“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.” These are the words of the philosopher Walter Benjamin in his memoirs Berlin Childhood, written at the beginning of the 1930s. Benjamin, with his critical studies, was a great precursor to mass culture. He was the one who revisited and developed with greater intellectual accuracy Baudelaire’s concept of flâneur. The term indicates a ‘curious walker’, who wanders without a destination or an end point, is ready to make unexpected discoveries and – to cite Werner Herzog, another famous wanderer – is prone to the conquest of the useless. An enriching useless. mass tourism

Is it still possible to lose one’s bearings in a city?

Let’s focus on this insight in particular: in a modern city it is necessary to learn to get lost. This results in a precondition: the need to unlearn notions and, more broadly, to suspend, with a revolutionary act, our usual, imposed way to look at the city. Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 to get away from Nazi soldiers, didn’t know the tourism industry, and couldn’t see the transformation of the man-traveller, an elitist attribute, into the man-tourist, a condition that almost anybody can access. Is it still possible to lose your bearings and allow yourself to be enraptured by a corner of the city, a garden, a borough, developing an authentic and personal awareness of the places? Or is this just a romantic deception, in the era of surfers and smartphones?

mass tourism

Serena Williams and St Mark’s Campanile

Serena Williams, the American tennis champion, posted on Instagram a video that caused a sensation. She was in Venice with her family: “So, we are doing tourist things in Venice and we are in a major tourist area…”, then her husband Alexis Ohanian steps in: “Piazza San Marco”. She continues: “I’m not sure what that is, but it’s beautiful, it’s just amazingly pretty here. And look: that is Rapunzel’s tower: that’s where she let down her weave, I mean, her hair.” Is it possible that Serena Williams can’t recognise St Mark’s Campanile? Her fans spoke up for her, stressing that she meant to be ironic.

One of the problems of contemporary communication is this inability to distinguish immediately between true and false. Extreme ignorance, when it’s shown by a celebrity, is sort of funny at first, but then makes people indignant, because we automatically associate fame with wealth and pomp. Later, we judge. We think of those great economic means that are easily used to buy a new luxury object, rather than to give oneself a better culture and education, except in rare cases. Ignorance and wealth: an inseparable match of the current jet set. However, this brings us to an interesting phenomenon. Whether it was a joke or not, the mind of the tennis champion used a frame of reference to guide her awareness. Here’s the interesting question: what do tourists look at, when they look at something? What do they expect to see? To what extent should they unlearn, to get back to understanding?

mass tourism@Gianni Berengo Gardin, courtesy “Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia”

Venice: a Disneyland with canals

Let’s stay in Venice. Let’s make a thought and an image collide. The thought is from La ville qui vient, a book written in 2008 by the French philosopher and anthropologist Marcel Hénaff: “The city aims at having in its concrete form a spiritual unity and a comprehensive whole. […] The city is not only the place of monuments: it is a monument itself. It’s the artwork which encompasses all the artworks, and which owns the project and defines the path.” The image is from one of the latest exhibitions of Gianni Berengo Gardin, one of the greatest Italian photographers, called Venice and the Big ShipsThis is an overwhelming, mind-blowing aesthetic dissonance, it’s the impossible becoming reality.

Our mental faculties, sensibility, understanding and reason (I cite Kant for convenience), struggle to handle the disproportion between the cruise ship and Venice monuments, and to contain the parts in the simple framework of a gaze. This affront is comparable to a rape, in terms of illegality and heinousness. If the rule of tourism in Venice consists of allowing a violent and intrusive enjoyment of the fragile old town as if it was Disneyland, without a dignity to defend and a sanctity to safeguard, why are people surprised to hear Serena Williams’ words, which, if anything, establish an equivalence that already exists clearly? The cruise ship in Venice canals is a fantasy collapsing on reality, or a reality dissolved in the fantasy. Mistaking a thousand-year-old bell tower for Rapunzel’s tower fits into the logic of this system. The city is just a local landing for global appetites, where uniqueness gives in to triviality.

mass tourismQueue at the Vatican Museums

A Rome to eat

“It’s harrowing to see so many cities agonizing. Glorious, opulent, busy cities, which have survived centuries and even millennia of history, wars, plagues, earthquakes. While now, one by one, they are withering, emptying, being reduced to a theatre set, where a lifeless pantomime is staged. A place that once was full of life, where grumpy and hasty people pushed their way in the world, stepping on each other, today is the realm of sandwich shops, booths selling typical products looking all the same no matter where you are, muslin, batik, canvas, sarongs and bracelets,” that’s what Marco d’Eramo writes in Il selfie del mondo (The Selfie of the World, published by Feltrinelli, 2017) and it’s hard to argue with him. We have turned our art heritage cities into huge theme parks. We are the ones who allowed the destruction of places full of history and the offence of monumentality, for the benefit of tourists full of money. We have suppressed any possible evolution of our community spaces in the name of a tourism that is subversive and conservative at the same time.

Rome, for example. All around the Trevi Fountain we can only see diners, delis and souvenir shops, selling (often) low quality food and trash. And we must keep it that way. In Trastevere, one of the most evocative areas of Rome, we find an incredible number of places where you can eat something at any time, which are very close to each other without interruption. Monuments are being consumed with the same voracity with which people eat at the restaurant recommended by TripAdvisor. That’s the law of the market. If tourists expect this Rome, why denying them it? What’s important for the mass travellers is responding to the requests of the web, posting on Facebook their selfies in front of a cracked wall which recalls an imaginary antiquity. What matters is to prove our presence according to the universal codes of digital narcissism, while half a world away our colleagues conceal their envy behind one ‘like’.

mass tourismThe beach of Porto Cesareo (LE) in August

What happened to the experience of the other?

According to the anthropologist Marco Aime and the geographer Davide Papotti (L’altro e l’altrove, Einaudi, 2012), in the tourism logic the image precedes the authentic experience of the place. “The very experience of real mobility, in this perspective, ends up being programmed thanks to the motivational and attractive force of the iconographic repertoire spread through mass media.” Let’s move to southern Italy. If Salento is sold as the place where you can dance ecstatically to the sound of Taranta, what’s the point in asking yourself questions about the origins of the ritual or the culture of the country life? Who cares about Ernesto De Martino’s ethnologic research, or Diego Carpitella’s musicological studies, outside of a bunch of scholars? The average tourists consume experiences which have been filtered by those in power, and they are satisfied with that. They drink, dance and get high. In the age of simplification, folklore defeats culture and industry defeats thought.

No, it’s not possible to get lost the way Benjamin hoped, unless you move to the margins of the discourse, rejecting the script that travel agencies impose on us. “Nomads’ life, which represents the lowest level of civilization, coincides with the highest level of what has generally become the tourists’ life. The former is determined by a need, the latter by boredom,” wrote Michel Houellebecq. Tourists think they defeat boredom, but in fact they indulge it. While the flâneur wishes to get lost, the average tourist moves on a forced track, learning little or nothing about what he or she is going through. The stakes are high: the experience of the other. The other does not submit to our schemes; the other arouses astonishment and fear. According to Roberto Calasso, “tourists want to get comfortable first, and protect themselves from the assaults of the strange place that they find themselves visiting” (L’innominabile attuale, Adelphi, 2018). Tourists bring themselves everywhere, and wherever they end up, they don’t abdicate the image of their world; in fact, they impose it, and with it – Wittgenstein docet – they impose a language. Are we still able to expose ourselves to the power of the unknown? Perhaps, that is the central question.


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