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.

But it is obvious that Mestre and Marghera will not quietly accept restrictions and limitations. They can’t stand still while oil tankers and ore ships are getting steadily bigger. If their growth is bad for Venice, then so much the worse for Venice. The demonstration of the port workers was part of this fight. Port workers don’t have cushy jobs, but Italy doesn’t have enough jobs, of any sort to be casual about them. Mestre and Marghera are in fact little islands of full employment in a sea of economically distressed districts throughout northeast Italy.

A man without work in Italy is strongly tempted to leave wife and family, migrate to Switzerland or Germany, live in a barracks there, and come home once a year at Christmas. Not a very satisfactory arrangement, but it may well be the consequence, for the workers, of a law that would choke off their ports, their workshops, and their jobs in order to “Save Venice.” It is not uncommon to find that when the bourgeoisie have been especially; idealistic about something, they generously arrange to have the working man pay for it. No wonder, for the unions and their political allies, the saving of Venice is a “padronale” scheme, a device of the bosses.

Just here we encounter half-truths and exaggerations and specious false talk. The “Save Venice” arguments are almost all based on the vision of high-minded and serious students coming to Venice in the footsteps of Ruskin, seeking the beautiful and humane vision of the past. The realities of the Lido and Harry’s Bar are something else again. There are students who hunt through the back alleys, and press hundred lire pieces into the hands of dank sacristans in the hope of getting a little light on a Tiepolo or a Guardi. But they aren’t many, they aren’t affluent, and they aren’t the people for whom Venice is going to be saved. The average tourist comes to Venice during July and August; he stays for about four days. He has souvenirs to buy, the Bridge of Sighs to see, the usual tourist formulas to fulfill. Is the Venice he experiences one for which a hoarse-voiced heavy-handed working man should be asked to sacrifice himself? Not, in my view, for a minute.

Then there is the real “padronale” crowd, the international set who keep, among other properties, a pied à terre in Venice, a town house, or a floor of a palazzo. How many such people there are I do not know, but there are plenty and they make themselves felt. The owners aren’t there out of season; servants keep an eye on things while the boss makes money in Stuttgart or spends it on the Algarve. For some reason Venice is attractive to this crowd in spite of the terrible climate, the sparse night life, the scarcity of proper domestic help. Some aura lingers from the days when the Princess of Spain used to descend from her personal gondola at San Marco with two little Nubian boys to hold up her train, days when the gondoliers caroled back and forth across the lagoon in stanzas adapted from Tasso or Ariosto.

Though it includes many sincere and thoughtful people, “Save Venice” is also an international high-society enthusiasm. To judge it entirely on this basis is doubtless unfair, but a worker who is threatened with the loss of his job is not likely to make a fair and dispassionate judgment. For him, “Save Venice” looks like a bourgeois swindle. Apologists tell him he can become a healthy, carefree fisherman when the lagoon is no longer so contaminated; they say the tourist season can be stretched out with special festivals. But you can’t convert a dock hand or a steel roller overnight into a fisherman, and you probably can’t make him a headwaiter at all. So what it comes down to is that if you shut down his ugly port and stinking shops, he’s got to go. To him it’s a swindle.

But there is also much counter-swindling by the poor-but-honest workmen. There are not only Venetians who work in Mestre and Marghera, there are inhabitants of terra firma who commute into Venice. Destroy the city as a tourist attraction, and you destroy the livings of shopkeepers and art dealers, gondoliers, craftsmen, cooks, concierges, boutique owners, travel agents, glass blowers—a network of small employers and domestic industries. Many of these people aren’t mobilized in unions and can’t be marched through the streets on demand, shouting slogans; but they may well be more numerous than the marchers.

Besides, the gain in jobs to be anticipated from the expansion of Mestre-Marghera isn’t so great as the workers and their vocal friends pretend. The biggest of the industries established in those wretched swamps is the “chemical” industry which processes petroleum; it is highly automated already, and getting more so all the time. The plants envisaged for Zone Three (and still more, those in Zones Four, Five, and Six) will have hardly a worker in them; and what jobs there are will doubtless be given (because these aren’t in any sense local companies, they are all international super-combines) to people from outside the area, but with seniority in the organization.

Finally, and with most blatant hypocrisy, the union men talk about the sacred principles of regional autonomy which will be violated by the special law to protect Venice from abuse of the common environment. Nonsense. If there is one thing the Venetian lagoon has too much of, it’s regional autonomy. What it needs is a plan that will enable the most precious and imperiled part of the lagoon to survive, even if that means some restriction on the other parts.

In thus classifying the city of Venice as the most precious part of the lagoon, I am of course making an “elitist” judgment and one too fundamental really to be argued. The great Tiepolo frescoes on the walls and ceilings of Palazzo Labia speak for themselves. If industrial countries can’t preserve things like that, but must sacrifice them to an oil-cracking plant (which even the men who must live and work in it view with loathing), then our world has become so insane that there’s no use thinking about it. But to save Venice, must the men of Mestre and Marghera be cast into outer darkness? Not, one hopes, at all.

Like most other vague American liberals, I want the best of all possible omelets without breaking any eggs. And I have a liberal fantasy of a little school at Mestre retraining unemployed dockers for clean and useful occupations in cities of their choice. While the basic plants at Mestre and Marghera lasted, they could continue in operation, but of course with antipollution devices (whoever would pay for them). An offshore oil-loading platform might be connected by pipeline to the shore, so that the biggest tankers needn’t enter the lagoon at all. The fantasy includes, also, a commission to look into the handling of containerized cargo, perhaps gaining in this tidy was a compensation for tankers which might be diverted to Trieste or Ravenna or somewhere else. And of course there would be sea gates on the three entryways to the lagoon.

