Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fishing Nets in the North Lagoon, This Evening

                                         A fisherman transports a boatload of the stakes used to position the nets                  photo credit: Jen

Friday, September 26, 2014

Le Nozze di Clooney & the Isole in Rete Festival

One good celebrity snap could be worth more than a boatload of fish to this photographer idling near the Hotel Ciprianni
photo credit: Jen
Yesterday a local paper's headline announced that Venice was being invaded (invadano) by the guests for the George Clooney wedding this weekend, but I get the impression that the number of paparazzi, press and bodyguards (of which one paper claims no less than 400 were hired) outnumber the invitees.

The four days of private festivities begin this evening, according to reports, and continue through Monday. You need only google "George Clooney wedding" to have your choice of numerous accounts in every tongue so I won't repeat any details here. Venetians themselves seem amused by the elaborateness of the celebration. Jen told me that our husband and wife pair of butchers around the corner talked of nothing else this evening when she stopped in to pick up dinner, finding the subject so diverting that they even slipped into Venetian, so that their jokes were lost on her.

I saw one newspaper claim that there would be fireworks tomorrow night, as if it were a public festival (though it most certainly is not). You'd almost think Catherine Cornaro was about to hand over her queenship of Cyprus to the old 15th-century Venetian Republic. Or that the the bride and groom are scheduled to be carried on high around the Piazza after their nuptials, as the newly-elected doges once were, tossing gold coins to the clamoring masses.

Yet for all the publicity, and the procession of some sort on Monday that will close part of the Grand Canal for two hours at mid-day, this is supposed to be a very private affair. Images of the newlyweds and their guests are at a premium. As the couple has sold exclusive rights to photograph the celebration to one magazine, both guests and hired help will be forbidden to snap away with cell phones.

But that doesn't mean that photographers won't be lurking--and floating--in wait, as we discovered today just after noon in the course of taking a long way home from Sandro's school in our boat. From a distance the few small open boats appeared to be simply the usual fishermen you see around the lagoon on pretty much any afternoon. But these boats idled a short distance from the Hotel Ciprianni, where George Clooney and his more celebrated friends are said to be lodging, and the men in the fishing boats had telephoto lenses almost as long as their arms (as you can see in the top image) rather than poles.

The Clooney wedding isn't the only thing going on in Venice this weekend, though, and for those not invited to it (and even for those who are and who might find themselves with a bit of free time) the Isole in Rete festival, celebrating the culture, history and food of the various lagoon communities (from Altino and Mestre on the mainland to such islands as Burano, Certosa, San Giacomo in Paludo and more) is worth checking out. Information can be found here: 

photo credit: Jen

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

60 Big Celebs Speak Out Against Big Ships, Yet the Waters of the Controversy Remain Muddy

Sir Michael Caine was one of more than 60 celebrities who signed an open letter against big ships in Venice, but their letter leaves open the question of whether he, any more than many others, actually knows what's it all about (photo credit:
After receiving a fairly good amount of coverage toward the end of July for their open letter to Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi calling upon him to put an end to the "senseless devastation" of Venice by cruise ships I wonder what the 63 or so celebrity signatories are thinking about the latest plans for the lagoon.

What do Sir Michael Caine or Julie Christie or Nobel Prize-winning author VS Naipaul or Susan Sarandon or Michael Douglas and Edward Norton (both of whom have been designated "Messengers of Peace" by the UN) think about the plan to dredge a new deep water channel in the lagoon to accommodate the most monstrous of cruise ships (those over 96,000 tons)?

There's been no reaction by them to this potentially devastating plan. (About which I've recently written here:

And, in fact, no matter how often I reread the open letter itself I still can't make out the signers' position on two central issues about previous regulations on big ships that, after having been struck down by a regional court last spring, are being proposed once again.

1) Would the signers be content that there be no limit on ships under 40,000 tons passing by the Doges' Palace and through the Giudecca Canal?

2) Would they be satisfied that the number of cruise ships weighing between 40,000 and 96,000 tons that take that same route through the city should simply be reduced by 20%? So, for example, four rather than five huge ships would make that trip each day?

Here is the letter itself in full, as reported by England's Daily Mail (
 Dear Prime Minister, dear Minister,

Having prevailed against flood, pestilence, and war for more than thirteen centuries, Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, and unparalleled UNESCO Word Heritage site, now, in a moment of relative tranquility, finds herself mortally threatened by the daily transit of gargantuan ocean liners, indifferent to the probable risk of catastrophe.

Since the flood of 1966, Italy and countless Italian and international supporters have contributed to the defense of the world's most fragile city, eternally subject to destruction.

