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Is it too late to save Venice?

2 January 2019

In the wake of some of the worst flooding the city has seen in recent history – and with its population in decline – how can La Serenissima navigate its way out of deep water?

Salvatore Settis

At 3pm on 29 October 2018, the acqua alta in Venice reached 156cm, completely flooding St Mark’s Square. It was the fourth highest tide in recent history, and if the wind had not changed direction it would have risen further, perhaps reaching the 194cm recorded during the disastrous flood of 4 November 1966.

As comparative records show (166cm, 22 December 1979; 158cm, 1 February 1986), the level of acqua alta is not only a consequence of climate change, but that is one essential factor. According to a paper recently published in Nature (‘Mediterranean UNESCO World Heritage at risk from coastal flooding and erosion due to sea-level rise’), among all the UNESCO sites along the Mediterranean coastline, Venice and its lagoon face the greatest risk of flooding (97 per cent). And yet the defensive structure that is supposed to protect the city from high tides (MOSE: Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), the idea for which was conceived in the 1970s, is still not complete, and its cost has risen to €7bn. Nobody really knows whether the MOSE system, designed some 40 years ago with now-outdated technology, will be enough to save Venice. What is known, however, is that the delay to the works and the increased costs are the result of widespread corruption, which has involved politicians and specialists at every level, and which has swallowed up to €2bn (as documented by Francesco Giavazzi and Giorgio Barbieri in Corruzione a norma di legge: La lobby delle grandi opere che affonda l’Italia, 2014). Venice is contained by the lagoon like a pearl within an oyster, and together they form an ecosystem that is unique in its balance between the natural environment and the presence of man. The historical government of La Serenissima knew this well, when in 1505 it created the Magistrato alle Acque, a public office to oversee water management, which, having survived Austrian rule and Italian unification, was abolished in 2014 after five centuries in operation.

Meanwhile, the lagoon city is emptying out, its population waning from 175,000 inhabitants in 1951 to 51,000 in 2018, and nothing is being done to thwart this mass exodus. The very fragility of Venice has instead been subjected to a type of aestheticisation, as in the Aqualta 2060 project presented at the Biennale of 2010 by Julien De Smedt Architects, which hypothesised about creating a waterfront development of skyscrapers around Venice: ‘a linear city emerging from the water […]; and if the weather is warmer, why not thinking [sic] of it as the Italian Copacabana, a long beach submerged by tropical vegetation? […] From the new town beaches and houses will have the glorious backdrop of an unseen Venice!’

Venice seen from above and from far off: this has become an ever more common experience, thanks to the enormous ships, loaded with tourists, which penetrate the heart of the lagoon – and which abuse it, polluting the air and the water and altering the image of the city. The Divina, for example, is 67m high, double the height of the Palazzo Ducale, and 333m long, double the length of St Mark’s Square; it has been known for up to 13 of these huge vessels to pass St Mark’s in one day alone (as happened on 22 September 2013). And yet no remedy to this has yet been found, and there are those who, forgetting that the excavation of the Canale dei Petroli in 1964 was among the causes of the flood of 1966, make the case for digging a new canal for big ships. With the city deteriorating every day, in the grip of its increasing touristification, the words of Joseph Brodsky (in Watermark, 1991) now seem to ring true: ‘To be sure, everybody has designs on her, on this city. Politicians and big business especially, for nothing has a greater future than money […] Hence the wealth of frothy outpourings about revamping the city […] increasing the traffic in the laguna and deepening the laguna for the same purposes […] The goal of all that is one: rape.’

Can Venice be saved? Yes, but only if its urban regeneration is not confined to monuments, but begins with the regeneration of people. There must be incentives to the young to live in the historic centre and set up creative enterprises there, a growth of cultural activity (the greatest success of recent years has certainly been the Biennale), restrictions on second homes and B&Bs, a strengthening of the universities, the creative reuse of public buildings, and safeguarding of those shops that provide for inhabitants and not just for tourists. A plan for Venice as a living city and not a depressing theme park. Thus far, public bodies have not shown the slightest interest in working in this direction, but a growing civic consciousness is spreading among the surviving Venetians. If this were to correspond with sufficient pressure of global public opinion, Venice could still be saved.

Salvatore Settis is the author of If Venice Dies (2016, New Vessel Press).

Frédéric Kaplan and Isabella di Lenardo

Will Venice be inhabitable in 2100? What kinds of policies can we develop to navigate the best scenarios for this floating city? In 2012, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University Ca’Foscari launched a programme called the Venice Time Machine to create a large-scale digitisation project transforming Venice’s heritage into ‘big data’. Thanks to the support of the Lombard Odier Foundation, millions of pages and photographs have been scanned at the state archive in Venice and at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. While commercial robotic scanners were used at the archives, a new typology of robotised circular table was developed by Adam Lowe and his team at Factum Arte to process the million photographs of Fondazione Giorgio Cini. The documents were analysed using deep-learning artificial-intelligence methods to extract their textual and iconographic content and to make the data accessible via a search engine. Also during this time, thousands of primary and secondary sources were compiled to create the first 4D model (3D + time) of the city, showing the evolution of its urban fabric. This model and the other data compiled by the Venice Time Machine were part of an exhibition at the Venice Pavilion of the Biennale of Architecture in 2018, shown side-by-side with potential projects for Venice’s future.

Having reached an important milestone in convincing not only the Venetian stakeholders but also a growing number of partners around the world that care about Venice’s future, the Venice Time Machine is now raising funds for the most ambitious simulation of the city that has ever been developed. Its planned activities include a high-resolution digitisation campaign of the entire city at centimetre scale, a crucial step on which to base a future simulation of the city’s evolution, while also creating a digital model that can be used for preservation regardless of what occurs in the coming decades. On the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, a digitisation centre called ARCHiVe (Analysis and Recording of Cultural Heritage in Venice) opened in 2018 to process a large variety of Venetian artefacts. This is a joint effort of Factum Foundation, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, along with philanthropic support from the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The centre aims to become a training centre for future cultural heritage professionals who would like to learn how they can use artificial intelligence and robotics to preserve documents, objects and sites.

These operations will work together to create a multiscale digital model of Venice, combining the most precise 4D information on the evolution of the city and its population with all the available documentation of its past. The project aims to demonstrate how this ‘digital double’ can be achieved by using robotic technology to scan the city and its archives on a massive scale, using artificial intelligence techniques to process documents and collecting the efforts of thousands of enthusiastic Venetians. In a project called ‘Venice 2100’, the Venice Time Machine team’s ambition is to show how a collectively built information system can be used to build realistic future scenarios, blending ecological and social data into large-scale simulations.

The Venice Time Machine’s ‘hypermodel’ will also create economic opportunities. If its hypotheses are valid, Venice could host the first incubators for start-ups using big data of the past to develop services for smart cities, creative industries, education, academic scholarship and policy making. This could be the beginning of a renewal of Venice’s economic life, encouraging younger generations to pursue activities in the historic city, at the heart of what may become one of the first AI-monitored cities of the world.

Venice can reinvent itself as the city that put the most advanced information technology and cultural heritage at the core of its survival and its strategy for development. Artificial intelligence can not only save Venice, but Venice can be the place to invent a new form of artificial intelligence.

Frédéric Kaplan and Isabella di Lenardo direct the Venice Time Machine at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

From the January 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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