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Notes on Cities: Venezia II

INTERVIEW WITH LUCA MUSCARÀ February 8th, 2020, Sant’Elena

Lara Verena Bellenghi's Notes on Venezia will unfold as a series of interviews featuring locals of the Floating City who work in gastronomy, hospitality, merchandise, public transport, and other professions. This series began in the aftermath of November 12th 2019’s acqua alta and is accompanied with polaroid snapshots from Bellenghi. 

Lara: Luca, you teach Political Geography at the University of Molise and have been studying Venice for some decades now. Venice occupies a unique position, although it seems now to be under multiple threats. Could you develop a bit on this?

Luca: Venice is a very unique place. Its very existence has been possible only thanks to the ability of its ancient inhabitants to understand and master the very delicate balance between land and water. In fact, lagoons and rivers’ deltas have long been known for being unstable because of the action of waters. For this reason very few settlements have been built there. Still, the water offered security and the ancient Venetians knew that to continue its existence they had to protect the city and its lagoon from a double risk: that of being filled up by the sediments carried by the rivers, and that of being flooded and becoming the sea again. Between the 15th and the 17th century they managed to divert the course of all the rivers that were discharging sediments in the lagoon, and they also reinforced the Lido by building the murazzi, to protect it from the sea.

Lara: Thus, thanks to their intelligence and hard work the Venice lagoon became safe from the risk of being filled up by sediments and disappearing, but what about the risk of being flooded? The painfully visible exceptional tide of November 12th, 2019 has been the second highest tide on record. Are we really at risk of losing Venice?

Luca: Once Venice lost its political independence with Napoleon, also the ability to regulate its balance with the waters was soon lost. Indeed, in its past the city was at times flooded, but today the situation has much worsened. The Industrial Revolution, with all the greenhouse gases that have been discharged into the atmosphere for two centuries have warmed up both the Earth’s atmosphere and the oceans. Such increase in temperature affects the water cycle. The sea level is rising because of melting land ice and glaciers, and because of the thermal expansion of the ocean. This global phenomenon is amplified in the Mediterranean and in the Adriatic Sea, and the entire coastline between Trieste and Ravenna is at risk. 

Lara: On November 12th, the tide reached 1.87 meters. This acqua alta has reminded us that the risk of losing Venice is real, and it may occur sooner than we think if we do not protect it adequately. Is Venice already at risk of a tide above 2 meters?

Luca: Venice has a very low elevation: it is 1 meter above sea level on the average, so parts of the city, such as Saint Mark’s are even lower, with an elevation of 75-80 cm. The Acqua alta is the product of three different set of factors: the meteorological, the astronomical, and the sea level rise. It depends on how these three set of factors are combined. Oceanographers from the CNR’s Institute of Marine Science have calculated that if that acqua alta had occurred only 12 hours before or 12 hours later, the flooding of November 12th would have reached 2.10 meters. The sea level rise in particular contributed 34 cm to the flooding of last November. The CNR calculated that if the record flooding of 1966 (1.94 meters) had occurred with the present sea level, it would have reached 2.40 meters!

Lara: The damages it made are still painfully visible now, after the record tide of November 12th, as in the walls and railings of the Riva dei Partigiani behind the Giardini. Their columns were once perfectly lined up and now the structure reminds us of broken teeth.

 

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Sant'Elena, Polaroid by Lara Bellenghi, 2020

Luca: I wasn’t here on the night of November 12th but I started panicking when I received the text messages of the Centro Maree, and soon later friends started to send me videos of the catastrophic water levels rapidly rising. In that case the real reason for the damage in that area were the winds. First it was the Bora blowing from the Northeast which pushed all the water into Chioggia, up to about 190cm. Then the wind stopped and soon after it turned into Scirocco from the Southeast pushing all the water that had accumulated in Chioggia against the Lido, Sant’Elena, Arsenale, San Marco, San Giorgio, the Giudecca and the Zattere, and all the little islands in between. So the greatest damage that made the walls come down was induced by winds of 100km/h.

Lara: Venice is a place of paradoxes. Think of how one arrives from a narrow calle (street) only to discover at the end of it a vast campo (square) that feels like arms of an embrace reaching out from the ground up into the sky. Like with waters, calm and stormy, Venice as a city allows the pedestrian to sometimes enter opposite realms simply by turning a corner.

Luca: Yes. Or when coming from a long and narrow calle we reach a riva and the sight opens onto the vast lagoon. One moves from an extremely reduced vision field and space to the total opening. It’s like being inside a ship and getting out on deck to see fully the river. This is an apt metaphor for we need to get out of the narrow calle (where we are stuck) and gain a wider view of Venice and its delicate balance, both in environmental and in socio-economic terms. 

Lara: Venice offers the big picture, in other words. It seems to unite everything; it’s like the mother of cities in that it has for millennia given birth to scientific invention and art parallel to nowhere else on the planet. In that sense it is overly dominant but it also demands protection because of its status as a city built on water.

Luca: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. I like this formula. Not only is Venice flooded by waters. It is also flooded by tourists, while its population has decreased from 180,000 of 1951 to the current 52,000 residents. We lost 2/3 of its inhabitants! The economic logic of the market has been expelling citizens for 70 years now, while the number of tourists continues to increase in the millions.

Lara: With the loss of its inhabitants isn’t Venice risking to become a theme park?

