“What news on the Rialto?”
“Why, none. ’Tis flooded…”
The Rialto is Venice’s financial and commercial heart. In 1097, the city’s market moved there. The following century, a pontoon bridge was built to reach it across the Grand Canal, eventually to be replaced by the elegant Rialto Bridge: today one of Venice’s photographic icons.
Venice is full of monumental buildings, churches, and art works. All of them risk damage or destruction. During the November 2019 floods, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, which dates to AD 639 and contains early mosaics, was inundated three times. Due to its outlying position on the lagoon, the water took longer to recede than from the centre of Venice.
Floodwaters affected 85% of the city, devastating shops, businesses, and homes. Half of Venice’s 120 or so churches suffered damage. Yet, although the possibility of flooding is always present, according to The Washington Post (15 November 2019):
“Tides high enough to flood the city used to be relatively rare, occurring every two to three decades. Now, though, they happen with increasing regularity, on the order of every five years or less. Of the top 10 tides in Venice’s history, half have taken place in the past two decades, and the most recent top five flood events occurred just last year.”
Since 2003, Venice has been installing underwater flood barriers at a cost of US$6.5 billion. The project is a long way from completion, mired in bureaucratic delays, over-run costs, and corruption. Ironically, in the long term it is unlikely to protect the city from rising sea levels and wild storm-surge floods.
So, let’s play devil’s advocate. The cost of turning around global warming has been estimated in the trillions of dollars over several decades – supposing that climate change can be reversed and that nations and their governments are willing to invest the time and money needed to bring it about. In the face of ongoing storm damage, coastal erosion, rising sea levels, lengthy droughts, devastating fires, water and food shortages, and untold numbers of climate refugees both South and North, there is going to be a hierarchy of who and what is to be saved. As the gold-plated lifeboats are lowered, it will be millionaires first, women and children last. The world’s richest coastal cities will take precedence over backwaters like Venice.
The city is sinking. What to do? First, relocate its population. Second, save all the artworks that are portable. Third, move the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Basilica to the mainland (as Egypt relocated Abu Simbel). Fourth, let nature take its course. In 200 hundred years, Venice will have become a haven for the Lagoon’s pilchards and anchovies and an underwater theme park for tourists. As Daphne du Maurier predicted in her short story “Don’t Look Now”:
“The experts are right… Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying. One day the tourists will travel here by boat to peer down into the waters, and they will see pillars and columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone.”