The absolute lack of respect presented by the outlandish spectacle of the ongoing obstruction and potentially destruction, of one of humanity’s pre-eminent monuments is not only dumbfounding but both morally and culturally unacceptable.
We urgently request an immediate and irrevocable halt to the traffic of the Big Ships in front of San Marco and along the Giudecca Canal putting an end to this senseless devastation.
As I've mentioned before, the reporting on this controversy in the English language press has been remarkably sloppy if not downright misleading. VENICE BANS BIG SHIPS more than one paper has blared, when, in fact, Venice (or Rome) has never done, nor even proposed, any such thing.

Those who read such headlines and happily imagine that never again will their sunset view of San Giorgio Maggiore from the molo near Piazza San Marco be obliterated by a parade of 4 huge cruise ships heading back out toward the Adriatic after 8 hours in Venice have it completely wrong.

As do those cruise lovers who panic at the thought that they've missed their chance to watch the legendary seat of a once-mighty Republic slide past beyond the bunions of their own outstretched feet as they lounge in a deck chair.

As I strain to discern the intent of the celebrity letter signers--certain only that VS Naipaul was definitely not the author of the missive, as he's never been known to be vague about his own opinions--I fix on the adjective "gargantuan". And yet it finally gets me nowhere.

How big is that "gargantuan"? Over 96,000 tons? Over 40,000 tons?

For all the letter's outrage about the threat to the great city of Venice, I really have no idea just what exactly the signers of the letter aimed to accomplish with it. And I wonder how many of the the 63 signatories actually did.

Are they on the side of those who want all cruise ships out of the lagoon?

Or are they essentially on the side of cruise industry?

The same industry that, contrary to what might have been expected, welcomed restrictions on the size of ships barging past the Doges' Palace--why, they'd volunteered to impose just such restrictions upon themselves! As long as a new route was dredged for the even bigger ships they planned on bringing into the lagoon. (

But I write this post less as a criticism of the celebrities' letter and subsequent absence of response to new developments in the controversy, than to express my ongoing astonishment at how masterfully and completely Paolo Costa's Venice Port Authority and the cruise industry have managed to set the very terms of the entire debate.

Newspapers everywhere have published images of protesters waving "No Grandi Navi" banners in pretty much every article about the banning of big ships in Venice, but the "ban" on "big ships"--whether the report is that is has been instituted, or struck down by a regional court, or re-proposed by Rome--has almost nothing to do with the intent of such banners. As much as one might either like to think so or hate to think so, such protesters have not gotten anything like their way. Their voice, in fact, can hardly even be discerned in the actual terms in which the debate has been framed and discussed. And continues to framed and discussed.

Indeed, part of me suspects that those of us who don't like the sight or idea of 33,000 ton, 60,000 ton or 90,000 ton (much less 124,000 ton) cruise ships barreling through the basin of San Marco (where two billboard ads on buildings under renovation look aptly like those those alongside a US freeway) have some reason to feel we've been played. That the slight reduction of traffic on that highway was always intended only as a concession to clear the way for a greater power play: the dredging of the deep water channel.

Or to put it another way: If the Port Authority and cruise ship industry have made a big show of letting a concession or two drop from one of their hands, have they done so only with the assurance that they'll be able to gouge out much more power and money with their other?

An environmental impact assessment of the proposed deep water channel is currently underway, but I'm not sure how much doubt there is about its likely findings. Or at least that, whatever the assessment concludes, the odds of the deep water channel being dredged anyway are fairly good. Indeed, Paolo Costa, President of the Venice Port Authority, former mayor of the city, and all-around power player, was recently quoted in a local paper as saying the dredging of the Contorta Canale was "the only solution."

This of course is blatantly untrue. In fact, a proposal for a new cruise ship terminal situated at the mouth of the Lido to the Adriatic--which would eliminate both the need for big ships to pass through the basin of San Marco and the dredging of a new deep water canal--was recently submitted to the Ministry of the Environment ( But given the Orwellian ingenuity with which Costa and those who share his interests have set and controlled the terms of the discussion, you can see why he and they might be feeling rather cocky these days about having their way with the issue.

For those who oppose the vision that Costa has for Venice, whether they're celebrities or not, it's important that they make some effort to be heard. There's a petition against the dredging of the canal here:

And if those 63 celebs really want to eliminate cruise ships from Venice they might seriously think about drafting another letter before the environmental assessment report on the Contorta Canale is due in early November.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Venetian Glass

It recently occurred to me that some of the most beautiful glass in the lagoon is the lagoon itself as it appears along the edge of Lido south of the Armenian monastery island. It's the calmest area of the lagoon I've seen so far; even the wake of a speeding water taxi there appears in evening light not as rough broken water but as a smooth molten swell and roll.

