The Plan To Refloat Venice

The chic Quadri restaurant in Venice's Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square is known for its signature saffron scallops, its baked gelato--and its Wellington boots. For much of the last year the restaurant's ground-floor cafe, patronized by dukes and countesses yesterday and celebrities today, has been flooded with seawater from the Adriatic. Manager Adriano Zirardi came up with the idea of handing out Wellies so diners could keep their Manolos dry as they sloshed their way to the tables upstairs. How bad does the flooding get? It's not uncommon for patrons to sip their cappuccinos standing knee-deep in water. "Sometimes the customers have fun with it," says Zirardi. "But for those of us who live and work in Venice, it is really kind of a nightmare."

Of course, amphibious living is not new to the Venetians. Their city has been slowly sinking for 1,500 years--a result of the rising Adriatic and the sagging ground on which the city was built. For centuries the floods have been eroding the foundations of Venice's 16th-century palazzos and threatening priceless art work with humidity and mold. But the last several seasons have been especially treacherous. Last year the vestibule of St. Mark's Basilica was ankle-deep in water for 250 days. The square outside flooded 50 times--setting off World War II air-raid sirens at each instance and forcing pedestrians to tiptoe, single file, along gangplanks. In the Christmas season the city endured an unprecedented 17-day state of emergency. It was so bad that after decades of procrastination, Italy is finally taking direct action to save Venice.

Starting this month, workers will begin physically raising St. Mark's Square by 10 centimeters--one cobblestone at a time. It's part of a plan to elevate Venice's flood-prone areas, and to fix the city's underground drainage system: the old network of pipes and gutters backs up when the floodwaters rise, sending a mix of sludge and dead rats gushing into the piazza. Although the project has a hefty price tag--about $21 million over the next four years--even its proponents admit it's a temporary fix at best. "It is meant to keep the tourists' shoes dry," says Anna Ranghieri of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, a nationwide panel of engineering and construction firms tasked with saving the city.

It may not do even that. Recently, a group of engineers studying paintings by the 18th-century master Canaletto learned that the water level in St. Mark's Square in the 1700s was 34 centimeters lower than it is today. That leaves a shortfall of 24 centimeters after the square is raised.

The rest of the recovery will have to come from the long-debated Project Moses. Like the prophet, the $2.5 million plan, on the city's drawing board for 20 years, would part the sea. When the tides climb higher than one meter, a series of 79 underwater gates would rise to temporarily divide Venice's lagoon from the Adriatic (map). Italy's Green Party, an important coalition partner in the city's government, claims the gates would have to seal off the sea for 250 days every year, turning Venice's lagoon into a virtual cesspool. Environmentalists say that the lagoon's fragile ecosystem would be destroyed. But proponents counter that the gates would close for only about 300 hours annually, and that the lagoon has already suffered irreversible environmental damage at the hands of heavy tourism and a nearby oil refinery.

Despite the controversy Project Moses remains Venice's best hope. And Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato seems determined to push it through before the next prime ministerial elections in two months. Political observers say a new administration (under either Silvio Berlusconi or Francesco Rutelli) would likely stand by an Amato decision.

Even if the Italian government signs off on the plan, it would still take eight to 10 years to implement. And the clock is ticking. A 1999 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicts Venice will be almost completely submerged within 80 years. In the meantime the city's population is shrinking and business owners are losing money. Last fall 1,000 shopkeepers donned galoshes and took to the square in what they called "Boot Day" strikes, protesting the city's apathy. Over at the Quadri, manager Zirardi just hopes that apathy turns to action before he has to hand out scuba gear along with the Wellies.