Venice (2004): Season 1, Episode 4 - Death - full transcript

Venice. The most beautiful city
in the world

had grown from bleak marshland
to become a great trading power...

with an empire that stretched
across half the known world.

It had created some of
the most beautiful art ever seen.

It had become a place
of adventure, sex and pleasure
unlike any other city.

But one man had brought
the party to an end.

His name was Napoleon Bonaparte...

and his armies had left Venice
a looted, crumbling,
forgotten backwater.

The great city had fallen
into poverty and decay,

and it seemed
there was no way back.

This is the point
where many stories of Venice end.

The great empire was dead,

and Venice was rotting away.

But I'm going to tell you a story
about what happened next,

about how the great artists
of the 19th century

created the romantic image
of Venice

that is recognised and reproduced
all over the world.

The world now comes to Venice
and Venice comes to the world.

This is Venice in Las Vegas.

It's a hotel and casin.

An architecturally faithful version
of Venice in the middle of America.

Cars drive under the Rialto Bridge.

Moving walkways
take people over it.

But it's too clean

and it's much too antiseptic.

It's... surreal.

These people are visiting Las Vegas,

but they have come because
they love the idea of Venice.

Venice has become more than just
a creation of bricks and mortar.

It has become a city that lives
in everyone's imagination.

Yet the real Venice
is still a place where people live,

a city caught between its past
and its future -

between the people who live here
and the tourists who visit.

This is the age
that has defined my life -

an old city
caught up in modern times.

And it all started
with you British,

and your romantic sensibilities.
In the 19th century,

your poets, your painters
and your writers would come here

to forgotten, poverty-stricken

and be intoxicated
by the atmosphere.

Venice attracted the romantics
because they were in love
with decay -

through time and left to wither.

They believed Venice would be
at its most beautiful

the moment it was about to die.

The marriage of Venetian
architecture and nature

had always been a fragile one.

So for centuries,
we had repaired and strengthened
our great buildings.

Now poverty meant building work
was left undone.

The city was poised...

between beauty and decay,

between power and fall.

One British poet
was to discover Venice

as a haven from change...

a refuge in the romance of history.

The poet was Lord Byron...

...and he would immerse himself
in the city.

"My beautiful,
my own, my only Venice -

"thy breeze, thy Adrian
sea breeze, how it fans my face.

"The very winds
feel native to my veins!"

Venice, for Byron,
was everything he needed.

It was inspiration and romance.

He fell in love with
its crumbling ancient palaces,

with their resonance of the past.

This is Palazzo Mocenigo...

Byron's home on the Grand Canal.

Here he would revive
the glory days of Casanova

and indulge his love of Venice.

But there was a difference.

For Casanova, it had been a party.

For Byron,
Venice was a state of mind.

He called it,
"The island of my imagination".

"In Venice,

"silent rows the songless gondolier

"Her palaces are crumbling
to the shore

"But beauty is still here

"States fall, arts fade

"But nature doth not die.

"She to me was as a fairy city
of the heart

"Even dearer in her day of woe

"Than when she was a boast,
a marvel...

"..and a show."

Byron's libido and his affairs

became notorious throughout Venice
and Europe.

They became the hot gossip
in English society.

He had women,
literally all over Venice.

He had a fling with Marianna,
his landlord's wife.

Margerita, the wife of his baker.


Miss Tarruscelli...

Miss Spinola... Miss Aloisi...

Miss Glettenheim and her sister.

Byron only caught a disease once.

And that, I am ashamed to say,

...was from one of MY ancestors...

Elena Da Mosto.

Buon giorno.

Almost nothing is known
about Elena da Mosto.

All we know is from Byron himself
in a letter.

He says he didn't pay her,
so she wasn't a prostitute...

but "era di modi facili",
as we say in Italian.

"My whore hold
has been much extended

"since the masquerading began
and closed. But I was taken aback

"by a gonorrhoea gratis.

"A girl - a gentle donna
named Elena da Mosto - was clapt,

"..and she has clapt me."

Byron's epic poem Childe Harold

was a bestseller all over Europe.

But his success and swagger
around the city made him enemies.

The race would be from here
on the Lido all the way to Venice.

But not just to St Mark's Square
over there.

They would swim to the other end
of the Grand Canal.

That's four-and-a-half miles.

"I won by a good
three quarters of a mile,

"knocking the Italian
all to bubbles!"

It was as if the Englishman
and the Venetian were competing
for the soul of Venice.

And we had lost!

Byron was just the first.

So many of your 19th century wri... ters
and painters would come here.

