As the pre-pandemic tourist hoards would surely attest, Venice is one of our planet’s most atmospheric urban travel destinations.
In the 1980s, the New York Times dubbed it the world’s most beautiful city, while centuries of writers have praised its historic charm and waxed rhapsodic while describing the city’s unique setting and ornate architecture.
Built on more than 100 islands in a shallow lagoon and linked by some 400 bridges, Venice was a work of art and a marvel of engineering from its earliest days.
Due to its early trade links and busy port, Venice became a center of international finance and commerce from the 9th to the 14th century and a major art center from the 13th to the 17th century.
Venice’s nobles as well as its merchant class, who traded in silk, spice and grain, became ridiculously wealthy and built grand palaces — Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic and Rococo in style — that lined the sides of the many canals that still serve as the city’s main transportation network.
This enormous wealth was also lavished on the construction of impressive public buildings such as St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, two of the city’s most famous landmarks.
Decline and Transformation
The geographic factors that originally helped Venice flourish eventually turned into limitations, as new trading routes developed and international finance moved to larger, more easily expandable cities.
Periodic floods due to fluctuations in the tides plus the continued subsidence of large buildings in the soft alluvial soils beneath the lagoon have added to the high costs of Venice’s urban maintenance.
By 2020, the population of the centro storico (historical city) had declined to approximately 55,000 from a high of around 200,000 in the 15th century.
Still, economic stagnation can sometimes be a blessing, preventing historic architecture from being replaced by more modern structures.
The preservation of Venice’s wealth of historic structures as well as its unique setting made it an early candidate for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which in turn brought ever-growing numbers of international travelers.
The arts have been a mainstay of Venice’s tourist economy, reflecting its important contributions to the Italian Renaissance and the history of instrumental and operatic music.
Over-Tourism and Its Aftermath
As a cautionary tale to be careful what one wishes for, Venice’s tourist industry became so successful that it caused a backlash from long-time local residents.
Over the decades as the city’s resident population dwindled, the number of historic structures converted into tourist accommodation continued to increase.
The cruise industry became a particularly thorny issue and limits were placed on the size of ships entering the lagoon due to the damage their wakes caused to building foundations.
Despite such limitations, cries of over-tourism continued to be heard right up to the moment the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Perhaps more than most famous destinations, Venice is enjoying the relative quiet and taking a long awaited breath from the tourist hoards.