Grandi Navi Out. To Remain in the Lagoon

Porto Marghera. Photo by Giovanni Leone
The government finally recognizes the incompatibility of the transit of cruise ships in the lagoon environment. At the same it takes two steps back: a contest of ideas and the decision – in the meantime – to bring to the ships to Marghera where a provisionally definitive port will be set up.

By Giovanni Leone

6 April 2021

[Ed. Note: Once again we welcome Giovanni Leone’s detailed analysis to this site. This piece is recommended reading for anyone who wants to better understand why the recent decree “banning” cruise ships from the Lagoon of Venice may not be so much to celebrate, and what the alternatives are that are already on the table, unexamined by a government that now proposes to start all over again with a contest for ideas. Read on.]

In recent days Solomon has come to mind, the King of Israel known for wisdom and his exemplary judgement found in Book of Kings 3 (16-28). Solomonic justice has since assumed a figurative sense in the vernacular that is opposite of the original, becoming the justice of one who, to put an end to a dispute, opts for a compromise that sacrifices the matter’s integrity, dividing the body of the problem into two equal parts, not truly settling the dispute but rather pleasing and displeasing each of the parties in the case in equal measure. In essence, the winners and losers emerge more confused than persuaded from such a “Solomonic” judgement, both being able to simultaneously lament their defeat or celebrate victory. I thought of this when I read two “blaring headlines” in the local papers: “four ministers affirm that the cruise ship must stay out of the lagoon” and the other, “cruise ships will go to Marghera”.  It seemed to be a printing error or a mistaken interpretation in one headline or the other, but instead no, it was all true – both were correct only inasmuch as they highlight one of the aspects of the Solomonic inter-ministerial decree in which it’s established that the cruise ships must go out of the lagoon… however, in the meantime they are being taken to Marghera.

The Decree appears to be a non-solution that allows everyone to falsely claim victory. The Comitato No Grandi Navi have greeted it with satisfaction, considering their glass half full thanks to the fact that it has been decreed that the cruise ships must go out of the lagoon; a statement of principle, certainly, but one that takes a small step forward toward the hoped for removal of the cruise ships from the lagoon. The Comitato used the occasion to indicate that the Lagoon of Venice is being confused with the bacino di San Marco, a typo to correct, provoked by the myopia of Minister Franceschini. In reality it is not an ophthalmological problem but one of optics, in the sense of vision, and it’s not enough to change lenses, what must change is point of view.

On the opposing front, the Mayor of Venice gloats and applauds the same inter-ministerial Decree, seeing his glass as half full by way of the decision to set up a port at Marghera, which he says is his proposal. We seem to recall that the “solution” preferred by him called for docking the ships at Marittima made possible by the excavation of either the Contorta canal or the Vittorio Emanuele, bypassing, along with the bacino di San Marco, the problem of the incompatibility of the cruise ships with the lagoon. This proposal has never even been taken in consideration, ratifying a resounding and total rejection of the Mayor’s position. The half full glass must have been drained by him in one gulp, because then, intoxicated, he confidently said to TVA: 

“because in Venice incredible things have been done in this period, people will come from all over the world to see MoSE, a grand work of engineering, gigantic, with a hundred thousand perplexing doubts that were etcetera, no? There were those who said it would never work, well I would say that there is great respect for the city, this government has greater respect than that before the change of minister – other than the Prime Minister – but also the Minister of the Environment, according to me and of Transportation, excuse me I will be very frank because it has played much to the favor of reasonable relations, now they have stopped to discuss, we have Ministers there who are zealously defending our city and regarding this I would like to publically thank Brunetta, Gelmini and also other ministers, all of the ministers from the Lega, who have waited to hear how they can address the question in some way and not cause difficulty for the government but above all to not block cruise ship traffic, but I would say that meanwhile the solution of the ships at Marghera for an investment of 40 million on the north canal exactly as I requested we have guaranteed work for the coming years then we will do the public bid where we can also account for previous solutions we will probably know later in a few years that disembarking tourists while the ships are at sea does not work in any part of the world but they will understand it with time, there are people who really need time to mature, I am interested in not losing jobs.”

