Clearing out the attic of my in-laws, we’ve found a stack of old postcards. Some are from Venice in the 1950s, to my father-in-law from his mother when he did his military service in 1958-59.
They didn’t have a telephone, so she sent him postcards regularly with news from back home. She sent him these four postcards on December 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th, 1958. As is apparent from what she wrote, he didn’t write back as often as she wanted. He did, however, keep the postcards for the next sixty-five years.
Dating the photographs
The postcards show the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the molo at St Mark’s, the Rialto Bridge and the Basilica della Salute. The last three form a series, consecutively numbered by the same publisher.
The photographs on the postcards are not dated and no author credited.
On the photo of the Rialto Bridge, the bridge carries a publicity for the 26th Biennale. That took place in 1952, from June 14th to October 19th. The photo must consequently be earlier than that date, but not by much. The people on the photo aren’t dressed in winter clothing, so the photo is most likely taken in the spring or summer of 1952.
Where there are people on the other postcards, they’re all lightly clad. The photos are therefore taken in the summer half of the year. On the photo of the molo at St Mark’s there are men in short sleeve shirts and women in knee length dresses.
The buildings and structures haven’t changed since then, so there are no usable clues in the buildings. They generally look like they have for ages. After all, the ‘old’ look is part of the attraction of Venice.
While we only have an approximate date for one photograph, the others are probably more or less from the same period. We can therefore conclude at least that these postcards are from the 1950s.
What has changed?
If the buildings haven’t changed a lot, what has changed?
The people have, and traffic has.
In the 1950s Venice was another kind of city. Modern mass tourism hadn’t started yet, and the population of the city was much larger.
The people on these photographs from the 1950s are predominantly residents of the city, not tourists. The same photographs today, taken in the summer half of the year, would show mostly tourists, very few residents, and a lot more people than we see on these photos.
There are also far fewer boats on the water then than there is now, and they’re going slower. Traffic has increased with tourism. The water on these images are fairly flat. Today the waves in front of St Mark’s make it almost impossible for the gondolieri to work.
The city my father-in-law grew up in, and the city he died in, could have been in different universes.
The only things that haven’t changed fundamentally in these seventy years are parts of the physical structure of the city. The houses, the canals, the alleyways are mostly the same. Everything else has changed.
The four postcards from the 1950s
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