November 2013

Vladislav Davidzon


An Interview with Anna Somers Cocks

This summer, Anna Somers Cocks published a detailed and damning call-to-arms in the New York Review of Books entitled “The Coming Death of Venice?” The article was the issue's lead piece and adorned its front page. It took apart the town council's long awaited but very disappointing management plan for the city, which failed to address three of its greatest challenges: the vast cruise ships; the huge visitor numbers that will have to be limited before long; and the implications of well-founded predictions of sea level rise.

What erupted next was a much needed debate and tempest that raged from the Venetian lagoon up the English Channel to London and over the Atlantic Ocean to New York. The article was followed by a lively exchange between the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, and Somers Cocks, in the letters page of the NYRB. On 31 September, Somers Cocks was awarded the 2013 Istituto Veneto prize for the best piece of journalism about Venice over the past year.

Somers Cocks was the founding editor of The Art Newspaper, launched in 1990, and is now CEO of U. Allemandi & Co. Publishing Ltd, its parent company. From 2000 to 2012, she was chairwoman of the Venice in Peril Fund, founded in Britain after the great flood of Venice in 1966 with a mission to its restore damaged monuments and works of art, but also to finance research into the city’s ecological problems. Last year, along with several like-minded members, including the famous writer and historian of Venice, John Julius, Lord Norwich, she resigned from the fund, wanting to try a more political approach to saving the city.

How did you first get involved with working on conserving Venice? Is there a direct connection between this and your work at The Art Newspaper?

As a child, I used to go to my grandmother's palazzo in Venice in the summer and I loved it from the first moment. Then, when I became a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum I got involved in lobbying for the protection of English country houses and learnt the importance of the right fiscal regime.

I was invited to join the Venice in Peril board in the 1980s and soon realised that the underlying problems of the city were so great that just conserving buildings was like putting a plaster on the wound of a person dying of fever.

The Art Newspaper is a highly political publication that looks at the underlying causes of events in the art world, so it certainly sharpened up my political awareness and also my understanding of the power of the media.

Are there any interesting and instructive differences in character or approach between you and your American counterparts at Save Venice and Venice Heritage Inc?

I have great admiration for both of them and the amounts of money they manage to raise by means of splendid parties and treasure hunts. They do not get involved in the underlying issues because they are prohibited from getting too political by the conditions of US tax exemption laws.

Tell us about the 2002 conference in Cambridge about Venice and its lagoon and what its findings were. What has happened since?

When I took over at the fund, there was bitter disagreement in Venice over whether mobile flood barriers between the sea and lagoon were necessary or not, to the extent that no one seemed to trust any of the science. So we decided to try and help by getting the issue back into rational and open scientific discussion. We financed a three-year fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, with a counterpart post in Venice, to gather together the vast amounts of important research that had been done and to take evidence from a wide range of scientists. This culminated in the 2002 three-day conference in Cambridge to which over 100 scientists came, from Venice, Padua, Britain, St Petersburg, the Netherlands, the USA and elsewhere to exchange and evaluate the information. At the end, the conclusion of those present was that mobile barriers were indispensable, but that they were not the final solution but gave us time to discover what to do next in response to environmental change.

The barriers are now 80% complete and €5.5 billion ($7.5 billion) have been spent on them, with another €1.5 billion to go before they are expected to be finished in 2016. But there is no sign that the Italian government is even thinking of what organization should be in charge of what should happen next. And yet the report published by Unesco's Venice office in 2011, From Global to Regional: Local Sea Level Rise Scenarios: Focus on the Mediterranean Sea and the Adriatic Sea, states: “There should be no doubt that the sea level will eventually rise to a value that will not be sustainable for the lagoon and its old city. The planned mobile barriers might be able to avoid flooding for the next decades, but the sea will eventually rise to a level where even continuous closures will not be able to protect the city from flooding. The question is not if this will happen, but only when it will happen.”

The report goes on to say: “The average water level in the lagoon is already 30 cm above datum [established 1897]. This indicates that a sea level rise of 80 cm would bring the mean water level to the critical threshold of 110 cm [the level at which Venice begins to flood]. In this case, Venice would experience regular flooding twice a day, due to the tidal oscillation.”

And that rise of 80 cm could be with us as soon as the end of this century. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) let it be known that it had revised its 2007 estimates of sea level rise upwards to a minimum of 29 cm and maximum of 80 cm by 2100 and we know now that this will apply to the Adriatic as much as the Atlantic, because the scientists have concluded that the level of the Mediterranean will lag by only a few months behind that of the oceans.

This is very, very serious. As the lead scientist at Cambridge, Tom Spencer, said at the time: “It is likely that a purely reactive Venice may lead to there being no Venice at all.”

You say that it is a difficult business articulating and executing the complex interactions between the scientific data and the political actors.

You see this everywhere with environmental issues because they are always long term in nature, while politics are usually short term. They also often require major changes that go against some current interests and/or habits, so without great political will they get ignored.

Why are the Venetians and by extension the Italians so bad at long term planning for Venice?

