Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Dog Days of Summer, This Afternoon


Though the days of the Dog Star, Sirius, actually stretch only from July 3 to August 11, the star's influence on certain people seems to extend beyond this period, judging from the two pictured above.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Nourishing Local Life: Disnar per la storica 2017


Preparations for next weekend's Regata Storica kicked off last night with Disnar per la storica, a wide-ranging event consisting of free community dinners (what are called "pot lucks" in America) in fourteen different locations around Venice, including Lido, Sant'Erasmo, and the mainland. (Disnar is a Venetian word for "to eat").

The dinner for our neighborhood was held in the Rialto Pescheria and it was pleasant to see so many residents gathered to enjoy an extended meal, with live entertainment and a film of Venetian rowing, in a place so often over-run by mordi e fuggi (bite and run) tourism.

Any song about living in Venice, as the one being sung above, can't help but include among its frustrations (as you can see in the projected lyrics) the waves, litter, human waste and diving that spoil the canals and the dog crap in the calli.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

An Outsider's Guide to Secret Venice, Part 3: The Emergency Lagoon Drainage System

A large floating buoy attached to one of the Emergency Lagoon Drainage Plugs in the basin of San Marco

The most visible element of the 45-year-old Emergency Lagoon Drainage System floats for all to see in the middle of the Bacino di San Marco, its primary function unknown to and even unsuspected by tourists and most Venetians alike. 

If anyone, besides my son Sandro and me, gives it much thought at all, they do so only when it's being utilized in its secondary function as a mooring place for a large, important ship, such as the Italian destroyer the Luigi Durand de la Penne.

But the primary purpose of this large floating buoy (at least as far as Sandro and I are concerned), and the others like it in the waters around the city,* has to do with an elaborate anti-flood system designed and implemented in the first years after the catastrophic deluge that struck Venice in 1966. It was this "perfect storm" that called international attention to Venice's susceptibility to being abruptly submerged by the sea--rather than merely subsiding into it--and which led 10 years later to the plan for a system of flood gates situated at the three mouths of the lagoons.

As noted by Salvatore Settis in his book If Venice Dies, in 1986 then-Prime Minister Bettino Craxi announced that these submerged flood gates (known by the acronym MOSE) "will definitely be operational by 1995." Instead, 22 years after this promised date, MOSE shows no signs of being operational any time soon--if ever--and has functioned only to transfer over 6.2 billion euros of public funding into the hands of private construction companies and corrupt politicians. Of course, in Italy, as in America, this is considered a laudable achievement in itself.

But for all its fame and infamy, MOSE was the second engineering solution devised to protect the city against catastrophic flooding. The first was the now-forgotten, though still partly visible, Emergency Lagoon Drainage System.

In contrast to the no-bid contract that was gifted to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova to construct MOSE, in the immediate aftermath of the great flood of 1966 an international engineering competition was held. The winner of that competition was, to hardly anyone's surprise, considering the country's long history of hydraulic engineering, a Dutch firm.

This firm's solution to catastrophic flooding was both simpler and far more radical than the later MOSE proposal. It called for a vast drainage system to be installed beneath the lagoon, with a series of "plugs" located at the periphery of the city. The plugs themselves, situated snugly in massive drainage ports at the bottom of the lagoon, are invisible; we see only the large buoys attached to each of them and floating above them.

Each buoy, as you can see in the image at top, has a large steel ring in the center of its circular platform. In the event of extreme flooding, a fleet of massive helicopters known as "sky cranes" (with which Sandro was familiar from his then-favorite educational video series Mighty Machines), and currently stationed nearby on the mainland, would lower a hook into these rings, then haul them and their attached plugs into the sky.

A floating drainage buoy used for its secondary function by the Italian Navy
That is, just as we're in the habit of pulling a plug out of a sink or bathtub to let the water drain from it, so a fleet of massive helicopters would de-cork the lagoon.

By 1972 this Emergency Drainage System had been completed and was, according to computer analysis and a series of tests (extensive in number but necessarily limited in scope), fully functional.

Venice was saved.

Or was it?

For even as the system was being installed a multitude of scientific studies were arguing that just one use of the system would cause massive and irreversible damage to the lagoon itself. The rapid and violent emptying of water from the lagoon would result not only in a staggering loss of animal, plant, and probably even human life, but widespread destruction of the lagoon's ecosystem.

The shallow, rough, irregular terrain of the lagoon bed itself, with all its sedimentation, sub-acquatic plant life and mudflats (barene), would be sucked down with the swirling mass of water rushing into the drains installed in the lagoon.

To save the built structures of the city, in other words, the lagoon itself would be sacrificed.

Indeed, a heated debate over the ethics of what critics described as the sacrifice of Nature for the sake of Culture appeared across a number of issues of the obscure but influential International Journal of Hydraulics in the first years of the 1970s, reaching such a pitched state of contention that a fear that the hitherto scholarly debate might break out into the broader public consciousness caused it to be purchased by an unknown buyer and promptly shut down.

