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Can Venice Be Saved?

What “Saving Venice” means became a problem for me Friday morning, November 17, a cold gray day. With the wind blowing hard down the Grand Canal from the harbor off Salute, a disorderly, cheerful, hoarsevoiced tangle of men, all squat and square in the Venetian style, wearing duffle coats and turtleneck sweaters, gathered under a red flag. A young fellow with a bullhorn gave the cue, and they responded: “Padroni…baroni…fuori i coglioni!” which might be loosely translated,

The bosses, the owners, whatever you call ‘em
The best thing to do is just to de-ball ‘em

These were the port workers of Mestre, Marghera, and Venice, assembled by their trade unions and the political parties which represent those unions. They were protesting against the special law for the protection of Venice, recently passed by the Senate in Rome and just then coming up for consideration by the House; their point was that it was a measure devised by the bosses, for the benefit of the bosses, and against the interests of the working man. Working men they most certainly and obviously were.

All Venetian parades are a trifle comic, since the streets are more than six feet wide only from time to time, and so twisty that you can rarely see more than a few yards ahead. Still, as the crowd headed from Accademia across the Canal and up to Ca’ Giustinian, they made a show of it, with whistles, rattles, and the bullhorn to hold them together. In the end, there were several thousand of them, good humored but with an air of truculence, pushing their way from several different directions into the auditorium.

Their numbers were as much a surprise as their attitude. The special law would authorize the spending of millions of dollars, much of it raised abroad by international committees of culturally minded philanthropists, to redeem Venice from the ravages of time. Before passing it, the Senate had talked about the law interminably; other sections of Italy, I supposed, might be reluctant to spend millions on a single city, but the Venetians themselves would surely be eager for whatever salvation large quantities of money could buy. Yet here they were, protesting in large numbers against being saved. Their protests seem to have had some effect, for in the months since November 17, the special law has moved backward rather than forward through the thick jungle of the legislature.

Venetian hostility to a law aimed at preserving Venetian culture may have struck me as particularly odd since I had just been reading in Machiavelli and Ariosto bitter complaints against the way foreign barbarians were destroying Italian civilization. This parade looked like a gang of native Italian barbarians protesting the efforts of civilized foreigners to preserve something of their cultural heritage.

Venice lost much of her sea empire in the early sixteenth century, and most of her land empire, a little at a time, over the next two centuries. Napoleon wiped her out as an independent state. But until recently she still dominated, by force of money and numbers, the people of the lagoon within which she lies. Since the war, that is no longer true. Venice has declined in population, while new communities have grown up, especially in Mestre and Marghera across the lagoon—districts that the Venetians refer to generically as “terra firma.”

The changing population pattern is no more than one would expect. Venice is a medieval city. Living in it is inconvenient at best and sometimes painful. When the climate is not hot and sticky, it is raw, cold, and wet. Grass, trees, and open spaces are scarce, automobiles nonexistent. Many houses lack central heating, many lack a private bath. Meat and produce, carted across the lagoon in boats, cost more in Venice. Finally, while there is little modern industry in Venice, there is plenty of it on terra firma, and that means jobs. Of the people living on or around the lagoon, only about a third live in Venice proper; a scant sixth live on the various other islands and sand bars of the lagoon; and better than 50 percent live on terra firma, mostly in Mestre and Marghera. As anyone knows who has come to Venice by train or autostrada, these towns are heavily and hideously industrialized. Gary, Indiana, and Passaic, New Jersey, are the places that come to mind. It is mainly to protect frail, elderly Venice from her tough and swaggering young neighbors that the special law is being invoked. And it was against such protection that the port workers were protesting.

Ecologists will assume that pollution of air and water are the basic issues, but that is scanting the problem. The water of the lagoon is fearfully polluted, and industrial wastes contribute largely. But by the time these wastes have been carried across the channel to Venice, they contribute little to the corruption generated by Venice herself. The city is an ancient and shameless polluter, she stands in a pool of filth, mostly of her own making. If foul water could bring Venice down, she would have sunk centuries ago. Pollution of the air is a newer and more serious problem. It is not the thick cloud of reddish-brown dust rising over the steel mills that matters so much as the acids and corrosive gases discharged into the air by petroleum-cracking processes. There is acid from Marghera in the air, which is a frightful affliction in Marghera itself, and which corrodes the stones of Venice. But as the prevailing winds are the other way, and as devices exist for cleaning or capturing the emissions, air pollution isn’t the central problem.

Nor is the alleged lowering of the ground level as a result of deep-well drilling for industrial water on terra firma. Perhaps this is taking place, but not at a dramatic rate, for thousand-year-old structures around the lagoon don’t show any radical change in the relative level of sea and land. And for this problem too there are palliatives and perhaps cures, such as getting water from rivers or pumping other fluids subsoil as the water is drawn out. But the problem is very technical and it involves very long-term considerations. The real problem of Venice lies closer to hand and it is short-term—a matter of twenty or thirty years, not of geologic time.

