Friday, November 4, 2016

Two New Exhibitions Reflect on Today's 50th Anniversary of Venice's Great Flood

The blue line on the Olivetti Showroom window indicates the height of the 1966 flood, and appears on each shop around Piazza San Marco that is participating in the exhibition Acqua in Piazza

In spite of the fact that acqua alta has become almost as synonymous with Venice as gondolas, a good many visitors to the city have mistaken ideas about the phenomenon. Understandably enough, the errors usually are inspired by what flooding means in their native lands, or by the frequently misleading images and accounts of high water disseminated by the international press.

Acqua alta, however, in spite of what the most extreme and eye-catching images may suggest, is not a "flash flood," but just part of the normal cycle of incoming and outgoing tides upon which the city's ancient sewage system depends for its effectiveness. I've always found the following saying a useful way of remembering this cycle, as it purports to tell you not only about the tides, but about the supposedly bipolar Venetian temperament: "Venetians are like their city's tides: up for six hours, down for six hours, up for six hours, down for six hours."

At least, this is almost always how acqua alta works. But the most famous and damaging modern instance of acqua alta, the one whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated around the city today, was a "perfect storm" phenomenon, whose various elements combined to overwhelm the usual tidal rhythm.

On 4 November 1966 the problem wasn't just that an extremely high tide rolled into the city. It was that extremely strong scirocco winds and barometric pressure kept it from going back out into the Adriatic (as it usually would have) before the next high tide came in. And if that wasn't bad enough, heavy rains on the mainland (where places like Florence and Siena were experiencing their own disastrous flooding) brought hugely swollen rivers into the lagoon from the west.

The result was a tide that measured 194 cm (6 feet 4 inches) above "mareographic zero", and that didn't go down for nearly 24 hours. As John Keahey describes it in his fine book Venice Against the Sea
As soon as the rising salt water hit 1.90 cm and assaulted the city's electrical transformers [which after a major flood in 1953 had been re-positioned at that height], the city went black. All power was down, and all telephone services--its equipment maintained at the same level on the ground floors of the buildings--went dead as well. Fuel tanks holding diesel, then a common fuel for heating (now replaced by natural gas), were breached, and the water became thick and oily, turning black and smelling of petroleum.
The city was without power for a full week.

Acqua alta two days after the show's opening
Food and water supplies were disrupted, people left homeless, businesses closed, and the damage to personal and public property, and to the city's architectural and artistic heritage was immense. Keahey cites older Venetians' memories of "carcasses--rats, cats, dogs--and of mattresses and other bedding and furniture floating in the [diesel-tainted] canals", along with "crates of vegetables and fruit, swept from the market near Rialto."

Even ten days after the great storm, he notes that one woman returned from Milan to her family home to find such debris still floating everywhere. 

Fortunately, in the long history of Venice, this kind of event has been rare. Keahey writes, "Historians estimate that this kind of high water--about six feet (nearly two meters) above relative sea level--has occurred only about five times in the human history of Venice."

Though that's not to say there isn't the possibility that with rising seal levels and changing weather patterns--not to mention human-made alterations in the form of the lagoon--they won't become more common. 

So this is what's being commemorated today, in various ways and various places around the city.

Two of the more interesting exhibitions inspired by this 50th anniversary--gathered together under the title L'Acqua E La Piazza and sponsored by Fondo Ambiente Italiano, Associazione Piazza San Marco, and We Are Here Venice--are taking place in and around Piazza San Marco, and run from their openings today through 8 January 2017.

Both Ritorno in Piazza and Acqua in Piazza take the anniversary of the acquagranda (great flood) as inspiration to reflect upon both the present significance of Piazza San Marco--now one of the lowest places in Venice and, hence, the first to be flooded--and its possible futures.

Photographer Anna Zemella with some of her images currently on display in the Olivetti Showroom

Ritorno in Piazza is an exhibition of black-and-white work by the Venetian photographer Anna Zemella hosted by the non-profit organization FAI in Carlo Scarpa's beautiful Olivetti Showroom beneath the northern arcade of Piazza San Marco. Half of the show, as might be expected given the occasion, is a meditation on water in the Piazza and the Piazza (as reflected) in that water.

The other half is focused upon those monumental human sculptures of the Piazza that are, paradoxically, both integral parts of the Piazza's appearance and yet rarely ever really seen. Each of Zemella's images don't so much bring each subject out of the shadows into the plain light of day, but, rather, captures in striking chiaroscuro the particular force of each subject--bound up within and struggling against their obscurity as Michelangelo's similarly muscled slaves writhe within their blocks of marble in Florence's Accademia. 

In each section, the photographer returns the viewer to an intimate relationship with Piazza San Marco: the kind of relationship usually lost because of the overwhelming presence of mass tourism there.

The exhibition Acqua in Piazza, on the other hand, literally takes us out of the Olivetti Showroom and around the Piazza itself. Created by the local non-profit group We Are Here Venice and the artist Eleonora Sovrani, it leads the viewer to 14 different nearby installation sites (12 of them within the Piazza itself, 2 more just outside it), each of them clearly marked by a blue line on the front window of participating businesses, indicating the water level reached on each facade on 4 November 1966 (and also mapped out on a postcard available in shops and hotels around Venice, in addition to the Olivetti Showroom).

Inside each different site viewers will find a framed montage of image and text offering different perspectives on and information about the complex relationship between the Piazza and the lagoon, ranging from the  most immediately practical issues--such as how businesses prepare for and deal with repeated flooding--to more far-flung, technical and scientific responses to this essential Venetian reality, such as the network of tidal gauges in the lagoon.

Though inspired by a day of commemoration, what I like about both of these projects is that in each of them history acts as a spur to think about the present situation of the Piazza and the lagoon and Venice, and about what might lie ahead--and what we might do about it. One project sends us back out in the Piazza with a new attention to detail. The other quite literally leads us into the businesses directly affected by this unique situation, makes us active participants in the project, learning more about the very space we're walking through from each successive site we visit.

Again, both exhibitions run through 8 January 2017.

And there's also a beautifully produced book for each work, published by lineadcqua press and available for purchase in the Olivetti Showroom.

1 comment:

  1. Ciao Steven,
    Thanks as always for your informative writing!
    I'll be in Venezia in December (can't wait) and will make sure to not miss both exhibitions.