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(All photos: Eckhoff)
In Petra Peski's book As I once fell into the Grand Canal you come across several words of this type: "Airbnb plague" (Venice has Italian record in Airbnb landlords), "water highway" (more than five hundred cruise ships dock in the lagoon city every year ), «Disneyification» (the city has 33 million tourists every year).
The fact that Venice is threatened with doom was noticed, not least after Luchino Visconti's film Death in Venice from 1972. The city where all the streets lead to water is – to put it with Shakespeare – "of the same substance that dreams are woven of." He wrote The merchant in Venice without even having been there. Richard Wagner needed the city as a workplace while writing his greatest works. WA Mozart let Venice inspire its easily seduced ladies in That's how they all go. Casanova? From Venice.
High rubber boots
Decades ago, German writer Petra Peski lost her heart to the "Venetian by my side" and the city of 436 bridges. Her description of life where she lives is seasoned with salty humor: “Mountain gorillas and black rhinos die out, so do the Venetians. I live in a city that suffers from the love of thirty million people a year. " A place everyone wants to see, but no one wants to protect. From the very beginning it was important to profit from the city's attraction value. Authenticity was never important. "The Venetians have never sung in the gondola", maintains one of Peski's friends. "They have traded, they have intrigued and plundered entire lands, but they have never sung. The gondola is a rocking chair for idiots." Venice has turned into a "hedge city", says Venetian architect and city planner Paola Somma: "No longer a city, but an investment fund. Whoever has money buys a piece of Venice. "
"The gondola is a rocking chair for idiots."
And now, when the sea rises and the city regularly stands under water, tourists are encouraged to put on high rubber boots, go out and take selfies in a Venice that reflects itself, before boarding the floating high-rises or cheap planes and waving goodbye to the fabric dreams are woven off. A substance that also causes the city to sink, slowly but surely.
In 2019, a catastrophic storm surge hit Venice. It submerged homes, shops and monuments. It cascaded into St. Mark's Church. For the first time in the lagoon's history, the water was higher than out on the open sea. In ten minutes the water rose ten centimeters, the sirens howled, the alarm systems hissed, boats capsized. The government declared a state of emergency. The water level was 1,87 meters above normal. The damage was estimated at several hundred million euros. Were they not prepared at all? They thought so.
The flood barriers were the final blow
In 2003, a project called MOSE, an abbreviation for Electromechanical Experimental Module, with a nod to the Prophet Moses. MOSES was to protect the 550 square kilometer lagoon from the dreaded storm surge that brings high tides and regularly drowns La Piazza. To prevent this, moving plates on the seabed should prevent the water from penetrating into the city. There was talk of nothing less than saving Venice. Well, the costs exploded (only the construction itself amounted to six billion euros), there were corruption scandals, the mayor had to go. Meanwhile, the plates begin to rust. Possibly, after eighteen years, one hopes for a biblical miracle, à la the prophet who on the flight from Egypt divided the Red Sea in two.
For Petra Peski, the situation is different. For her, blaming the climate and hoping for wonder is a denial of her own mistakes: "It is not the climate that has dug the lagoon deeper and considered it a 100 percent salable commodity, instead of a fragile ecosystem." She is sure: The high tide in Venice is man-made. In recent decades, the canals have been dug deeper and deeper to create more space for oil tankers and cruiseships with their rubbish and particulate matter.
78 movable gates have been installed in the three openings to the sea. Concrete portals without any replaceable parts. The developers are a consortium of northern Italian private contractors, a monopoly with one great desire – to pour maximum amounts of cement into a lagoon with a soft bottom. And what about the desired effect? After the MOSE construction reduced the lagoon's opening towards the sea, the water at high tide shoots faster and flows away more slowly. This achieves exactly the opposite of what the inhabitants had hoped for: Not less, but more high tide. To confirm this, says Peski, you do not need a measuring device, only a small boat. "During the tide, it feels as if my boat is a piece of driftwood at the Cape of Good Hope."
Anyone who has money today buys a piece of Venice.
Researchers are also talking about the resonant frequency of the 78 plates. The plates move individually. When they are set in motion by waves, they trigger new waves, which can tear loose the anchors and throw tons of MOSE concrete into St. Mark's Square. Possibly along with a tsunami. Experts, including from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have confirmed the scenario. That the mega-project risks collapsing and is described as technical fraud is something the contractors behind MOSE understandably keep quiet about. Suggestions for solving the problems came as early as 2006. They are also forties. Petra Peski's judgment is clear: "To err is human, but to insist on it is diabolical."
The price for maintenance of MOSE is estimated at 100 million euros per year. Prophecies say that it is the costs that will bring the project to its grave. And where exactly was MOSE during the flood disaster of 2019?
The corona pandemic brought back the memory for a while. About what it was like to live in Venice in another time. Without the tourist monoculture. Without «O sole mio». With the chirping of birds, the gurgling sound of crashing waves, fresh winds, neighbor talk across the canal. Peski: “In the afternoon, the sun is a spotlight, shining at an acute angle over our canal and letting it shimmer with sage green. The mirror image of the bridge blends into the water to form a perfect oval." Dostoevsky's claim that "beauty will save the world" appears in the memory.
Sadly, Venice has far more to contend with than the aftermath of a pandemic. Petra Peski has little hope of rescue. Nevertheless, she works tirelessly for the mythical canal city to become something more than a melancholic image of dilapidated beauty, a 'Memento Mori', like an empty, thrown away carnival mask.