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A letter to Piero Bevilacqua (and his reply)
6 Luglio 2004
Venice and its Lagoon (english translations)
Piero Bevilacqua is a great historian. I recommend everybody at least three of his books: On the usefulness of history (Sull’utilità della Storia), Venice and the Lagoon (Venezia e la Laguna), Between nature an history (Tra natura e storia). I did not like a presentation of his book on Venice. That is why I wrote him the following letter that I publish together with his reply.

Venice, 28th November 1998

Dear Piero, I was very disappointed with the round table in which you presented your book, yesterday evening. I followed it carefully, also because I could dedicate it all my time and attention, having been immobilised by neuritis at my ankle. I have found the presentation full of hurried and misleading statements rather than interesting observations. Your excellent book would have deserved better.

Please, let me express my opinion about a core point of the cultural proposal that emerges from your writings (the “modernity” that we should pursue nowadays), and about two issues that move from this point and are crucial for the future of Venice: the movable barriers at the port mouths and the Venetian transport system (alias, the MoSE and the Sublagunar railway).

Venice and “modernity”

This is an issue to investigate from a distance. I will take up again some of the questions I have illustrated last year in a debate about “a lagoon park”.

I will start from an observation. During the capitalistic-bourgeoisie ages, the development of the productive forces has resulted in huge benefits for the human race, but has also provoked enormous damages. Among these, the break of the balanced relationship between production and environment that had marked millenniums of our history. In the last centuries, the environment has been denied in its very personality and reduced to a merely manipulable and marketable object. Technology has cancelled and replaced nature. No longer has technology guided nature, according to its laws and rhythms, nor has it shaped the environment by building human-friendly landscape. And the economy has no longer considered the environment as a set of resources to use parsimoniously. Economy has started to treat the natural environment as a mine to exploit, with no saving and with no care for the future.

Nowadays, the damages of this approach stand out in all their clarity. To carry on with this senseless attitude will mean the disappearance of the humankind and the premature death of our planet. Many agree that we need to invert the current trend. Many are convinced that we need to identify, experiment and carry out a new system of production that does not harm the environment and uses its remaining resources to increase its qualities. I am strongly convinced that this is our mission and the mission of the next generations – if we do not want the sun to go down upon an immense desert.

How can we pursue this tremendous venture? Where should we start? We would be real wasters (and we would have not understood a thing from what you told us in your book “Natura e Storia”) if we would not think to make the most of the resources we have. Under this point of view, it is clear to me that Venice and its lagoon represent a precious resource. An example that can teach us how can human labour and culture wisely relate with the forces of nature.

Here in Venice, the humankind (and your book “Venezia e le acque” says it extremely well) has been able to direct the environment evolution, day after day and season after season, to improve the site resources. In order that both the natural resources and the site could serve, as better and as lastingly as possible, the people’s survival and the society development.

Venetians have developed a great number of different subjects in order to live together with the surrounding nature, by transforming the environment without destroying it and by respecting nature without embalming it. Among them the building technologies and sciences: materials, city planning, architecture; fishery, aquaculture and the conservation of deriving food, ship design and building; world exploration and mapping; government administration and intermediation among people .

Two possible destinies for an oasis of wisdom

I see Venice as an oasis where there is the wisdom that the contemporary world has forgotten. An oasis that can be considered in two ways.

It can be seen as an anachronistic residual of a past that does no longer hold lessons to teach, and thus should be eliminated either, like Marinetti would have done, by replacing it with a new reality made of concrete and steel, or by crystallising it as a sterile museum-city like an “Indian reservation”. These are two complementary ways to homologate Venice to the current models of consumption and production, which rule everywhere, although they are undergoing a deep crisis.

Otherwise, Venice can be considered and governed as a school of modernity: like a place that allows the experimentation of an innovative system of production, compared to what we would like to leave behind our shoulders, for the benefit of the whole world,. A truly “sustainable” system of production that does not destroy the natural resources and that draws from what the Serenissima Republic left us two centuries ago, a production model that is able to utilise the scientific innovations not only in an “industrial” prospective.

