Feb 02, 2023  
2023 January Term Course Catalog 
2023 January Term Course Catalog
Add to My Bookmark (opens a new window)

JAN 180 - Decadence in Venice

Upper division
Full credit

We will try to understand decadence, and why Venice was a symbol for decadence, from a number of angles.  We will try to understand cultural aspects of Venice through works of visual art and literature that made it a symbol of decadence, as well as consider the physical decay of Venice and its place in today’s environmental crisis.  Finally, we will look at how Venice is looking to become a better city by limiting tourist decadence. 

In the novel Death in Venice, Thomas Mann suggested the oppressive problem of decadence for modern culture.   What Mann called decadence at the beginning of the 20th century has perhaps become normal life for us today, such that we are no longer aware of modern decadence as a falling away from anything.  Can we recover this awareness? What is “decadence”, and is there a way to find meaning in the midst of a decadent culture, or is it really something to avoid?  And why is Venice the symbol for decadence?

It is understandable that Mann chose Venice as the setting for his book.  After Venice’s empire began to slip away in the 1400’s, the city has been forever sinking and its elegant buildings rotting.  Its decadence has long been part of its appeal.  Since the days of the grand tour (16th-19th century), a lady or a gentleman from Northern Europe on their way to get an education in Rome would make sure to stop in Venice, as much for its loose living as for its scenery.  Its foggy canals, courtesans, and gothic shadows made it the passionate, romantic alternative to classical harmony and clarity.  Its un-classical art was typified by a hazy picturesque or by excessive, voluptuous color.  As the enlightenment gained ground, Venice was an escape.  Once a center for rationalism, liberty, and commerce, it became the city of sentimentalism and idleness.  In the early 20th century its elegant cafes became the place for modernists to reflect on the incoherence they detected in European humanism.  Venice continues to be the world capital of contemporary art.    

At the same time, Venice has always also been in physical decline.  The salty moisture in the air, and the annual flooding known as acqua alta eats away at the buildings as the city slowly falls ever deeper into the sea.  This year its submerged piazzas called attention to rising sea levels across the globe.  Despite desperate attempts to save it, Venice lives on borrowed time.  The coronavirus essentially shut down Venice’s tourist business and brought to the fore new questions.  Why did Venetians (or anyone) want hordes of tourists rushing through their city? Might the city not be a better place if they could get rid of cruise ships and crowds of people taking selfies in front of gondolas? Could they survive without it?
We will study our theme through a combination of (1) seminars on three classic texts, plus one opera, and a major recent book in urban studies (the readings are short so as to allow us time to see Venice), (2) excursions with preparatory lectures that explore the art, architecture, history and culture of Venice, (3) exploration of the lagoon of Venice and its natural environs by boat.  We will explore both Venice and Padua, as well as some islands in the lagoon.

Instructor(s): Gabriel Pihas & Br. Charles Hilken
Email:  gdp2@stmarys-ca.edu

Prerequisites & Notes
Prerequisites:  By permission of instructor
Course Fee:  4875

Credits: 1

Add to My Bookmark (opens a new window)