Venice authorities fear damage to St Mark’s after flooding

18 November 2019


St Mark’s Square was under water after an exceptionally high tide

St Mark’s Square was under water after an exceptionally high tide

THE Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, has blamed climate change for the highest water levels experienced in the city in more than 50 years. He said that the damage would cost hundreds of millions of euros to repair, and that the impact was “huge” and would leave “a permanent mark”.

On Sunday, St Mark’s Square was closed after yet another flood. For the third time in a week, floodwater topped 1.5 metres, though just short of the 1.87-metre level on Tuesday of last week, the highest in 53 years. There has been no record since 1872 of such a depth of floodwater more than once a year, let alone three times in a week.

The Italian government declared a state of emergency on Thursday, after St Mark’s basilica and surrounding buildings were engulfed.

Mr Brugnaro wrote in a tweet on Sunday: “Maximum attention for today’s tide. St Mark’s Square is closed. Safety first.” He estimated that there had been €1-billion-worth of damage already from the flooding.

PAThe Patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, and Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro

More than four-fifth of the Unesco world heritage site was inundated, and the Patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, said that St Mark’s had suffered “irreparable damage”. Its 12th-century crypt was flooded, and machinery was brought in on Wednesday of last week to attempt to pump the water away. There are fears that the basilica’s columns and floor might have been damaged structurally. Mosaics and tiling might suffer further harm as they dry out.

Carlo Alberto Tesserin, first procurator of the basilica, who is the president of a team responsible for managing the building, said last week that damage to the basilica alone ran into millions of euros. “We said last year that the basilica had aged 20 years in a high tide. It risks having aged much more than that in this one.”

The Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, who visited the region last week, described the flooding as “a blow to the heart of our country”, and promised that his government would “accelerate” the building of flood defences, referring specifically to the Mose project, a hydraulic barrier system to shut off the lagoon surrounding the city in the event of high sea levels and winter storms. The €6 billion project, now in its 15th year, has been dogged by delays amid accusation of fraud.

The Prime Minister wrote on Facebook: “It hurts to see the city so damaged, its artistic heritage compromised, its commercial activities on its knees.”

The floods were caused by a combination of high seasonal tides and a storm surge in the Adriatic Sea. These exceptional tide peaks are known to Venetians as “acqua alta”. Their frequency appears to be increasing: half of the highest-ever recorded tides in Venice have occurred in the past two decades.


Ill winds blow on La Serenissima

Malcolm Bradshaw reports from Venice

WALKING through Venice on Thursday of last week was a sad experience. On the pavements alongside the canals could be seen small boats that had slipped their moorings, broken branches from trees, fallen plaster and brickwork from sides of buildings, and debris large and small thrown up by the sea. Some vaporetto (water bus) stops were closed, having been rendered unsafe by the storm that accompanied the flooding.

Away from the pavement, small-shop owners were attending to their soiled stock, hosing down the floor, and cleaning furniture and the shop window. Coffee shops, even in St Mark’s Square, were closed for business while staff attended to the harm done by the flood.

In St George’s, eight inches of water covered the nave floor. The water receded, leaving a very thin covering of sand. No structural damage was done other than salty water in the walls and the floor (when they dry out, salt crystals form and crack open the masonry).

St George’s is not known for being flooded; so this was exceptional. The kitchen and dining area of the chaplain’s house was inundated with floodwater up to 13 inches in depth.

This was the highest flood recorded in 50 years. In the hour before the water peaked at about 11 p.m., a fierce wind suddenly picked up with such a strength that it shook houses, tore at shutters, and gave strength to the waves, dashing them against palazzos and dwellings.

The natural causes behind the high tides at the autumn and spring equinoxes are well known: the sirocco wind, which blows the waters up the Adriatic, is the main culprit. It is admitted, however, that there are man-made reasons, also. Rising waters through global warming; the rechannelling of the estuaries of two rivers, thus reducing the flood plain; the reclaiming of marshland for industrial purposes (the substantial port and industrial site of Marghera); the lowering of the water table through water drawn by industry, leading to Venice’s sinking; and the failure (because of corruption) to complete the great barrier where waters enter the lagoon — these all contributive factors to the flooding.

Canon Malcolm Bradshaw is the Chaplain of St George’s, Venice.

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