“Let Venice sink.”

In a 1971 special edition of Architectural Review devoted to the lagoon city author Jan Morris proposes to simply let the city sink. It’s a polemical claim, but one that takes the ambivalences and dilemmata of historic heritage seriously. A different, longer version of the text was printed in the New York Times on July 20, 1975. It is a wonderful piece of polemic and speculative journalism on the city that, according to the words of Jan Morris, “for a thousand years has occupied a unique position in the imagination, the affection and the distaste of all the nations.”
Both version of the text are online here (1971) and here (1975). And in 2023 Catherine Bennett wrote a nice piece for Wired magazine to review Jan Morris original position, which is also online.

Cover from the 1971 special edition of Architectural Review.

Lo Sposalizio del Mare – the Marriage to the Sea

Every year at Ascension Day (Ascensione di Cristo, or “Festa della Sensa” as the Venetians say, it is celebrated in May) the Republic of Venice celebrates itself but also it’s intimate relationship to the sea.

In the age of Renaissance the head of state, called the Doge, would be rowed out to the island Sant Elena in a boat. Upon entering the open sea, he would throw a golden ring in to the water as a sign of matrimony to the Mediterranean Sea.

This tradition stopped when the independent republic dissolved in the so called Fall of the Republic in 1797. Since the 1960’s Venice has picked up the tradition and the ritual is enacted anualy by the mayor of Venice.

The tradition is believed to be more then 1.000 years old and probably has origins in even older pagan rituals. There are various related stories and rituals of sacrificial offerings to the sea, often with the intent of making it more lenient for sea travels.

Painting by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) from 1745

See the respective Wikipedia article here.

Values for survival: Vanishing homelands Bangladesh and Venice

I first became aware of the presence of climate refugees from Bangladesh in Venice, Italy, through a remark, Amitav Ghosh made in his book “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” from 2016. There the Indian-US-American novelist notes that Bengali was the second most heard langauge in Venice, due to the many merchants and shop clerks originally from Bangladesh and other Indian regions.

Why Venice? Ghosh suspects that “coastal people” seek refuge in other coastal towns, making the lagoon city Venice a preferable destination for Bangladeshis in Europe. While this seems like a convincing argument, and makes for a poetic story within the overall climate narrative of his book, I am a bit skeptical of this observation. While it is certainly true that the Bangladeshi community ranges among the ten largest migrant communities in Italy – with numbers anywhere between 146.000 and 400.000 – I have not found any indication that Bangladeshis were more likely to settle in Venice than other major cities like Rome or Milan. Venice has a long history of migration and currently an estimated 15% migrant citizens. Whether Ghosh’s observation is accurate or not, it is clear that the inhabitants of both places, Bangladesh and Venice, have a shared history and possibly understanding and knowledge of floodings.

image by H. Mamataz from “Vanishing Homelands”

The Oral History project “Vanishing Homelands”, that was realized by journalist and documentary film maker George Kurian, migration acitvist Hasna Hena Mamataz and architect Marco Moretto for the 17. Biennale di Venezia, brings the two communities together: native Venetians and migrated Bangladeshis. I find the project to be a great example of comparative urbanism and a very fine piece of climate journalism. The three authors practice the same approach, I am pursuing with this project: to connect communities challenged by climate change in different parts of the globe through shared experiences and biographical and cultural backgrounds. I am very thankful to their work, as it shows quite lively, how – to use George Kurian’s words – we can try to “meet each other respectfully as equals, and how can we interact meaningfully, to find values for survival?”

Image by V. Rossi and G. Moretto from “Vanishing Homelands”

Their text focuses on biographical reports and the immediate experience of flooding, economic hardship and flight, omiting any furtherer analysis or speculation, how this shared experience can create political solidarity and emancipation. This seems like the natural next step, to formulate a supra-national alliance of front line communities like the Bangladeshi and the Venetians based on and building on journalistic work like the one by Kurian, Mamataz and Moretto.

The full text of Vanishing Homelands is available here. All images are from the text.


The flood protection system that was installed in 2021 to protect Venice from rising sea level effects is named MOSE (for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico). The name was chosen to allude to the story of Moses dividing the Red Sea to save the judaic tribe in the Jewish and Christian Old Testament. The plans for MOSE were already introduced in the 1980s but it’s completion took amlmost 40 years.

