Wednesday, August 21, 2013

See Venice and Live

Whether you believe that hydrocarbons released into the atmosphere by human activity are causing Global Warming or not, the phenomenon is a dead certainty by now. I've been listening to warnings from conservationists about the consequences of humans polluting the planet all my life. So I shouldn't be all that surprised if, before I snuff it, I see at least some of those forebodings come true. To a great extent, we had it coming to us.

The alarming rate of the melting of polar ice has led to some grim forecasts for the rising of sea levels all over the world. Anyone who lives near the ocean, as I do, will likely see a steady migration of people away from the shore as sea levels rise. One place that has seen ocean levels rise and fall and rise again over the course of the centuries since its founding in the year of our lord 421 is the city of Venice. The city consists of 118 islets in a lagoon in the northeast corner of Italy, on an Adriatic Sea that it once ruled in glory. It has been in steady - if exquisite - decline for a considerable part of the past few centuries and, like many other Italian cities that has seen much better days, is in a constant state of restoration.

In his superb 1985 review of the travel book, On the Shores of the Mediterranean, by Eric Newby (1919-2006), "A Vanishing Metaphor," Vernon Young begins with a quote from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.

"In a paragraph memorable to anyone who has read and re-read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Cecil Fielding, a British schoolmaster, on his way home to England after many years, pauses in Venice. There confronted with the visible coherence of Europe, he is driven, not without “a sense of disloyalty,” to compare it with the visible formlessness of the country he has left.

'The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fields of Egypt, stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong .... In the old undergraduate days he had wrapped himself up in the many-coloured blanket of St. Mark’s, but something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now: the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting .... [T]hough Venice was not Europe, it was part of the Mediterranean harmony. The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake, whether through the Bosphorus or the Pillars of Hercules, they approach the monstrous and extraordinary; and the southern exit leads to the strangest experience of all.'"

Young laments the erosion of the Mediterranean as a metaphor of western civilization, which can be seen in physical form in the steady dilapidation of Venice.

"The buildings of Venice . . . stood in the right place." Read this literally and a queasy sensation will ensue. For how long will they stand in the right place? If you have ever lingered in Venice through the marvelous early days of October — "going home" at night in a vaporetto after a day spent in the automotive alienation of noisy Padua — you may forget, for a hushed hour, the commonly held opinion that Venice is sinking. Yet Venice was always sinking! Like a mortal, its death was built in with its conception. In pre-industrial centuries, as now, the determining conditions for the flood that one day will not subside at the crucial hour—the so-called acqua alta—are heavy rain, a full moon, falling barometric pressure, and a strong sirocco, all of which prevent the water in the lagoon from getting out. As far back as 1240 the water rose to the height of a man; in 1280, rising from 8 a.m. until noon, it drowned hundreds in their houses, and as many perished of the cold. In modern times such calamities have increased with serious frequency. During our century the city has been inundated no less than forty times and the accompanying effects have been the more destructive, Newby reminds us, because to the normal waste products in this city without drains have been added the poisonous effluents of industry: "dangerous quantities of ammonia and its by-products of oxidation, phenol, cyanide, sulphur, chlorine, naphtha, as well as oil from passing ships."

The most spectacular instance to date of the fatally impending deluge was the acqua alta of November 4, 1966, when waves twelve feet high smashed the bathing facilities on the Lido, and at Venice itself the water rose six and a half feet above the normal sea level. According to Newby’s recital of the consequence, which is supported by his passion for the numerical, the flood threatened four hundred and fifty bridges, submerged the one hundred and twenty shoals or islands on which the city is allegedly built, and inundated fifteen thousand houses in which people lived on the ground floor. Three thousand miles of streets and alleys and the various open spaces known as campi were also inundated "with an unimaginably vile compound of all the various effluents mentioned previously .... To which was added diesel oil and gas oil which had escaped from the storage tanks, leaving the city without electric light, means of cooking or hearing, or any communication with the outside world."

One of my recurring nightmares is what will happen if the waters of the Venice lagoon neap sufficiently to engulf the Scuola di San Rocco, in which are housed under one roof more masterpieces by a single painter (Tintoretto) than anywhere else in Europe. Such considerations seem not to have inspired any major effort of prevention or rehabilitation (whatever these might be) on the part of the Italian government. Imbued by the spirit of classical timelessness, perhaps, civic officials do nothing in Italy until a crisis makes unopposable demands. It was always predictable that the Arno would overflow at Florence and inundate the basement archives of the Uffizi. This is what happened—in the late Sixties, if I recall correctly—and innumerable manuscripts and facsimiles were either destroyed or irretrievably damaged. Newby doesn’t mention that in the Seventies a small fortune was donated to the city of Venice by an international committee for purposes of salvage. When, a few years later, the authorities were consulted on the progress being made, the fortune had mysteriously disappeared.

Newby’s last word for the situation is spooky: the fateful alliance of indifferent nature with procrastinating man. The waters of our oceans are constantly rising because of the melting of polar ice; in the Venetian case the city is sinking because the subsoil has been deprived of alluvium by the re-routing of rivers. “So that one day, quite suddenly, without warning, just as the Campanile collapsed [July 14, 1902], so too will the wooden piles that support the buildings of the city, of which there are said to be more than a million beneath Santa Maria della Salute alone, suddenly give up supporting them and allow the city to disappear forever.”

Death in Venice. I have long thought Thomas Mann’s title appropriate to the sunset ambience invoked by almost everyone (E. M. Forster excluded) who has written an elegiac word on the sinking city. Death is in fact a conception more profoundly associated with Italy than the popular attribution of vitality—yet vitality, of a sometimes macabre order, is by no means absent."

A new threat to the buildings still standing along the Grand Canal are the monstrous cruise ships, like floating, packed to the gills Holiday Inns, bringing thousands of brainless tourists straight up to the Piazza San Marco so they can take a picture and tell all their friends that they saw Venice. They remind me of the little American girl in another E.M. Forster novel, A Room With a View, who asks her father, "Hey, Papa. What did we see in Rome?" Her father replies, "Rome? In Rome we saw a yellow dog!"

But if signs of the precipitous shrinkage of polar ice was apparent to some people 28 years ago, and nothing was done about it, who else is there to blame for our disastrous situation than every one of us?

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