Book review published in CityCity Magazine of ‘Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality’

Venice book cover

The following review was published in the Autumn 2013 Issue Three of CityCity Magazine in London.

Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and
Dominic Standish
University Press of America, 2012
Paperback £22-95
306 pp

Reviewed by Federica Palomba, Sapienza University of Rome

Venice is generally thought of as a city in environmental
peril because of its sinking buildings, rising sea levels
and the negative impact of tourism. Academic and Venice
resident Dominic Standish examines these threats and
wonders whether they are myths or reality.
The relationship between the Venetian Lagoon and its
inhabitants is traced chronologically from the most ancient
myths, through history, to the current reality. In myth
the lagoon represents human dominion and control over
nature. In past reality the sea was guarantor of liberty and
safety, preventing invasions. At the height of Venice’s
power, the Venetians built palaces with open arcades
instead of fortresses because the lagoon provided a natural
defensive strength. But more recently, and in particular
following the 1966 flood, the idea has gained currency that
the sea now has the upper hand through flooding, high
tides and rising overall sea levels.
The safeguarding of Venice became an international concern
and in 1971 the Venice mobile barriers project (MOSE:
an acronym for MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico,
that is, Electromechanical Experimental Model) was proposed.
MOSE was designed to protect the three inlets to
the lagoon. Forty years later it has still not been finished,
because the project has been continually held up by political
conflicts and competing claims.
The author establishes a link between myth and reality:
human dominion over nature arises again in reality in the
context of policies promoting dams. MOSE means that
man can control nature, while environmentalists criticize
the barriers as emblematic of human arrogance because of
their environmental and aesthetic impact on the landscape.
Both critics and proponents of the dam project have admitted
that a permanent barrier between the lagoon and the
sea might be necessary, but there are still no real alternatives
to mobile dams.
These two opposing schools of thought have always
clashed in the history of Venice: conservationism, now
represented by environmentalism, and modernization.
Napoleon’s conquest of the Venetian Republic in 1797
marked the fall of the Venetian Republic and the decline of
the sea’s defensive role. He brought physical changes to the
city’s environment, including the destruction of numerous
ecclesiastical buildings. The reaction of opinion against
this demolition gave birth to conservationism, according
to which buildings should be conserved and restored
rather than replaced or modernised.
Modern development continued under the Austro-
Hungarian Empire and also after Venice became part of
Italy in 1866. New port facilities made Venice an important
site for international trade: the Stazione Marittima, opened
in 1880 and expanded in 1904, linked the lagoon directly
with Egypt, India, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The conflict between conservationists and modernizers
intensified in 1902 after the collapse of the bell tower on St.
Mark’s Square. Conservationists argued that it should be
rebuilt exactly as it was previously, following the principle
com’era, dov’era (“as it was, where it was”), while
modernizers saw an opportunity for improvement. The
replacement of the bell tower “as it was, where it was’”
represented the triumph of conservation over transformation
preventing any kind of innovation of buildings, albeit
that they were never reconstructed precisely.
Conservationist aims have nowadays resulted in environmentalism,
a movement that influences our worldview
inasmuch as it has been able to hold up a big project
like MOSE.
Standish demonstrates two paradoxes about Venice: the
sea as threat when it is a source of wealth and attraction,
and tourism that overwhelms Venice while benefiting its
economy at the same time.
His analysis concludes with a ten-point proposal to
develop Venice, including such proposals as modernizing
accommodation, restoring buildings and monuments, and
improving transportation to reduce boat traffic. Furthermore
after the approval of scientists and engineers, barriers
should be installed and the MOSE project completed.
Venice’s problems are defined by Standish as social in
nature rather than technical or environmental: in response
to the initial question, “Venice in peril” from sinking, rising
sea levels or tourism is probably more of a myth than
reality. “ The real danger for Venice… is the sinking of human
ambition, courage and resilience… Reviving ambition
and resilience in combination with development are the
pre-conditions for improving Venice” (pp. 271-2) •

CityCity Magazine Issue 3 Autumn 2013 41

This book can be purchased from Amazon by clicking on its title below:
Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality

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