We would establish a second major art museum, in which would be displayed (with proper lighting and on a rotating basis) some of those paintings which are now hidden in dark churches or stored in lumberyards because the church in which they belong is being restored or is too decayed even for restoration. This would double the cultural appeal of Venice and make possible, for the first time, a real appreciation of Venetian art, which depends so heavily on color. Lighting in the Accademia itself might be possible, too, where on dark days some of the world’s greatest paintings are mere rectangles of murky gloom.

Unhappily, however, the real decisions about Venice will be made, not by watery well-wishers, but by the present government of Italy—or, to speak more properly, by that suspicious, furtive, fearful, and stupid conspiracy which masquerades as a government. Its decisions can’t help being “padronale” in one way or another. The big oil companies are quite as interested as the unions in continuing policies that will destroy Venice and the possibility isn’t to be overlooked that the companies themselves were behind the demonstrations of the unions, behind even the positions taken by the parties on the alleged “left.” What would be more to their interest than “spontaneous” demonstrations by the Venetians themselves against the special law that would inhibit their predatory and highly profitable operations?

It’s an old story in Marghera that nobody there is getting rich from the operation. In the plant, everyone is on salary; the big money goes—and here one points vaguely at the ceiling—up there. If there are demonstrations of “poor but honest” working men, shouting in all sincerity against the bosses but acting palpably in their interest, can one suppose that the big boys “up there” are just lucky? Didn’t they maybe encourage this happy coincidence of interest? Show their gratitude? A little before the event?

One of the camouflage devices most frequent in Italian social life is a slogan fight. The slogan fight always looks very real. For example, the PCI (communists) on the left denounces the MSI (neofascists) on the right; there are counterdenunciations, the two groups raid each others’ headquarters, bully-boys fight in the streets. They seem to be mortal enemies. But that is only in the north; in the south, the two groups share quite placidly in the government of Sicily.

This adjustment is less difficult than it appears, because the real government in Sicily isn’t the PCI or the MSI or the Christian-Democratic coalition that goes through the parliamentary motions in Rome. It is the Mafia. The Mafia is the government in Sicily, there is in effect no other. To some undetermined extent, it is a silent partner of the present Italian government in Rome, where known mafiosi and murderers sit with impunity on the legislative benches and pretend to indulge in serious political debate on the future of the nation. Nobody knows for sure how far Mafia influence extends, and discreet public officials don’t try to find out. It is much safer to take part in the political Punch-and-Judy show, with “fascists” bashing “communists” and vice versa, while real men crouch behind the dummy stage, pulling the strings and ventriloquizing the speeches. What’s in it for them has got to be big money.

Whether the Mafia is as big in Rome as people say, how far it extends into the north, I don’t know. And really, as far as Venice is concerned, it doesn’t matter. For in this government by conspiracy, intrigue, and counter-intrigue, one gang’s power leaves off only where another’s begins. So that, one way or another, the decision about Venice is going to be made—in fact, is being made, right now—largely by men with the mentality of gangsters, or robber barons, if that terminology seems nicer. The marks of these tuggings and haulings (with now and then some twisting and throttling for emphasis) are plain to be read in the record. Between violent charge and countercharge the public hearings on Venice are deadlocked; their purpose is simply to kill time and distract attention while the real conniving goes on backstage.

Occasionally a public official will change his mind overnight from violent support of the special law on Venice to violent opposition; he won’t bother offering an explanation, and none is really necessary. Between unions, politicians, employers, and their own all-too-real fears, the workers have been hammered into a state of hysteria. When the Ministry of Labor recently found that they were being poisoned and should wear gas masks at work, the workers themselves protested—saying in effect that they weren’t being poisoned, and besides they wanted to be poisoned, and that gas masks prevented them from breathing in those healthful acids, hydrocarbons, and dust particles to which they had grown accustomed.

After due deliberation, the mayor of Venice himself joined in opposition to the “Save Venice” movement, not forgetting to demand, with elegant logic, that all the “Save Venice” money, if there is to be any, must be his to spend. A little satirical book was published recently, describing a number of ingenious ways to destroy Venice. As so often happens, the parody has been outstripped by reality.

Behind all this froth and public furor, I suppose the serious work is going on of gutting the bill to save Venice, castrating it, stuffing it with straw, providing it with rubber teeth, glass eyes, and a painted smile, and sending it forth in the world. A minimum law will doubtless emerge one of these days that makes the government look ignobly decent and entitles them to take foreign “Save Venice” money while appropriating as little of their own tax money as they can possibly get away with. The law will have enough loopholes, delays, and special conditions in it to allow the Mestre-Marghera combines to develop exactly as they choose for the next twenty or thirty years.

The unions and their leftist colleagues will be allowed to think they’ve won a great victory over the bosses. Plastic flowers will be placed on the graves of those workers who die of lung disease. And thanks to modern restoring techniques, the craftsmanship of Italian workers whose devotion is beyond praise, and a great deal of foreign money, Venice and her art will undergo a great final period of appreciation before she disappears quietly, piece by rotten piece, into the filthy lagoon about the year 2,000.

This Issue

April 5, 1973