Category Archives: Italy
Cities around the world have had difficulties balancing the interests of visitors with the needs of residents, as holiday rental platforms such as Airbnb have grown in popularity and size. Evidence shows that the conversion of rented homes to short-term accommodation contributes to housing shortages, raises house prices, speeds up gentrification and erodes local communities.
Cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and London have acted to curb these negative effects, imposing new taxes or limiting the number of nights that a property can be rented out. Today, Venice is one of the worst affected cities: the resident population has fallen to its lowest level in centuries and city leaders are looking for ways to mitigate the ill effects of mass tourism.
Yet the city also has a long history of managing the pros and cons of migration and tourism, and finding ways to profit from – but also integrate – foreigners. Indeed, in Renaissance Venice, a huge influx of foreigners fuelled the rise of a large informal lodging sector, which was difficult to tax and regulate and had a major impact on the urban community. Sound familiar?
Renaissance boom town
By the 16th century, Venice was the capital of its own huge empire and a major crossroads of trade and travel between mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. At the same time as painters including Titian and Giorgione were making the city a centre of Renaissance culture, the population surged from around 100,000 to nearly 170,000 in just 50 years.
Unlike today, the people drawn to Venice at the time were mostly international merchants and entrepreneurs, migrants looking for work in local industries, or refugees from war and hunger. But the first tourists also arrived in this period, such as the French writer and nobleman Montaigne, who came to explore the city’s cultural treasures. And all of these people needed somewhere to stay.
My research has shown how hundreds of ordinary Venetians at this time saw a chance to make money on the side by renting rooms or beds. Many were women who struggled to earn a living in other ways: people like Paolina Briani, who in the 1580s rented rooms to Muslim merchants from the Ottoman empire, in her home a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco.
By opening up their homes to migrants and travellers, these accommodation providers – unlike the mostly absentee Airbnb owners of today – shared intimate spaces with people who spoke different languages and practised different religions.
Regulating the informal economy
The rapid growth of this informal economy of lodging alarmed the Venetian government. Fearing the spread both of diseases and of threatening political and religious ideas, the government was anxious to regulate and monitor the presence of foreigners in their city. They also wished to minimise competition with the city’s licensed inns – a profitable source of tax revenues.
So, a bit like today, the government made efforts to register and tax lodging housekeepers, and force them to report on the movements of their tenants. Though this regulation was very difficult to enforce because of the informal nature of many lodging enterprises, Venice’s rulers did not try to eliminate this sector altogether.
While wanting to control the movement of people, they also saw that migrants and visitors were crucial to the city’s economy and its cultural power. They wanted to welcome anyone who brought valuable goods, innovative ideas or essential manpower.
At the same time, the government took into account that ordinary Venetians – especially vulnerable and poor groups such as widows – also profited from the influx. And the money that residents made by offering lodging might be essential to their survival.
A delicate balance
To be sure, Venice’s authorities did not welcome all comers. They took aggressive action to stop “undesirables” (such as beggars and prostitutes) from entering the city. They also put more and more pressure on religious minorities to live in segregated spaces – most famously the Jewish Ghetto.
But they also saw the benefits of promoting a diverse and flexible hospitality industry that could serve the interests of locals as well as visitors. Licensed lodging houses were allowed to flourish and, alongside the inns, became a central part of the city’s emerging tourist infrastructure.
Many newcomers who came to stay in residents’ homes – where they might learn something of the local language and customs – went on to settle and integrate into the community. In its regulation of the hospitality industry, Renaissance Venice struck a delicate balance between the interests of foreigners and locals, which was crucial to the city’s economic, cultural and political strength.
Today, such a compromise appears very difficult to achieve. There are differences between then and now: in the reasons people come to the city; in the nature of competing urban needs; and in the likely solutions and policies. But it seems that cities can take a lead from Renaissance Venice, and act to promote meaningful interactions between visitors and residents; for example, as Berlin has done, by banning people from renting out entire flats on Airbnb. The Venice of 500 years ago challenges people to think about “the Airbnb problem” in a more nuanced way.
On the 500th anniversary of his death, our series Leonardo da Vinci Revisited brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine his work, legacy and myth.
The artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci was once famously named a “Master of Water” in the records of the Florentine government.
In this role, he explored diverting the river Arno away from Pisa so as to cut access to the city, then Florence’s enemy, from the sea. It was one of a number of jobs he held that were dedicated to controlling water as a way of wielding power.
But his notebooks reveal Leonardo’s wider preoccupations with the power of water. He wanted to understand the ebb and flow of tides, the origins of rivers and oceans and the water cycle, as well as the fearsome effects of water in erosion, floods, rain and storms. Water was a force to be reckoned with — as an idea and as a reality.
If humans could not control water, Leonardo argued, they could nonetheless work with it. Over his lifetime, he was commissioned for a range of projects to manipulate water, most often in canals, as a form of warfare.
When Leonardo wrote down his thoughts about how to depict a biblical deluge, central to his thinking was the destructive force of water: “The swollen waters will sweep round the pool which contains them striking in eddying whirlpools against the different obstacles, and leaping into the air in muddy foam; then, falling back, the beaten water will again be dashed into the air.”
His mindset was biblical but he shared with modern scientists an interest in great destructive forces such as tsunamis.
The beauty of water
For Leonardo, water could also be exquisitely beautiful in its flows, eddies and swirls. His illustrations of moving water were not really observations of a single moment in time though; they captured his thought process.
In the illustration below, of water passing obstacles, he depicted movement in time and space, as well as his conceptualisation of how fluids flow, in a single diagram.
Leonardo was depicting the inherently three-dimensional nature of flowing water, and the idea that turbulent flows consist of a range of co-existing eddies, varying in scale from large to small. This concept was mathematically formalised in 1941 by A.N. Kolmogorov, and is known as the “cascade model of turbulence”.
Visualisation of flowing water remains a powerful and essential tool in modern research today. For instance, recent laboratory studies of the three-dimensional flow around islands in coastal ocean regions, have used tiny plastic spheres to observe the fluid motion (known as particle tracking) of the evolving wake downstream of an island.
Describing the complex nature of these wakes, and the vertical up-welling of water in them, is key to understanding how the ecological productivity of these marine systems is maintained.
For Leonardo, flowing water formed parallels with curling hair:
Observe the motion of the surface of the water which resembles that of hair, and has two motions, of which one goes on with the flow of the surface, the other forms the lines of the eddies; thus the water forms eddying whirlpools one part of which are due to the impetus of the principal current and the other to the incidental motion and return flow.
Recently, scientists who study fluid mechanics have employed innovative ways to communicate the results of their experiments through creating a musical representation of the frequency content of the flow. These modern methods share with Leonardo a fascination with the beauty of flowing water.
He may once have held the title “Master of Water” but Leonardo realised that this was one element of the natural world over which he (like others) could only ever exercise limited control, except perhaps, in his art.
Susan Broomhall, Professor of History, University of Western Australia; Greg Ivey, Professor of geophysical fluid dynamics, and Nicole L. Jones, Associate Professor of Physical Oceanography , University of Western Australia