The Flooding of Venice

Voices from the Future | Pierpaolo Campostrini

The Flooding of Venice

 The Event: Tidal waves from the Adriatic Sea peaked as high as 6 feet and flooded the city of Venice on November 12, 2019. The waves continued to pour into the city — built on 118 islands — three times a day for the next five days, inundating city streets, businesses and many of Venice’s famous landmarks. The 923-year-old St. Mark’s Basilica was one of the most affected. Its crypt was covered with three to six feet of water, threatening to destroy irreplaceable marble-clad walls and supporting columns, inlaid stone pavements and the prized gold-leaf mosaic decorations.

Pierpaolo Campostrini was unusually nervous.

“I had a fear that something not normal was about to happen,’’ says Campostrini, a well-known volunteer management and restoration expert at St. Mark’s Basilica. He acted quickly and called his workers to stay at the basilica all night. ”The sea was coming toward the city like a wave pushed by big tides. It was caused by a combination of unusual meteorological events that have never occurred before.”

Campostrini, who lives about 20 minutes away by foot and normally walks or takes a water bus to work, wasn’t able to leave his house.

“The first high tide — about 6 feet — occurred around 11 p.m. It was followed by gale-force gusts of wind around 75 mph,” he says. “The water came into the ground floor of my house. I was trying to stop it and, at the same time, I was on the phone to the basilica, which I was more worried about. The big problem was that nobody knew when and where the unusually high waters would stop.”

As it turned out, the high tides of 4 to 6 feet came back the next day and continued flooding the city for three more days. The gusts pushed the floodwaters from St. Mark’s Square, the lowest point of the city, through the entrance into the dome and through the windows into St. Mark’s Basilica’s Crypt of Patriarchs. The wind gusts buffeted the basilica’s domes by tearing away tiles.

Eventually, Campostrini was able to get to the basilica and assess the damage.

“We had to use the pump to get the water out,” he says. “The big problem was that, even if we got the water out, the salt in the water crystalizes in the marble, blasters and cladding and starts to destroy their structure inside. The granules of salt can creep higher and higher and weaken them to a point of breaking. It is like a cancer – you do not see it outside. And we have over 100 different types of marble pavements, cladding walls and columns in the basilica. Most of them are from the 13th century and were brought here during the Fourth Crusade.”

Moreover, the water lifted the crypt floors, and some of the invaluable mosaic decorations — such as a peacock — were destroyed.

“We have accelerated the aging of the basilica,” Campostrini says. “The previous big flooding happened almost 60 years ago. I would say that we have aged the basilica at least 50 years in one day.”

Venice, once the world’s leading trading center, has faced a growing number of climate challenges. There have been 130 unusually high tides during the last two decades, compared to only five in the 20th century. In addition, the sea level is rising at an accelerated rate of about 0.08 inches a year, suggesting that the city could sink about 8 inches in the next hundred years. Also, the construction of the sea walls to protect Venice — a $6.5 billion national investment since 2003 — remains unfinished. Yet, Campostrini stays optimistic about the future.

“Unfortunately, we had had many delays in construction of the flood-protection gates in the past decade,“ Campostrini says. “The protection also depends on what constraints we need; the previous generations had no idea about climate change, and they set up some constraints to protect the lagoon, the fishermen and the landscape from the high tides. Now, we must finish the fence system to protect Venice. Our citizens want it and they have let the government to know their opinion. Citizens want their feet to be dry and not in the water.”

In the face of recent weather adversity, Campostrini praises the citizens and the authorities of Venice, who showed resilience and came together to protect their city. This also keeps him hopeful about the future.

“I believe that if people were able to go to the moon and send satellites to the space, we can do many things,“ he says. “We can save St. Mark’s Basilica and Venice, too. It is just a matter of will and organization. I urge visitors to come and visit Venice, but at the same time, people must be reminded that this is a delicate city and maybe they should not put so much pressure on our historical sites. The visitors have to be informed better. And as for me, I will do everything to protect the basilica and our historical city in the coming decades.“

                                                                        — Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss