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.
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.
Can MOSE Part the Mediterranean Sea?
Engineer Cecconi believes in MOSE. He has been defending the project against leftists and environmentalists for more than 20 years. Until a few years ago, MOSE was the Venetian version of Stuttgart 21, the southern German city’s highly controversial urban redevelopment project. The various interest groups argued, issued warnings, searched for alternatives and found none. Now MOSE is two-thirds finished and is expected to go into operation in 2014.
MOSE is being paid for with Italian government funds, and bidding for the construction contracts was closed to non-Italian companies. The consortium delegates everything and no one pays attention to where the billions are going and whether the final financing is secure. “Typically Italian,” writes the newsmagazine L’Espresso. “We don’t know what it will do and whether it will work, but we just forge ahead anyway.”
Whether MOSE is truly benefiting only those who are building it isn’t clear. It is obvious, however, that the protective wall cannot save the city in the long term. In the last 100 years, Venice has sunk by 23 centimeters (nine inches), and if what United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) scientists are predicting today is true, namely that the water level in the Adriatic lagoon could rise by 50 centimeters by the year 2100, the city could very well be underwater for 250 days a year. If that happened, Venice would be the most famous casualty of climate change, and MOSE would be an ineffective weapon.
“MOSE will last 100 years,” says engineer Cecconi, “and then we’ll see what’s next.” Cecconi’s detractors say Venice needs more radical solutions, like a ring of tall buildings around the old city, the restoration of rotting foundations and a center for futurology staffed with international experts. There are plenty of ideas, but no one is taking the initiative. “MOSE is just the beginning,” says Cecconi. “Now we have to figure out how to handle the floods of people.”
Standing on his artificial island, he smiles and says he likes the idea of managing Venice like a national park in the United States, complete with rangers to protect its monuments as if they were wild bears, and with the power to turn away visitors when the park is full.
There are Italians who despise him for saying such things. Matteo Secchi is one of them. He says: “I would rather wear rubber boots than live in a city without a soul.” He thinks MOSE is a non-starter, and he fears that the external steel wall will lead to a total operation on the inside. Venice, he says, has much bigger problems than water. To save the city, it has to be revived first, says Secchi.
The Disneylandification of Venice
Secchi is the founder of a citizens’ initiative and the inventor of Veniceland, the protest campaign in the gondolas. He is fighting against his city being turned into something that isn’t real. While his campaigns are much applauded abroad, he is considered a troublemaker in Venice. Secchi is standing on the Rialto Bridge, a 40-year-old biker type in leather pants, surrounded by hordes of people equipped with digital cameras and pigeon feed accompanied by the clicking sound of trolley cases. He has set up a memorial of sorts in the window of a pharmacy, a digital counter that illustrates how Venice is wasting away. The current population of the old city appears in red neon numbers. It is now 59,520, and the number keeps getting smaller.
Secchi had also moved away from Venice. He was living in Mestre on the mainland, where he owned a car, never got his shoes wet and lived comfortably. Three years ago he returned to his old neighborhood, Cannaregio, where he now runs a 12-room, three-star hotel. The city is his livelihood, and he is now part of the powerful lobby of businesspeople who earn up to €1.5 billion a year from tourism in Venice. He says that his guilty conscience keeps him going, as does the future of his two-year-old daughter.
The tourists and their treatment of Venice as an object of desire are not to blame for the city’s demise, says Secchi. The real culprits, he insists, are incapable city planners who “want to hand over a broom-cleaned Venice to investors.” Secchi complains about the sale of old buildings, the horrendous rents, and the so-called bed-and-breakfast law, which offers tax incentives to homeowners who rent out rooms to tourists. Secchi is demanding more of a say for citizens, tax benefits and inexpensive housing for students and families. He also wants to see restrictions imposed on the number of cruise ships camped around the city like strange animals. More than 500 cruise ships dock there every year. “So much for a car-free city,” says Secchi, pointing out that a single ship emits as much exhaust gas as 15,000 cars.
Secchi senses that he can’t compete against the power and influence of the merchants and the tourism industry. The vegetable stall where he used to shop is now a mask store. “What do tourists need eggplants for? They want something for eternity.” They want to get married in the city of lovers, which offers a marriage ceremony for €4,200, complete with a live broadcast on the Internet. “And they’re closing our children’s hospital because there aren’t enough people left who are having children.”
