Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Ambassadors: An Anecdotal Glimpse into MOSE and Contemporary Venetian Governance

Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, from the National Gallery, London

While writing my November 16th post about the great swindle that the MOSE water gates appear to be--since which time even more evidence has been published--I was reminded of an anecdote, which I tried to write up and attach as a short footnote to that piece. But the length of that footnote grew until it basically attained the length of a post all its own, which you can now read below.
For a short period of time three years ago I gave English conversational lessons to a man high up in the administration of one of Venice's major cultural institutions.

We'd met a few times, once a week, to practice in his office, before one day he announced he wouldn't be available for our next meeting, as he'd be in New York City. He explained, with more than his typically robust sense of pride, that he was going to be a member of a contingent of Venetian administrators traveling with then-mayor Giorgio Orsoni to the Big Apple on something of a cultural outreach mission.

We didn't talk about what he'd be doing there, but we did talk a little about New York City, and I told him I looked forward to hearing his impressions of it.

This was in October 2013. I didn't really think anymore about this administrator's trip to New York, or read anything about its main purpose, until today, while remembering this anecdote.

It turns out that various local publications, including the press office of the comune itself, trumpeted this important mission to New York City. The main point of each account was that, in the words of La Nuova di Venezia, "MOSE va a New York." (MOSE goes to New York).

For Hurricane Sandy had flooded New York City's subways in October of the previous year and had finally awakened its administration to the fact that, yes, indeed, rising sea levels--and not just more frequent "Storms of the Century"--were going to inundate major sections of the city as surely as they'd swamp Venice. Preventive measures would need to be taken.

This is where the representatives of Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the conglomerate of private construction firms gifted the no-bid contract to build MOSE and headed by its new president Mauro Fabris (who replaced the old one, Giovanni Mazzacurati, who'd been arrested for corruption in July), spied an opening to market their own "expertise" in the creation of flood prevention systems to America's largest and richest city. (As La Nuova plainly put it in the article above: "il Consorzio vola a New York per 'vendere' il progetto agli americani.") 

Indeed, you can still read a marvelously inflated account of this mission written up by Consorzio Venezia Nuova itself, in which it recounts the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the threat of rising sea levels, and Consorzio's own unchallenged position as the world's expert on flood defenses: referring to the Consorzio's "know how and highest level of experience attained over many years," and its position as the "example for other areas of the planet that must develop programs to protect their own coastlines from the sea" ("acquisendo know how e competenze di altissimo livello, rappresenta oggi un  esempio  di  riferimento  per  altre  aree  del  Pianeta  chiamate  a  programmare  azioni strutturali per la salvaguardia delle regioni costiere dal mare").

(And, here, I must admit this about Consorzio Venezia Nuova: while both their incompetence and cupidity have proven to be off the chart, they do an admirable job on their press materials--especially for a firm based in Italy, where such things are typically rudimentary compared to the flash and polish of American and British corporate publications. My son came home from school a few weeks back with a large, glossy, colorful pamphlet published by Consorzio Venezia Nuova in English [not Italian] about how MOSE works--or is supposed to--that was every bit as slick as anything put out by an admirable company such as, say, Exxon-Mobil. In cash-strapped school systems like that of Venice, such advertising materials (fictional though they may be) are "generously" distributed by corporate interests as educational materials--as, I imagine, texts about the benevolence of the Venetian Republic might have been to distributed to any residents of Constantinople still alive after their city was sacked in 1204).  

In any case, this band of august Venetian ambassadors set off on a trade mission to a powerful distant land--just as Venetians used to do all the time during the glory years of the mighty Republic--to meet with its powerful leader, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself as rich as one of the sultans of old.

But these representatives of an ancient, imperiled and ever-more-empty city of less than 60,000 residents did not go merely hat in hand to one of the world's undisputed capitals with a population of more than 8 million. No, the venerable Mayor Orsoni--still some months away from being arrested himself and forced from office for corruption--is reported to have declared to Bloomberg that Venice "is a modern city of innovation." Considering the sophistication of the MOSE project, that is, it was almost as if Orsoni and company were emissaries from the future, with a great gift to bestow (for the right price).

Well, you'd think that anyone fortunate enough to have been a member of this honorable group of statesmen (and it was all men), would have plenty to say about this historically significant trip: this moment at which Venice reasserted its trail-blazing importance on the international stage. 

But the next time I saw the administrator I tutored, a couple of weeks after his return to Venice, he morosely refused to say almost anything about it, scowling and muttering at the mere mention of it.

I persisted, and found out why.

Only after concluding their visit to New York City did this contingent of Venetian representatives discover that they had arranged to meet with an outgoing lame duck mayor in his last two months in office.

For strange as it may seem, none of these perspicacious ambassadors seemed to be aware of the fact that New York City would he holding a mayoral election less than two weeks after their visit. An election in which Michael Bloomberg, having already exceeded the term limit of his office, was never going to be on the ballot.

That is, an entirely new administration would take charge of running the city in the new year, while Venice's representatives had spent their time meeting with powerless outgoing officials. 

To make it even worse, the winner of the mayoral election by a landslide (Bill de Blasio), as expected, was not even a member of the same political party as the outgoing mayor. 

The Venetians' trip, in other words, was, in the words of the administrator I tutored, a total waste of time.

But, of course, this anecdote refers to something that took place three years ago. I have no doubt that the current administration and leadership of Venice is much more astute.


  1. Although the underlying issue of MOSE and its attendant corruption and lack of function (to put it mildly) is not amusing, this anecdote has brought a smile to my face.

    1. If nothing else these guys are pretty adept at playing the role of buffoons, Yvonne!