting, lug their bags to its indifferent railroad station, there to wait for the next local across the lagoon.