This is only a fragment of a long speech, rich with interesting points: from the affirmation of MoSE as yet another tourist attraction (which we really need more of), to the ministers anxiously waiting to hear how the Mayor intends to address the issues; from the public praise of the illustrious statesmen for first and second ministers, to the loving declarations of esteem handed out to the right (though he had already done so with Renzi) to consolidate alliances in the government of the city today and tomorrow… who knows. And here the oculist returns, it being clear, in fact, what strabismus led him to exchange a contest for ideas with the “evaluation of previous solutions”, which with ill-concealed presumption he makes it clear to us that he is a phony, and that he is happy about this – “we’ll take a little money and time but the outcome is certain, nothing will be done” is the moral of his narration. Then he fakes and pretends as though the problem of the activity in the commercial port does not exist.

The Mayor-Commissioner of culture (with a lower case c) doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to boast about his degree in architecture, a discipline which would have done well to practice at least a bit to bridge the gaps that he exhibits in a decisive subject in the sphere of public administration, that is the culture of the project, reduced to a muscular exhibition and hard-nosed clashes because what I think is always right and better than anything else. What to say, then, about the political culture? It’s useless in a conception of politics as a mere commercial transaction and not as the ability to listen, dialog, gather the useful parts which can always be found, even in the positions of those who think about it differently, and finally summarize the complex problems being faced individually and their framing in a systemic perspective.

The government of the best here is as disappointing as the previous ones. They continue to pretend that everything will change only to change nothing, repeating the error of Spring 2012 when the Clini-Passera Decree-Law prohibited transit in the bacino di San Marco and Canale della Giudecca of commercial ships transporting merchandise and/or passengers larger than 40,000 tons… but only after an alternative was found. Nine years have passed, in which nothing has happened other than the cruise ship traffic continuing to ply the lagoon waters. Now here is yet another announcement, useless because it is only valid in principle, in effect a good intention, an abstract declaration of intent invalidated by its subordination to a condition which is, by definition, a future and uncertain event, and whose realization depends on the efficacy of the legal provision.

In the case of the Clini-Passera decree it was certain that the condition could not be met in a defined timeframe, and that therefore the application of the principle would be postponed sine die, as then happened. On the other hand, it was a matter of a principle, not an end. Today more than ever, the strong need is felt for a healthy silence of speech to begin a discussion with the facts; this is what we have waited for from the government of the aristocrats, the best. Instead, the goal of these law-announcements is to remain standing at the starting block, staying motionless to warm up in place, directing attention to the running motor of a car with no clutch, if you just try to engage the gear the motor shuts off and we cannot even enjoy the air conditioning, an illusion of a season that isn’t.

Symphony of the Seas

In the meantime, the ships have grown, reaching 150,000 tons, and even the 228,000 tons of the Symphony of the Seas owned by the company Royal Caribbean, which sailed from the port of Civitavecchia in 2018. The cruise ships have been halted for more than a year; this was the right moment to pause and reflect and to study the solutions, and maybe we would have finally been in a position to make decisions in a brief and definite timeframe. Instead, nothing. Continuing to traverse the lagoon is madness, and the conception of an industrial port servicing a chemical depot within the lagoon is an unsustainable original sin which should be removed, and which should be remedied by taking the large ships, both commercial and passenger, out of the lagoon, an environment they are not compatible with, period.

In this sense, as we have said, the recent decree corrects the mistake made by Clini-Passera by considering only the bacino di San Marco and the canale della Giudecca as places to protect. Now there is ratification of the incompatibility of the big ships transiting the lagoon environment, thus affirming a truth that is self-evident for the obvious environmental concerns that have to do with the lagoon morphology, atmospheric pollution, etc. At the same time, they are taking two steps back; a nice competition for ideas (in Italy was are in fact champions of contests that are without a winner or rigged, from academic to contract bids) and the choice – in the meantime – to take the ships to Marghera where, with the moderate outlay of 41 million Euros, equips a provisionally definitive port which follows nine years of an indefinitely provisional decree.

