Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Ambassadors: An Anecdotal Glimpse into MOSE and Contemporary Venetian Governance

Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, from the National Gallery, London

While writing my November 16th post about the great swindle that the MOSE water gates appear to be--since which time even more evidence has been published--I was reminded of an anecdote, which I tried to write up and attach as a short footnote to that piece. But the length of that footnote grew until it basically attained the length of a post all its own, which you can now read below.
For a short period of time three years ago I gave English conversational lessons to a man high up in the administration of one of Venice's major cultural institutions.

We'd met a few times, once a week, to practice in his office, before one day he announced he wouldn't be available for our next meeting, as he'd be in New York City. He explained, with more than his typically robust sense of pride, that he was going to be a member of a contingent of Venetian administrators traveling with then-mayor Giorgio Orsoni to the Big Apple on something of a cultural outreach mission.

We didn't talk about what he'd be doing there, but we did talk a little about New York City, and I told him I looked forward to hearing his impressions of it.

This was in October 2013. I didn't really think anymore about this administrator's trip to New York, or read anything about its main purpose, until today, while remembering this anecdote.

It turns out that various local publications, including the press office of the comune itself, trumpeted this important mission to New York City. The main point of each account was that, in the words of La Nuova di Venezia, "MOSE va a New York." (MOSE goes to New York).

For Hurricane Sandy had flooded New York City's subways in October of the previous year and had finally awakened its administration to the fact that, yes, indeed, rising sea levels--and not just more frequent "Storms of the Century"--were going to inundate major sections of the city as surely as they'd swamp Venice. Preventive measures would need to be taken.

This is where the representatives of Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the conglomerate of private construction firms gifted the no-bid contract to build MOSE and headed by its new president Mauro Fabris (who replaced the old one, Giovanni Mazzacurati, who'd been arrested for corruption in July), spied an opening to market their own "expertise" in the creation of flood prevention systems to America's largest and richest city. (As La Nuova plainly put it in the article above: "il Consorzio vola a New York per 'vendere' il progetto agli americani.") 

Indeed, you can still read a marvelously inflated account of this mission written up by Consorzio Venezia Nuova itself, in which it recounts the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the threat of rising sea levels, and Consorzio's own unchallenged position as the world's expert on flood defenses: referring to the Consorzio's "know how and highest level of experience attained over many years," and its position as the "example for other areas of the planet that must develop programs to protect their own coastlines from the sea" ("acquisendo know how e competenze di altissimo livello, rappresenta oggi un  esempio  di  riferimento  per  altre  aree  del  Pianeta  chiamate  a  programmare  azioni strutturali per la salvaguardia delle regioni costiere dal mare").

(And, here, I must admit this about Consorzio Venezia Nuova: while both their incompetence and cupidity have proven to be off the chart, they do an admirable job on their press materials--especially for a firm based in Italy, where such things are typically rudimentary compared to the flash and polish of American and British corporate publications. My son came home from school a few weeks back with a large, glossy, colorful pamphlet published by Consorzio Venezia Nuova in English [not Italian] about how MOSE works--or is supposed to--that was every bit as slick as anything put out by an admirable company such as, say, Exxon-Mobil. In cash-strapped school systems like that of Venice, such advertising materials (fictional though they may be) are "generously" distributed by corporate interests as educational materials--as, I imagine, texts about the benevolence of the Venetian Republic might have been to distributed to any residents of Constantinople still alive after their city was sacked in 1204).  

In any case, this band of august Venetian ambassadors set off on a trade mission to a powerful distant land--just as Venetians used to do all the time during the glory years of the mighty Republic--to meet with its powerful leader, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself as rich as one of the sultans of old.

But these representatives of an ancient, imperiled and ever-more-empty city of less than 60,000 residents did not go merely hat in hand to one of the world's undisputed capitals with a population of more than 8 million. No, the venerable Mayor Orsoni--still some months away from being arrested himself and forced from office for corruption--is reported to have declared to Bloomberg that Venice "is a modern city of innovation." Considering the sophistication of the MOSE project, that is, it was almost as if Orsoni and company were emissaries from the future, with a great gift to bestow (for the right price).

Well, you'd think that anyone fortunate enough to have been a member of this honorable group of statesmen (and it was all men), would have plenty to say about this historically significant trip: this moment at which Venice reasserted its trail-blazing importance on the international stage. 

But the next time I saw the administrator I tutored, a couple of weeks after his return to Venice, he morosely refused to say almost anything about it, scowling and muttering at the mere mention of it.

I persisted, and found out why.

Only after concluding their visit to New York City did this contingent of Venetian representatives discover that they had arranged to meet with an outgoing lame duck mayor in his last two months in office.

