Monday, November 25, 2019

What Acqua Alta Leaves In Its Wake

Long after the world's media has decamped from Piazza San Marco and moved onto other spectacles the signs of the damage continue to quite literally pile up.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Vampires Descend

Sign of the times

NOTE: I wrote most of the below last week, just after the disastrous acqua alta of 187 cm.

MOSE, the acronym for the mobile flood barriers that were by now supposed to protect Venice from disastrous flooding of the sort that swept into the city Tuesday night has been on everyone’s lips these past days--almost invariably preceded or followed by a variety of imprecations, directed not just at the monstrously-expensive and still non-functioning things themselves but at the various people who have promoted them, and profited from them for the last 37 years.

After all, not long after the big project (it was literally called Il Progettone) was formally announced, the then-Prime Minister of Italy, Bettino Craxi, named the date of its completion: 1995. If by some miracle the gates had been operational by that time, Craxi himself would have had to miss their inauguration, as in 1994 he fled from Italy to escape imprisonment for corruption to Tunisia, where he'd remain a fugitive until his death in 2000. 

This would be just the first of many, many, many missed deadlines.

Sadly enough the best account I've seen on MOSE remains John Keahey's 2002 book Venice Against the Sea. "Sadly," I say, not because of any fault in the book itself--on the contrary, it's an impressive and fair depiction of the complex political and historical forces involved in the dream of saving Venice from encroaching tides--but because so little progress on the problem has been made that it remains as good a guide to the current situation today, 17 years after its publication, as it was when first printed.

"Sadly," too, because all the reservations which Keahey carefully documents various people expressing about the project from its very inception to the time of his writing--engineers, environmentalists, and the EU itself--have been shown to be not just valid, but nothing less than prophetic.

For example, consider this passage about the creation of Consorzio Venezia Nuova (or Consortium for a New Venice), a target of more than a few curses, not to mention corruption charges, in recent years:
Created by government fiat, the Consorzio is made up of about fifty of the largest public and private civil-engineering and construction firms in Italy. This [gives] a virtual monopoly for the rescue of Venice to a group of Italy's largest for-profit firms. Such a monopoly could never been created in the United States. There it would require several independent groups, all bidding for a variety of contracts. They would compete for the right to determine what solutions needed to be developed for problems within the lagoon, how those solutions should be designed, and then who should build them. [I must insert here that while this invocation of the US makes for an instructive contrast, and is along the lines of the process which Keahey later notes the EU wanted Italy to follow, America has since proved itself to be quite fond of no-bid contracts, not to mention unpunished corruption.]

The Consorzio was created in the years when Italian contracts and money were routinely funneled to "friends of friends," as one official wryly described it. And it was created before the 1990s crackdown by judicial magistrates on major business executives throughout Italy who were believed to have profited from a variety of favors and scams.

To its credit the Consorzio has weathered the wave of investigations that swept the country in the last decade of the twentieth century, a fact that have not stopped cynical Italians from continuing to believe that money is being poured into a bottomless hole, and that the Consorzio was making billion of lire from a project--the mobile gates--that would never see the light of day. Even today, in the dawn of the twenty-first century, there are those who believe that the Consorzio is content to have the gates continually delayed because it gives the organization a reason to exist--and continue to draw billions of lire annually in government funds.
Those billions of lire have swelled enormously to billions of euros--6 billion euros by latest estimates.

And deadlines continue to be missed regularly, and one news article after another recounts the latest humiliating revelation of the Consorzio's ineptness and knavishness. The latter perhaps surprises no one: as the excerpt above suggests, corruption and unaccountability were baked into the very being of the Consorzio.

But the utter incompetence is such that it alone, the sheer embarrassing stupidity, especially in the context of saving one of the world's great historical and cultural sites, merits criminal charges. They're the kinds of stupidity and irresponsibility one must laugh about so as not to cry, recounting to others in Venice, "Ah, remember when the geniuses at the Consorzio discovered--but only after installing the gates--that the sea is salty?!"