Was not this the inspiration behind the cultural – before than political – project that made Massimo Cacciari become Mayor of Venice for the first time, in 1992?

The MoSE: three reasons to concern

Let’s now talk about the two specific issues I mentioned before: Mose and Sublagunar. If I am worried about the Mose is not because it is a “big work”. It does not worry me for the opposite reasons why Mr De Michelis likes it. I am not ideologically opposite in principle to big works. Even the Laterza Publishing House has printed one of my books in the “Big Works” series and I was not at all displeased. Venice has seen other important “big works” worth its survival: the massive river diversion, on which Sabbadino and Cornaro quarrelled furiously, the Istria stone Murazzi designed by Zendrini the mathematician and made in the 700s.

However, this “big work”, the MoSE project, has three worrying specificities:

(a) it implies the permanent artificialization of the only three connections left between the sea and the lagoon (in fact, it is not only made, as Francesco Indovina claims, by a series of underwater large cases, but also and irreversibly, by three huge concrete offshore bars that connect the two shores of each mouth, permanently interrupting the natural continuity between the lagoon and the sea bed);

(b) unlike the operations made centuries ago, this is designed with technologies and materials that have nothing to do with those old “natural” ones previously used. I don’t want to say that this is a crucial reason, but it should lead to more caution;

(c) I believe that its benefits are not proportionate to its – really extraordinary – costs. If the MoSE’s incredibly high costs represent an atout for Indovina (who sees in this some great job opportunities) and for De Michelis (who gets excited envisaging fervid enterprise activities), I think, having understood here in the Lagoon the importance of a parsimonious exploitation of the resources, that this is an issue that deserves a second thought.

To make myself clearer, if the Mose is really necessary to save the lagoon and Venice, Chioggia, Murano, Burano and the other historical pearls, then pas de problèmes! Even if the expenditure is high. But the point is that I don’t think it has been demonstrated at all that this operation is really needed. This is, in my opinion, the critical reason why not to join the crowded group of the project supporters in the name of the safeguard of Venice, and, most of all, in the name of the ideological excitement for the “magnificent and progressive destinies” of modernity and late-industrial technology.

Is the Mose necessary?

As you know, the studies that support the Mose project (the environmental impact study edited by Consorzio Venezia Nuova) outline three scenarios, correspondent to three correspondent hypothesises of the water level raising. In relation with each scenario, the study calculates how many times the movable barriers will close in one year, in order to avoid that the high waters invade Venice (and other centres).

The third scenario, which corresponds to the most probable assumption, is the one that Enzo Tiezzi has suggested when, to cut it short with the doubtful questions, he arrogantly asserted: “It’s no longer time to get the water with the buckets and the sponges; it’s time to make a move and close the taps”. In this scenario, for the joint effect of the current phenomena and the increase of the ocean level due to the raise of the terrestrial temperature, the barriers will need to shut almost 400 times per year (according to the forecast of the Tides Council Office that has been studying the phenomenon for many years)!

In short, the lagoon would always be shut down. The water exchange will be hindered, as well as all port activities. If we have to believe this scenario is reliable, and is not only a dialectic truncheon to threaten during the polemic debates and in the lobby activity, there will be only two operational possibilities left. We either close the lagoon for good, by shutting the three mouths down with solid concrete dams, thus reducing the lagoon to a pond that could only be purified artificially, and which natural environment will be radically modified; or we place the “Tiezzi taps” on the Otranto channel (or at the Gibraltar Strait). In fact, if the level of the Adriatic Sea (and perhaps of the whole Mediterranean) will raise so much to exceed more than one meter the average sea level for 400 times a year, then we should ask ourselves what measures should be taken in Split, Ancona, Brindisi, and in all the many others small and large towns on the Adriatic Sea (and perhaps on the Mediterranean).

However, one thing is for sure: if the scenario envisaged in relation with the “greenhouse effect” will really come true to the forecasted extend, the MoSE applied at the lagoon doors will not work at all.

