Who’s in charge of Venice? No one
If the Serenissima is to survive, it needs an overarching authority with real teeth and money
By Anna Somers Cocks. Comment, Issue 250, October 2013
Published online: 08 October 2013
On 21 September, 12 cruise ships, five of them far larger than the 40,000 tonnes legally allowed to enter Venice, sailed down the Giudecca Canal. Protesters jumped into the water and held up the traffic for an hour.
National and international indignation at these monster intrusions prompted prime minister Enrico Letta to bring forward the announcement of a solution, so on 1 October we should hear which alternative route to sailing through Venice has been chosen for them.
At a meeting in Rome on 25 July, the minister for infrastructure, Maurizio Lupi, had said that the Magistrato alle Acque (a branch of the ministry of infrastructure and transport with responsibility for the lagoon) and the Capitaneria di Porto of Venice, run by the navy, would examine the alternatives. They would report to Lupi and the minister for the environment, Andrea Orlando, who would make their choice after a meeting of the Comitatone (literally, the very big committee), a body set up to vote on special funding for Venice, composed of the prime minister, various members of the cabinet, crucially, the minister of finance, the mayor of Venice, and other leaders of local government.
There are essentially two choices. The option favoured by the powerful head of the Venice Port Authority, Paolo Costa, is to dredge the one and a half metre-deep Canale Contorta-Sant’Angelo to a depth of nine metres, which would allow the ships to enter the port by the Malamocco entrance and arrive in the port of Venice without sailing through the city. Mayor Giorgio Orsoni, on the other hand, believes that they should enter the same way, but dock at Marghera on the mainland side of the lagoon. A third option, not discussed at the July meeting, would be to build a floating port outside the lagoon beyond the Lido opening.
As with most decisions to do with Venice, the considerations are complex and with far-reaching implications. Costa’s option keeps the cruise ship business for the Venice port, in whose development the commercial company that he set up, Venezia Terminal Passeggeri, has invested large sums, with consequent expectations of a return on capital. It also keeps the jobs within Venice rather than losing them to the mainland, and, last but not least, the passengers are actually in Venice rather than having to be shipped in by smaller boats. But any more deep-dredging in a part of the lagoon that has already been severely damaged by the channel dug in the 60s to allow petrol tankers to enter is highly undesirable. It will accelerate the loss of sediment and the transformation of the lagoon from a shallow, peaceful body of water into something more like open sea, which is very bad for Venice as a whole.
Orsoni’s option avoids this damage and brings work and investment to a dying industrial area. It is, however, unsexy from the passengers’ point of view and goes against the interests of the investors in the port of Venice.
The third and least likely option—to take the port outside the lagoon completely—is probably the one that should be chosen if long-term planning were a Venetian habit. With rising sea levels, the mobile barriers between the lagoon and the Adriatic currently under construction will have to be closed for longer and longer periods, and while they have been designed with locks to allow ships to pass even while they are closed, no one seriously believes that these will be adequate for large numbers of very big ships.
The big questions encapsulated here are: what is the vision for the city in the long-term? What should have priority? How long do we—the Venetians, the Italians, the world—want it to survive? Above all, who decides?
The answer is, at present no one, because no individual or organisation has sufficient power to do so. The town council is responsible for some aspects of tourism, the non-listed buildings and the canals within the city (but eight councils of small nearby towns also have a say in policy-making).
The Magistrato alle Acque (water authority) looks after pollution abatement and maintenance in the lagoon and flood defences. Its projects are mostly carried out by its concessionary, the powerful Consorzio Venezia Nuova, a group of Italy’s leading industrial companies and local firms, which researches, develops and executes the measures to protect Venice from flooding. The Consorzio’s current mandate comes to an end in 2016 when the mobile barriers will be complete. There is no plan for what should take its place.
The Venice port authority, a national body, is responsible for the deep-dredged shipping channels across the lagoon, the Giudecca canal through Venice, the port in Venice and the ports around the lagoon.
The Veneto regional government deals with pollution abatement in the drainage basin of the lagoon, tourism and transport on the mainland, landscape and some aspects of navigation, while the Venice and Padua provincial governments look after some other aspects of the environment on the mainland and the fisheries in the lagoon.
Finally, the superintendency for architecture and landscape, a part of the ministry of culture and cultural activities, is responsible for listed buildings and landscape declared to be of heritage importance.
Too many cooks
So when more and more people are asking themselves how such a precious city as Venice could have been allowed to get in such an obvious mess, the underlying reason is, too many cooks.
The solution would be a new, overarching authority for Venice with real powers and financing, capable of drawing up and implementing a plan for at least the next 50 years to take account of environmental, conservation, social and economic factors. But there is no precedent for such a body in Italian government, so it might consider inviting the European Union to enter into a partnership and create a completely new kind of organisation while helping pay to preserve the city, something that is certain to become more and more expensive. There is no precedent for such a partnership between the EU and a member state either, but it would be a chance for the EU to prove that it really is a boon to Europe and the world, and it could not come fast enough because the current situation in Venice is clearly unsustainable.
Anna Somers Cocks is chief executive of The Art Newspaper and was chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund, 2000-12
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