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food / travel

Silence, Beauty, Fear: Venice In The Time Of Coronavirus

A Venice-based novelist reflects on the disappearing tourists, imploding economy and politicians siding with the apocalypse.

An almost empty canal street in Venice on Feb. 24
An almost empty canal street in Venice on Feb. 24
Chiara Valerio

VENICE — For a few days now, I've noticed that something has changed on my daily walk along the Fondamenta delle Zattere near the Conrad supermarket that stays open even during high water and which, consequently, is also open now.

What's changed is that the Giudecca canal is mostly empty. In a city that's already silent, in a matter of days, the silence of Venice has multiplied. Two sounds, above all, have disappeared: the rumble of the lancioni that zip tourists around the lagoon, and the frequent screeching of the trolley wheels in the streets. The Giudecca canal has been emptied; The streets have been emptied.

I didn't know the statistics that led to this silence before I began writing because when you live in a place, you either minimize or don't care. Last Saturday evening, I selfishly thought to myself: you can go to St. Mark's Square without having to walk single-file the whole way from Rialto!

I didn't end up going to St. Mark's, though. I don't often go. And I suddenly understood, with a certain shameful sadness, that I, too, am sometimes seized by the desire to take away something from others that I, in reality, don't even want.

It irked me to imagine all those tourists in line and me stuck in the middle of them, even if in reality I had no intention to go to either Rialto or St. Mark's.

The statistics show a 60% cancellation rate. In a declaration given to ANSA, the Italian wire service, Marina Lalli, vice-president of the tourism association Federturismo Confindustria declared: "The international press has taken up our own alarmist spirit and in 48 hours we became an unsafe country to which it is best not to travel, and from which it is best not to welcome travelers."

Sunday morning as I walked toward the station from San Basilio, where I live, I only came across four people but I told myself, "It's not even 6 a.m. yet."

Three people at Piazzale Roma. Near an off-duty taxi stood two boys and a girl, dressed for the Carnevale, passing a plastic cup between them, perhaps filled with gin and tonic, drinking through the straw. Watching them, I thought of all the times in the past I'd stayed out until dawn.

Carnivale this year in Venice was a sad affair — Photo: Brian Whitnell

Arriving at the Santa Lucia train station I came across the fourth person of the morning, a man heading toward me from the opposite side of the station. We headed for the cafe-bar entrance together. He let me go in first.

Throughout the rest of the day, however, upon my return to Venice, I began reading the alarmist news about the Covid-19 coronavirus — and retracing my morning, my day, until in my mind's eye I saw the three kids from the Piazzale Roma again, this time as though they were in that historic AIDS commercial where the people touch one another and a fuchsia halo suddenly appears around them. The Santa Lucia station suddenly transformed into the film set of a Western, where I and the man who let me into the bar first were two gunslingers on the set of "High Noon."

I think that human beings, beginning with myself, only manage to concern themselves with problems if they are the protagonists in some way. My imagination is wild, blazing, but there are more ordinary things to imagine as well: grabbing the last can of tuna or the last banana, putting on the surgical mask or latex gloves and feeling safe, barricading one's self at home with the television on and accepting that this is reality.

It's convenient politically to take the side of apocalypse.

Protagonist-centered imaginings that prevent us from taking measured and collective actions that we would and should otherwise be taking. Actions that can be resumed in the phrase, in the practice of "seeking to contain the contagion" — washing one's hands, not going anywhere if it's not necessary, not coughing or sneezing near those nearby (which, in any case, is just good manners). I don't think epidemics can be overcome with good manners alone, but I do think that proper civil and administrative measures, an information campaign that doesn't merely trumpet out alarmist headlines, and a healthy dose of reality can all help manage the emergency.

An emergency is not an apocalypse: It's an emergency. The other day, in the Corriere della Sera daily, Paolo Giordano said it well in his reporting on the epidemiological models. Before that, Adriano Sofri in the Foglio daily underlined just how important it would be to always keep in mind the difference between a statistic and a life. And this emergency is part of life, whereas the apocalypse is the end of time.

It doesn't surprise me that the anxiety around the contagion has effectively supplanted the possibility of contagion, because epidemics — especially ones that can be described as fatal — prompt thoughts of apocalypse, and the apocalypse by nature eliminates personal responsibility. If everything is ending, there are no actions and no consequences. If everything is ending, then it's useless to worry about the imagination of the country. Since our political class, for the most part, has no idea what the future holds, it's convenient politically to take the side of apocalypse. That's what has happened in Italy, with virtually no politician taking the side of the economy.

Here in Venice, the Christmas lights are still up, under the arcades of the Piazza San Marco and in the side canals. In certain streets, at about the height of second-floor windows, they mingle with the little cardboard Carnevale candy flakes and plastic bottles. The noises have not yet returned. But maybe this economic downturn, after the last high water, is the opportunity to rethink Venice, not just in terms of how many available beds there are in the B&Bs, hotels and private homes, but as a city of higher education, creativity and research, as a cultural stronghold not simply touristic in nature.

I ask myself what Cesare de Michelis, a native Venetian and founder of the Marsilio publishing house, would have said about the anxiety of contagion that has overtaken the possibility of contagion itself. And I ask myself this because Cesare, who died nearly two years ago, always had surprising answers to those questions to which others, wanting to sound worldly, would respond with banalities. Responding to questions with an inane echo seems to me our central civic problem these days, where the word "coronavirus' has overwhelmed the coronavirus itself.

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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