First, because responsibility for all the interrelated aspects of the city is fragmented. For example, the town council is responsible for the canals within the city, but the Venice port authority, a national body, is responsible for the Giudecca canal through Venice, down which the cruise ships sail. A national body called the Magistrato alle Acque looks after pollution abatement and maintenance in the lagoon and the flood defences, but the Veneto regional government deals with pollution in the drainage basin of the lagoon, whose rivers flow into the lagoon. There is no overarching body in which all these organisation, which are often in conflict with one another, come together and work out a long term policy to present to central government.

Second, Italy has a long history of weak governments whose main concern has been staying in power, so it's bad at long term planning in all areas of life. Venice is way down their to-do list.

Would it not be better if we handed the administration of the city to someone else, perhaps back to the Austrians [who ruled Venice 1815-66]? The Disney Corporation? Some sort of efficient, strong-minded type like Mayor Bloomberg?

Ah, the equivalent of divine intervention! But shining light on the underlying reasons for what is going wrong -- for example, the organisational splintering that I have just described -- educating Venetians and Italians about better practice elsewhere, raising awareness outside and inside Italy that the city really is at risk, and involving perhaps the European Union as a major, long term funder might give the city a future.

I asked you once during out first phone conversation whether you think it is possible that the Italians simply do not want to save Venice. Perhaps on some sort of masochistic, subconscious level they would prefer that their decaying damsel drown?

“Oh Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls /Are level with the waters, there shall be /A cry of nations o'er thy sunken halls, /A loud lament along the sweeping sea! If I, a northern wanderer, weep for thee...”

There is indeed a long history outside Venice, dating back to Lord Byron, of getting a romantic frisson out of the thought that so much beauty might die. But Italians are less romantics than cynics and I have often heard them say that the city has been so ruined by tourism that no one discriminating would want to have anything to do with it now and the Venetians are so feeble and few that there is no hope. That is perhaps an even more destructive attitude. The previous mayor of Venice, the university philosopher Massimo Cacciari, thought like that.

The cruise line traffic into Venice is obviously a huge problem. Local Venetians hate it, of course -- I saw a prayer for deliverance from these "invading monsters" put up by an 80 year-old man in his shop window. I've just spent six months living in Venice and I too feel physically violated every time one of these behemoths glides past us, dwarfing the people and the city and literally shaking the foundations with their reverberations.

This is an example of something that has developed due to the absence of a plan for Venice and the fact that the mayor has no control over the port and the Giudecca canal in Venice, as though Mayor Bloomberg had not authority over Broadway. The government in Rome was going to announce an alternative route for these ships on 1 October, but Silvio Berlusconi's threat to make the coalition fall apart put that on hold. A typical situation in the recent history of Venice.

Do you think there is something to be done about all the vested interests -- the water taxis and gondolas, the small shopkeepers -- who do not want the cruise liners to be banned from sailing through the city?

I'm not sure that they don't want them to be banned. The cruise passengers don't spend much money in the city as they eat on board and don't stay in the hotels; some don't even get off the ships. A sustainable tourism plan aimed at giving visitors a much better experience than they get at present would be to the advantage of everyone in the long run.
A properly researched plan that limited numbers to what was agreeable for both residents and visitors would also mean ticketing, and this could involve the visitors in contributing directly to the maintenance of the city, which is costly and will become much more so as the sea level rises and eats away at the walls of the buildings. As I wrote in my NY Review of Books article, such a scheme, presented properly, would not be a hard sell. If just the 6.4 million visitors per year that we are certain about (there is great confusion and uncertainty about how many they actually are, but they may be considerably more) paid $40 a head -- it costs $25 after all to enter New York’s Museum of Modern Art -- into a ring-fenced fund dedicated to the maintenance of the city, that would be €192m a year.

If the permanent population is dwindling, is that because of the tourist influx? What are other factors in play?

The population is dwindling because, for decades, jobs other than in the tourist industry have been migrating to the mainland, where the big industries (now moribund) are. When Generali Insurance, which used to occupy all one side of St Mark's Square, left about 10 years ago it was both a real and symbolic blow to the idea that Venice was an ordinary town. 

Communications with the mainland and within the city don't fit our ideas of modern life: having to walk! good heavens, how intolerable! And property prices, already high, sky rocketed since a change in local regulations in 1999 allowing people to turn their apartments into b&bs. This also subtracted a large amount of residential space from the total. The frequent flooding and vast crowds of visitors have done the rest.

But the population figures given by the town council are misleading: the 58,000 that they cite are only the officially resident Venetians; they do not include the second home owners and foreign inhabitants, who are often in town for long periods or even permanently. These number about 15,000, calculated by their electricity consumption, paid at a higher tariff than the officially resident. And then there are about 4000 students in town during term time. So while this is a long way from the 150,000 in Venice around 1950 (often living in cramped, dark and damp conditions that now wld be considered intolerable), it is not all doom and gloom. I think any mayor of Venice should make it his business to cultivate the second-home owners, many of whom are rich and well connected. Venice shld think of itself as an international city and make better use of this fact.

Finally, does being awarded the Istituto Veneto journalism prize signal that someone in Venice has taken your proposals into account? Could it be that in the final analysis it will take outsiders to spur Venetians and Italians into action?

If good journalism about Venice in the foreign media can make the Venetians of good will who are already battling for their city feel that they are being backed up, we may yet see changes for the better.