The future Secchi fears is already unfolding in front of his hotel, on the Murano glassblowers’ island, a popular destination for Asian tour groups arriving by ferry. Barkers with homemade tour guide cards drag them into cold convention buildings and give them group discounts on Salvador Dali kitsch and vases designed to look like Ferraris. Only a fraction of the glassware is still made on Murano. In fact, most of it is “made in China” instead. The Asians photograph the canals and the last few local bars, where unemployed fishermen and glassblowers go to drink and complain.
Murano is already lost, says Secchi, but they are still fighting for Venice. He will dress up as an Indian, as the last native on the reservation, for Carnival in late February. “The world watches,” he says, “and I want it to understand.”
A City that Has Lost its Contours
Anyone who wants to find out what Venice really was should pay a visit to the house of Alvio and Gabriella Gavagnin. They are the keepers of a treasure in black-and-white and packed away in crates. They are Venetians, 66 and 64, and they captured the face of the city on photographic paper before it lost its contours.
As a child Alvio wanted to become a navy sailor. Instead, he became a ticket seller on the Vaporetti, Venice’s public waterbus service. He traveled up and down the Grand Canal on Line 1 for 15 years. He often saw Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy New York collector of modern art, on the terrace of her palazzo, sunbathing while wearing diamond-studded sunglasses, playing with her Tibetan dogs and patting her equestrian statue by the sculptor Marino Marini, the figure of a man sitting on a horse with an erect penis.
That was in the 1970s. Alvio thought she was a little ordinary, even stingy. He used to have to lend her 50 lira for a ticket to the other side of the canal, but he says he did it gladly, because he liked the quirky foreigner.
Eventually more and more Russians, Japanese and Eastern Europeans started coming, and soon he became annoyed by the questions the foreigners were asking, the ones who wanted to know when Venice closed at night and which ferry would take them to the Coliseum. Eventually Alvio noticed that his city was changing. He had a local journalist teach him how to take pictures and, together with Gabriella, documented the city’s neighborhoods. They took 5,000 photos in two decades and had only completed two of the city’s districts. Suddenly, they woke up one day and realized they had grown old.
Today the tears well up in Alvio’s eyes as he looks through the photos, while his wife sheepishly wipes the table. They no longer know their neighbors. Eight out of 10 are foreigners and rarely spend time in the city. Via Garibaldi is now a touristy shopping street with Vietnamese junk shops and karaoke bars. Their sons live on the mainland and don’t want to return.
Perhaps this is inevitable, as the residents move on, leaving the stones of the city behind. It isn’t just happening in Venice, but also, though not as quickly, in Florence and Rome, in Prague and in the historic cities on the resort islands of Mallorca and Ibiza.
The Most Dynamic City on the Old Continent?
Perhaps death is merely part of the legend of Venice. The British art historian John Ruskin gave the Doge’s Palace five years. That was in 1852. Cameras are constantly flashing in front of the palace today, and sometimes the building is half underwater, but it’s still standing. Perhaps Venice has simply had to reinvent itself more often than any another city in the world. And it would be pure fantasy to think that, just because it appears that time has stood still here, one could escape the evils of modernity by fleeing to Venice.
That’s the way Wolfgang Scheppe sees it, at any rate. A 55-year-old German professor, Scheppe believes that Venice is the most dynamic city on the old continent, a city willing to take risks and to exploit itself to the hilt, a laboratory that offers the chance to study what could eventually happen in other cities.
Scheppe is standing on the Bridge of Sighs, the place where, 300 years ago, convicted criminals saw daylight for the last time before being taken into the dungeons. Today the bridge is surrounded by enormous ads for Bulgari jewelry, insurance companies and Guess jeans. Tourists pose for snapshots in front of the billboards to prove that they were there, before walking into souvenir shops with signs on the door that read: “Enter only to buy.” For Scheppe, this sentence sums up the entire truth about Venice.
Scheppe heads the “Migropolis” research project. For three years, his students searched for the flipside of Venice’s romantic postcard charm. Two nightmarish volumes of images are the result of their efforts. Venetians do not appear in the books, because they are no longer relevant. Scheppe says: “Venice is Europe’s most global city. The currents of worldwide migration come together here, including millions of tourists and tens of thousands of immigrants. Venice shows us the conditions under which we will live in 20 years.”