For the British,
Venice was a city of fantasy,

a city of the mind.

This place inspired painters

to paint what they felt
as much as what they saw.

St Paul's Cathedral on the Grand Canal.
Very strange!

What is it about you British?!

It was as if
painter, William Marlow, saw Venice

as just another outpost
of your growing empire.

Did we see it as a compliment?

I'm not so sure!

More and more British artists
would shape the identity of my city.

And you were about to give us

the most spectacular images
of Venice we had ever seen.

Joseph Mallord William Turner
was the greatest British painter,

and in Venice, he had found
his greatest subject.

No-one ever saw Venice
in quite the same way after Turner.

Turner would push
the Venetian marriage
of architecture and nature

further than anyone,

into a mystical fusion of light
and weather with bricks and mortar.

It was as if nature
was engulfing the city.

He visited three times,
late on in his career.

These trips resulted
in hundreds of images of Venice -

visions of the city unlike anything
that had been painted before,

as blurred and imprecise

as Canaletto had been meticulous.

Turner would give us
the truest picture of the city -

of the feel of the city -
of any artist.

Yet he would also
dramatically change Venice

to suit his own ends.

And there has always been
something of a mystery

about his vantage point.

This was once the Hotel Europa.

Turner stayed here
during his trips to Venice.

Now the building is offices,

But we do know
he stayed on the top floor.

In this painting of his room,

the only surviving clue
is the view from the window.

And this is the closest match
I can find.

Who would have thought...

one of the most important places
in the history of art

would end up a bagno?!

And searching
for Turner's vantage point

turns out to be something
of a problem over and over again.

We need to see
the door of the church.

Just a little further round and...

and maybe we have...

the right perspective.

Seeing that we are
in the right position...

here we have the door
of the church of the Salute,

here, the campanile of St Mark.

The campanile is much taller
than in reality.

Here there is a building
that doesn't exist.

Strange. OK, we'll have a look.

I think here we are
in the right place for the Dogana.

Here is the Dogana, the buildings.

But the rest...

the ducal palace, St Mark's Square -
that doesn't exist in the reality.

In the painting, yes.

Nothing seems to fit.

Turner has moved the great
monuments of Venice around

to suit himself.

Now we are in the island
of the church of St Giorgio.

Here we have the first
point of view from the Dogana

where we were, there.

Now we are in front of St Marco.
We can see the Doges' Palace,

the Campanile of St Marco,
and the palace of Zecca.

Two points of view for one painting.

Turner was not painting
the Venice I know.

His paintings were idealised,
romanticised versions of the city.

British artists had brought Venice
back to the attention of the world,

yet every image of Venice
was romanticised, unreal.

The true poverty and suffering
of the people who lived here

was never part of the picture.

And your greatest writer
was no better.

Surely his love of the city

should have revealed the real
misfortune of the Venetians?

His name was Charles Dickens.

Dickens was far from being a Byron
or a Turner.

His novels were gritty chronicles
of downtrodden Industrial Britain.

But Venice turned this tough
chronicler of social reality
into something else.

It turned Dickens into a romantic.

It was as if Venice was a drug.

He wrote about the city

as if he were experiencing
a strange, hallucinogenic dream.

"I could not think but
how strange it was to be floating
by a dreamy kind of track

"marked out upon the sea
by posts and piles.

"I came upon a great piazza,

"anchored, like all the rest,
in the deep ocean.

"On its broad bosom was a palace.

"Cloisters and galleries,
so light they might have been
the work of fairy hands,

"so strong that centuries
had battered them in vain.

"Sometimes, alighting at the doors
of churches and vast palaces,
I wandered on from room to room.

"The old days of the city
lived again, about me.

"But welling up
into the secret places of the town
crept the water always:

"coiled round and round it, in its
many folds, like an old serpent:

"waiting for the time, I thought,
when people should look down
into its depths

"for any stone of the old city
that claimed to be its mistress."

British artists had created
a Venice in the popular imagination

that was a place
of infinite wonder.

More than that - a place
that would change your soul

if only you could get there.

Not surprisingly, the number of
travellers to Venice began to rise

Dickens had made the trip
from Italy by gondola.

But, with more and more people
seized by the Romantic dream
of Venice...

...things were
about to change forever.

The rail link between Italy
and Venice was completed in 1846.

More than three-and-a-half
kilometres long,

supported by 222 arches.

Now Venice was easy to get to,

physically connected to Italy.

This was the greatest disaster.

