Go Ahead and Visit Venice. It’s Not Your Fault It’s Sinking

Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

Most people I’ve seen talk about Venice always mention two things: the city is drowning, and too many people are coming to watch it die.

And then proceeded to blame it all on over-tourism. If we could just have fewer people in Venice, all of its problems would go away.

When I started writing this story, it was going to be one of those articles. But as I dug deeper and deeper, my hypothesis changed.

Here’s why.

Entering St. Mark’s square for the first time, I remember it vividly.

Everywhere you look, you see the winged lion, holding an open book towards you, inviting you to read up on the unlikely story of the Republic of Venice.

I look to my left. The gorgeous St. Mark’s cathedral, with its colorful drawings in its arches.

Behind me, there’s a huge clock. In it, golden sculptures of the symbols of the Zodiac calendar, on a navy blue bedrock.

Photo by Árpád Czapp on Unsplash

*big OOOOOOOOOOOONK*

My heart skips a beat.

I turn around fast. Something massive is approaching. The building right in front of me is engulfed in darkness.

A huge cruise ship slowly appears, many, many stories high (I don’t know how many, I was in shock, ok? Thank you).

It sailed past, and out of sight.

After that, I never lost myself again looking at any of Venice’s amazing architecture, always semi-prepared for another big onk.

Venice is one of the most unsustainable tourist destinations in the world. There’s no doubt about it.

The whole city is naturally sinking into the lagoon at a rate of 1 millimeter per year (0.04in).

So it came with no surprise when the La Stampa newspaper reported in August that tourists would now have to pay a fee to enter the city, and book their entry ahead of time.

The main target of this initiative seems to be one-day trippers. Starting in the summer of 2022, all visitors will now have to enter the city through turnstiles.

Photo by Drew Harbour on Unsplash

Since August, large cruise ships have been banned from sailing past St. Mark’s square. Environmental groups claim they cause large waves, undermining the city’s foundations and harming the fragile ecosystem of the lagoon.

In early 2014, my 15-year-old self started coming up with a bucket list.

You know, normal teen stuff.

I had heard about Venice a few times, always with the whole “sinking-into-sea, probably-gone-soon” fact attached. So I made up my mind I would visit it as soon as possible.

I’m 23 now. I’ve been to Venice twice since that “decision”.

The first lines from this article are from that first experience, when I tried to see all the touristy spots, as fast as I could. A day-tripper.

Years later, I returned, accompanied by an Italian friend, who was also an art student. We decided to roam around and walk the road less traveled.

I got a full tour. We walked to the Venice Art Bienalle.

We went to the ghetto and read up on Jewish segregation in Venice during World War Two.

We went to the Ponte delle Tette. It turned out to be a very small bridge, but Google Maps thought it was a relevant.

POV: you’re in the boobs bridge, in Venice, Italy. Photo by the author

Throughout the day, I kept thinking about how beautiful these parts of the city are. And how it passes by all those tourists rushing to see St. Mark’s square and take pictures on the Rialto Bridge.

As I kept walking (you walk a lot in Venice as a broke college student), two feelings grew into me:

  • A feeling of dread, that I wasn’t enjoying this as much as I knew I should, knowing it could all be gone in some decades’ time.
  • A feeling of disgust: when you look past all the amazing architecture and culture that surrounds you, you realize you’re in a theme park.

This is not a livable city. There are only 55k people left, and they’re a dying breed.

Clothes laying out to dry in Venice, Italy. Photo by the author

How did we get here?

Sinking, actually

Venice was born out of a refugee crisis. People fleeing Germanic tribes used wooden platforms to build a chain of islands of the coast, in the middle of a marshy wetland.

The Venetian Republic, separated from the mainland, quickly became medieval Europe’s center of trade.

Territorial evolution of the Venetian Republic. Image courtesy of Netzach, via Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made

War and the discovery of the seaway to India diminished Venice’s influence. The Venetian Republic ended at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, in the late 18th century.

The city then switched hands back and forth between the French and the Austrians, until it became a part of unified Italy.

Venice is not only surrounded by water but is also located in a uniquely flood-vulnerable area: the Adriatic sea’s rectangular shape amplifies the natural tides going north.

Venice in the upper left corner. Nautical chart of Gulf of Venice and Northern Part of the Adriatic Sea by Vincenzo Coronelli, via Wikimedia Commons. Work in the Public Domain

This means the Adriatic sea has more extreme tidal events than the rest of the Mediterranean sea, and they’re all funneled up towards Venice.

You add that to the fact that the plate of the Northern Adriatic is rising, while the plate Venice is on is sinking, and you get a city that’s:

  1. Naturally sinking
  2. Losing elevation due to its tectonic plate subsiding
  3. In an area already prone to flooding

Humans, of course

If left alone, Venice would probably be loosely connected to the mainland by now, as the sediments in the river that used to flow into the lagoon would settle at the bottom.

However, Medieval Venetians diverted the river away from the lagoon. This made the waters deeper and deeper, increasing the depth of Venice’s moat, but also the volume of water in the lagoon.

This was made worse with the construction of railway and road bridges in the 19th century, which caused the water level to rise, but also distorted the motion of water within the lagoon.

The creation of the industrial district of Marghera, in the mainland immediately west of Venice, created more problems. The district stands on small islands just above sea level, that would otherwise act as sponges in case of a high tide, absorbing the water.

But the government destroyed them, covering the whole area with concrete, to create a stable area for industry development.

In the Venetian dialect, Mar gh’era means “there was the sea”. “Not anymore”, said 20th-century Italians.

