Images of the flooded St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice have shocked many across the world this week. Since Tuesday, parts of the city were damaged by the most severe high waters Venice has seen in over half a century, with six-foot high tide levels engulfing 85% of its streets and buildings, some of which are of tremendous cultural value.
“While it’s still too early to quantify the extent of its havoc, chances are it will leave indelible marks.”
A man walks across the flooded St. Mark’s Square on November 15, 2019. Credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images
Threat to monuments and cultural institutions
From great monuments such as St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace to its historical neighborhoods, Venice has one of the highest concentrations of architectural masterpieces in the world. It’s also home to some of the greatest paintings from artists like Canaletto, J.M.W Turner and Francesco Guardi.
A man pumps out water from the flooded crypt of St. Mark’s Basilica on November 13. Credit: MARCO BERTORELLO via Getty Images
The flooded crypt of St. Mark’s Basilica. Credit: MARCO BERTORELLO via Getty Images
A room in the flooded Gritti Palace. Credit: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Some experts say, in order to understand the full extent of the floods’ damage, waters will have to first subside.
“Venice is used to being constantly surrounded by water, but this is really something else,” said Toto Bergamo Rossi, the director of Venetian Heritage, an organization that seeks to preserve the city’s cultural patrimony, in a phone interview. “The main issue is saltwater. When salt permeates the materials of these buildings — be them marble, tiling, plaster or wood — it crystallizes and ascends vertically once the weather gets drier, from the ground to the first floor and so on. It’s almost like a cancer for these structures, all the more so when they are so old. The entire wall system can be affected.”
Bergamo Rossi said that St. Mark’s Basilica is currently the most badly affected, because it’s one of the city’s oldest buildings and therefore it sits lower than the rest of Venice. The restoration process will need to pump out the water as soon as possible, and probably wash the whole space multiple times to get rid of saltwater.
“Churches are also in bad shape. At the moment, they’ve basically turned into swimming pools. It’s very sad. Many of them are quite low, and still use 18th century pews made of walnut wood. It’d be hard to save those from water damage,” he added.
“Luckily, artifacts and collections seem to have been spared, as they aren’t usually stored on the ground floor.”
People assess damages in a wing of St. Mark’s Basilica that houses various objects as key rings, rosaries, crosses on Wednesday, November 13. Credit: MARCO BERTORELLO/ via Getty Images
In the hope to protect their valuable collections, a number of cultural institutions, museums and even the Venice Biennale — a months-long art and architecture showcase drawing international crowds — have closed their doors to visitors.
On Wednesday, the Venice Biennale shut its Giardini and Arsenale exhibitions. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection also remained shut through Friday.
An uncertain future
But floods, as bad as they might be, are only part of the problem.
People walk across the flooded St. Mark’s square past St. Mark’s Basilica on Wednesday, November 13. Credit: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
In the 20th century challenges grew as huge amounts of water were pumped out from beneath the lagoon for industrial projects, causing land subsidence. The practice was halted in the 1970s, but rising sea levels — linked to to climate change — and the turbulent wash from heavy cruise ship traffic have further damaged the city’s foundations, causing it to gradually sink.
Blocks of the mobile gates of the Experimental Electromechanical Module (Mose) in 2014. Credit: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
“My hope is that this tragedy will serve as a wake-up call for the Italian government and the world for what needs to be done in Venice,” said Toto Bergamo Rossi.
“The MOSE has to be completed. Not in two years, but over the next months. Buildings, too, have to be guaranteed a better draining system, maintenance, material reinforcement. This could easily happen again, and we simply can’t afford that. There’s too much at risk.”