The website Campaign for a Living Venice has recently compiled a very useful list of links of the Consorzio's most recent failures under the heading "MoSE Will Not Work."  It provides a succinct and valuable context for understanding why this week's floods hit residents so very hard--the blow to local morale being no less severe than the substantial damage done to landmarks, homes, and businesses.

A group portrait of shamelesness: Silvio Berlusconi, center; Renato Brunetta, right of him; Luigi Brugnaro, at far right (Corriere del Veneto)

Indeed, given the long painful history of MOSE it requires, in truth, a rather extraordinary amount of shamelessness to arrive in the city when the water has once again filled the calli and campi to alarming heights, slip into some rubber boots, and declare with no sense of irony that the key takeaway from this ongoing disaster is that our dedication to (and, inevitably, funding of) the completion of MOSE must be intensified.

But then some politicians become legendary for their shamelessness, and one of the most infamous of this sort showed his wax-work face in Venice the day after Tuesday's near-record acqua alta of 187 cm to laud the project whose cornerstone he quite literally laid on May 13, 2003.

If, as the saying goes, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, it should come as little surprise to be reminded that, yes, indeed, it was Silvio Berlusconi (during his first term as Prime Minister) who served as the midwife of what, in terms of its non-functioning, might be called MOSE's still birth.

Though this week a good many people might describe MOSE's entrance into the lagoon as nothing less than an abortion.

But Berlusconi was not alone in this week's pitch for MOSE, nor the only person present at the inauguration of MOSE in 2003 to reappear this week in rubber boots as the image below from Dagospia shows:

Silvio Berlusconi (center) with Luca Zaia to his left, and Renata Bruneta (far right: current head of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party's group of deputies in the Chambers of Deputies, then a minister in the Berlusconi administration) at the May 14, 2003 ribbon cutting of MOSE

Though not pictured in the second image of this post taken in the high water of Piazza San Marco, the President of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, was also in town yesterday--as he was in 2003 to kick off MOSE's construction (see directly above)--and Venice's own non-resident mayor traveled all the way from his home in the Treviso region to push for MOSE's "speedy" completion.

(Soon after Venice's current mayor was elected, a native Venetian, retired after a lifetime of serving in local and regional administrative roles, characterized him to me as "ruspante." I didn't know the word, so he gestured with one hand as if scraping for something on the table top between us and explained, "Like a hen in the farmyard, you understand? Scratching at the dirt to see what she might find for herself." It has proved to be--or, rather, the mayor has proved it to be--an apt description. So much so that that's how I always think of him, and how I'll refer to him here: Mayor Ruspante.)

Climate change was to blame for the increased frequency and intensity of flooding, said Mayor Ruspante, and only MOSE could save the city.

Well, being an American citizen, I had to give the good mayor a point just for mentioning climate change, as American politicians on the Right don't dare utter that term--and even go out of their way to entirely ban its use by state and Federal government agencies.

But while climate change is a major factor, it is not the only one. Also known to be a factor in the intensity of acqua alta are the kinds of changes to the morphology of the lagoon which Mayor Ruspante himself supports: that is, the digging of deep water shipping channels, which have washed away the extensive mudflats that once filled the lagoon and tempered tidal force, and the reconfiguration of the ports into the lagoon from the Adriatic for the sake of--the construction of MOSE.

Moreover, climate change is not the reason why MOSE is way behind schedule and still not functioning--nor giving many signs that it ever will.

It's simple (and cynical) enough to use the backdrop of a flooded city to demand that the pipe line of public funding poured into the private interests profiting from MOSE be kept fully open--after all, Berlusconi has declared "it's 94% completed!"

An impressive figure, indeed.

Until you consider that for the most part it's proven itself to be pretty much 100% non-functional.

If we've learned nothing else from this great long-running swindle, surely we've learned that all the money in the Italian budget doesn't buy competence or accountability. Why should it suddenly do so now?

These are some of the reasons why all the expressions of dismay in the world by Mayor Ruspante and Zaia and Brunetta and Berlusconi (if his face were capable of forming expressions) don't go very far with most Venetians.

