Archive for Malamocco

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.)

Categories : Venetian Problems
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Venice and the floating Alps

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The catastrophe of the Costa Concordia two weeks ago today has been a good thing in at least one (sorry, I mean only one) way: It has given a turbo-boost to the local opposition to allowing big cruise ships to slide past the Piazza San Marco like floating Alps.

By now, images of these behemoths and Venice have become as trite as Venice and acqua alta.

Just one example at random of a typical big ship coming to Venice. The top deck is lined with thousands of people, all making the same photograph of the Piazza San Marco. As far as I can tell, this is the main reason why the big ships insist on entering and leaving Venice by the Bacino of San Marco.

There was murmuring before, but the death of a ship and some of its people has created a good deal of commotion, not only in Venice but also at the national level, concerning the desirability of allowing these ships to come here. Needless to say, the political parties have all hoisted their shields and battle-axes and are ready for combat.  And, as usual, the trumpet sounding the charge tends to drown out any other sound.

I’d like to review the main points, though I have to warn you that this subject, like most other subjects here, has become a mass of insanely knotted statistics and semi-statistics and facts and semi-facts interpreted in 11,552 different ways, according to who is speaking and, ergo. what they want.  Debates of the pros and cons of heavy cruise ship traffic in the world’s most beautiful city and environs are so loaded with emotion that it has become virtually impossible to hear what anybody’s really saying, though the various viewpoints are fairly simple to summarize.

Cruise statistics for 2011 as published by the Gazzettino.

Pro: There is only one item in the “pro” column on the proverbial yellow legal pad, and that’s “Money.”  Venice has done everything possible to attract and keep cruise business.  In 2000, only 200 ships visited Venice, and it is now the Number One cruising homeport in the Mediterranean, and the third in Europe. With the shrinking of the income from the Casino, the starving city budget is being kept alive primarily by this new touristic medium.

Don’t be distracted by the number of companies whose ships come to Venice (43), or how many ships visited last year (654) or the number of transits they made of the Bacino of San Marco (1,308) — I’d have thought there were more — or the number of passengers last year (2,248,453), even though all these numbers are pretty impressive (fancy way of saying “huge and scary”).

The only number that matters to the city, and the only factor which virtually guarantees that cruising will continue to be crucial here, is the money the city earns from it: 300 million euros (US$390,246,000) last year.

If you want to object to cruising in or around Venice, you need to come up with a suggestion for some other activity that will make that kind of money.  Or, preferably, even more.  Feel free to get back to me on this.


A view of the docks at Tronchetto. As you see, seven assorted ships can fit in here at any one time, though these is space for smaller ones (yes, there are smaller ones) at the Zona Marittima nearby -- three are moored there in this picture, just to the right of the big docks. Discussion is underway to expand the dock area.

Con:  The conscientious objectors to cruising offer many urgent reasons why it is deleterious to the city. These reasons are more or less persuasive, depending on how deeply their proponents have managed to bury their ulterior motives.

The two main items in the “con” column concern the environmental damage wrought by the floating Alps.

They are:

Erosion caused by waves (there are no waves) and/or by the suction of the motors.  This suction is real: I can attest that the motors of these ships perform a phenomenal sucking/pushing action, very much like what happens to the mouthwash when you rinse your mouth.  I have seen with these very eyes the waters surging in and then surging out as a ship passes, even if it passes at a distance.  It’s hard to think that this could be unimportant.  As we know from the humbler but more destructive daily motondoso, water going into a fissure in a foundation pulls something with it — soil, mainly — when it comes out.  This eventually creates empty spaces under buildings and sidewalks.

Ships maneuvering to enter or back out of their berths also create massive suction, as the brown sediment churned up here attests.

A study done by Worcester Polytechnic Institute on the hydrodynamic effect of big ships found this:  “As cruise ships pass smaller canals along the St. Mark’s Basin and Giudecca Canal, they displace and accelerate the surrounding body of water, essentially pulling water from the smaller canals.  This caused a noticeable increase in canal speed and a drop in the water levels.  A total of five velocity tests were completed resulting in a 57.4% increase in canal speed, and two canal height tests were completed which showed an average water level drop of 11 c (4.3 inches).  The observations suggest that the root cause for these accelerations can be explained by the Bernoulli Effect: the colossal geometry of cruise ships creates fast currents and low pressure areas around the moving vessels.”

