An observer of a Spenglerian bent might just write Venice off, taking the floods that afflict the city with increasing frequency as the finishing touches on a long-running spectacle of political, economic, and cultural decline. That decline, spanning half a millennium, has by now reduced the city to the status of a somewhat dilapidated urban museum, its contemporary cultural influence mainly associated with the postmodern follies at the Venice Biennale exhibitions of art and architecture. The failure of the Italian government to address the flooding has the additional effect of making Venice a stand-in for Italy’s political discombobulation. Through such saturnine lenses, it’s not hard to picture Venice as the next Atlantis.
Of course there are less dismal scenarios. And of course Venice retains its incomparable aura of enchantment. Even November’s flooding, which fell just two inches short of the all-time record set in 1966, serves as a reminder that the city has all but defied the forces of nature for thirteen hundred years, with its panoply of domes and bell towers seemingly afloat on the waters of the 200-square-mile Venetian lagoon.
Despite the vicissitudes of its history, the Republic was and is known to Venetians as La Serenissima, not only because of its remarkable institutional stability but for its exotic yet timeless urban iconography. That iconography is encapsulated by the Byzantine domes of San Marco, the diaper-patterned Gothic revetment of red and white marble adorning the Doge’s Palace next door, and the lofty Campanile facing them from across the Piazzetta, along with the venerable columns bearing statues of St. Theodore and the Lion of St. Mark that loom above the throngs disembarking at the Molo.
There is a historic rationale to the human geography of Venice, which is spread over 118 islands. The shifting sand banks, or lidi, that screen the lagoon from the Adriatic were settled in the fifth century by fugitives from the barbarian invaders then ravaging Italy. The barbarians, after all, were landlubbers. A few centuries later, the muddy masses known as the Rialto islands, situated in the middle of the lagoon, emerged as the nexus of these precarious settlements, and the Venetian Republic coalesced. Its dukes (dogi in the Venetian dialect) governed in league with a remarkably stable oligarchy for more than a thousand years. The Venetians set about expanding and stabilizing their terrain while introducing a method of construction that involved the deep sinking of wooden piles for architectural foundations. Multitudes of these piles survive and function to the present day.
As was true for other Italian city-states, nearly incessant warfare was the Republic’s lot. For defensive purposes, the lagoon and its archipelago served Venice admirably. No enemy—Frankish, Norman, Magyar, Saracen, Genoese, Ottoman, French, or Spanish—set foot in Venice until 1797, when Napoleon’s troops marched in and put an end to the Republic without firing a shot. By then the days of mercantile glory were long past. The Western hemisphere with its riches had been discovered, as had the route to the East via the Cape of Good Hope, not long after the fall in 1453 of Constantinople, with which Venice’s commercial fortunes had been closely entwined. Moreover, by the time of Napoleon, the endlessly magical unfolding of vistas along winding canals and the interlacing networks of streets and squares, with churches and palaces presenting vibrantly pictorial facades—architectural screens akin to stage sets—were an essentially completed endeavor. Such vistas, also including countless dignified structures of brick and stone trim, the brick often covered with vestigial patches of ruddy stucco, provided superb subject matter for the eighteenth-century cityscape painters known as vedutisti. Canaletto (1697–1768) was the greatest of these artists catering to mainly English gentlefolk on their grand tours of the Continent, and the romantic spell cast by his oeuvre is often attributable to La Serenissima’s gracefully down-at-heel look.
In addition to warfare, the Republic has perpetually been engaged in another, more distinctive conflict. “The lagoon is, by its very nature, an unstable system where land and sea have always been contending, and always will be,” notes Contessa Anna da Schio, doyenne of a palazzetto on the Rio della Fornace, close by the stupendous church of Santa Maria della Salute. (This domed landmark, with its encircling array of giant volutes crowned by statues of saints, was completed in 1687 in an effort to ward off yet another chronic scourge—the plague—and is perhaps the last building of universal architectural significance erected in the city.) These days, the sea has the upper hand. And as sea levels rise, Venice is slowly sinking. The default water level is a foot higher in relation to the city’s buildings than it was when records were first kept in 1873. Floods occur with ever greater frequency.
November’s inundations, which lasted for a week and reached as high as seventy-four inches, have intensified the foreboding that Venice is doomed. Apprehension mingles with anger over the Italian government’s failure to complete the MOSE complex of seventy-eight electro-mechanical barriers arrayed at the lagoon’s points of entry (MOSE being a technical acronym that also alludes to Moses’s parting of the sea). The barriers lie on the lagoon’s floor and are designed to pivot upward on hinges when the sea reaches flood level. The project resulted from the 1966 flood and dates back three decades. Originally a public-private venture, it was supposed to be complete in 2011. Instead, progress slowed to a crawl while authorities probed a swamp of graft and kickbacks. The $6-billion project is now under the control of government commissioners and will not be complete before the end of 2021. Meanwhile, reports have emerged of construction flaws, such as rusting hinges for the pivoting gates.
The increased flooding is attributed to climate change, which not surprisingly figured in last year’s Biennale, at which a Lithuanian installation took the top prize with a beach scene combining live sunbathers with an opera full of omens of environmental apocalypse. But it’s worth noting that seas have been rising for a very long time, and Venice’s problem with the Adriatic is ancient. Disastrous floods are recorded as far back as the sixth century. The earliest capital of the lagoon settlements, Malamocco, was washed away in 1106. Floods result, as John Julius Norwich noted in his magisterial history of Venice,
from a combination of factors—high tides, heavy rainfall, swollen rivers [on the adjacent mainland such as the Brenta and Adige], strong and persistent south-easterly winds and other geophysical conditions which only recently have been understood. Occurring separately, these factors are quite frequent and cause no particular concern. When they coincide, on the other hand, they can be almost apocalyptic in their horror.
