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 high water out. 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, along 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. When completed, the system, consisting of 78 independent modular gates at the three inlets that link the lagoon to the Adriatic (at the Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia) will rest horizontally on the seafloor. When there's a danger of flooding from a storm or acqua alta (which occurs four times a year), they can be filled with compressed air and block nearly all of the incoming high water (up to three metres) within half an hour.
The need for a control centre has led to the careful restoration of a number of ruined buildings in the Arsenale to use as a control centre and offices for MOSE, where some of the 4000 people employed in the project will continue to work after the flood barriers are completed.
MOSE was initially slated to be finished in 2012; the current finishing date is 2022, while the cost has run over €6.5 billion and counting) was tainted by scandal. In 2014 it was tainted with 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 32 politicians, businessmen and power brokers, helping to hush any environmentalist objections to the scheme. One was the left wing mayor of Venice Giorgio Orsoni, who resigned over the issue (although he was acquitted three years later).
Work 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, the Conca di navigazione, has been 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 MOSE's service buildings and will also have storm ports to shelter boats locked outside of the lagoon.
At the time of writing the project is 97% complete, and although the Venetians have pleaded with Rome to send more funds and finish it (had the barrier been completed, it might have spared the city the worst floods in a decade on 29 October 2018), the current completion date is 2022.
When it is finally finished, MOSE will be operated, not by computers (as in Rotterdam) but by humans from a new high tech control centre in the Arsenale. Some say it will be the salvation of Venice others warn of unintended environmental consequences, and of mold and marine life already eating away at it. At worst it may turn out to be a very expensive boondoogle. Stay tuned.
Images by Dimitry B., Magistrato alle Acque/Consorzio Venezia Nuova