The MSC Opera is a 275 metre long cruise ship. It’s exactly 100 metres longer than St Mark’s square, almost as long as three football pitches put together... but it is in fact on the small end of the 600 cruise ships which entered the Venetian lagoon in 2019.

On the 2nd of June 2019, just a few months before the exceptional acqua alta devastated the city, the MSC Opera collided with the embankment of the Giudecca Canal due to an engine failure.

Seconds before the crash, the ship's horn blared to warn the tourists on the embankment and aboard a boat docked nearby. No one died. Four people were injured and one boat sustained damage.

A month later, on the 6th of July 2019, an even bigger cruise ship, the Costa Deliziosa, 292 metres long and carrying over 2,000 people at the time, was buffeted by strong winds and nearly crashed into the Riva Sette Martiri near St Mark’s square as a result. The emergency horn was sounded and the collision with a yacht and other boats was avoided by just a few metres - a close call.

Venice is one of the few ancient cities, if not the only one in Europe, which has never been encircled by walls. The city had no need for an artificial barrier because it already had a natural one: the lagoon. It was simply too difficult for an entire enemy fleet to navigate through it in order to launch a coordinated attack.

For a city that has never been assaulted by a foreign enemy, it’s ironic that there is so much talk of an “invasion”. Sadly, these gigantic vessels have become an all too common sight in the Giudecca Canal in recent years. Taller than any building in Venice, carrying thousands and thousands of people, these ships now dominate the city’s skyline, as if Venice were being stormed by enormous sea monsters. Venice looks tiny and vulnerable by comparison, like a glass souvenir in a shop window, just an object your admiring gaze flickers over.

What's more, for many of the passengers on the cruise ships, that gaze from aboard the ship is their only experience of Venice. Upon both arrival and departure, the decks look weirdly sparse. When it’s time to disembark and explore the city, according to data provided by the Port Authority of Venice, 74% of passengers prefer to stay aboard the ship, foregoing the chance for even a quick stroll along the narrow streets of Venice or an ice cream while sat on one of the benches lining the water....

Human error and mechanical damage will always remain a possibility. It’s easy to imagine the dire consequences of these outsized ships ramming into Venice’s narrow banks. But the mere passage of these cruise ships, even without incident, also does severe damage, simply because Venice is not suitable for these ships. Its banks were not made to resist the impact of huge volumes of water displaced by the submerged part of the cruise liners.

Tommaso Cacciari, a spokesperson for the Comitato No Grandi Navi, which campaigns against the presence of cruise ships in Venice, explains:

35,000 meters of water moving below the surface does substantial damage not so much on impact, when the huge mass of water slams against the shores, but during the return flow stage. This prompts what is called "siphoning", whereby the water acts like a suction cup, pulling mud water away from the banks. If you visit San Giorgio, you can take home a paving stone. It is here that ships move in an "S" shape as they pass, and thus the point where this effect is most visible. Every week workers employed by the municipality throw mortar between the stones to fill the growing gaps, but this does little to address the problem, because they do this on the surface. [... ] Istrian stones are falling from Le Zattere bank and the bridge "della Paglia" in San Marco has a crack monitored every day.

Whether cruise ships should be able to sail into the Venetian lagoon has been the subject of heated debate for many years. This is symptomatic of a city struggling to juggle its economic, environmental, and preservation priorities.

If we look at history, this is not the first time Venice and its lagoon have found themselves at a crossroads, compelled to choose between safeguarding its heritage and the environment or exploiting them for economic gain. The story of Venice’s civilization is often narrated as being one of adaptation to a unique environment, but in reality this has not always been the case. The balance struck between the natural and the artificial in the city is infinitely more complex than it appears at first blush. Venice is a city built on a fragile and ever-changing equilibrium.

Torcello is an unusual tourist destination. It is a small island in the north of the lagoon, about an hour by vaporetto from St Mark’s square. As you approach it, the bell tower of its famous Basilica comes into view. The art critic John Ruskin described it as “the mother of Venice”, and rightly so. In the early Middle Ages Torcello's economy was the largest of all of the settlements on the lagoon, perhaps even on the entire North Adriatic coast.

It prospered thanks to its strategic location, which facilitated trade with the Byzantine Empire, as well as salt, a highly valuable commodity that was abundant in Torcello. Churches were built and trade flourished.

In January 2021, however, it only had 11 permanent residents.

Torcello is not the only island in the lagoon left behind by history. However, its precipitous decline into anonymity is particularly striking because of its past glory. How is it possible that Venice thrived while Torcello languished? Solène Rivoal, historian and expert in the environmental history of Venice, is of view that..

As we know, the lagoon environment is not stable. Rather, it is constantly evolving under the effects of the sea and the tidal river flux, which carries sand and silt, widening the rivers’ deltas of the Adriatic Sea. Given its geographical position in the lagoon, Torcello is without a doubt affected by the rivers flowing nearby to a large degree. So maybe they lacked the expertise or the ability to permanently remove the sand that had built up. We are not sure, but we can hypothesize that the locals found it too difficult to cope and thus moved on to another site, which was Rialto. They settled in Rialto, [...](rivo alto, or high shore, as the etymology suggests), a place that was more protected, a shoreline that is easier to approach.

