Any Venetian awake at dawn last Thursday witnessed a spectacle that much of the city's dwindling population hoped was a thing of the past. The MSC Orchestra – a cruise ship of immense proportions – ploughed through the lagoon and along the Giudecca canal to tie up at the tourist port, dwarfing Venice's unique urban skyline.
It was the first liner to arrive in Venice for 17 months – welcomed by an increasingly vociferous Sì grandi navi (yes big ships) campaign spearheaded by the thousands of port workers laid off during the lockdown, but condemned even more loudly by the long-running No grandi navi (no big ships) committee with high-profile and overwhelmingly sympathetic coverage from much of the world's press.
"It was a shock," said Guido Moltedo, Venice-based editor of the Ytali online news magazine. "But it was a shock we were expecting."
Liners are not the only return to post-pandemic 'normality' that Venetians have been dreading. More than most cities, this utterly unique mecca became a magnificent, eerie dreamscape when visiting hordes evaporated. The economic realities of the lockdown have been grim. But residents have had time to relish their watery city without the inconveniences of mass tourism.
This week the crowds are back: not to pre-Covid levels, certainly, but making themselves felt, with long queues forming at jetties where vaporetti are still allowed to embark only limited numbers, in line with social distancing regulations. The arrival of the MSC Orchestra was a stark reminder of what may lie ahead.
An April announcement from the Italian government that large liners were to be ejected from the lagoon was greeted with jubilation in the world's press, but viewed with skepticism in Venice, where it was immediately dubbed the April Fool's Decree. The measures stopped far short of a ban, merely calling for an 'ideas competition' for the construction of a passenger terminal in the Adriatic outside the lagoon. Meanwhile funds were assigned to transform part of the industrial port across the water in Marghera for passenger use as a 'temporary' fix which would, however, see liners continue to ply the delicate lagoon ecosystem.
For Moltedo this represents "an environmental wound to a city which should be the symbol of all those safeguards which our government claims to be championing."
After all, he said, the environment is meant to be the lynchpin of the EU's post-pandemic Economic Recovery Plan. "Apart from anything else, letting cruise ships back into the lagoon is not a good look."
According to ecologist and activist Jane da Mosto, director of We Are Here Venice, the government measures deal with the symptoms and not the cause. "There's no solution as long as these ships are so huge and so damaging. They just don't fit on the planet," she said. At last week's Salone Nautico boat show in Venice's Arsenale, electrically powered craft generated a lot of interest, she pointed out. "If you're really committed, you don't build more terminals for environmentally damaging cruise lines. You invest in alternatives."
A photo of Da Mosto rowing her tiny boat into the spray from tugs accompanying the Orchestra as it departed Venice on Saturday, pursued by protesters, has become the symbol of this David vs Goliath struggle. "It would have been better if I hadn't had to be there," she quipped.
An official strategy for averting a return to suffocating mass tourism has not been forthcoming ("if they've been working on it, they haven't consulted us," said Da Mosto) but industrious Venetians have shown remarkable resilience.
"Remember, our setbacks began before the lockdowns. We were still reeling from the exceptional acqua alta of November 2019," said Venice resident Michela Scibilia, who is part of the consortium behind the restoration of the Nuovo Trionfo, the only remaining trabaccolo traditional fishing boat on the lagoon. The consortium, along with artisan groups spearheaded by El Felze, have been working together on initiatives which, she said, "unite us through water – Venice's natural medium."
Far from wiping out crafts people in Venice, these setbacks have made many of them stronger, argued Scibilia, who curated the Venice Original e-commerce platform for artisans. "Of course the unfortunate ones were forced to close by exorbitant rents, but the ones who survived worked on their tech and worked on their product. While big names closed down their Venice outlets, artisans were upping their game."
Despite action at grass roots level, no one, however, is expecting anything in the short term except a swift resumption of overwhelming business as usual. "We have wasted 18 months," lamented Giovanni Leone, a Venice-based architect, writer and director of the DoVE housing association. "We could have had an extraordinary future." Historically Venice was a powerhouse, respected for its multiple, cutting-edge – predominantly sea-linked – industries, Leone said, explaining that it needs to shake off its current reputation as a 'city-wide museum', enticing back 21st-century industry and innovation to overcome a precarious tourism monoculture.
But that, he said, will take political vision – a commodity many Venetians feel is in very short supply.