The surface of the water can be so mesmerizing, in fact, that while keeping a constant lookout for other boats as you steer your own it's quite easy to forget all about the long long peninsula of land to one side of you. This lapse of land awareness is a mistake, however, as I learned from the angry shouts and gestures of an elderly fisherman seated on the bank after I'd inadvertently driven over--literally above, really--his line.

Of course if you simply take a walk along the lagoon edge of the Lido, as you easily can, this hazard is nothing you need worry about. Though I could imagine stumbling into a fisherman seated low in his canvas sling chair while walking with my eyes fixed on the water. But the view is worth that risk.

                                                                                                                                                                     photo credit: Jen
                                                                                                                                                                     photo credit: Jen

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sanpierota Sunday

Yesterday afternoon, east of San Giorgio Maggiore: scenes of the Regata Coppa del Presidente della Repubblicca.

While I took photos, this was my driver

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Gift of Music in Santa Lucia Train Station

Playing piano within sight of the Grand Canal
The most welcome arrival to show up at Venice's Santa Lucia train station last Thursday was not a person but a piano.

Donated to the city by the singer and composer Sofia Taliani it is, according to a piece in yesterday's La Nuova di Venezia by Vera Mantengoli (l-irresistibile-pianoforte-della-stazione), the first step of the United Streets Piano Project, which aims to install a free public piano in every train station in Italy.

In the Santa Lucia station it was installed just to the left of the main entrance, beneath two lighted boards of arrivals and departures. Venice's piano appears to be the latest iteration of the British artist Luke Jerram's installation "Play Me, I'm Yours", which has inspired the placement of over 1,300 pianos in public spaces in 45 cities around the world. You can read more about the work, and even contact the artist about setting up a piano in your own city, at

For some reason, Venice is not included on the list of cities hosting the work in 2014 on the website above, nor is the artist mentioned on the Facebook page of United Street Pianos Italia (United-Street-Pianos-Italia, where you can see images and video of the piano being transported to, installed in and played at Santa Lucia). But in spite of these oversights, the British artist's project and the project here in Venice do seem connected.

In any case, anyone is free to play the piano as long as she or he wants, though, if my observation yesterday is representative, it's not unusual for one or two people among the smaller or larger crowd that often gathers around a player to be waiting their turn.

Musicians of various ages and skill levels have a go at the instrument. But regardless of what and how they play, each seems to construct (or at least suggest) note by note a whole other order of time than the hustling bustling everyday sort of arrivals and departures. Creating a space like a long sigh amid all the hurried panting, a tenuous chapel of tones.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Drama On the Water and Off: Regata Storica 2014

Rowers round the great bend of the Grand Canal in front of Ca' Foscari and...
There was plenty of excitement both on and around the water at this year's Regata Storica with, respectively, the two-man gondolini race ending in a photo finish and with 50 palazzi along the Grand Canal adorned with green flags opposing plans to dredge a new deep water canal for the sake of the biggest of big cruise ships.

The green flags were the idea of Jane Da Mosto and her community group We Are Here Venice, which she heads with Michela Scibilia. They bore a simple three-word phrase "Venezia è Laguna" ("Venezia is the lagoon") whose brevity, however, was grounded in a very long sense of the city's history and carries with it far-reaching present-day implications. It is intended as a strong succinct rebuke to those who, like Italy's Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi and Venice Port Authority President Paolo Costa, have portrayed the decision to reroute the very largest cruise ships from their present path by the Doge's Palace and down the Giudecca Canal to a proposed new deep water channel as a means of "saving Venice".

To declare that "Venice is the lagoon" is to reassert that the well-being of the city is inseparable from the well-being of the lagoon, that the city and its lagoon (or the lagoon and its city, may be a better way to put it) are inextricably inter-dependent, or "symbiotic," as Da Mosto put it in a press release that accompanied the display of banners on Sunday. A fact which Venetians understood quite well for about a millennium, and until relatively recently in the city's past.

...beneath one of the 50 banners opposing the proposed new deep-water canal
A map of the 50 palaces that displayed the "Venezia è Laguna" banner
Given the well-documented damage already done to the health of the lagoon and the city's built environment by two earlier deep-water shipping channels dredged out of the lagoon (the Canale dei Petroli and the Canale Vittorio Emanuele), to gouge out a third and claim it is a means of "saving the city" is a bit like paving over Central Park as a solution to traffic problems in the upper half of Manhattan.

