“Will you look at that? St. Mark’s Square is flooded!” An Australian day tripper is astonished. “This place is actually sinking,” her friend casually exclaims. They, like so many I’ve overheard on the vaporetti, are convinced that the Venetian islands exist on a precipice between the fragility of their current condition and nothing short of imminent submersion. With catastrophe always around the corner a short break in Venice is more of an extreme adventure trip than a European city-break. If it were true, that is.
Venice is not sinking – it’s flooding. Since time immemorial the city has periodically flooded as a result of tidal patterns and residents are well-accustomed to its wintertime rhythm (and, less frequently, during the summer season). While acqua alta (high water) is a fascination for intermittent visitors it is an accepted inconvenience for those who live with it: ground floor doors have to be sealed with barriers, boots and dungarees have to be fished out of the cupboard and, if the water is particularly high, boats might be unable to pass beneath the smaller of the city’s hundreds of bridges until the water eventually subsides. Walkways are erected throughout the city’s lowest areas (Piazza San Marco is, incidentally, particularly low terrain) and people continue to see to their daily business – only in a more elevated fashion. I once joined friends for dinner during a freak summer sirocco wind-induced acqua alta on the Fondamenta Ormesini – we sat outside, legs submerged, thinking little of the otherwise extreme conditions that the evening had proffered.
Venice has always had an unusually intimate connection to the water which surrounds it. Its first settlers were refugees, fleeing to the marshlands where the city now stands in order to escape the genocidal tendencies of Germanic tribes and the Huns. The first structures they erected on the rivoalto (a small constellation of high islands where the Rialto and its Palladian bridge is now positioned) were built atop wooden piles – a unique process of petrifying sunken columns in the silt of the swamp that is still in use today, both as a method of preservation and when building anew. Even as the city expanded into La Serenissima—the serene Venetian Republic, one of the most powerful thalassocracies that the world has ever seen—it was consistently reminded of its delicate, defensive and highly lucrative relationship with the lagoon and the oceans beyond. The ancient and mystical annual Marriage of the Sea, established in AD 1000, saw the Doge (the elected ruler of the Republic) hurl a consecrated ring into the murky waters and declare the city and sea to be indissolubly one. This liturgy, one can surmise, was a way of throwing caution to the wind and praying that prosperity would continue amid comparatively ungovernable natural conditions.
Astonishingly, a version of this nuptial ceremony to the ocean also continues to this day. Over recent centuries, and especially since the 1970s, Venice’s economy has become almost entirely reliant on tourism; its unsurpassed naval might has been superseded by clumsy and unsettlingly large cruise liners and large swatches of San Marco, Cannaregio, and the Dorsoduro are now hotels, hostels and holiday houses. Many Venetians have either been driven away by lack of employment or have left of their own accord. Contessa Jane da Mosto, an environmental scientist who has lived in the city since 1995, is one who has actively made the lagoon her home. She married a Venetian—Conte Francesco da Mosto, himself an architect and author—and have together raised four children in the city against the backdrop of a domestic exodus.
When asked about the history of Venice and the water, Da Mosto points to a particular contemporary event that changed the future of the city: the flood of November 4th, 1966. Reaching 194cm (6’4), this was wholly unprecedented in the history of acqua alte. Heavy rain, a severe sirocco wind, crumbling infrastructure and entirely unready population isolated the city for twenty-four hours without repent. The flood revealed for the first time to what extent the built fabric of Venice had deteriorated – in the words of British art historian John Pope-Hennessy, “the havoc wrought by generations of neglect.”
“Venice lives thanks to big disasters such as this,” Da Mosto argues. “They have caused [the city] to fundamentally change direction.” At the point in time in which the 1966 flood occurred more and more of the lagoon was being absorbed by the expansion of the Marghera industrial zone. “The national and international attention that followed this event changed the emphasis to safeguarding the heritage of the city.” As part of what became known as the International Safeguarding Campaign, investment flowed into Venice from around the world and its decaying skeleton began to breathe new life.
In November last year, fifty years on from the flood, We Are Here Venice—an organisation founded by Da Mosto to raise awareness of the problems that the city faces in the 21st Century—inscribed a simple blue line around shop windows and doorways of Piazza San Marco. L’Acqua e la Piazza (The Water and the Square) graphically indicates just how high the water rose that day. “A strong storm surge meant that the water didn’t leave the lagoon when the tide turned and, combined with a sort of oscillation in the Upper Adriatic (just like when you’re in the bath and the water rocks back and forth), extra water was pushed into the lagoon.” As the water was expelled and ‘hit’ the opposite coastline of the Adriatic, it simply returned and washed back into Venice a few hours later. This back and forth motion, Da Mosto explains, can occur for days on end until the water eventually dissipates down into the Mediterranean Sea.
Following the disaster, which also caused considerable damage in other Italian cities, repairs and restorations were carried out to ageing monuments. In the 1980s, MOSE (named in an homage to Moses, the Biblical figure who was said to have parted the Red Sea) was commissioned: four vast retractable gates at the inlets of the Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia which, when operational later this year, will be able to seal the entire lagoon from high tides in fifteen minutes flat. The project, akin to the Thames Barrier in London or the Maeslant Barrier in Holland, has been mired in a corruption scandal (€5,493,000,000 has been spent on the project to date) and is by no means a perfect solution. “Even when the mobile barriers start operating,” Da Mosto iterates, “Piazza San Marco will still be flooded many times a year. […] It’s absurd to think that mobile barriers alone can save Venice. They are just one of the many measures that are needed in the lagoon.”
