Nürnberg flooded, 1909

The Bavarian city of Nürnberg (Nuremberg) has been flooded quite often over it’s history. The flood of 1909 is particularly memorable and the most severe flood that has been documented in photography. The visual similarity to Venice, apparent in pictures like these, has been noted quite often by contemporaries.

“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 case for culture

In a very nice, comprehensive and extensive article, Dutch author Thijs Weststeijn, describes the role of culture in forming a climate conscience. The article not only describes the threats to cultural heritage the world over, particularly flooding, and the efforts to save it, but he also makes a case for using cultural heritage to create awareness and ultimately climate action. Here are two short quotes:

“Perhaps an awareness that the building blocks of one’s own civilisation are under threat might mobilise new groups, for whom the disappearing of coral reefs, say, remains too abstract or remote. Behavioural scientists point out that, when confronted with overwhelming amounts of scientific data, such as that continuously produced by climatologists, people actually become less likely to take action (see Kari Norgaard’s book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, 2011). Instead, people have to be affected on a deep emotional, psychological and spiritual level, which suggests that the layered sensations we experience in encounters with heritage – historical connection, aesthetic appreciation, and solastalgia – might motivate people in new ways.”

“A focus on cultural heritage also offers new perspectives on human agency in the face of the climate crisis. This heritage has, after all, been made by humans and so by human hands we should be able to save it. Besides, historic heritage, while transcending the lifespan of one or more human generations, is less intractable to us than the ‘deep time’ associated with the evolution and extinction of coral reefs and other endangered creatures.”

Weststeijn also sketches future scenarios for cities and cultural sites in the following excerpt:

“One can imagine the partially flooded centres of VeniceHoi An or Miami becoming particularly attractive tourist destinations for the duration of their disappearing (in a state of ‘dark euphoria’ described by the futurist Bruce Sterling in 2009), before turning into a diver’s paradise. And perhaps from the perspective of ‘deep time’ the man-made polder landscape was never a feasible project to begin with, and Dutch hydrologists might eventually, with a sigh of relief, surrender their lands back to the sea. Such visions are not necessarily long-term scenarios since, now, even the possibility of handing our heritage to the next generation appears impossible.”

M-o-s-e

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.

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.