Words & Images by Mike Piercy,
Venice lover and friend of Views on Venice

It’s still dark. Very early in the morning an army of yellow-clad men and women descends on the piazze, calli and fondamente of La Serenissima.

The calli are quiet, a few early-rising tourists enjoying their hotel breakfasts, most still slumbering, oblivious to the stirring city. The vaporetti on the early morning shift disgorge office workers and those who serve the tourists, those who attend to attractions, along with the hosts of hospitality and hostelry. With similar mission, trains pull into Venezia Santa Lucia. Cars arrive at Piazzale Roma; hooting, jostling, fighting for space – permitted to go no further. The daily influx from Mestre and Padua begins, the city of Venice no longer affordable to the native Veneziani.

The detritus of yesterday and the night before lies scattered; wind-blown. Fag butts everywhere – Italy seems to be the smoking heart of the European continent. Those small, wafer thin slips of paper which envelop an ice-cream cornet, dropped casually, unthinkingly, selfishly, flutter and blow with even the gentlest eddy. Dawn seagulls have a last, uninterrupted forage in the waste bins scattering more rubbish.

Barges arrive at strategic points as yet with empty bellies, lilliputian cranes lifting off the trash trolleys. Each is personalized with iconic souvenirs and teddies, discarded by someone then rescued to adorn the trolley. Pairs of workers, their iridescent yellow and green uniforms bright in the breaking dawn, magically materialise as if from nowhere. They chat, they smoke, proceeding philosophically – if not contentedly – to their work. One wields a broom with a head of natural fibre, working his or her way along the edges of the calle, skilfully guiding, gathering, sweeping the litter into small piles to rest at convenient junctions for later collection.

These Trojans apart, Piazza San Marco is deserted (bar the occasional early morning runner), awaiting the hordes and masses soon to arrive. A short walk to Riva Degli Schiavoni, the stalls and traders still absent, more barges and brightly uniformed workers can be seen as far as the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop. They call and chat good-humouredly to the hoteliers, the restaurateurs, the shopkeepers, busily washing down their terraces – everyone known and familiar to each other; the daily routine. By Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs, newlyweds seize a quiet photo opportunity, the irony of location not lost on the more discerning passer-by. To add to the bin barges those bearing laundry have moored, serving countless hotels and apartments, collecting, delivering, their jacquard sacks bringing colour to the brightening morning.

Heading north into Castello and Cannaregio, the deeper city, further luminescent pairs sweep and gather. The sun is rising; though the alleys still darkened by their narrowness and towering, lofty buildings standing stolidly face to face. Having swept the calli they collect the rubbish for the residents, trolleys defying the width of tiny lanes. Cleverly engineered wheel structures ease the effort as they are heaved up and down over bridges. Small rubbish bags hang from the doors of some homes while a knock on the doors of others brings a grateful greeting and reward. The bags and brimming trolleys bear clear demarcation of waste and recycling, the collectors fastidious in their separation. Emptied, they fill the waiting, gaping mouths of the barges.

Cardboard coffee cups, water bottles, Murano tour leaflets, lollipop sticks, cigarette and cigar butts, all bearing witness to a careless, disposable society, are systematically gathered. Bins, surrounded by litter and scavenged food remnants excavated by the seagulls, are tidied and emptied with unhurried, scrupulous attention to detail. They flow through the city, a tide of tidiers, streets, piazze and bins washed clean behind. These silent warriors of the dawn, unseen by tourists, their work unnoticed by many, taken for granted by some: the unsung heroes of Venice