The dirty truth about Venice’s canals

Extraordinarily high tides near Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio (photo credit: Jen Varni)


Talk long enough to anyone who has worked in the Venetian hospitality industry and he or she will inevitably get around to mentioning (with a roll of the eyes) the time a foreign tourist inquired by phone about on-site parking for their car at a hotel near Piazza San Marco.
Perhaps, however, this bit of ignorance isn’t quite as absurd as it seems to Venetians. Perhaps, even in this age of Google maps, it simply remains impossible for many of us to truly conceive of a city with canals instead of streets until we actually see it in person: squint our own two eyes against the water’s glare and smell its particular odor. 
Perhaps… But the typically fetid smell of the canals brings me to another bit of ignorance that still surprises me whenever I see it, and utterly appalls Venetians. I hope I won’t incur the wrath of the tourist board for revealing the following secret but—Dear Reader, are you sitting down?—this beautiful city is quite literally surrounded by an open-air sewage system.
It’s obvious, right? It was one of the first things that struck me about the city when I visited as a teen one broiling July. Though I didn’t know it back then in 1982, the city had neglected to clean the canals for some 30 or 40 years and the accumulated, um, matter thickly coating the canals impeded the tides from naturally flushing everything out as they had for centuries before. I wouldn’t have dipped a toe into that foul-smelling water for all the gelato in town. So when, the day after I arrived, Italians suddenly started leaping off bridges into it, cannon-balling furious gondoliers and their hapless passengers, I was shocked. Italy had just won their 3rd World Cup. 
These days the canals are once again cleaned regularly—roughly every decade—but I still wouldn’t swim in them. Nor would any Venetians I know. Tourists are another matter…
Unlike its much younger Southern California namesake, the Venice I live in is not a beach town and it’s as illegal for men to walk around it, or lounge around it, without shirts as it is for women. Moreover, Venetians are offended by those who traipse around the city bare-chested or in bikini tops; they find it disrespectful to the city itself. So imagine how they felt about the 6 tourists, clad only in trunks and bikinis, who gained  a certain international celebrity for treating Piazza San Marco—the official civic center of Venetian public life for 1,000 years—as their own personal swimming pool in the extraordinarily high tide of November 12, 2012.
  Pedestrians can wear rubber boots or step onto temporary wooden walkways

  Pedestrians can wear rubber boots or step onto temporary wooden walkways

While I find that Venetians take high tides much more easily in their stride than Los Angelenos do a mild rain shower, they find little amusing about the exceptional high tides that have struck the city with increasing frequency. Three of the highest 15 recorded since 1923 have occurred in the last 4 months alone.
Moreover, those 6 tourists were swimming quite literally in an overflowed sewer!
True, there is a long-standing city ordinance that requires that human waste no longer be routed directly into the canals but into a three-part filtration system. I know two people who have gone to considerable expense to install such systems. Our own apartment is connected to one. But a third friend, a Venetian architect whose family history in the lagoon stretches back nearly as long as the city’s, is having none of it. For one thing, the filtration system is a never-ending expense, as the solid waste that accumulates in its last reservoir must be peridiocally emptied into a tanker boat and hauled away.
For another, any pollution problem in the canals and wider lagoon is not because of human waste, he says, which has always been flushed into it, but because of chemicals released into it in the modern era. In fact, studies have shown that chemicals from both industry and common detergents used in the home interfere with the normal breakdown of organic waste.
“Le feci,” my friend emphasized, “are not the problem!”
But, surely, I asked him, there must be far less waste emptied into the canals these days. After all, the tanker boats devoted to the emptying of pozzi neri (the “black wells” in which waste is collected) are prominently featured in Michael Dibdin’s Venice mystery novel Dead Lagoon, which was published in 1994.
No, no, my friend replied, about 90% of human waste still goes directly into the canals. But that’s not the problem! he repeated.  
It it a very good reason, though, for tourists not to swim in the canals—as they are sometimes known to do in the summer—nor in the Piazza in the hide tides of winter.
And, actually, it’s also another very good reason to marvel at this most marvelous of human creations called Venice. We sometimes tend to think of the city as a symbol of humanity imposing its will upon inhospitable Nature. That’s certainly part of the story. In fact, as John Keahey points out in his excellent book Venice Against the Sea, if the Venetians had not undertaken the massive public works project of diverting various silt-carrying rivers around their shallow lagoon in the Middle Ages, one scientist estimates that the city would have found itself surrounded by land 500 years ago and, today, the only obstacle to parking your car near Piazza San Marco would be the inevitably high rates of the garages.
But it’s not nearly the whole story. The city’s open sewage system continues to function so well in spite of so many short-sighted industrial alterations to the lagoon over the last century, because its canals, large and small, follow the paths of natural waterways that pre-dated human settlement. The canals are a symbol of the labor-intensive but extremely delicate balance that Venetians have maintained with Nature over the centuries. A delicate balance that seems ever more imperiled.
So the next time you find yourself in Venice being awed by its art and architecture and subsiding grandeur, give a thought to those who created and those who still maintain the picturesque but still so elementally-functional canals. Don’t frolic in them or their water, any more than you would a baptismal font, or any other body of water whose noble purpose is to carry away our impurities, to support our life’s actitivities, to protect us from hostile forces, as Venice’s lagoon has quite literally done for most of its long history. 
For more about living in Venice, visit Steven Varni’s blog:

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