Reclaiming Venice From The Sea

CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner takes us to Venice, where officials have yet to come up with a strategy to save the city from the ever-rising sea.

About Venice, the novelist Mary McCarthy observed, "nothing can be said here, including this statement, that has not been said before." So we decided to get some help telling this story from a few of those who've preceded us.

There's the line Robert Benchley supposedly cabled to his newspaper: "wonderful city - streets full of water, please advise."

Englishman John Julius Norwich said, "who in their right mind would build a village, far less a town or city on a cluster of soggy shoals and sandbanks rising from a malarial, malodorous lagoon?"

Who indeed?

Marco Loredan knows: "This palace was built by Andre Loredan, who was one of my ancestors in the 1480s, as his residence in Venice."

Marco Loredan's family had already been established in Venice for more than 500 years when the palace was built 500 years ago. They were merchants and traders, who understood that Venice is and always has been wedded to the sea. The string of what were once Loredan palaces, the family portraits of Loredans who were heads of state, are a chronicle of the success of this complex marriage of convenience.

For Loredan, "Venice is...obviously the most precious jewel in the world."

It is a jewel that is reflected ever so beautifully in the waters which have always protected Venice from its enemies, but are capable also of destroying it.

In 1846, Dickens wrote: "Welling up into the secret places of the town crept the water always noiseless and watchful, coiled round and round it, in its many folds like an old serpent."

The old serpent it must have been then that rose up on November 4, 1966. The mayor of Venice said of this worst of floods, "on that single night our city aged 50 years."

Venice is still counting the cost. It took the floods in 1966 for the world to see what French writer Guy de Maupassant saw in 1851, "The facades of the palaces are ravaged by time, stained by humidity, eaten up by the leprosy which destroys stone and marble."

Melissa Conn works for Save Venice, the American charity which restored the 15th century Miracoli Church. The restoration, she says, cost $3.5 million over a ten-year period: "What we basically did was take off every single piece of marble...We also cleaned all the decorative elements in the sculpture which is mostly made of Istrian stone and gets very black and darkens with age."

There are 26 charities like Save Venice from 12 countries assisting the Italian government.

A few square inches at a time, the art treasures are being reclaimed in the 15th century church of San Francisco Della Vigne by restorer Toto Bergamo and his team. Bergamo says he chose this work "because I am Venetian and I think it's necessary...I think it's ike a responsibility."

No sooner had the restorers arrived than noted hydrologist Roberto Frassetto was summoned to Venice to develop a strategy for preventing another 1966. But how? Venice itself was sinking and the sea is rising.

Frassetto will walk you to the water's edge, just off Piazza San Marco. He'll show you a slide, a view of the same spot painted 250 years ago by Canaletto. The stairs are still there, but they are underwater. In another 100 years, he predicts the water will be two feet higher.

Today, Frassetto promotes his solution to the flooding problem with elaborate computer models that were unavailable when he first presented it in 1971. His proposal: a $2 billion network of floodgates, which so far is unbuilt. They would rise from the sea floor and block the entrance to Venice's lagoon until any flood emergency was over.

For 27 years, Frassetto has battled Venetians who are convinced his floodgates would be an expensive mistake. In that time, $4 billion have been spent restoring Venice. Frassetto cannot comprehend why one without the other, given what he sees as the risk: "I feel that this is an offense to culture and it is absolutely necessary that something be done."

Unfortunately in Venice, the solution to one problem can be the cause of another; creeping decay may be disastrous, but doing something about it can turn out just as bad. Nothing is simple in Venice.

Frasetto explains: "So what are they trying to do by emptying the canals? Well, first of all to eliminate the sediment that's been piled up in the last 50 years and restore all the basements of the buildings in a way that the water doesn't seep through."

It's been 50 years since the city of Venice has undertaken this kind of expensive, time-consuming maintenance on its canals, once done regularly. An effective damage control measure, yes, but that has its drawbacks.

Take the restoration of the first synagogue in the old Venetian ghetto, built in the 16th Century by German Jews. Save Venice is restoring it. Conn explains: "When we were involved with the roof, it became apparent that the building had shifted." And, she adds, "In the past fall and spring, the canal outside in back of the synagogue had been drained and cleaned to work on the foundations, and then when where was no water in the canal, this in some way caused the building to shift even more and it was quite a great alarm."

For Marco Loredan: "People throughout the world have come to safeguard Venice, and we're enormously thankful to them, but if you want the town to live, it has to (be) possible for the live and work."

Loredan takes wealthy tourists to palaces and gardens only his name can get them into. He, like many Venetians, believes the city cannot exist solely as a museum.

But where to draw the line? Is nature alone to blame for Venice's problems, or does Italy's biggest chemical plant, looming on the horzon, contribute? What about the 12 million tourists who spill into Piazza San Marco every year?

If disaster can be thought of as a clock ticking away toward midnight, in the eyes of hydrologist Frasetto, Venice today is only two minutes away from midnight.

A man named Richard Mayne commented in 1964, two years before the great flood, "at the best of times, there is something precarious about the city."

Poet John Betjeman wrote, "when the bell notes from the belfries and the campaniles chime, still today we find Venetians elegantly killing time, in their gilded old palazzos while the music in our ears is the distant band at Florian's with the songs of Gondoliers."

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