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Venice: Duels over Troubled Waters

Article excerpt

How can the ecological balance of Venice be reconciled with the demands of industry? Is the highly controversial construction of mobile floodgates the solution? The decision will be made by 2001

The traveller to Venice should arrive at the end of a summer's afternoon to see the sun turn into a huge red disk and swell until it casts the lagoon's furthest islands in a fiery glow before sinking into the sea. Then, when the last tourist has left Saint Mark's Square, Venice once again becomes magical. In streets that are empty at last, the inhabitants of the world's most beautiful city open their doors, letting the few lingering visitors catch a glimpse of a time-worn, history-laden monumental staircase, or a hidden, tree-shaded garden where Giacomo Casanova may have awaited one of his mistresses two and a half centuries ago. It is the moment when the souvenir shop signs go dark and the Venetians' windows light up.

Each day, they are fewer and older. In 1951, about 175,000 people lived on one of the 118 islands connected by 160 canals which form the historic centre of Venice. In 1998, a mere 68,000 remained, and that figure will likely drop to 40,000 by 2005. If students are not counted--they are lodged by landlords who do not declare them to avoid paying taxes--residents under the age of 19 make up a tiny percentage of the population. The average age, already 50 in 1998, continues to rise.

The Venetians are leaving, and they are taking their institutions with them: the Assicurazioni Generali insurance company, the daily newspaper II Gazzettino, the local Rai station (the State radio and television network) and the banks. Tourists, who arrive en masse, fill the void: 10 million debarked in 1994 and 15 million are expected in 2005. The city of theatres, churches, convents, monasteries, palaces and bordellos is turning into a huge eating place. From 1976 to 1991, the number of pizzerias, restaurants and hotels increased by 144 per cent.

Confronting the sea with picks and shovels

Will Venice grow old and die like its inhabitants? That is anybody's guess: the truth is hard to come by in this labyrinthine city. Venice is the city of "perhaps," as unstable as the lagoon's ecological balance. It is impossible to imagine the city without its lagoon, an uncertain space, neither land nor sea, whose very name expresses absence: lacuna is Latin for "lack." This precarious and provisional place emerged little by little as the rivers, torrents and streams that flow across the plains on their way to the Adriatic deposited millions of cubic metres of silt.

The lagoon is not part of the sea; it is separated from the Adriatic by 50 kilometres of sandbars that end with the mouths of the Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia ports. Every six hours, the tides run through the bars, flowing in as salt water and receding as briny water. Like a gigantic lung made up of thousands of bronchial tubes, the lagoon breathes. It is not only formed by islands high enough to stand up to the sea's equinox tides. Barene, the sandbars that emerge at low tide, are complex ecosystems, home to plants and animals which have adapted to this environment oscillating between air and water. Velme are the mud-flats visible at low tide while ghebi are channels that are green with mire and seaweed through which the water leaves the lagoon at low tide.

The lagoon was bound to disappear until, one day, a group of bold men decided to make something solid out of an unstable mass. Then, from one generation the next, the Venetians battled the elements like funambulists walking a tightrope. Prepared with shovels and picks to confront the sea's efforts to upset the delicate equilibrium, they had only one thing in mind: to preserve the existence and richness of Venice, the city of stone and marble that they built on spongy marshland, as if it were on terra firma. Venice was a utopia: the world's most fragile city, but powerful enough to rule a far-flung empire. …