Restoring the spirit, revitalizing a city: Venice and art in peril

The great city of Venice conjures up images of vibrant, bustling piazzas and gondolas floating down serene canals. It is a city marked by hundreds of years of art and culture; yet for all its charm and beauty, it is a city in distress that is gradually deteriorating due to the forces of nature and mankind. The first in a series of lectures, last Thursday’s “Monuments in Peril: Venice” brought experts from various fields into discussion about the challenges confronting Venice, as well as how these challenges affect both its immeasurable body of public artwork and the daily lives of the Venetians.

Introduced by Kathy Morris, the Clark’s director of collections and exhibitions, the discussion was moderated by Ralph Lieberman, art historian and visiting professor at the College.

“The case in Venice is very complicated. Many people have varying views about Venice; some are in love with her; others dislike her for what she’s become and are disappointed with the distressing project of reconstructing Venice,” Lieberman said. The city is currently battling the effects of flooding and tourism, ultimately stirring a controversial question of whether or not the city is meant to be saved.

“It is commonly thought that the main threat to Venice was the sea, but in fact, it is the rivers that flow into the [Venetian] lagoon,” Lieberman said. The need for water and the subsequent mass extraction out of artesian wells caused the beginning of the city’s sinking, setting off low-level floods – called Acqua alta, or “high water” – at a frequency that has been increasing in number in recent years. In 1966, the city of Venice was submerged in water 1.4 meters above the sea level, Venice’s most devastating and destructive flood in history.

“It is clear that since 1966, these catastrophic floods have risen in number,” said E.J. Johnson, professor of art history. “Since 1966, they have come to an average of four a year.” Since then, measures have been taken to attempt to prevent the floods. In 2000, construction for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico (MOSE) began. While progress on the project has been slow (the project was first proposed in 1984), the massive endeavor now outlines the temporary closure of the three major entrances into the lagoon and the construction of 80 floodgates that city officials hope will block the occasional high tides of the Adriatic. MOSE is the largest public works project that Italy has ever undertaken and is expected to be completed by 2014.

The project has been met with some criticism; some opponents point to the fact that the project does not address the wakes of motorboats and cruises, both of which beat against the foundation of buildings. Others argue that there are other existing defense models that both cost less and work better.

Fabio Carrera, a native Venetian and the director of the Venice Project Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is among such opponents. He argues that the project is a stop-gap measure that may only last 100 years due to the expected raise in sea level under global warming. As a result, the Venice city council, which represents the people of Venice, has voted against the project since its inception.

“It is Venice’s quality of life that is at peril,” Carrera said. “Tourists are everywhere, but it is hypocritical for Venetians to complain – that’s where the money is coming from.”

There has also been difficulty in finding concrete ways to change Venice’s tourism. “Mass tourism has gone up, and it is hard to find ways to fix it. Eighty percent of tourists just come for the day and spend little money when there,” said Frederick Ilchman, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. With the Venetian resident population dwindling, tourists have taken over the city, driving away local businesses and services that residents need (such as grocery stores and convenience stores) and bringing in a growing number of tourist-luring luxury hotels and billboards.

While there is contention regarding the manner in which to deal with the issues of flooding and tourism, there is still a uniting sense of urgency in protecting the city and its people. “As a city, [Venice] is still the greatest concentration of art in the world. Preserving it is important; 900 years of architecture is not a mistake,” Ilchman said.