And why a flyer posted all around town this week (below) labels these recent visitors "Crocodiles in the Lagoon," with the tears and sharp teeth that go with such creatures.

Venice's Mayor Ruspante (left), Regional President Luca Zaia, (center), and the Patriarch of Venice (right) are pictured on a flyer posted all around the city this week
But yesterday as I walked my son home from school--my son who has lived in Venice since before he was three years old, and who never wants to leave it--I caught sight of Berlusconi himself. We were approaching a bridge near Piazzale Roma as a long row of police boats and taxis began to pass beneath it, and then suddenly there he was: standing in the open air at the back of a taxi, spray-on hairline as black and flat as Bela Lagosi's Dracula, a faint fixed smile on his fixed filler-plumped face, a toady at the front end of the taxi's roof filming the former Prime Minister's slow procession down the Rio Novo with a smart phone as "Il Cavaliere" looked to see if anyone along the fondamente was noticing him--an aborted little wave attesting to a momentary false hope that he'd spotted an admirer.

Some, like myself, had noticed him, but I saw no one give a wave, and I saw no one smile. Seeing him cross one's path less than 24 hours after the acqua alta of 187 cm seemed a particularly inauspicious sign: a primped and long-black-coated undead passing through the stricken city, looking for more blood. 

An inauspicious sight in Rio Novo

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A Meal Three Days in the Making: Castradina for Thursday's Festa della Salute

All of the ingredients for this first night of castradina preparation

There's a bit more to post about last week's severe acqua alta, but that can wait at least a day, as today is the day one must begin preparing castradina, the traditional meal eaten on the Festa della Salute on November 21.

I wrote about what castradina is, and its background, and my first time making it--as well as a bit about the Festa della Salute itself--six years ago, and rather than repeating myself I'll just post a link to that post here.

Besides, I now have to go check that I've got the castradina boiling well, not to much, not too little, for the next two hours.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A Second Extraordinarily High Tide Sweeps In: 17 Views from Today

A very private cruise around the city, wine and snacks included

High tides have rolled into Venice every day for the last week, making clean up of everything damaged in Tuesday's near-record acqua alta of 187 cm difficult, keeping almost all supermarkets in the city closed (as their vast banks of refrigerators were damaged by water), and making thigh-high rubber boats not only an absolute necessity if one wanted to go out in today's fore-casted tide of 160 cm, but literally impossible to find anywhere in the city.

I know because I (along with many others) spent the last two days trying to find a pair.

But today's flooding "only" reached a height of 150 cm, which would have been considered catastrophic before last Tuesday, but was considered a lucky break today--relatively speaking.

(Il Gazzattino reported this morning, before the high tide pictured here rolled in, that this past week marks the first time since 1872 that two high tides greater than 150 cm hit the city in the same year, much less the same week. It was also the first time since 1872 that three high tides of more than 140 hit the city in the same year, much less the same week. And it is only the second time in history, along with 29 October 2018, that two high tides of greater than 140 cm hit the city with a 24 hour period.)

That doesn't mean people were or are happy about the situation. Even those who tried their best to remain, well, buoyant (such as the fellow in the inflatable dinghy with the wine and cheese above), were quick to express their disgust, if not despair. But those are topics for the next post....

All over the city pumps struggled to keep the water level inside buildings lower than that in the streets

It's a rather cruel paradox that when extreme acqua alta extends Venice's ancient sewage system of canals over every inch of the city canines find themselves with no place to relieve themselves

A rough translation of the wood panel: "High tide sweep away all of these things: the theme park, cruise ships, MOSE, all the polluting work boats, fine particle air pollution, the monoculture of tourism, the precarious resident housing situation, gentrification, and the tourist destruction of the city." Aside from "Love and..." I can't make out the other words. The sheet of paper states, sarcastically; "It's not climate change? No!!! Just scirocco [winds]!"