Between October and March, rainfall swells the rivers and lagoon, with November the peak month for flooding. The winds push the sea into the lagoon instead of allowing it to discharge. The flooding reaches maximum height at high tide, as was the case last November, when the flood coincided with a full moon. The water in the Piazza San Marco—situated at the city’s lowest level, just three feet above sea level—was waist high. Corrosive salt water poured into the great basilica’s crypt and filled the ground floors of other buildings. The stench of sewage was widespread. An apocalyptic scene indeed.
“The salty water has had plenty of time to soak into the stones, mosaics, floors, woodwork, et cetera, and will go on corroding everything from within for decades,” laments Contessa da Schio, the ground floor and garden of whose palazzetto were completely flooded. She shares the widespread perception that MOSE is the only available defense against the inundations and must be completed.
Venice is a case study in man’s ambivalent relation to his environment—his immemorial quest to conquer his environment, and his subjection to environmental forces he can only hope to mitigate. The republican oligarchy, Norwich wrote, was sensitive to the ecology of the lagoon—whose abundant maritime life has always had an important place in the Venetian diet—and wary of changes that would alter the balance between land and water. A few decades after the Malamocco flood, Venice dispatched an army to force Padua to abandon its plan of diverting the Brenta to provide more direct access to the lagoon’s outlets. The Venetians feared sand accumulations and the silting up of vital shipping channels. Five centuries later, with the lagoon accumulating silt at an alarming rate, the Venetians themselves diverted the rivers flowing into it in an effort to restore that precarious balance. The result was that the lagoon’s water became a good deal saltier.
But the most dramatic alterations to the lagoon’s ecology came with the industrial age. The English classical architect John Simpson observes that ever since Napoleon’s occupation of Venice, “the approach to the lagoon seems to have been nothing short of reckless.” Simpson owns a handsome little palazzo, believed to have served originally as a gambling casino, close to the beautiful baroque church of Santa Maria del Giglio, on the other side of the Grand Canal from the Salute. He says:
The addition of the causeway [from Venice to the mainland] and then later its widening for the railway line, the addition of the docks at Tronchetto [at the city’s west end] which is a complete new man-made island in itself, the dredging of the lagoon to create deeper canals for the larger ships going to the oil refineries on the mainland at Mestre as well as the cruise liners which go through the Giudecca Canal at the heart of the city, all must have had a serious effect on the flow of the water within the lagoon. On top of that, the industry on the mainland introduced in the twentieth century has had a devastating effect, lowering the water table [which contributes to the sinking of the islands] and discharging effluent into the lagoon. Another important side effect of the development on the mainland is the introduction of hard surfacing, particularly as Mestre has grown, making the land impermeable to rain water so that it flows quickly and more directly into the lagoon rather than slowly percolating its way through the soil.
For the American painter Robert Morgan, who has lived in Venice since 1973, the super-sized cruisers—positively surreal in their elephantine hugeness relative to the city’s historic fabric—are but one water-borne reminder that “the internal combustion engine has done more damage to the city than anything in the last 1,000 years.” For Morgan, who takes the Venetian cityscape for his theme, following in the path of the vedutisti, Turner, and Sargent, the city’s environmental travails and cultural decadence are symptoms of modernity’s corrosive impact. He is dismissive of the Biennale exhibitions and laments the fact that current cultural fashion displays bear little or no organic relationship to the city’s history.
Even in the days of the vedutisti, he notes, when Venice served as “the whorehouse of Europe”—not to mention its preeminent gambling venue—the famous Carnival bacchanals were followed by Lent, the long morning after. That cultural cycle has been obliterated. In Watermark (1992), a superb meditation on Venice, the Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was dyspeptic regarding the city’s latter-day art scene: “Perhaps the sole function of collections like Peggy Guggenheim’s and the similar accretions of this century’s stuff habitually mounted here is to show what a cheap, self-assertive, ungenerous, one-dimensional lot we have become.” Brodsky, who dedicated the book to Morgan, portrayed Venice’s plight as an open invitation to political and corporate hustlers offering bogus schemes for the city’s salvation.
Cultivated individuals can differ, and Simpson’s take is a good deal more sanguine than Brodsky’s or Morgan’s, though it bears on the city’s economic viability and physical survival rather than its cultural renewal. “MOSE is only part of the solution to the high water in Venice,” Simpson says. “The larger part of the solution is working out how to use these water gates effectively and the key to this is understanding how the ecological system works in the lagoon. Without this knowledge it will be impossible to intervene in an effective and beneficial way.” He believes the scientific community is working its way toward such an understanding.
Venice’s population is now a paltry 50,000, though even at the height of the Republic’s fortunes it never exceeded 200,000. There is a lot of unused property in the city. Simpson envisions Venice as the Silicon Valley of Europe. High-quality Internet infrastructure doesn’t pollute, he emphasizes, and tourism alone is hardly a solution to the city’s problems. If Venice can find its way back to prosperity, “the lagoon itself can be used to protect it from global warming and rising sea levels. It needs to secure its future in order to do this. It will not happen if it continues to rely on handouts from UNESCO.”
Brodsky, for his part, considered turning Venice into a scientific research center a “palatable option.” But this émigré Russian Jew who grew up in Stalin’s Soviet Union was not one for happy endings. “What passes for new blood,” he said, “is always in the end plain old urine.” In other words, Venice’s glory is of the past, and the future has little or nothing to contribute, so feast on the city’s “paradisaical visual texture” while you can. In this scenario, Venice is indeed the next Atlantis. To the less fatalistic among us, it seems preferable to chart an economic course that keeps La Serenissima above water.
Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture.