Already in the grips of overtourism, catastrophic November tides left Venice flooded and locals unsure of their future. Italian photographer Nicola Zolin pays a visit to a troubled city he once called home.
“How do we get there?” the tourists asked David as he manned the nightshift at the hotel desk. “Is it raining?”
“You gotta take the ferry boat to Castel Sant’Angelo and walk from there,” David replied. “The weather is looking quite fine!”
I know this conversation happened because David, a friend of mine, posted it to social media soon after it took place, alongside a photo from the news of an incoming high tide. It was said that the tide would reach 160 centimeters, an extreme acqua alta (high water) in Venice. These acqua altas are a semi-regular occurrence in Venice, a periodical part of life. So locals, like David, can tend to be a little flippant about them.
David, whose real passions lie in storytelling, comedy and theater—not night shifts at the hotel—often uses his social media accounts as an outlet for his comedy. With his post that night, he thought it’d be funny to have a little laugh at the expense of those tourists, suspecting they’d probably get a bit wet.
But David, and Venice, had no idea how bad things were about to get.
On Tuesday November 12th, 2019, as a full moon hung low above Venice, the conversation regarding the city’s future would change for good. Half of the city was about to be flooded, the result of two winds—the sirocco and the bora—combining to cause a freak tide event.
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By the time the tourists had more or less reached the station of Santa Lucia, not a soul in Venice could believe their eyes. The water kept rising—165 centimeters, 170, 175, 180. David, now with both of his feet submerged, began to regret his joke. “Fuck,” he thought to himself.
Close by, he could hear the ferryboat station shaking noisily. Boats were being swept away and some trees had fallen. Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) was completely flooded—water had poured in through the windows and entered the crypt of the cathedral, where the relics of the Saint lie. The office of the regional council was engulfed. (Ironically, local politicians had rejected a plan to tackle climate change just hours before the flood came).
The tide quickly rose to 185 centimeters. David took up the phone and called the tourists, trying to help, and explain what an extraordinary situation this was. Eventually, the tide stopped at 187 centimeters. The tourists were stuck at the train station—but safe—until 4am, and the whole city was in a state of shock.
“Everyone is helping each other … no-one is left behind. This is the spirit of Venice.”
Giovanni Leone, architect
By the time I arrive in Venice by train the following day, the tide has retreated and everyone is out on the streets checking the damage. The calm after the storm. By dusk, the city is wrapped in an unusual darkness that I hadn’t experienced in all my years living here. All the shops and restaurants are closed. No lights glimmering, no pizza slice shops, no carnival masks or Chinese leather bag stores open till late.
Walking towards Calle Lunga San Barnaba, I bump into Giovanni Leone, an architect who studied in Venice and later settled in the city. His face bears the mad look of someone who’s just lived through a traumatic experience. The night before, while he was out walking with his son, the water reached above his waistline. Originally from Sicily, in 42 years of living in Venice, he had never been afraid—until then.
Having studied the peculiarities of the city for years in a professional capacity, he knows how heavily it was damaged—the salt water corrodes the foundations and walls of historical buildings, churches and houses—but his eyes are still shining with light. “Everyone is helping each other … no-one is left behind,” he tells me. “This is the spirit of Venice.”
At the feet of the Ponte dell’Accademia—one of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal—people are going in and out of the partially-flooded Conservatory of Music, where countless famous composers have written, played, and have their compositions stowed.
An army of volunteers is helping dry books and musical manuscripts—some modern, some dating back to the 14- and 1500s. The clean-up must be done quickly, I learn, to prevent them from going moldy. Once stored, all of the damaged papers will need to be frozen, then restored at a special center in Bologna.
The damage is widespread. But in the face of this hardship, Venice appears to be uniting with the same spirit that helped found the city, when people from the mainland domesticated this lagoon and created a sanctuary, conquering the sea one step at a time, and forging a Republic that—for centuries—was one of the main powers in the Mediterranean.
Unexpectedly, the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, turns up at the Conservatory to see how the volunteers are getting on. I manage to corner him for a quick conversation. “What we saw happen here was not a normal acqua alta, but a catastrophe with incalculable damage,” he says. “When I was a child, I didn’t really believe that water levels could rise because of climate change. But now it’s obvious. Venice is the first frontier of what is going to happen worldwide.”
There is supposed to be a solution to Venice’s problems: MOSE, a system of mobile gates that could close to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the sea and tides. Construction began on the EUR€5.5 billion project in 2003, and was 85 per cent completed by 2013, but a series of delays, scandals and cost overruns mean that completion is now pegged for some time in 2022. Even so, the jury is still out on whether the technology will be effective enough to solve Venice’s problems.
“If we allow real life and traditions to disappear, then Venice isn’t dying just by itself. It’s dying because we are killing it.”
Giovanni Leone, architect
High tides have been occurring in Venice since records began in 1872. The problem is that the frequency has been increasing—a direct consequence of human activities in the lagoon. Since 1908, Venice has sunk 12 centimeters, while the water levels have increased by around 11 centimeters, leading to a net loss of around 23 centimeters in height in nearly a century.
High tides became more common after the 1950s, when channels were dug and expanded for industrial purposes—and even more so after 2003, when the works for MOSE began.
According to Venice’s Tide Forecast and Warning Center, in the decade between 1900 and 1909, there were only two tides higher than 110 centimeters. Between 1960 and 1969, there were 31. In the last decade, there have already been more than 70. It’s hard to think about the future of Venice amid all of this, knowing that sea levels could rise 70-150centimeters in this century.
Is it only then a question of time? Or is Venice already dead? These are the questions I ask myself as I look at the useless souvenir shops and the wealthy foreigners who have, overnight, flocked to Venice to check the damage to their rental properties. These are the questions I ask myself as I look at the 90-tonne cruise ships unsustainably ferrying tourists up and down the channels of Guidecca island. The politicians know these cruises are dangerous for Venice—but none of them want to renounce the profits they bring in. These are the questions I ask.
The figures speak for themselves. In the 16th century, Venice was the most densely populated city in the Italian peninsula. In the 1950s, the population was 150,000. Today, the local population has dwindled to 53,000, while roughly 25 million tourists visit the city every year. But the locals are not leaving because of acqua alta—they’re leaving because of the tourists.
For all the good tourism can do for the economy, inflation is a real problem, particularly for housing. And with so many small businesses unable to keep up with the price increases, traditions and communities are being lost, and the Venetian social fabric itself is threatened.
I meet up with Giovanni Leone again during a citizens’ assembly, where people are gathering to discuss alternatives to the commodification of Venice. “If we take a step back, we can still save Venice, but the balance between humans and the lagoon must be restored,” he says. “The ‘monoculture of tourism’ limits the power of its inhabitants to preserve what is its greatest value: The experience. If we allow real life and traditions to disappear, then Venice isn’t dying just by itself. It’s dying because we are killing it.”
After this disaster, I can’t stop asking myself if anything will change. Will Venice lose even more citizens? And how many times will these streets need to flood before we get the message? How many times before we commit to changing the way we live?
Walking around the city’s Cannaregio district, I see a banner. It reads: “Venice is my future”. I wonder, after these long days of high tides, tourists, humidity and tears, how many Venetians still believe that.