The disaster in Venice

After the flood, the terrible reckoning: this week it emerged that one of the most ancient churches of Venice, containing the city’s earliest remaining mosaics, had been hit by the tides that overwhelmed the city during the past week. The Byzantine Santa Maria Assunta Basilica, dating to 639, was inundated three times. Half of Venice’s 120 or so churches are thought to have suffered damage. The floodwaters affected 85% of the city, causing devastation to the shops, businesses, and homes of Venetians who struggle to preserve one of humanity’s most beautiful achievements as a living city.

Those residents have been grievously let down. Some disasters are unforeseeable. This one was all too predictable. Tides high enough to flood Venice were once exceptional events, but the 10 highest tides in its history occurred during the course of the last 20 years. The world’s seas are rising, due to the climate crisis, and Venice has anyway been sinking, by around 1mm a year, into the soft terrain on which its foundations were built.

Given this ominous context, the failure to complete a flood barrier project launched in 2003, which is now running 10 years behind schedule, shames the successive Italian governments that have overseen the plan. A corruption scandal, cost overruns, and muddled management mean it will not be in place until 2022 at the earliest. The inadequacy of the regional Veneto council, controlled by Matteo Salvini’s League, was vividly captured by its rejection of measures to tackle the climate crisis last week – a decision taken minutes before its chambers on Venice’s Grand Canal were filled with salt water. But the inquest into this disaster should have a remit that goes beyond flood prevention. The world has loved Venice without caring for it. The Piazza San Marco Association has observed that the city had become so depopulated that it would be difficult to find the electricians, plumbers, and carpenters needed to repair the damage. Venice, it said in a statement, “was moving ever closer to a real and irrevocable end”.

The local population now stands at around 55,000, down from 175,000 in the postwar period and around half of those residents are 65 or older. More than 1,000 Venetians leave for good each year. The intrusive nature of mass tourism, fuelled by the constant flow of cruise ships which damage and pollute the environment, has led to protests that the city is becoming a theme park.

Numerous properties are rented out to visitors through Airbnb, further hollowing out the center and rendering its labyrinthine streets all but impassable for much of the year. There has been much talk about solutions, but little meaningful action. On 1 December a consultative referendum will be held on whether to separate the administration of Venice from the mainland town of Mestre. The desirability of such a separation is moot, given the level of economic interdependency; that it is being contemplated at all indicates the current level of despair. A mission from the Unesco World Heritage Centre is due to make an advisory visit to Venice early next year. In the wake of last week’s events, that trip should now become a catalyst for action, with international assistance, to save the city for generations to come. This is a debt owed by the present to the past as well as the future.

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