Friday, July 20, 2012


Noon on the 25th of March 421.

Many believe it is on that date, at that exact time, that the Venetian Islands were born. In truth, the little islets of sand and coachgrass had been forming for hundreds of years. The two hundred square miles of salt water, most only waist deep, that criss-crossed with deeper channels became studded with shoals formed by silt that the Brenta, Sile and other, far greater rivers like the Po and the Adige brought down from the Alps. It was an ecological event of the most natural kind.

The first settlers to this strange conglomerate of land came out of fear. Privileged, cultured people either from Illyria or of Antolian stock were living prosperous lives in a sparkling row of cities belonging to the Roman Empire, cities like Concordia, Aquilia, Padua and Altino. Living well…until the Barbarians came. When the Goths under Alaric swept down in 402, these people fled to the strange lumps of ground that sat waiting for them in the sea. There they found sanctuary, but more, they found life in a magical wonderland so to their liking, they never left.

It is in the days of March 421, as consuls from Padua established a permanent trading post on Rialto (one of the largest islets), that historians consider the birth of Venice. It was an event celebrated by the raising of a church dedicated to Saint James, a legend that lies at the root of the claim of the church of S. Giacomo di Rialto as the oldest in Venice.

When, just a few years later, Attila the Hun attacked Aquilia for three months and devastated the city, more refugees flocked to the islands, and the communities grew and began to prosper. The ingenious population built some of the most glorious palazzos and buildings known to man, built upon pilings, large wooden posts driven into the ooze that was the land, so close together they formed a supporting platform, a foundation of sorts, with their sawn-off tops.

Through countless wars with other countries, other Italian states and even the Vatican, Venice has survived and thrived as one of the world’s most beautiful places, a bounty of artistic and cultural magnificence.

It wasn’t until deep into the research for my second book, The Secret of the Glass, that I learned that Venice was dying, sinking into the very waters in which it had been held dear for so long. For the last thousand years the islets have been sinking at an average rate of seven centimeters per year. With the addition of global warming, some recent statements have reported a drop of up to twenty-four centimeters in the last century alone. In March of this year, a report from NBC News reported that not only is Venice sinking, but it appears to be tilting as well. According to measurements taking over the last ten years, the islands are moving eastward a millimeter or two per year. And while a series of dams are nearly completion, built to address the sinking problem, this new research calls into question whether or not these efforts will be enough.

What has drawn me back to Venice, back to the glorious land that captured my mind and my heart a few years ago, was a recent article in The Guardian, which, in essence, sites yet another threat to this magnificent place, one as insidious and dangerous as the Goths themselves…greed.

Despite the efforts of UNESCO (United Nation Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) cruise ships continue to force themselves up the canals of Venice. According to the Guardian article, the head of the local council, Giorgio Orsoni, worries about "the damage to the city's foundations from ships passing through the Giudeccia canal, only 10 metres deep. The water they displace acts as a pump for the seabed, shaking even the San Marco basilica".

As stated so well by Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO assistant director general for culture, “"Above all we must think in terms of heritage. The city is an icon.”

For more information on saving Venice, please visit UNESCO ( and Save Venice (

Pictures in order of appearance: The Piazza San Marco with the Campanile and the Doge’s Palace; San Marco Basilica, The Rialto Bridge

No comments: