Severe Floods Threaten Venice’s Cultural Institutions
November 14 2019
By Manuel Charr
Venice is no stranger to water management and handling floodwater. However, many of its major galleries and museums have faced exceptional levels of flooding in November that have been described as apocalyptic by some. Flood levels reached almost two metres in the middle of the month meaning that some of the city’s most important cultural institutions were under severe threat. Although it was widely predicted that flooding would reach a level of about a metre and a half, the water that poured into the city from the nearby lagoon by far exceeded this. As a result, many began to worry about the historic treasures within Venice’s many museums and galleries – as well as the structural integrity of some of the historic buildings that house them.
During periods of high tide, water levels poured over the famous canals of Venice meaning that well over 85 per cent of the city was covered by water. Although Venice is one of the most popular tourist destinations anywhere in the world because of its well-known waterways, when the floodwaters became so widespread, it caused a huge amount of difficulty for the city’s authorities as well as those responsible for the many cultural institutions in the city. It is now estimated by Venice’s public institutions that the flooding has already caused damage to the value of hundreds of millions of euros. As well as museums, galleries and historic buildings that are open to the public, shops, privately owned buildings and many examples of public infrastructure have been water damaged.
To begin with, Saint Mark’s Square, one of the best-known piazzas anywhere in the world has been turned into a temporary lake following the flood, making it totally out of action for visitors. St. Mark’s Basilica, which faces the square, is one of the most visited cultural institutions in the whole of Venice. It is a remarkable feat of Venetian-Byzantine architecture and home to many cultural treasures within its walls. The crypt of the basilica has been inundated with floodwater, something that has only happened once before since the building was finished in the 11th century. Some now fear that even when the flooding has receded and the water has been pumped out that the building will never again be the same with considerable damage that may have occurred to its famous supporting columns.
Another important building in Venice that is visited by huge numbers of visitors each year is the Doge’s Palace. This building still serves an official role in the life of Venice despite also operating as one of the most-visited museums in the city. Its historic structure has been subject to high levels of water on the outside although it is not yet fully established how much water might have forced its way inside. Certainly, local boats and other craft have been seen knocking into the walls of the palace, something that must have caused concerns for the Venetian authorities. Nevertheless, the palace was able to report that none of the artworks that are housed in it – many of which are considered to be masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance – have been damaged by flooding.
Even though the full extent of the damage to some of Venice’s cultural institutions is not yet fully established, museum and gallery professionals in the city were taking no chances. Many of them closed to the public so that their treasures could be moved to higher ground, for example. In addition, such moves helped to ensure that no last-minute evacuations would be needed to ensure public safety. The Teatro La Fenice, for instance, shut its doors. The closure of Venice’s grandest and most famous opera house may have disappointed some tourists but the move was widely welcomed.
Likewise, the Palazzo Grassi, another extremely popular tourist attraction which is located on the banks of the Grand Canal, decided to keep the public out. This palace has a retrospective exhibition throughout November that features many of the artworks of the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. However, it was decided that public closure so that these and other works of art could be safeguarded was the best way forward. Equally, the baroque museum of the Ca’ Rezzonico – a former palace that is dedicated to 18th-century Venice – shut its doors, as did the Palazzo Mocenigo and the city’s Museum of Natural History. All of these closures were expected to be temporary.
The Venice Biennale, which lies in the Castello district, also took a precautionary line with its strategy. Although it was feared that the country pavilions, associated with the Biennale would be particularly badly affected, they were remarkably untouched compared with other parts of the city. Located in an area of parkland that is known locally as the Giardini, the Biennale appears to have not faced any significant water damage either to its artworks or its buildings. Indeed, the Arsenale and Giardini both reopened to public visitors even before other parts of the city had been cleared of floodwater. The slightly raised position of the Biennale may have accounted for this but it was feared that flooding in the area may cause tree damage and that some may even fall down in certain circumstances. These fears appear to have been unfounded.
A City On the Alert
Despite the widespread relief that Venice’s floods had not been as bad as they might have been – despite the higher than expected levels – some cultural institutions did not fare as well. The worst affected gallery in the city appears to have been the Ca’ Pesaro. This is home to the world-renowned International Gallery of Modern Art. Flooding water seems to have caused a short circuit in the museum’s electrical system. Consequently, a blaze began at the gallery although this was rapidly put out by firefighters. The institution said that a public space that connects the ground floor to the first floor had been subject to damage from the fire. Although it did not collapse, immediate steps were taken to shore it up and prevent further damage.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.