Venetians fear for the future of their city. Inundation by high tides and tourists is wrecking the island city’s cultural heritage and may ultimately render Venice unlivable.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Venice, Italy, floodwaters devastated parts of the ancient city earlier this month. As NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reports, rising sea levels are not the only threat. As more Venetians leave, Venice risks becoming an empty shell, sinking under mass tourism.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: When high tide recedes, St. Mark’s Square fills up and resonates with a cacophony of languages.
POGGIOLI: Awestruck visitors shriek and marvel as they take selfies in what Napoleon described as Europe’s drawing room. But elsewhere in the lagoon, Venetians take stock of the damage caused by a wave of exceptionally high tides known here as acqua alta, high water.
Pellestrina is home mostly to fishermen. For centuries, the 7 1/2-mile-long barrier island protected the lagoon from the sea. But on November 12, a near-record-high tide of more than 6 feet, combined with strong winds, washed over Pellestrina’s high embankments, flooding the island for a full day. On ground floors, nearly everything was destroyed.
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POGGIOLI: Among the waterfront, trash collectors load now-useless refrigerators and washing machines onto trucks.
Fisherman Dino Vianello stares forlornly at what was once his shed on wooden pilings. For 40 years, he stored his nets there. Now his livelihood is gone. Nobody, he says, had ever seen waves nearly 7 feet high and the sea inside homes.
DINO VIANELLO: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: “The lagoon’s ecosystem is unique,” says Vianello. “The ancient Venetians who built the Republic of Venice worked in harmony with nature, not against it.”
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POGGIOLI: Many believe excavation of deep canals in the 1960s to accommodate oil tankers irreparably harmed the lagoon’s delicate ecosystem.
There’s also much skepticism about the large movable floodgates being built to hold back rising sea levels. The project is called MOSE, an Italian acronym that also means Moses, suggesting a parting of the waters. Still unfinished after 16 years and $5.5 billion in public funds, it’s been plagued by corruption and won’t be in operation for another two years.
Meanwhile, many Venetians feel ignored by local authorities.
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POGGIOLI: This is the workshop of a master artisan, one of only four remaining makers of oars and oar posts for the city’s legendary gondolas. Paolo Brandolisio is trying to salvage his waterlogged oak worktable.
PAOLO BRANDOLISIO: (Through interpreter) We’ve always managed on our own. In the last 40 to 50 years, city authorities didn’t safeguard artisans’ workshops. So if there’s no one left to make wooden boats, they’ll disappear and be replaced by plastic ones.
POGGIOLI: Brandolisio laments that most shops now sell Chinese-made souvenirs.
BRANDOLISIO: (Through interpreter) Shops for residents are vanishing because Venetians are vanishing. So those who are left are those making money selling the cheapest possible goods.
POGGIOLI: There are actually two Venices – the city of giant cruise ships high as skyscrapers that disgorge, along with day-trippers, some 30 million visitors a year, while the local population numbers 50,000, down a third from a generation ago. And there’s the Venice of international institutions that make it a world capital of art and culture.
SHAUL BASSI: International Venice takes the social fabric of Venice for granted. We need to change the vision of the city.
POGGIOLI: Shaul Bassi directs the Center for Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University. Across the world, he says big cities look more and more alike, with the same architects creating the same skyline. Venice, Bassi believes, represents the very idea of a city.
BASSI: It’s a city that for over a thousand years has built a wonderful equilibrium between the human component, ecological component, art, nature. And in the last century, we have basically almost destroyed that balance.
POGGIOLI: Venice is at the front line in the battle against rising sea levels. That’s why, says Bassi, it’s the ideal laboratory to study climate change. Next year, his university will offer a new degree in environmental humanities. He says scientists provide the data.
BASSI: But we need to imagine what climate change is going to be like. And for that, you need the artists, you need the intellectual, you need the poets, you need the philosopher, you need the historians.
POGGIOLI: Bassi is urging people in all fields of science and art to come here to reflect, study, create and compose to help make this a truly living city for the whole world.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Venice.
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