The other two scenarios are less dramatic. They will mean the need to close the barriers 10 to 70 times per year. But here it’s worthwhile to stop and think about the well-known question of the “wide-spread measures” (re-opening of the occluded parts of the lagoon, restructuring of the lagoon beds and restoration of the natural channel, cautious raising of the street pavements where the level is lower than 120 cm on the average sea level, cleaning of the city channels, etc.). The Environmental Impact Study made by Consorzio Venezia Nuova provides figures and simulations that show that these measures could only have a very marginal effect. The Committee made of the five “worldwide famous” experts takes the Consorzio’s figures for good, and thus accepts the Consorzio’s conclusions. But the CNR (National Research Council) Laboratory for Large Masses shows that the reduction in the “peaks” would cause significant reductions to the high waters, to the extend of 20-25 cm. This would

mean that, should those measures be implemented, the frequency of high waters would reduce to few days per year: as it has always been, since Venice is Venice.

The daily cohabitation with the waters and the systematic need for upholding and small adjustments are part of the city culture, more than the extraordinary “big works”, aren’t they? You will surely agree with this, dear Piero, won’t you?

It is not by chance, in fact, that those who support the absolute necessity of the MoSE are the same whose words clearly express one remote thought: Venice should become like any other city in the world.

My hypothesis is the opposite: all the other cities of the world should become like Venice, and learn how people here have lived for centuries with the natural events, by governing them without eliminating them and, on the contrary, using them to enrich their life experience.

Finally, let’s look at things under the point of view of the working class employment. Sure, the amazing investments for the MoSE (according to the current Consorzio’s estimations they will amount in 4.440 billion liras) will generate a strong flow of enterprises, materials and products, and workers, mostly from outside the Venetian area. This is certainly not bad. But I don’t believe that we have given enough thought to the great and long-lasting contribution that a wide-spread action of “ordinary and extraordinary upholding” measures in the city and its lagoon could give to the local firms and the local work force.

The same upholding that you, Piero, mentioned, in your conclusive speech at the round table, as the great lesson provided by the SerenissimaRepublic that we should recuperate today. The same upholding that today, due to the fact that no daily maintenance of the city has been regularly carried out during the last two centuries, would require (if considered as the crucial point for a new development) the start of a huge recovery of the lagoon environment, through the reshaping of its beds and restoration of its shores, the reconstruction of its defences and ecosystem, restoration and upholding of the urban pavement and decorations and the extraordinary maintenance of the channels.

As far as regards the chitchat about the amazing “Great, Modern and Progressive DOING”, about the Mose and about the Sublagunar railway, does not this chitchat distract the attention of the intellectual energies and resources, as well as of the public opinion, and the trade unions, from the huge amount of measures spread on the entire lagoon area that are already planned and partially designed?

…and the Sublagunar railway

I was astonished by the fact that the former national Minister for the Public Works, Mr Paolo Costa, recuperated the project for “a sublagunar metropolitan line”, and that this has been positively welcomed by the new Venice Trade Union Secretary. That project to me has always looked as an enormous nonsense.

First, I am one of the many that are convinced that Venice is slaughtered by “cash&carry” tourism. As a metropolitan railway is justified only with mass people flows, the Sublagunar will only have the effect of conveying further streams of visitors in S. Mark’s Square and the other sites, places already made impossible to live by the current amount of tourists. When we used to think in-depth about things, and we did not allow ourselves to be seduced by the progress ideology, we were persuaded that tourism had to be “governed”, and to this scope it was useful and necessary to stop the people flows at terminals in the mainland (Fusina and Tronchetto), and to make them arrive in Venice with waterbuses.

If we want to facilitate the access to the Venice Office Centers, then the solution has been pointed out from many years, right from the Venice Trade Unions. It would be enough to reorganise the current railway network in the mainland and utilise the massive railway line of Ponte della Libertà to take commuters to Santa Lucia and Marittima: places from, as we all know, everybody can easily and pleasantly reach any part of the city, either walking or using very civil waterbuses.

