Film crews are flocking to an empty Venice. Harry Mount visited the city between lockdowns
I’m standing in Venice’s holiest building, St Mark’s Basilica, at the 10am Mass – and there are only 15 of us, plus the priest, in the whole, vast edifice.
The silence, apart from the priest’s soft, Italian voice, is complete. Above us, the golden, mosaic domes of St Mark’s gleam in the morning light pouring through the basilica’s ancient windows, gently illuminating the 11th-century marbled walls. Ahead of me sits the ancient tomb of St Mark, as in the author of the Gospel.
I'm not religious but, as I take Communion (bread only, no wine, under coronavirus rules), I feel overwhelmed by this exceptional moment in Venice’s history.
St Mark’s – and Venice – have never been so empty in 100 years. For this brief spell – between lockdown and a gradual return to business as normal – now is an exceptional opportunity to visit Venice as it was meant to be seen.
The city’s resident population is now estimated at around 25,000 – 40,000. There are no mammoth cruise ships looming over the city. There are very few British tourists and a scattering of German and French tourists. Most voices you hear are Italian - or in the local Venetian dialect.
I walked round the city for hours on end and had endless canals entirely to myself. Late at night, St Mark’s Square was literally empty except for me and some friends. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco – that great treasure house of Tintoretto’s paintings – had six people on the ground floor; a dozen on the first floor. I was alone in San Giorgio degli Schiavoni – with its divine pictures of St George killing the dragon – for 10 minutes. And, as for the canals, the water is so clear that an octopus recently jumped from a stall in the Venice fish market into the welcoming, clean waters of the canal.
On the down side, one of the most important festivals in Venice’s year – the Festa del Redentore last year – was subdued. The festival gives thanks for the end of the plague that killed 50,000 in 1576. Last year, the hour-long lavish firework display celebrating the festival was banned.
Venice, thank God, was largely spared from the 2020 plague – as a series of islands, it can isolate itself. Elsewhere, northern Italy was horrifically struck, particularly in Bergamo, the early European epicentre of coronavirus.
As a result, Venetians are cautious. They wear face masks on vaporetti - the city’s water buses – in shops and in churches. The Italians like wrapping masks round their left elbows when they’re not wearing them. I quickly copied the chic style - and bought a blue mask emblazoned with the gold lion of St Mark.
For decades, Venetians have been overwhelmed by vast crowds swamping their city. Now is a rare moment for them to enjoy their home town along with a lucky few tourists.
“Venice is always a joy but to see it now is a true privilege,” says Lisa Hilton, the British ex-pat author of best-selling novel Maestra, who lives in Venice. “The Venetians have rediscovered their home and this is a unique moment to share it with them. La Serenissima has not been so serene for a century.”
For all the joy of having the city back to themselves, Venetian hotels and restaurants – many of them three quarters empty – will be happy to welcome back more tourists. For the first time in 300 years, Florian’s in St Mark’s Square, the world’s oldest café, has been allowed to have umbrellas over its tables in the square to attract more shade-seeking tourists.
“It has been a very strange time,” says Linda who, with her family, rents to tourists her charming house, Ca’Ermina, 10 minutes’ walk from St Mark’s Square but quiet and tourist-free even in non-coronavirus times. “And it has been quiet with only Venetians. Even now, there are very few tourists. But we’re very keen to have more.”