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Fires and Floods, Now, Then, Later
Again in October, California burst into flames. Winds to 100mph, 250,000 acres charred. Blackouts imposed capriciously by a bankrupt energy company, crippling campuses and hospitals.
Once again we watched from six thousand miles away, perched in an old city in the middle of a laguna. After yet another flood tide, we joined a crowd of Venetians gathered in pouring rain to protest the failure of their government to cope with the rising waters and the sinking city. In Rome a panicked parliament voted more millions of euros to complete the MOSE sea barrier network, still untested, already rusting, encrusted with mussels, clotted with sand.
Unlikely as it seems, Venice has also had a long and terrible history of fire. Palaces and bridges of brick or stone rest on ancient wooden pilings, their interiors lined with wood. Given bone-chilling marine winters, buildings were heated with fireplaces, later with large tiled stoves. Creative chimney design, on display in Carpaccio’s view of the Rialto Bridge, in did not stop every spark. In 1105, great fires decimated 23 churches across the city. A truncated campanile is all that remains of the church on Campo San Boldo, where we were living. It burned first in 1105 and several times thereafter. By 1291, fires had become so frequent and destructive that the great Venetian industry of glassmaking, with its red-hot furnaces, had been ordered by the city government to move to Murano.
The nearest functioning church to San Boldo is in Campo San Giacomo, where in the early evenings children play and old men shout into their telefoninos. Instead of fires, the neighborhood is now threatened by the gutting of old buildings to house a boutique inn or yet another fish restaurant. Several mornings a week we went to the Rialto market. The pretty neo-gothic loggia of the fish market dates only to the last century, when it was finally rebuilt after the last big fire. Today the fishmongers (6), butchers (3), and produce stands(20) at the Rialto are fast disappearing. Not only because of the depredations of tourism: German supermarket chains and Dutch coops are everywhere.
Last year Chinese investors proposed establishing a cooking school in the loggia above the fish market. This failed, although the space had been empty for three years. Now an Italian foodie forum, Gambero Rosso (Red Shrimp) proposes to slick up the fish market to offer prepared street food, local specialties of course. The upstairs may house a museum of the history of Venetian commerce and some kind of unspecified commercial activity. Mayor Brugnaro blessed, but did not fund the project, estimated to cost 7-10 million euros. An enraged local activist saw this is the latest move to make Venice into a soulless “toll city.”
La Fenice, (Phoenix) the Venice opera house, burned to the ground in 1996, not for the first time. Aside from the romantic tale of arson and corruption, in 2004 it was rebuilt, with international funding. Only last October, another fire broke out in the theater, blamed on the backup power system. Failure of electrical providers, ENEL in Italy, PG&E in California,has become common in the age of climate-driven disasters.
A dramatic winged phoenix emerged in Berkeley, California’s environmental art show, made of lacquered eucalyptus leaves by Sophie Dua. We hope to give it to friends who rebuilt their house following the Oroville fire of 2017–also caused by an electrical malfunction.
The penetrating fragrance of eucalyptus trees stays with me from a childhood on the California coast. That tree, native to Australia, is now prey to fire safety removal measures. The Oakland firestorm of 1991 had spread more quickly via the flammable migrants. Driving back to the bay from the north coast with a Czech friend, I told her that the blazes we could see along the Oakland ridge were reflections of the sunset in hilltop windows. She, with darker experience of war and revolution, thought not.
A centenarian eucalyptus stands in front of our Berkeley house. Corymbia ficifolia, with abundant pink flowers and tough little urn-shaped nuts that resident squirrels use to sharpen their teeth–and a sturdy trunk that pretends to be supported by a scrawny iron pole. One winter day, gazing vaguely out an upstairs window, I noticed a soft slow drift of white through the eucalyptus leaves. Snow seldom falls in Berkeley. I looked more closely, and made out on a branch a hawk, perched atop a dove, sending feathers floating as it pecked at its prey.
Just before the California fires, news from Berkeley had focused on an attack on the Gourmet Ghetto–not upon that unassuming stretch of shops and eateries between the campus and the hills, but upon the breezy sobriquet it had borne for decades. Probably it was christened by a young comedian then working for the Cheese Board Collective. Serious people tend not to traffic in irony. Alice Waters never liked the term in the first place, and street banners celebrating the “Gourmet Ghetto” have been furled forever.