A flooded St Mark’s Square by St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, 15 November 2019. Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty
Venice during highwater. © Andrea Merola/dpa
The M-O-S-E Sea Barrier

In the same manner the sea wall that is currently in planning for Jakarta is named – and shaped – after an ancient myth: The giant bird Garuda.

Both projects show, that the municipalities believed in the role of cultural history in the political communication of climata adaptation measures.


One of the best known folktales from Sicilly is the story of the amphibic boy Colapesce, who saves the city Messina (or the island of sicily according to some texts) from drowning. There are several divergent versions of the story, apparently the oldest one dating back to the 12. Century and this is also the one commonly found online.

I found another version, which tells about the rape of Colapesce’s mother by a dolphin while she went swimming in the sea. There are numerous similar stories of sexual encounters – some romantic and consentient, others forced and violent – between women and sea animals like seal, fish or whales from Alaska, Scandinavia as well as the Mediterranean.

I could not find an english translation of this version but here is the more common and much shorter version as can be found online in english:

“There once was the son of a fisherman named Nicola (Cola) who lived in Messina. Cola spent his days swimming in the sea and exploring the underwater world as if it was his own. His mother didn’t approve of this pastime, since Cola would often release fish caught for food back into the sea. One day, filled with anger, she yelled at him “Cola! May you turn into a fish!”.

As time passed, his skin turned scaly, and his feet and hands began to look like fins. Cola’s fate quickly became the talk of town all over Sicily, and even caught the attention of the King. The King, incredulous that Cola’s condition could be true, made the trip to Messina to see for himself.

Testing the young Cola, the king threw a gold cup into the sea and ordered him to retrieve it. Cola did as he was asked, and the King repeated the same test twice more, using even more valuable objects. For the last test, rather than the gold cup, the King threw his very own crown into a deeper part of the sea. While Cola was searching for the crown, he saw that his island, Sicily, was held up by only three columns. Two of the columns were intact, but the third was perilously filled with cracks and looked ready to collapse at any moment. Cola decided to stay in the ocean and take the place of that third column so that his beloved Sicily wouldn’t fall. To this day, Colapesce holds up that part of the island. Every so often, between the regions of Messina and Catania, the earth trembles. Locals say that there’s no need for concern— it’s only Colapesce moving the island from one tired shoulder to the other.”

from this site.

Venice flooding from a duck’s perspective

In the Donald Duck story “Zio Paperone e la deriva dei monumenti by Italian comic artists Giorgio Pezzin and Giorgio Cavazzano, Uncle Scrooge together with Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie save the historic buildings of Venice from rising floods.

Original Italian cover

The story first appeared as early as 1977 and has all the ingredients of our current debates about the protection of cultural heritage from climate change. Uncle Scrooge suggests to put the historic buildings on large floating pillows that would rise with the flood and lower again when the waters receed. The story was published in over a dozen countries, the german version alone saw 6 reprints until 2013.

The following images are from a German edition:

Thanks to Tobias Bulang and Janet Grau for the lead and their kid’s comic book.

Picturing disaster in the 18. Century

 In 1783 an unsual seismic event sequence occured along the Strait of Messina between the island Sicily and mainland Italy. Katrin Kleemann from LMU Munich writes: “Between 5. February and 28. March 1783, five strong earthquakes shook Calabria and Sicily and were followed by hundreds of aftershocks in the following years. The earthquakes caused ten tsunamis.”

That same year additional earthquakes were reported from western France and Geneva on July 6., in Maastricht and Aachen on August 8., and in northern France on December 9. This was not too long after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit Lisbon in 1755.

All these events were widely communicated and written about all across Europe. It was the age of enlightment and the disasters challenged religious, philosophical and political views of the time but also sparked artistic creativity.

Societies were in high demand for images of the disasters and artists, who naturally could not work from first hand observation and experience, were forced to invent formal solutions for this problem.

One strategy was to combine different temporal levels in one painting: the moment before the event, the aftermath, and sometimes even events that had no logical connection other than in the public mind.

