Aerial view of St Mark's square and city at sunrise, Venice, Italy
Artillery Row

The Sinking City

Beset by flooding and corruption, Venice is slowly falling into decline

Stephen Fay, who died on 12 May, was a distinguished journalist who enjoyed a long and varied career, notably as a writer on the Sunday Times in the Harold Evans era and later as deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday.

He also enjoyed a long love affair with Venice, ever since the great flood of 1966, and in 1976 wrote The Death of Venice with his Sunday Times colleague Philip Knightley, detailing the corruption and inefficiency that had dogged the attempts to revive the city. He returned to the subject in an article for The Critic after the latest disastrous flood hit Venice in November 2019, in what turned out to be his last major piece of journalism. We republish it now as a tribute to him.

Robert Low, Executive Editor of The Critic

Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, is on its knees. The second-highest tide in its history on 12 November was “a blow to the heart of our country”, said Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, who promises action. The diminishing population of the historic centre of the city surrounded by its lagoon have heard it all before. The threat of a disastrous flood is always with them now: the grande paura — the great fear. 

The atmospheric high tides of November are always a threat to Venice, but on that day the sirocco was blowing unusually hard (100km an hour) up the Adriatic, pressing the sea towards the lagoon. A second wind, the Brora from the east, was whipping up huge waves in the lagoon itself. The tide was measured at 178cm above normal calm, only four centimetres less than the highest tide of all time, in 1966.

There was a dramatic example of the disconnect between politics and reality on that same November evening. The regional government which embraces Venice was meeting in its palazzo on the Grand Canal to decide whether to accept several measures to combat climate change. But what sounded like a good idea was voted down. Shortly after the politicians left for home, an example of climate change, in the form of flood water, swamped the chamber. 

Early estimates of damage to the city concentrated on buildings, such as churches. No fewer than 50 had been damaged, and the human dimension gets forgotten. High tides are a horror story, especially for people who are unfamiliar with Venice. Ella Ide, a reporter for Agence France Press (AFP), had been covering a men’s fashion show among the Tintorettos in the Scuola San Rocco. As they were tucking into chocolate pudding, they learned that flood water was climbing fast up the steps of the Scuola and were advised to scarper.

But the unwary AFP team wanted to film the flood waters in St Mark’s Square. Trouble was that the only clue they had to its location was that it lay the other side of the Grand Canal. “It was scary,” Ella recalls. They plunged into waist-high water that was cold and thick with sewage. Swirling café tables and chairs got in the way. Electric light was sporadic and high water meant that they could not distinguish between the pavement and a canal.  When they finally reached the Grand Canal, lost and wet, they glimpsed fellow journalists boarding a river taxi, the only transport left in the city, and ran, shouting desperately, after it. Back at the hotel, the front door was blocked, and Ella reached safety by clambering through a broken window. 

The record tide of 184cm in November 1966 was the catastrophe that eventually persuaded politicians in Rome that gates were needed at the three entrances to the lagoon to hold back the water from the highest tides. But action was slow. Decades of bad-tempered debate meant that work began on the gates only in 2003, with completion scheduled for 2011. That was postponed to 2014, then 2016. 

In Venice corruption is a way of life

A project desirable in principle had become a victim of corruption, bribery, greed and incompetence. By November 2019 the 78 gates and their 156 hinges were either rotting in the water or rusting if they were still on land. Completion is now forecast to be in 2022. 

The 1966 flood had revived determination by some dedicated Venetians and friends in committees abroad to restore and conserve it as it had been over the centuries: “com’era, dov’era” — as it was, where it was. The historian the late Lord Norwich and the late Sir Ashley Clarke, a former diplomat, set up Venice in Peril then, along with similar charities from abroad which came together in a campaign to save Venice. The conflict between conservation and modernity — meaning that new buildings could replace the old — began 150 years ago. Since then the debate has been won by conservationists, but the floods are altering the balance.

In the half century since 1966 Venice has become the world’s leading tourist attraction, drawing more than 20 million visitors a year who pour money into the city’s hotels, restaurants, bars and coffee shops. There is now no time of the year when tourists on the major thoroughfares between San Marco and the railway station are not crowded, shoulder to shoulder.

