By Eric Vandenbroeck

The past and future of Venice.

The recent flooding in Venice was caused by a combination of high spring tides and a meteorological storm surge driven by strong sirocco winds blowing north-eastwards across the Adriatic Sea. When these two events coincide, we get what is known as Acqua Alta (high water).

Built on top of wooden pylons driven into the silt of a tidal swamp at the mouth of the Po River, subsidence was inevitable. Large heavy stone buildings built on mud, what could go wrong?

Underneath a painting by Vincenzo Chilone showing Flooded Piazza San Marco Venice in 1825

Why does Venice attract so much international attention compared to other cities? I’ve been pondering this question. The city is an undeniably beautiful place, and many tourists remark on the haunting lights and sounds of a city built entirely on water, with no vehicular traffic.

But Venice is also a place with a long tradition of convincing outsiders of its uniqueness. This tradition may continue to shape the way the world sees the city today, and could be what ends up helping the city survive.


A city of great myths

For instance, Venetians claim that the city was founded in the middle of the fifth century A.D. by mainland dwellers fleeing before invading hordes of “barbarians”, including Attila the Hun himself.

But archeologists have cast doubt on that tale since they have found that as early as the Bronze Age, people hunted and fished on the mudflats of the Venetian lagoon.

By the fifth century, at least one island in that watery region, Torcello, was home to a thriving community of several thousand inhabitants. More communities gradually took shape nearby, as inhabitants drained marshy land and built it up by driving thousands of wooden piles into the mud.

That prosaic tale of gradual development is overshadowed by the more dramatic story of flight and survival, which continues to be used to emphasize the special status of Venice within the Italian peninsula and in world history.

Another influential story the Venetians told about themselves in the Middle Ages was that of the republic as La Serenissima, or “the most serene”. This “myth of Venice,” as scholars call it, compared the harmony of Venetian civic life to the factionalism of other cities in Italy. It, too, is a fable that obscured real tensions within the republic.

Even the famously well-organized republican archives, a “fact” repeated by Venetian chancery officials and then scholars across centuries, has recently been shown to be more myth than reality. In fact, officials struggled to maintain professionalism within the archive as early as the 16th century.

But just because these stories are not entirely true does not mean they are unimportant, quite the opposite: they show us what mattered to those who told them.

But they also contributed to a notion that Venice was separate and somehow special. In the responses to recent environmental catastrophes, we can see the positive and the negative effects of that longstanding belief.

On the one hand, Venice will probably get the international support it needs to embark on a huge cleanup and restoration effort.

On the other hand, other storm-damaged communities in Italy that lack the Venetian “brand” might not receive the same assistance, especially from international organizations with substantial endowments.

Of course, restoring the historical treasures of Venice and ensuring that the city is safe from future catastrophe is important. It must happen.

This handout satellite image shows Venice under 'acqua alta' earlier this month.

Venice from 2021 till 2050?

It is among the most ambitious works of civil engineering in modern Italian history, an underwater fortress of steel designed to rise from the depths during high tides to protect the lagoon city of Venice.

While politicians today blame the floods on climate change, many inhabitants of Venice are enraged about the authorities’ failure to complete the €5.5bn Mose project.

Following the worst flooding in its history in 1966, the Italian government asked engineers to draw up plans to build a barrier at sea to defend one of the world’s most picturesque yet fragile cities from the constant threat of high tides.

Fast forward to 2003 and construction finally started with completion set for 2011. But the project, known as Mose, has been plagued by the sort of problems that have come to characterize many major Italian construction programs, corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays.

A lengthy investigation resulted in 35 people being arrested for kickbacks, extortion and money laundering, including Venice’s mayor Giorgio Orsoni and Giovanni Mazzacurati, the head of Consorzio, who reached a plea bargain and died in September while under house arrest. Now technical flaws are being found, but the general public does not know whether they are serious or not.

Consorzio also suppressed discussion of the fact that the barriers would have limited usefulness in the face of rising sea levels, so how to deal with climate change is a conversation the Venetians are only now beginning to have, along with the rest of the world.

It is late but better late than never. It is no coincidence that the places where people have drowned in floods are furthest ahead in their planning (doubtless the Venice barriers would have been finished had anyone died in the great flood of 1966 when the water reached 194cm).

After severe floods in southern England in 1953, with more than 300 fatalities, London was eventually given protection by a mobile barrier on the river Thames in 1982 that has since had to be closed 152 times. There is no doubt that the British capital would have been catastrophically affected without it. In the Netherlands, more than 1,500 people died in the same 1953 North Sea floods that followed a heavy storm. The country would not survive today without its immense, interconnected, ecologically advanced protection system that includes nine dams and four storm-surge barriers.

The construction on a flood barrier system for Venice has been ongoing for more than 15 years and is still incomplete:

The latest estimated completion date is 2021. But there is no guarantee it will go smoothly.

Part of the submerged infrastructure has already started to rust and a source close to the consortium building the mobile dam told Reuters it would cost some 100 million euros a year to maintain, much higher than original estimates.

And while climatic conditions certainly will not help, neither did the steady digging of the canals to allow bigger vessels, particularly cruise ships, into the canals, allowing more water into the lagoon.

This has sparked protests and in 2013, it banned ships weighing more than 96,000 tons from the Giudecca Canal.

The ban was in part a response to the deadly 2012 Costa Concordia disaster, in which the 115,000-ton cruise ship hit a rock formation off the island of Giglio in Tuscany after its captain sailed too close to the shore.

However, that law was later overturned by a regional court, which ruled that safety or environmental risks had not been proven.

Today, including last Sunday, as pictured above, protests are still ongoing. 

Also, a report by the U.N.’s science and culture agency UNESCO said Mose was planned on a base scenario of sea levels in the northern Adriatic rising some 22 cm by 2100, but many scientists fear that assumption is far too optimistic. "A rise of 100 cm should not be excluded" [...] with the projections given in this report there should be no doubt that the sea level will eventually rise to a value that will not be sustainable for the lagoon and its historical city," the report warned.

The intention behind the retractable gates was that, when they weren’t needed, they would allow Venice to retain its aesthetic feel, and allow for fishermen and other boats to make it in and out of port. More importantly, the Venice lagoon uses the Adriatic as a flushing valve, and its ecosystem would be jeopardized if sealed off from the high seas. But based on projections of rising sea levels, in the not-too-distant future the floodgates would need to be raised so often that they would function like a near-permanent wall.

Yet even if MOSE works for 20 or 30 years, it will be worthwhile, given the damage Venice faces whenever it floods.

Whereby for now those who wish to avoid the risk of acqua alta should avoid Venice in November and December.


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