Action taken by the locals prevented the lagoon from silting up. But burgeoning economic activity compelled Venetians to plan for more drastic measures, which further altered the landscape. For instance, from the 12th century onwards they began digging canals so as to ease the passage of boats. They also diverted the course of rivers away from the lagoon in order to maintain the water’s salinity, thereby shoring up the salt economy. The Brenta river is a prime example of this.

In the 18th century, the danger no longer emanated from the rivers, instead it came from the sea. Dams and walls (called murazzi) were built on the “Lido”, the long island that shields the entrance to the lagoon, in order to curb coastal erosion. From this vantage point Venetians appear neither as conquerors nor the creators of this new natural environment. Rather, they are its guardians, maintaining an equilibrium constantly under threat from an ever-changing landscape.

Humans have continuously shaped Venice’s environment, to the extent that it makes you wonder how much of the lagoon is natural and how much of it is the result of man-made transformation.

There is nothing natural anymore. This space is completely man-made, organized by man, shaped by man. Back in the Middle Ages the Republic of Venice expressly set up a magistracy tasked with the preserving and organizing the lagoon. Had the lagoon and its landscape been left untouched by man, [...] it certainly would not have the form it does today.

In 1806 the French political writer and traveller Chateaubriand wrote that Venice was "a city against nature, one cannot take a step without having to embark." In fact, it is a city built at once upon, over and alongside nature. Imagine entering St. Mark's Square, on the Correr Museum side. The whole square is stretched out in front of you with the facade of the Saint Mark’s Basilica at the opposite end. Many years ago, two rivers intersected in this exact spot. The square was covered with meadows and vegetable gardens. The amount of planning and physical labour that went into creating the cityscape we see today is simply staggering.

You might think that you’re walking along marble carved and placed here by man, but you are in fact walking over a forest hidden underwater. According to NYU professor of History & Italian Karl Appuh, although it is known as the city of water, Venice’s heart is actually made of wood.

the whole city is actually built in effect on landfill. That was over an extremely long period of time, painstakingly, by hand, dug out or dredged out of the lagoon and piled up and reinforced with wooden piles. And then the whole city was built on top of that. And so the network of canals, most of the canals that you see when you walk around the sea are all artificial in that sense. These are all artificial, or mostly artificial, islands.

Wood not only serves as the city’s foundation - for many centuries it was also the material to which Venice owed its power. Merchant ships and war vessels were built out of wood, as were churches and palaces. Wood fed the furnaces which are crucial to Venice’s extraordinary art of glass blowing and glass manufacturing more generally. Venetians were the first to create perfectly clear, translucent glass. From this perspective, the natural environment not only sets limits on what can and can’t be done, nor is it merely a force to be subdued. Instead it becomes a source of power, one which needs to be nurtured in order for it to live on.

The Venetians were the first to introduce strict rules on logging, including in alpine areas. These were imposed in order to ensure there would be sufficient timber, of which vast quantities of it were traded in the lagoon. The Venetians attempted to rein in logging by people from forested areas because the lagoon was clearly suffering as a result. This gave rise to nascent environmental awareness among Venetians.

Venetians didn't have our idea of sustainability. But the one thing that they did have, and I do think that this is peculiar to the fact that they lived in this incredibly tenuous, fragile, but highly engineered environment, they understood that - you can see this in Venetian writings and political debates, in the 13th century, in the 14th century - they understood say that there was a relationship between deforestation in the mountains, and silt loads in the river. So they understood that if you cut down too many trees too close to a river, somewhere 100 kilometres away, you would then have to dredge out the canals more often and en masse

This was not environmentalism, nor was it a search for sustainability the way we understand it today.

but they were aware of, they were aware of living in something like what we would now call an ecosystem, which is a web of interconnected living parts, plants, and animals and so on. And so when they thought about needing wood they just didn't think well, we need wood so dammit, we're going to go get wood. They realised that when you get wood from this place, you're also then risking a set of different consequences in, in the lagoon

What you’ve just heard is Risveglio di una Città, the Awakening of a City, a 1913 piece of “noise music” as it’s known, by the Venetian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo, . Futurism was perhaps the most influential artistic movement that originated in Italy in the twentieth century. Futurism extolled dynamism, technology, youth, speed, violence, cars, airplanes, and the industrial city. Venice, as you can imagine, fell woefully short. In fact, it represented everything the Futurists wanted to do away with, at least proclaimed to in a deliberate act of provocation: tradition, beauty, symmetry.... So on the 8th of July 1910 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, one the Futurist movement’s founders and leaders, recited his manifesto for the future while standing in Saint Mark’s square:

Let us hurry to fill the small stinking canals with the rubble of the old collapsing, leprous buildings. Let burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots, and let raise the imposing geometry of the metal bridges and smoke-capped factories to the sky. The reign of the divine Electric Light finally comes, to free Venice from its venal moonlight. We want to prepare for the birth of an industrial (and military) Venice that could dominate the Adriatic Sea, a great Italian lake

As they descend towards Venice’s Marco Polo airport, airplanes pass over the sprawling Porto Marghera industrial area. It’s a powerful image. It’s as if the delusional futurist dream of an industrial city, which Marinetti and his disciples and sought, had been brought to life in the lagoon, right next to the city of Venice. In fact, the idea of creating an industrial centre next to Venice also dates back to the Futurists’ heyday. As Franco Schenkel, an expert on the history of Marghera, explains, the site’s location was chosen for reasons related to the First World War.