Table service in the knee-high water of Campo San Cassiano

The canals weren't the only things that ranged beyond their banks

Above and below: the proprietors and staff of the Osteria dei Zemei on the Rio Terà San Silvestro try, after a week of being closed due to high water, to make the best of a bad situation

And from my sampling of both the prosecco popped above and their cicchetti, it's a place worth seeking out on those days when you can walk rather than swim to it

On this day the Rialto fish market is better suited for live fish than dead

A gate along the Fondamenta Riva Olio is partially submerged in the Grand Canal

The stone panel of a facade sits in the high tide that has detached it from its wall

A discarded washing machine sits in what might be described as one doozy of a rinse cycle

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Venice: City of the Future--13 Images of Near-Record Flooding (Updated 15 November)

Two youths brave the cold and dirty water of Campo San Polo to gather up garbage--they're part of a group of volunteers formed by young Venetians called Clean Venice that has worked each day since Tuesday to clean up the city

I'll add text to this post tomorrow, and explain the title, but for now I wanted to put up these images and link to at least one article describing the near-record acqua alta that swept into the city last night. And here's another in Italian with more images.

Updated, 15 November: 

Rainbows bloom and shimmer all around Venice these days, the calli and campi are iridescent.

It’s evidence of all of the gasoline, oil, grease, and who-knows-what-other chemicals floating on the surface of the acqua alta that’s overwhelmed the city each day of this week, and adds a psychedelic element to all the trash that’s also in the water, having been liberated from its various storage containers by the flooding.

Even the utterly irreligious have heard of the tale of Noah and the Great Flood, but acqua alta in Venice strikes me less as biblical than as the stuff of Greek Tragedy, and of its descendant psychoanalysis.

The water washes into view everything that the city’s infrastructure, developed over centuries, has been specifically designed to conceal in the name of Progress. It makes a mockery of such attempts, and of all the objects (cultural, technological, domestic) we value or aim to make others value (in the case of merchants)—not obliterating them, as fire would, but destroying their former aura, leaving only their bedraggled worthless useless mass.

All those old poets who devoted themselves to the theme of momento mori, with all their carefully crafted lines and beguiling arguments imploring comely youths to make the most of their beauty in the brief time they possessed it, and warning of the aged ruin every single one of them would become, are put to shame by acqua alta, making the same point so swiftly, silently, effortlessly as it turns all the things we depend upon (both as individuals and as a society) to make our indifferent world inhabitable into abject and repulsive versions of themselves. Furniture, rugs, curtains, books, electronics, appliances, the very walls of one’s house, everything is robbed of its form, color, grace, or functionality, everything left waterlogged and reeking and starting to rot.

So that the garbage carried into the open by the water itself is, once the water recedes (alas, never for very long this week), joined in the calli and campi by all the now useless stuff put out by its owners. Whole shops seem to turn themselves inside out. All the things once displayed in and protected by plate glass windows, locked behind doors and grates at night, are heaped up in the streets, as if vomited out.

Here, in psychoanalytic terms, is the Return of the Repressed.

Here in this beautiful ancient city, this “jewel box” of the past, is a vision of a future that extends far beyond the boundaries of the lagoon.

The oil and chemicals and waste in the acqua alta of Venice (in which, inevitably, a few exhibitionistic morons always swim for the cameras of the world’s media) are nothing compared to what rising sea levels will sweep into the Mediterranean, for example, in coming decades.

As the American artist Newton Harrison points out in his film Apologia Mediterraneo (part of the group show entitled Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum that runs through November 24 at the Complesso della Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti in Cannareggio) 536 million people live on the shores of the Mediterranean, and 600 million tourists visit them every year. At present 6.5 million pounds of fecal waste are dumped into the Mediterranean by its coastal inhabitants each day, and 40 million gallons of oil are flushed into it (legally) by tankers as they make their 9,000 annual voyages across its water.

It will cost trillions of dollars to move industries currently situated along the Mediterranean’s shores out of the reach of rising seas.

How about all the other industries along the coastlines of the world? How about the nuclear power plants? How about all the major cities?

