Stefano De Luigi/VII

A cruise ship near the Piazza San Marco, Venice, May 2011

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).

Google/TerraMetrics/DigitalGlobe /Mike King

These hollow gates, 10 centimeters apart, 20 meters wide, 18.5 to 29 meters high, and 3.6 to 5 meters thick, normally lie unseen, full of water, in cement troughs on the lagoon bed. To raise them, a process that takes thirty minutes, the water is forced out by compressed air and they swing up on hinges, holding back the sea but leaning in toward the lagoon. To lower them the process is reversed. The gates can also be raised independently of one another to control the flow of water in and out of the lagoon. Between 1988 and 1992, the prototype of one element of the barriers was tested in the lagoon, but this did nothing to reduce tensions that had already arisen between those who wanted to see the restoration of the natural environment of the lagoon take priority over any major engineering work and those who wanted the barriers to be built quickly.

Opponents accused the Consorzio of choosing an elaborate and environmentally brutal option that would give it the largest profits, and the issue became politicized—a sure way for the true merits of any case to be marginalized—with the Green and Communist parties adding opposition to the barriers to their manifestos, claiming that MOSE would do irreparable damage to the lagoon and was neither “gradual, experimental, nor reversible,” as the law required. Since the town government of Venice was always made up of a left-wing coalition, this meant that it was always in the “no barriers” camp. The government called in five international experts, who approved the project in 1998, but by this time positions were so entrenched that reasoned discussion between the two sides was nearly impossible. The truth is that there should have been a properly integrated plan both to take account of the environmental imperatives and to protect the city from extreme events such as surging storms, but instead the question became, and has remained, polarized.

Over the years, the powerful Consorzio camp has managed to spread the message that any discussion of the seriousness of man-made damage to the lagoon from 1900 onward is unworldly crankiness. This has certainly contributed to a bad decision on August 8 by government over how to solve the problem of the giant cruise ships currently sailing through Venice. They will be brought into Venice from the back via a meandering lagoon channel, the Canale Contorta Sant’Angelo, which will have to be widened to 210 meters, deepened to 12 meters, and straightened. But there is plenty of reliable research to show that this will accelerate the rate of sediment outflow into the open sea, deepen the lagoon, and increase the frequency of flooding events in Venice. This is not the victory the No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships) activists were hoping for.


Members of the Consorzio became aggressively defensive toward any critics and some are charged with buying the support of anyone they thought would further their cause, while the then mayor of Venice, the philosopher Massimo Cacciari (untouched by this scandal), pronounced quite erroneously in the late 1990s that Venice did not need barriers at all to protect it from flooding.

Yet even after the recent revelations, Cacciari has spoken with admiration of the man charged with being behind the corruption, Giovanni Mazzacurati, the Puppetmaster, as the media have dubbed him. “He is a cultivated man, which is rare in this context,” Cacciari told a newspaper in June.

I have always admired him; I had a lot to do with him and before this investigation I would have said that he was law-abiding. I don’t believe he was motivated by greed. As an engineer, he was the only one to be completely in love with the project [Mose]. It was his mission in life and, as we’ve seen, he would do anything to see it completed.

Mazzacurati, eighty-two, Cavaliere di San Marco and Procuratore di San Marco (knight of Saint Mark and procurator of the Basilica of St. Mark’s—the two grandest Venetian honorifics), is a hydraulic engineer. As director general of the Furlanis Group from 1959 to 1983 he built airports, coastal defenses, and other major infrastructure projects in Italy and abroad, such as a dam in Sokoto, Nigeria, and projects in Saudi Arabia. He founded the Consorzio Venezia Nuova in 1983 and dominated it for the next thirty years, until his resignation on June 28, 2013, after the investigations caught up with him.

According to his own testimony, there is no doubt that it was he who was behind the system of buying support and influence and granting contracts without an open bidding process, although another key figure was Piergiorgio Baita, president of Mantovani engineering, a major component of the Consorzio, who has settled for a twenty-two-month jail sentence in exchange for telling all. From him we know about the slush fund—billions, not millions, of euros—that was provided through false invoicing by the companies building the project, with the surplus going into bank accounts in San Marino and elsewhere abroad. “You have to have saints in Paradise [to intercede for you],” he said during an interrogation.

After his arrest last year, Mazzacurati, secure in the knowledge that his great project had reached the point of no return, and seeing that the game was up, also became extraordinarily frank about how he bought supporters, stimulated funding, and suffocated opposition. He has certainly made a deal with the judiciary because he was let off with house arrest and allowed to go abroad for ninety days, to San Diego, where the Consorzio has a house. In any case, people of his age very rarely serve a jail sentence in Italy.

