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St. Mark’s Square in Venice's city centre is also its lowest point relative to sea level. The high water hasn't deterred these visitors, who are crossing on a catwalk. But in November, Venetians struggled with a monster flood the caused some of the worst acqua alta (high water) they've seen in years.

Photography by Fabrizio Troccoli/The Globe and Mail

Gianni Basso’s famous Venetian printing shop has suffered flood damage now and again, as have most stores in the sinking city, but nothing like the damage inflicted on the night of Nov. 12 and the days after. When he waded into his shop that night, he thought his business – his lifelong passion – was finished.

Mr. Basso was at his family home on the island of Burano, about nine kilometres northeast of Venice, when their mobile phones lit up that evening with an SMS flood warning. Such warnings are fairly common. Venetians are used to acqua alta – high water – and know how to defend themselves from it as climate change raises sea levels. Almost every shop has a short metal barrier that can be quickly slotted into the doorway when the water comes, and an electric pump to get rid of the water that seeps, or sloshes, in.

This was no ordinary warning; a monster flood was coming, one that would reach the second highest on record – 187 centimetres above the average normal tide. It would cover about 85 per cent of the city and cause enormous damage to world artistic treasures such as St. Mark’s Basilica.

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He grabbed his rubber waders, jumped on the ferry and remembers the boat thrashing through heavy waves and pelting rain in the Venetian lagoon as the winds hit 100 kilometres an hour. When he reached his shop at about 10:30 p.m., it was filled with half a metre of polluted, smelly salt water. The electric motors on four of his printing machines were destroyed and hundreds of books, prints and letters were submerged. “I wanted to die when I saw my workshop,” he says when we meet about 10 days after the floods. “I thought my life’s work was gone.”

He was alone on his narrow, flooded street that night. “The water, the waves, the wind were crazy,” he says. “Mice and rats were everywhere, trying to climb walls to avoid drowning. It was a nightmare.”

Gianni Basso is still cleaning up the flood damage to his small printing shop.

I have been to Venice two dozen times in the past three decades and have good friends there, such as Mr. Basso, 65, whose small shop near the Basilica of Saints Paul and John is a regular stop. Venice is doomed, its residents say. But not because of the ever-higher water – that’s just one problem. The other is mass, uncontrolled tourism, which they say is an equal risk to their beloved city.

I have always thought Venice should be the model for 21st-century urban planning. Imagine a city completely devoid of cars, trucks and motorcycles and all the hideous paraphernalia that goes with them – parking lots, overpasses, tunnels, drive-thrus, strip malls; where you walk everywhere without fear of being mowed down, don’t have to raise your voice to hold a conversation on the street, or breath in diesel fumes. Venetians are known to be healthy, with strong legs, because they walk everywhere. And when they can’t walk, they take the vaporetti – waterbuses – which are rather more pleasant than lurching wheeled buses.

There is no city like it on the planet, although some cities – St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Bruges and Bangkok – made ample use of canals. Tourists adore these amphibious wonders. Venice, whose permanent population has fallen to 50,000 from a peak of 200,000, attracts 25 million to 30 million visitors a year. That’s more than the population of Australia.

Venice was built on more than 100 low-lying islands – mud flats, really – in the shallow Venetian lagoon. The concept was brilliant. With no hard connection to the mainland, it was protected from invading armies and their horses and siege machines. By the late 13th century, Venice was an imperial power, the richest city in Europe, with an empire that stretched from the Adriatic and Greece to Cyprus. The greatest financial and trading centre of its day, it had more than 3,000 ships during the medieval and Renaissance eras and traded throughout the Mediterranean and the Byzantine and Muslim worlds. Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant and explorer, travelled the Silk Road all the way to China.

Venice went into rapid decline after Napoleon took the city in 1797. But as working city, full of artisans, fishermen, boat makers – and, yes, tourists – it sputtered on for more than a century and a half and remained a global magnet for wealthy art lovers, writers and assorted Bohemians, among them Peggy Guggenheim. In 1966, the biggest flood in its history virtually drowned the city and thousands of Venetians fled.

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A waiter wades through St. Mark's Square in galoshes, serving patrons whose feet are protected with coloured plastic bags.

A couple of decades later, Venice essentially stopped being a functioning city and became a business. That’s the interpretation of many Venetians, including Dario Vianello, a retired boat driver who is now one of Venice’s most vocal anti-cruise-ship voices.

