image of a traditional cos
All photos courtesy of the author

The Strange Emptiness of Watching My Home Town Sink

Venetians had their best summer in decades. But temporary relief only masks a deeper existential crisis.
November 27, 2020, 9:15am

This article was originally published on VICE Italy.

I was born in the Venice neighbourhood of Castello in the 80s. As a kid I played football on the street, in one of the few Italian cities with no cars. 

At that time, Castello – home to the Venice Biennale – was still off the beaten track. There were the local characters: the “Red Madman” who used to chase me, and “Crazy Nene” on the bridge, who always had her hair in curlers. Our neighbourhood had a hairdresser, carpenter, pub, butcher, grocer and a constant stream of locals.


The ancient city’s problems are well-publicised: Venice is sinking into the sea. This is partly due to the fact it was built on clay, and until a century ago, the process could have been described as slow and steady. But it was exacerbated post-WWII by the huge industrialisation of the lagoon and the port, and more recently by rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis.

In the last few decades, the city’s natural, social and cultural ecosystem has changed. It’s hard to watch for someone who has left the city. Despite moving to Milan for work, I still feel the pull of Venice, and visit when I can. But when I do, I’m confronted by an unbearable nostalgia for the old Venice.

Benedetta Panisson in Campo Do Pozzi, Venice.

The author, as a child, in Campo Do Pozzi, Venice, 1987. Image courtesy of the artist and Giorgio Panisson

In June this year, a friend who still lives in Venice sent me a message. “This summer in Venice is going to be the best of our lives,” she wrote, referring to the pandemic. And it was. For once, we weren’t outnumbered by the throngs of tourists. Without huge cruise ships, the water was calmer and the sea cleaner.

This summer, we could breathe, laugh and swim like we hadn’t been able to for decades. We embraced the idea that this could be the start of a new era, putting an end to the constant nostalgia and fear of our city collapsing.

"People do Water", series by Benedetta Panisson

Photo from the series "People do Water", (2013-2020) by Benedetta Panisson. Photo courtesy of the artist

As children, our parents always swam in Venice’s canals. By the time we were kids, we were only allowed to dive in on the last day of school, making sure not to swallow any water. Our kids have never been able to it. Thanks to new technology, we know the streams around Venice are now less contaminated than they were 30 years ago. But the canals are still polluted with hotel sewage. We’re fighting against faeces to be able to swim in our canals again.


The animals of Venice and the lagoon have changed, too. Foreign molluscs and crustaceans brought in by cargo ships have invaded the ecosystem and displaced native species. Profits have been prioritised over Venice’s organic life. And it’s fuelled an exodus: in 40 years, the city’s population has halved to 52,000 in 2019. And while residents are driven away, the romance of the city still pulls in 30 million tourists a year. 

"Come to Venice", series by Benedetta Panisson

Photo from the series "Come to Venice", (2008—) by Benedetta Panisson. Photo courtesy of the artist

In recent years, locals have even begun to perceive the high tides differently. The floods of November 2019, which broke records set in 1966, frightened even those who have lived with the tides for 80 years. 

It’s terrible knowing that your community is disappearing, and actually seeing it happen. It’s a strangely empty feeling, and not in a meditative sense – an angry and melancholic emptiness. 

"Come to Venice", series by Benedetta Panisson

Photo from the series "Come to Venice", (2008—) by Benedetta Panisson. Photo courtesy of the artist

Venice welcomes and fulfils the desires of others – it feeds on its own exoticism. And sometimes it still lives up to the fantasy. But nowadays, Venice is both a victim and the perpetrator of its own demise. It’s both beautiful and ugly, lavish and impoverished, sustainable and polluted, safe and dangerous, overcrowded and empty, elegant and vulgar.

I wonder what the city will return to after the pandemic, given its own “normality” is now no longer sustainable. 

Benedetta Panisson is a visual artist and researcher. Her work explores the relationship between the sea, island territories, bodies, images, communities and their margins. The city of Venice is the subject of constant investigation in her work, in particular in her photography project “Come to Venice”.