Thursday, March 31, 2016

Venice's Kitchen Garden and the Great Flood of '66

The last light of day illumines one of the flood gates of Sant'Erasmo leading out to the open lagoon

Most ardent fans of Venice know about the famous flood of 1966 that is said to have alerted the world to how imperiled the city was by the same sea over which it had once exercised such profitable dominion. Few people, however, seem to know of the disastrous long-range impact the same flood had on what was called during the Republic "l'orto dei dogi" (the doges' kitchen garden) and, later (and still), "the city's garden": Sant'Erasmo, the lagoon's largest island.

As in Venice, flood waters swept high into the ground floor of nearly every house, but when they receded on Sant'Erasmo the damage went beyond merely the domestic and architectural. The salt water of the flood wiped out nearly all of the island's agriculture--and not just for a season. For more than five years the sea salt left behind in the soil made it barren--this according to one island resident I spoke to with a long family history on Sant'Erasmo. He was not yet born when the flood hit. Another resident I spoke to, also with a very long family history on the island, and who was a school boy in 1966, said farming was pretty much impossible for eight years. Both agreed that the return to full yields progressed little by little after those first years. Deprived of their usual livelihood during that period, the island's farmers sought work in the factories of Murano, or wherever else they could find it.

If you take a boat past the island today you'll see that it's now fully enclosed within bulwarks against high tides, keeping it entirely safe from all flooding up to a height of 140 cm above the mean sea level, according to one farmer I spoke to. And, as you can see in the image above, each of Sant'Erasmo's inner canals is reached through sluice gates that are closed whenever the tide reaches 110 cm. Sluice gates that always seemed quaint and a little whimsical as we motored through their frames in our small boat on our way to buy vegetables at our favorite farm on Sant'Erasmo, not knowing a thing about the disaster that necessitated their construction. 


  1. That's an interesting bit of history about this island. Do the gates operate automatically, or is someone responsible for closing/opening them?

    1. From what I've seen going through them, Yvonne, it looks like something that would have to be done manually. Though I'm sure Consorzio Venezia Nuova would be happy to be granted a no-bid contract to automate them for a half billion euro or so.