Mr. Vianello is 64 and wears a whistle around his neck, which he blows when he has trouble making his way through throngs of tourists who plug the narrow streets, especially around St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. He says Venice really started to become unbearable for the locals in the 1980s, when the new breed of cruise ships, some bigger than navy aircraft carriers, arrived, each of them disgorging 3,000 or more hit-and-run tourists.

In the high season, as many as seven or eight enormous ships arrive each day. “Their passage churns up the lagoon sediment, and the displacement of the water damages the foundations of the buildings,” he told me. “The big tourist companies decided to turn Venice into a big business. The city’s government did not understand that this transformation from cultural tourism to mass tourism must have limits.”

Add in the ubiquitous Airbnb rooms and apartments – there were almost 9,000 listings at last count in Venice and the nearby islands – and the endless discount airline flights and you have a year-round mob scene, Mr. Vianello says.

The Venetian merchants have responded by selling out and leaving town, making room for junk shops. Gualtiero Dall’Osto, the owner of a Venetian mask store called Tragicomica, one of the few of its kind that still makes traditional masks in its own workshop, says the city is fighting a losing war against the new arrivals.

“Venice became globalized in a bad way,” he says. “They bought out all of the shops. The Chinese came with suitcases full of cash about 20 years ago to buy these little businesses. Of course, our government is making it worse by suffocating the few artisans who are left with taxes and bureaucracy.”


Gualtiero Dall’Osto runs Tragicomica, a store that makes the masks Venetians traditionally wear at Carnival time. He says globalization and government bureaucracy have left small artisans like him ill-equipped to compete with foreign investors who bought the local shops.

Upscale shops are ubiquitous in Venice, which draws 25 to 30 million visitors every year. But some Venetians say stores devoted to tourism have made Venice less liveable for locals who need places to buy groceries or do their laundry.

The gondola is one of Venice's most instantly recognizable symbols around the world, but since the 1980s, small boats like these have had to contend with giant cruise ships bringing thousands of visitors every day.

At night, catwalks weighed down with sandbags lie on a Venice street. Venetians worried about over-tourism are also concerned about how rising sea levels caused by climate change will leave the city more vulnerable to catastrophic floods.


Almost two weeks after the flood, Mr. Basso was still cleaning up.

When I saw him, he couldn’t do much work because only one of his machines was operating. The lower drawers on some of the wooden cabinets wouldn’t open because they were still swollen with water.

Mr. Basso is known as the “little Gutenberg” of Venice. He is a rare treasure, the last traditional printer of his kind in a city once as renowned for printers as it was for high Renaissance art.

Born in Venice, he was trained in letterpress printing by Armenian monks when he was teenager. In the early 1980s, he bought five iron printing machines, built before the Second World War, and set to work making cards, book plates and prints from ancient Venice engravings.

They are minor works of art and his shop developed into a pocket global business, whose far-flung clients include Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei and Ben Affleck. You can’t buy his pieces on the internet. He has no website; you have to visit him in person to place your order.

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Prints in Mr. Basso's shop await their journey by mail to far-flung destinations.

Even he, a true Venetian, can’t take it any more. Until a few years ago, he and his family lived near his workshop. They pulled the plug on the city as their community of friends, shops and businesses disappeared.

The rapidly depopulating city is now stuffed with junk stores brimming with tat – fake Murano glass and Venetian carnival masks, T-shirts, jewellery – that are not made in Italy let alone Venice and displace stores that are useful to the everyday lives of Venetians. “I think we can save this city as a structure, but not its history. Most tourists don’t care about this city’s culture or its cuisine. It is the lowest form of mass tourism that is wrecking Venice,” Mr. Basso says.

Retired professor Costanza Azzi, 82, saw flooding in the lower level of her Venice apartment building in November.

Costanza Azzi, 82, is a retired English literature professor at the University of Venice and the daughter of an Italian navy admiral in the Second World War. Venice has been her home since her high school years.

She lives right next to the Basilica dei Frari, the glorious Venetian Gothic church built in the 14th and 15th centuries, in a sturdy, two-storey apartment where she and her late husband raised their two sons. The lower level flooded in the November disaster, wrecking appliances, clothing and furniture, and the mess would take weeks to clean up.

“I’m tired,” she said. “We don’t know how to defend ourselves anymore from the floods.”

She agrees with Mr. Basso (who she knows by reputation) that Venice is losing its identity as mass tourism makes the city uninhabitable for Venetians. During a walk, she points out the junk shops or fast-food joints that used to be butcher and hardware shops, dry cleaners, bookstores and fruit or fish sellers – all gone. Apartments where her friends used to live are Airbnbs.