Particulate Matter, the form of air pollution made up of tiny bits of stuff from combustion exhaust.  Nobody made an issue of this when Venice was a real industrial center, and nobody brought it up when the Industrial Zone on the shoreline was going full blast.  Nobody made an issue of it, Lino points out, when everybody — everybody — heated their homes or cooked using wood or coal.  “You didn’t need to smoke anything,” he said — “smoke was everywhere.”  But particulate matter from the ships is intolerable.

The view of the Giudecca Canal as seen by the passengers on a departing ship. I'm on a Minoan Lines ferry to Greece. If a ship were to go rogue here it could endanger city on both sides.

Four days after the Concordia ran aground, Corrado Clini, the new Minister for the Environment, came to Venice for a day.  He was shown a number of things (MoSE was not on the list, which I can understand, because nothing can be done about it now), but the subject on everybody’s mind was the big ships.

He offered the following opinion: “Common sense suggests that if the principle value to care for is our natural patrimony, the fundamental resource for our tourism, we must avoid that it be put at risk.”  You can’t argue with that.

He continued: “The traffic of these ‘floating apartment buildings’ in the Bacino of San Marco, with a notable impact, are without utility for the environment and for tourism.”  If he is seeking utility for tourism, all he has to do is look at the municipal balance sheet.  However, “without utility for the environment” is hard to refute.

Luca Zaia, the President of the Veneto Region, who was on hand, remarked that “The big ships in Venice are dangerous and certainly a problem to resolve.  I have to admit that to see these colossi at San Marco is, to say the least, horrifying.”  I myself have to admit that it’s odd that he only became horrified after the Concordia ran aground; the ships have been passing for years.

Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, contributed these observations: “The subject of the big ships is an open one.  With the Port Authority we have begun to reflect on a rapid solution which will satisfy the touristic system as well as the economic one.” Rapid solutions are not easy to come up with, because every player wants his concerns to come first.  Nor would a rapid solution instill much confidence.  If complex, well-reasoned solutions haven’t been found yet, why would a rapid one be any easier to devise, much less implement?

Sandro Trevisanato, president of VTP, which runs the port, stated that the big ships are the least polluting form of tourism, adding that the buses, the big launches, and cars create much more pollution than the big ships.  (For the record, I’d like to say that this is the most intelligent comment so far.)  He points out that emissions are one of the arguments used by those who want to ban the cruise ships from the lagoon, far beyond the aesthetic question.  It’s a question of taste,” says Trevisanato. “In a few seconds the ships have passed and disappear.”  Seconds?  Has he never stood on the embankment on a summer Sunday evening to watch the March of the Pachyderms as they depart? Even one ship, by my estimate, takes at least 45 minutes to pass from Tronchetto to Sant’ Elena.  And there could easily be seven of them, virtually nose to tail.

In any case, everybody directly involved in cruise tourism agrees that  pollution must be kept at “level zero.”  How to do that isn’t explained.

As for the possibility — remote, all agree — that something could go wrong with the motors, or that the ship for some other reason would suddenly become ungovernable, and that the force of inertia would impel it to ram bow-first into the Piazza San Marco or some other bit of Venice, Trevisanato says that the port is one of the most secure in the world, as the ships are protected from the effect of wind and waves, and the ships pass at a reasonable (I put that in) distance from the shores.  Hard to say what is “reasonable” when the Giudecca Canal is only 320 meters (1000 feet) wide, or less.  But you will have noticed that referring to wind and waves prevented him from discussing the consequences of a big ship going adrift in the Bacino of San Marco.

Someone reminded him that in 2004 the ship “Mona Lisa” ran aground in the fog in the Bacino of San Marco.  His reply: “Exactly: and nothing happened.”  This is true; the ship was on its way after a mere hour, undoubtedly thanks to the help of the rising tide.  But the “Mona Lisa” is 201 meters (609 feet) long by 26 meters (85 feet) beam, and a gross tonnage of 28,891; not exactly a floating Alp.

The Concordia was 292 meters (958 feet)  x 35.5 meters (116 feet); gross tonnage 112,000.

In any case, saying “Nothing happened” isn’t very  helpful. It brings to mind the famous exchange in a Ring Lardner story: “‘Daddy, are we lost?’  ‘Shut up,’ he explained.”

The "Mona Lisa." This is what most cruise ships used to look like, before they put them on steroids.

And the mayor’s statement that a “rapid solution” is in the works isn’t very reassuring, even if it were true.  Solutions have been debated for years.

Proposed solutions so far:

Building an “offshore port” in the Adriatic where the floating Alps would tie up, and offload passengers (and luggage) into launches which would bring them to Venice.  Objections: Cost, feasibility, and the obvious pollution, primarily motondoso, which would be caused by thousands of launches trundling to and fro all day.  I can add the element of potential danger to people, if not to Venice, of boarding and traveling in a launch when the bora is blowing.

