Titans in the Lagoon, part I, by Marco LoVerso
23 July 2014

It has been said that Venice is a fish. Look at a map of the Venetian lagoon and you’ll see the resemblance:  the western end, where the train station is located, is the head; the city tapers down to its narrowest point just east of Piazza San Marco, and it then flares out west of the Arsenale to an asymmetrical tail section.    
     Beyond these physical coincidences, the fish metaphor points to some profound realities about the lagoon city:
    (1) Venice is alive and is anatomically complete. It even reveals its guts to us: the Grand Canal is its digestive tract; it curves from the head like a big question mark and excretes out into the San Marco basin.
     (2) There is another creature swimming along with Venice. About three hundred metres immediately to the south of the main fish and running parallel to it is a land mass that is shaped like a fat eel. This is a string of eight connected islands collectively known as Giudecca. San Giorgio at the eastern tip is the eel’s tail, and Sacca Fisola is its head. The deep-water canal that separates the fish and the eel is called the Giudecca Canal.
    (3) These two ancient bodies are swimming in a special, protected pool of water. About eight hundred metres east of Venice’s lower tail fin is the long narrow island called Lido, which, together with the even narrower island of Pellestrina just south of it, forms the north-south coastal breakwater between the Adriatic and the eastern border of the Venetian lagoon. The sea can enter this watery sanctuary through three harbour entrances: the Chioggia port at the southern tip of Pellestrina, the Malamocco port between the two islands, and the Lido port in the north. For centuries these openings to the sea have kept the lagoon healthy for its denizens, balancing the ecosystem and keeping it clean and vital through the regular ebbs and flows of the tides.
     (4) Industrialization and the pressures of mass tourism have led to dramatic changes to the lagoon’s structure, including the artificial deepening of two of the harbour entrances: the Malamocco port to a depth of eighteen metres to allow oil tankers to enter the industrial area of Marghera on the mainland; and the Lido port to a depth of twelve metres to accommodate cruise ships.
     These changes to the ports and the presence of modern great ships in the lagoon pose a serious threat to Venice.  Consider what happens when a modern ocean liner enters the lagoon.
     It must first squeeze through the Lido harbour entrance. Then it turns toward the southwest so that Lido is on the ship’s portside and Venice is coming up to starboard. Once it passes the tip of Venice’s tail, it turns to the north and heads towards the San Marco basin. At this point, the island of San Giorgio is on the left and the Doge’s Palace and Piazza San Marco to the right. Directly in front is the customs complex, with the domes of Santa Maria della Salute rising behind it. If the ship were to veer a bit to the right, it would bung up the terminus of the Grand Canal, the anal section of Venice’s digestive tract. So to avoid what would amount to an act of naval sodomy, the ship must first clear the island of San Giorgio and then carefully bear to the left and follow the Giudecca Canal until it arrives at Venice’s mouth end, where it can dock.
    This entire maneuvre is delicate, leaving little margin for error, and it is complicated by the presence of a steady flow of what to the giant ship looks like Lilliputian traffic: gondolas, water taxis, barges, yachts, vaporetti (water buses), and ferry boats. If, into this mix, you throw inclement conditions, then the chances of an oversized vessel getting into trouble increase markedly, as is evidenced by some thrillingly close calls, such as the Mona Lisa incident.
    On the foggy morning of 12 May 2004, the German luxury liner Mona Lisa entered the Lido port. At 7:57 a.m., just as the 201-metre ship had rounded the island of San Giorgio and initiated a left turn towards the Giudecca Canal, she found herself in a collision course with one of the car ferries that was headed to Lido. The Mona Lisa reacted by dropping anchor and putting its engines into reverse, which caused the ship’s prow to drift to the right, moving her keel from the navigable canal. So she went aground -- just twenty metres from shore and within shouting distance of the Doge’s Palace.  
    It took one hour for the Mona Lisa, with the help of two 3500-horsepower tugs, to disengage herself from her muddy anchorage. There was no serious damage, other than the disruption to commuter traffic that morning, but the incident sparked a continuation of the debate on the advisability of allowing modern cruise ships to enter Venice’s waters. Venice’s mayor at the time—Paolo Costa—voiced a concern shared by many of his citizens, namely the fear that the presence of large ocean-going vessels in the San Marco basin is a potential hazard to the city’s cultural and historical treasures. According to Mayor Costa, there are only two ways of ensuring that a cruise ship does not eventually end up parking itself in Piazza San Marco (or blocking the end of the Grand Canal): either reroute these ships through the Malamocco port used by oil tankers, or do not allow the ships to enter the lagoon, but build new docks on the ocean side of Lido from which visitors could then be ferried into Venice.
    This second solution is the one favoured by environmentalists and other defenders of Venice. As they point out, the artificial deepening of the ports of Malamocco and Lido has significantly increased the volume of water that enters the lagoon at high tide and has therefore also contributed to the high water that floods Venice regularly and that has grown progressively more serious in recent years. Silvio Testa, writing in the 13 May 2004 Il Gazzettino (Venice’s daily newspaper), reminded his fellow Venetians that in the days of oar-powered and wind-powered ships, the port entries into the lagoon were only four to six metres deep, and Venetians protected the lagoon bed by raising the boats before they entered—either by partially unloading them at the harbour entry or by attaching rafts to the vessels’ sides. The attitude at the time was reflected in an old Venetian saying: “Palo fà palùo” (“a pole makes a swamp”)—meaning that even one pole (a “palo”) placed in the lagoon was enough to change the currents and encourage a new buildup of sand or silt. Nowadays, the port entries are three times deeper, to accommodate the big ships, which can reach a gross registered tonnage of more than 100,000 tons, displacing vaster quantities of water and affecting the lagoon bottom accordingly.

© 2014, Marco LoVerso

[Photo: Andreas Schwabe (Marketing CUCA)]

Marco LoVerso is Professor of English at Concordia University College of Alberta (CUCA), in Edmonton.


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