Venice: A Drowning City
That Venice has survived over a thousand years is itself a miracle. Utterly improbable in the first place, people only settled in the marshy, malaria-infested lagoon out of desperation. One step ahead of the Huns and other Germanic invaders, the refugees from terra firma believed that nobody—not even the barbarian horde– would be mad enough to follow them to such a waterlogged place.
From this start in the fifth century, over time a great city would grow out of the water. This was the second miracle: for what the ingenious refugees did was to drive countless sharpened planks, made of alder, oak, and larch, down into the soil under the water. Then, upon this inverted forest of logs, they laid a foundation of water-impervious marble. They knew that as long as this layer was not breached by the salty waters, the palaces and churches made of brick, wood and plaster would be safe. But should the waters rise above the marble, it would be impossible to stop the destruction.
And this is precisely what is now happening. Known as the acqua alta, what was once an occasional calamity, is now part of life in the lagoon. Not directly caused by tidal fluctuations, as some people think, the high waters are triggered by wind-driven storms in the Adriatic. These seasonal winds push ocean water relentlessly into the lagoon basin. And when this coincides with the normal high tides, it can cause tremendous flooding.
The lagoon used to have natural defenses against this– in the form of sea grasses and sediment. But the creation of deep navigation channels for large-scale shipping, as well as the dumping of toxic waste by factories into the water has resulted in the destruction of these natural protectors. It is sobering since it could have been avoided. And as the Venetians point out: Just think what will happen with rising sea levels due to global warming?
I was 19 when I first saw Venice. My college boyfriend and I had taken an overnight train from Vienna and arrived in the mist of early morning. We were on our way home after spending three months in India, where we had seen our fill of wonders. But nothing could have prepared me for my first glimpse of the fabled city. First of all, I hadn’t expected the Grand Canal to be right outside the train station! Boarding a vaporetto, I sat speechless. The canal was shimmering like a vision from a dream. Church bells were peeling, heard just above the loud din of the boats, and everywhere I looked: marble palaces stood crumbling into the water. I vividly remember my heart racing as I looked around, not believing the place was real.
“A wonder of the world,” my boyfriend had called it on the train from Vienna.
When I at last found my voice, I asked, “Why don’t we live here? Why does anyone live anywhere else?”
He just laughed.
That was in 1990.
So many years have passed, and yet I never stopped dreaming of seeing the place again. Though I wondered if the anything was left of the Venice I had fallen in love some thirty years ago. So many tourists now, and so much must have changed, I thought. I also wondered if I really wanted to trespass on Venice’s shores again? The city has enough troubles, after all. But then last summer, my husband’s work took us to Italy—not a stone’s throw away from Venice. And I decided to see it with my own eyes one last time.
The numbers are staggering. There are a hundred and forty tourists for every remaining Venetian resident. Apartments and palazzi turned into neighborhoods of Airbnbs, with residents so overwhelmed by outsiders that Venetians and longtime expats alike are fleeing the city in droves. The number of departing locals is said to have far exceeded the number of plague victims recorded during the deadly Black Death of the fifteenth century.
You have to ask, what does it mean when the majority of a city’s residents are tourists in transit? And that the tourists themselves are mainly day-trippers from cruise ships or from other spots in Northern Italy?
Is this hit and run tourism?
Seeing images of cruise ships towering above San Marco is surreal. The Venetians rightly cannot abide by it. And there are signs everywhere protesting these gigantic ships– since they bring nothing but pollution to the lagoon.
And there is also the sad beauty of the acqua alta itself. Even in its own dying, Venice draws people like a magnet. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising in a world where tourists visit the exclusion zones in Chernobyl and Fukushima that there would be people who would travel to Venice to take selfies knee-deep in water. It has a hauntingly beautiful quality—not unlike that vision of ruins covered in grass and wildflowers that had so captivated the romantics a century ago. These are the tears of things.
In Venice, neighborhoods are organized around a central square –called a campo—Each campo is itself centered around a water cistern. And this is the third miracle. In a place with absolutely no fresh water source, the brilliant Venetians built a system of water cisterns that could store and filter rainwater—enough to support the entire population of the lagoon dwellers. For centuries, whenever rain fell on Venice’s campi, the water would be funneled along small gutters leading into a cistern where it would then be filtered using a unique system of clay and bricks. For centuries, this system was maintained and improved by the people.
I wondered about why a square in Venice were known as campo–for shouldn’t they be called piazza? On a walking tour, I learned that the reason is because campo in Venetian means “a field,” and these were the places where neighbors grew food. Once there were even cows and grape vines growing in the campi of Venice.
It’s hard to believe Venetians ever produced wine in the first place. How could anyone grow wine on islands often flooded by a salty lagoon? After all, when the Romans wanted to destroy Carthage, what did they do? After burning the city and enslaving the survivors, they sowed the land with salt—thereby cursing future inhabitation forever. Salt and crops just don’t mix. But in Venice, despite its salty precariousness, people have grown grapes for almost a thousand years. And one of those grapes, the Dorona di Venezia, is the stuff of legend. Prized by doges and aristocrats for centuries, the golden grape was eventually wiped out in the disastrous 1966 flood, when Venice lost so much of her agriculture to the sea.
What a miracle it must have been. I read about how aristocrats used to display bowls of Dorona grapes as status symbols in their grand drawing rooms. A lost taste, I had thought, until I learned that a famous Italian wine family had resurrected the legendary grape. Detrermined to taste this golden wine, I boarded the Vaporetto 12 at Venice’s Fondamente. It was early summer, when that year’s biennale had brought even greater numbers of tourists to hot and crowded Venice. The trip to Mazzorbo Island, where the vineyards are located, takes about thirty minutes from the main island.
