On one of my first visits to Venice I experienced a magical moment in the Piazzetta in front of the Doge’s Palace. It was late May and the city was hosting the annual regatta of the four medieval maritime republics: Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi. Each of the cities was represented by youths in traditional garb carrying their republic’s banners on long poles, which they took turns tossing rhythmically into the air and then catching as the flags fluttered down. While they marched past, the vigorous strains of Vivaldi’s Spring from the Four Seasons filled the square. The music built to its most climactic point. Just then a flock of San Marco pigeons flew in unison from left to right and then from right to left, as if directed by some great conductor in the Campanile. The entire Piazzetta was filled with the energy of the applauding crowds, the flying flags, the swooping pigeons, and the thrusting power of Vivaldi’s violin concerto.
Venice lends itself to such moments of aesthetic pleasure. That’s what tourists want when they come to the lagoon city. They love to luxuriate in gondolas, thrilled by the beauty of ancient buildings and enraptured by the romance of the gondolier’s songs.
What they might not realize is that much of the music played on gondolas is not as authentically Venetian as Vivaldi’s concertos. In fact, many of the gondoliers’ songs are popular chestnuts like “O sole mio” and “Torna a Surriento,” which are actually Neapolitan, not Venetian. They invite nostalgic surrender, which is sweet, but they teach us nothing about Venice as a dynamic and evolving city.
For that kind of understanding, we need to switch our attention a few hundred metres across the water from the Doge’s Palace to the string of islands known as Giudecca and the songs that have been generated by the working people of Venice. Interestingly, two of the songs that I’ve found most instructive are also inspired by the history of the five-star hotels on Giudecca, two great purveyors of the romance vision of Venice.
On the eastern end, just across a canal from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, is the Hotel Cipriani. A peaceful retreat that has hosted the likes of Madonna, Elton John, Tom Cruise, and George Clooney, it boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and its fifteenth-century buildings embrace opulent gardens and provide inspiring views of San Marco and the Doge’s Palace to the north and of the lagoon to the south. Towards the western end of Giudecca is the Hilton Molino Stucky. The largest hotel in Venice at 379 units, it includes a convention centre that can accommodate one thousand guests and a top floor that offers Venice’s only rooftop swimming pool and a commanding vista of the Giudecca Canal and the historic centre in the distance.
The presence of these two elite hotels on Giudecca suggests that the district is a refuge for the rich. But the development of the Hotel Cipriani and the Hilton Molino Stucky also points to the history of the Venetian working class and its struggles on Giudecca and in Venice as a whole.
Hilton Molino Stucky [Photo: Elena Nardo]
I first became aware of this when I started visiting Venice with my wife some years ago. We are lucky because one of my wife’s cousins, Paola, and her husband, Giuliano, live on Giudecca, and they let us use his family’s original, now vacant apartment. They live in the same building, a four-storey walkup commonly known as the Condominio dei Lavoratori (Workers’ Condominium). The original units in the building are simple apartments designed for small families of modest means.
Giuliano has lived in this building since his birth in 1956. In the same year, Giuseppe Cipriani—he of Harry’s Bar fame—convinced his rich friends, including the three daughters of the Guinness patriarch, to back him in developing a hotel on Giudecca on a three-acre plot of land just south of the Condominio dei Lavoratori. The hotel opened for business in 1958 and expanded in the following years. In 1968 Cipriani purchased the land north of the original building to put in the swimming pool. In 1976 he sold his hotel, and it became part of Orient-Express Hotels, after which the new owners continued to expand the property with the purchase of two buildings (just north of the Condominio dei Lavoratori) that face San Marco and the Doge’s Palace: the Palazzo Vendramin and the Palazzetto Nani Barbaro. In 2000, the hotel purchased the three brick nineteenth-century granaries that run immediately behind the Palazzetto Nani Barbaro and converted them into meeting rooms. Also during this period of expansion, the Cipriani purchased a number of the apartments (mostly in the lower floors) in the Condominio dei Lavoratori for staff housing.
