La Serenissima

The acoustics of Venice — and much else — are enchantingly different.

Photo: Gondoliers relax before the tourist rush hour

Gondoliers relax before the tourist rush hour. Photo: Joe Wolfe.

The exhausts of Venice are mixed with water. This is bad news for any hypothetical fish, but great news for the rest of us.

On a recent visit, I arrived on a Friday and, in the mid-afternoon, walking past an ivy-covered wall near the centre of the city, I noticed the sound of the gentle breeze rustling the leaves. And I was reminded that Venice is an acoustical paradise.

I had noticed this on a previous visit to this magical city. In the evening, I had realised that I had spent a day not only without the noise of cars, but a day unmarred by loudspeakers. The Venetian supermarket did not have that offensive mix of distorted music and advertising that characterise their counterparts in other cities. Cafés and restaurants either have real music with real musicians, or else are pleasantly quiet. Even the least sensitive tourist in this city seems to have decided to walk the streets without the tish-tica-tish-tica-tish of the elsewhere omnipresent Walkman. In the evenings, the tenors in the gondole sing without amplification, aided by the low level of background noise.

Venice is wonderful in several ways, but one of its most striking delights is the lack of cars. It therefore has none of the aggression and sheer foolishness that cars bring. Why is it that otherwise reasonable people become so competitive and aggressive behind the steering wheel? Why does a rational, civilised person suddenly become the powerful aggressor just because she has a ton of metal and the cyclist has 10 kilos? Anyhow, Venice has none of this. People are different with boats: low speeds and close approaches are common, and cooperation is so often required that it becomes second nature. Or perhaps it is first nature. So transport in Venice is calm and calming. No-one tries to rush. With a car, it is possible (so many believe) to shave off 10% of the time with a mixture of cunning, risk taking and aggression. So they try to do so. And, whether or not they succeed, the effect rubs off onto their non-vehicular lives. On the waterways, there is no hurry. So Venetians are calm and unhurried. They haven't risked their lives crossing the street to get to work. Their morning was not spoiled by traffic jams, red lights or idiots behind steering wheels—and it shows.

But there is more to Venice's magic than this. The absence of the broad band noise that goes with vehicular exhausts is a balm for the ears. The lack of the sound radiation from busy streets and motorways means that almost every little courtyard in Venice is a haven of peace. The tourist returns from a day of this quiet calm existence and collapses onto a hotel bed and hears... the gentle lapping of water in the canals, or the breeze in the leaves of the window plants, or perhaps the distant song of a singer in a gondola. How much of the magic that he perceives in this town is due to the fact that the tourist has not had his ears bashed? How much of his relaxation is due to this acoustic side of paradise? (How much is due to the fact that he has walked further and will therefore sleep better than he would in another city?)

To what extent is my previous memory gilded? Have I selectively forgotten some details in the general euphoria that la Serenissima induces? I don't think so, but this time I keep my ears open and my pen ready.

First I notice sparrows whistling. Indeed there is often bird song: the occasionally raucous cry of gulls, the low rumble of pigeons, the cheerful sparrows. Then the sound of my shoes on the paving. In Venice I am often conscious of footsteps: my shoes are soft soled and I don't always hear them, but I notice the steps of hard soles and the different rhythms of different pedestrians. Are Venetians more sensitive to this, I wonder, and do they recognize the walks of their friends from the next alley?

Sometimes there is a background of voices in the soft musical language that I am later to learn is Venetian, whose speakers proudly note its differences, in prosody and vocabulary, from Italian.

Twice in my walk on this Friday afternoon I hear pianists practising, one doing technical exercises and the other a prelude from the Well Tempered Keyboard. Both are using the sordino pedal, as though they are worried about disturbing the calm of this quiet city. A lovely place for musicians, I think, until I see a bass player lugging his instrument over the bridges.

A boat with an outboard passes. It is a 10 kW motor, but as it passes at 3 or 4 knots, almost at an idle, its sound is inoffensive. And, unlike a motor bike, the exhaust is mixed with water, which softens the percussive shock of the exhaust stroke. But most of the boats are diesels, and in virtually all of them, the motor turns barely above an idle. (Later I hear an ambulance pass on the Grand Canal.)

The sound of water lapping against the banks of the canals is omnipresent, as is the sound of water pouring endlessly from the drinking fountains – welcome, cool sounds in this heat. Often these are the dominant sounds.

I am in Venice to give some scientific seminars. These take place in the Fondazionne San Giorggio, next door to Vivaldi's church, in a building, which has been converted from a monastery to a navigation school to a laboratory. It has with thick walls and floors and is extraordinarily quiet, but, when I am about to start my first seminar, a member of the audience closes the window shutters. I think that his intent is not to keep out the sounds of the little waves on the canal walls, but rather to reduce the competition posed by the beautiful scene outside. The effect, however, is to reduce the ambient sound to a level where I feel that my slightest whisper will be clearly heard in the back of the lecture room.