Some have identified the Italian government itself as the buyer; others, the Dutch engineering firm responsible for the drainage system. Whoever it was, they did an admirable job of suppressing the content of the debate and purging all traces of the journal from libraries. To this day, single issues from this contentious period have fetched bids in the low six figures, and a multi-copy set said to contain the complete series of exchanges garnered a million dollar bid from the famous Ransom Rare Book Collection at the University of Texas Austin. But in every case the proffered publications have turned out to be fraudulent. 

Equally troubling, though, was the fact that a single use of the system would, by scouring the lagoon clean of its wave-buffering natural features, leave the city significantly more susceptible to disastrous flooding than ever before. A single use of the system was likely to turn what had long been a lagoon into what was effectively a shallow bay, through which water from the Adriatic would rush in with unimpeded force.

According to some it was this realization that ultimately led to the decision in 1976 to go ahead with the mobile flood gates.

While others more simply, and cynically, say that the decision to go forward with the MOSE project was less about impeding the flow of dangerous tides than about diverting a massive flow of public money into the "right" (ie, well-connected) private bank accounts.

Whatever the reason, Venice now has one almost 50-year-old system of flood prevention that is theoretically still functional but that it dare not use, and one "new" one (originating just 10 years after the former) which it's supposedly clamoring to use but seems unlikely to ever be functional.

And, alas, because some municipalities, like some people, never seem to learn from their mistakes, the use of the MOSE system--if ever it does function--raises as many questions about its own disastrous effects on the lagoon as the old Emergency Lagoon Drainage System.

In truth, considering the long ineffectual history and deleterious consequences of each system side-by-side, the real MOSE one (with all its corruption and incompetence) and the one imagined by Sandro and me, I can't quite ultimately decide which of them stretches credulity more.

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*There are a few such floating buoys and Sandro and I were inspired to look into the mystery of them after repeatedly passing a particular one of them that lay--like the subject of Part 2 of this series of posts--on the vaporetto path between his pre-school and our home (specifically, between the San Pietro di Castello stop and that of Bacini).

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An Outsider's Guide to Secret Venice, Part 2: The Regional Weather Control Center

The aggressively unassuming Regional Weather Control Center

As is the case for any number of our society's most venerated Truths, the origins of the Regional Weather Control Center in Venice, or RWCC, are shrouded in mystery, and are admittedly rather dubious.

Located in the waters just a short distance off Fondamenta Nove, the discovery of the top-secret site by my son Sandro and I was spurred by a long unbroken string of oppressively gray days during the second winter we lived in here.

We usually have no problem with sunless days during the winter; we expect them. But this particular stretch had gone on for far too long, without even a brief tease of sunlight, and with no hint of ever ending. So long, in fact, that Sandro and I couldn't help but start to wonder if something had jammed up the gears that usually kept our weather systems moving through at a slower or swifter pace, and if the person responsible for minding them had fallen asleep at--or even vacated--his or her post.

For elsewhere, as we could see on national news reports, meteorological conditions varied at least a little from day to day as usual. Only here in the lagoon had everything seemed to stall.

We pondered the question of why.

But we didn't hit upon any kind of satisfying answer until we stumbled into thinking about it in terms of where. Where did weather patterns originate?

Well, as it turned out, from a shabby little structure we passed nearly every day on the number 4.1 or 4.2 vaporetto line, while going to or coming from Sandro's kindergarten.

Indeed, one might take it as concrete evidence of the sheer brilliance of the RWCC creator (or creators) that it is essentially hidden in plain sight.

Like the earliest dwellings in the lagoon, as described in a letter to Theodoric the Ostrogoth by his prefect Cassiodorus in the year 523, the RWCC is stilted just above the surface of the water. Though it, in contrast to those sea bird-like homes of the earliest inhabitants, is constructed not of "osier and wattle" but bricks and cement. While the earliest lagoon structures must have been quite susceptible to drafts, the windowless RWCC appears impervious even to light.

No image of the interior has ever been disseminated, but according to those who have studied, or at least speculated on the matter (my then 5-year-old son and myself), the RWCC is manned by a solitary occupant who tracks national and regional weather conditions on a bank of computer monitors--many of them displaying a live feed from a far-flung battery of surveillance cameras--that nearly fills the small space.*

Based upon these regionally-oriented screens, along with a constant stream of information on broader weather conditions (both in Italy and internationally), the indefatigable controller adjusts meteorological conditions in the lagoon (temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, wind, etc) with an extensive array of levers--rather like those used backstage to raise the curtain or dim the lights for live theatrical performances. For finer adjustments there is also a selection of precisely-calibrated dials.