As the Director of Cambridge University's Coastal Research Unit, Tom Spencer, details in a recent piece in The Art Newspaper ("Scientist_Challenges..."), the fear is that the proposed new canal would further erode the once-shallow lagoon whose wetlands used to moderate tidal surges and wave energy and would act as a new off-ramp from the already deleterious expressway formed by the Canale dei Petroli, funneling surges right toward the historical center.

Four of the banners on display on the Grand Canal
An environmental impact assessment of the proposed canal is presently under way, but given the power of vested interests in such matters, and the history of even negative assessments being ignored, many Venetians and supporters of the city have felt compelled to take concrete action against the canal. (You, Dear Reader, can read and sign a petition against the canal here: Petition_in_English.)

The banners on Sunday were intended as a vivid assertion that, as Da Mosto's press release stated, Venice "is united, vigilant and ready to be a protagonist in decisions that concern [it] with the same long term vision with which these palaces were originally constructed [and] with the power of the tradition, energy and rigour of the champion rowers in the Regatta."

You can read more about the controversy over the proposed canal and an interview with Jane Da Mosto in my post from last week:

The first five crews of the six-oar caorlina race in a tight single-file line
Rowers in the women's two-oar race head toward the finish line in front of boatloads of spectators
Cruising the Grand Canal beat
Two crews of college rowers are harried toward the finish line
Neck-and-neck for most of the race, the leading crews of the gondolini race drive toward a photo finish

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rome's Decision Makes a Bad Situation Much Worse: Sign a Petition Against a New Deep Water Canal

Even the "small" 33,000 ton cruise ship, the Silver Spirit, looms large over Venice's Via Garibaldi
The following is a piece I just published in America's oldest Italian-American newspaper. I generally avoid duplicating pieces I've written for places other than this blog, but I think the topic is important enough to merit it in this case. You can read the petition against dredging a new deep water channel in the lagoon at Stop the Contorta Canal (English version) or Fermate lo scavo... (Italiano), as well as by clicking on the link in the body of the text below.