Venetians say with perverse admiration that he is not so much a pupil of the Jesuits as their teacher because he became the godfather of the city, full of benevolence toward those who bent to the Consorzio’s will. The Consorzio employed sons and daughters, financed research, topped up salaries, paid for holidays and lavish parties. Its influence made itself felt in every aspect of Venetian life as it subsidized publishing, backed exhibitions (a good one on the origins of the city has just had to be canceled because it will no longer get Consorzio money), financed the Fenice opera house, and helped Cardinal Patriarch Angelo Scola, a front-runner for the papacy at the last conclave, realize his dream of a theological university.

Some of this was corrupt in the strict sense; some was in the category of sponsorship, but all of it was misuse of taxpayers’ money on a grand scale. Since 2003, when the work on the barriers began, their cost has grown by 60 percent, from 3.4 billion euros to 5.5 billion euros in 2013. It is not known exactly how much of this was misspent, but Piergiorgio Baita estimates that it was something over one billion euros, while the town council in 2012 did a study that suggested it was closer to three billion.

According to Mazzacurati, here is a sampling of how the corruption worked. To Silvio Berlusconi’s crony Giancarlo Galan, former president of the Veneto region and just married to a buxom blond with whom he was setting up house on a grand scale, Mazzacurati gave a million euros a year in exchange for enthusiastic support of Mose. Galan’s privileges as a member of parliament have been suspended and he is in prison, awaiting trial.


Giorgio Orsoni was one of the city’s leading lawyers until he was elected mayor in 2010. Accusations against him were first made in July 2013, but he denied everything and did not resign until this June, after noisy protests against him in the town council’s palazzo at the Rialto. According to the prosecution at his initial hearing in June, he received between 400,000 and 500,000 euros from the Consorzio Venezia Nuova to finance his electoral campaign, knowing that the money came from false invoicing. Mazzacurati told the investigating magistrate that on at least one occasion he brought Orsoni an envelope full of cash.

This may explain a bizarre lacuna in the town council’s long-term management plan for the city, published last year for Unesco. It hardly touches on the question of sea level rise, saying that with the barriers the defense of Venice is covered for the rest of the century, a myth the Consorzio has carefully propagated. Its website says that it defends “Venice and the lagoon from floods of up to 3 meters and sea level rise of up to 60 centimeters over the next hundred years.”

Quite apart from the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—not cited in the city’s management plan—now foresees a rise of between 29 centimeters and 82 centimeters by the end of the century, up from the 18 centimeters to 59 centimeters predicted in 2007, the Consorzio will not admit that there are two separate but interconnected problems facing Venice: the floods and then the inexorably rising water level (the mean water level in the lagoon is already 30 centimeters above the level recorded in 1897).

There is no doubt that Venice needs barriers (although it need not necessarily have been this system). Not only is the city at risk of a disastrous storm surge like that in 1966, when the water reached 1.94 meters above mean water level, but smaller flooding events are happening ever more frequently. According to the governmental Servizio Laguna di Venezia: Bollettino Meteo-Mareografico for 2013, in 2010 the water rose to 80–109 centimeters above mean water level on 178 occasions, which affected St. Mark’s Square every time because it is the lowest-lying part of the city and floods when the water rises above 80 centimeters. That same year there were eighteen floods of 110 centimeters or more, and at 110 centimeters, 12 percent of the city is under water; at 120, 35 percent.

The graph of flooding events shows a gradual rise in their number from 1960 onward and a steeper rise from the mid-1990s, with two steep peaks in 2010 and 2013, and while it is fun to see children splashing around in front of the Basilica of St. Mark’s, the attrition of the fabric of the city, not to mention its livability, is very serious. The flooding must be stopped.

The truth, though, is that the barriers cannot save the city from the effects of the chronic rise in the mean water level, as opposed to the more acute events, except by being closed ever more often and, eventually, all the time. This is a prospect with vast environmental implications that would require decades of complex and politically challenging preparation that no one is even discussing at the moment.

Under Silvio Berlusconi’s government, which favored big infrastructure projects, money poured into the Mose project after construction began in 2003. But when it looked as though funds might be drying up, Mazzacurati describes how he visited Giulio Tremonti, the minister of finance. The conversation went well but to make doubly sure, Mazzacurati allegedly put 500,000 euros into a white box and took it to a meeting with Marco Milanese, Tremonti’s political adviser, and the financier Roberto Meneguzzo, to guarantee that Mose would get priority over other projects on the agenda of the interministerial finance committee. Both Milanese and Meneguzzo are under arrest, charged with corruption. Another half a million euros allegedly went to a now retired general of the finance police, Emilio Spaziante, who saw to it that investigations into the Consorzio’s tax affairs and the payment to Meneguzzo and Milanese went nowhere. He is also under arrest.

