“Venice is sinking” is no Chicken Little squawk, and journalist Keahey (A Sweet and Glorious Land, 2000) explains why and what is being done (or not being done) to counter the trend, in this cogent and fluent piece of urban history.
Venice has had its highs and lows—as befits a place whose city fathers include Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun—but none so fraught as those of the last 50 years. As Keahey trimly unravels the situation, a combination of man-made miseries—including everything from the industrial pumping of well water, the filling of canals, the diversion of waterways, all the way to global warming—and natural ones, such as the compression of the its silt bed, are spelling the doom of the city, its art and architectural wonders. The beauty of Keahey's study is its breadth of approach, covering not only the specific environmental problems besetting Venice, but also presenting a geological history of the town and the lagoon, the evolution of its urban morphology, and lovely interludes of his own late-night travels about Venice, as atmospheric as Whistler nocturnes. But what reveals the nature of Venice's plight most of all is Keahey's dissection of the Venetian political system, back through the period of the Republic—which impacts the way business is done to this day—though especially the period since WWII. What becomes clear is that a long-term problem like the inundation of Venice couldn't be a worse fit for a politics of patronage and favors and an elephantine bureaucracy. A perfect example is in the one best approach to the flooding—gates to control water flow—that have been stymied by a combination of vested interests, misallocation of funds, and conflicting impact worries.
Yet, as Keahey notes, “humans, in the end, will have nothing to say in the matter.” Nature will have its way: Venice is going down. There is still time to see it. Bring your boots.