Archive for acqua alta


Is Venice that way?

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The Venice Marathon finishes in the most beautiful city in the world. Or maybe not.

The classic foot race known as a marathon is generally predictable, from the distance (26 miles/385 yards or 42 km/195 meters) to the winner (so often an athlete from Kenya or Ethiopia or Eritrea).  And why should the 32nd Venice Marathon, which was run last Sunday, October 22, have been any different?

Why indeed?  That’s what people would really like to know.

Because in 31 years here no competitors in the lead have ever somehow taken the wrong road at the 16-mile point.  And yet on Sunday there was a little peloton of East Africans who were some distance ahead of the 5,962 other runners.  Abdulahl Dawud, Gilbert Kipleting Chumba, Kipkemei Mutai and David Kiprono Metto were following the motorcycle at the head of the race, as per normal, and when it turned right, going up the ramp onto the overpass leading to Venice, naturally they followed.  Except that they were supposed to be on the highway below the overpass.

The drone — or helicopter — showed this scene in real time. Unbelievable. (

Of course there’s nothing strange about seeing the front runners on an empty road.  It just turned out to be the wrong empty road. (Sports Illustrated)

As two precious minutes ticked by, somebody else on a motorcycle caught up with them, yelling (I imagine) “What the hell, you guys?  You’re supposed to be down there!”  I imagine this because Lino and I were watching the live broadcast and you could easily see the men begin to turn around and trot back the way they came, no longer in the lead although still all by themselves, race essentially over. In fact, it was literally over; they withdrew immediately.  One doesn’t run 26 miles/385 yards, or at that point one hour and 15 minutes, for the sheer euphoric joy of it.  Who was responsible for that wrong turn?  If you know, the world would like to hear from you.  And so would the four runners.

As if we needed another problem, here it is: The winner, Eyob Faniel — who finished with an amazing two-minute lead over the rest of the pack — was born in Eritrea but is a naturalized Italian citizen and runs for the Venicemarathon Club.  Fun fact:  It has been 22 years since an Italian won the Venice Marathon.  About time, you say?  Somebody else might have been thinking the same thought.  I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but the optics here, as the current expression has it, are not attractive.

Here is what Lorenzo Cortesi, general secretary of the Venice Marathon, has said (translated by me): “We need to evaluate if this was an error by the vigili urbani (a sort of local police), or by us.  The service autos exited the barriers and the local police didn’t close the street.  The motorcycles, then, weren’t able to transit the underpass.” (I totally do not understand this last bit.  You want the people to run on a road that the motorcycle is forbidden to take?)  “But I wouldn’t want the significance of this race to be limited only to this.”  Of course you wouldn’t.  Neither would I, if I were in charge.

But enough unpleasantness!  Backpats generously administered by Signor Cortesi to the 2,000 volunteers involved, not to mention to everyone involved in the successful completion of all the unusual elements which the Venice Marathon requires: “Just think of the fact that we have to transport from the mainland to the arrival area, with 12 big trucks and 12 boats, the sacks of all the personal effects of the athletes.”

I can confirm that the organization was impressive as seen from ground level, from the chemical toilets to the bags of snacks to the massage tables with massagers waiting for massaggees.

But although the scaffolding and some bridges and the bleachers have all been removed, the questions refuse to go away.  It used to be that everybody would be talking about how people ran.  Now the only thing they’re talking about is where.

On Thursday, things began to be done on the Riva dei Sette Martiri. Unusual things for the Riva, normal things for the marathon, which is held on the fourth (and usually also the last) Sunday in October.

This spacious area in the Giardini Pubblici was soon to be revised to accommodate the immediate needs of thousands of exhausted and sweaty people.

The accommodation was, first of all, big tents for changing your clothes. Smaller tents were for medical attention of various sorts.