A tour of the city with Scheppe as the guide offers a taste of what he describes. Russians in street cafés praise the “real Italian pasta” prepared in the kitchen by underpaid Bangladeshis. Vendors at souvenir stands quickly tear off the “Made in China” labels from their wares before luring in Chinese tour groups.
Scheppe tells a tale of flows of commodities, parallel economies, exploitation and isolation, a tale of a city that was created to protect itself against invaders like the Huns and the Lombards, eventually turned itself into a global trading center and is now barricading itself against intruders again.
‘Trying to Save Venice Is Sentimental Nonsense’
Trade shapes this city. This was always the case, and today Venice abides by the laws of globalization. “Trying to save Venice is sentimental nonsense. It’s like trying to stop the course of history,” says Scheppe. “Venice can’t be saved, not with MOSE and not by citizens protesting. The future has already arrived.” That future, for Scheppe, has turned Venice into a shopping paradise. “Shopping against a romantic backdrop refines the act of purchasing,” says Scheppe, “even if the goods are fake.”
The vendors who make up the city’s shadow economy include people like Momo, a tall, thin 28-year-old from Dakar, Senegal, one of the new sons of the city. Momo’s eyes dart back and forth and he is constantly turning his head from side to side. He works in front of one of the most expensive hotels in Venice, the Danieli on the promenade. Suddenly a group of Carabinieri appears and Momo quickly gathers together the fake Gucci, Prada, Fendi and Chanel items he has spread out on a white sheet, throws the bundle over his shoulder and runs.
Momo, a handbag vendor, is one of thousands of illegal aliens classified as “non in regola,” or not in the system, indispensible for Venice’s tourists but hunted down by law enforcement.
Anyone who runs through Venice with him, maneuvering through tiny alleys and stopping to catch one’s breath in dim doorways, learns about X-ray scanners in the port that the military uses to detect illegal immigrants in trucks and container ships, about tightened immigration laws under the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and about raids and racism. The battle between the First and the Third World, between the winners and losers of globalization, is being fought in Venice, now a city on the front lines of Fortress Europe.
Momo’s older brother arrived by sea, just like the tourists. The boat he was traveling on was full of dead bodies when military patrols pulled it on land. The brother sent money home, and Momo arrived by air, with a forged visa from the German embassy stamped into his passport.
Venice is famous in Senegal as the city of the rich white man. Momo is constantly asking himself what he is doing here. He speaks five languages and has a university degree, and he says that his country is losing its brightest minds. He became furious when his youngest brother asked him when it would finally be his turn to come to Europe.
Momo’s territory is the tiny tourist triangle demarcated by the Rialto, St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs, but his real life takes place among the endless rows of apartment buildings around Mestre, where he shares a tiny apartment with his brother. He communicates every day with his family via Skype, using a laptop placed on an African drum, and he buys his merchandise from a Chinese dealer on the fourth floor, where he is required to use the rear entrance. The handbags arrive from the port of Naples and are trucked from there to a drop-off point outside Venice. The Chinese distributors pay taxes and are tolerated, and the real producers are never prosecuted.
Momo was arrested and ordered to leave Italy within five days, but then he went into hiding. He wants to return to Senegal, he says, “but not with empty pockets.” He sends up to €2,000 a month via Western Union to Dakar, where he supports nine people.
Momo has been standing on the promenade for nine hours, during which he has had to run from the police eight times. Two white South African women are now looking at his merchandise. It’s a joyless encounter in a foreign place, an unfair deal at the intersection of currents of people. “Where are you from?” Momo asks. “Africa,” they reply. “Me too,” he says. They buy a Fendi trolley case, their trophy from Old Europe, and then they’re off to the cruise ship terminal. The booming ship horns can be heard all the way to this spot.
Momo shoulders the sheet filled with his wares. It’s getting dark. The ship that will take the two African women home steams past the promenade. They had told him they would wave. Momo tilts his head back as the ship, 300 meters long and as tall as an apartment building, glides by. Bits of music and loudspeaker announcements drift eerily down from the nine decks as the passengers stand at the railing, twinkling down at the city.
As Momo waves and thinks of Africa, the windows shake in the Gavagnin’s house nearby. The ship’s engines interfere with broadcast frequencies, temporarily disrupting the picture on their television set. At the other end of the city, hotel owner Secchi is calling the registry office to get the latest population figure. Tomorrow he will update the counter at the pharmacy to 59,514, six fewer Venetians than the week before. He pulls his Indian costume out of a box and waits for Carnival.