by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice's historic Murazzi (sea walls) and the island of Pellestrina in the south of the Lagoon


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 1 June 1998


Italy has been better at conserving the medieval and Renaissance centres of its historic towns than the countryside, which has often been despoiled by indescriminate building of factories and housing. The Venetian lagoon, which constitutes the peninsula's largest surviving area of wetlands, has been spared this fate by its watery and marshy nature. And, as anyone who has the chance to venture into its remoter corners, a possibility now enhanced by new locally-inspired initiatives, will find, the lagoon is still an environment of mysterious and majestic beauty, rich in marine, plant, animal and bird life.

Throughout the many centuries of the Venetian Republic, the government was acutely aware that Venice's very existence relied on the defence and health of the lagoon's waters: in fact, the statutes of the Serenissima sometimes read like a litany of legislation principally directed at this one overriding issue. Once there were a string of lagoons along the north-western Adriatic seaboard; now only Venice's remains.

Ceaseless works were carried out by the Republic to divert the main rivers flowing into the lagoon to prevent it silting up, and to reinforce the 'lidi', or sand bars, that shielded it from the open sea. Hardly less attention was given to the 'barene', banks covered in wild vegetation, and 'velme', shoals only visible during the lowest tides, which broke the force of the currents entering the lagoon, and protected the myriad winding channels and shallows that provided teeming grounds for the marine and bird life that was once an essential source of food to urban and 'rural' lagoon-dwellers alike.

Today's lagoon covers an area of over 540 square kilometres; only 29 square kilometres is land in the form of its archipelago of islands. Earlier this century the 'barene' covered an area of over 72 square kilometres, which had fallen, by 1990, to about 47 square kilometres. Of 34 islands once-inhabited, 22 have now been abandoned. Meanwhile, of Venice's present population of about 300,000, only about a third live in the ancient city and its surrounding islands, the rest in the Mestre-Marghera conurbation on the 'terraferma', or mainland, on the western fringe of the lagoon.

Despite this mass migration landwards, several thousand Venetians still live on the smaller islands, engaging in traditional activities - such as: on Murano, glass-blowing; on Burano and Pellestrina, fishing and boat-building; and on Sant'Erasmo, market gardening and winegrowing - maintaining a continuity with the past that stretches back to Roman times.

The tenacious persistence of these groups has been crucial in preserving the lagoon's landscape until now, and in the last few years a series of local associations have sprung up dedicated to physically conserving individual islands and keeping their varied communities, traditions and economies alive.

These spontaneous grass-roots initiatives along with an increasing, if relatively recent, interest in environmental issues in Venice and Italy at large led to the establishing in 1992 of Forum per la Laguna (Forum for the Lagoon), which receives support from the Municipality of Venice, the Life programme of the E.U. and other public and private bodies, with the aim of organizing small-scale trips to less accessible areas of the lagoon to promote knowledge of them and raise interest in attempts to conserve them.

These half-day and all-day excursions for individuals and groups of various sizes, which began last year, using vaporettos and a 'bragozzo', a traditional type of flat-bottomed fishing boat, run from May to September. The choice of itineraries includes ones concentrating on archeology and old fortifications; on the 'barene', wildlife and island gardens; and on remote islands and ancient fishing grounds. The trips are organized by a travel agent in Mestre, Officina Viaggi, and accompanied by 'Forum per la laguna' guides (for details, see below).

Venice and the lagoon bed have sunk about 23 cm since the beginning of the century, though the rate of subsidence has slowed down since the pumping of water for industrial purposes from artesian wells below the lagoon's subsoil was stopped in 1970. Global sea levels are rising, though at a rate that is difficult to predict. In 1996-97 the lagoon suffered a record number of occurrences of 'acqua alta' (high water), when the tide level rises high enough to flood substantial parts of the city and other island communities. The reason why 'acqua alta' has become so frequent over the past couple of years is a matter of debate. But few doubt that a main culprit is the renewed dredging of a deep-water channel, created as late as 1970, from the Malamocco mouth of the lagoon to the petrochemicals port at Marghera.

This year could be a momentous one for Venice, since finally, after over 25 years of research and discussion, the Italian authorities are due to decide whether or not to build mechanical barriers across the three mouths of the lagoon, which could be raised from the seabed to hold back tidal surges and limit the quantity of water coming into the lagoon. There is considerable disagreement as to whether this enormously expensive engineering project would be desirable, or even effective. What is certain, however, is that this will not be sufficient alone to assure a future for the city and the lagoon.

In any case, two entirely man-made menaces are in urgent need of remedy. The first is the dumping of toxic and even radioactive waste into the lagoon's waters and in landfill sites on its shores. A major civil case involving some 450 plaintiffs, brought by employees and families of deceased relatives who have been the victims of industrial poisoning, and by Greenpeace, belatedly joined in their action by Venice's Municipality, which opened this April, if successful, could be a landmark in discouraging criminally dangerous behaviour by industrialists, as well as highlighting the necessity and huge size and cost of the urgently needed cleaning-up operation that will have to be undertaken.

The second immediate threat is from what is known on the lagoon as 'moto ondoso', the waves produced by ever more numerous and powerful motorboats. Millions of pounds worth of damage is being caused by this phenomenon and houses and quays have already collapsed into the water as a result of it. Speed limits, which could radically reduce the scale of the damage, are widely ignored.

The present Municipality has made some efforts to control this anarchy, but have so far been defeated by inadequate national legislation, weak, often unenforceable penalties, conflicting regulations followed by parallel bodies such as the Port Authority, and a lack of political will extending to the very top of government in Rome to deal with the problem. The effect of 'moto ondoso' has been no less devastating on some parts of the lagoon, where it is constantly and violently eroding islands, the 'barene' and 'velme'. The consequences of large ships with massive displacements passing through the lagoon is also multiplying the damage with devastating results.

The best, perhaps the only hope, that this wanton destruction can be stopped lies in the locally proposed creation of a Special Statute for Venice that would allow a single authority to frame and enforce appropriate local laws designed to protect this unique environment.

Isolation and distance from the mainland industrialized zone have left some areas of the lagoon miraculously untouched by the twentieth century and a monument to the abiltiy the Venetians once had to adapt to, mould and live harmony with nature. These half-wild, half-nurtured lagoonscapes, which may, alas, if human folly and short-termism prevail, be ultimately as unsavable as Venice, are as worth safeguarding as the city itself. Indeed, as the Venetians of old so well understood, if the lagoon cannot be protected the city too will cease to be sustainable.

First published: Traveller

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024