In 2014, Italian art historian Salvatore Settis published a book called Se Venezia Muore (If Venice Dies). It’s an eye-opening read about cities and the causes of their demise. Settis wrote that cities die for one of three reasons: after being destroyed by enemies, forcefully occupied (and demoted) by an invading power or forgetting their past. Venice’s evolution in the past few years – overflowing with tourists, rocked by the passage of huge cruise ships, drowning in increasingly frequent floods – appears to be placing it in the final category.
This week’s floods – the worst since 1966 – have killed two and damaged shops, homes and churches. There are many reasons behind the rising occurrence of acqua alta (the Venetians’ term for tidal floods). Climate change, as the city’s mayor rightly decried, is certainly one of them; the exploitation of port areas and damage to the canals’ seabed are also factors. But Venice’s inability to protect itself against the oncoming water is also a clear sign of a city with a short memory: a conversation about building a tidal barrier to protect the city began decades ago. That project, called Mose, is still far from completion, marred by overspending and corruption scandals.
Settis believes that Venice is the most obvious example of the way in which many of our cities are falling foul of greed-fuelled false progress. “If Venice dies it won’t be just Venice dying,” he says. “The very idea of a city will die.” That’s why all cities, not just Venice, need to learn the lagoon’s lesson: only by preserving its history – and respecting its heritage – will it be rescued now.