Masses of runners downshifting after the 10K race, which preceded the main event by a few hours. The brown-paper bags contained cartons of fruit juice, cookies, fruit and something else — I only got a glimpse inside one. The broad plastic wrappers were temporary blankets doing double duty as large posters for the main sponsor, Huawei Technologies. I should have mentioned that the official name of the event, as announced by the speaker in virtually every sentence, is “Huawei Venice Marathon.”

Yes, there will be garbage. Let’s see…thousands of plastic blankets and paper bags of food and busted shoelaces and fistfuls of used tissues, or whatever runners throw away when the party’s over, all have to be collected and carried off by the hardy trashmen and women of Veritas.


Three of the 12 enormous boats loaded with bags which contain the bags of runners’ personal effects trundled toward the Giardini to wherever the pickup point was organized.  If you’ve ever had any reason to inquire about the cost of renting one of these boats, you won’t have to ask why there are so many sponsors for this event.

As you see: Sponsors. Job lots of them, which is the only way these affairs can exist.

We sat in the bleachers watching the overjoyed 10K runners cross the finish line. The sky threw down some gobbets of rain but it didn’t last long.

The jumbotron was a great way to watch the big race as the runners coasted along the Brenta river. It all seemed so peaceful and normal…

A few sections of the temporary bridge used for the feast of the Redentore bring the runners from the Zattere across the Grand Canal to San Marco.

There was a little soupcon of acqua alta in the Piazza, but the higher stretch in the center of the square meant the runners kept their feet dry (which was not the case on one memorable day some years ago when “sloshing” entered the event’s description).

The fabulous finish by Eyob Faniel was pretty exciting. I don’t want the backstory to discolor what was a great moment for the spectators anyway.  Nobody had truly grasped the whole situation at this point, and a guy running with nobody to be seen behind him is irresistibly thrilling.

And of course, crossing the finish line was a huge experience for the myriad unsung runners racing against themselves.

And after the glory come the showers. Follow the helpful hand-drawn arrows to hot water and soap, the happy ending after the happy ending.


Categories : Events
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Fire, water, brimstone?

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"Fire in the Oil Warehouse," by Francesco Guardi, 1789. Not made up, the fire or the painting.

“Fire in the Oil Warehouse,” by Francesco Guardi, 1789. Not made up, the fire or the painting.

The last thing on this mortal earth that the Venice firemen ever want to deal with is a fire.

If you leaf through a thousand years of Venetian history, you can see that fire has been about a skillion times more damaging to the city than water ever has been, or ever could be, not that I’m promoting acqua alta.  But you can accommodate water, one way or another — besides, you get fair warning when it’s coming, and you know that after a few hours it will go away all by itself.  But you cannot accommodate a fire.  There have been conflagrations in Venice that can match some of the worst you’ve ever heard of, at least in places not named Chicago or London.

In 1514 the entire Rialto market area was leveled by fire, leaving only the church of San Giacometto untouched.  The Doge’s Palace was carbonized, as they say here, to various degrees three times, in 1483, 1574 and 1577, the last one leaving so little that there was serious discussion of demolishing the walls and just building the whole thing over.  (Plan rejected, happily for us.)

And there was the olive oil warehouse behind San Marcuola that caught fire from a lantern in 1789.  I don’t think there’s any way to put out an oil fire, at least of that magnitude.  Four hundred families were left to pick through the smoking ruins.  Not to forget the lumber warehouse that caught fire at Barbarie de le Tole in 1686, which incinerated the neighborhood leaving only one house standing.

And my all-time non-favorite, the fire that started in San Severo in 1105 and took a tour of something like half of the city.  Get out your maps: It started in the house of the Zancani family at San Severo, burned the neighborhood, then the flames moved on to San Lorenzo, San Provolo, Santa Maria Formosa, onward to San Giovanni Nuovo, San  Zulian and San Basso and around the Piazza San Marco up to the church of San Geminiano, and proceeded to San Moise’ and Santa Maria Zobenigo.  There the strong wind blew sparks across the Grand Canal.  San Gregorio caught fire, Sant’ Agnese, San Trovaso, San Barnaba, San Basilio, then on to Angelo Raffaelle and San Nicolo dei Mendicoli; the fire on the San Marco side, not done yet, marched to San Maurizio, S. Paternian (now Campo Manin), San Luca, San Vidal, and San Samuele.  Bring me an acqua alta that can hurt like that.