Although Venice had ceased
to be an independent state
half a century earlier,

it was this bridge

that truly put an end
to Venice's independence.

Come un pesce preso all'amo.

This is the greatest symbol
of Venice's lost supremacies.

Now the city was nothing more
than an extension of the mainland -

a fact many Venetians
could not accept.

We even insisted the bridge include
its own means of destruction

in case it was used
by an invading force.

Inside the bridge,
there are 48 spaces

especially built to house dynamite.

If the bridge ever needed
to be destroyed, it could be,

and Venice once more would retain
her independence.

But there WAS an invasion.

An ever-increasing army of tourists
streamed across the new bridge.

And they brought with them
a new attitude.

They were in love
with the romance of the city,

like the artists who had come
to Venice before them.

But they did not want the city
to die -

they wanted
to keep Venice standing.

So change was inevitable.

The big question now was,
what sort of change would it be?

Renovate or modernise?
Repair or demolish?

Once again, you British
would define the argument.

John Ruskin had visited Venice
as a young man,

and when he returned in 1849,

he was horrified to see
the deterioration of the city.

Ruskin believed Venice was the
greatest architectural creation
on Earth,

and yet, he said,
the city was disappearing

"as fast as a lump of sugar
in hot tea".

In his great work,
The Stones Of Venice,

he would attack
the Romantics' vision of the city,

and their love of decay.

Instead he argued that Venice
was in peril and must be saved.

But like many conservationists,

he didn't know when to stop.

Ruskin got so worked up
about Venice,

it was as though he wanted
to preserve us in aspic.

He even objected to street lighting
in Venice.

He said cast-iron gas lamps

reminded him

of Birmingham!

But it was in cast iron

that Ruskin's view of the city
would be challenged

by another of you British.

Bridge-builder Alfred Neville
was a moderniser,

and he would fill Venice
with modern bridges -

replacing bridges built of stone.

Today they look charming

but to the 19th-century eye
they were shocking signs of change.

Neville would go on to confront
the very heart of antique Venice

with the most uncompromising
structure the city had ever seen.

The Accademia Bridge
was built in 1854.

It was only the second bridge
to be built across the Grand Canal

in Venice's long history.

Its straight girders
spanned the 48 metres of water

in one great heroic length.

But, ultimately, the forces
of conservation would triumph

and Neville's modern
Accademia Bridge was taken apart

and carted off for scrap.

It would be replaced
by a temporary wooden structure.

And the temporary bridge
has stood there ever since.

We Venetians just cannot face
the challenge

of choosing between
an old or a modern design.

This would be the first
of many such battles

between the old and the new.

Ruskin and Neville

were on opposite sides
of the argument.

They had fired the first shots in
the battle for the soul of my city,

a city which was inescapably
connected to the modern world...

...but which could never
belong to it.

Now a terrible event

would spark off
the most ferocious argument

between the conservationists
and the modernisers

that Venice had ever seen.

At eight minutes to ten

on the morning
of the 14th July 1902,

our crumbling city
really started to fall down.

Venice's great Campanile collapsed.

Visitors were still climbing
the tower just days before,

even as the cracks were appearing.

Luckily, the only casualty
was the caretaker's cat.

Venice had lost its most
important symbol of the city

seen from the lagoon.

It was said a Venetian captain
sailing home

went mad when he failed to find
the campanile on the horizon.

So what would fill the gaping
hole in the Venetian skyline?

Many architects were keen to see

a new and modern structure rise
in place of the old Campanile.

It would be a great symbol of
Venice embracing the new century.

But these designs met strong
opposition from those who wanted
to preserve Venice as it was.

The slogan they developed
in the face of the Modernists

was "Dov'era, com'era."

was this man - Otto Wagner.

He was an architect from Vienna,

where his work
had won him fame and fortune.

He claimed it would
be a falsification of history

to rebuild the Campanile
in the old style.

The mixture of building styles in
this square from many different ages

gave the place its charm.

And a new building
could only add to that charm.

"Yes," said the authorities,

"but 'Dov'era, com'era'."

The Campanile was rebuilt
almost exactly as it was before.

But just as the city's conservatism
was growing stronger and stronger,

alternative voices for change
were getting louder too.

The argument
was going to get nasty.

The Industrial Revolution
had changed the face of Europe.

But we had been immune -

the city's narrow canals
and tightly-packed buildings

left no space
for modern factories.

It seemed as if we had no place
in the great plan for the future.

And on the whole, we were pleased.

But something was happening
in art -

and we Venetians
could never ignore art!

