What a difference a year makes. On October 16, 2013, Giorgio Orsoni, then mayor of Venice, was shaking hands with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the leader of a boastful delegation aimed at selling the excellence of the city’s flood protection barriers. Besides attending a concert by Venice’s Fenice opera orchestra, he and members of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the group of large Italian engineering and construction companies (Mantovani, Fincosit, Condotte, Mazzi, CCC, Grandi Restauri) building the barriers, presented the project to New York’s Department of City Planning and Storm Recovery Resources Center, partly to share expertise and partly to sell the engineering skills of the companies involved.
Now Orsoni is no longer mayor but under arrest for accepting illegal election funding, and the former president of the Consorzio is also under arrest. A system of corruption and clientage so pervasive that it reached even into the Patriarchate of Venice has been uncovered. Although on a more local scale, it is the most extravagant case of corruption since the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) revelations between 1992 and 1994 that brought an end to Italy’s First Republic. Five hundred agents of the finance police have been involved in the investigations since 2009 and in the arrests that began with a dawn raid on July 12, 2013. Currently there are thirty-five people under house arrest or in detention and a hundred under official warning of investigation, and they are of every political party except the separatist Northern League.
The story begins with the great flood of November 4, 1966, when a storm surge invaded the lagoon and water rose thigh-high in St. Mark’s Square. The Italian government woke up to the fragility of this wonderful city, and the idea of closing off the lagoon from time to time was born in 1975. After various projects were considered and rejected, the job of both devising and executing barriers was given exclusively to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova in 1984. This monopoly has been at the bottom of much of the subsequent trouble and bitter argument.
The barriers are designed to stop floodwaters from the Adriatic from entering the lagoon, are about 80 percent complete, and are due to be operational in 2016. They are known by the acronym Mose (Italian for Moses) and are the biggest experimental engineering project being built in Europe. They consist of seventy-eight hinged gates at the three entrances into the lagoon from the Adriatic: nineteen at the port of Malamocco; eighteen at the port of Chioggia, and two sets, of twenty-one and twenty gates respectively, linked by an artificial island, at the Lido entrance (see the map).
These hollow gates, 10 centimeters…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.