But back to my perambulation: In one narrow alley, the breeze is a little stronger and the loudest sound I hear is the turbulence of the breeze in my ears. It is not like this in Sydney at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. A little further along a man is painting the gate at the entrance to a courtyard. Here the loudest sound is that of his brush as he spreads the thick, dark green enamel – itself a cool and quiet colour.

A little bit further I hear, for the first time, an air-conditioner near a laundry. I cannot identify exactly where it is, but it is obviously working hard in this business on a summer's day. And then I realise that quite a few places (supermarkets, restaurants, printers, hair dressers) have air conditioners, but that the heat exchangers must be up on the roofs and so well baffled so that, even in this quiet city, they cannot usually be heard. I also hear a telephone ring. And then the laughter of children. (On reflection I realise that I have heard much laughter, and I don't remember any crying. Selective memory? Or are the kids all happy here?)

Then a bell begins to toll, followed a little later by a second, which is pitched a second below. At least two of the church towers in Venice, I discover, have two bells, which are pitched a major second apart and which have different swinging frequencies. Their song is thus two sets of notes with different pitch and slightly different metronome markings. I am surprised that the higher pitched bell tolls more slowly.

Then I hear for the first time a song which will become more and more familiar in this summer season of university graduations: a new university graduate is being paraded through the city and subjected to various traditional indignities, presumably so as to preclude his assuming that the new title carries distinction. 'Dottore, Dottore' they sing, finishing the chant in a highly disrespectful phrase.

On a bridge over the next canal a postman is dragging his trolley, and the dominant sound is the bounce of the wheels on the stone stairs. This is not a great town for wheels. Nor for wheel chairs. Still, with no motorcycles and no cars, I expect that there are fewer paraplegics here than in ordinary cities.

The laughter and conversation from a working men's bar is the dominant sound as I walk across the next campo, until it is displaced by the steady thump-thump of a slow-going diesel as a construction boat chugs by. Very little noise in the high frequencies (where our ears are most sensitive), and the sound of its gentle bow-wave is clearly heard over the almost pleasant engine noise. Now could I be so kind about the sound of a cement truck, which would be approximately the terrestrial equivalent?

Children play in the next courtyard and their happy sound rings along the walls. A woman leans from her first floor window to chase a dog with the sounds of her clapping hands, and it seems to work.

A violinist practises articulation exercises. (All the musicians I hear practising are good. Where is the Twinkle Twinkle of a Suzuki student? Where are the raucous attack and the narrow intervals of the eternally beginning saxophonist that I remember from the flat near mine in Sydney?)

A little further is a woodworking shop and I hear the sound of a small lathe producing one of the art forms for which the city is famous. (Later on I visit the workshop of a man who makes fucole, the elaborate 'rowlocks' of the gondola and of other boats here. These intricate pieces of walnut are also works of art. I imagine the neighbours listening to the regular scraping of the different chisels – and the occasional use of power tools – and judging from the sound how the work is coming along.)

More of the same sounds as I continue homewards, including the vaporetto on the Grand Canal. My previous visit was not a fluke: no loud noises and no loudspeakers!

Of course this is not the whole story. I am told that the world record for the loudest concert was established by The Who in Piazza San Marco (maybe that's why the city is sinking?). One evening I go to an open air gig in the Campo Margaritta where a friend and his band are playing. It is uncomfortably loud if one is close up. Yet, with the possible exception of the players themselves, I suspect that no-one will return from this performance with damaged ears. The reason is that these musicians have to pack their gear into hand trolleys and walk them back home, over the stairs and paving stones. This has a powerful regulatory effect on the size of speaker enclosures!

One day during my stay, I go to Padua to visit colleagues there. This was a little rehearsal for leaving Venice.

To get to the railway station I cross a large pedestrian bridge and, on the other side, a hawker vends his wares to the uncorrelated accompaniment of a ghetto blaster whose volume knob has been turned up way past the limits of fidelity, and perhaps even past eleven. He cares not about your taste in music, or whether you prefer it without distortion: there, in the shadow of the fascist-era architecture of the station, this little acoustical dictator flicks a switch and the private musics of a few hundred people are suppressed. For a painful but thankfully brief period, everyone metaphorically marches to this man's drum.

The train to Padua passes via Mestre, which is worth a little digression. Mestre would probably not figure on anyone's list of beautiful cities but, whatever its inherent faults, they are all compounded by the proximity of la Serinissima. Mestre, you see, is the Queanbeyan of Venice. There are, after all, a lot of things that won't fit the apparently strict Venetian by-laws – or that simply won't fit in the geometric sense. So Mestre has factories and chemical works and shunting yards and junkyards and a range of apparently unused land: all things that one doesn't see in Venice. There are also tall, ugly apartment buildings that house, I suspect, the Gastarbeiter who commute to Venice.