Make the Bacino and the Giudecca Canal a one-way street.  Tourists get to snap the Piazza San Marco either coming or going, but not both.  This has the advantage of not depriving them totally of this scenic opportunity, while cutting in half the number of transits.  A tour operator told me that it isn’t uncommon for a potential cruise customer to ask if the ship passes in front of the Piazza San Marco.  If the answer is no, it’s an immediate deal-breaker.

Bring the ships into the lagoon via the inlet at Malamocco. Heavy shipping already passes here, heading for the docks at Marghera, so more heavy ships wouldn't make any difference. Theoretically.

But this new system would require deepening a heretofore unimportant natural channel known as the Canal of Sant’ Angelo in order to create a sort of bypass. Enter the lagoon at the inlet at Malamocco, steam up the shoreline via the Petroleum Canal, then turn right in the Canal of Sant’ Angelo, which neatly brings the behemoth to Tronchetto.  The ship would depart via the Giudecca Canal, so the passengers could all snap their photos.

Or, the ship would enter, as it does now, by the inlet at San Nicolo’, steam past San Marco (snap snap snap) to Tronchetto, then depart down the Canal of Sant’ Angelo, Petroleum Canal, and out into the Adriatic at Malamocco.

Sometimes a big ship moors downstream from San Marco at the Riva dei Sette Martiri. It might seem like a bright idea to put them all here, except that the passengers wouldn't get their snaps; also, there isn't enough shoreline for the typical job lot on a summer weekend. And there is also the issue of the vibrations from the generators and the blocking of television reception which are major irritations for the residents. Who would want to spend the summer with these just outside the front door?

What’s extremely wrong with this idea — in my opinion, as well as many environmentalists — is that deepening the Canal of Sant’ Angelo would be a reprise of the digging of the Petroleum Canal, a deed which many have long since recognized as a disaster for the lagoon. A channel as straight as an airport runway and deep enough for cargo ships and tankers behaves like the average water faucet, concentrating and accelerating the force of the water passing through it. Many environmental groups date the beginning of the deterioration of the lagoon ecosystem from the creation of the Petroleum Canal.  Among other things, it is estimated that this canal is responsible for the loss of one million cubic meters of sediment every year. We don’t have to care, but the myriad creatures and plants which depend on the sediment certainly do.

Digging another deep channel will almost certainly cause the same phenomenon, thereby multiplying the damage.  Just what we need, when you add in the same effect caused by the deepening of the three lagoon inlets for the installation of the MoSE floodgates.

So the bypass canal, which looks so good on paper, would be yet another blow to an ecosystem which UNESCO, along with the city of Venice, designated as a World Heritage Site.  Now that I think of it, the only group that hasn’t weighed in yet on this is UNESCO. Maybe they’re thinking.

Last idea: Forget Tronchetto. Move the whole passenger port over to the shoreline at Marghera.  Docks already exist, or could be created, so logistically the idea has a lot in its favor. Except that Marghera is part of the dying Industrial Zone, with all the aesthetic appeal of a dying Industrial Zone.  It’s like selling a cruise from Venice that actually starts in the Port of Newark or Liverpool. Intending no offense.

Speaking of the force of inertia, debates, meetings, commissions, studies (oh good, we can always use more of those) and assorted pronouncements will undoubtedly continue.  I can make that claim because when the “Mona Lisa” ran aground in 2004, the then-mayor, Paolo Costa, ringingly declared that a stop must be put to the  big ships passing in the Bacino of San Marco.

He said (translation by me): “What happened has unfortunately confirmed my worries, and that is that an absolute certainty doesn’t exist on the possibility to guarantee the security in this zone of the city (Bacino San Marco) which is so important and delicate. It was horrifying to see the ship aground a mere 30 meters from a vaporetto stop, and fortunately consequences were avoided that could have been disastrous and unimaginable.  Now we must take rapid measures, more than one, and very detailed, that eliminate the danger of finding, one day, a ship in the Piazza San Marco. Because everything which today is at risk in the Bacino of San Marco isn’t something that can be protected only probably, but certainly, and with safety.”

Eight years have passed, two mayors have succeeded him, Costa is now President of the Port of Venice, and those “rapid measures” are still being fervently invoked.

The Port of Venice may be protected from potentially dangerous winds, but there seems to be no way to protect it from hurricanes of hot air.

A big ship leaving Venice. These proportions once shocked and dismayed me. But you can get used to almost anything.

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Categories : MOSE, Motondoso, Tourism
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