The Consorzio also paid to ensure that the building of Mose would not be subject to independent scrutiny. The Magistrato alle Acque (Magistracy of the Waters) is a body dating back to the sixteenth century and was one of the greatest offices of the Serene Republic, responsible for the maintenance of the lagoon on which the city’s defense and trade depended. Its unworthy successor, with the same name, is a branch of the Ministry of Public Works and it is supposed, like its historic predecessor, to look after the health of the lagoon and so supervise and test the work of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova.

Its last two incumbents, Patrizio Cuccioletta from 1999 to 2001 and again from 2008 to 2011, and Maria Giovanna Piva, from 2001 to 2008, singularly failed to do so. Both have been charged with being bought by the Consorzio, and are under arrest. Cuccioletta made his admission in June: “Mazzacurati said he would give me €200,000 a year until the end of my mandate and a few million euros thereafter. I was rather embarrassed but accepted.” The money was allegedly delivered to his home in cash, and the Consorzio also employed his daughter and gave work to his brother. The payback was that when there was an inspection of the work on Mose to be done, the inspectors were mostly chosen by the Consorzio, although to keep up appearances they were appointed by Cuccioletta.

It may matter a great deal that the Magistrato became the Consorzio’s poodle. In 2008, a report by the French firm Principia, specialists in the modeling of complex marine structures such as offshore platforms and their interaction with wave power, raised doubts about the stability of the Mose gates in irregular wave conditions; their angle of oscillation would allow water to enter the lagoon, the report says. Instead of debating the issue openly, the Magistrato produced a response in 2009 that challenged the validity of Principia’s analysis, but the evidence for this reply has never been published or submitted to independent scrutiny.

The all-important hinges of the gates may also be wrongly made; this is another criticism that has not been answered. In the original design they were to have been cast, but they have been soldered instead—a cheaper solution—and are more likely to break and will need costlier maintenance. The engineer on the Magistrato’s technical committee who drew attention to this was dismissed.

Perhaps the most shameless moment came when an important international conference, “The Future of Venice and Its Lagoon in the Context of Global Change,” organized for November 2011 by the then head of the Unesco office in Venice, Engelbert Ruoss, was canceled a few days before it was due to happen. Luigi D’Alpaos of Padua University, a distinguished lagoon scientist who has long pointed out the negative environmental implications of the barriers, and foreign scientists who do not “belong” to the Consorzio were due to speak. But the head of Unesco in Paris was allegedly put under pressure by a minister in Berlusconi’s government to suppress the conference because their papers might have opposed the interests of the Consorzio. Thus Venice was denied freedom of speech as well as an opportunity for the science of the barriers and the lagoon to be peer-reviewed.

Where does Venice go from here? How can trust be restored? Who can reassure the public that the gates will hold? How can Mose be integrated into what we know (and it is a great deal) about the environmental fragility and needs of the lagoon? Who is to maintain Mose? And what about after Mose? The pernicious effects of the years of corruption have to be stripped out of all these fields of research. So far, the Venetian government has said the work must go on; it has appointed new people to the head of the Consorzio and abolished the Magistrato alle Acque, putting the project directly under the Ministry of Public Works in Rome.

But what Venice needs is a fully expert, fully accountable, locally based authority with strong executive powers in everything from the care of the lagoon to the engineering of the barriers to meteorology. Like the Environment Agency in England, it should be publically funded but independent of government so that it can plan ahead—the Environment Agency has a flood protection plan that looks as far ahead as 2100. Venice is not looking beyond 2016 when the barriers should be finished.

In 2003, as part of a project financed by the Venice in Peril Fund, a major conference with 130 scientists was held in Churchill College, Cambridge, on the state of knowledge about the flooding and environmental challenges for Venice and its lagoon. This three-day event, organized by Tom Spencer, director of the university’s Coastal Research Unit, was deliberately held away from Venice to avoid its factionalism, and it was the last time there was to be an honest, public discussion of this immensely complex topic, in the presence of scientists from all camps: from the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, from the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche and the University of Padua, as well as scientists from England, St. Petersburg, the Netherlands, the US, and Spain.*

The censorship years are over now and it could be both vitally useful and a celebratory rite of passage for a similar conference to take place in 2016, the fiftieth anniversary of the great flood and the year when we shall see the barriers hold back the floodwaters for the first time, if all goes well. As for how to go forward from there, it would not be a sign of weakness on the part of the Italian government if it entrusted the task to an EU organization on the model of CERN; rather, it would prove that it had recognized the extreme gravity of the Venice problem and the importance to the whole world of solutions that are yet to be discovered.