The death of Venice is greatly exaggerated

Dominic Standish reports from Venice on how residents and visitors coped with the highest floods in 20 years.

Dominic Standish

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Topics Politics

‘Venice in Peril’, ran a headline in The Economist last week, after there were floods in the Italian city (1). ‘The high water in Venice confirms the city’s fragility’, the article continued. But is this claim justified? How precarious is Venice’s situation, and how is the city and its people responding to the floods?

On 1 December, Venice was swamped by its highest floods for 22 years. Strong winds pushed high tides from the Adriatic Sea into the Venetian lagoon. The sea level rose to 156cm above normal – the highest level since it reached 158cm in 1986. Most of the city was flooded. The iconic St Mark’s Square, at one of the lowest points in the city, was covered by water almost one metre deep.

Venice floods regularly and raised walkways are usually constructed quite quickly for pedestrians. Rubber boots suddenly become fashionable on these elevated catwalks. However, when the water level goes 140cm above normal levels, these walkways often float away, as frequently happened on 1 December. So how did people manage to get around?

Most Venetians are well prepared with thigh-high fishermen’s boots. But tourists and other visitors to the city quickly discovered that such boots were sold out last week. So many resorted to using bin liners instead, and plastic bags to protect their footwear as they waded through the water. Despite concerns about the impact of plastic bags on the environment, these items proved very useful for negotiating one’s way around flooded Venice. The director of the Palazzo Grassi art gallery, Frenchwoman Monique Veaute, used bin bags on her feet to get to work when she couldn’t buy rubber boots. She feared the worst when she saw the floods, which is unsurprising given the historical predictions and cultural imagery of Venice’s apparently impending watery death (2). Yet Veaute changed her mind when she observed Venetians reacting resourcefully:

‘I saw a scene without comparison. An apocalypse… but I understood the strength of this city that is considered to be gasping its last breath, dead and gone. This is not true. Venetians are not feeble against the tides, they know how to move and they are generous to people in difficulty.’ (3)

When she arrived at the Palazzo Grassi, she found there was water lashing the entrance to the gallery, but there was no significant damage. The situation seemed worse at the Basilica on St Mark’s Square, where waters poured through the windows. But the crypt was secured. Indeed, the main Venetian newspaper, Il Gazzettino di Venezia, said that superintendents of historical buildings recorded no major problems caused by the floods, although there was damage to private homes and businesses (4).

The flooding was very disruptive to residential and business buildings; it didn’t help that the floods were at their worst on a day (1 December) when the public water boat service was suspended due to a strike. Firemen were called out to badly flooded homes, especially by elderly people who needed help pumping out water from their ground floors. Many offices, restaurants, museums and shops were closed for a couple of days – although the famous Harry’s Bar reopened by 3pm on 1 December.

The majority of schools managed to stay open; their main problem was teachers arriving late because of the floods. At the Santa Teresa nursery school in the Dorsoduro quarter, the children were moved to the second floor when the first floor flooded. The late delivery of lunch was the most serious problem at the Sansovino middle school, although everyone had eaten by 1.30pm. As photos published by National Geographic News illustrate, despite the floods people just got on with life (5).

Of course, many tourists were less prepared than Venetians. But this did not stop some tourists from having their pictures taken while wading around. Franco Maschiello, president of the Venice Hoteliers Association, even proposed introducing special high-water holiday packages for tourists. ‘We’re going to offer packages where they’ll get free use of rubber boots or waders, free entry to museums and discounts on hotel rooms. They can go home and tell people they saw this amazing phenomenon’, he said (6).

Maschiello’s proposal was partly a response to 1,000 hotel cancellations in a single day after the high floods. He blamed the ‘alarmist’ coverage of the floods in the media (7). ‘Tourists don’t understand that the high tide lasts for a few hours and then goes. They get the impression that Venice has been hit by a tsunami, that it is a catastrophe.’ (8)

Whether last week’s floods can be defined as ‘catastrophic’ has been hotly debated. Business representatives emphasised that the flood was exceptional and very damaging. ‘[The flood] was more of an inundation than a high water’, said Maurizio Franceschi, regional secretary of the shopkeepers’ association Confesercenti. ‘And the damage is there for everyone to see.’ (9)

Giancarlo Galan, the pro-business governor of the Veneto region, stressed the seriousness of the floods and the need to complete the mobile barrier project that will protect Venice from high tides (10). The project is currently 50 per cent built; it is predicted to be completed in 2014. The barriers would rise from the seabed to close the three entrances from the sea to the Venetian lagoon when the highest tides are forecast. The project, locally referred to as Project Mose, has divided political opinion ever since the mobile barriers were first proposed in 1970.

Massimo Cacciari, the current mayor of Venice, has made many attempts to block the construction of the mobile barriers. Indeed, the city council that he leads responded to last week’s floods by stressing that they were not a catastrophe and the mobile barriers are not necessary. ‘The council chose the “minimalist” line with the declared objective of demonstrating that high water is a tolerable phenomenon and therefore Mose is useless’, said Il Gazzettino di Venezia (11). ‘It wasn’t a natural disaster because no one was killed or injured, but it was an exceptional event’, said Michele Vianello, the deputy mayor (12).