A final remark on this. The time and the routes of the city pathways are an inherent part of the Venice quality and of its terribly contemporary lesson. Venice is beautiful also because it allows you to live the time of its pathways, walking or on a waterbus, as spaces in which you can relax and feel enriched by enjoying looking at city, its houses, its places, its people. The time of Venice pathways is not, like in other contemporary metropolis, a pain which duration must be reduced, but a pleasure during the day, experienced as a natural and joyful break. Do we want to eliminate this too?


Edoardo Salzano

Dear Eddy,

Thanks for your long and beautiful letter: it’s almost an essay! Yesterday night, back home quite tired, I took from my bag the usual pile of paper, ( letters, faxes, files to read, etc.) and I was just about to put them aside to look at them in better times... But then I recalled that there must have been your letter there, I looked for it and I found it. I started reading it and, as if by magic, concentration and lucidity came back. After a couple of pages I found myself smiling, for a curious and weird sensation that I had never felt before: my agreement with what I was reading was so complete that I had the impression that I had written that letter myself.

Thus, I totally agree with you, on all the issues you have treated and there is no point for me to recap what you have already said so well. I too would have liked that some issues of my book would have been treated more in-depth. But, you know, I am now prepared to accept that a presentation is to make publicity: and nowadays is already enough to have a public debate, even broadcasted on the radio.

On the modernity of Venice, on the very right things you say, I only want to add a further observation. Also many of our intellectual friends, people often generously dedicated in keeping alive the feeble flame of the social commitment, are often trapped in the spell of “progressism”. They have not yet realised what is the deep trend of our times, which drags everything towards the abyss of the functional exemplification. Yet, they would only need to open their eyes and see the world as it is, to understand the unequivocal signs that it sends us. But it is this very understanding that should warmly recommend us to see in Venice a treasure of differences to preserve for its everlasting “otherness”. We don’t yet understand that the inestimable richness of our times is just everything that runs away to the logical mechanisms of our times... all the exceptions, everything that cannot be industrially produced and does not obey to rigid rational criteria: I was on the point to say all that “does not work”. The silence in the campi and calli, going walking (or in waterbus as you say) with the slow rhythm of an ancient and now lost relation between citizens and the city space. This should not represent a trouble of living in Venice, but one of the matchless privileges the city provides in this contemporary world. Sure, there is the problem of letting Venice live. We need a great and original political project to make the town alive in a different way from the other cities. But first there is a huge cultural problem: the revaluation of the Venice modernity, inherent in its being stranger to the mass capitalistic society, which is now dying anyway.

And I go on shortly on the MOSE. I feel somehow uncomfortable to talk about this issue, because I don’t have on it the knowledge that allows me to comment on previous events. I am very sensitive to all your reasonable objections. However, my main concern is very briefly the following. I fear that the increasingly more frequent high waters – beside the impending threat of extreme events like the 1966 flood- could make living in Venice progressively more difficult, so much to determine its final decline. Not to mention the fact that a city frequently flooded, eventually hostile to its people daily life, would constitute an unquestionable argument against our theory of a modernity of Venice based on its rebuffing the capitalistic “comforts”. We would end up shouting in a desert.

You add, among your other considerations, that a general increase of the sea level due to the global phenomena would make the MOSE useless. It’s what I have already written in my book. However, I believe that we need to be more flexible and accept many possibilities when we aim our sight towards the future. Are we really sure that when the signs of the ocean raising will become alarming, the planet population will continue to accept the current senseless system of production? Don’t you think that we underestimate the possibility of a change due to the pressures made by intellectual groups, environmentalists, citizens, etc.

Sure, it’s not granted it will happen. Let’s leave this progressive sort of optimism to the silly ones and to those who want to continue looking at their business. But we have to believe that it may happen. On what, otherwise, do we base the reasons of our fight?

Warm regards

from your Piero.

P.S. Regarding “big works”: have you heard my telephone message about how beautiful did I found your “big work” about urbanism published by Laterza?

21 Agosto 2005

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