For strange as it may seem, none of these perspicacious ambassadors seemed to be aware of the fact that New York City would he holding a mayoral election less than two weeks after their visit. An election in which Michael Bloomberg, having already exceeded the term limit of his office, was never going to be on the ballot.

That is, an entirely new administration would take charge of running the city in the new year, while Venice's representatives had spent their time meeting with powerless outgoing officials. 

To make it even worse, the winner of the mayoral election by a landslide (Bill de Blasio), as expected, was not even a member of the same political party as the outgoing mayor. 

The Venetians' trip, in other words, was, in the words of the administrator I tutored, a total waste of time.

But, of course, this anecdote refers to something that took place three years ago. I have no doubt that the current administration and leadership of Venice is much more astute.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Plagues Past and Present: Festa della Salute 2016

One member of a procession of plague doctors calling attention to a list of things they believe are now killing Venice

Picturesque though it all is, I realized this year that I couldn't bear to take another photo of the large banks of lit candles, the squads of young tenders to the flames, the pressing throngs, or the decorated interior of Santa Maria della Salute at this year's festa.

The candle stalls, the long row of sweet stalls, the huge bundles of balloons: those, too, were no less colorful, but I just couldn't find it in me to shoot them yet again.

The festa commemorates St. Mary's deliverance of the city from the plague of 1630-31; an act of heavenly kindness for which the church itself was built as a little token of gratitude. And, implicitly, one suspects, as something of a bribe: a big splashy gesture to curry the kind of favor that might lead Her to protect the city from the next plague.

A crowd on the steps of the basilica and, in the distance, another on the votive bridge across the Grand Canal

But not long after vespers sounded last night, a procession of between two and three dozen figures dressed in the traditional garb and masks of the plague doctor appeared behind a slow, steady drum beat to call attention to a present-day plague upon Venice: one which shows little sign of abating or being effectively addressed.

As you can see on the tablet carried by the plague doctor in the image above, Venice, in the opinion of the marchers (and many others), is now being done in by: exodus, "bite and run" mass tourism, cruise ships, and knock-off handicrafts.

I suppose one might pray to Mary for relief from these ailments as well, but I think the many people in the city and around the world who are concerned about them might be satisfied with any signs of serious good-faith human efforts.

But when it comes to those who wield political and economic power in Venice these days it sometimes seems that nothing short of a miracle would get them to take effective action. 

For more representative images of the most famous aspects of the festa see:

For a description of how to prepare the festa's traditional dish of castradina, see:

Heading into the church to have their two candles lit
Reflections of the crowd in the large lamp hanging from the basilica's central dome

Holy fire inside the church, holy water outside: a charitable organization offering l'acqua di Lourdes for contributions

Behind a phalanx of plastic Mary figurines containing water from Lourdes 

An imperfect panorama of the view from Calle del Bastion

The lone candle stall in the campo of San Gregorio

Friday, November 18, 2016

Venetian Faces 4

Three years ago I occasionally posted portraits of people on the vaporetto (eg, But of course sometimes the most captivating of subjects riding the vaporetto go about on four legs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

One of History's Great Swindles? Venice Is Sinking, but MOSE Is Sinking Much Faster

One of the large MOSE water gates prior to its installation in the mouth of the lagoon--where it will lie inoperably until corrosion necessitates its removal for costly repair and cleaning

If Venice is widely considered in its beautiful, implausible entirety--all its art, architecture, industry and economic innovation arising in the most inhospitable and limited of spaces--to be one of civilization's greatest creations, shouldn't the scandal-ridden, defective and ever-more-obsolete MOSE water gate system (that was supposed to save it) be considered one of civilization's greatest swindles?

This is the question that's haunted me for the last couple of years as all the corruption, incompetence and ill effects--both ecological and civic--of the great work (grande opera) have come undeniably to the surface:

So, the gates have created changes in water flow that have resulted in huge deep pits in the lagoon, which actually intensify acqua alta...?

So, the Director of the project Giovanni Mazzacurati and scores of others were arrested for corruption...? (Corruption that many people saw wired into the project from its inception.)

So the €5.5 billion that have gone to the project have meant that even essential services necessary to the operation and preservation of the city (eg regularly dredging canals) have been cut, and social services necessary to the life of what's left of the living city have been wiped out (funds to schools, libraries, senior centers, tidal monitoring centers, etc)...?

So, only in the last two years have the project's crack team of engineers discovered, as the local papers put it, that there's salt in sea water--which is corroding the water gates at alarming rates and fouling their operation...?

So, the gates were designed for a rise in sea level of 20 cm and now the projection is 80 cm...?