Katrin Kleemann writes about this image: “This hand-colored copper engraving portrays the Strait of Messina from the north at the moment the earthquake struck. To the left it depicts the coast of Calabria, to the right the harbor of Messina, and to the far right an erupting Mount Etna, although it did not actually erupt in 1783”, but in 1780 and then again in 1787.

Another striking example is the painting »Vue
de la Palazzata de Messine au moment du tremblement
de terre« by French artist Jean Houel.

Hans-Rudolf Meier writes: “Jean Houel published in his »Voyage pittoresque« one year after the earthquake in the Sicilian port. Houel, who had traveled in Sicily before the earthquake and had not himself seen the extent of the destruction—to say nothing of the event itself—successfully recorded before and after in one picture by depicting the palace in the margins as a ruin, but showing it still intact in the middle of the picture. Here the special quality of buildings for impressive representations of the effect of a disaster becomes evident: on a building the sudden transformation from a consummate cultural achievement to a ruin can be perceived as a symbol of transience. In Houel’s engraving the observer, similar to today’s television viewer, witnesses the moment of destruction from a secure distance. The churning sea in the foreground cannot bridge this distance either, but
it is intended to suggest something of the danger—and
thus the authenticity—to which the fictive recorder of
the scene might have been exposing himself.


Katrin Kleemann, Living in the Time of a Subsurface Revolution: The 1783 Calabrian Earthquake Sequence (2019)

Hans-Rudolf Meier, The Cultural Heritage of the Natural Disaster: Learning Processes and Projections from the Deluge to the »Live« Disaster on TV (2007)

All things have turned into a boundless sea – The myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha

In the ancient Greek and Roman mythologie there is also a story of the great deluge and of an arch. Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD) retells it in his “Metamorphosis. Book 1”. Infuriated by mankind’s brutality, the highest of the Gods, Jupiter, announces: „You might well believe that men had sworn to act as criminals. Let them all quickly pay the penalty they richly merit! So stands my judgment.” Jupiter than chooses his weapons of destruction. He shies away from fire, as he fears that the „ sacred eather, by some accident, may be set on fire from so many flames“.

“[…] So he sets aside
those weapons forged by hands of Cyclopes
and approves a different punishment—
he will send rains down from the entire sky
and wipe out mortal men beneath the waves.

So he immediately locks up North Wind
in Aeolus’ caves, along with any blasts
which scatter clouds collecting overhead,
and sends out South Wind, flying on sodden wings,
his dreadful face veiled in pitch-black darkness,
his beard heavy with rain, water flowing
from his hoary locks, mists sitting on his forehead,
his flowing robes and feathers dripping dew.

When Jupiter stretches his hand and strikes
the hanging clouds, heavy, crashing rainstorms
start pouring down from heaven. Iris,
Juno’s messenger, dressed in various colours,
gathers the water up and brings it back
to keeps clouds well supplied. Crops are flattened,
fond hopes of grieving farmers overthrown,
their long year’s work now wasted and in vain.
And Jupiter’s rage does not confine itself
to his own sky. For Neptune, his brother,
god of the azure sea, provides him help
with flooding which augments the pouring rain.
He summons the rivers to a meeting
and, after they have entered their king’s home,
says to them:

“This is not now the moment
for a long speech from me. What we require
is for you to discharge all your power.
Open your homes, remove all barriers,
and let your currents have free rein to flow.”

Neptune gave his orders, and the rivers

return, relax the mouths of all their springs,
and race down unobstructed to the sea.
Neptune himself with his trident strikes the land.
Earth trembles and with the tremor lays bare
the sources of her water. Streams spread out
and charge through open plains, sweeping away
all at once groves, planted fields, cattle herds,
men, and homes, along with sacred buildings
and their holy things. If any house remains
still standing and is able to resist

such a huge catastrophe, nonetheless,
waves higher than the house cover the roof,
and its towers, under pressure, collapse
beneath the surge. And now the land and sea
are not distinct—all things have turned into
a boundless sea which has no ocean shore.
Some men sit on hill tops, others in boats,
pulling oars here and there, above the fields
which they just ploughed not long before. One man
now sails above his crops or over roofs
of sunken villas, another catches fish
from high up in an elm. Sometimes, by chance,
an anchor bites into green meadowland,
or a curved keel scrapes against a vineyard
submerged beneath the sea. And in those places
where slender she-goats have grazed on grasses,
misshapen sea calves let their bodies rest.
Nereïds are astonished at the groves,
cities, and homes lying beneath the waves.
Dolphins have taken over in the woods,
racing through lofty branches and bumping
into swaying oaks. Wolves swim among sheep.