In 2016 the Venetian ghetto marked its 500th anniversary with a new production of Merchant of Venice. The shallows of political correctness surrounded the project from the start, provoking strained comparisons of Shakespeare’s Venetian ghetto with the current status of refugee enclaves in Europe. William Shakespeare, in any event, appears not to have visited Italy, although thirteen of his plays are set there.
In 1516, when the Venetians cleared one of their islands to house Jews, this was no act of benevolence: the city at that moment was in sore need of moneylenders. Venetian commerce was suffering because of the new trade routes across the Atlantic, and because of the costly War of Cambrai. In fact, the Jews themselves had to pay the guards who enforced the curfew on the walled ghetto.
Ghetto came from the Venetian word “geto,” or foundry, which had preceded the Jewish settlement on the Venetian site. Later, “ghetto” came to be the name for any closed community of Jews across Europe. The Venetian ghetto was not opened until 1797, in one of Napoleon’s liberal reforms. Later still, in 1866 when Jews gained full Italian citizenship, many moved into palaces in other parts of the city. After World War II, of some 200 Venetian Jews sent to the camps, eight returned. In Venice today, of 500 Jews resident in the city, few choose to live in the historic ghetto.
Today, 1500 years after Marco Polo and William Shakespeare, China hopes to recreate the famous if somewhat apocryphal Silk Road trade route, Their BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) invests in the infrastructure of Adriatic ports such as Genoa– and Trieste, already activated– as a gateway to Central European markets. Venice, with its troubled laguna, does not much interest them.
Mayor Brugnaro has been assuring all tour planners, so basic to the Venetian economy, that Venice is still beautiful and awaiting more visitors. Meanwhile, the flood tides have continued through December, and the incomplete MOSE network of underwater barriers has failed to protect most of the laguna. There is no Plan B.
Marine archaeologists continue to excavate the ruins of the ancient port city of Thonis-Heracleion, located thirty feet underwater near Alexandria, Egypt. Temple columns litter the floor of the bay, and a retrieved boat from the 5th century B.C. exactly jibes with Herodotus’ description.
Early in 4,000 C.E., let’s say, in the northeastern corner of what was once known as the Adriatic Sea, underwater excavations reveal ruins of what appears to be an ancient port. The site is crisscrossed by a network of canals that give some credence to identifying it as the lost city of Venezia. Further evidence is provided by the remains of various slender boats, distinguished by their high prows and extensive traces of black varnish, often mentioned in records of the lost city. Also present on the excavation site are the hulls of very large ships, with space for thousands of passengers.
In the same time frame, but 6,000 miles away on the southwestern edge of the continent once known as North America, significant remains have been found at a depth of a thirty feet in the mud at the bottom of what appears to have been a deep bay, narrowly open to the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by urban settlements. The finds include a wheeled transport system, tunnels, and several large bridges.
Each of these sites appears to have been abandoned during the rising of the seas in the Great Planetary Meltdown that began in the 21st century C.E.
14 November 2019
This year, from the other side of the Grand Canal, the warning siren keens closer– and longer, as if keyed to the 50-year flood tide approaching in the laguna.
Not much is otherwise different: another video of someone swimming in the floodwaters in front of San Marco, photos of boats stranded on embankments, of shopkeepers sweeping bilge off their doorsteps. The new mayor blames climate change, a new appearance at the head of the usual malefactors: the sirocco from Africa, full moon, tectonic subsidence, rampant corruption in the calamitous MOSE project to block high tides. The old mayor, arrested amid the MOSE corruption, was recently absolved, but MOSE is still inoperable.
Five years ago, in Cannaregio, I heard the siren sounding a bit before sunrise. . . a long, piercing alert, followed by a series of slowly articulated, musical ululations. Then the quiet slosh of the first vaporetto docking and departing as usual across the canal. I had been lying awake for a while, having seen the acqua alta warning the day before. Acqua alta, high water, refers to monster tides that cause flooding all around the northern Adriatic, but most famously in Venice. Between autumn and spring, the high tides can combine disastrously with the sirocco and the local “bora” winds and the oscillating waters of the long, narrow rectangle of the Adriatic Sea.
As the foundations of most Venetian buildings have been brining in the depths of the lagoon for centuries, the natives regularly take certain minimal precautionary measures. Passerelle planks are neatly stacked, ready to be laid out across flooded expanses in Piazza San Marco and other low-lying parts of the city. In our neighborhood, Cannaregio, ten metal supports for the passerelle were stolen, for what market it is hard to imagine. Tall rubber boots are ready by the door of our attic apartment, lent by our kind landlords, but they are too small for our big American feet.