People quite literally weep to see the damage done to Venice this week, and for good reason. But Venice is not a jewel box, and it is not a theme park, nor just a cultural heritage site. It is, in addition to being a very real place itself, also something like an image seen in an enchanted mirror: beguiling enough to hold the world’s attention at least temporarily. Will the beholders--whether their eyes are blurred by tears or visions of cashing in (more on this in the next post)--recognize what it reflects of their own situations wherever they may be, and have the courage to begin to really do something about it?

More volunteer members of the same group collect garbage awash in the Grand Canal

People have spent days cleaning up, both in domestic settings, as above...

and in shops and businesses

Taking one's dog out for a walk requires more than a bit of carrying...

Everywhere around the city are heaps of goods ruined by the water, both small personal items (like the box of books above and household items below)...

...and large costly business equipment and merchandise, whose owners are unlikely to get reimbursement

Even supermarket chains found themselves unable to open for business

This morning (November 13) pumps were still working to expel the water back out into the calli (last night power outages around the city put them out of commission for a couple of  hours)

Also last night (November 12) a fire broke out in the Ca' Pesaro museum--in the images above and below, police boats and a fire boat keep the area in front of the museum on the Grand Canal clear of traffic

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Historical Reflections, Rio Terà San Tomà, This Morning

The Rio Terà San Tomà, now apparently a calle like any number of others in Venice, was--as indicated by its very name--once a rio that was within the last couple of centuries filled in with earth (the "terà" part). But high acqua alta this morning returned the area alongside the Archivio de Stato to a shallow version of its former self.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Ponte dei Santi e Defunti, and On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters

It’s hard to say anything about the dead that doesn’t reveal at least as much about the living speaker (or writer) as it does about the silent and absent subject, just as it’s hard to talk about the past without revealing more about the present and its attitudes than one may intend or typically acknowledge.

This past weekend was of course officially given over to thoughts of the dead, with Friday, November 1, being the Festa dei Ognissanti (All Saints Day), and Saturday, November 2, the Commemorazione dei Defunti (All Souls Day).

And for the first time in 69 years, this link between the living and the dead has been given literal expression here in Venice in the form of a floating bridge running from Fondamente Nove to the cemetery island of San Michele.

The Patriarch of Venice and the Mayor of Venice were both present at an inaugural ceremony of the Ponte dei Santi and Defunti on October 31, but despite the attention given to this reintroduction of an old tradition, no one seems quite sure whether this will be repeated next year, much less in years after.

Looking at it with an admittedly jaundiced eye, the appearance of the city’s non-resident mayor at the opening ceremony of a bridge which for its opening weekend was open only to residents or those with a Venezia Unica card, leads me to suspect this may be a one-off election year stunt, intended as evidence of how deeply “devoted” the mayor is to the city’s dwindling population and traditions.

True, the decline of the city’s resident population has continued unabated during his administration (despite his election campaign to increase the resident population by 10,000), the poisonous weed that is AirBnB has been allowed to flourish (making housing even harder to find and more unaffordable for residents), more resident-oriented properties have been allowed to be re-zoned for tourist purposes (such as the retirement home on Riva degli Schiavoni now being turned into yet another hotel), more and more resident-oriented businesses have been replaced by candy store chains and take-away fast food joints, nothing has been done about the high levels of particulate matter spewed out by the increasing numbers of cruise ships docked along the edge of the city, nor about the predations of mass tourism, etc, BUT the mayor is always ready to appear for a photo-op in the interests of promoting either his re-election hopes or his own business interests.

From another perspective, the image of Venice’s “first (non-resident) citizen” stationed on Fondamente Nove and ushering residents onto a bridge leading straight to the cemetery is all too apt. He’s done little during his first term to make me doubt that for him, and those like him, having actual residents living in Venice is nothing but a costly, inefficient, and unnecessary nuisance. To paraphrase the title of a story collection by the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, I can imagine the mayor welcoming residents onto the bridge with the words “This way to the cemetery, ladies and gentlemen.” As in Borowski’s title, this imagined stroll for Venetians is intended to be a one way trip.

