This is an unusual step for me, but I think it’s worth it. Even though I don’t place much trust in the power of petitions, maybe this time it will be different.
In any case, I’d like to inform you of one which has gone from 700 to 20,000 signatures and counting in about ten days. I think that means something.
“Gruppo 25 aprile” is a new group of Venetians and Venice-lovers which is concentrating its efforts on stopping the digging of the “Canale Contorta.” Its reasons are shared by many scientific and environmental experts, not to mention a huge percentage of everyday Venetians.
Once the subject of the big cruise ships and their potential to damage Venice became one of the hottest debates and power struggles of the year, the need for finding an alternate route from the Adriatic to Venice obviously became paramount. My own opinion is that any “cure” they find will be worse than the “disease” (i.e., the ships in the Bacino of San Marco) — or, as the Venetians put it, el tacon xe pezo del buso (the patch is worse than the hole).
Many solutions have been proposed, but only one had the political muscle behind it to get itself officially considered by the “Comitatone” (“Big Committee”) in Rome, which had the power to decide yes or no. That “solution” is the dredging of the Canale Contorta.
Thanks to a calculated maneuver by its promoters, the meeting at which the decision was to be made was held in August. (“August” is Italian for “vacation.”)
As Marco Gasparinetti, the coordinator of Gruppo 25 aprile, explains (translated by me from the Gazzettino):
“The decision of the Comitatone on August 8 was a summer blitz with which they hoped to surprise a city on vacation. But the city is fed up with being expropriated from the decisions which concern it, and this time is going to make its voice heard.”
The political vacuum in Venice since the government fell on June 4 has at least one positive aspect, and that is that finally there seems to be some possibility that the voices of Venetians might be heard somewhere beyond their living rooms and favorite bars. Yes, there is chaos in almost every aspect of daily life here now, but the fact that essentially only one man is in charge — Vittorio Zappalorto, the Commissario who is temporary governor — means that the city is less strangled by the political and bureaucratic tentacles of the past 20 years. It’s as if — to try another metaphor — a colossal dose of drain cleaner has ripped through the city’s emotional and civic pipes.
Back to the Canale Contorta. It may not be too late to stop it. Therefore Gruppo 25 aprile has created a petition addressed to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as well as all the ministers concerned (Environment, Infrastructure and Transport, Culture, etc.) urging them to withdraw the hasty approval of what it (and I) regard as a catastrophic move, the last nail in the coffin of the lagoon after the drastic effects of the MOSE floodgates, not to mention the Canale dei Petroli (“Petroleum Canal”), dug in 1969.
The page connected to the link above shows a map (left) from the 1980′s which outlines the major and some minor natural channels (ghebi) which used to cross and re-cross the lagoon. It represents a complex biological realm which the effects caused by the Canale dei Petroli, in 40 years, has done much to destroy, as shown by the NASA satellite image made in 2002 (right). Do you see ghebi? I see just a broad, anonymous stretch of bottom. That’s what the fish see, too.
Here is a section of a brief but pointed piece by Tom Spencer, reader in coastal ecology and geomorphology at the University of Cambridge, and director of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit:
Coastal lagoons are transitional environments between fully terrestrial and fully marine conditions; in the absence of direct human intervention, their long-term tendency is to infill with sediments. Over the centuries, the Venetian Republic was instrumental in maintaining this vital yet delicate land/sea balance, starting with the huge undertaking to divert the main rivers in the 16th century and stop the region from silting up altogether.
Since that time, however, historical and near contemporary records of changing patterns of lagoonal topography and water depth; tidal currents; and sediment transport from the lagoon to the sea all show unequivocally that the current lagoon is moving in the opposite direction, becoming a downward-eroding, sediment-exporting system. It is thus on a trajectory that will turn it into a fully marine bay. That this process is well underway is evidenced by the appearance of plant and animal species in the lagoon that are characteristic of marine environments.
We may argue about the velocity of this trajectory but the evidence for such a trend, clearly related to a whole series of human interventions from the late 18th century to the present, is not in doubt. As wave height and tidal flows are strongly influenced by water depth, such a shift has critical importance for the sustainability of the historic core of Venice itself. If we drill down into the detail behind this general trend, it is clear that the excavation of two large canals (Canale Vittorio Emanuele, around 1925, and Canale Malamocco Marghera, around 1969) produced strong transversal currents across the original tidal network, with consequent siltation of channels and erosion of adjacent shallows.