Waves carry tawny lions and tigers.
The forceful, mighty power of the boar
is no help at all, nor are the swift legs
of the stag, once they are swept into the sea.
The wandering bird, after a long search
for some place to land, its wings exhausted,
falls down in the sea. The unchecked movement
of the oceans has overwhelmed the hills,
new waters beat against the mountain tops.
The deluge carries off most living things.
Those whom it spares, because food is so scarce,
are overcome by gradual starvation.

The fertile territory of Phocis,

while still land, separates Aonia
from Oeta, but when that flood took place
was still part of the sea, a wide expanse
of water which had suddenly appeared.
In that place there is a soaring mountain
which has two peaks striving to reach the stars.
Its summit rises high above the clouds.
Deucalion lands here in his small boat,
with the wife who shares his bed—for the sea
now covers every other place. They revere
Corycian nymphs and mountain deities
and prophetic Themis, too, the goddess
who at that time controlled the oracle.

No man was finer than Deucalion,
no man loved justice more, and no woman
had more reverence for gods than Pyrrha.
When Jupiter observes the earth submerged
in flowing water, with only one man left
from many thousands not so long before
and sees one woman from many thousands
a short while earlier, both innocent,
both worshippers of the gods, he scatters
the clouds, and once North Wind has blown away
the rain, he makes land open to the sky
and heaven to the earth. And the sea’s rage
does not persist. The lord of the ocean
sets down his three-pronged weapon, calms the seas,
and summons dark-blue Triton standing there
above the ocean depths, his shoulders covered
by native shells, and orders him to blow
his echoing horn and with that signal
summon back the flooding waters and the sea.
Triton raised his hollow shell, whose spirals
grow as they curl up from the base—that horn,
when filled with air in the middle of the waves,
makes coastlines under east and western suns
echo its voice—and thus, once the god’s lips,
dew dripping from his soaking beard, touched it,
and, by blowing, sounded out the order
to retreat, all the waters heard the call,
on land and in the sea. They listened to it,
and all of them pulled back. And so the sea
had a shore once more, full-flowing rivers
remained within their banks, floods subsided,
hills appeared, land rose up, and dry places
grew in size as the waters ebbed away.
After a long time, exposed tops of trees
revealed themselves, their foliage covered
in layers of mud. The world had been restored.

When Deucalion sees that earth is empty
and observes the solemn silence over
devastated lands, with tears in his eyes
he speaks to Pyrrha:

“O wife and sister,
the only woman alive, linked to me
by common race and family origin,
then by marriage, and by these dangers now,
we two are the total population
of the entire world, every place spied out
by the setting and rising sun. The sea
has taken all the others. Even now,
there is nothing secure about our lives,
nothing to give us sufficient confidence.
Those heavy clouds still terrify my mind.
O you for whom I have so much compassion,
how would you feel now, if you had been saved
from death without me? How could you endure
the fear all by yourself? Who would console
your grief? For if the sea had taken you,
dear wife, I would follow you, believe me,
and the sea would have me, too. How I wish
I could use my father’s skill to replace
those people and infuse a living soul
in moulded forms of earth. The human race
lives now in the two of us. Gods above
thought this appropriate, and we remain
the sole examples left of human beings.”

Deucalion said this, and they wept. They thought
it best to pray to the celestial god
and to seek help from sacred oracles.
Without delay they set off together
to the stream of Cephisus, whose waters
were not yet clear but by now were flowing
within their customary banks. And there,
once they have sprinkled their heads and garments
with libations, they approach the temples
of the sacred goddess, whose pediments
are stained with filthy moss and whose altars
stand without a fire. As they touch the steps
before the shrine, they both fall on the ground,
and kiss the cold stone, in fear and trembling.
Then they speak these words:

“O Themis, if gods
may be overcome with righteous prayers
and change their minds and if their anger
may be averted, reveal to us the art
by which destruction of the human race
may be repaired and, most gentle goddess,
assist our drowned condition.”