In Italy,
a new movement was growing,

and its followers were staging
a revolt against the past.

The Futurists believed that
Italian art had become stagnant,

modern technology and energy.

On the 27th April 1910,

a man ran across St Mark's Square.

In his hands,
he had a pile of pamphlets.

It looked an innocent scene

as he climbed to a high balcony
overlooking the square.

But the pamphlets he carried

were entitled "The Manifesto
Against Reactionary Venice".

The man's name
was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

He was a poet,
leader of the Futurists,

and he was about to perform the
most outrageous attack on Venice

in the 20th century.

To these art revolutionaries,
Venice was an insult -

everything they stood against.

We feared they might even
smash the city to pieces!

Italy was about to be thrown
into a futurist nightmare.

Benito Mussolini
had plans to make Italy

into a futuristic fighting machine,
and Venice was a part of them.

Here he is with Adolf Hitler

in St Mark's Square.

Mussolini built a big new bridge
from Italy to Venice

alongside the train bridge.

But where on earth
are all these cars going?

Ever since the late 19th century,

there had been people

who wanted to fill in Venice's
canals and make them into roads.

Occasionally, it even happened.

This canal was paved over. Look!

Between the canal and the pavement.

Throughout the 20th century,

modernisers dreamt of the motor car
penetrating to the very heart
of Venice.

Imagine what might have been.

Luckily, the cars
never made it further

than one square
at the back of Venice.

But Venice couldn't keep ALL
motorised transport out of the city.

The last century
saw the city's canals fill up
with heavy-goods vehicles -

ambulances and fire engines...

...buses and taxis
all travel by water.

But the city pays a high price.

In the 1930s, strict speed limits
were introduced.

If we want to use motor boats,

then no-one,
except the emergency services,

can travel more than about
twice the speed of a gondola.

It's a simple
but incontrovertible fact

that now the fabric of Venice can't
stand the pace of modern life.

The wake created by motor boats

destroys the delicate structure
of the canals

and the buildings that line them.

But one day, more than any other,

made us Venetians realise just how
perilous everything had become.

A catastrophe
was to change everything.

It was the moment
the debate stopped being about
a crumbling city

and became instead
the nightmare of our home
disappearing beneath the waves.

Throughout 1,600 years
of existence,

Venice had conquered cities,

it had defended invasions,

it had defied great tyrants
and empires.

Throughout the 20th century,

it held back the tide
of the modern world.

But nothing was to prepare
Venice for what happened
on the 4th of November 1966...

Torrential rain and a sirocco wind
blowing at 100 kilometres an hour

stopped the morning tide
leaving Venice's lagoon.

Then the afternoon tide rushed in,

flooding the city

to a depth of two metres,

the most terrible floods
in the city's history.

In St Mark's Square,
the water got up to here.

The ground floor of every building
in Venice was full of water.

Here in my house,
the water came quite high.

I think it was something
to the fourth or the fifth step.

And it's quite incredible.

I was young - I was five years old -

and I think my mother took me here
with a pyjama

and looking from here all flooded.

Could be a place for a boat,

not a room to live. Strange!

When all this happened,
I was five years old;

small enough to be engulfed by
the waves and carried out to sea.

My memories of the event
are a bit hazy,

but my father remembers
our experience of the day
like it was yesterday.

Of course, Venice has always
flooded a LITTLE with the tides.

It's something all my ancestors
were used to, and WE are used to.

But in 1966, it was different -

a tragedy, a catastrophe,
il disastro,

The electricity failed,

and the floodwater
burst the underground oil tanks,

carrying a thick black sludge
through the city.

The flood had devastated Venice.

People thought
there was even a real possibility

that some of our great buildings
would collapse.

It seemed the sea
had turned against the city

with a fury nobody had foreseen.

Worse than that,

it looked as if the balance
of architecture and nature

on which Venice had thrived
for more than 1,000 years

had collapsed.

Over the centuries, buildings
had shifted in the marshy ground.

It was the sort of thing
the early builders expected.

Now the flood of 1966
had tipped the balance

in favour of volatile nature.

But it wasn't true.
It was not nature's fault.

It was man's fault.

So... what exactly was going on?

Decades before, industry
had begun

to overwhelm the Italian
coast of the Venetian lagoon...

...a vast industrial complex
around the town of Marghera.

Pollution was poisoning the fish
in the lagoon,

upsetting the delicate
ecological balance.

The dredging of deep channels
for oil tankers

brought stronger currents.

These currents accelerated
the Adriatic's high tides

towards Venice,

worsening floods and eroding
the lagoon's salt marshes.