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“The only work here is in tourism,” she says. “My two sons had to leave the city to find good jobs.”

The flooding and the mass tourism are eating away at the souls of the ever-fewer Venetians who remain devoted to a city that is built on a human scale, is filled with some of mankind’s greatest art treasures, is unique and astonishingly beautiful. “We’re depressed,” she says.

A lineup of tourists navigates a catwalk above the water at St. Mark's Square.

Belatedly, Venice is starting to fight back against both the mass tourism and the floods. The efforts might be too little, too late to save the city from turning into “Venetian Las Vegas,” the term used by a local save-Venice activist I know, as it slips beneath the waves.

Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has announced that a tourist tax has been approved by city council and would come into effect in the spring of 2020; it would charge visitors €3 ($4.35) a day in low season, rising to €10 during high-season weekends. He said the aim is to force day-trippers to pay for the upkeep of the lagoon city, which may be true, though the real goal seems aimed at reducing the flow of visitors. It may not work. It’s hard to imagine that a minor fee will keep tourists stuffed in their cruise ships.

The effort to stop, or at least control, the flooding is a much-more complex project that centres on one of Europe’s biggest, costliest and most troubled infrastructure projects – the infamous €5.5-billion MOSE project.

MOSE, an Italian acronym that plays on “Moses,” the biblical figure who parted the Red Sea, is a series of 78 steel gates that cover the four main lagoon entrances from the Adriatic Sea. When not in use, they are to be filled with seawater and sink to the bottom, where they are invisible. When a tide alert comes, they are to be filled with compressed air, forcing out the water, allowing them to rise on their hinges and block the incoming tidal surge.

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At least in theory. So far, MOSE has been a long, sorry story of delays – the project was conceived in 1984, launched in 2003 – and is still not finished due to technological flaws, cost overruns, corrosion and epic corruption. A 2014 investigation into the project lead to 35 arrests, including the region’s then-governor, Giancarlo Galan.

Today, Venetians are divided about MOSE. Some think it will never work properly and should be replaced with another plan, perhaps inspired by the hydraulic-control marvels used by the Dutch. Others think it should be completed as quickly as possible since it’s largely in place. The November floods added urgency to the project, which is now supposed to reach full operation by 2022. No other flood-control plan exists.

Mr. Basso says he is going down fighting as mass tourism and flood waters rot away at the city’s heart and bricks. He’s a Venetian water boy, he says, and cannot bear seeing his printing business turned into a pizzeria or T-shirt shop. “I have a responsibility to keep this business open for the sake of Venice,” he says. “I was born here and I am the last printer.”

As he was telling me this, he asks me to look directly across his narrow little street at the old picture-framing shop. It was holding its final sale and was going out of business.



Meet MOSE, Venice’s solution to a sea of troubles

After more than 15 years and at a projected cost of €5.5-billion, Venice’s MOSE flood defence system is still not operational. Construction began in 2003 on a cutting-edge network of 78, 20-metre-wide mobile flood gates positioned at the three lagoon inlets. When raised, the gates are designed to defend against tides of up to three metres.

Recent record flooding in the historic city has re-focused attention on the delays, cost overruns and endemic corruption in Italy’s major public works projects. The MOSE system is now planned to be completed by the end of 2021. This may be too little, too late as climate change makes the effects of high tides progressively worse.

Grand

Canal

Laguna

Veneta

Veneto

Port

Venice

Piazza

San

Marco

Lido North:

21 gates

Giudecca

Venice

Lido South:

20 gates

ITALY

0

400

Lido

KM

Malamocco:

19 gates

Lova

Brenta

Venetian

Lagoon

Adriatic Sea

SS309

Chioggia:

18 gates

0

6

Italy

KM

How it works

Under normal conditions the

gates are filled with water

and lay flat beneath the

water.

When the tide is forecast to

surpass 110 cm, the system

is activated.

Ballast water is pumped

out of the gates by com-

pressed air

Increased buoyancy allows

the gates to rotate on

42-tonne hinges and rise

above the surface forming

a contiguous barrier

Sea gate

in rest

position

Sea gate

in raised

position

Ballast

compartments

Hinge room

Maintenance

tunnels

Support

pilings

Dimensions

20 m

18-29 m

Drawing is schematic

and not to scale

3.6-5 m

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU;

mosevenezia.eu; technital.it; reuters; ansa

Grand

Canal

Laguna

Veneta

Veneto

Port

Venice

Lido North:

21 gates

Piazza

San Marco

Giudecca

0

450

M

Venice

Lido South:

20 gates

ITALY

0

400

Lido

KM

Malamocco:

19 gates

Lova

Brenta

Venetian

Lagoon

Adriatic Sea

SS309

Chioggia:

18 gates

Italy

0

6

KM

How it works

Under normal conditions the

gates are filled with water

and lay flat beneath the

water.