Luca: In 1990 I visited an 18th century museum/house with a silk factory in a park near Yokohama, Japan. During the visit, I opened a door on the ground floor, entered into a very dark kitchen, where I found a big pot boiling on a central fireplace. No one was around but another door opened into the garden made me realize that someone had just gone out of it. That kitchen was in fact a place used by the guardians and maintenance workers of that museum/house. I realized that it was the only space of that ancient house that was still being used in the same way the house was built. On the way back to Tokyo, I found myself wondering if also in Venice, the maintenance workers would have become the only ones able to experience and live the city as it was originally designed. 30 years after my thoughts in Japan, I think we are getting really close to this. 

 

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Sant'Elena, Polaroid by Lara Bellenghi, 2020

 

Lara: Venice has become a big open-air museum inundated by masses but its area is confined by the surrounding water. Hence, it is exposed to dynamics similar to enclosed structures. Venice is trapped by water of the lagoon and has internal forces acting upon it in the form of consumer masses.

In its origins, this place was authoritative because it had to be in order to survive.

The glory that has made it what we know it as today is now being outshined by what some have called the glitterati of the art world. Alongside the cruise-ship millions, it is being formed – or beaten and bruised? – into shape by often immaturely-minded visitors.

That’s why I thought of the mother as an analogy. A mother that has to deal with a bunch of adolescents taking and giving little, if anything, back. Observations such as these make many Biennale exhibition titles seem wonderful fiction. Common Ground back in 2014 was received with much critical acclaim, but considering the state that Venice is in precisely as common ground for the whole world, there seems to be few ties between Biennale-centered discourse and actual approach to the city. 

Luca: There are exceptions. Two years ago, in 2018, the Architecture Biennale was very beautiful. I was involved with my friends of the Biennale Urbana who developed a wonderful project of regeneration of the Caserma Pepe on the Lido. This Caserma was the 11th antenna of the French Pavillion which was dedicated to the reuse of abandoned urban structures. 10 different projects from around France were represented inside the French Pavilion and the Caserma became the 11th. There was a fantastic party and all the 10 groups of the French Pavillion visited it throughout the summer and also contributed to the regeneration of the Caserma. So that was a lot of fun as well as a paradigmatic example of urban regeneration of an abandoned major infrastructures. Have you been to the Caserma?

Lara: Not yet.

Luca: It was great fun all summer. At the opening we partied with an amazing light and music installations. A special computer system allowed the music beats to be converted into lights. This sophisticated electronic-system was terribly expensive for those two days but this set-up in 16th century barracks of the Serenissima, located near S. Nicolò (S. Nicoletto) in the same spot where the army of the 4th crusade was gathered before leaving in 1202.

Lara: Isn’t that the part of Venice that Peter Ackroyd aptly refers to as the city’s uterine embrace? The curving ends of the Lido that add to its protective function.

Luca: Yes.

Lara: But then the scene you are describing in the Caserma Pepe proves how these once purposely-built structures of the Serenissima are today being abandoned, together with many other areas, such as the Ospedale al Mare.

Luca: Again, it is part of the market logic. The Ospedale al Mare was a masterpiece of a hospital, on the beach, facing the sea. It has been abandoned for over 20 years. You should see in which state it is now. Really a crime. The Biennale Urbana had worked on it for five years, reclaiming the Teatro Marinoni, a beautiful Art Nouveau theatre of the 1920s, fixing many structural problems and organizing over 200 events there, before they were evicted and moved to the Caserma Pepe.

Lara: You make me think of the Arsenale and its brick walls, that are being eaten by the salt of the lagoon. Part of it is being used for the Biennale, but the Arsenale Nord is still largely abandoned.

Luca: The Arsenale was the real heart of the Venice Republic. Europe’s largest industry in the 12th century. Even Dante mentions it in the Divine Comedy. A few years ago the Italian state gave it back to the city of Venice, a call for ideas was issued, but there are conflicting interests clashing on it, as on the rest of the city. The long term views that would like to create there a scientific park and the short-term interests of using it to make money with tourists.

Lara: In a recent conversation at the Palazzo Correr, someone said that in Venice, many Venetians seem to have truly grasped that the capitalist structures that act on their hometown simply don’t work. The Mose project is being revealed as a failed flood-gate system but one that makes money flow in dubious directions. Cruise-ships have already rammed Venice…

Luca: The Mose has long been very disputed as an experimental project and in 2014 a major scandal exploded. Now, after the November 12th flood, they are trying to finish it by the end of 2021. We shall see then if it really works. Once it gets this bad, it’s clearly a wake-up call, not just an opinion.

Lara: The canals to Venice are like the veins and arteries to our own bodies. Even if the Mose works we shall see if it doesn’t create more problems than it solves. Closing the lagoon has an impact on the biology of the lagoon and risks of breaking the balance between the solid and liquid substance of the Venice lagoon.

Luca: Yes, if the sea level continues to increase, they will need to close the gates most of the year and this will impact both the biology of the lagoon and even the traffic of the port, including the big ships.

For all its beauty, once Venice is lost, even the opportunity it still offers of living in a suspended time, in a city that really has a different pace than that of the rest of the industrial / post-industrial society will be lost.

Too many today seem to think only about making money by exploiting Venice. It is unfortunate that they don’t realize that once Venice will be submerged, there won’t be neither short term nor long term economic gains for anyone. The loss will in fact be for all humankind. We need an international movement to repopulate Venice with artists and scientists from all over, because without citizens with a vision the city is doomed.

 

 

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Sant'Elena Sun, Polaroid by Lara Bellenghi, 2020

 

Notes on Cities: Venezia is an ongoing interview series conducted by Lara Bellenghi that explores Venice in dialogue with those that know and love the floating city.