"From the beginning Venetians, on their malarial, swampy islands, lived differently from the inhabitants of mainland Italy. The individuality of their way of life was partly a response to the unusual physical environment, but this in turn moulded the Venetian character. On his Italian journey, made only a decade before the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, Goethe still sensed the special resilience of the Venetian people:


This race did not seek refuge in these islands for fun, nor were those who joined later moved by chance; necessity taught them to find safety in the most unfavourable location. Later, however, this turned out to their greatest advantage and made them wise at a time when the whole northern world still lay in darkness; their increasing population and wealth were a logical consequence. Houses were crowded closer and closer together, sand and swamp transformed into solid pavement. . . . The place of street and square and promenade was taken by water. In consequence, the Venetian was bound to develop into a new kind of creature, and that is why, too, Venice can only be compared to itself."


Deborah Howard  (1980) An Architecural History of Venice

Partakers of the Lagoon


Venice is a unique cultural achievement. The city is built on 118 small islands and seems to float on the waters of the lagoon. The influence of Venice on the development of architecture and monumental arts has been considerable. Venice possesses an incomparable series of architectural ensembles illustrating the age of its splendour. It presents a complete typology of European styles whose exemplary value goes hand-in-hand with the outstanding character of an amphibious urban setting.  Its people have had had to adapt to the special ecological requirements of a watery site.  This makes the city an ideal educational model for the study of cultural ecology and in particular the ecosystem services which the Venetians have always had to manage to be resiliant.


Nature and history have been so closely linked since the 5th century AD when people escaping barbarian raids, found refuge on the sandy islands of Torcello, Iesolo and Malamocco. These temporary settlements gradually became permanent and the initial refuge of the land-dwelling peasants and fishermen became a maritime power. The small island of Rialto was chosen as the headquarters of the new city.


In AD 1000, Venice controlled the Dalmatian coast and in 1112 a trading market was founded in the Levantine port of Sidon. The year 1204 saw Venice allied with the Crusaders to capture Constantinople. The abundant booty brought back on that occasion, including the bronzes horses of St Mark's, is only the more spectacular part of the loot from Byzantium that the Doge of the time, Enrico Dàndolo, shared with his allies.

Empire builders


From 697, under an unbroken succession of Doges, a maritime empire of unequalled power extended over the entire length of the shores around the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean, to the islands of the Ionian Sea and to Crete. Throughout centuries of its expansion Venice was obliged to defend its trading markets against the commercial undertakings of the Arabs, the Genoese and the Ottoman Turks, as well as those of the European monarchs who were envious of its power. Venice never ceased to consolidate its position in the lagoon. Since 1172, continuity of the maritime regime was marked annually as a marriage, the sposalizio, when the Doge cast his ring into the sea.


One of the most extraordinary built-up areas of the Middle Ages has been continuously been under threat, rises amid a tiny archipelago at the very edge of the waves. From Torcello to the north to Chioggia to the south, almost every small island had its own settlement, town, fishing village and artisan community.  However, at the heart of the lagoon, Venice itself stood as one of the greatest cities in the medieval world consolidated from a group of tiny islands.  Nothing remained of the primitive topography but what became canals, such as the Giudecca Canal, St Mark's Canal and the Great Canal, and a network of small canals that are the veritable arteries channelling ecosystem services into a city on water.


Failures in the economic race


Venice's decline began in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, whose expansion would threaten, and successfully seize, many of Venice's eastern colonies. In addition Portuguese sailors had rounded Africa, opening another trading route to the east. Expansion in Italy also faltered when the Pope organised the League of Cambrai to challenge Venice, defeating the city. Although the territory was regained, the loss of reputation was immense. Victories such as the Battle of Lepanto over the Turks in 1571 did not halt the decline.


For a while Venice successfully shifted focus, manufacturing more and promoting herself as the ideal, harmonious republic, a true blend of nations. When the Pope placed Venice under a papal interdict in 1606 for, amongst other things, trying priests in a secular court, Venice won a victory for secular power by forcing him to back down. But across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Venice declined, as other maritime powers like Britain and the Dutch secured Atlantic and African trade routes. Venice's seaborne empire was lost.

Losers of wars


The Venetian Republic came to an end in 1797, when Napoleon's French army forced the city to agree to a new, pro-French, 'democratic' government; the Doge was deposed and the city was looted. Venice was briefly under Austrian control after a peace treaty with Napoleon, but became French again after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, and formed part of the short lived Kingdom of Italy. The fall of Napoleon from power saw Venice placed back under Austrian rule.


A new chapter in Venetian economic development began in 1846 with the rail connection to the mainland. The number of tourists soon began to exceed the local population. There was brief independence in 1848-9, when revolution ousted Austria, but the latter empire crushed the rebels. British visitors began to speak of a city in decay. John Ruskin and other semi-academics visited Venice because they enjoyed the characteristically Victorian blend of melancholy and moralising. For them, Venice was a warning to England, an example to be heeded.



Ruskin, in the Stones of Venice (1851), saw it his task to measure and classify the special character of this image before it became forever lost, and to record the warning of ‘decline of Empires’ which seemed to him to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the monuments and palaces.


Venice ‘is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak-so quiet,-so bereft of all but her loveliness’


In the 1860s Venice became part of the new Kingdom of Italy and arguments over to how best treat Venice's architecture and buildings have produced conservation efforts that aim to retain a great sense of the city’s special amphibious atmosphere.


Venice still stretches across numerous islands in the Venice Lagoon along the Adriatic Sea. At high tide, parts of the city are flooded. Rising sea levels and groundwater pumping are causing the city to sink. Venice's worst flood was in 1966, when the level of the lagoon rose 6.5ft above its normal level. About 5,000 people were displaced and $6 billion worth of artwork was damaged. Since then Venice has been looking at ways to address the flood risk it faces. Yet the population has fallen in half since the 1950s and flooding remains a problem.


'Acqua alta' (high tide) is now a state priority and the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, the Venice Water Authority and the Consorzio Venezia Nuovo - a group of local engineering firms, are behind a massive flood protection project which in 2014 is scheduled to begin reducing the flood risks faced by the population of Venice each year.  The central feature goes by the name MOSE, Italian for Moses, with mechanics that allude to the biblical parting of the Red Sea.  It consists of rows of 78 giant metal flap gates that will rest flat on the seabed until tides rise to a dangerous level. At this point the gates will be filled with compressed air and rise up to block the waters.


The US$6.7 billion project will put gates across the three inlets of Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia, which connect the Venice Lagoon to the Adriatic Sea and control the ebb and flow of the tide. Together with other measures such as coastal reinforcement, the raising of quaysides and paving as well as improvement of the lagoon environment, MOSE will reduce the risks Venice faces from floods and morphological degradation. The marshy Venice Lagoon has deepened over the years and loses some one million cubic metres of sediments annually due to natural events and human actions.

Purveyors of sustainability


In 2009 The Venice Sustainability Advisory Panel (VSAP), an international group of experts in environmental sustainability was created to advise key authorities and decision-makers on how to prepare regular formal assessments of the environmental sustainability of the Venice Lagoon and its surrounding regions, taking into account the specific social and economic drivers of environmental change in the region.  An important conclusion was that ultimately, the creation of operational and research organizations designed to work closely together could establish Venice as a world centre for studies of the sustainability of human-dominated lagoon ecosystems. The idea is that interdisciplinary science should be connected with practical conservation management applications to plan, record and monitor Venice’s ecosystem services.  The following mindmap sets out an educational framework for an ecosystem services management plan based on the attached sustainability report.
Denis Bellamy,
Mar 8, 2016, 3:26 AM
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