▶ About 1,000 res­i­dents have been leav­ing ev­ery year with more com­plain­ing re­cent floods are the fi­nal straw in a city that ap­pears to be los­ing its soul

The National - News - - BUSINESS | IN DEPTH -

Two weeks af­ter high tides and fierce winds pro­duced the worst flood­ing in Venice in more than half a cen­tury, sirens sound at about 6.30am to warn the frag­ile la­goon city’s weary res­i­dents that “ac­qua alta” (high wa­ter) is ar­riv­ing again.

Less than two hours later, tem­po­rary wooden plat­forms are in place to al­low pedes­tri­ans to move through an­cient cob­ble­stone streets. Ven­dors hawk­ing cheap wa­ter­proof boots ap­pear out of nowhere to cater to ill-pre­pared tourists.

Ser­gio Boldrin, one of Venice’s most renowned mask mak­ers, is used to the rit­ual. But the floods aren’t the only sign of de­cay. The feel­ing in the city is that cli­mate change is has­ten­ing a down­fall that started with mass tourism.

“The city has be­come ugly. It’s lost its soul,” said Mr Boldrin, as thrifty day trip­pers stream by to gawk at but not buy his masks, which can cost as much as €1,000 (Dh4,047). “These peo­ple just don’t recog­nise its real beauty.”

The son of a gon­do­lier, Mr Boldrin is a liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of Vene­tian tra­di­tion. From the stool of his tiny ate­lier Bot­tega dei Mas­careri near the Rialto Bridge, the 62-year-old sees a string of small can­vas-cov­ered stands sell­ing cheap trin­kets, in­clud­ing low-grade plas­tic and ce­ramic knock-offs of his masks for as little as €10.

The city – spread across more than 100 small is­lands in the Vene­tian la­goon – at­tracted an es­ti­mated 30 mil­lion vis­i­tors this year. The crowds strain re­sources but pro­vide little value for the lo­cal econ­omy. Three quar­ters of the tourists stay for just a few hours and spend an av­er­age €13 on sou­venirs, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Con­far­ti­gianato Venezia, an as­so­ci­a­tion of lo­cal trade busi­nesses.

Ar­ti­sans are strug­gling to compete with the in­flux of cheaper prod­ucts made abroad, and many can’t af­ford rents that have been driven up by real es­tate spec­u­la­tion.

Skilled crafts­peo­ple in the city’s his­tor­i­cal area have dropped by half since the 1970s to about 1,100 in 2018.

“A lot of it is gen­er­a­tional change,” said En­rico Vet­tore of Con­far­ti­gianato Venezia. “Of­ten there’s no one in a fam­ily who can take over the busi­ness,” but there’s also the lack of de­mand as day trip­pers “don’t buy real ar­ti­san prod­ucts”.

On the nearby is­land of Mu­rano, Lu­ciano Gam­baro is wag­ing a bat­tle to pre­serve cen­turies of lo­cal glass­mak­ing tra­di­tions. The num­ber of peo­ple work­ing to pro­duce the colour­ful, hand-blown vases and fig­urines has also halved, partly be­cause of the im­pact of coun­ter­feit prod­ucts from east­ern Europe, China and In­dia, says the 54-year-old, who runs the fam­ily’s com­pany and heads a con­sor­tium of busi­ness that pro­motes Mu­rano glass.

The floods, which have be­come more fre­quent, dis­rupt the city’s rhythm, sus­pend­ing Va­poretto boat lines that con­nect stops on the Grand Canal to out­ly­ing sites such as Mu­rano, Bu­rano and the bar­rier is­land of Lido.

Just be­fore mid­night on Novem­ber 12, Venice’s “ac­qua alta” reached 184 cen­time­tres above sea level. It was gen­er­ated by a com­bi­na­tion of ris­ing tides and pow­er­ful winds of more than 120 kilo­me­tres per hour.

Of­fi­cials es­ti­mated the dam­age at about €1 bil­lion. Like many oth­ers, Mayor Luigi Brug­naro blamed cli­mate change.

“I love my town, we’ve raised four chil­dren here, but the city has changed for the worse in the past five years,” said Giovanni Giol, pres­i­dent of the Benedetto Mar­cello mu­sic con­ser­va­tory.

Housed in a palace built in the early 1600s, manuscript­s and books in the li­brary were soaked in this month’s his­toric flood. The worst af­fected items were sent to a restora­tion fa­cil­ity in Bologna, while oth­ers were car­ried to higher levels of the build­ing and are dry­ing out on floors of the mu­seum

along­side 17th-cen­tury mu­si­cal in­stru­ments.

“The storm brought home the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion,” said Jane Da Mosto, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion try­ing to re­verse the com­mu­nity’s de­cline by con­trol­ling tourism, in­clud­ing a ban on cruise ships. “Venice is close to fall­ing off the precipice. There’s no con­trol room.”

About 1,000 res­i­dents leave ev­ery year, and about 50,000 peo­ple now call the la­goon home. The for­mer city-state has been gov­erned to­gether with its larger main­land neighbour Mestre since they were linked in 1926 by Fas­cist leader Ben­ito Mus­solini.

Ac­tivists such as Ms Da Mosto say the city’s is­sues are so unique that it needs to be sep­a­rate. On Sun­day, Vene­tians voted on a ref­er­en­dum to give the com­mu­nity its own ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­ture. How­ever, Vene­tians gave the cold shoul­der to the fifth vote in 40 years to break away from sis­ter city Mestre on the Ital­ian main­land, with only 18.6 per cent of 206,553 po­ten­tial vot­ers show­ing up at the polls by 10pm UAE time, short of the 50 per cent re­quired by 2am UAE time for the ref­er­en­dum to be valid.

That puts more fo­cus on the fraught Mose anti-flood­ing project. Em­broiled in sev­eral cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions, the system of wa­ter gates is way over bud­get at €5.5bn and count­ing, and won’t be ready un­til 2022 – more than two decades af­ter con­struc­tion be­gan. And it is likely to be use­less in stop­ping ris­ing tides, ac­cord­ing to Nelli-Elena Van­zan Mar­chini, who has writ­ten sev­eral books on Venice.

Global warm­ing has raised sea levels about 20cm since 1880, ac­cord­ing to Cli­mate Cen­tral, an in­de­pen­dent or­gan­i­sa­tion of sci­en­tists and jour­nal­ists. The rate is ac­cel­er­at­ing and a re­cent re­port by the group pre­dicted that high-tide lines could per­ma­nently rise above land oc­cu­pied by about 150 mil­lion peo­ple by 2050, in­clud­ing 30 mil­lion Chi­nese.

That is a bleak out­look for res­i­dents like Mr Boldrin. Along with cre­at­ing masks, the artist paints im­ages that evoke the

Death of Venice theme – dark, soli­tary fig­ures crushed by the weight of the city’s de­cline.

“Many of us Vene­tians are tired,” he said in the stu­dio he founded with his brother in 1984 and hopes to pass on to his daugh­ter. “Venice is suf­fo­cat­ing.”


Wad­ing through flooded St Mark’s Square last month, left. A plat­form is as­sem­bled, top, and bail­ing out a flooded house

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