The first real autumn rain brought only moderate acqua alta in Venice. But in Tuscany the deluge submerged Massa and Carrara, below those white-veined mountains where ancient Romans, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and rich Americans and Arabs, have found an unending supply of white marble to bedeck their temples and mosques, mansions and museums.
Quarry labor was always hard and poorly paid, fueling rebellions among the workers. By the end of the 19th century, Carrara was called the cradle of anarchism. These days the flooded residents seem to be demanding some responsible governmental action, no small order in 21st century Italy. A dear friend, an art historian who helped salvage Florentine art after the great flood of November 1966, observed sadly that Tuscans have never understood how to deal with water. The Venetians, too, were underwater in 1966; their efforts to curb the tides have a higher profile because Venice is more obviously fragile than stony Florence.
The huge MOSE project (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) is supposed to protect Venice and the lagoon against flooding. Note the acronym’s cunning allusion to the Hebrew patriarch who parted the Red Sea. MOSE consists of 78 mobile underwater barrier gates that rise during high tides to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Approved by the Comitatone (Big Committee) in 2003 with a budget of some 7 billion euros, MOSE has so far successfully tested only four of the gates.
Meanwhile, in June 2014, the mayor of Venice and 35 other “public servants” were charged with misuse of billions of the MOSE funds. The arrest of the mayor of Venice was international news, and even amid the flamboyant excesses of Italian politics, the level of corruption is spectacular.
The scandal provided local color following the opening of the 2014 Biennale of architecture, which was set partly in the Arsenale, the former Venetian shipyards, first mentioned in 1104. “Arsenale” comes from the Arabic “darsena” or workshop, and there were naval arsenals already in the seventh and eighth centuries along coasts from North Africa to Arab Sicily and the southern Mediterranean. But for some four centuries, the fleets built in the Venetian Arsenale ruled the waves in war and commerce.
Venice hasn’t been actively at war for some three hundred years. The grand buildings of the Arsenale now house a splendid naval museum as well as splashy international expositions like the architecture Biennale, part of which occupies the Corderie, a vast columned hall built in the 16th century, where miles of ropes were made for the ships in production.
The Biennale exhibits were remarkably free of military or imperial connections, except of course for those involving the guilt, implicit or acknowledged, of modern colonial powers. Silvio Berlusconi’s melodramatic apology to Libya for decades of Italian abuse is memorialized next to videos showing footage of the most recent exploitation of Libyan oil.
On the Arsenale embankment is a recumbent classical column that is connected with the Biennale’s Albanian exhibit. A documentary by Albanian exile artist Adrian Paci shows the quarrying of the marble block in China, its loading onto a freighter, and to cut costs, three Chinese carvers working the marble en route on the high seas. Paci thus addresses what we might call the downside of global trade and labor.
During the Second World War, the shipyards in Richmond, California, were the most efficient and productive of any in the country. Huge buildings, on the same scale as the Venetian Arsenale, enclosed the assembly lines which had been pioneered by early Venetian shipbuilders. In Venice the workers, the arsenalotti, were respected and paid well. The Richmond shipyards employed tens of thousands of unskilled laborers fleeing the depressed South. Rosie the Riveter was a familiar icon of the spunky female worker.
The docks and warehouses now house restaurants & theaters and light industry. An Italian restaurant, Salute e Vita, in a Cape Cod Victorian said to have been the Richmond harbormaster’s house, is now owned by a beautiful woman born Ethiopia and raised in Rome in a family of restaurateurs.
Menbe now dispenses Thanksgiving charity to the hoi polloi of the real city of Richmond, many of whose grandparents came from the depressed South to work in the wartime shipyards.
Richmond now has the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime of any city in the Bay Area except Oakland. Property values were so low that developers could profitably produce a town-house development along the waterfront and even offer some public amenities, little beaches and a smart interactive memorial to Rosie the Riveter.
In Venice, every year after 1177, the doge sailed out into the lagoon on a seriously over-decorated ship called the Bucintoro, and tossed a ring into the waves to symbolize Venice’s wedding with the sea. After Napoleon had carried off the Lion and Horses of St. Mark and the choicest artworks in the city, the French set the last Bucintoro afire where all in the city could see it burn, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And there the canny French sieved the ashes to save the gold.
Some years ago Colonel Giorgio Paterno proposed to recreate the festive Venetian Bucintoro that was destroyed in 1798. Colonel Paterno, the head of Fondazione Bucintoro, said in March 2008: “[We will] build it as fast as we can but we’re not in a hurry. It is intended that the project will make use of traditional shipbuilding techniques and original materials…and will reproduce the gold decorations.”
