A Republic at Low Tide

This week, Venice was inundated by the waters of the Adriatic, two inches shy of the record flooding of 1966 which was 76” or 6’ 3”.  Italians call it acqua alta, high water, a euphemism in keeping with Venice’s nickname La Serenissima, meaning “calm, peaceful, and untroubled.”  But, six feet of water is a disaster in a city that already has made living on the ground floor risky.

What angers Venetians is that a flood control system was scheduled to protect the city in 2018.  Named MOSE (“Moses”), a contraction of Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, “Experimental Electromechanical Module,” the system consists of underwater barriers that will rise when the Venice lagoon is threatened.  Under construction for sixteen years, MOSE has been the victim of environmental lawsuits, cost overruns, and local corruption.  Now projected to cost $7.7 billion with a revised completion date of 2022, it is the last hope for the beleaguered city.

It may not be politically correct to state that the Italian Republic, now nearing its 74th year, is making the Fascist era look supremely competent.  An old-timer assures me that if Mussolini had to build MOSE, it would have been done and operating a decade ago.  Perhaps this can be explained away as an advantage of dictatorship but it is more than that, for those who have studied history know the value of national will and national unity whether its Italian, American, or Chinese history.

The Italian Republic was founded to be weak and divisive, out of fear of another Mussolini. France had four republics before its current Fifth Republic.  The French Third Republic, the one Hitler rolled over in six weeks, was closer to what Italy has now.  [To better understand the Italian Republic, see The Italic Way issue XLIII on italic.org, “Research Library.”]

I doubt if there will ever be a Second Italian Republic, especially in view of Italy’s integration in the European Union. But, this republic needs to complete MOSE quickly just to see if it works.  After the Morandi Bridge collapse in Genoa and the shameful foundering of the Costa Concordia, Italy’s reputation needs a boost.

Flood gates have been built in other vulnerable cities without scandal or absurd delays. Rotterdam has two swinging gates to stop storm surges.  The system took six years to build, and  was successfully put to use during a storm in 2007.

New Bedford, MA, which suffered disastrous damage from hurricanes in 1938 and 1954, now has a Hurricane Barrier that took four years to complete in 1966.

London has been protected since 1984 with an elaborate line of underwater barriers, similar to MOSE, that cost only $1.6 billion.

If MOSE works, it will be a major feat of Italian engineering. Unlike the other floodgates cited above, MOSE will be utilized more frequently due to Venice’s vulnerability.  Not only are floods more frequent, but the city is sinking – some 9 inches since the early 1900s.  The water table under Venice is slowly being drained by nearby industrial use, which has contributed to the sinking, and climate change is raising sea levels.  MOSE will be getting a heavy duty workout.

So, why didn’t Mussolini have this problem with Venice? The only flooding on his shift was in 1936 with a modest record of 58”.  Before him, there was flooding in 1879 (54”) and 1916 (53.5”).  All the really bad stuff happened after World War II.  In fact, during Mussolini’s tenure Italy suffered few, if any, natural disasters, especially earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Vesuvius only got active in 1944 when the Allies controlled southern Italy.  Mussolini, it seems, had the “mandate of heaven” (nature-wise), as the Chinese say.

I don’t know enough about the technical problems delaying MOSE or the partisan politics affecting its way forward, but I read reports that some of the equipment already laying under the lagoon is eroding from lack of maintenance and use. And it seems that the Republic’s “national will” is more focused on recovering Italy’s stolen art – a Greek statue here, an Etruscan vase there – than saving Venice or reclaiming Italy’s world leadership.

Mussolini once lamented that Italy had too many opera singers. Perhaps a successful “MOSES” will drown out the fat lady and give Italians a real accomplishment. -JLM

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