Venice’s worst autumn floods in more than half a century have given new urgency to a perennial question: how can one of the world’s best known yet most fragile cities be better managed and protected?
This Sunday Venetians will vote in a consultative referendum on whether to give the lagoon city autonomy over its government — cutting Venice’s administrative ties to the Italian mainland.
After the floods, this seemingly dry subject of local governance has become a rallying point for residents’ anguish over the problems that are submerging Venice: vast cruise ships in the lagoon, a history of corrupt local politics, dysfunctional rubbish collection leaving an almost permanent stench in its alleyways and the pressure of 20m tourists a year on its fragile ecosystem.
For Giorgio Suppiej, who a few days ago sloshed through the water in waders near the La Fenice opera house to attend a debate on the future of the city, a Yes vote is essential to give the city the chance of more power over its affairs.
“We are living in exceptional times. We are still living in a city submerged by water and it is not clear when or how the waters will subside,” said Mr Suppiej. “At the very least the hope is that a new management of the city would provide the wake-up call we need to tackle afresh our problems.”
Venice and its 250,000 residents are part of a wider council area that includes its mainland neighbours, the industrial town of Mestre and port hub of Marghera. The two municipalities have shared a single mayor and council since 1926.
But residents of Venice in favour of a “Yes” vote argue that changing this structure will allow them to prioritise the city’s needs when it comes to preventing floods or controlling numbers of cruise ships and tourists.
The idea of more autonomy for Venice is longstanding. Sunday’s referendum is the fifth in 40 years. The last vote, in 2003, failed because of low turnout.
But many longtime residents say November’s devastating floods, which submerged 80 per cent of the city and caused hundreds of millions of euros of damage, have changed their view. They say a slow response by national and local politicians shows why it is now time to take control — and prevent La Serenissima becoming a 21st century Atlantis.
Anger at local politicians remains high among Venice’s residents since a 2014 graft probe revealed vast cross-party political bribe taking and money laundering centred on the building of a flood prevention system, which has so far cost an estimated €5.3bn.
Several high ranking officials were convicted in 2017 of bribe-taking and money laundering and sentenced to jail — but the flood prevention system was still not ready to prevent this month’s damage.
On a recent early morning walk a week after the floods’ peak, bloated drowned rats bobbed up and down in foul-smelling water. Residents trudging through the water in waders were one of the few sounds in a city where tourism has fallen off starkly. Entrances to grand palazzi were partially submerged by water.
“This city is tired of being played. There is a rape and plunder of the city taking place,” said Marco Gasparinetti, a Venetian and writer of the Venezia Mio Futuro blog.
Support for reorganising the governance of Venice is not limited to residents on one side of the causeway between the city and the mainland. In Mestre, many see advantages in being separated from their better-known neighbour, with its very different concerns.
“A city on land has different problems from a city on the water,” said Laura Facchini, of Mestre Mia, a campaign for a “Yes” vote. Ms Facchini said Mestre needed “a serious policy of cultural integration” to cope with increasing numbers of foreign migrants from Africa and China. Such needs would be better served if its local council were autonomous from Venice, she argued.
In the “No” camp, local politicians have closed ranks and are backing a vote for continuity. They argue that a bigger council can better resolve complex problems, from the impact of tourism to the effects of climate change.
Nicola Pellicani, of the Democratic party which is one of the coalition partners in Italy’s national government, rejected what he calls “utopic” claims that a Yes vote would lead to Venice becoming something akin to the Vatican.
“The idea that Venice is going to become a city state is complete rubbish,” said Mr Pellicani, struggling to be heard above heckling and hissing at a meeting with residents this month.
For some locals the debate over the referendum is yet another sign of Venice’s elite seeking to shore up their privilege.
Francesco Casagrande, an unemployed university graduate in army fatigues, sat on a stool lapped by water in Campo Santo Stefano, with a banner saying “No Cruise Ships”. A resident of Marghera, Mr Casagrande said he could not afford to live in Venice as it was being taken over by accommodation rented out to tourists. But he said he would still vote “No” to the referendum.
“It is just a way to create double the number of seats on the local council for rich people,” he said.