An industrial hub had to be built to support the war effort. And since the Italian front was in the North Eastern Italian Alps, Venice provided a strategically positioned location: it was relatively close to the front line and had an outlet to the sea.

Throughout the 20th century Porto Marghera has grown into a hub for metallurgy, chemicals and petrochemical production. There was an oil refinery, but it was converted into a biorefinery, working off biomass, several years ago. In the 1970s over 40,000 workers were employed there.

Marghera is another costume that Venice wore, another possibility of another Venice, another chapter in the tale of a city which has reinvented itself over and over again throughout history. Venice, established by refugees; Venice, the city of trade, Venice, the coloniser, and now Venice, the city of heavy industry.

Economically Marghera meant a lot for the region around Venice. Unfortunately, it also came at an unprecedented environmental cost. We are still paying its devastating price today, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

Over a century of industrial production has created enormous quantities of waste. For decades factories dumped their waste into the sea, just 4 miles away from the heart of Venice. This includes radioactive materials generated by aluminium refining . And then, to dispose of the chemical waste, land was used right there, in the lagoon. The same humans who have coexisted with the lagoon were now threatening its very existence.

_The problem wasn't just that the toxic and polluted water poured into the lagoon” “But, above all, the immense quantities of polluting particles deposited at the bottom of the lagoon, which are not stable. They move with the currents, with the waves, and with the passing boats. It means that everything that lived in the lagoon absorbed the mercury created by the breakdown of oil molecules. Then there were the elements of copper, sulphur, and everything that came from chemical factories and petrochemicals.

In the words of architect Sergio Pascolo, author of Venice, Century 21: “The twentieth-century industrial dream had become a reality that turned into an environmental nightmare”. Today, Marghera stands as a painful reminder of an age where the natural environment was considered to be something you could do with whatever you please. Meanwhile, pollution was seen as a harmless externality.

The ruling party has suggested turning Marghera into a port for large cruise ships. Their proposal is to divert the ships’ to another canal, which means they would no longer pass through Venice. According to Tommaso Cacciari, in order to do so, a 26 kilometer canal would have to be dug to a depth of at least 12 meters, when the lagoon’s natural depth is between 80 to 100 centimetres. If this were to happen, the consequences for the lagoon would be catastrophic.

Paradoxically, taking ships through a channel in the lagoon is worse than taking them through the built-up city, where you can actually do repairs to fix the damage. But the lagoon bed, the lagoon morphology as well as its balance, once broken, cannot be fixed.”

In addition, the proposal is extremely risky:

Because if a ship crashes into the banks of Saint Basilio, as one did in 2019, yes, there would be a disaster. But, in Marghera, if a ship crashes into an oil refinery or a gypsum phosphorus deposit, or any of the petrochemical factories lining the lagoon, the disaster that ensues would be of unspeakable proportions.

When Dante enters the Eighth Circle of Hell, in the infernal darkness he sees sinners immersed in a great pit filled with a boiling tar-like material. As they come up for air, the demons thrust them in with their pitchforks and their claws. In his description of this scene in his Divine Comedy - the great mass of boiling tar and the searing heat - Dante compares it to the frenetic activity in Venice’s “Arsenale” district.

As in the Arsenal of the Venetians / Boils in the winter the tenacious pitch / To smear their unsound vessels o'er again, For sail they cannot; and instead thereof / One makes his vessel new, and one recaulks / The ribs of that which many a voyage has made; One hammers at the prow, one at the stern, / This one makes oars, and that one cordage twists, / Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen; Thus, not by fire, but by the art divine, / Was boiling down below there a dense pitch / Which upon every side the bank belimed.

The Arsenale is a large industrial district north of Venice which was built in the late Middle Ages. Land was wrested from the sea, canals and basins were dug in order to build factories and homes for the workers. The impact on the environment, both urban and natural, was enormous. Today the district has been partially repurposed and is now used for hosting events, especially during the Art Biennale. It remains a fascinating industrial archaeology site, a testimony to the technical prowess that existed at the height of the Venetian Republic.

Marghera is a modern equivalent of the “Arsenale”, much bigger, with a much larger production capacity. Its environmental impact and the pollution it emits is also immeasurably more devastating than that of the Arsenale over the centuries. Its tall chimneys, huge silos, and massive factories are already monuments to the 20th century.
Arsenale and Marghera are postcards from the past, relics of a different technological and mental landscape. What we do with these sites, what we use them for, will be seen by future generations as an indication of how we perceive Venice and its lagoon in the present day. Is it a city in trouble, although still alive, still with us, a city that wants to keep on reinventing itself? Or is it a city that is writing the final chapter of its history, soon to exist only as a memento?