Why we should save Venice

Ignore the doom-mongers and philistines – it is both possible and desirable to rescue Venice from sinking into the sea.

Dominic Standish

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Topics Politics

Should Venice be turned into a Disneyland theme park, left to sink, or can we save the city by reducing global warming?

These three proposals were made in different articles in the British press over the past two weeks, in the run-up to a debate on the motion ‘Enough money has been spent saving Venice’ at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Monday 12 June. Around 700 people attended.

Strangely, on the night there wasn’t very much discussion about money or the economics of protecting and saving Venice. One exception was a brief intervention by Anna Somers Cocks, chairperson of the British charity ‘Venice in Peril’, which organised the debate. Most of the discussion focused on two proposals: first, that Venice can be saved by turning it into a Disney-style theme park, as proposed by John Kay, a British economist; second, that the rising sea levels engulfing Venice can be halted by reducing global warming, as proposed by Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the British government.

In my view, as a British citizen who has lived just outside the city of Venice for the past nine years and who is carrying out doctorate research there, these proposals say more about British preoccupations than they do about the real problems facing Venice.

The ‘Venice problem’ first emerged following the high floods of November 1966. After the floods, UNESCO and numerous international private committees set up campaigns to raise funds to support the protection of Venice. Successive Italian governments cultivated international attention and defined Venice as ‘a problem of essential national interest’ in the 1973 Special Law for Venice.

But the floods of 1966 were less serious in Venice than in other parts of north-eastern and central Italy – 110 people died in those areas; none died in the historical centre of Venice. There was less damage in Venice than in Florence, where treasured paintings from leading art galleries were washed out into the rivers and many people died.

Much of the attention lavished on the ‘Venice problem’ was driven less by a rational response to the objective conditions of flood damage, than by a sense of moral obligation. This was illustrated by a document published by the UNESCO International Consultative Committee in 1973:

‘Firstly, one might observe that the participation of the international community is a moral obligation [UNESCO’s italics]. If Venice really represents, in the eyes of many men and women, a vital common asset, then they must share the burden of its preservation…. An enterprise of this kind can represent the “honour of a lifetime”…or, on the other hand, a lost opportunity. Anyone is free, of course, to leave the task to others, but those with most pride and greatest wisdom will want to say “I took part”.’

Pointing out that interest in Venice is often driven more by a sense of moral duty than by a desire to fix objective problems doesn’t mean I think the city shouldn’t be protected. I do not support the proposal put forward by Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times (London), under the headline ‘If you love Venice, let her die’ (1). On the contrary, the increasing frequency of flooding in Venice recorded over the past 100 years suggests to me that flood protection measures are long overdue. The proposal that we should consign the city to the sea expresses the widespread sentiment that humanity should not tamper with natural phenomena such as subsidence.

No, my sympathies lie with those who opposed the motion ‘Enough money has been spent saving Venice’ in Monday’s debate: the novelist and historian AN Wilson and the architectural historian Joseph Rykwert. According to John Berendt, an author who writes about Venice, the city should be defended ‘from the humanist point of view’ (2). The history of Venice provides numerous examples of human ingenuity in overcoming natural forces. The very attempt to create a city in a lagoon appears to defy nature. The city’s past survival, by diverting rivers and building huge sea walls, is testament to the remarkable ability of people to overcome the challenges presented by nature.

During Monday’s debate, Sir David King talked about Venice as if it were on the verge of being condemned to the sea unless we can reduce global warming. Such pessimism ignores the progress that has been made in protecting Venice, and how people have been able to influence the forces of nature. Over the past 20 years the lower areas of the city have been raised so that they are protected against low-level flooding. In 2003, construction work began on protecting Venice from high-level flooding using mobile barriers which will close the three entrances to the Venetian lagoon from the sea during high tides. The barrier system is due to be completed in 2011.

Yet Sir David argued that the barriers would be irrelevant unless we can achieve international agreement to curb the rise in carbon dioxide emissions: ‘I am saying in the face of sea level rises already happening, for example, the barrier that is to be built and is currently underway would be insufficient through this century to protect Venice. This is only, though, if we don’t get global agreement on reducing emissions.’

This proposal plays upon contemporary concerns about global warming, and uses them to reinterpret the Venice problem. Chronicles show that Venice has been ravaged by flooding for centuries, not only during recent periods of climate change. Over the past 100 years, scientific data in Venice prove that the principal problem has been subsidence, not sea level rises.

This may change in the future – but if it does, that is all the more reason to complete the mobile barriers that will offer Venice protection against high-level flooding in the short-term. The discussion of global warming mystifies rather than clarifies the Venice problem. Climate-change modelling cannot help us predict whether floods such as those in 1966 will be repeated. Those floods were caused by a combination of factors creating a storm surge in Venice, including winds, which cannot be predicted with climate-change modelling. Rainfall and water pouring into the lagoon from rivers also make significant contributions to flooding in Venice.

Flooding in Venice is not simply caused by sea level rises, and international agreement on climate change will not solve the problem. We should be embracing the projects to protect Venice, instead of constructing the Venice problem according to the British government’s current prioritisation of global warming as the big issue of our age.

Similarly, John Kay’s Disney proposal appears to be driven by a peculiar combination of pessimism and the idea that the British know what’s best for Venice. Kay condemned Italian mismanagement: ‘My point is that an enterprise that is used to providing entertainment for the masses is best placed to save the city. At present, no one is running Venice. That is why it is dying.’ (3)

Venice City Council and the Italian government might disagree with Kay’s claim that no one is running Venice. Indeed, a representative from the Italian Embassy spoke from the floor during the debate, expressing disappointment at the lack of expertise and Italian representation on the panel. The various Italian institutions in charge of governing Venice do not appear unable to protect the city. The costs and management of the mobile barrier project are not beyond them, especially when compared with projects such as Rome’s Millennium infrastructure improvements. Maybe Kay would like to illustrate Britain’s apparently superior project-management skills by pointing to something like the Millennium Dome as a model…?

Venice does not need a Disney-style corporation to help it raise funds to build the mobile barriers. Nor will international agreements on climate change stop the flooding. Lurking behind these proposals are contemporary forms of the moralism that has driven international intervention in the Venice problem since 1966.

If there is a barrier to Venice’s barriers being completed, it is the political opposition within the current Venice City Council and the actions of numerous environmental and ‘No Global’ organisations inside the city. The Mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, will present the opposition to the barriers being completed to the government’s inter-ministerial committee in July.

Although the speakers at the debate in London would like to believe that their proposals will determine the future of Venice, in fact protection of the city is an Italian political matter. The British commentators, economists and politicos proposing solutions for Venice over the past two weeks see reflections of their own preoccupations when they look at the city, and may gain a sense of moral purpose from intervening in the debate. But doesn’t the city that brought us Marco Polo and Antonio Vivaldi deserve better than that?

Dominic Standish is completing a sociology PhD on the construction of the Venice problem. Email him at dstandish@europe.com.

(1). If you love Venice, let her die, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times, 5 June 2006

(2) Venice: a city beyond price, The Times, 10 June 2006

(3) Send for Disney to save Venice, Robin McKie, Observer, 4 June 2006

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