Paola and Giuliano were directly influenced by this hotel expansion, as they were able to trade their lower-floor apartment to the hotel in exchange for a larger, third-floor unit that they eventually renovated. But although they benefited from this deal, it did not change the fact that they are surrounded by a neighbour hostile to the working-class culture of their building. A few years ago, for instance, the hotel communicated to the condominium association that the presence of drying laundry hanging from the various lines on the southern wall of their building was detracting from the hotel guests’ five-star-luxury experience. Apparently, the hotel management reasoned that if their guests had paid premium rates for the privilege of floating within the secluded confines of a perfect garden with an awe-inspiring view of the Venetian lagoon, the last thing those guests would want to cross their line of vision would be a phalanx of flapping sheets and socks and briefs. Such a sight would simply destroy the romance of the Venetian experience.
So the hotel made a suggestion that on first blush seems generous in the extreme: they offered to purchase a brand new clothes drier for every resident in the condominium. Had this offer been made anywhere in North America, it would have been accepted, and everyone would have lived happily ever after. But in Venice, the conclusion to the story was more nuanced.
Most Venetians, like most Italians, hang their clothes out to dry, not just because Italy is a sunny country but because electricity in Italy is very expensive, so driers are not as common as in North America. The condo residents were tempted by the hotel’s offer, but they were fully aware that if they agreed to it they would face additional power and service costs. So they answered that they would accept the driers only if the hotel would also assume responsibility for these extra costs. This the hotel management was not willing to do. As a result, the Cipriani did not purchase the machines and the condo residents still hang their clothes out to dry. But the good news is that wealthy patrons continue to stay at the Cipriani, which suggests that the rich and famous, in the spirit of noblesse oblige, can accept the sight of drying sheets and underwear.
What the wealthy might not appreciate, however, is how the establishment of a hotel like the Cipriani has influenced the working class of Giudecca. To help me understand this dynamic, our cousins suggested that I listen to the Venetian protest song “Giudecca” by Alberto D’Amico, which is available on YouTube. I present here my line-by-line English translation of the Venetian lyrics as they appear in a not-for-profit archive of political and social protest songs www.ildeposito.org:
Our abandoned Giudecca
twenty years of struggles and exploitation;
the time has now come
to say enough and to change.
The schools with rats
and houses without bathrooms;
and when you go to bed
you always dream of working.
And those who work are worn out
at Herion, at Junghans, at the Yards.
And the police give you black eyes
if you go on strike.
And the children catch hepatitis
in the Giudecca bog.
Cipriani eats steak
and wants to evict us from our homes.
And countesses ran the after-school program
with their face powder and chocolates.
The Pro-Giudecca of the owners
has screwed the Giudecchini.
Students, women, and workers
we occupied the after-school program.
Let the prefect come with the police;
we won’t move, we’ll stay here.
Our abandoned Giudecca
twenty years of hunger and exploitation;
the time has now come
to say enough and to change.
The living conditions described in D’Amico’s song point back to times much earlier than the two decades before 1973. The lyrics present an almost Dickensian picture of factory workers struggling against their self-serving masters and the wealthy. The Hotel Cipriani comes across as an unfeeling developer, eating steak while it expands its property and tries to displace the poor from their simple homes.
This song presents an insight into the history of Venice that is probably unfamiliar to most tourists. Giudecca developed as an important industrial center in the later nineteenth century after the building of the railroad bridge in 1846 from the mainland to the new train station and Venice’s port, which is directly across the water from Giudecca’s western end. This close access to both water and rail transportation encouraged industrial development. Between the 1880s and the early 1900s, Giudecca became home to numerous enterprises, including the employers mentioned in the song: the Herion fabrics factory (which operated from 1886 to 1985), the Junghans clock factory (it also made bomb fuses during World War II), naval yards, cordage factories, tanneries, the large Vendramin Warehouses for salt and carbon, a brewery, a distillery, a cement factory, an ice plant, the Gaggio rug factory, Fortuny textiles (still operating today), the Molino Stucky (Stucky Flour Mill), which operated from 1883 to 1955, and a motion picture studio.
© 2014, Marco LoVerso
[Photo: Andreas Schwabe (Marketing CUCA)]
Marco LoVerso is Professor of English at Concordia University College of Alberta (CUCA), in Edmonton.