Well, in spite of all this and much more, I told myself not to jump to any conclusions. After all, the fate of one of the world's most celebrated cities depends on this grand project, and having sucked up all the Special Funds designated for Venice, and knowing full well that the entire world is watching them, those involved in the project couldn't be so shamelessly venal and/or inept as to make a complete shambles of it all.

Don't be such a pessimist, I told myself.

Now this, published in yesterday's L'Espresso: the massive concrete caissons lodged in the lagoon bed from which the water gates are supposed to rise up are actually sinking faster than Venice itself.  
(The entire article by Fabrizio Gatti merits reading, even if you need the help of a translation program to do so.)

The project's crack team of engineers had, of course, projected a certain limited amount of subsidence--but nothing even approaching what is actually happening.

While the city sinks a few millimeters each year into the ancient sediment of the lagoon, MOSE's foundations are sinking at a rate of 4 cm per year.

In other words, not only is the expected sea level going to be higher than was planned for in the design of the gates, but the foundations of the gates are going to be sinking ever lower.

Or, in other words, it appears that €5.5 billion (and counting) have been poured into a corrupt project that not only does not function--its operational date is perennially pushed further and further back--but which is already obsolete.

Meanwhile, Giovanni Mazzacurati lives out his golden years in La Jolla, California, having been deemed too infirm to withstand punishment for his crimes; the next and perhaps last generation of Venetian children attend filthy schools to which they must bring their own toilet paper; and Venice's own non-resident "Can-Do" mayor fantasizes about hosting a Trump-Putin summit here and, in spite of the ongoing disaster that is MOSE, pushes for beginning yet another grande opera: an offshore port just outside the lagoon.

Once again: senza parole.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Grand Unseen Facades of Venice

Though they may not be as grand as the showplaces along the Grand Canal, some of my favorite palazzo facades in Venice are those along smaller, less glamorous side canals visible (such as the one above, not far from the church of San Francesco della Vigna) only from a boat, not from a nearby bridge or from a canal bank across the way. If you spring for a gondola ride such facades are something to watch for, and are perhaps the most compelling examples--in spite of all the walking we do here now--of Venice's traditional and emphatic orientation toward the water.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Senza Parole... America Elects Its Own 'Roid-Rage Version of Berlusconi

It's darkest before the dawn? Perhaps. But sometimes it's just pitch dark.

As an American of Italian descent, then as one with dual Italian citizenship, it was difficult to bear the election and re-elections of Silvio Berlusconi. To people around the world--and not least of all to people in the United States--this was often used as evidence that Italy was nothing more than a worn-out, corrupt old joke. Only a hopelessly rotten nation, such people said scornfully, a nation with neither any intelligence nor conscience, a hollow desperate nation in which puffed-up vanity had displaced any trace of dignity, could allow itself to be ruled by such a blatantly perfidious, debauched, ignorant, misogynistic, racist gas bag: a painful joke on the world stage, a disaster at home.

And now America--the self-professed "beacon" of the world--has outdone Italy....  

Senza parole.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

This Evening's Sunset from Il Fondaco dei Tedeschi--Newly Reopened as a Duty Free Shopping Mall

Is it a good thing that one of Venice's most famous buildings is now a duty free shopping mall? More on this in a couple of days. For now, we can enjoy the view--taken, alas, through a window. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Two New Exhibitions Reflect on Today's 50th Anniversary of Venice's Great Flood

The blue line on the Olivetti Showroom window indicates the height of the 1966 flood, and appears on each shop around Piazza San Marco that is participating in the exhibition Acqua in Piazza

In spite of the fact that acqua alta has become almost as synonymous with Venice as gondolas, a good many visitors to the city have mistaken ideas about the phenomenon. Understandably enough, the errors usually are inspired by what flooding means in their native lands, or by the frequently misleading images and accounts of high water disseminated by the international press.

Acqua alta, however, in spite of what the most extreme and eye-catching images may suggest, is not a "flash flood," but just part of the normal cycle of incoming and outgoing tides upon which the city's ancient sewage system depends for its effectiveness. I've always found the following saying a useful way of remembering this cycle, as it purports to tell you not only about the tides, but about the supposedly bipolar Venetian temperament: "Venetians are like their city's tides: up for six hours, down for six hours, up for six hours, down for six hours."

At least, this is almost always how acqua alta works. But the most famous and damaging modern instance of acqua alta, the one whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated around the city today, was a "perfect storm" phenomenon, whose various elements combined to overwhelm the usual tidal rhythm.

On 4 November 1966 the problem wasn't just that an extremely high tide rolled into the city. It was that extremely strong scirocco winds and barometric pressure kept it from going back out into the Adriatic (as it usually would have) before the next high tide came in. And if that wasn't bad enough, heavy rains on the mainland (where places like Florence and Siena were experiencing their own disastrous flooding) brought hugely swollen rivers into the lagoon from the west.