There is one simple question that needs to be answered. Can we be assured that the large-scale excavation of the Canale Contorta will not have the same effect and not give the Venice lagoon a further shove in the direction of yet more environmental degradation and urban vulnerability?
The petition asks the national government to reconsider all the proposals. That seems like an extremely modest request.
The petition can be signed online. Here is the link explaining their position, with the possibility of signing. (“Firma” means “signature.”)
Or, you can copy and paste:
If anyone might be tempted to suppose that Venice can be happy and healthy in the middle of a maimed and deformed lagoon, that person should consider this: That the water through the Canale Contorta will enter or leave the lagoon with a force and a quantity that will endanger the city to a degree that the biggest cruise ship could never dream of.
I know that I promised not to talk about degradation and tourism anymore. Yet here I am.
Or rather, here they are.
In case I didn’t mention, or even hint at it, I realize that Venice is not the only place on earth which experiences rogue tourists. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I thought Venice was unique in suffering this scourge. I merely wanted to say, “It’s happening here, it needs to stop.”
However, reverence for truth compels me to widen the picture, in part because the wild things in this case do not make my heart sing, and they’re Italians.
What they got up to in Barcelona trumps anything I can offer in the way of gobsmacking madness. I don’t defend them in any way, I just want to say two small things:
First, bodies like theirs cry out to be exhibited (though not fully frontally). I know that’s a stupid thing to say, I just wanted to acknowledge all those hours they put in at the gym, and whatever supplements they take.
Second, how could anybody manage to run around a city naked for THREE HOURS? I can understand totally why the photographer followed them around the entire time (though someone could reasonably ask why he didn’t stop them, while he’s so busy complaining about tourists) — they’re just as cute as little buttons.
But what finally brought them to a stop? Did they run out of gas? Hit a cold front? Suddenly realize they had nowhere to put their money and passports? Or did the photographer finally tell them he had enough pictures, so they could get dressed?
Once again, I forgot that the e-mail version of my blog doesn’t give the YouTube clip itself.
Here’s “I’m Still Here.” You tell me if it makes you think of Venice somehow. Even just a little.
I want everyone to stop for a moment and think of Audrey Hepburn. Yes, one of the most divine women ever to set foot on earth. Just writing her name is like inhaling a waft of moonflowers and heliotrope from the Isles of the Blest.
Now I want you to imagine her — just for a second, because this hurts — becoming old, neglected, and feeble. Not demented, just left to deteriorate at random. You know: The soup stain on the blouse, the dirty hair, the shuffly slippers instead of shoes, the drooping slip, the general all-purpose “Just don’t care anymore, can’t be bothered, nothing matters anyway. What pile of unopened bills on the kitchen floor? What half-eaten cans of tuna in the laundry basket? A mouse in the refrigerator? Is it alive?”
Now I want you to stop for a moment and think of Venice.
Now put the two pictures together. Not good. Not good at all.
I hinted in my last post at a certain laissez-faire atmosphere which has taken over what I still am determined to consider the Audrey Hepburn of cities. Over the years, signs of distressing degradation have been noticed, and even reported to the authorities — each sign existing in its own little capsule in the municipal consciousness, just as each sign of personal neglect can be passed over by benevolent or apathetic eyes. Each, of course, explained or excused because no ghe xe schei.
Then suddenly the total of them all reveals itself as appalling.
This revelation seems to have hit a lot of people lately, if the Gazzettino is anything to go by. And yes, great lamentations continue to rise from the Venetians concerning the tourists. But if tourists are the perpetrators, the municipal non-authorities are the enablers.
First, the tourists. When I use the word, I’m not referring to their quantity, which is distressing though not difficult to understand, but their quality, which utterly bewilders me.
Yes, of course there are millions of wonderful tourists here all the time. And I don’t want to get into an arm-wrestling match over percentages, or what constitutes “quality tourism,” or the God-given universal human right to come to Venice whenever you want.
But I have to say that I do not perceive a human right to come to Venice to DO whatever you want.
Every few days some novel behavior appears which the star of the story inexplicably considers just fine, behavior which in their own city is probably regarded as offensive and possibly also illegal. Here the same behavior is also regarded as offensive, and is often illegal, and yet Venice, especially in the summer, and especially this summer, seems to attract a type of tourist who thinks that former Queen of the Seas is more fun than the locally-much-reviled Disneyland, although the comparison isn’t very useful considering that the Magic Kingdom is more strictly run than your average penitentiary. I mean that as a compliment.