Venice (Italy): harbour and industrial zone of Marghera. Image courtesy of Marc Ryckaert, via Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made

Making matters even worse, a navigable channel was dug across the lagoon, so large oil tankers could reach the industrial district. This artificial channel connected the lagoon to the sea and is yet another entry point for high tides and storms coming from the Adriatic Sea.

Climate change

Global warming is also a factor.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report foresees that, by 2100, the sea level will rise 28 to 55 centimeters (11–21in) in their most optimistic scenario and 63–101 centimeters (25–40in) in the most pessimistic scenario.

All scenarios are aggravated by the unavoidable subsidence of the geological platform over which Venice sits (around 2mm/ 0,08in a year).

St. Mark’s square, Venice’s main square, regularly floods more than 60 times a year now.

Theme-park-zation of Venice

And then, there are the protections. Venice and its lagoon are considered a UNESCO world heritage site since 1987.

In 2019, UNESCO actually threatened putting Venice on its endangered list, next to historical ruins in war-torn countries, like Iraq and Syria.

Protections are nice, but they can also do damage. You can’t build upon the foundation of “culturally significant” buildings.

“We just kept building the city higher. The palazzo we are sitting in today was built in the 15th century, but there’s a 13th-century palazzo beneath this. And beneath that, who knows? They were not sentimental about the past. They did not worry about preserving old buildings. They just built new ones on top of the old ones. And the city kept rising. But of course, we can’t do that anymore. Now, there are cultural constraints. We don’t want to lose the beautiful Renaissance architecture we have here. Knocking it down and building on top of it is not an option. We have to find another way to save it.”

— Pierpaolo Campostrini, expert in the restoration and preservation of Venice, to Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell

Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Image courtesy of Peter Broster, via Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made

Once the buildings were no longer being “lifted”, it sealed the cycle of flooding.

The more people tried to protect it, the more they aggravated the theme-park-zation of Venice: because you can’t lift the buildings, and make adjustments to architecture and the foundations, the city is dead, frozen in time.

Meaning it’s just there to be looked at, and not actually designed to be livable.

Can you imagine if someone tried to update the Monalisa? The Starry Night? That one Jesus portrait some Spanish lady butchered a few years ago? Terrible idea, right?

But all of those are paintings. They’re not cities.

Especially a city that, for centuries, burst with life, a true capital of the Renassaince.

But now Venice is there to be visited and admired.

Aerial view of Venice with the bridge to the mainland. Image courtesy of Chris 73, via Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made

And I hear you, its beauty is of “outstanding universal value”, according to UNESCO.

And so, we arrive at the dilemma of globalism vs nationalism, and populism. Is the city of Venice property of the world, or property of the Italian and Venetian people, to do with it what they will?

The Latin/southern European spirit we share tells me they would probably make sure damage is avoided while maintaining the city as unchanged as possible, so they can continue to milk it for profit.

Did I say milk it for profit?

I mean, receive visitors.

Which leads us to…

Overtourism

It’s very hard to live in Venice already, with all the flooding, and having to either walk or get a boat to sail around.

Do you have any idea how they do garbage collection, mail delivery, or how the firefighter department works?

Me neither.

It must suck even harder having to do it all with millions of people coming to visit each year, crowding your streets, and raising the value of already sinking property to unaffordable levels.

There are 55.000 people still living in Venice. By 2030, they may be none. Zero.

The sound pollution and ecosystem damage of having literal cruise ships inside the lagoon is only the cherry on top of a very crappy cake.

The Fate of Venice

The MOSE system finally became operational in 2020, after several delays, caused by corruption and overlapping local, regional, and national bureaucracy.

It consists of 78 retractable mobile floodgates that are raised up to block the high tides of the Adriatic Sea.

Critics of MOSE worry that rising sea levels mean the barriers would need to be closed more than 260 times a year, which would do unsustainable damage to the lagoon ecosystem and the city.

MOSE took almost 20 years to build, but a fundamental confusion in government circles and the public regarding the difference between the temporary flooding events (acqua alta) and the constant rise in sea level might mean there isn’t much more technology coming to the rescue anytime soon.

And so, MOSE might be all we’ve got.

It’s been estimated before that even a 50 cm (20 in) rise in sea level will permanently doom Venice beneath the waves.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts the sea will rise much more than that until 2100 if gas emissions continue to increase.

Lost City of Atlantis. Image courtesy of Gregor Grie, via Wikimedia Commons. No changes were made

If things run their course, Venice will either become this century’s Atlantis, or it’s going to be stuck inside a stagnant lagoon filled with algae and the city’s waste.

However, some Venetians aren’t ready to stop fighting for their city yet.

Historians, scientists, and writers from the Instituto Veneto have appealed to the Italian prime minister for a radical new approach to research and decision-making.

They ask Mario Draghi’s government to create a new authority that can overstep local politics and engineer a more sustainable Venice.

Draghi’s concerns about sea-level rise in Italy, and his high status within the European Union might mean something will be done.

So, should you visit Venice?

Yes.

In the end, no amount of technology can deny the fact that Venice is a chain of sinking islands, sitting in a marshy lagoon, while the water around it is getting higher and higher.

Flood in Venice in september 2009: On the way to Saint Mark’s Square. Image courtesy of JøMa, via Wikimedia Commons. Work in the Public Domain

There are reasons to be hopeful. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

So visit Venice.

Ethically.

But visit Venice.

It’s a living museum out in the open, and it won’t stand around forever, waiting for your visit.

Make sure you bring your galoshes.

Just in case.

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João Pedro Fernandes

João Pedro Fernandes

I write poetry, deep dives into History & Geography, and the occasional epiphany about the Homo Sapiens. Part-time funny person 🇵🇹 IG: joao.pa.fernandes