Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Local and the Global: Venice 2013

"State of the Field" panel
My excuse for being in Venice was a Victorianist conference coordinated by three excellent organizations: the North American Victorian Studies Association, the British Association of Victorian Studies, and the Australasian Victorian Studies Association. The conference theme was "The Local and the Global." Paper topics included cosmopolitanism, tourism, attitudes in Britain towards Italy, transportation, historicism, Dickens, Ruskin, and the Brownings. Attendees ranged from the top scholars in the field to promising graduate students, some of whom (like Kat Powell, whose thoughts on Venice can be found here) were fortunate enough to participate in a professionalization workshop the week before.

Victorianists in line for dinner
The conference was held on the beautiful island of San Servolo. This walled island was once the location of a monastery and an infamous insane asylum, but now it houses Venice International University, which is a consortium for Study Abroad programs. It's incredibly beautiful, which at times can be distracting, but overall it's an excellent venue for a conference. The meals I ate at the conference, both catered and at the cafeteria, were the best I had in Venice.

I had meant to write a blog entry on a single panel, but looking at my notes I found a problem: I seemed utterly unable to stay awake for every paper in a panel. I would be really engaged at the start but then drift off and have no notes. I blame jet lag. I should have excused myself for a moment after the first two papers to get some fresh air so that I could be ready for the third. Nothing else seemed to work.

I was able to hear some excellent papers at the beginnings of panels, anyway.

  • Chris Ferguson showed us early photographic experiments in which London was flooded and buildings were separated by canals, making London into Venice. 
  • Richard Pearson, of the Victorian Plays Project, discussed Kiralfy's "Venice in London," an 1891 spectacle in which a lagoon was built inside the Olympia Theatre and gondola rides could be had for 6d
  • In the "Writing Italy" panel, Emily Allen shared her experiences teaching a Study Abroad class in Venice, in which her greatest success was treating scholarly articles about tourism as primary texts and having students reflect on their own experiences as a tourist. 
  • Claire Horrocks analyzed travel writing as a genre in Dickens' Pictures from Italy and in a maid's memoirs. She suggested that in addition to James Buzard's categories of "traveller" and "tourist" (The Beaten Track, 1993) that we add "sight-seer" for those travelling with another purpose (like a conference).
  • Mary Armstrong also discussed Pictures from Italy from a rhetorical perspective, especially the role of quotidian elements and the treatment of reality.  (I'm afraid I started to become less focused here, and was semi-conscious by the start of the final paper.)
And these were just on the first day!

The "Writing Italy" panel is the one that most moved me to blog because it made me reflect on my own role as an anti-tourist and on my perceptions of Venice. For Dickens and Ruskin and James, Venice was a place of mourning for something always already lost. But for Effie Ruskin, Venice was a place of plenitude and freedom. John would work on his projects and she would socialize. She loved people, and she loved learning the language and the city. Reflecting on Henry James, it occurred to me that his experience of Venice was also highly social. In Italian Hours, he writes, "If you are happy you will find yourself, after a June day in Venice (about ten o'clock), on a balcony that overhangs the Grand Canal, with your elbows on the broad ledge, a cigarette in your teeth and a little good company beside you." That "good company" is often an overlooked element. I reflected that perhaps a "genuine" experience of a place is necessarily a social one. To consume the present and not the past of Venice, one must meet people. Even if those people are other tourists.

This attitude made me much more patient with all the tourists in Venice. They are part of the nature of the place. Without tourists,  there.  is.  no.  Venice.  And yet, there is also a Venice that transcends the daily steps of transients. The museums, the city's routine, the people's daily life, even the weather, they are essential to Venice as well.

I think it is safe to say that, as resistant as I initially was to Venice's charms, it continues to haunt me.

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