Before arriving at Mazzorbo, the vaporetto makes a brief stop at the northernmost island of Torcello. In many ways, this was a journey to the beginnings of Venice itself. Nowadays, Torcello is mainly ignored by tourists, but it was on this island that the first refugees from terra firma took refuge. A beautiful 7th century Byzantine-style basilica on the island attests to its early origins. And it was in the basilica garden on Torcello, where winemaker Gianluca Bisol (of prosecco fame) happened upon a grapevine growing wild: the Dorona grape.
From the island of Torcello, it is about five minutes more by boat to Mazzorbo. This was where Bisol, ignoring consultants who had strongly advised against it, bought an abandoned vineyard and started planting vines. Only thirty minutes from the relentless crowds of the Piazza San Marco, it feels a thousand miles away. In this historic walled vineyard, with its slightly leaning 15th-century bell tower, neat rows of grapevines give way to a garden of aromatic herbs and vegetables. Wandering around the grounds, stopped to examine some castraure, small Venetian artichokes, grown heavy on their stalks. Kneeling down to inspect the soil, we saw that it was strewn with small shells.
The sea is that close.
In centuries past, on Ascension Day, the Doges of Venice would perform a ceremony they called, “the marriage to the sea.” Dropping consecrated wedding rings into the waters of the lagoon, they would declare: Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii (“We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination”).
Venice’s declared domination of the sea came into question during that fateful flood that wiped out the dorona grapes in 1966. Acqua alta waters rose some seven feet, wiping out much of Venice’s agriculture. Streets were strewn with dead rats and pigeons and the city lacked electricity for days. This was the first real wake-up call that Venice got.
Before we left Venice, we went on a lagoon ecology tour. Our guide, a young scientist from a nearby university, showed us the ways the Venetians have coped with these rising waters. In many areas, the first floors of buildings had been abandoned, with families dwelling solely on the upper floors of buildings. In districts located on higher areas, steel barriers are being installed in doorways so that residents are forced to step over foot high bulwarks into their homes. In many places the grounds have been raised leading to stunted doorways in which one has to stoop in order to enter a shop or home.
The city has also put in place a system of warning sirens to alert citizens when the waters are expected and how bad it will be. We installed an app on our phones that tracks the daily tides, which my husband checked obsessively.
After walking from one end of the city to the other in which we crossed countless bridges, we then took a boat out to see the much-debated MOSE project. MOSE is an experimental barrier system that should –theoretically– be able to temporarily seal the lagoon from the ocean. Similar water barrier systems have been relatively successful in other flood-vulnerable cities, like London, Rotterdam and St. Petersburg. Designed to protect Venice and the lagoon from tides of nearly ten feet, the gates are located between the Lido, Malamocco, and Chioggia inlets, and when raised should be able to isolate the Venetian Lagoon temporarily from the Adriatic Sea.
Unfortunately, the project has been mired in problems and corruption, as Venice continues to drown.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 novel from 2017, New York is also a drowning city. It is a future world of climate disaster, with the “First Pulse” seeing the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, leading to a ten-foot rise in global sea-levels. This was followed by further melting at the Aurora Basin in East Antarctica, causing cascading melting around the world’s ice sheets, leading to a further forty feet rise in sea water.
In this not-so-futuristic world, morning commuters board crosstown vaporetti after rising waters have turned Manhattan into a waterlogged city of endless canals. And unlike in Venice, the waters freeze-over—totally stopping traffic– in winter. Just like now, New York City 2140 suffers staggering inequality. Hedge-fund millionaires weave in and out of shipping lanes in their private speedboats, as kids who can’t read ferry people around a half-submerged Chelsea in their gondolas. The New York City of the novel is described as a “Super Venice.”
In other recent dystopian fiction, we find images of Venice everywhere. In Karen Russell’s short story “Gondoliers,” three teenage sisters– who also can’t read– ply the toxic waters of the Florida Keys to shuttle paying passengers around in a flooded and environmentally destroyed Florida. The water is so toxic it is considered deadly. And the sisters really shouldn’t be living there, floating around in their “gondolas.”
We see this again in Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut novel Bangkok Wakes for Rain. Rising sea waters have breached Bangkok’s Chao Praya Riverbanks and the surrounding land turned marshy and inhabitable. The rich are seen heading to higher ground, as illiterate teenagers ferry the wealthy around in their gondolas. In this futuristic Bangkok, people commute on vaporetti that traverse the canals.
The watery world of Venice is so beautiful shimmering in the moonlight—even as it is dying. With its elegant arcades and columns, can’t this be where good Americans go to die? Oh, those “marble shores,” and the unmistakable sound of the SWOOSH of the pigeons in the piazza, the putt-putt-putting of the vaporetti, the ringing church bells, the magic of the light, reflected by the shivering water.
For a thousand years Venice has been drowning. And for a thousand years the Venetians have been pushing back against rising waters. From the heroic preservation of her churches and works of art—it contains after all, one of the best collections of art on the planet—to its agriculture and wine growing in a salty marsh, everything about Venice feels like a miracle. An overcoming. A triumph of human striving—even in the midst of what can only be described as a slowly worsening disaster.
And this is no longer Venice’s disaster alone. Global warming has forced us all in the same boat now.
Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film. Her creative writing has appeared in Kyoto Journal, River Teeth/Beautiful Things, Hedgehog Review, Entropy, the Dublin Review of Books, the Pasadena Star newspaper, Sky Island Journal, etc. She also has a monthly column at the science and arts blog 3 Quarks Daily. Forthcoming essays in Pleiades Magazine and the Gulf Coast Journal. https://www.leanneogasawara.com/profile.html