Say the word “contractor” in Canada, and you’re talking new construction, renovations and wood. In Venice, Italy, the construction trades are almost entirely about masonry and restoration. That’s what happens when every square inch of a place is already covered with buildings that went up hundreds or even a thousand years ago. Another thing about life as a Venetian contractor is that it’s impossible for work to ever happen as efficiently as it does here in Canada. Footpaths and canals are the only ways to get around, and they developed organically, not on any sort of linear grid. That’s why I regularly saw drywall and cement and plaster being schlepped by hand, a few pieces at a time, on a trolley or wheelbarrow, while deaking around tourists like me.
The really striking thing about Venice is the size of the restoration job that’s looming, and how little of it seems to be happening. Most buildings are made with ancient, sandy-red coloured brick that wasn’t fired quite hot enough. That’s why it’s not unusual to see entire buildings where half the brick thickness has been washed away by centuries worth of rain. Bricks that were on the cool side of the wood fired kiln show up as much deeper areas of deterioration than bricks right nearby.
Venice is also a city of towers, and about half of the ones I saw had a visible lean to them. The brick tower just outside the most famous cathedral in Venice – San Marco – collapsed without warning on July 14, 1902. The rebuilt version in its place has got a noticeable lean it in now, too. I guess that’s what you get when you build a masonry city on marshy islands.
Don’t get me wrong, Venice is a strikingly beautiful place, with lots to teach us Canadians about beauty and commitment to craftsmanship. But you’ve got to wonder what’s going to happen to the city long term. Restoration scaffolding is rare in Venice right now, and at least three quarters of the scaffolding I saw was idle, with no work happening over the week I watched it.
Perhaps more striking than all this is the energy and money that must have been present when Venice was rising out of the waters of its shallow lagoon, beginning in the late 300s AD. While this city seems hopelessly unable to stave off deterioration today, even with lots of tourist dollars flooding in, imagine the resources that were once strong enough to build the place from scratch.
Deterioration or not, Venice remains a very desirable place to live. Real estate prices show it, too. A friend I made in the city lives in an ordinary 1400 square foot place with her two kids and architect husband. The only reason they can live in the city at all is because the house – currently valued at about $1.3 million dollars – was a gift from her father.