The fact that the RWCC bears a very general resemblance to the larger, windowed, wooden tidal monitoring (or hydrographic) station you can see near the Punta della Dogana has led to speculation that it was built around the same time. But there is no other evidence to support such a conjecture and, indeed, such a notion raises more questions than it resolves. Chief among them: Where was the RWCC previously located?

Moreover, the differences between the two structures are far more striking than any vague similarity. Unlike the tidal monitoring post, the RWCC is aggressively plain, even downright forbidding: it is both inscrutable and impregnable.

Which, of course, makes perfect sense. For while nobody ever complains about the tides, everyone--as the old saying goes--complains about the weather, though no ever does anything about it.

The appearance of the RWCC--at once inconspicuous and off-putting--seems specifically designed to forestall the possibility that anyone might even be tempted to try.

Not that Sandro and I haven't once or twice over the last few years been driven by a particularly nasty stretch of weather to talk about taking our little boat to the RWCC and pounding on its door to complain. But the consequences of such a rash and unprecedented action are unknown, and, moreover, the power of certain mysterious truths depends upon them never being put to the test.

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*Though interior space is limited, it is not so cramped as a purely external perusal of the structure would suggest: the shape, proportions, and materials of the structure's exterior being cleverly designed to appear substantially diminished in the particular lighting conditions of the lagoon.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

An Outsiders' Guide to Secret Venice, Part 1: The Cannaregio Gondola Factory

The Cannaregio Gondola Factory (aka the Associazione Remiere di Punta di San Giobbe)

There are countless "insider's" guides to Venice available, with new ones appearing regularly, but sometimes the perspectives on the city I find most interesting come from those who appear to have little if any familiarity with it.

In fact, seemingly unencumbered by any knowledge of Venice whatsoever, the minds of the best of what might be called Outsider Guides to the City are free to drift up to dizzying altitudes, where oxygen is scarce and falsehoods abundant.

I suppose there's an invigorating sense of freedom to be found in not knowing the first thing about the subject on which you're pontificating. And if stated with enough force--or vulgarity, or shamelessness, in the case of major politicians in the US and UK--these utterly false assertions can end up being more compelling to a surprising number of people than statements of easily verified or even readily observable fact.

The other day, while riding in an Alilaguna water bus from the airport into Venice, I heard a particularly inspired one of these Outsider Guides announce the following to his wife and teen-aged daughter: "Hey, hey, look there," he said, pointing out the window to a building on the western end of Fondamenta Nove, "there's a factory where they make gondolas! Wow, look at 'em! They've made a bunch of green ones that they've got stacked up in the yard."

Now, you don't have to be a native Venetian to know that gondolas aren't green, or that their shape bears little resemblance to the shape of the much smaller boats to which he pointed. And, more simply, there was even a large sign posted in the center of the facade stating (in Italian) exactly what the building was.

But his wife and daughter nodded and looked suitably edified and I--as this particular lie was not uttered in the service of more tax cuts for the rich and poverty, gratuitous hardship, and early death for everyone else--was thoroughly entertained, even charmed.

I would have thought that the fact that what this Outsider Guide was pointing to was actually a traditional Venetian-style rowing club association (remiere) would have been exotic enough to satisfy most visitors from afar. But I admired the leap his imagination had made, and I wished I could tag along with him for the rest of the morning to see what other misbegotten nonsense the sights of the city in combination with his ignorance might inspire him to spout.

But we were on the Alilaguna boat from the airport with family arriving from out of town and, instead, I turned my attention elsewhere.

It occurs to me now that there might be some value--if only of the entertainment sort--in compiling an Outsiders' Guide to Venice, and I wish I remembered more of the falsehoods I've overheard in my 6 1/2 years of living here: such as the three tourists on a vaporetto one time who speculated that the church of San Giorgio Maggiore was a hotel (and not even in the French sense of hôtel, or city hall).

After all, one way to make a famous city so heavily visited (and over-visited), and so much remarked upon as Venice, into one's "very own" is simply to get as many things wrong about it as you possibly can.

For the old Mary McCarthy and Henry James observation that "nothing original can be said about Venice" doesn't quite apply to those whose remarks upon Palladio's famous church across the Bacino di San Marco are based upon their mistaken belief that it's a hotel--or that, say, the Palazzo Ducale is a basketball arena.*

In this spirit, in parts 2 and 3 of this post I'll finally share a couple of (alternative) facts about the city that you won't read in even the most authoritative guidebook or hear from the most knowledgeable personal tour guide. "Facts" that my son and I happened upon while still getting acquainted with the city and which I hope will merit a place in any Outsiders' Guide to Venice: secrets of this famous city that are so secret I think it's safe to say that we two are the only ones who know anything about them. 

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* As, incredibly enough, the Scuola Grande della Misericordia actually was for a time: http://video.gazzetta.it/venezia-leggenda-misericordia-chiesa-palasport/0d649bfe-d3ca-11e5-979f-8bca2ccabd66