Ever since anybody can remember, Venice has been sinking under the weight of its own magnificence. Sinking, flooding, rotting, but never quite drowning. For centuries, it has managed to stay afloat with a mysterious buoyancy, a lightness of being, which is as peculiar to the Veniceness of Venice as is the deathly weight of its beauty. The sinking is an actual physical process, the strangely resilient wooden piles on which the entire city is built descending, in Viscontian slow motion, into the submerged layers of sand, mud, clay and trash reclaimed from the sea to which La Serenissima opens her most-serene arms. But this mortal gravity is also a less tangible, mythical quality projected into the city, largely by fiction-prone outsiders. It is made up as much of the city’s, and the region’s, long history as of the art, literature, music and architecture that has become inextricable from the history. This rich merchandise of memory, myth and mortality lends to Venice its unique character, although any of the world’s great cities — New York, London, Istanbul, Alexandria, St Petersburg — could be talked about, and built up, in this way. Each has a unique and autonomous place in the half-mythical, half-geographical map of the imagination — a place that is independent of the nation that the city officially belongs to.
This is what makes the news of Venice (and the Veneto) wanting to regress, by referendum, to being the republic it used to be difficult to take seriously — not only for the rest of Italy (which finds it difficult to take most things seriously), but also for the rest of the European Union and the world. So, in spite of the vaguely economic, tax- related grouses that divide the Italian north from the Italian south, it does not make sense to talk about Venetian separatism in the same breath as, say, Crimea, or even the Catalonian and other separatist movements within the EU freshly inspired by the Scots. An online poll organized by local activists and parties, this is more a fairytale referendum than a real one, which serious Venetians refuse to take seriously, whatever the result (89 per cent in favour of the republic). Venice’s autonomy — and that of the Veneto — lies in its peerlessness. In a real and important sense, the Golden Lion could only belong to its own realms of gold.