The goddess
is moved and through the oracle speaks out:

“Leave the temple. Cover your head, and loosen
the garments gathered around you. Then throw
behind your backs the bones of your great parent.”

For a long time they are both astonished.
Pyrrha’s voice is the first to break the silence,
refusing to act on what the goddess said.
Her mouth trembling, Pyrrha asks the goddess
to grant her pardon, for she is afraid
to offend her mother’s shade by throwing
her bones away. Meanwhile, they both review
the obscure dark riddle in the language
of the oracle they have been given,
examining the words between themselves.
And then the son of Prometheus consoles
Epimetheus’ daughter with these words
to reassure her:

“Either we have here
some subtle falsehood, or, since oracles
respect the gods and do not recommend
impious acts, our great mother is the Earth
and, I assume, what people call her bones
are those rocks in the body of the earth.
These stones are what we have been commanded
to throw behind our backs.”

Although the way
Deucalion has interpreted the words
encourages the Titan’s daughter, their hopes
are plagued by fears—that’s how much both of them
have doubts about the heavenly command.

But then what harm will there be in trying?
They go down, cover their heads, unfasten
their tunics, and, as they have been ordered,
throw stones behind where they are standing.
The stones—and who would ever think this true,
if old traditions did not confirm it?—
began to lose rigidity and hardness.
Gradually they softened, and then, once soft,
they took on a new shape. They grew larger
and before long acquired a gentler nature.
One could make out a certain human form,
but indistinctly, like the beginnings
of marble carvings not yet completed,
crude statues. But still, those pieces of them
which were earthy and damp from any moisture
were changed into essential body parts.
What was solid and inflexible changed
to bones, and what just a few moments before
had been veins remained, keeping the same name.
Soon, with the help of gods above, the stones
which the man’s hand had thrown took on the form
of men, and the stones the woman had cast
changed into women. That’s why human beings
are a tough race—we know about hard work
and provide the proof of those origins
from which we first arose.

I found the source in the book “Naturkatastrophen in der Antike” by Holger Sonnabend.
The Ovid Quote is from: http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/ovid/ovid1html.html

Italy; 1. Century AD; Pagan; Myth; Literature

Animals leave first

Stories often mention that the behaviour of animals announces approaching floods. This is an exceprt from a text by the Roman writer and natural scientist Claudius Aelianus (c. 175 – c. 235 AD) about the flood that submerged Helice (nothern Pelepones, Greece).

“Fünf Tage bevor Helike zugrunde ging, flohen alle Mäuse, Wiesel, Schlangen, Käfer und andere Tiere solcher Art in einer großen Anzahl entlang der Strasse, die nach Coria führt. Als die Einwohner Helikes sahen, dass dies geschah, wunderten sie sich; dennoch konnten sie keine Vermutung über den Grund machen. Die dem Auszug jener Tiere am nächsten gelegene Bürgerschaft, ging, nachdem sie nachts durch eine Erdbeben erschüttert worden war, zugrunde und wurde durch überflutende Wassermassen zerstört; und zugleich mit der Stadt gingen auch zehn Schiffe der Spartaner, die damals zufällig bei dem Hafen vor Anker lagen, durch dieselbe Überschwemmung des Meeres unter. Es geschieht, wenn die Gerechtigkeit den Dienst der Tiere nutzt, um Rache an gottlosen Menschen zu nehmen.” (Aelian, De natura animalium, 6, 19)


english translation:

“Five days before Helice perished, all the mice, weasels, snakes, beetles, and other such animals fled in great numbers along the road that leads to Coria. When the inhabitants of Helice saw this happening, they marveled; yet they could make no conjecture as to the reason. The citizenry nearest to the exodus of those beasts, after being shaken by an earthquake at night, perished and were destroyed by flooding waters; and ten Spartan ships, which happened to be at anchor near the port, perished along with the city by the same inundation of the sea. It happens when justice uses the ministry of animals to take vengeance on ungodly people." 
(Aelian, De natura animalium, 6, 19)