The lagoon itself is the heart of the problem. It has three entrances, two relatively small ones at Lido and Chioggia, one big new one (less than 100 years old) at Malamocca. To make way for oil tankers, ore ships, and passenger liners, these entrances have been widened and deepened, and channels have been dredged in the soft bottom of the lagoon. Through these passageways the tidal waters which build up at the end of the Adriatic rush faster and with less hindrance than they used to. Further, pollution of the lagoon has led to the abandonment and silting-up of various channels and pools where shell fish and other marine life used to be farmed, and which provided partial reservoirs for the flood tides. Finally, the new industrial developments encroach, or will encroach, seriously on the total area of the lagoon. The first and second zones of industrial construction have already done so; the third zone, in imminent prospect, will nearly double the encroachment. The fourth, fifth, and sixth zones—still only ugly blotches on a planner’s map—will obliterate the lagoon altogether by 2,002, less than thirty years from now.

The new industrial areas leave less room for the water to spread out; the new and deepened channels open the gates to flood waters which are pushed through, partly by tides, partly by winds. Mestre and Marghera have other ill effects on ancient Venice: pollution is one of them, and another is the vibration that all propeller-driven boats communicate to the water, and so to the ancient pilings on which Venice stands. But the repeated flooding, which makes walls crumble, foundations sag, and joints leach away, seems to be the major source of immediate trouble.

When Venice floods, fountains bubble up abruptly in San Marco from all the ducts built to carry off the rainwater. Shops and homes are flooded, sewers back up, and boats edge painfully under bridges that are now too low for practical passage. Where the water is deepest, trestles make their appearance; and while the pigeons die nastily here and there (sensitive to practically nothing else, they seem unable to stand much cold, brackish sewer water), people slosh about their business, not uncheerfully. For all the perils to the city, a flood is a family joke while it’s happening.

Flood tides used to be exceptional affairs. The Adriatic doesn’t generate tides like the Bay of Fundy, and Venice was protected by the Lido. Now the floods occur all the time, and often for several days in a row. November is the major flood season, and particularly destructive because it soaks Venice through, penetrating all the masonry with water just as winter is coming on with its freezing weather. Statues flake, stones split; chunks of masonry crash to the pavement or splash into the canals from churches and palazzi. The family joke starts to go sour when one watches the waves roll in from Giudecca Canal to smash against the beautiful church of the Gesuati, while on the opposite shore the entire altar and presbytery of the spectacular Gesuiti have to be roped off because the roof may at any movement cave in.

Some compromises are plainly possible. If the Mestre-Marghera complex were held to its present dimensions, or cut back somewhat while being cleaned up radically, then special gates to hold back flood tides might be built at the three entryways to the lagoon. They needn’t be shut more than a few hours at a time; but of course they would impose strict limits on the size of the vessels that could be accommodated. Malamocco, where the oil tankers and ore ships generally pass, would be hardest hit.

In other respects Venice can be and is being restored from the squalor and destitution of centuries. Almost all the physical work of this restoration is being done, and beautifully done by Italians; but a lot of money comes from foreign aid programs, American, English, and French. The Scuola di San Rocco Tintorettos are mostly visible now, freed from the centuries’ accumulation of grime, smoke, and varnish by the Edgar J. Kaufman Foundation of Pittsburgh. English money has contributed to the restoration of Santa Maria dell’Orto, and France has made contributions. Germany and the socialist countries are conspicuously uninterested, but progress is, nonetheless, being made against the slump and apathy of Venice.

If the Accademia still vies with Pitti Palace in Florence for the title of darkest and most awkwardly lit art gallery in Europe,* signs of life are evident elsewhere. For the visitor, this fact expresses itself in one potent statistic: of the many little churches and schools where the real glories of Venetian art are to be seen (far more widely diffused than in Florence), more are closed because they are “in restauro” than because they are in a state of imminent collapse. That is grounds for encouragement: But cleaning up the superstructure of the city will do little good if its substructure is every year disintegrating and eroding and crumbling into ruin.

  1. *

    It’s often hard for the cross visitor to recall that the visibility of paintings in a museum isn’t the only measure of a curator’s success. Americans are in no position to be patronizing. We know of curators who have failed to catalogue their paintings accurately, neglected their physical welfare, or have even sold them off on the quiet. These are depths beneath depths. On the other hand, even when a gallery is naturally ill-lit, something can be done to alleviate this by moving the pictures around and sharing out the inadequate light. There is a self-portrait by Andrea del Sarto in the Pitti that I have been hoping to see for almost forty years. No way. I shall go to my grave without any more sense of it than I can get by looking up a twenty-foot wall into a dark arch.

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