Today the firemen probably spend more time in the water than they do around those banal but occasionally really bad fires caused by short circuits, flaming food and arson.  The lagoon is their beat: Pilings gone adrift, boats that have capsized or sunk, and other nautical mishaps are what the firemen usually deal with, and yesterday morning we came across such an event in the rio di San Giovanni Nuovo as we were walking from Santa Maria Formosa toward San Zaccaria.

The tube is still in the sunken boat, and the backwash is roiling, so they are still hoping at this point to raise her enough to begin pumping the water out.

The tube is still in the sunken boat, and the backwash is roiling, so they are still hoping at this point to raise her enough to begin pumping the water out.

First we heard the roar of the fireboat’s engine, all set to pump like crazy.  Then we saw it, next to its waterlogged victim; by the look of the work already in progress, we’d come in toward the end of the second act of this drama, which means we had no idea of what had happened in the first act, nor who the dramatis personae were.  But we could recognize a logistical problem which for some reason was more difficult than usual.  I can say that because, as Lino explained it to me, if they had executed two little steps at the beginning, they’d have been home for lunch in no time.  (I will try to describe his solution later.) As it was, in the absence of a team leader, everybody got into the act, and you don’t need to be a fireman, or a boat, to know that when too many people are trying to come up with a solution to a problem, the problem wins.

Short version: They evidently tried to lift the entire boat, which, considering the weight of the water, was discovered to be impossible.  They couldn’t raise the boat even two inches above the surface of the canal to be able to pump out the water in the boat (we walked by when they were at the point of renouncing the effort), so they ended up deciding to tow it away.  By the look of it, this procedure would have been more or less like towing a dead blue whale which had swallowed five Zamzama guns, with cannonballs.

Lino, who has also dealt with his fair share of submerged boats, told me that the boat was (briefly) on a modest slant.  Blocking the upper side, they only needed to raise the lower side enough to start pumping. He made it sound easy, and considering how many times he and I have undertaken maneuvers with extremely heavy boats all by ourselves, he gets Olympic-level credit for understanding physics.  Still, I give the firemen the benefit of the doubt because firemen are my heroes, and nothing I say should be taken as denigrating or belittling them in any way, much less to imply that I could have done it better. But still, it wasn’t going well — even I could see that.

The haven't given up on their rigging yet. And by the way, firemen are totally my heroes, so none of this is to be taken as denigrating or belittling them in any way.

They haven’t given up on their rigging yet, as we see by the men leaning over the side of the boat, grappling.

Considering an alternative…..

Motor turned off, the focus now shifts to the small brown motorboat which has been tapped to tow. I never knew what the relationship was between the brown and the white boats but evidently there was some link, otherwise I suppose the man in the brown boat wouldn’t have gotten so involved.

Throw that line.

Throw that line.

And heave-ho. The usual small crowd of spectators has formed -- nothing can happen here without passersby watching.

And heave-ho, pulling the boat into some kind of position.  I didn’t understand the design of Plan B, but no matter. The usual small crowd of spectators has formed — nothing can happen here without a little audience forming.

Looks like everything is in position, or almost. The brown boat has some work to do to get in position and tied to the white one, but progress hass definitely been made. I’d have stayed to watch it all (for instance, how long the small motor on the brown boat was going to hold out), but we had to get back to the program.

Speaking of cannons, and lifting, a Venetian patrician named Giovanni Zusto once devised a way to lift an entire ship to the surface — a ship carrying cannon, which is what brought this feat to my mind — after it had sat in the mud for three years.