This past weekend of the dead has also made me think a lot about a short essay about Venice—and beyond—by the Italian philosopher and Venice resident Giorgio Agamben. In fact, it’s an essay I’ve thought about a lot for the two years or so since I first read it, as it’s a bit challenging and curious and bears, I’ve found, multiple re-readings.

It’s title, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters,” acknowledges its debt to Nietzsche’s famous essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” in which he warns of the danger that the dead may be allowed to “bury the living.”

Agamben’s essay also concerns itself with the relationship between the past and present, and the dead and the living, and, using the so-called “dead” city of Venice as his focus, suggests that there is more than one way of being dead. And that some of those ways are more productive than others—for the living, that is, who operate according to these different conceptions.

He writes of two kinds of posthumous existence, or "spectrality," the second of which he further defines as being "larval":
Spectrality is a form of life, a posthumous or complementary life that begins only when everything is finished. Spectrality thus has, with respect to life, the incomparable grace and astuteness of that which is completed, the courtesy and precision of those who no longer have anything ahead of them. It is creatures of this kind that Henry James learned to perceive in Venice (in his ghost stories he compares them to sylphs and elves). These specters are so discrete and so elusive that it is always the living who invade their homes and strain their reticence.

But there is also another type of spectrality that we may call larval, which is born from not accepting its own condition, forgetting it so as to pretend at all costs that it still has weight and flesh. Such larval specters do not live alone but obstinately look for people who generated them through their bad conscience. They live in them as nightmares, as incubi or succubi, internally moving their lifeless members with strings made of lies. While the first type of spectrality is perfect, since it no longer has anything to add to what it has said or done, the larval specters must pretend to have a future in order to clear a space for some torment from their own past, for their own incapacity to comprehend that they have, indeed, reached completion. (italics mine)
I read, for example, about Paolo Costa and the Port Authority’s big (and costly) public works plan for an offshore port near Lido and I wonder if it’s this larval type of spectrality that drives it, or, at least, is counted upon to win its approval, with its romantic evocations of Marco Polo, and of a distant past when Venice was poised at the center of the trading world--and no mention of how the melting ice of the Arctic is opening up new sea routes to the north that are likely to undercut this reanimated centrality no less than the discovery of the southern route around the Cape of Good Hope displaced the Venetian Republic at the end of the 1400s.

The refusal (by the living) to acknowledge what is well and truly past, to acknowledge the utterly changed and changing circumstances of the present, render these attempts to recreate the Past-as-Future not just farcical (as Marx famously put it in his tidy formulation that history happens twice, first as tragedy, then as farce), but seem rather like dangerous states of "possession": as obsessive and compulsive as they are absurd.

For Agamben writes that the life of the larval specter “is the most liturgical and impervious condition, [in] that it imposes the observance of uncompromising rules of conduct and ferocious litanies, with all their special prayers for dawn, dusk, night, and the rest of the canonical hours.”

So the nostalgia, for example, for American dominion and utter impunity, or of British might and “autonomy”--and, more specifically, of the dominion and impunity of a certain notion of white masculinity in America and Britain and Italy, too--leads to fever dreams filled with paroxysms and contradictions, in which “Others” are vilified for supposedly not living up to the very standards which the self-appointed arbiters of them have abandoned even the pretense of following. As Agamben notes, and as any observer of American, British or Italian politics can't help but notice, “the larval specters who live among us”--given agency in the bodies and voices of the ghouls these specters haunt--are defined by their “lack of rigor and decency.”

Well, these are some of the things that Agamben’s essay makes me think about.... But you can read the 2,000 word essay for yourself online, or find it in English in the collection of his essays entitled Nudities, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, and published by Stanford University Press (2009).

I think it's one of the great short pieces on Venice, which, in the course of meditating upon the distinctiveness of this small odd city, open up vantage points that extend far beyond the lagoon.

The floating bridge to the cemetery island is now open to everyone until 10 November, from 7:30 am to one hour before the close of the cemetery at 16:30 (for those setting off from Fondamente Nove). That is, the latest you can walk to the cemetery on the bridge would 3:30, but you can return on the bridge from the cemetery when the latter closes at 4:30).