“The last thirty years,” she explains, “have been heavily conditioned by strong lobbies that permeated every crack and corner of the cultural, scientific and economic life of Venice. They have all been associated with this huge flow of investment through the 1973 Special Law for Venice 1973 [which aims to “guarantee the protection of the landscape, historical, archaeological and artistic heritage of the city of Venice and its lagoon by ensuring its socio-economic livelihood”] that was directed at building the mobile barriers. But, as the scandal has revealed, over one billion Euros can not be traced. On top of that, the money spent on the actual works has been shown to have been spent at inflated prices. So not only did a huge amount of money disappear, but they simply spent more than they should have.”
For a city which has always heavily relied on an economy driven by foreign trade or investment, plans on the scale of the MOSE project are nothing new. Venice has always made courageous decisions to maintain accessibility between the sea and the city. “When the lagoon first started to silt and navigation became difficult, the city diverted whole rivers further south or further north of the lagoon so that less sediment came in so they could keep the channels deep for the galleons,” Da Mosto clarifies. “Subsequently, during Austrian occupation at the end of the 19th Century, the entire coastline of the barrier islands to Venice were reinforced and proper inlets were built to ensure that access to the lagoon was deep and wide.” Unfortunately, as a consequence of that and many other similar moves, Venice is at risk of no longer being part of a lagoon system at all; as channels are dredged ever deeper to accommodate the likes of MS Queen Victoria (a 90,049 gross ton pleasure-cruiser operated by Cunard) in port, it is being transformed into less of a lagoon and more into a bay of the sea – and that, according to Da Mosto, “has very important implications for the integrity of the city as well as its biodiversity and ecological functions [see ‘Criterion (v)’ at the foot of this article].”
There can be no doubt that Venice lives thanks to the regular exchange between the lagoon and the sea and, while there is still inherent resilience in the system, much has been neglected over the preceding decades. “We’re beyond the times when some ministry for infrastructure and public works can just come and do what they want to do, or what business interests make them do,” Da Mosto argues. “The whole city needs to wake up.”
Find out more about the activities of We Are Here Venice, here.
Venice’s Inscription as a World Heritage Site (1987)
Venice and its lagoon were inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1987. According to the citation, they “form an inseparable whole of which the city of Venice is the pulsating historic heart and a unique artistic achievement. The influence of Venice on the development of architecture and monumental arts has been considerable.” The inscription was based on the following six criteria (you can read the full document in multiple languages, here):
- Criterion (i): Venice is a unique artistic achievement. The city is built on 118 small islands and seems to float on the waters of the lagoon, composing an unforgettable landscape whose imponderable beauty inspired Canaletto, Guardi, Turner and many other painters. The lagoon of Venice also has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces in the world: from Torcello’s Cathedral to the church of Santa Maria della Salute.The years of the Republic’s extraordinary Golden Age are represented by monuments of incomparable beauty: San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, San Zanipolo, Scuola di San Marco, Frari and Scuola di San Rocco, San Giorgio Maggiore, etc.
- Criterion (ii): The influence of Venice on the development of architecture and monumental arts is considerable; first through the Serenissima’s fondachi or trading stations, along the Dalmatian coast, in Asia Minor and in Egypt, in the islands of the Ionian Sea, the Peloponnesus, Crete, and Cyprus, where the monuments were clearly built following Venetian models. But when it began to lose its power over the seas, Venice exerted its influence in a very different manner, thanks to its great painters. Bellini and Giorgione, then Tiziano, Tintoretto, Veronese and Tiepolo completely changed the perception of space, light and colour thus leaving a decisive mark on the development of painting and decorative arts in the whole of Europe.
- Criterion (iii): With the unusualness of an archaeological site which still breathes life, Venice bears testimony unto itself. This mistress of the seas is a link between the East and the West, between Islam and Christianity and lives on through thousands of monuments and vestiges of a time gone by.
- Criterion (iv): Venice possesses an incomparable series of architectural ensembles illustrating the height of the Republic’s splendour. From great monuments such as Piazza San Marco and Piazzetta (the cathedral, Palazzo Ducale, Marciana, Museo Correr Procuratie Vecchie), to the more modest residences in the calli and campi of its six quarters (Sestieri), including the 13th Century Scuole hospitals and charitable or cooperative institutions, Venice presents a complete typology of medieval architecture, whose exemplary value goes hand-in-hand with the outstanding character of an urban setting which had to adapt to the special requirements of the site.
- Criterion (v): In the Mediterranean area, the lagoon of Venice represents an outstanding example of a semi-lacustral habitat which has become vulnerable as a result of irreversible natural and climate changes. In this coherent ecosystem where the muddy shelves (alternately above and below water level) are as important as the islands, pile-dwellings, fishing villages and rice fields need to be protected no less than the palazzi and churches.
- Criterion (vi): Venice symbolizes the people’s victorious struggle against the elements as they managed to master a hostile nature. The city is also directly and tangibly associated with the history of humankind. The “Queen of the Seas”, heroically perched on her tiny islands, extended her horizon well beyond the lagoon, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean. It was from Venice that Marco Polo (1254-1324) set out in search of China, Annam, Tonkin, Sumatra, India and Persia. His tomb at San Lorenzo recalls the role of Venetian merchants in the discovery of the world – after the Arabs, but well before the Portuguese.