Venice by Electric Moonlight

A conversation with Jennifer Scappettone and others on the urban fabric of Venice and its anachronistic relationship to modernity


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Pedagogy
  • Philosophy / Theory

Organizing Institutions



Jean-Michel Rabaté


Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


50% Formal - 50% Informal

Slought is pleased to present "Venice by Electric Moonlight," a conversation about the urban fabric of Venice and its anachronistic relationship to modernity, on Tuesday, November 4, 2014 from 6:30-8:30pm. The event will feature conversants Jennifer Scappettone, Charles Bernstein, and Jean-Michel Rabaté discussing questions such as: What can the reputedly obsolete structures, cultures and values rejected by modernism and modernity offer to contemporary life? What forms do radical anachronism, skepticism toward rationality, residual sentimentality, and waste take in twentieth and twenty-first-century art? This event has been made possible through the generous support of the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

In her new book Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice, Scappettone argues that the city of Venice, whether lodged conceptually in the distant past or the distant future, has stood since the dawn of modernity as an anachronism in the cultural imagination: this premodern complex of amalgamated islands on a lagoon resists any uniform present tense and, in turn, any twentieth-century effort to mold it into a more rational urban whole. Though the Futurists launched their founding call to "kill the moonlight" of Romantic Venice as early as 1909, the swarms of tourists who still crowd the alleys that link the railway station to St. Mark's Square every summer, seeking the moonlit locus of popular imagery, literature, and song from Antonio Lamberti's 1788 "La biondina in gondoleta" to Madonna's 1984 "Like a Virgin," continue to demand that Venice remain an untouched refuge of the past, frozen in time.

Being both hostile to the designs of modern urbanism and incompletely obsolete, Venice is a radically anachronistic city—not in the simple sense of the word, though that would suit the tourist's nostalgia for an asylum out of time, but in the sense that its urban fabric retains remnants of incommensurable histories. The city aggravates twentieth-century schemes to isolate the present and future from their precedents—while continuing to elude any narrative of history that would settle the meaning of the city's past or determine the trajectory of its future.

read more

"It was not by chance that both Marinetti in 1910 (at the dawn of modernism) and Habermas in 1980 (at the dawn of postmodernism) were drawn to define the modern through and against Venice. Modernism had always been subject to stress in this place—a city that offers, in the words of architectural historian and theorist Manfredo Tafuri, "a subtle challenge that affects the very presuppositions of modernity." Any quest to usher the city of lagoons into a purely present tense or even to harmonize its histories is frustrated by the mediation of centuries of inscription, on the one hand, and, on the other, by structural features of the cityscape itself: a topographical ambiguity or "amphibiousness" that retains natural features associated with the primordial, and an architectonic obliquity that thwarts any Cartesian viewpoint or rationale. [...]

An unrelenting absorption of cultures and times has made Venice a uniquely "extraterritorial" host of modernity: one that makes no claims on the present, but folds innumerable quarrels into its constrictive domain before redispersing and disseminating them. Venice continues to channel the new into traffic with the vestigial cultural forms that the most virulent strains of the modern would have negated. Navigation of these straits has been—and remains—fundamental to the regeneration of the anachronism we call the present day."

— Jennifer Scappettone, Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice (Columbia University Press, 2014)

"Let's burn the gondolas, rocking easychairs for idiots, and erect the imposing geometry of metallic bridges and factories pluming with smoke to the sky, to abolish the falling curves of old architectures.
Let the reign of divine Electric Light come to liberate Venice from its venal moonlight of bedrooms for rent."

—from the Futurist manifesto "Against Passéist Venice," 1910

"The world in which we live is witnessing the crisis of all the current great cities: many cities are becoming unlivable; many cities will have to be renovated or constructed from the ground up according to plans closer to that of the Venetian model. I believe in the future of aquatic cities, in a world populated by innumerable Venices."

—Italo Calvino, "Venice, Archetype and Utopia of the Aquatic City," 1968-74

Read related poetry and translations by Scappettone at Novas Poéticas de Resistência and Sibila

Jennifer Scappettone is a poet, translator and scholar, and Associate Professor of English, Creative writing, and Romance languages and literatures at the University of Chicago. She recently edited and translated Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli. Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in 2014.

Charles Bernstein is the author or editor of over 50 books, ranging from poetry and essays to pamphlets, libretti, and collaborations. He is also the co-editor, with Al Filreis, of PennSound, and the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jean-Michel Rabaté is the Senior Curator for Discursive Projects at Slought, and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.