This is a Call for the Election of a Doge

My crush on Venice, Italy, began in a milquetoast Utah mall waiting for my sister to choose a prom dress. Bored, my brother-in-law and I were jawing about Europe. Three weeks later, twenty of us – parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews – were on a plane. None of us had been before.
For two and a half weeks we rented a villa on the coast, crossing over to Venice each day. Though we’d had plans for Rome and Florence, Milan and Pisa, we never got there.
This is Venice: Lido beach, capped by skeins of fog, its grey sands conjured from the Adriatic. Evening strolls for gelato. The gondola repair shop tucked along a cobbled pathway. The gloss rubbed into the white Istrian marble by millions of hands climbing Rialto Bridge. Geraniums cascading from four-story windows. A dirt path through hay fields on Burano leading to a thousand-year-old church. Jeweled rings in the naval museum the size of melons, made to fling into the lagoon as tribute.
And a bubbler blower.
This was before Sept. 11 2001 and the global reality terrorist attacks, when illegal immigrants from Senegal were still allowed to sell knock-off Gucci bags on the hot footbridges. I’d been through a dozen dusty churches to see Titians and Caravaggios, and toured the flourhouse-turned-museum to see Rape of Europa. I’d been to the morning fish market, eaten dried mango at the open-air bazaar, haggled with a gondolier. I’d been to Peggy Guggenhiem’s mansion to see the Calder mobiles and Constanin Brancusi’s Bird In Space -- and the tombstones in her backyard. I’d paused at her gondola, stuck sadly under glass because it was the last to ever operate here.
       Shoehorned on side-street was bearded man standing on the ancient marble well, in full masquerade costume, blowing bubbles for 50 gaping tourists. His bubbles were the size of a palazzo cupola, dipping just above the heads of the crowd before being gently lifted into the air column, bobbing over the city and floating out to sea. I watched for an hour, until he vanished into the crowd and the crowd evanesced too.
He was just a guy making bubbles, another street performer clogging narrow walkways for quick cash. And I was just another pale-legged tourist, cog of the maudlin mob that actual Venetians both lament for overrunning their city and bitterly need to keep their city alive. I had traveled from the arid American West, where there are no bubbles like this ode to Whitman’s The Body Electric. In Utah, we have red rock, salt-flats and timberline cities, but no humidity. Our thin and brittle air shatters bubbles.
From the Golden Book to pizza margherita, from Titian to the poetry of a bubble, Venice is revelatory. And hobbled.
No one disputes the problem is homemade. The birth of the world’s first capitalist republic came out of desperation. In the third and fourth centuries, common farmers and fishermen fled to these tiny islands for safety from the invading Goths, led by Alaric the Barbarian. Next to swoop in was the remorselessly cruel Attila the Hun, who had never learned to use a boat, thankfully. The salt-marsh islands saved the people, and the people made Venice.
Boats became the savior of the Venetian Empire -- the fountain of a river of money from trade and total military dominance. Though it is still the tiniest geographic secular country to ever have existed, it became an empire, flush with lurid wealth and the intoxication of dominating its neighbors for centuries. Popes bowed to Venice, as did potentates and patriarchs. Wars -- territorial and holy -- were financed here, industries birthed; stocks and bonds were invented here. The greatest families on earth vied to have their names added to The Golden Book, that short list of those who were born – or could buy their way – into the Venetian aristocracy.
Other empires flumed and faded with the lifespan of a clothing trend – ermine shoulder capes, say. And Venice circled vulture-like, ready to strip-mine the carcass. But Venice itself must have seemed to its citizens and enemies to live according to other natural laws, forever aloof to decline.
Today the city affectionately called Serenissima – Most Serene – is approaching her third millennium. The Italian government has planked down a billion euros for the controversial and untested under-sea gates, hoping to spare this sinking city from acqua alta, those storm-driven tides that have forced the evacuation of the ground floors of most palazzos.
If the sea-gates can do their job, perhaps Venice will live eternally.
For all her reinvention and narcissism, Venice did not escape her death, which descended as a Biblical plague in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. While his swift dismantling of her empire (it took three weeks) was a bitter blow, it is Napoleon’s disdain that stings. Not only did he swat down the venerable doyenne of the Adriatic as though dispatching a gnat, and force the abdication of the oligarchy on his whim, he did it with scorn and teasing. He did it not because it needed to be done, not because Venice could any longer threaten him. He did it because he could -- the archetypal schoolyard bully. On Friday, May 12, 1797, cowed Venetian patricians voted in their own demise. John Julius Norwich, in his riveting history of the empire, chronicles that day this way:
“From soon after sunrise the people of Venice had been congregating in the Piazza and Piazzetta... All were aware that the end had come. ...Among the working population there were many who, in contrast to their enfranchised superiors, believed that the Republic, doomed or not, could and should have fought for her survival; for them, there was anger mingled with their shame, and they were in no mood to conceal it. Bands of these rough loyalists were roaming the streets crying ‘Viva San Marco!’ and hurling abuse at any patrician they chanced to encounter on their path.”
After nearly two millennia of formidable high finance, under the weight of her own debauchery, led by the patricians of the greatest families grown languid with iniquity and a gout of unbroken ease, Venice’s empire was hewn away.
Two hundred years and many changes later, Venice struggles with identity. Cut off from governing, the bloodlines of Doges give tours. Foreign celebrities buy up the palazzos. Simpering international charities clash over the right to give tremulous galas in aide to rotting churches and masterwork art. Gondolas float obese lookee-loos. Cruise ships have replaced the Doge’s golden flotilla.
As a fallen city-state, Venezia has become the world’s first museum-state. I propose the Italian government return Venice to its independence, a defibrillative move to bring breath again to the corpse.
Independence would be honorary, of course, and that would be enough. This would allow Venice to become the world’s first municipal-dowager figurehead of empire, the way Queen Elizabeth is both a bloodline and interactive museum-piece. This would allow a grey-haired Doge in full traditional regalia, elected as is tradition to serve for life, to take up residence in the Doges’ Palace, take to the canals in his golden gondola, preside over Carnivale and the regatta races, open the Bienniale and the Film Festival, throw the jeweled ring into the lagoon to renew the city’s marriage to the sea, and hold command performances at La Fenice. A living Dogaressa -- why couldn’t she be a woman? -- would returning ceremony and purpose to the finery, reviving the old majesty, quickening the native blood for the next one thousand years.
In short, Venice could get dressed up and put on a show again -- the very thing Venice was always best at in all the world.
This is a call for revival of the Venetian Empire, for election of a Doge. Viva San Marco. Viva la Serenissima.

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