TCS Daily

Venice In the Balance

By Josie Appleton - June 14, 2006 12:00 AM

This week, Venice in Peril, the British charity for the preservation of Venice, hosted a debate in London on the resolution, "Enough money has been spent saving Venice." The motion didn't pass, but in the world outside there is a worrying current of defeatism in the face of the sea.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, columnist for The Times of London, has argued that "We should let [Venice] go; let her drift slowly towards her stately death." Campbell-Johnston almost reveled in the prospect of the city's ruin: "There is a poignant beauty in the process of decay.... As stones crack and mosses creep, as roots pry into fissures and insects digest, Venice will return to real life."

The readers' comments on the Times website were of a similar temper. "Time to let go, perhaps?" asked one man; another said that the sunken city would form a "real life Atlantis for future generations". Meanwhile, another asked "Should we or could we mess with nature?" and complained that people were more concerned about saving Venice than "saving the coral islands of Tuvalu".

This defeatism is out of key with the spirit of Venice's founders who, some 1,500 years ago, drove tree trunks into the swampy lagoon to secure the ground for building. What started out as a refuge from invaders grew into one of the world's grandest mercantile city states. Now, as the waters rise and the city sinks, the main option for saving Venice are mobile flood gates. Yet many question whether the gates are worth the two- to three-billion pound bill. Curiously, we have the wonders of modern technology at our fingertips, yet retain older ideas about the futility of trying to turn back the tide.

It's not just Venice. Holland is for the first time in its history giving up land to the sea. A new plan will mean flooding 1,500 acres on the banks of the Western Schelde estuary, returning farmland to mudflats and salt marshes - all to comply with EU directives on conserving habitats and birds. One of the families who will lose their farm described the plan as "un-Dutch", understandably so given that settlers have been steadily building dykes and reclaiming land for the past 2,000 years, and that 60 percent of the country's population now lives below sea level.

David King, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, revealed at the Venice in Peril debate that he had drawn up a plan "to stage a retreat" from parts of the British coast. He's worried that global warming could lead to a dramatic rise in sea level, and argues that the only solution is to "adapt". (He didn't spell out which areas of the UK would be surrendered: Liverpool, Manchester, London?)

Many believe now that resisting the sea is "unnatural". It is indeed unnatural if you are a rabbit living in a sand dune; the sea rises and you move back. But if you are a human being then channeling and blocking the sea is the most natural thing we could do. Watch a beach as the tide comes in, and see how the sand becomes a hive of industrious channels, barriers and castles. Children know that their constructions will be breached, yet still they face up to the powers of the sea, just as they do when they run back and forth teasing the waves or throw stones into the froth. It is part of the human spirit to face up to this vast, indifferent force of nature.

Yet it seems that our culture has a suicidal streak, indulging fantasies of giving into the waves. This goes back to Modernism: a character in Virginia Woolf's The Waves asks "How can we do battle against this flood; what has permanence? Our lives too stream away, down the unlighted avenues, past the strip of time, unidentified." John Banville's novel The Sea presents the ocean as "something vast" that rolls over and claims people's lives, with "another of the great world's shrugs of indifference". Campbell-Johnston believes that it would be beautiful to watch the wonders of Venice corrode and collapse under rising water. But there is no beauty in the process of decay: there is only beauty in life and architecture, and in resisting and raging against decay.

The desire to give up Venice to the waves also contains a hint of misanthropy. Some of the readers on the Times website complained about the rudeness of the locals; others moaned that the city had become a ghastly "Disneyesque wonderland for tourists" and so wasn't worth saving. The flood, then, is some kind of retribution for the trinket-loving, digital camera-carrying rabble. As with Noah's ark, perhaps the sea might cleanse mankind of its sins.

