None of them is rich, none poor; they are all the same. They eat the same abundant fish. Their houses are all alike, boats tethered like horses beside them, and no man envies another’s mansion. In fact envy, which rules the rest of the world, is unknown among them. They spend their days raking the shores for salt.
Cassiodorus, Senator and Praetorian Prefect, describing the people of the Venetian lagoon in a letter dated September 3, 547 AD.
Venice was always improbable, a city where no city should rightly be, built on sandy islets in a shallow lagoon altered by every storm and swamped by unpredictable tides. Venice would never have existed at all if, in 452, Attila had not invaded northern Italy, sacking and razing cities on his march to Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire. The natives of Aquilea, Padua, Concordia, Altinum, and other Roman cities, fled to the islands of the lagoon for safety. Patricians brought their bricks and marble with them, the rest carried what they could on their backs into poverty and exile.
The lagoon has always been dangerous and elusive. A flat-bottomed boat could navigate the shoals and shallows one day only to run aground the next, after the tides scrambled the sandbars and erased familiar channels. That same treacherous mutability also protected the refugees from invasion. The islands could be reached from the mainland or the open sea only by those familiar with the lagoon’s mysterious, ever-changing byways. Invaders from the mainland or the Adriatic ran aground, their ships wrecked before gaining the prize hovering mirage-like and unreachable. Instead they ignored the refugees moated in impoverished isolation. The boggy islands held nothing anyone wanted except salt and fish.
The miracle began slowly, first at Malamocco, on Lido, a barrier island keeping the Adriatic Sea at bay, then on Torcello, in the marshy north lagoon, and then on Rialto – the high bank – the center of the tightly knit archipelago where the current city sits. Over centuries, pounding tightly packed trees into the mud, the Venetians created a substrate upon which they could build wooden or brick houses and, later, marble palaces. (Over one million trees, turned into stone by an anaerobic sheath of mud and salt, support the marble weight of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute alone.)
Walking through present-day Venice one can still see flat Roman bricks carried from the mainland during the exodus, repurposed in buildings of Byzantine origin next to Byzanto-Venetian and Gothic masterpieces between which are wedged still other masterpieces of the renaissance and baroque periods.
Early on every square inch of the Venetian archipelago was filled in with buildings, one against the other, separated only by time – centuries – not distance. That so many of these buildings, some dating back almost two millenia, remain where they have always stood distinguishes Venice from almost anywhere else. A walk through Venice is a walk through time. The Gothic exists cheek by jowl with the Renaissance, the Byzantine with the Neoclassic, pressed so tightly together a knife blade couldn’t be slipped between them.
Each narrow and twisted calle is a treasure trove. Each canal, from Grand to small, is upholstered with the Venetian narrative: the desperate beginnings, the creation of the twelve-hundred-year Republic (the longest standing Republic in history), the rise of vast commericial wealth and maritime dominance, and then the years of loss, ending with the precipitous collapse of the Republic under Napoleon, and the dire aftermath of the modern era.
The wealth — artistic, historic, and human — of the islands of the Venetian lagoon beggars the imagination. All is now at risk by the ravages of modern civilization, beginning when Napoleon filled in canals to accommodate his horses, thus blocking the smooth circulation of the tides that cleansed the city, continuing through the pumping of groundwater for industry that threatened to sink the city, through the incursion of diesel and modern boat engines whose vibrations shake the foundations of the buildings, the massive hordes of tourists stressing an infrastructure never built to accommodate their staggering numbers, the invasion of monstrous cruise ships into the lagoon adding insult to injury, and the inexorable sea level rise and related impacts of climate change threatening to bury Venice beneath sea water.
Rapacious greed and stubborn denial of real dangers have poised the city at the brink of extinction. One of the greatest treasuries of human social and intellectual achievement has been scheduled for demolition by our refusal to take these threats seriously. The mega-billion dollar MOSE, touted as the city’s last best chance to protect itself from further ravages of the increasing high tides that regularly inundate it, is mired in corruption, incomplete, with no proof it would work even if completed. The awareness that climate change threatens the world as we know it has yet to spawn massive and concerted resistance to the climate deniers, to demand the changes that may, possibly, prevent further damage, still leaving open the question of whether what has been done can be reversed.
Magical Venice, the city as living museum, is a perfect symbol of the impasse we face. Venice, la Serenissima, is both priceless repository of human achievement and victim of a perfect storm of insatiable greed, callous indifference, and political folly. She can either disappear like the countless vanished species extinct in our time, or become a red hot center of resistance, a battle ground to save the past from the future.