National Geographic

Is Venice Vanishing?

Most photographers in Venice wield small point-and-shoot cameras and attempt to capture something like a postcard city. It's the Venice of dreams rather than the sinking, struggling Venice that exists today. But National Geographic Photographer Jodi Cobb went to Venice with a different mission: to show it as it is — beautiful, yes, but also sad and suffering. Her photos appear in the August issue: "Vanishing Venice."

  • Thirty years ago, the population of Venice was about 120,000. Today fewer than 60,000 people live there. But the tide of tourism makes up for a diminishing population. Tourist numbers peak at Carnival, when crowds gather around and near the Piazzetta San Marco.
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    Thirty years ago, the population of Venice was about 120,000. Today fewer than 60,000 people live there. But the tide of tourism makes up for a diminishing population. Tourist numbers peak at Carnival, when crowds gather around and near the Piazzetta San Marco.
    Photos by Jodi Cobb/National Geographic
  • While acqua alta creates dangerously high floodwaters and many structural problems for Venice, the greatest threat is a cultural one: too many tourists.
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    While acqua alta creates dangerously high floodwaters and many structural problems for Venice, the greatest threat is a cultural one: too many tourists.
  • The city is expensive. A soda at Caffe Florian costs $13. Some, though, like this couple at the Casino of Venice, are willing to pay the price to live in Venice.
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    The city is expensive. A soda at Caffe Florian costs $13. Some, though, like this couple at the Casino of Venice, are willing to pay the price to live in Venice.
  • Historically designated la serenissima (the most serene), Venice is idealized for its quiet, romantic waterways. Today, the din of human traffic tests serenity, but the main form of public transport is still on water, via the vaporetto, or water-bus.
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    Historically designated la serenissima (the most serene), Venice is idealized for its quiet, romantic waterways. Today, the din of human traffic tests serenity, but the main form of public transport is still on water, via the vaporetto, or water-bus.
  • The cost of maintaining a sinking city is crippling the local government. One solution is to soak tourists with high prices. It's a mainstay of the Venice economy, but a double-edged sword for the locals.
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    The cost of maintaining a sinking city is crippling the local government. One solution is to soak tourists with high prices. It's a mainstay of the Venice economy, but a double-edged sword for the locals.
  • In Venice, there's no such thing as a moving van. So the recent exodus of Venetians has occurred by barge.
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    In Venice, there's no such thing as a moving van. So the recent exodus of Venetians has occurred by barge.
  • Boots are a staple of a Venice wardrobe, as flood waters rise frequently in low-lying parts of the town like the Piazza San Marco.
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    Boots are a staple of a Venice wardrobe, as flood waters rise frequently in low-lying parts of the town like the Piazza San Marco.
  • Carnival celebrations are some of the most elaborate activities the city has to offer. Tourists are known to spend $2,000 or more in a single day of Venetian role-playing. Costume ateliers can charge more than $3,000 for a single gown. Most Venice locals avoid the celebrations.
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    Carnival celebrations are some of the most elaborate activities the city has to offer. Tourists are known to spend $2,000 or more in a single day of Venetian role-playing. Costume ateliers can charge more than $3,000 for a single gown. Most Venice locals avoid the celebrations.
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Cobb has traveled the world to document places and people. She was the first woman to win the White House News Photographer of the Year award (in 1985). She was one of the first to document intimately the lives of Japanese geishas, and to photograph in China after it was reopened to the West. Compared to her other assignments, Venice, probably one of the most photographed cities in the world, must have seemed like old news.

But there's definitely a story to tell there. Venice, which indeed has a longstanding tradition of tourism, has in recent years faced an identity crisis. As acqua alta, or high tide, causes irreversible infrastructural damage, the cost of maintenance is almost unsustainable. One funding solution has been to open the flood gates to the tide of tourism. It's a mainstay for the Venetian economy, but also a curse for Venice locals. The population has diminished remarkably in the past few decades. Will there still be a Venice in 50 years? Or will it merely be a drowning museum?

Cobb's photos show us the Venice rarely seen in guidebooks. View more of her photos and read the story here. Also check out an interactive map of Venetian flood patterns.

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