Enthusiasts are starting to wonder what Venice is for. In contrast to the masculinity of Florence, the Serenissima, as it was known until Napoleon ended the independent empire in 1797, has been treated like a woman of whom people are inordinately fond (Henry James). The city succumbed to a sense of fatalism that has escaped Florence. “Venice has become a city without a role, colonised by tourists and Milanese industrialists,” says one of the disenchanted.

Venetians have become expert at exploiting the curiosity, affection, love even, it inspires in visitors.  The Carnival, for example, celebrates the end of eating meat before a Lenten fast. When I first went to Venice in the early 1970s, Carnival was an occasion for small girls to dress in ballet tutus and wave a wand. Within 20 years, it had become an institution attracting tourists in tens of thousands and supporting shops that sold faintly obscene masks to visitors. One of the delights of the city used to be to visit in the depth of winter when the campi (squares) and the calles (streets) were empty. By the turn of the century Venice expected to be full to bursting all year. 

When Pink Floyd gave a concert in 1989, more than 100,000 spectators crowded into St Mark’s Square. It looked like a football match happening in a museum

The figure at the centre of the most blatant attempts to monetise Venice was a plump, vain, Venetian-born socialist politician named Gianni De Michelis, who became Italy’s foreign secretary for three years between 1989 and 1992. Known in Venice as “il porco”, De Michelis enthusiastically supported a plan to separate the historical centre into two zones, one to be conserved, the other to be developed. Venice-lovers from London were especially vocal among the critics from abroad.  

De Michelis then pushed hard to have Venice named as host of Expo 2000. Each summer’s day would have been as crowded as a pop concert. He popped up again to support the idea of a subway system, called the Metropolitana.  Fears that it would weaken the wooden foundations on which the city stands in the lagoon ended that proposal.

De Michelis, who gradually lost to the conservationists, complained: “They would have us become between a Nubian monument and Disneyland.” His campaigning petered out when he was convicted of corruption involving road contracts in the Veneto. He was not the only one, of course. In Venice corruption is a way of life. In 2014, Giorgio Orsini, then Mayor of Venice, was convicted of bribery for filching funds from the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the organisation set up to build the gates at the lagoon entrances. Simultaneously, 35 employees of the Consorzio were accused of crimes such as letting contracts without competition and accepting substandard steel. 

Almost worst of all are the vast ocean cruise liners that move at a stately pace down the Giudecca Canal on their way to the harbour, dwarfing Santa Maria della Salute, the largest church in the city. Passengers from these ships do not linger in Venice but they sharply increase the daily volume of tourists. The city is awash with visitors, and Venetian politicians have been reluctant to act to control the numbers. A small fee is to be levied from next summer on day-trippers, but numbers will only be significantly reduced by more decisive initiatives.

When Pink Floyd decided to give a concert in 1989, more than 100,000 spectators crowded into St Mark’s Square. It looked like a football match happening in a museum. A Venetian wit described the concert as “the most brutal aggression since the invasion by Napoleon”, but the fabric of the city is old and vulnerable. and the over the years well-organised campaigns have been able to stop the more extreme proposals to maximise commercial profit. 

Jonathan Keates, Venice in Peril’s current chairman, identifies the latest floods as “a critical moment”. Only a few weeks before November’s high tides the international Save Venice groups confirmed that their priority would be the care and conservation of small art objects rather than whole buildings, but that idea is now being questioned. 

Constant flooding suggests that it is the inhabitants rather than buildings that deserve protection, and Keates senses a need for change, conscious that some of the many people who have loved the place, and dedicated their time and money to it, are wondering whether it is worth the effort. 

Keates says that though Venice in Peril is a conservation charity, maybe it should become concerned with social issues, such as depopulation. In 1966 there were 100,000 Venetians in Venice, but the number has halved to 52,000, and the impact of this is visually obvious. Many restaurants, bars and newspaper kiosks are run by Chinese immigrants.

In 50 years no significant sums have been spent on improving social housing, putting in decent heating and drying out rooms well enough to enable wallpaper to stay put. “I think we should revive the whole social idea,” says Keates. 

Venice is sinking is still sinking very slowly. But the alta acqua comes more frequently and gets higher; fierce winds are more common. These are the symptoms of climate change, and if nothing is done about them, Byron’s forecast might prove right: 

O Venice, Venice! When thy marble walls 

Are level with the waters, 

There shall be a cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,

A loud lament along the sweeping sea!

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