Tuesday, September 23, 2014

60 Big Celebs Speak Out Against Big Ships, Yet the Waters of the Controversy Remain Muddy

Sir Michael Caine was one of more than 60 celebrities who signed an open letter against big ships in Venice, but their letter leaves open the question of whether he, any more than many others, actually knows what's it all about (photo credit: http://www.michaelcaine.com)
After receiving a fairly good amount of coverage toward the end of July for their open letter to Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi calling upon him to put an end to the "senseless devastation" of Venice by cruise ships I wonder what the 63 or so celebrity signatories are thinking about the latest plans for the lagoon.

What do Sir Michael Caine or Julie Christie or Nobel Prize-winning author VS Naipaul or Susan Sarandon or Michael Douglas and Edward Norton (both of whom have been designated "Messengers of Peace" by the UN) think about the plan to dredge a new deep water channel in the lagoon to accommodate the most monstrous of cruise ships (those over 96,000 tons)?

There's been no reaction by them to this potentially devastating plan. (About which I've recently written here: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2014/09/romes-decision-makes-bad-situation-much.html)

And, in fact, no matter how often I reread the open letter itself I still can't make out the signers' position on two central issues about previous regulations on big ships that, after having been struck down by a regional court last spring, are being proposed once again.

1) Would the signers be content that there be no limit on ships under 40,000 tons passing by the Doges' Palace and through the Giudecca Canal?

2) Would they be satisfied that the number of cruise ships weighing between 40,000 and 96,000 tons that take that same route through the city should simply be reduced by 20%? So, for example, four rather than five huge ships would make that trip each day?

Here is the letter itself in full, as reported by England's Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2701705/):
 Dear Prime Minister, dear Minister,

Having prevailed against flood, pestilence, and war for more than thirteen centuries, Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, and unparalleled UNESCO Word Heritage site, now, in a moment of relative tranquility, finds herself mortally threatened by the daily transit of gargantuan ocean liners, indifferent to the probable risk of catastrophe.

Since the flood of 1966, Italy and countless Italian and international supporters have contributed to the defense of the world's most fragile city, eternally subject to destruction.

The absolute lack of respect presented by the outlandish spectacle of the ongoing obstruction and potentially destruction, of one of humanity’s pre-eminent monuments is not only dumbfounding but both morally and culturally unacceptable.
We urgently request an immediate and irrevocable halt to the traffic of the Big Ships in front of San Marco and along the Giudecca Canal putting an end to this senseless devastation.
As I've mentioned before, the reporting on this controversy in the English language press has been remarkably sloppy if not downright misleading. VENICE BANS BIG SHIPS more than one paper has blared, when, in fact, Venice (or Rome) has never done, nor even proposed, any such thing.

Those who read such headlines and happily imagine that never again will their sunset view of San Giorgio Maggiore from the molo near Piazza San Marco be obliterated by a parade of 4 huge cruise ships heading back out toward the Adriatic after 8 hours in Venice have it completely wrong.

As do those cruise lovers who panic at the thought that they've missed their chance to watch the legendary seat of a once-mighty Republic slide past beyond the bunions of their own outstretched feet as they lounge in a deck chair.

As I strain to discern the intent of the celebrity letter signers--certain only that VS Naipaul was definitely not the author of the missive, as he's never been known to be vague about his own opinions--I fix on the adjective "gargantuan". And yet it finally gets me nowhere.

How big is that "gargantuan"? Over 96,000 tons? Over 40,000 tons?

For all the letter's outrage about the threat to the great city of Venice, I really have no idea just what exactly the signers of the letter aimed to accomplish with it. And I wonder how many of the the 63 signatories actually did.

Are they on the side of those who want all cruise ships out of the lagoon?

Or are they essentially on the side of cruise industry?

The same industry that, contrary to what might have been expected, welcomed restrictions on the size of ships barging past the Doges' Palace--why, they'd volunteered to impose just such restrictions upon themselves! As long as a new route was dredged for the even bigger ships they planned on bringing into the lagoon. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/cruises/11030820/Cruise-industry-urges-swift-solution-for-Venice-ship-ban.html).

But I write this post less as a criticism of the celebrities' letter and subsequent absence of response to new developments in the controversy, than to express my ongoing astonishment at how masterfully and completely Paolo Costa's Venice Port Authority and the cruise industry have managed to set the very terms of the entire debate.

Newspapers everywhere have published images of protesters waving "No Grandi Navi" banners in pretty much every article about the banning of big ships in Venice, but the "ban" on "big ships"--whether the report is that is has been instituted, or struck down by a regional court, or re-proposed by Rome--has almost nothing to do with the intent of such banners. As much as one might either like to think so or hate to think so, such protesters have not gotten anything like their way. Their voice, in fact, can hardly even be discerned in the actual terms in which the debate has been framed and discussed. And continues to framed and discussed.

Indeed, part of me suspects that those of us who don't like the sight or idea of 33,000 ton, 60,000 ton or 90,000 ton (much less 124,000 ton) cruise ships barreling through the basin of San Marco (where two billboard ads on buildings under renovation look aptly like those those alongside a US freeway) have some reason to feel we've been played. That the slight reduction of traffic on that highway was always intended only as a concession to clear the way for a greater power play: the dredging of the deep water channel.

Or to put it another way: If the Port Authority and cruise ship industry have made a big show of letting a concession or two drop from one of their hands, have they done so only with the assurance that they'll be able to gouge out much more power and money with their other?

An environmental impact assessment of the proposed deep water channel is currently underway, but I'm not sure how much doubt there is about its likely findings. Or at least that, whatever the assessment concludes, the odds of the deep water channel being dredged anyway are fairly good. Indeed, Paolo Costa, President of the Venice Port Authority, former mayor of the city, and all-around power player, was recently quoted in a local paper as saying the dredging of the Contorta Canale was "the only solution."

This of course is blatantly untrue. In fact, a proposal for a new cruise ship terminal situated at the mouth of the Lido to the Adriatic--which would eliminate both the need for big ships to pass through the basin of San Marco and the dredging of a new deep water canal--was recently submitted to the Ministry of the Environment (http://www.gazzettino.it/NORDEST/VENEZIA/venezia_navi_crociere_porto/notizie/905538.shtml). But given the Orwellian ingenuity with which Costa and those who share his interests have set and controlled the terms of the discussion, you can see why he and they might be feeling rather cocky these days about having their way with the issue.

For those who oppose the vision that Costa has for Venice, whether they're celebrities or not, it's important that they make some effort to be heard. There's a petition against the dredging of the canal here: http://www.change.org/p/stop-the-plan-to-dredge-the-maxi-canal-contorta-in-venice-before-it-s-too-late.

And if those 63 celebs really want to eliminate cruise ships from Venice they might seriously think about drafting another letter before the environmental assessment report on the Contorta Canale is due in early November.   


  1. Where is David when we need him to combat this Goliath?

    1. I don't know, Yvonne, but it doesn't seem to be in the big names of 60 celebs. Especially as there seems to be more evidence that they--or the writer of the letter--were manipulated into doing something useful to Paolo Costa's plans to dredge the Canale Contorta, rather than to getting big ships out of the Venice.

      The is no single David, it seems, only as many residents and supporters who can get together & put up a fight.