Yet it is significant that Europe is only talking about saving Venice. There is little discussion about new land reclamation, floating islands, or other bold initiatives for mastering the sea. The novelist and journalist AN Wilson, who at the Venice in Peril debate spoke in favor of the city, seemed to want to make time stand still, to preserve the noble beauty of past times from the meddling politicians and meandering tourists of our own era. This is merely holding on to grains of sand that are slipping through our fingers: "we should save one beautiful thing on this planet."

Look east, though, and we see Dubai building artificial islands in the shape of the world, and digging out underwater opera houses and hotels. While Europe preserves past glories, others are creatively molding and mastering the sea for new building projects.

Of course we should save Venice. That glorious maze of a city should be open for all to see. We need not only to preserve past wonders from the waves of dissolution; we also need to create wonders new.

The author is a TCS contributing writer and coordinator of the Manifesto Club.



Anyone who is both objective and has spent any length of time in 'La Serenissima' knows full well that the 'touristy' areas are and always have been 'touristy'. So what? All one need do is walk a few hundred feet away from San Marco or the Rialto and you can still easily find a Venice where grandmothers sit outside and knit while grandkids kick around a soccer ball dreaming to play calcio someday for 'the Blue'. To dismiss the city as all too many snobs do is simply galling. It is a magical is a is a big small is a state of mind---but it is steeped in history both glorious and infamous. I always dismiss those who tell me that it smells like a swamp---it's built essentially on a swamp! Others say it smells like the ocean as if that should be a negative! Others tell me it's too hot when they come back from Venice in August! Venice is Venice...I think the word 'unique' was created to explain a place like Venice. Dismiss it our would be an irreversible loss.

Perhaps Venice would be safer under the sea
Perhaps Venice would be safer under the sea than changed as it soon will be.

How can one stand the imagining of St. Mark's flanked by minarets, let alone the imagining of the raspy rising sound as the Doges' bones spin in their crypts at the first call of the muezzins.

Under the Sea?
While there has been a Muslim presence in Venice for centuries they have no foothold there whatsoever compared to what's happening in Torino and Milano.

Venice's turn will come
Italy's far sub-replacement birth rate is more than a dry statistic to me. My mother reported years ago that the ancestral village/town was nearly empty of young people and those there were not marrying at young enough ages to reproduce to any extent.

Muslims have indeed been present in Venice for centuries, but they have not been dominant as I fear they soon will be.

There is a sickness in Western Civilization, and the author here has caught a symptom of it. Dutch surrendering to the sea! The descendants of Augustus Caesar failing to rail at the coming of the night.

Birth Dearth
No argument here...little of Europe is replacing itself. My only ppoint is that Venice is not as 'threatened' today as are some of the other cities.
Have you read much Orianna Fallaci? She has it about as right as I can imagine. The current New Yorker has a blisteringly good article.

I've occasionally read Fallaci's articles - not her books though
I'll check for the New Yorker article. Another writer always worth reading is Theodore Dalrymple. I discovered him a couple of years ago and found him alarming. Then I happened upon the archive of articles he's written since about 1995 for and was awed by how prescient his articles then were about the state and likely course of social decay in Great Britain.

Right now on there is an article by Nidra Poller (The Wrath of Ka | Black anti-Semites storm Paris’s old Jewish quarter.6 June 2006) which is alarming for the casual reaction of the French police to an astounding occasion of intimidation. The Europeans are getting very close to cynically feeding their Jews to the Muslims and rowdies in the hopes of buying time. Fallaci has written about this also. Putting aside the morality this doesn't even make practical sense because their aren't enough Jews to satisfy the mob for very long in any event.

It says a lot that Fallaci is under indictment in Italy and also at risk in France for the contents of her latest book.

Just another form of pessimism
If you wish Venice to be a christian city than be a christian in Venice, evangelize and convert the inhabitants to an authentic renaissance of belief. Others are already working on the task and could use the extra help.

I guess you did not read all the comments. Venice is still as Christian as it's been, probably---I was addressing the birth dearth thru Italy and talking about Islam's influence growing elsewhere.

I agree 100%
Beautiful Venezia is magic!

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