Venice is being threatened by rising sea levels, pollution, and excessive tourism. It will take a lightning bolt of engineering and commercial ingenuity to save it.
Cover Photo: Twilight in Venice | Claude Monet
In 1908, the French impressionist painter, Claude Monet, left his home in Giverny, France and traveled to Venice for a three-month working holiday. Monet painted 37 canvases during this period, falling in love with Mediterranean sunsets in the process.
His masterpiece, Twilight in Venice, features the church on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore and is on display at the National Museum of Wales. It was also the $100 million subject of the 1999 film, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’.
This beautifully surreal work of art encapsulates the idea of Venice and its history of wealth, power, and intrigue. It is also a haunting reminder that this Mediterranean gem, which entices millions of visitors every year, is severely threatened by rising sea levels, pollution, and crowds of tourists. If drastic action is not taken to preserve this historical treasure, the city of Venice could very well be in its ‘twilight’ hours.
The following article recounts the incredible story of Venice, hopefully shedding light on the value of preserving this city for future generations.
Venice was founded in the fifth century AD by a group of settlers seeking to escape the barbarian hordes ravaging Northern Italy at the time. They found refuge on a series of uninhabited islands in the middle of a lagoon at the top end of the Adriatic Sea. Protected from hostile armies marching back and forth on the mainland, the people of Venice could live and conduct business without a serious threat of military invasion.
However, these islands had been previously uninhabited for a reason – their soft, waterlogged soil made it impossible to build upon. Undeterred, the Venetians harnessed the spirit of innovation and solved their dilemma with long, wooden piles driven through the soft soil down to the hard clay below. This engineering brilliance enabled them to build structures in places hitherto impossible. Like a massive house on stilts, the city of Venice was built atop a forest of wooden columns.
However, these wooden stilts, along with the fresh food and supplies required to support a growing population, would need to be paid for. Unfortunately, the Venetian islands lacked any significant natural resources – except seawater.
Seawater, the same resource that provided the city with its natural defensive moat, would also become the impetus behind its economic development. By evaporating the seawater, the Venetians could extract one of the world’s most precious commodities at the time: salt. In a world without refrigeration or spices, large quantities of salt were essential for preserving meat and flavoring food. Salt was such a valuable commodity that it was even used to pay employee wages, hence the term ‘salary’.
By the ninth century, Venice was producing enormous amounts of salt, helping the city-state to establish a salt-based trading empire that stretched all the way to modern-day Istanbul. In the middle of the Bosphorus Strait, the doorway between West and East, salt, the ‘poor man’s spice’, could be traded for silk and more exotic flavorings from Asia.
At the height of the Venetian Empire, the city’s navy controlled a string of islands and strategic ports that stretched down the eastern edge of the Adriatic Sea and modern-day Croatia, through Athens, and up towards Istanbul and the Bosphorus. The demand for new military and commercial ships, coupled with the continued demand for wooden pilings in Venice, was so great that whole forests along the Adriatic were felled. On the island of Korčula, where the Venetian explorer Marco Polo is rumored to have been born, the clearing of indigenous trees to meet the demand for wood allowed for the introduction of foreign plant species. This new foliage became so thick that they could be likened to impenetrable walls of green.
By the end of the 15th century, Venice was so wealthy that it needed a system of accounting for the massive amount of money flowing through the city’s canals. This lead a Franciscian friar by the name of Luca Pacioli to publish a book in Venice that codified a system of double-entry bookkeeping. This publication enabled the system to be duplicated around the world, in the process becoming the foundation for modern accounting.
The end of the Venetian Empire arrived with the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. After centuries of poor leadership, expensive military adventurism, arrogance, greed, gluttony, and national hubris, Venice had become a shadow of its former self. Ownership of the city would change hands several times throughout the 1800s until it was finally folded into the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1871.
Venice continues to capture the world’s imagination. The city’s incredible history drew 1.7 million cruise ship passengers in 2015, and is projected to see higher numbers in the years ahead. The sheer number of people standing on the wooden stilts that hold Venice above water, coupled with the waves generated by the cruise ships as they enter the lagoon, is causing serious damage to the city’s foundation.
Unfortunately, the cruise ships, together with smaller motor vessels, also represent 45% of airborne fine particle pollution, which contributes to the destruction of buildings above the water through acidification. This smog resulted in 52 days in 2016 that exceeded European air safety levels, prompting the city to spend €700,000 on the development of an electric water bus capable of carrying 40 passengers.
Our increasing consumption of beef, gasoline, and coal-fired electricity will further endanger the city by contributing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The subsequent rise in sea levels will submerge Venice under a rising tide of seawater.
The looming effects of climate change has prompted the Italian government to spend €5.4 billion on a series of gates to protect the lagoon from rising tides. However, recent scandals over illegal usage of the funding for the city gates have rocked Venetian society. From bribery, to illegal financing of political parties, the scandals have resulted in 35 arrests and have dealt a major setback to the project. Only time will tell if these issues can be resolved.
Claude Monet’s enchanting painting of a twilight in Venice beautifully encapsulates the story of this Mediterranean jewel. It shows a hazy impression of a city emerging from the sea at sunset. The warm colors, like the climate and people of Northern Italy, inspire the imagination and invite the viewer to look closer.
Today, air pollution, rising sea levels, and hordes of visitors seeking to bring a city out of their imagination and into reality, all threaten to envelop Venice in darkness. Monet’s masterpiece begins to take on a new meaning when we know the city is endangered.
For the sake of future generations, the city of Venice, together with our help, must succeed in its preservation efforts. If you’re going to visit, avoid arriving by ship and plan on staying in a hotel for a couple of days. Cut back on your beef and fossil fuel consumption. And, most importantly, invite your friends and family to do the same.
Monet’s incredible painting of a ‘Twilight in Venice’ is an imaginary moment frozen in time on canvas. Let’s work together to ensure that the reality of Venice always sees the light of day.