The foundation wrote to then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy to ask for a financial contribution as a goodwill gesture in view of the Napoleonic vandalism. Just this year, no thanks to Sarkozy, the French pledged to contribute six hundred oak trees from the forests of Aquitaine surrounding the city of Bordeaux. Meanwhile, alas, as Paterno said, “Invaded by so many million tourists, the city risks losing its identity, losing its cultural connection with its own history.”
There is also the escalating risk that Venice will lose its historical and cultural identity not through tourism but under the invasive tides of the Adriatic. The earliest acqua alta, in 579, was reported two hundred years later by Paul the Deacon, a Benedictine monk-historian. The event, known onomatopoetically as the Rotta della Cucca, was a calamitous rupture of river banks in the Veneto. This collates with variously reported global climate changes in 536-538, confirmed by tree-ring chronology. The probable cause was a volcanic event that created a dust ring around the planet, darkening the sun and aborting harvests. The ensuing famines and civil unrest could explain many gloomy global developments, from the sudden decline of Teotihuacan to the Plague of Justinian, and the westward Mongol invasions. In fact, this catastrophe theory, advanced by journalist David Keys, was so expansively interesting that it was quickly discredited by qualified academics—but not before public television documentaries that you might have missed, as I did.
Catastrophe theories aside, it must be conceded that recent western technology, no matter how advanced in nuclear weaponry, domestic espionage, craft beer, and social networking, has not been able to resolve drought issues in Africa, Brazil, Ukraine, or California.
In October 2010, at the edge of the Assad reservoir in northern Syria, we shared a picnic—lots of mezze & pastries—provided by our genial driver. Abu Hani was a Palestinian refugee, a survivor, having lived alone for several years while teaching math in Saudi Arabian middle schools in order to finance his household in secular Damascus. His wife would not live in Saudi Arabia. We haven’t heard from Abu Hani for almost four years now.
This might be a place to share the information that in Saudi Arabia, our staunch ally in the noble fight against Islamic State barbarism, there were 79 public beheadings in 2013.
The Assad reservoir is near the town of Raqqa, now controlled by the Islamic State, which sometimes prefers to bill itself as the more historically resonant Islamic Caliphate. A recent account of the consumption habits of the Caliphate’s soldiers found western products such as Pringles, Snickers, and Red Bull absorbing much of their $3 daily food allowance. Not mentioned was their appreciation of American brands of machine guns and tanks that they have confiscated from various Syrian rebel groups, “vetted” or not.
Returning to Venice from Florence one day in November, I paged through an international paper. The top story was Obama in China. That night Italian TV showed Obama, lean and elegant in a mandarin jacket, coolly chewing a piece of gum as he strode across a stage to shake hands with President Xi.
Maybe it was later that same night that the Italian Marco Polo (played by the impressive Marco Paolini) appeared onscreen. In any case, all this tended to eclipse an interesting op-ed on the historic drought in Isfahan. The writer suggested that western help in dealing with the drought problem could improve relations with Iran, where, as (almost) everyone knows, Isfahan is located.
Isfahan, visited by Marco Polo in 1330, was a Persian capital known for its beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. But, way of the world, in 1722 it was sacked by Afghan invaders and the capital was moved to Tehran. Today Isfahan still produces carpets and textiles, but also steel. It has a major oil refinery and “experimental” nuclear reactors, as well as the largest shopping-mall-with-a-museum in the world (not to mention a top-notch chamber of commerce). But cosmopolitan twenty-first-century Isfahan is now suffering from an 80-year drought.
When Venice was a major commercial center, expediting goods along the route to Isfahan and other Silk Road depots, the Dogana da Mar, the Customs House of Venice, controlled access to the Grand Canal and the San Marco docks.
In 2007 Japanese architect Tadao Ando began a wonderful renovation of the space for use as a museum. “This building has been floating on the water since the 15th century, and my intention is to see it float into the future; it is a very old building and it was very difficult to study its history so as to preserve its original structure and innovate toward the future.” Since the extant building was actually built in 1677, one doesn’t feel that Ando’s creativity has been much hampered by his study of its history.
Meanwhile, the modest hydrographic station on the Punta della Dogana (the Doge’s Nose) still sends information to the Centro della Marea (Tide Center), which warns the citizens of coming inundations. .
One morning after our return to Berkeley, I looked out the window. The California drought was breaking in a big way and our street had become a flowing canal. There was a flash flood warning online, but a silent one.