You should know about this, to have something astonishing to think about whenever you get tired of marveling at Venetian engineering skill ashore.  On April 1, 1783, the “Fenice,” complete with 74 cannon, sank in the Canal Spignon, which is just inside the inlet at Malamocco.  That location means mud and currents.

So the aforementioned Zusto — once again, amateurs save the day — designed a system of enormous rafts which provided the basis for this gigantic hauling-up.  On July 30, 1786, the Fenice rose again.  The designs are on the second floor of the Naval Museum, which is closed for renovation. Here they are; have a look, and rethink how hard your day has been.

I cannot interpret any of this for you; all I understand is big boats, anchors, platforms, counterweights and/or pulleys, and that's it.

I cannot interpret any of this for you; all I understand is big boats, anchors, platforms, capstans, counterweights and/or pulleys, and that’s it.

descrizione-istorica-dell-estrazione-della-pubblica-nave-002c9152-1b31-40e6-86b2-7d090efec0d0 resized

And up she came, eventually. Then, of course, they too had to deal with the necessity of towing her to the city.

And up she came, eventually.



Categories : Venetian History
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A tiny bonus screed on Venice

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Winter here is just the best.  One day you have fog.....

Winter here is just the best. One day you have fog…..

As a freelance journalist, I have written about many things for many publications over the eons.  Though I’m publishing less frequently at the moment than in days of yore, I have just written a small piece on Venice for National Geographic’s online News.

Most readers will recognize familiar themes, but I thought I’d provide the link here anyway.  At the least, it’s something for you to read while you’re waiting for the water to boil and I’m whipping up another post.

By the way, a very important but unaccountably missing link in the online text is for the Venice Project Center:

And another day you have sun.

And another day you have sun.  Something for everybody.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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Venice looks so strong.

Venice looks so strong.

One thing that everybody loves about Venice is that it seems so old.  Of course, it is old.  It’s kind of like a Byzantine/Renaissance/Baroque/Neo-Classical Lascaux Caves, except that it’s inhabited.

I pause to say that I know there are at least 14 continuously inhabited cities in the world that are far, far older than Venice.  I was just making the point that many visitors are struck with astonishment at the fact that Venice was ever created, an emotion I believe the cave paintings also elicit.  But I’m getting off the point.

One thing that makes it feel old when you’re living here is the endless cycle of the same old things, and when I say that I don’t mean the Befana (with its utterly predictable brief annual cluster of highly-charged  articles about the dangerous effects of the air pollution caused by the bonfires’ smoke), or the feast of the Redentore, or other celebrations.

By “same things” I mean issues that just keep coming up, that continue to be transformed in a shape-shifting way by assorted groups, interested parties, and random changes of circumstance, but that never get settled. Even in the rare instances when a problem appears to have been resolved, before long we discover that it has spawned new problems. And the cycle begins again.

In the few days since 2015 began, the Gazzettino has filled its pages with a new crop of the old.  Such as:

Adriatic ("mare") to the right, the lagoon to the left.  The conca, or basin, is item #4.  The scogliera, or protective barrier, is #5.  I had to take geometry twice in order to pass, but this still looks awkward to me.  The ships' captains tend to agree.

Adriatic (“mare”) to the right, the lagoon to the left. The conca, or basin, is item #4. The scogliera, or protective barrier, is #5. I had to take geometry twice in order to pass, but this still looks awkward to me. The ships’ captains tend to agree.

MOSE:  No, this time it’s not about the gates themselves, nor about the billions that were stolen to pay off its many participants, collaborators, and well-wishers.  Now it’s about the conca, or basin (#4 on the image above), which was dug at the inlet of Malamocco to permit the passage of ships on the occasions when the gates are raised.

For one thing, it’s too small.

