Venice Drowns in Sea of Big Boats, Blather, Sludge

The other week, water rose over the cafe chairs in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Even doughty German tourists had to flee.

Until the tide receded four hours later, more than half the city was underwater.

Venice is drowning in a sea of blather, sludge, big boats. Thank sodden bureaucrats, special-interest groups and politicians for doing little to save this wondrous town of bridges, piazzas, palazzos and canals that emerged from the lagoon in medieval times

Anna Somers Cocks has been monitoring Venice for decades as Chief Executive Officer of the Art Newspaper and former chair of the Venice in Peril Fund. She was visiting from London to present “Can Venice Be Saved?” as the annual Mellon Lecture of the World Monuments Fund.

We spoke over lunch at Bloomberg’s world headquarters in New York.

Hoelterhoff: The photos of Cafe Florian in San Marco are shocking: 143 cm (56 inches) -- that’s a lot of water.

Somers Cocks: It’s officially a red alert. You can’t see where the pavement ends and canal begins and can end up swimming.

Hoelterhoff: Huge cruise ships, the length of three football pitches, sail past the Piazza San Marco to the port and back. They’re scary: thousands on board, some playing basketball.

Ban Ships

Somers Cocks: They are grotesquely out-of-scale and they displace water into the canals leading off the Giudecca. Every time they go past it’s the equivalent of a high tide. With around 1,300 passages a year, that’s 1,300 extra high tides, which is not good for the buildings.

Hoelterhoff: Doesn’t seem like anyone’s in a hurry to change matters.

Somers Cocks: The extraordinary thing about it is that the town council of Venice has finally come up with a management plan, which is what they were meant to do when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site 25 years ago. But the words “cruise ship” do not occur, not even once, as though it were not a problem.

Hoelterhoff: There’s no way to ban them as some cities have?

Busy Port

Somers Cocks: The head of the port authority is not very happy with the idea of them not coming into the port of Venice. They’ve invested a lot of money in developing it. It’s now a super-duper, state-of-the-art passenger port, which makes a lot of money, but nobody knows how much the Venice city government gets from the ships.

It’s not transparent. Venice does benefit in the sense that the port provides a lot of jobs. The airport benefits because people fly into Venice in order to join the ships.

Hoelterhoff: Beyond the cruise tourists who often don’t even bother getting off, how many people visit Venice?

Somers Cocks: About 17 million tourists come to Venice every year, of whom only four and a half million actually sleep over either in Venice or around the lagoon. Some 12.5 million, maybe more, come just for the day.

Ticketing Tourists

Hoelterhoff: That’s as if the entire population of New York City were to visit Venice in a year. What must happen?

Somers Cocks: You have to manage the people who come for a day. If you have a booking system you can actually start charging, say $30.

Hoelterhoff: Nobody enjoys visiting the city much these days, never mind trying to live there. It’s so crowded. I used to spend some time in Venice. One by one all the shops have closed: the butcher, the baker, the green grocer.

Somers Cocks: Residents are being driven out. The population of Venice in 1950 was around 150,000 people. Today? Maybe 75,000, including the second-home owners.

Quite recently, they wanted to close down a number of the departments of the hospital in Venice. You’d have had to go to the mainland for medicine.

Hoelterhoff: The city seems a nightmare to maintain. The brickwork is crumbling, slimy green algae cover the steps from which you once stepped into your gondola. They’re mostly submerged. The water level seems to have risen over the centuries.

Somers Cocks: Yes. Subsidence and sea-level rise have led to a mean water level that’s 12 inches higher than in 1900, and for the first time ever it’s lapping the fragile brickwork rather than the stone bases of the buildings. The damp is reaching the upper floors and rusting the iron tie rods that hold the buildings together.

San Marco Mosaics

Hoelterhoff: One bright spot: the so-called Moses barriers are finally getting built at the mouths of the lagoon.

Somers Cocks: Yes. From about 2015 they will stop the flooding events, but they can’t do anything against the inexorably rising water level. This is another incredible gap in the town council’s management plan: the implications of sea level rise for Venice are not even mentioned.

In the meanwhile, the 1,000-year-old masterpiece mosaics in the lobby of the San Marco basilica are being affected by the damp that has reached 18 feet up the walls.

Go to for a video of Anna Somers Cocks’s “Can Venice Be Saved?”

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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