For a view of a slightly different Venice, stand on the Zattere, across the broad Giudecca Canal from Palladio’s Church of the Redentore, and look towards the west. Over at the far end of the Giudecca you’ll see such classics of Venetian architecture as the old Venezia Brewery, the Women’s Prison and the massive brick Victorian hulk called the Mulino Stucky, a flour factory built in the 1890s by a German architect, and now a fancy hotel.
On the horizon, the steel and concrete skyline of Marghera closes the view down the canal: tall smokestacks in parfait stripes, glittering oil tanks and refinery towers, the perfect arch of a pipeline crossing high over a canal. Created from marshland, Marghera (its name comes from the Venetian Mar gh' era, or 'There was the sea') was the result of a decision in 1917 by the Italian government, following the plan to develop an industrial port opposite the mainland town of Mestre.
Starting in 1920, the lagoon was dredged to create deep shipping canals; artificial islands (sacche) were created, and land reclaimed. Workers' houses and chemical and petroleum factories were built at Porto Marghera. In 1940 there were over 60, drawing Allied bombing raids. Today it is back in business. Many of the workers in the factories, and in Venice's service industries, live in Mestre, a medieval town that became part of the Republic in 1337.
Shelley and Keats, one supposes, would faint in dismay. John Ruskin would alternately thunder and weep. And almost every writer since, it seems, has saved up some venom for Marghera and Mestre, malignant as Tolkien’s Mordor and the blight on their city of dreams, a sleazy imposition by some itchy-palmed tycoon on the forlorn Serenissima. Perhaps none have done it with more juicy vigour than Marius Brill, in his Making Love: A Conspiracy Of The Heart in 2011:
“Mestre. Say the word without hissing the conurbated villain, and pitying its citizens. As quickly as they can, two million tourists pass through, or by, Mestre each year, and each one will be struck by the same thought as they wonder at the aesthetic opposition that it represents. Mestre is an ugly town but ugly only in the same way that Michael Jackson might be desccribed as eccentric or a Tabasco Vindaloo flambéed in rocket fuel might be described as warm. Mestre is almost excremental in its hideousness: a fetid, fly-blown, festering, industrial urbanization, scarred with varicose motorways, flyovers, rusting railway sidings and the rubbish of a billion holidaymakers gradually burning, spewing thick black clouds into the Mediterranean sky. A town with apparently no centre, a utilitarian ever-expandable wasteland adapted to house the displaced poor, the shorebound, outpriced, domicile-deprived exiles from its neighbouring city. For, just beyond the condom- and polystyrene-washed, black-stained, mud shores of Marghera, Mestre's very own oil refinery, less than a mile away across the waters of the lagoon in full sight of its own dispossessed citizens, is the Jewel of the Adriatic.
From some newspaper features, you might imagine that this little patch of dark satanic mills was magically apported here from the Ruhr valley by an evil sorcerer. Imposition, though, is not exactly the correct word, for almost all of these modern atrocities were the work of Venetians.
One of the chief conspirators was a certain Count Volpi di Misurata, a local promoter who had many chances to do favours for his home town as Mussolini’s finance minister in the 1920s (the Fascists were never unpopular in Venice).
Mussolini himself was against the road causeway, but the Venetians managed to get it built anyhow. The authors of the wacky planning schemes that occasionally surface, intending to bring cars into the city or to fill in half the lagoon for new development, are inevitably Venetians, and since the war Venetians have voted with their feet and shown us their new idea of how a city should look – shapeless concrete Mestre. It now has a permanent population close to 90,000, far more than the historic centre, and on four occasions it has held referendums (last in 2003) on becoming an independent city. All have failed.
Because Mestre and Marghera are Venice too, as much as Piazza San Marco and the Rialto. The real Venice is a hard-working port city, with all of the common reflexes and attitudes of modern port cities; it just happens to have an extremely unusual centro storico, one that creates unique problems in transport and economic efficiency. In matters of aesthetics, it is as tenacious as a bulldog about preserving the past, and traditionally, pathetically lazy about improving the present.
Its people aren’t at all interested in the Death in Venice complex of jaded foreigners: they want to earn an honest living. Look at that view of Marghera again: not so awful after all, perhaps – a colourful piece of abstract art left over from the Biennale, one of the more fantastical apparitions of the enchanted lagoon. It is beginning to look rather Venetian.
Image by Patrik Tschudin