After Mestre, Padua is a delight. It does, of course, have cars, and this is a shock. One quickly remembers the noise and the smell. But one has also to relearn the fact that one puts one's life at risk regularly in an ordinary town. Fortunately, the traffic in Padua is relatively light and comprises a large fraction of bicycles and motor scooters. Padua breaks you gently in to the world.

Being in Venice for two weeks means that I can revise my original description a little. There is noise to be found: one day I passed the workboat that replaces the worm-weakend pylons. A pile driver is noisy, even here. And there is recorded music in some restaurants and bars, particularly along the big tourist route (Ferrovia-Lido-San Marco-Accademia). These routes are themselves relatively noisy during daytime just from the numbers of tourists, which is why I have largely avoided them.

But there is not much to revise about the noise in the rest of the city, or about the transport. I have watched carefully and can only comment that the conduct of the various boaters has been not only competent but also remarkably considerate. The taxis and limousines have stern drives, and a few small boats have outboards: with these of course they can manoeuvre with complete ease, especially so because there is hardly any current or wind. But no-one has twin screws. The vaporetti are clumsy old tubs with bearings and gearboxes that bring tears to the eyes, and they have a timetable to keep. So their navigation is a bit rough. But the workboats, which presumably have a single, large, low pitch screw, manoeuver with an impressive precision and a calm cooperation with the other users. The traffic is unfailingly considerate. A red faced man has (I imagine) been moving stones on this hot day and now he is taking his big, hulking stone-laden workboat home. At the junction of the Grand Canal (a waterway, therefore keep right) and a canal (where, unusually in the world, traffic keeps left, presumably because of the right-handed gondoliers), a family in a light boat swerves the wrong way. The work boat throttles back, swings wide and waves them past. No road rage: just one of the benefits of water traffic.

Venice: city of the future

Venice has much to lose from a rising sea level so it is only reasonable that it produces (for a Western city) relatively little CO2. Can we learn some of the lessons that Venice has already learned?

We, a few generations of a small, privileged fraction of the population, have adopted the automobile with all its absurdity and tragedy, and with only rather insincere thoughts about the rights of the rest of the population and of future generations. It is obvious that it cannot last, so let's look at Venice's lessons.

Population density is an obvious one: one can cross Venice by foot in about 25 minutes: it would take longer than that to cross Canberra, a town of similar population, by freeway. Walking is always the primary mode of transport, which has health benefits among others.

But there is more to learn from their motorised transport. Most of the vessels are powered for long trips across the lagoon and in town they are only idling. In town, they use only a few kW to move truckloads of cargo or large groups of people. Water transport is efficient of course because it is horizontal, but there is more to it than that. The boats must travel slowly so that their wake does not wash away the foundations of the buildings and collapse the city, and it is this that brings the extra benefit of peacefulness. How tragic that one city will slow its traffic to 10 km per hour to avoid damage to buildings, while other cities will not slow their vehicular traffic to avoid killing citizens!

The important point is this: because of the nature of water transport and because of the population density, Venetians are satisfied with lower top speeds and small accelerations. Their lives are thus enriched rather than impoverished. We could simply do likewise.

We all know from experience that, point to point, a truck or express bus is only a little slower than a car. The power:weight ratio of a truck or bus would be easily enough for a personal motor vehicle. Even the ratio of a Venetian work boat. If we prohibited from the city all vehicles with ratios above a few kW/tonne, we would make the city a much nicer place. It would immediately be much safer for bicycles. Walking would be much more pleasant and popular, we could increase the population density. With this ratio, the vehicles could easily be electric. Public transport would be more widely used and therefore much more convenient and efficient.

Some vaguely related points: I don't seem to notice many overweight people. Perhaps the walking keeps them fit. And I hear no raised voices or arguments. Perhaps this is, in part, a result of the absence of cars, or the result of living in a peaceful city. Venetian women don't seem to wear silly shoes. No crushing toes in pointy shoes, no dangerously high heels, no narrow straps, no Doc Martens. Their shoes are made for walking.

I have heard it said that the problem with Venice is the high density of tourists. This is only partly true: a few blocks away from the main tourist route one hardly notices them. Their effects on the local economy and culture are of course evident. It is difficult to find a concert that doesn't include Vivaldi's Four Seasons and, however good the orchestra, for the tourist programme they are playing on autopilot. One night however I go to a thrilling concert of Bartok and Stravinsky. It is held on the Isola San Giorggio, an island to the South of the city. Then I walk around the island, looking at the gardens and the amphitheatre, and gazing across the lagoon. A vaporetto, then a quiet trip home watching the lights of Venice. I'm going to miss this town!

(A version of this story was published by the Sydney Morning Herald June 16, 2001.)

Joe Wolfe ,, School of Physics, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

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