It has been designed to accommodate ships up to 280 meters (918 feet) long and 39 meters (128 feet) wide. These dimensions are already too small for the largest cruise ships, the ones that certain groups want to compel to enter the lagoon by way of Malamocco instead of by the Bacino of San Marco.  So a mega-cruise ship wanting to come to Venice would have to  hang around outside in the Adriatic until the tide turned and the gates were lowered, to let them continue with their plan to unload thousands of passengers and take on more.  Having to delay entry sounds like a new problem has just replaced the old.

But it gets worse.  The fundamental problem isn’t size.  It’s the positioning of the scogliera (skoh-LYEH-ra), or protective barrier, in relation to the basin.  Stick with me here, because in the world of engineering “oops!” this is kind of special.  And whatever you  may think about cruise ships, we now have to consider the needs of real grown-up working ships that haul containers and petroleum and grain and coal (for the power station just on the edge of the mainland); these are ships for which time really is money.

The curve and position of the barrier built to shield the basin from wild stormy water (the kind you might well have if there is an exceptional acqua alta underway) makes it difficult — in some cases, perhaps impossible — for even smaller ships to navigate themselves into a perfect straight line to enter the basin.

“About 2,000 vessels (note: That’s nearly six per day) enter and exit the lagoon each year,” said Alessandro Santi, president of Assoagenti Veneto, the maritime agents’ association.  “Of these, at least 350, in the current state of things, would be prevented from entering the basin.” They’d have to wait outside till the tide turned and the MOSE gates were lowered to allow them to enter by the usual channel.

Solution! Construct an additional rubber barrier (I have no further details) against which the ships could lean — a sort of fulcrum — to help them position themselves to enter the basin. I’m referring to the ships which can, in fact, enter the basin, which as you see isn’t going to be all of them.

Projected cost:  15 million euros ($17,669,900).  That’s one heck of a patch.

Speaking of cost, the news has just come out that the completion date for MOSE has yet again been postponed.  It is currently predicted to be finished in mid-2017, and will cost an additional 2 billion euros ($2,355,980,000).  Unless it turns out to cost more, of course.

So why is this an old subject?  Because it’s yet another aspect of a project that wasn’t planned correctly, but construction just went merrily along anyway, and now everybody is having to find ways to resolve problems that didn’t ever have to exist.

Encrstations of paper to rival the pilings in the water at low tide.  Here, at Rialto, but this phenomenon is all over the city.

Encrustations — paper, in this case — to rival the pilings in the water at low tide.  This wall is at Rialto, but the phenomenon is all over the city.

DEGRADO:  The terse but expressive and useful term degrado (deh-GRAH-do) means “degradation,” and it finds innumerable uses.  And I will keep this entry short because the subject deserves a post all of its own, if I could find the strength.

Degrado is a hydra-headed monster composed of graffiti, broken pavements, disintegrating nizioleti, and now strata of aging posters stuck up all over walls.  The city of Venice, and myriad individuals, put up these pieces of paper with or without permission, and these announcements of all sorts of events, needs or offers stay there because once the moment has passed, who cares?

The city says it cares, and since 2012 has spent  856,000 euros ($1,008,360) to pay a private company named A.R. Promotion to affix posters and also to strip away the accumulated crud. But evidently the announcements breed at night and produce more old posters, or somehow the private company isn’t keeping up.  Or perhaps even starting, who knows?

Even the vertical pipe to the right has been pressed into service.

Even the vertical pipe to the right has been pressed into service.

Breakdown of payments made: At the end of 2012 A.R. Promotion won the bid to do this work for one and a half years for 456,000 euros.  A few years later, the same company got the job for about two years for 400,000 euros.  The age of some of the posters indicates that in either one or other of these periods, the company somehow didn’t catch everything.

Let me say that having to hack away layers of gummy paper over a period of years does not speak well for the paper-hangers.  Because while one could criticize the ability of A.R. Promotion to remove paper, one could much more justly criticize the cretins who put up the pieces of paper in the first place.