The main reason why last week’s Venice floods were not a disaster is that Venice is much better protected and developed than in the past. In 1106, flooding swept away the entire community in the old capital of the Venice lagoon settlements at Malamocco; not one building was left standing (13). In 1268, ‘the water rose from eight o’clock until midday. Many were drowned inside their houses or simply died of the cold.’ (14) The manmade diversion of rivers flowing into the Venetian lagoon between 1324 and 1683, combined with the construction of huge sea walls during the eighteenth century, means that Venice is much better protected from flooding than in old times. Since 1923, there have been three floods in Venice that were higher than last week’s: in 1966, 1979 and 1986. The highest of these were the autumn floods of 1966, when the whole city was inundated. No one died in Venice’s historical centre, though 90 people were killed by the 1966 floods in Florence (15).

As a result of modern transportation, communications and infrastructure, floods have a less serious impact in Venice today. As we witnessed last week, motorboats can speed people to safety and emergency services are well equipped to respond to flooding. Sirens warning of high floods sounded out across the city at 6.30am and 8.22am on the morning of 1 December, so that people could fortify their homes and businesses. The evening before, 10,000 SMS messages were sent to Venetians’ cell phones from the forecasting centre, warning of high tides the following day (these predictions underestimated the height of the floods, however).

Nevertheless, Venice would be even better protected if the mobile barrier system is completed. These barriers are increasingly important given that the mean water level is approximately 25cm higher than it was at the end of the nineteenth century (16). Although this higher water level is due to a combination of things – subsidence, silting in the lagoon, rising sea levels – the latter cause (rising seas) is most frequently highlighted, in order to promote the barriers as a model for tackling climate change. As the financial crisis has raised new doubts about the economic viability of reducing CO2 emissions, Doug Saunders proposed in Canada’s Globe and Mail that Venice’s barriers offer hope to populations in low level land areas from Singapore to Bangladesh:

‘Project Mose is the other way to deal with climate change. It may well be the better one, and it may soon be ours. While the world was arguing over emissions targets, carbon trading and sequestration strategies, the Venetians were persuading Italian governments to cough up almost $8billion to make climate change a non-problem for them by using a network of invisible barriers to block even a major rise in ocean level.’ (17)

If the mobile barrier project is completed, Venice could build on the past protection and modernisation of the city to provide an example of how to combat flooding – whether it is ‘caused by climate change’ or simply the kind of flooding mankind has faced throughout history. Given this fact, and the fact that Venetians coped well with last week’s sloshing waters, why should the recent floods be taken as ‘confirmation of Venice’s fragility’?

Dominic Standish is writing a book about environmental myths and reality in Venice. He is an adjunct Professor for the University of Kansas at their CIMBA site in Asolo, Veneto, Italy. Email him {encode=”dstandish@europe.com” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Dominic Standish told us why we should save Venice. He looked at why the Venice Biennale arts fair was dominated by death and doom. Ethan Greenhart considered whether it’s ethical to save Venice. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and Planning.

(1) Venice in Peril – Flood Warnings, Economist, 4 December 2008

(2) Death in Venice, by Dominic Standish, 31 July 2007

(3) Gli imperturbabili residenti doc ‘Basta avere gli stivali giusti’, Corriere della Sera, 2 December 2008

(4) Venezia: dopo l’acqua alta, ondata di polemiche, Il Gazzettino di Venezia, 3 December 2008

(5) Photos: Venice Floods Reach Five Feet, But Life Goes On, National Geographic News, 5 December 2008

(6) Venice hotels offer discounts and boots after worst flood in 20 years, Daily Telegraph, 3 December 2008

(7) Venice offers ‘high-water package’, ANSA News Agency, 2 December 2008

(8) Venice hotels offer discounts and boots after worst flood in 20 years, Daily Telegraph, 3 December 2008

(9) Venezia: dopo l’acqua alta, ondata di polemiche, Il Gazzettino di Venezia, 3 December 2008

(10) Galan: ‘Cacciari chieda scusa alla città’, Il Gazzettino di Venezia, 3 December 2008

(11) Venezia: dopo l’acqua alta, ondata di polemiche, Il Gazzettino di Venezia, 3 December 2008

(12) Venice offers ‘high-water package’, ANSA News Agency, 2 December 2008

(13) p82, A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich, Penguin, 1983

(14) Venice 1966-1996. 30 Years of Protection as Covered by the Press, ANSA News Agency, 1997

(15) p260, The City of Falling Angels, Hodder and Stoughton, 2005

(16) p33, The Science of Saving Venice, C Fletcher and J Da Mosto, Umberto Alemandi, 2004,

(17) It’s time for another Great Wall – to keep out Mother Nature, Globe and Mail, 22 November 2008,

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