Fighting the Tide

Venice rethinks its dependence on tourism amid the COVID-19 pandemic

At St Mark's Basilica, the chairs of the cafés lining the arcade were piled up. GIACOMO SINI
30 September, 2021

A handful of people were waiting at the dock on Burano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon, and the approaching vaporetto—a canal boat used for public transport—was almost empty. The narrow streets were silent, while the traditional lace shops and restaurants on the facades of the brightly coloured houses were closed. “At this time of the day it’s usually full of tourists, but look at this!” Bruno, an 83-year-old resident, told us, pointing towards the church in the deserted square.

Bruno’s story is like that of many in Burano. Born on the island into a large fishing family, he left the hard life at sea at a young age to work in tourism. He has worked at the Trattoria da Romano, a local restaurant, since the 1950s. “I’ve always been a waiter; I prefer to fly low,” he said. “Now I clean the fish in the kitchen. I do all the jobs an old man can do.” Located in an eighteenth-century building that once housed a lace factory, the family-run restaurant has been visited by a number of celebrities over the years. “I have photos with Robert De Niro, with Jimmy Carter’s wife, with the most famous footballers,” Bruno said. In recent months, however, it has only sporadically opened, thanks to restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We hope to reopen soon,” he added. “We need you.”

At Fondamente Nove, the last stop on the vaporetto route, the remaining passengers scattered on the quay. A man in his fifties gave us directions to St Mark’s Basilica. “The workers are protesting against the reduction of their salaries, and the timetables are all out of whack, so I don’t know how long it will take you,” he said. “Welcome to our world!”

In the shadow of the basilica’s bell tower, the chairs of the cafés lining the arcade were piled up, wrapped in plastic. It was a bright spring day in April, but the passers-by could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The museum was locked up and the bell tower was closed, with only one chapel in the basilica open for prayer. Looking at the basilica from the opposite side of the empty square, we were struck by the geometry of the buildings—an unprecedented beauty, but also a paralysing desolation.

Giacomo Sini is a photojournalist based in Livorno. He is primarily interested in the stories of refugees from conflict regions. His work has been published in several international publications, including Vice, National Geographic, the New Internationalist, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel and El País.
Dario Antonelli is an activist and freelance journalist based in Livorno. His work has been published in The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Il Manifesto, Domani, FQ Millennium and El País.