In the past century, the waters surrounding Venice went from being the city's unique 'sacred wall' to a menace threatening its very existence. In her short story Don't Look Now, Daphne du Maurier evoked a possible future:
The experts are right, he thought. Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying. One day the tourists will travel here by boat to peer down into the waters, and they will see pillars and columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone.
After the disastrous flood of 1966 that gave those words an aura of prophecy, the powers that be in Venice decided it was high time to see if there was a way to keep the city afloat. The answer was an innovative project called MOSE, proposed by Consorzio Venezia Nuova, a group of engineering and building firms. The initials cleverly stand as both an acronym for the project, Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico and for Moses, who parted the Red Sea (and who, with several other Old Testament figures, has a church dedicated to him in Venice).
Other barriers (the Thames Barrier and the Rotterdam Surge Barrier) were planned and put into action before work on MOSE even started, in 2003. The system, consisting of 78 independent modular gates, will be installed at the three inlet waterways that link the lagoon to the Adriatic. When filled with water, they will rest horizonally on the seafloor. When there's a danger of flooding, they can be filled with compressed air and block nearly of the incoming water in half an hour.
In 2014, MOSE (initially slated to be finished in 2102 and costing over €5 billion) was tainted by scandal. After a three year investigation, the Italian finance police discovered that the Consorzio Venezia Nuova had been paying out vast sums (an estimated €3 billion over 15 years) to over 30 politicians, businessmen and power brokers, including the mayor of Venice and the president of the region of the Veneto, helping to hush any environmentalist objections to the scheme.
Nevertheless, it is going ahead. In 2013, the first four modules of the MOSE were installed at the Lido inlet. Along with smaller locks at the other barriers, an enormous lock is being built on the Malamocco inlet, to allow giant cruise ships and oil tankers to sail in and out, even when the barriers are up. The northernmost inlet, the most complex and widest, feeding two canals, required the construction of an artificial island. This new island will be used for all of MOSE's service buildings and will also have storm ports to shelter boats locked outside of the lagoon.
The current completion date is 2016, and it will be operated, not by computers (as in Rotterdam) but by humans from a new high tech control centre in the Arsenale. Some say MOSE will be the salvation of Venice; others warn of unintended environmental consequences, and will turn out to be a very expensive boondoogle. Stay tuned.
Images by: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Creative Commons