When the tide is forecast to

surpass 110 cm, the

system is activated.

Ballast water is pumped

out of the gates by com-

pressed air

Increased buoyancy allows

the gates to rotate on

42-tonne hinges and rise

above the surface forming

a contiguous barrier

Sea gate

in rest

position

Sea gate

in raised

position

Ballast

compartments

Hinge room

Maintenance

tunnels

Support

pilings

Dimensions

20 m

18-29 m

Drawing is schematic

and not to scale

3.6-5 m

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; mosevenezia.eu;

technital.it; reuters; ansa

Arsenal:

control

room

Grand

Canal

Laguna

Veneta

Veneto

Port

Venice

Lido di

Jesolo

Lido North:

21 gates

Piazza

San Marco

Giudecca

0

450

M

Venice

Lido South:

20 gates

ITALY

Adriatic Sea

0

400

KM

Lido

How it works

Under normal conditions

the gates are filled with

water and lay flat beneath

the water.

Malamocco:

19 gates

Lova

Brenta

Venetian

Lagoon

When the tide is forecast

to surpass 110 cm, the

system is activated.

SS309

Ballast water is pumped

out of the gates by

compressed air

Chioggia:

18 gates

Increased buoyancy allows

the gates to rotate on

42-tonne hinges and rise

above the surface forming

a contiguous barrier

Italy

Canale dei Cuori

0

6

Sea gate

in rest

position

KM

Sea gate

in raised

position

Support

pilings

Ballast

compartments

Hinge room

Dimensions

Maintenance

tunnels

20 m

18-29 m

Drawing is schematic

and not to scale

3.6-5 m

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; mosevenezia.eu; technital.it; reuters; ansa

Arsenal:

control

room

Grand

Canal

Laguna

Veneta

Veneto

Port

Venice

Lido di

Jesolo

Lido North:

21 gates

Piazza

San Marco

Giudecca

0

450

M

Venice

How it works

Under normal conditions

the gates are filled with

water and lay flat beneath

the water.

Lido South:

20 gates

ITALY

0

400

When the tide is forecast

to surpass 110 cm, the

system is activated.

KM

Lido

Malamocco:

19 gates

Ballast water is pumped

out of the gates by

compressed air

Lova

Brenta

Adriatic Sea

Venetian

Lagoon

Increased buoyancy allows

the gates to rotate on

42-tonne hinges and rise

above the surface forming

a contiguous barrier

SS309

Chioggia:

18 gates

Sea gate

in rest

position

Italy

Canale dei Cuori

Sea gate

in raised

position

0

6

KM

Drawing is schematic

and not to scale

Support

pilings

Ballast

compartments

Dimensions

20 m

18-29 m

Hinge room

Maintenance

tunnels

3.6-5 m

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; mosevenezia.eu; technital.it; reuters; ansa

How it works

Arsenal:

control

room

Grand

Canal

Laguna

Veneta

Veneto

Cortellazzo

Under normal conditions

the gates are filled with

water and lay flat beneath

the water.

Port

Venice

Lido di

Jesolo

Lido North:

21 gates

Piazza

San Marco

When the tide is forecast

to surpass 110 cm, the

system is activated.

Giudecca

0

450

M

Adriatic Sea

Venice

Ballast water is pumped

out of the gates by

compressed air

Sea gate

in rest

position

Lido South:

20 gates

ITALY

Increased buoyancy allows

the gates to rotate on

42-tonne hinges and rise

above the surface forming

a contiguous barrier

0

400

Sea gate

in raised

position

KM

Lido

Malamocco:

19 gates

Lova

Brenta

Venetian

Lagoon

SS309

Chioggia:

18 gates

Support

pilings

Dimensions

Ballast

compartments

20 m

18-29 m

Canale dei Cuori

Italy

Hinge room

Sant’Anna

3.6-5 m

Maintenance

tunnels

0

6

Drawing is schematic

and not to scale

Adige

KM

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; mosevenezia.eu; technital.it; reuters; ansa

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