Death in Venice An Italian Idyll Fights for Its Very Survival

The city of Venice absorbs 20 million tourists each year. In addition, rising water levels have meant an increasing number of floods each year. A new barrier aims to keep Mother Nature at bay, but Venice faces an equally big problem: Its population is shrinking dramatically as Venetians flee the city.


By in Venice

They cast off near the old fish market, relaxing in gondolas, sitting on velvety black benches, dressed in Mickey Mouse, mermaid and pirate costumes. A rock band is playing music while a porn star exposes her fake breasts in the middle of the Grand Canal. The Venetian Carnival is just around the corner. This isn't some merry parade, however, but a bitterly angry demonstration against the impending demise of a grand old city.

It's not Japanese tour groups or enchanted Germans taking snapshots of gondoliers singing "O sole mio" who are sitting in the gondolas. Instead, they are young Italians who were born in Venice and grew up in a city that now feels like Disneyland to them.

An official with the city's cultural agency is dressed as a rat. "The flood is driving the rats onto land," he says. He isn't just referring to Venice's winter floods, which have been transforming St. Mark's Square into a big puddle more and more frequently. He also means the rising human flood of 20 million tourists that inundate the city every year. The city accepts them because they are the type of flood that brings in revenue.

"Venice is drowning," says the rat, "and we are becoming extinct."

The protest fleet docks at Piazzale Roma. The square is the gateway to Venice. Those who arrive there are likely to search in vain for the places depicted in the glossy photos of tourist brochures, the sites where Thomas Mann or Donna Leon wrote eulogies. The bridge to the mainland begins at the square, the terminal station discharges armies pulling their trolley cases and buses from the mainland spit out commuters by the minute at the ferry dock. The new high-tech "People Mover" elevated train picks up day trippers from the parking garages. The Benetton Group has bought the old railroad building and is converting it into a shopping center.

A Fairground with Old Walls

Anyone seeking Venice's morbid charm should avoid this square. If he doesn't, he'll hate the city from the start.

This is the Venice of Chinese markets, gambling dens and fast food stands. Ship terminals are being excavated, and there are plans to build a metro to the new city airport and an offshore port. Everything is in fast motion, and everything is geared toward mass processing and profit. At its gateway, the city seems artificial, a fairground with old walls. Entry is still free.

"Welcome to Veniceland!" a clown shouts. People dressed in rat suits unfold Disney-esque city maps and tout the attractions. "Here you can surf the wakes of the cruise ships in the 'Tsunami Channel' and race up to the bell tower on a roller coaster at the 'St. Marks Fun Camp.' Shop to your heart's content at 'Little Shanghai,' the former Murano glassblowers' island. Be there live when police officers beat up handbag sellers from Africa. A show starts every hour. And visit the last real Venetians -- on the San Michele cemetery island."

Venice is sinking and Venice is dying. These dire predictions have become as regular as the tides. The city is accustomed to them and yet it has no solutions. It is true that the historic old city is losing its residents, as they move to the mainland to find work and an ordinary life. A few months ago, the city's population dropped below 60,000. There are now two foreigners for every Venetian. Many believe that Venetians will be gone altogether by 2030.

The city, a magnet for tourists on the order of Mecca and Las Vegas, has already been cloned in Macau and elsewhere. But can the original, mobbed by millions, photographed again and again and loved to death, even be called a city anymore? What does Venice really need -- residents or museum guards? Venice is a laboratory where one can observe what happens when global currents of people collide in a very small space.

Anyone Who Hopes to Save Venice Has to the Think Big

At the Arsenale, the abandoned shipyard at the other end of the city, a helicopter is lifting off on this afternoon. Giovanni Cecconi, 52, an engineer in metal-rimmed glasses and a blue parka, looks down at the sea. From the air, Venice looks like a fish, with a head, tail and fins, with the Grand Canal, which winds through the old city like an artery, feeding a web of hundreds of canals.

The historic central district looks tiny from above, surrounded by Venice's future as a postmodern city. Evidence of the future can be found in the waters off the Lido beach island, where there is nothing in sight but the horizon and the sea. This is where the fish will be dried out, Cecconi explains. The lagoon surrounding Venice, as large as Lake Constance, but not as deep, will be protected at its three access points to the sea, so that it doesn't overflow when the real floods arrive.

The helicopter lands on an artificial island made of landfill. Cecconi jumps out and rushes around as if he were on the set of a futuristic movie. "Think big," he says frequently. Indeed, anyone who hopes to save Venice has to think big. Cecconi works for the Consorzio Nuova Venezia, the most powerful company in the city. He shows us excavations the size of bomb craters illuminated by glaring floodlights. The air is filled with the sound of jackhammers, but there isn't much to see. The rescue of Venice is taking place underwater.

Venice's savior is called MOSE, or Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, a play on the Italian name for Moses, the prophet who parted the Red Sea to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. It is a project of truly biblical proportions. Conceived after the great flood of 1966 and under construction for the past seven years, MOSE is a dike system the likes of which the world has never seen before -- and comes at a price tag of €4.5 billion ($6.17 billion). Day and night, 3,600 workers are hard at work on 78 steel tanks that are being lowered into the water around the Lido barrier island and farther south.

When the sea is calm, the tanks, measuring 20 by 30 meters (66 by 98 feet) each and filled with water, remained anchored on the sea floor. If there is a threat of flooding and if water levels in the city rise above 1.1 meters, compressed air pushes the water out of the tanks and allows them to rise to the surface, creating a steel wall around Venice.

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