On the Wilder Side of Venice
“Ah, Venice!” exclaims the first time visitor, when adjectives seem inadequate to express his fascination for a city that appears to rise not so much out of a lagoon than straight out of his dreams. Yet it is the very pragmatic forces of tourism and industry that have kept Venice “alive” and economically afloat. These forces have also unfortunately contributed in a number of ways to increase the city’s fragility. In recent years the Commune of Venice and its six municipalities, through the creation in 2002 of such organizations as the Osservatorio Naturalistico della laguna, have been trying to reverse certain ill effects by greater environmental concern and are, by the same token, directing tourism towards a broader experience of Venice. Limited by time and money, the average tourist will typically cram into three or four days a visit of the most iconic sights. During this accelerated experience he will be aware of the glaucous body of water around him primarily as the mirror in which Venice contemplates its unearthly beauty. The lagoon will otherwise appear to him as a rather two-dimensional background and as the inevitable passageway to the most visited islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello and Lido. If by chance, (a more frequent one these days) the tourist is forced to pull on his rubber boots to wade through a few inches of water to San Marco he will be keener to see Venice before it sinks than to discover more of that surging lagoon. This bittersweet emotion has been an integral part of the Venetian experience.
But to the Venetian the largest lagoon in the Mediterranean basin (550 km2) is a tangible and vital way of life which has been systematically and simultaneously adapted and preserved since the fifteenth century to accommodate permanent human settlement and provide protection against foreign intrusion. Without such efforts the lagoon in which the city is set like a gem would have filled in and become part of the Adriatic coastline.
The fluctuation between transformation and preservation continues today but the acceptable equilibrium requires increasingly complex efforts. The MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Ellectromecanico) project, started in 2003 as a response to the November 1966 high waters (acqua alta), has — as a possible destabilizing factor on the lagoon’s morphology and hydrodynamics — been the subject of debate between environmentalists and government. To some, the intricate system of mobile gates closing off the three main entrances to the lagoon (Lido, Malamocco, Chioggia), conceived by Fiat engineers, may be more a display of Italian engineering know-how and a means to provide jobs than the best manner in which to preserve the city; and if it does preserve adequately the city, it risks having adverse effects on the lagoon itself. But it has had at least the virtue of drawing international attention to Venice’s natural environment and to the close interdependence between the lagoon’s urban center and the surrounding ecosystem. It has provided further opportunity for scientists of the Institute for Marine Science (CNR ISMAR) to study in depth different aspects of the lagoon. And joining forces with the Commune of Venice, a number of research groups have contributed to an interactive website called “‘L’Atlante della laguna”, which, while allowing different scientific branches to share their respective data, has also made constantly updated information on the lagoon available to the general public.
…it is the very pragmatic forces of tourism and industry that have kept Venice ‘alive’ and economically afloat. These forces have also unfortunately contributed in a number of ways to increase the city’s fragility.
The lagoon is a subtle milieu composed of various aqueous “tissues” which are the marshes, the mudflats known locally as barene, and the tidal shallows or velme. Among them streams and man-made channels circulate water as through the veins of an organism, one that has suffered much, however, from the polluting effects of Porto Marghera, primarily in the 1960s, from maritime activity, but also from agricultural run-offs on the fringes of the lagoon, household pollutions and medical residues such as hormones and antibiotics. Other activities though not directly polluting, have aggravated things. As an example of this indirect impact, the commercial dredging for mollusks has simultaneously torn up the sea grass that is a natural habitat for fish and a natural stabilizer for contaminants in the water; though currents flush out some of the pollutants closer to the coast their effect becomes weaker inland. The diverting of rivers — of which there are originally seven leading into the lagoon: the Brenta, Piave, Bacchiglione, Marzenego, Dese, Zero, Sile — to avoid excessive sedimentation, has helped preserve the lagoon but has diminished the fresh water supply so that land birds have become fewer or disappeared altogether from the wetlands. Transformation of the latter to allow agriculture has not only reduced bird populations but also eliminated the buffer zone that preserved the marshland’s ecological integrity.
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