S.D. Sykes at Literary Hub:
When did this love for “crumbling Venice” begin, and why has it taken hold with such tenacity? By the time Victorian historian and art critic John Ruskin encountered the city in the 1840s, he thought Venice was so neglected that she might melt into the lagoon “like a lump of sugar in hot tea.” It’s true that Ruskin feared any further deterioration, but what appalled him to an even greater extent was any attempt to modernize the city. He wanted a Venice that was set in aspic, a time-capsule for posterity. And thus the movement to save La Serenissima was born—and what a successful movement this has been—for Venice is probably the finest preserved medieval and Renaissance city in Europe. Yet all this tender loving care has not been without consequence. It could be argued that she’s been stifled, moth-balled—even de-commissioned as a real city. For, while there is a great deal of industry and development about the rim of the Venetian lagoon, it is almost impossible to find a modern building in Venice herself. For the most part, she is the same city that Ruskin visited, kept safe in her watery refuge and forbidden from growing up.
But it’s not just crumbling Venice that we have come to love through art, film and literature. We’re equally, if not more attached to “decadent Venice”—shameless, lustful, dissipated Venice. We might blame Casanova and Lord Bryon and their epic sexual exploits for bestowing this reputation upon the place, but Venice’s status as a city of pleasure goes back much further in history. By the early 17th century, there were estimated to be as many as 20,000 prostitutes in a city that only numbered around 140,000 people. Even for those not seeking to pay for sex, there was plenty of the stuff on offer—adulterous affairs, secret assignations, riotous carnivals and masked balls. Even the city’s nuns sometimes took lovers. One needs only to look at the paintings of Titian, particularly the eroticism of his 1538 painting “Venus of Urbino” to appreciate that this was a society with a relaxed and permissive attitude to sex.