A few nights ago I bathed with hundreds of strangers in the therapeutic waters of San Marco. Acqua alta, or high water, is the phenomenon of flooding much of the city of Venice. Waters from the Adriatic—affected by tidal action, barometric pressure, and the Bora winds of winter and spring—ebb through the storm drains and flood the canals, slowly returning Venice to the sea. While there have been a few extreme occasions in the past 1000 years where the acqua alta has had disastrous results, generally it is treated as just another of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of this city.
Radio alerts and word of mouth carry the news when tides are predicted to overtake the constructed islands of Venice. There are maps and occasional plaques in a few key places around Venice that indicate routes that are above the 120cm water line. In cases such as a few nights ago, alarm sirens blare throughout the city, bouncing off of pavement and rising through the slots between buildings. Gangways are constructed along the main pedestrian routes to allow people to continue to navigate the city with dry feet. Hotels give plastic bags to their guests who wrap their shoes while residents tuck their pants into rubber boots. Visitors to the city make videos as the water begins to bubble through the drains and transform Piazza San Marco and other campi into pools.
As a student of landscape architecture, this situation is fascinating. We have entire classes devoted to the management of storm water and landform construction that emphasize the art of preventing buildings from standing in pools of water. While the original architects of Venice did not predict these high waters, they did use materials and techniques that could tolerate being inundated by the brackish lagoon. Acqua alta has become much more common in the past century. Nearby industries have drained the aquifer, contributing to the subsidence of the Venetian islands. The diversion of rivers, the closing of many of the natural lagoon outlets, and the loss of the absorbent salt marshes are also factors in this disturbance. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, protecting Venice from rising seas as global climate change melts the polar ice reserves is an obvious concern. What can be gleaned from the culture and ecology of La Serenisma that might be transferred to other coastal cities as the world begins to cope with high water?
For many, acqua alta is not cause for alarm. The small orchestras that line the piazza continue to perform and people wander around with gelato in one hand and camera in the other. In fact, a general atmosphere of celebration accompanied my high water experience. After a long day in studio working through design problems to improve navigability in Murano, my peers and I were looking forward to spending an evening in deep water. We found galoshes in the closets of our apartments and we met at Piazza San Marco as the tides were beginning to ebb into the city. Venice, which always smells of the salty lagoon, had taken-on an even more penetrating odor of the sea. On most evenings, the city is congested with pedestrians and the light drizzle that was falling did nothing to drive people inside. Like me, the flooding of the city intrigues people visiting Venice. Is it a fascination with disaster that brings us out into knee-high cold water? Or is it the opportunity to connect to the surrounding water that is always visible yet never actually experienced as a tactile phenomenon?
Venice, which is always surreal, becomes even more of a dream as the lights are mirrored off of normally dry surfaces and the green water laps at the feet of sculptures. Hundreds of people splashed through the rising tides and danced a slow waltz through the pools. Children and adults alike played, splashing one another and running full force through the water. Wine and grappa flowed between strangers. People brought out their dogs to exercise them in the flood. Some tourists chose to stay on the higher ground but many others didn’t care that storm drains were backing up over their shoes. My friends and I spent hours laughing at—and contributing to—the antics all around. The separation between the canals and the land disappeared as we waded through the city. Beautiful girls climbed lamp poles; others turned cartwheels or performed floating tricks. Strangers became friends and laughter echoed in the wake of wailing sirens. The urban fabric around Venice, which has become somewhat familiar to me by now, was rendered once again strange, exotic, and unpredictable.