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Venice’s Decorum Police Monitor St. Mark’s Square

vestaIf you’ve ever been to Venice, you’ve spent time in the Piazza San Marco – that big and lovely square in front of St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica San Marco in Italian). It’s Venice’s central square, even though it might not be centrally located. It’s a beautiful square, and a place you’ll want to spend some time people-watching – if you’re standing in line to get into the Basilica, you’ll have plenty of time to check it out. Just be careful you don’t get busted by Venice’s decorum police.

Recently, a group of women began the work of keeping Venice’s main square free of anything unsightly. The list of things they’re trying to prevent include “tourists going about bare-chested, lounging around in doorways and eating sandwiches in St Mark’s Square.” The women, who are employees of a city agency called Vesta, all speak at least three languages so they can adequately explain their purpose to anyone they encounter. This is about more than just keeping the square free of litter, this is about the behavior of the people who create the litter as well.

When I first visited Venice in 2001, we got up early one morning to visit the Basilica San Marco because we’d seen the lines the day before and wanted to try to get in early. We still ended up facing something of a wait in a line that wasn’t even moving for most of the time, so at one point a couple of us sat down on the ground where we had been standing in order to munch down a pastry we’d brought with us. It wasn’t a few seconds before an official-looking man came over, shaking his head and saying, “No, no, no” while helping us to our feet. We got the message, although he didn’t speak English and my Italian at that point was almost nil, that it wasn’t proper to sit on the ground and eat.

Of course, there are places in Italy where sitting on the ground and eating is perfectly acceptable – Siena’s main square, or “Il Campo,” comes to mind – but if you’re in doubt of what’s proper and what’s not, your best course of action is to be alert and do what the locals do. You might not be exhibiting bad manners or doing anything you think is improper, but you’re in another country – so your definitions don’t really matter. If you can’t find any locals to emulate in the tourist-filled Piazza San Marco, be on the lookout for Venice’s decorum police – and mind your manners.