Graffiti-sprayers and sun-bathers in the Piazza San Marco are no longer any special big deal, repulsive as they are. But this year has kicked it all up a notch. There was the Indian family which hunkered down in the Piazza San Marco to cook lunch on a camp stove. The man who decided to beat the heat by stripping down to his underwear, blithely wandering the streets in his Jockey shorts, or the European equivalent thereof.
A young couple, all tuckered out, who spread their towels on the street in a nice patch of shade and lay down to sleep. A man who decided to scale the Doge’s Palace, demonstrating a free-climbing skill that would have been admirable if he hadn’t been clinging to pieces of marble and statues hundreds of years old.
A tightrope walker who strung his cord between two lampposts along the Zattere. Carnal knowledge on the Scalzi bridge.
Do these people think that it’s Carnival here all year? Did they come all the way to Venice just to do this, or are they merely responding to some sudden impulse? Or do they intuit, by some imperceptible herd sensitivity, that Venice has become something like homeroom with no teacher, all the time?
Now comes the latest: Two male visitors in the Piazza San Marco whose bursting bladders brooked no delay. So they relieved themselves into a garbage can. As in many of the above-noted cases, it was broad daylight.
Much of this revolting behavior is something you’d expect — or not be surprised — to see on the Bowery, Skid Row, the Tenderloin, or whatever is the current term for the devastated section of your city.
But this is not them. Nor is it — despite the sun and water and boats — Panama City Beach on Spring Break.
This is a three-square-mile World Heritage Site. It’s more like the Louvre, with sun and water and boats.
So if whatever you’re about to do would be disgusting or ridiculous or rude in the Louvre — or even in Horse Hoof, Kansas, or especially in the much-maligned Disneyland — it would be likewise here.
So much for the tourists.
Yet, as the always perceptive Davide Scalzotto noted in a brief essay in the Gazzettino, if the city has begun to look like a slum (I paraphrase), people will act as if it’s a slum. I believe there are important studies which support this statement. I won’t start a list here of the dreadful deterioration to be seen just about anywhere because it’s too depressing and also because it would make anybody want to scream.
Hardly any money has been spent over the past decade or more on maintenance, let alone improvement, and now we know why. It’s because the city fathers were pulling out the money for MOSE through virtual pneumatic tubes for their own purposes. And the state funds that come via the Special Law for Venice, which was instituted in 1973 specifically to finance measures to protect the city and its environment, are always too little, and too late.
Are there police? Of course, but not nearly enough. Are there laws? Of course, but probably too many. Considering that it’s impossible to enforce them all, they get enforced on an as-needed basis. No wonder the once Most Serene Republic has come to resemble Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
But let’s say somebody gets arrested — it does happen, though it isn’t always, or even usually, a tourist. Not long ago, we read about a crippled beggar well-known around the crowded streets of Venice and the beaches of Jesolo, just across the lagoon. Hold your sympathy. The story had to do with the fact that at quittin’ time the homeless, 47-year-old Romanian straightened up, brushed himself off, and briskly walked toward wherever he was going that night. When an angry citizen’s photograph was published — the lame walk? The blind see? Is it, in fact, a miracle? — the beggar was hauled in and charged with…. what? Offending public decency? Exploiting the public’s natural compassion? Faking it? What crime, exactly, had he committed?
None. The judge ruled that it is not against the law to beg, even if in the process you callously counterfeit a pitiful condition to earn lucrative sympathy. The mendicant paid an administrative fine, and the judge gave him his cane back.
So: There is no law that forbids a person to present himself as something he is not. I guess I already knew that. We had a mayor who presented himself as honest, but he was not. He was sentenced to four months of house arrest, but his crime wasn’t having pretended to be honest, but for having taken bribes. Ergo, why should somebody be punished for pretending to be a cripple, staggering along, doubled over, supported only by his trembling cane?
So we could all start faking it and still be fine. I know people who pretend to be intelligent, or caring, or lots of things they’re not. I could walk around pretending I was Elaine Stritch and I’d never be arrested, at least not until I started belting out “I’m Still Here” on the street.
Here is the YouTube link: http://youtu.be/CFzmVYNItjU
I started with Audrey and I’ve ended up with Elaine. My God: It’s the story of Venice in two names. Maybe “I’m Still Here” ought to be the new national anthem of Venice.
Except that it shouldn’t have to.
My next post, barring some unforeseen calamity, will take us back to happier topics. I’ve had more than I can take of all this tsuris.