The result was a tide that measured 194 cm (6 feet 4 inches) above "mareographic zero", and that didn't go down for nearly 24 hours. As John Keahey describes it in his fine book Venice Against the Sea
As soon as the rising salt water hit 1.90 cm and assaulted the city's electrical transformers [which after a major flood in 1953 had been re-positioned at that height], the city went black. All power was down, and all telephone services--its equipment maintained at the same level on the ground floors of the buildings--went dead as well. Fuel tanks holding diesel, then a common fuel for heating (now replaced by natural gas), were breached, and the water became thick and oily, turning black and smelling of petroleum.
The city was without power for a full week.

Acqua alta two days after the show's opening
Food and water supplies were disrupted, people left homeless, businesses closed, and the damage to personal and public property, and to the city's architectural and artistic heritage was immense. Keahey cites older Venetians' memories of "carcasses--rats, cats, dogs--and of mattresses and other bedding and furniture floating in the [diesel-tainted] canals", along with "crates of vegetables and fruit, swept from the market near Rialto."

Even ten days after the great storm, he notes that one woman returned from Milan to her family home to find such debris still floating everywhere. 

Fortunately, in the long history of Venice, this kind of event has been rare. Keahey writes, "Historians estimate that this kind of high water--about six feet (nearly two meters) above relative sea level--has occurred only about five times in the human history of Venice."

Though that's not to say there isn't the possibility that with rising seal levels and changing weather patterns--not to mention human-made alterations in the form of the lagoon--they won't become more common. 

So this is what's being commemorated today, in various ways and various places around the city.

Two of the more interesting exhibitions inspired by this 50th anniversary--gathered together under the title L'Acqua E La Piazza and sponsored by Fondo Ambiente Italiano, Associazione Piazza San Marco, and We Are Here Venice--are taking place in and around Piazza San Marco, and run from their openings today through 8 January 2017.

Both Ritorno in Piazza and Acqua in Piazza take the anniversary of the acquagranda (great flood) as inspiration to reflect upon both the present significance of Piazza San Marco--now one of the lowest places in Venice and, hence, the first to be flooded--and its possible futures.

Photographer Anna Zemella with some of her images currently on display in the Olivetti Showroom

Ritorno in Piazza is an exhibition of black-and-white work by the Venetian photographer Anna Zemella hosted by the non-profit organization FAI in Carlo Scarpa's beautiful Olivetti Showroom beneath the northern arcade of Piazza San Marco. Half of the show, as might be expected given the occasion, is a meditation on water in the Piazza and the Piazza (as reflected) in that water.

The other half is focused upon those monumental human sculptures of the Piazza that are, paradoxically, both integral parts of the Piazza's appearance and yet rarely ever really seen. Each of Zemella's images don't so much bring each subject out of the shadows into the plain light of day, but, rather, captures in striking chiaroscuro the particular force of each subject--bound up within and struggling against their obscurity as Michelangelo's similarly muscled slaves writhe within their blocks of marble in Florence's Accademia. 

In each section, the photographer returns the viewer to an intimate relationship with Piazza San Marco: the kind of relationship usually lost because of the overwhelming presence of mass tourism there.

The exhibition Acqua in Piazza, on the other hand, literally takes us out of the Olivetti Showroom and around the Piazza itself. Created by the local non-profit group We Are Here Venice and the artist Eleonora Sovrani, it leads the viewer to 14 different nearby installation sites (12 of them within the Piazza itself, 2 more just outside it), each of them clearly marked by a blue line on the front window of participating businesses, indicating the water level reached on each facade on 4 November 1966 (and also mapped out on a postcard available in shops and hotels around Venice, in addition to the Olivetti Showroom).

Inside each different site viewers will find a framed montage of image and text offering different perspectives on and information about the complex relationship between the Piazza and the lagoon, ranging from the  most immediately practical issues--such as how businesses prepare for and deal with repeated flooding--to more far-flung, technical and scientific responses to this essential Venetian reality, such as the network of tidal gauges in the lagoon.

Though inspired by a day of commemoration, what I like about both of these projects is that in each of them history acts as a spur to think about the present situation of the Piazza and the lagoon and Venice, and about what might lie ahead--and what we might do about it. One project sends us back out in the Piazza with a new attention to detail. The other quite literally leads us into the businesses directly affected by this unique situation, makes us active participants in the project, learning more about the very space we're walking through from each successive site we visit.

Again, both exhibitions run through 8 January 2017.

And there's also a beautifully produced book for each work, published by lineadcqua press and available for purchase in the Olivetti Showroom.