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Why in Venice everything is different than it seems

Prof. Dr. Stefanie Bürkle and Janin Walter

Over the years, Venice has been, and continues to be, frequently copied and reproduced, from casinos in Las Vegas to Macau, theme parks in China to all the Venetian ice cream parlors in German small towns. Images of such copies get mixed up with the countless representations of the original. They all produce tourist expectations, which in turn reflect back on the Italian city.

Under the title “Imaginations of Venice”, our research team around the artist Stefanie Bürkle investigates contempo- rary phenomena relating to Venice and its copies in an artistic-visual way. In the broadest sense, the project constitutes an engagement with travel and the appropriation of imagina- tions of the foreign and thus of the ostensibly familiar. In the course of our artistic study, we identify noteworthy imaginations of the city and photograph and film them on site. We will display our results as an artistic work in the form of an exhibition in 2024.

2022, the research team visited the city several times to explore images projected onto it from the outside as well self-images of Venice. We spoke with tourists, residents, Venetian tourist guides, key players in the cultural scene, as well as city government employees. What we found out is paradoxical: the image of Venice, this so often replicated city, can best be described with the metaphor of the “fake façade”.

The dissemination of never-changing depictions of Venice – with their image of a romantic, crumbling, and doomed Venice – has led to an increase in the number of tourists to 30 million visitors per year. In order to maintain this image, it has become mandatory to use rapidly aging materials in facade renovations. At the same time, the city government itself is doing much to ensure that new tourist facilities are placed behind more and more old facades. For example, it sold individual buildings or entire islands like San Clemente to international hotel chains like Kempinksi or Hilton.

This sell-out has its price: For many Venetians, life in Venice is no longer possible: “Too crowded, but also too expensive,” reports Giulia, owner of a second-hand store. Her city, she claims, has long ceased to be the sophisticated place it pre- tends to be. Theaters have been converted into supermar- kets, post offices have become luxury shopping malls, like the former German trading center “Fondaco dei Tedeschi” from the 13th century.

More and more souvenir stores are being taken over by Chinese operators. They sell glass objects “made in China” instead of “made in Italy” – so cheaply that local producers from the island of Murano are giving up. Even many of the leather goods advertised as Italian do not come from Venice, but are produced cheaply in Prato, a town near Florence, by Chinese.

The only ones not pretending to be something else are the mobile souvenir stalls. They have always sold cheap prod- ucts. The increasing number of these stalls is also a sign of increasing touristification. The licenses for these mobile stores have been owned for generations by a few Venetian families, who lease them to traders from other places.

The refiguration of space in Venice seems to consist of imi- tating itself over and over again. Venice thus becomes a copy of its own original, the image becomes a still image. In upcoming fieldwork, we will examine replicas in the U.S. and Macau to see what kind of sociocultural actions can be found in these replicated places. In the spirit of this CRC’s multiple spatialities approach, we also want to analyze how imaginaries of Venice in turn affect the built physical space of Venice.

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