It was the best of decisions. It was the worst of decisions.
It was, if you believe Italy’s Transport Minster Maurizio Lupi, a triumph for the city of Venice. It was he who announced on August 8 that beginning in 2015 monstrous cruise ships of over 96,000 tons would no longer be allowed to pass through the heart of the city and that an alternate route would be dredged at its south-western edge. Venice lovers everywhere, including the 60 high-profile celebrities who signed an open letter decrying big ships to Italy’s prime minister in late June, were encouraged to rejoice.
Many Venetians, however, did not. Many of them found it quite odd, if not downright suspicious, that this long-awaited meeting of the special inter-ministerial committee assigned to decide issues concerning Venice (the Comitatone) was announced only the afternoon before it took place, and that its decision was released on a sleepy Friday afternoon well into August, when it was sure to receive the least possible attention—and scrutiny by the press.
In fact, press coverage of this issue has been surprisingly superficial since the Italian government’s first attempt to impose new regulations on cruise ship traffic in November 2013 (which was subsequently overturned by a regional court). A perusal of most news reports might easily lead one to believe that all big ships would be forbidden to pass through the basin of San Marco (within 1,000 feet of the Doges’ Palace.) Even the video reports of a respected news outlet like the BBC have included misleading footage of large ships under 96,000 tons that would be unaffected by the proposed ban.
In truth, though the new regulations are supposed to decrease traffic by 20%, there has never been a ban on all big ships sailing through the basin of San Marco and down the Giudecca Canal—only the most absurdly humongous. What would appear in the context of Venice to be a very big ship indeed to most of us (do a web search, for example, on the 77,000 ton P&O Cruises Oceana) will still be perfectly free to ply that route through the historic center.
This question of how big is “big,” has always been one problem with the proposed regulations. But it’s not what Venetians are upset about right now, nor what motivated some of them to create an online petition calling upon Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to put a halt to the proposed dredging of the new canal. The petition garnered over 10,000 signatures in just the first 11 hours after it was posted last week, and that number has now surpassed 24,000. You can read (and sign) the petition in English or Italian by clicking on one of the following:  Petition (English) or  Petition (Italiano).
Last week I spoke with one of the petition’s creators, Jane Da Mosto, environmental scientist and author (with Caroline Fletcher) of The Science of Saving Venice and contributor to The Venice Report, two of the most informative and well-researched books published on contemporary Venice and the challenges it faces. “One of the things that is so disturbing about the government’s decision” she told me, “is that it will potentially have the most profound effects on the well-being of Venice, yet it was made in Rome not only without the input of any Venetian representative, but without considering up-to-date scientific, technical and economic assessments.” 
Environmental scientist, author, and long-time Venice resident, Jane Da Mosto
She reminded me that Venice has been without a mayor since June, when Giorgio Orsoni was arrested on corruption charges, and told me that the bureaucrat appointed by Rome’s Minister of Internal Affairs to oversee city operations until a new mayor can be elected abstained from voting on the cruise ship proposal. She seemed to have little doubt that the opinions of Venice’s Port Authority, which claims to have poured 200 million euros in recent years into the expansion of cruise ship terminals at the city’s western end, and is strongly in favor of dredging a new deep channel to them, were well represented at the Comitatone meetings.
But politics aside, her concern is that dredging a wide deep canal out of what at present is a typically small meandering lagoon channel (the Canale Contorta) may very well cause more damage to the well-being of the lagoon and the structural integrity of the city than the gargantuan ships now passing through the basin of San Marco. “UNESCO designates Venice and its lagoon as a World Heritage Site, not simply Venice,” she said “and in doing this it recognizes that the health of the city has always been inseparable from the health of the lagoon.”
            “Venetians have been altering the lagoon for centuries,” she continued. “The whole thing would have silted up and become terra ferma if they hadn’t begun a massive project of diverting rivers in the 14th century. But it’s now been well-documented that the dredging of deep water channels that began in the early 20th century has changed the lagoon in damaging ways.”
“The extensive mud flats and salt marshes that once characterized the lagoon have been literally washed out to sea by the strong currents carried by such deep shipping channels as the Canale dei Petroli. The mud flats and marshes cover just 1/3 of the area they did at the end of the 19th century. And this isn’t just bad news for wildlife, it’s very bad news for all the buildings that people come to Venice to see, as those mud flats used to moderate wave energy sweeping in from the Adriatic. The irregular shallows of the lagoon used to dampen the intensity of acqua alta. But the lagoon, especially its southern half, where the new channel would be dredged, has become a deep clean-scrubbed salt-water bay. Tides coming into and going out of the lagoon have become more damaging.”
“This is a fact on which there is no disagreement, even here where everyone loves to disagree. Venice has spent a great deal of money in recent years to create new mudflats. You can see the heavy machinery at work right now on a massive project near Certosa. So why in the world would you dredge a canal on one side of the city that is likely to create the disastrous effects you are working to counteract on the other?”
            She told me me that an environmental impact assessment of the proposed new canal must be completed within 90 days of the August 8 announcement of the proposal. I asked whether this means the plan will be scrapped if the assessment finds the dredging is likely to be harmful. She looked dubious and replied, “In theory, yes. But there are plenty of big projects that have gone forward in spite of negative environmental impact assessments. MOSE (the massive multi-billion euro flood gates at the mouths of the lagoon) received a negative assessment. But they went ahead with it anyway.”
            Moreover, the Cruise Line International Association, while praising Rome’s decision in the greenest of terms in the August 13 edition of Britain’s Daily Telegraph Travel Section (going so far as to use the phrase “sustainable solution” twice in a single sentence), emphasized that “the new project must be developed in a timely manner” lest Venice be left off the 2015 itineraries of its largest ships ( The clock, in other words, is ticking.
            I asked Da Mosto what decision she would reach about the big ships if she had sole authority to make it. “I don’t know what final decision I’d reach,” she answered, “but I do know that a valid one on such an important long-ranging matter can only be reached after a proper study of the various options available. This means a thorough and well-founded examination of the costs and benefits of each option, based upon research performed by disinterested experts, rather than outdated studies often commissioned by those with a vested interest, such as the Port Authority itself. The decision must involve due process, and the process itself must be transparent and available to public consideration. As it is, though the environmental impact assessment cannot be undertaken before a concrete proposal is submitted, and though the Director of the Port Authority, Paolo Costa, has stated that such a proposal for the dredging was finalized on August 11, absolutely no one anywhere has been able to obtain a copy of it!”
“In a city reeling from the widespread corruption of the MOSE project--our mayor having been arrested, more than 30 others facing charges, 100 more under investigation—even the appearance of secrecy is the last thing we need.”
“I would like to really know what comes in and what goes out with the cruise ships. Their real economic impact on the city. How much money is made by the cruise lines and their shareholders, how much actually comes into the city, and who in Venice gets that money. How many jobs truly depend upon the current arrangement, and how many jobs would be created by alternatives, such as building a new cruise ship terminal at Punta Sabbioni on Lido. Or in Marghera.”
“There are a lot of interested parties that say that the passenger terminal, for example, must remain exactly where it is. But it’s not a matter of making Venice compatible with the cruise industry, it’s a matter of making the cruise industry compatible with Venice. Otherwise we run the risk of losing the very city that all those passengers come to see.”