But back to the subject of payment for services rendered, or not: Cecilia Tonon, president of the volunteer group Masegni e Nizioleti, has raised her hand to ask why the city is paying for a service which evidently isn’t provided, when squadrons of members have turned out more than once to do a large amount of this very work for free.  (I participated in one clean-up project, which I’ll write about another time.)

No answer has yet forthcome.

Intermission:  News from the trial of the Indian couple who murdered their Iranian roommate, Mahtab Ahadsavoji, and dumped her body in the lagoon.  The Indian girl has been identified as the culprit, and has been sentenced to 17 years in prison.  Her boyfriend got a smaller sentence because he merely helped dispose of the evidence.  Appeals will drag on.

BUDGET:  For years now we’ve had to listen to the municipal choir singing the Anvil Chorus, financial version, whose refrain is “No ghe xe schei” (there is no money).

We found out last year that the reason there was no money was because it had all been gift-wrapped and given to politicians and businessmen involved in the MOSE project.

So now there really is no money.

After working his way upstream through heavy fire from outraged city employees facing drastic cuts, attempting to make the budget balance in some miraculous way (“miraculous” meaning “money from Rome”), the emergency governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, has had to say it isn’t working.  The city is 60 million euros ($70,855,800) in the hole.

“The situation is unsustainable,” he said. “We’ve reached a point of no return, The next mayor is going to have” (I freely translate) “one hell of a hideous job.”  The Casino’, once an endless font of funds, is also now crouching over its begging bowls. The sale of palaces is almost the only option for raising money, but so far they are being sold at slashed, fire-sale prices, or not being sold at all.

The island of Poveglia (

The island of Poveglia (

POVEGLIA:  Remember the popular groundswell, funded by citizen contributions, to acquire the island and restore it for the use of the Venetians rather than let it be sold to one of those terrible foreign companies which would transform it into a hotel?

All stuck in lawyer-land.  The city put the island up for bids; the highest bid, from a private businessman, was snubbed by the city as being ridiculously low.  To which the bidder has replied, “But you had no higher bids in this auction.  So?”

In any case, the groundswell of Venice-for-the-Venetians emotion hasn’t been heard from in quite some time, considering that since last June 4, when the sky fell on Venice, much bigger problems have overcome everybody.  It would be extremely difficult, in the current climate, to get anybody excited about an abandoned island.

BIG CRUISE SHIPS:  This is an issue that’s so photogenic that it cauterizes people brains, rendering them incapable of thought.  In battling to ban the ships from passing in the Bacino of San Marco, the enthusiasts have created a much larger problem, which is how to keep the port economy going when some cruise lines have already canceled their plans to come to Venice in 2015.

The no-big-ships people haven’t given any sign of caring much about the port itself, but  they are baffled as to how to they feel about the digging of the Contorta Canal (officially named the Canale Contorta S. Angelo). But it seems clear to almost everybody that deepening the canal will create so many more problems than it solves that it makes my teeth grind all by themselves.

The tug of war about approving the Contorta canal is going to continue for an unspecified time.  Another year, anyway, I have no doubt.  There will be flourishing crops of claims, counter-claims, and recriminations.

Meanwhile, due to the canceled cruises, 300,000 fewer passengers are expected this year. This means people may very well be laid off or fired, and all the rest of the ripple effect that doesn’t need describing.  There is also the loss of income from the taxes paid by the ship companies to be considered.  Nice.

But what I don’t understand is why the ships are vilified as ugly, and therefore deserving of death, when everyday ugliness like graffiti just keeps rolling along, singing a song.

Old?  New?  Is there a difference?

Singer_Sargent,_John_-_Hercules_-_1921.jpg  hydra blog misc mose 1921

In case you’re wondering what a “hydra-headed monster” might look like, here is an image of the mythological Hydra being demolished by Hercules. For every head that was cut off, two grew in its place. It’s kind of a metaphor.  (“Hercules,” by John Singer Sargent, 1921. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Categories : Venetian Problems
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