Sinking Feeling Venice's Eternal Battle against Water

Slowly but surely, Venice is sinking. The city has battled the water ever since it was founded 1,600 years ago in a marshy lagoon. Now it's working on a gigantic project to prevent the floods that threaten its future -- but experts are divided over whether it will work.


By in Venice, Italy

It's starting again. As usual, it begins on St. Mark's Square and the cathedral courtyard, the lowest points of the city. Water bubbles up through the manhole covers, first slowly, then more steadily. Those with sensitive noses claim it stinks; others say it smells of the sea.

Some visitors find the sight a bit unsettling, but it doesn't bother Venetians. That's how things are here, they say. Whenever winter, a full moon and a southerly sirocco wind coincide, the water level rises. That's perfectly normal, and happens a dozen times a year. But it's happening increasingly often, and gradually even the stoical Venetians are starting to get concerned.

Water from the run-off drains has now washed over St. Mark's Square. At the quayside, where firmly moored gondolas bob about, this water mixes with waves from the lagoon that lap up onto the square. The yardstick at the Punta della Salute, by the mouth of the Grand Canal, shows the water level at 80 centimeters (32 inches) above normal. But it hasn't quite reached acqua alta, the high-water mark, yet.

That only begins at 110 centimeters above normal. About four times every winter, well before this happens, the sirens wail. Venetians living in endangered areas then attempt to make their front doors as watertight as possible using sheet metal. Municipal workers set up temporary raised walkways. Once the level reaches 120 centimeters above normal, a quarter of the city is under water. After five more centimeters, the boats stop running. Everything grinds to a halt. That's acqua alta.

Most tourists welcome such an event if it happens during their visit to Venice. They excitedly shuffle across the hastily erected walkways on St. Mark's Square. Carabinieri in waist-high boots stand in the water below, hurrying the masses along: "Keep going, keep going! Don't stop!"

The experience is very different for the Venetians, for whom it means flooded basements and damp walls, even above ground. Although they are used to it, the flooding is getting worse every year. In many privately owned houses, the occupants have given up on the ground floor and only live on the upper floors. The sidewalks along the water are being resurfaced. Entire buildings are being sliced open at the water line, raised hydraulically and then placed on a higher foundation. Historically important underground structures, such as Saint Mark's crypt, are treated with plastic resin to make them waterproof.

This is raising fears among inhabitants that they won't be able to save their city after all. That's because the ground on which Venice stands is sinking and the water is rising. The city is going under, slowly but surely.

'The Purest Expression of Our Capabilities'

Does this herald the end of an historically unique experiment by daring settlers? Will the lagoon eventually take back what humans wrested from it?

Massimo Cacciari, a philosopher and a former mayor of the city, once said Venice shouldn't actually have been possible. It was, he said, "a completely unlikely, entirely artificial city" and, at the same time, "a technical masterpiece, the purest expression of our capabilities, our mental potential."

The creation of this masterpiece began about 1,600 years ago in the unsafe times of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. Huns, Vandals, Goths and Lombards were raping and pillaging their way across Europe. Local populations either suffered or fled.

The same was true of the Veneti, the inhabitants of villages along a large lagoon in northeastern Italy, who repeatedly had to seek refuge on islands off the coast. Life on the muddy islets was undoubtedly tough. Surrounded by water, they mainly lacked one thing: water. Rain was their only source of drinking water, since the lagoon's mixture of saltwater and freshwater was undrinkable. They ate fish, occasionally supplemented with a few vegetables from their garden. In winter, they were threatened by storm tides; in summer, they were plagued by malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

Nevertheless, they were spared invasion. The marauders may have been heavily armed and often on horseback, but they had no ships. And although the lagoon wasn't particularly deep, the raiders couldn't reach the islets on foot.

Greek Immigrant Found Way to Build on Boggy Land

When the hordes moved on, the Veneti returned to dry land. That was also the intention of the refugees who, in about AD 410, had fled the advancing Visigoths onto the Rialto group of islands, a name derived from "Riva Alta" (high shore), as they were known at the time. However, a young Greek immigrant changed the course of history.

According to a medieval manuscript, the man's name was Antinopo, and he was a "wise man." He invented a revolutionary method for building houses on boggy land, a principle that is used to this day: First, Antinopo leveled the ground. On this, he placed a foundation of stone, reeds and willow rods. Around the outside of this, he then rammed thick wooden piles made of elm or oak into the ground, laying oak planks on top. Finally, a layer of thick, heavy stones was piled on, providing a firm basis for a brick house, a fine, large house almost as stable as those on built on dry land.

Whether it was because of the continued uncertainty on the mainland or the new construction method, many Veneti began settling on the Rialto. The town grew, but as an appalled medieval chronicler wrote, the people didn't have a church.

So it was providential, at least according to this chronicler, that fire broke out at Antinopo's house "by God's will," quickly setting 24 other houses alight. It was clear the entire island would soon be in flames. In such dire straits, Antinopo and his fellow inhabitants begged their creator for deliverance, promising to build a church if the fire was put out. And, lo, the writer reported, God "miraculously" transformed the wind into an immense shower that doused the flames -- coincidentally on the day of the Feast of the Annunciation.

It goes without saying that these devout Catholics built the promised church. Three years to the day after the fire, on March 25, 421, the church was consecrated "in honor of the most holy apostle, San Giacomo" on the foundations of Antinopo's house. Thus, the Greek inadvertently laid the foundations for not only his own home, but also for Venice itself.

Most historians have their doubts about the story. They say there is no evidence to support it, that it is more legend than historical fact. Nevertheless, Venice celebrates the anniversary of its foundation every year on March 25. And whether or not it did so with Greek help, Venice slowly began developing into a city-state at precisely the time when Antinopo lived.

'White Gold' Made Venice Rich

No sooner had the Visigoths disappeared than the Huns brought the next flood of refugees. Building land became scarce. As a result, the boggy neighboring islands around the Rialto were soon being colonized, too. The settlers eventually even drove wooden piles directly into the water, laid foundations and built houses or even small artificial islands on top, thus providing building land for entire groups of houses and, later, for churches and palaces.

The Venetian economy gradually grew, based on ships used for fishing and transporting goods and on salt. This "white gold" was panned in large pools, ground in cylinders and sold at a huge profit.

About a century later, in AD 537, Cassiodor, a minister of the Ostrogoth King Theoderich, praised the inhabitants of the lagoon thus: "You live in your houses like sea birds in their nests; rich and poor in equal measure."

In actual fact, a lagoon isn't a particularly suitable place to found a city. Formed by rivers and the sea as if by the whims of nature, lagoons are fragile creations, an unstable interplay of high and low tide, seawater and freshwater, influx and drainage.

It is believed the lagoon developed about 6,000 years ago. Constantly rising sea levels since the last great ice age expanded the Adriatic Sea northward. On its northern and western edges, rivers like the Brenta, Bacchiglione, Sile and Piave dragged massive amounts of rubble and sand down from the mountains and dumped them into the sea. Over the centuries, a constantly south-flowing current channeled this sediment into elongated embankments running parallel to the coast. Bit by bit, these separated a 550-square-kilometer (210-square-mile) bay from the Adriatic. Eventually, the only access to the open water was via five gaps known as "porti".

This inland sea and its approximately 60 islands and a mass of smaller and tiny islets was probably inhabited seasonally by hunters and fisherman as far back as the 2nd century BC. "Venice stands on a kind of pudding penetrated by watery channels," says architect and Venice expert Wolfdietrich Elbert. Huge amounts of trees were cut down to try to stabilize this "pudding."


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