The creation of artificial islands
and huge fish farms

made the lagoon system
ever more vulnerable.

So Venice was certainly sinking,
seriously sinking.

At the same time,
the sea was rising,

the effects of global warming

making a bad situation worse.

The Adriatic has risen ten
centimetres in the last century.

But worst of all,
the lagoon BED was sinking -

not just the city,
but the entire Venetian lagoon bed.

In just 50 years,
it had dropped by 12 centimetres.

And the culprit
was Italian industry -

the factories of Marghera
pumping fresh water out
from under the lagoon bed.

Have a look now there to have
an idea what is happening.

Look at these bricks.

At the water rose up,

the water went over the level
of the stone

and, touching the bricks,

the salt of the water got into the
bricks and caused them to explode.

Something had to be done.

As the gravity of the situation
was realised,

the freshwater drainage by industry
was stopped.

And since the 1970s,

money has poured in
from all around the world.

The spirit of Ruskin

is abroad again.

The world must save Venice
from environmental catastrophe.

But there is still controversy
about how to do it.

A set of enormous flood barriers
at the entrances to the lagoon
is planned -

and the barriers look likely
to put an end to serious flooding
of the city.

But no-one can be sure if this
will help or worsen the unbalanced
state of the lagoon eco-system.

And many argue

that the closing down
of the heavy industry in Marghera
is much more important.

The eyes of the world
are on Venice now.

And it stands as an extraordinary
scientific, engineering and
ecological challenge to all of us.

The problem will be stabilised.

Longer the biggest threat to Venice.

Now the biggest threat is tourism.

Visitors are over-running the city.

The pilgrimage to Venice that began
as a trickle of British artists

at the start of the 19th century

is now a tidal wave of tourists
from all over the world.

Life goes on

but for us Venetians, it is
increasingly difficult to live here.

But it's all I have ever known.

As a child growing up, I enjoyed
the mood of pleasure-seeking -

I felt almost part of it -
the endless stream of visitors.

In the '60s and the '70s,
Venice was groovy.

As soon as I walked out of my door,

I could meet people
from all over the world.

Then, suddenly,
it all seemed just a bit fake...

and I realised all my friends
were leaving.

90% of the people
are not Venetians!

Gondolas... Tourist town...


This one, I hate them... I hate.

They are all going around
with those things.

Hats... hats... glass.

Our ancient traditions
have become tourist pageants.

This is the historical regatta -
a celebration of our great history.

It looks more like
a pantomime on water.

Gondola... and masks...

The plastic gondola
on top of your television!

At Squero Tramontin,

the same family has made gondolas
for centuries.

Tourism keeps the business going,

but the exodus of Venetians
means it won't be long
before there's no-one to make them.

This is Venice now -
a tourist destination.

A place recognised
all over the world.

An important survivor
from another age.

But also my home,

still home to lots of Venetians...
angry Venetians!

We wonder if what you British
started will kill our city.

In my local barber's - one of the
few places not selling souvenirs! -

me and my friend Franco
often grumble
about what Venice has become.

Since 1945, Venice has lost
more than half of its population.

And now we have the highest
average age of any city in Europe.

Many say that Venice
is closer to death

than it has ever been.

We are heading for San Michele -
Venice's cemetery island.

It is the last journey
we Venetians take.

Here lie our dead.

But the connection of every family
to the city is becoming weaker.

And Venice is slowly losing touch
with its past.

This is my family tomb -

here lie many of my ancestors.

Andrea da Mosto, 1879...

Antonio da Mosto...

Carlotta Bartakowicz...

Andrea da Mosto, 1960 - he was
my grandfather. I never met him.

Eugenia de Vito Piscicelli.

She was my grandmother.

And my uncle, Antonio da Mosto,
in 1998.

And it's difficult to imagine

what will become of Venice
when I'm lying here.

But the city's future
doesn't lie in MY hands!

All my life,

the fight has been to stop Venice
from sinking,

to save this unique slice
of history.

But what about the people
who live here? What about me...

my family...?

Venetians and their trades
are dying out.

The fabric of the city is intact,

but its soul

is slowly dying.

My children go to school in Venice,

but many fear they may be part
of the very last generation
of Venetians.

Throughout its long history,

Venice has time after time
emerged triumphant

from misfortune and adversity.

Maybe they will even live in a
Venice that is independent again -

free of the confusion
of modern Italy -

so we can settle our own future!

Most important of all,

for the city to survive,
I hope they make it their home.

I pray they will!