The competition for ideas wears the disguise of an apparent concession to participation, which in Venice has over time integrated the protest with the proposal. Why not begin with a serious and detailed evaluation of what is already on the table? Starting with the projects for fixed and floating inlets. Have they ever been evaluated and compared? These are not simple “ideas” but concrete project proposals, with different orientations, supported by notable figures on the civic environmentalist front, authoritative specialists and experts. This diversity of views within the environmental movement itself can be an opportunity that enriches and consolidates the search for solutions, if we know how to avoid falling into the game of opposing supporters.

Duferco Project

These projects have been simply ignored, both the one by Duferco (a private company which has invested energy and resources in the drafting of a project that is also considered innovative for mobility in the lagoon), as well as the one by the civic group Boato-Giacomini-Vittadini, offered freely and disinterestedly to the public subject, which ended up never even taking it into consideration. The first is considered to have a positive opinion from the Environmental Impact Evaluation, the other seems to have never been evaluated because it was not presented by a public entity nor a private company. But these are marginal questions with respect to the greater collective interest in the search for solutions, in a social perspective which promotes health, environment and work. Maybe they can be expanded, bettered, or even integrated with alternative proposals that would have to emerge, but better than starting from zero with an appeal to creativity, we would have to start from the available pool of proposals.

Civic Group Boato-Giacomini-Vittadini Project

Let us return to the decree, which is inter-ministerial, but does not seem to be governmental. There are the ministries of Infrastructure and Culture, but the minister of the Environment – who was either not invited or did not want to sit at that table – is absent. It’s not a marginal question, given that the heart of the issue is the concept we have of the lagoon, which cannot be considered an economic-infrastructure issue nor a landscape problem, in the sense of the esthetics of the view, and not in the high sense of the culture and the spirit of a place. This was said in strong, clear tones regarding the Lagoon Authority, and the previous government deserves credit for having listened to the requests involving the minister of the Environment.

The palliative option is the triumph of indecision, of the unconditional surrender to the antithesis of a provisional option of infinite durations. We are accelerating the process, shortening the timeframes – do we need a temporary solution? There is a proposal by citizen activists and former city councilors Renzo Scarpa and Renato Darsiè with maritime operator Andrea Gersich, to direct the ships to the ports of Ro-Ro and Ro-Pax at Fusina, where cruise ships have docked in the past when unable to enter the city during the Festa del Redentore. With this idea, however, the problem of the bay and the evolution of the ships remains (which will probably need to be widened by excavation), as well as the mixing of commercial and passenger traffic. Or, we grit our teeth and leave the ships passing by San Marco and the canale della Giudecca to get to Marittima and then definitively get them out of the lagoon. We speed up the choice of an option to pursue, respecting the now well established principle that the cruise ships should be out of the lagoon, because the paradox of this story is that the time required to build a new port outside the lagoon would be 2-3 years, the same time needed to equip Marghera because of the procedures that must be followed (design, project, VIA, PRG variance at the port, etc.) Restarting from the contest of ideas would mean deciding differently and definitively, in disguise.

On that subject: what about the large commercial ships? The subject is not arrived at, just touched on, as if we were talking about the same thing: oil tankers, commercial and passenger ships, in the end are they not all ships? In recent months there has been talk of a port outside Chioggia, and then there is the project for an off-shore/on-shore port which Paolo Costa has spoken about, which is lying on a chair in the back room of the Interministerial Committee for Economic Planning. It appears to be an executive project, does the government know nothing about it? Has it been studied? Have corrections and improvements been proposed or is it considered to be mistaken and unfeasible? The port is an important subject which must be addressed with courage and determination, without exploiting the legitimate concerns of many workers in the sector with useless palliatives that are nothing more than decoys. Some of those workers will be able to continue their employment in port related activities, but probably not all, depending on the solutions. The real problem is the absence of alternative occupations, the generalized lack of employment and the absence of a project for a new economy.

Project for off-shore/on-shore port (VOOPS)

The coronavirus was a great opportunity to invest the suspended time and reflect quietly, go deeper, investigate, elaborate. We have not made use of it, just as we don’t seem able to make use of the Recovery Fund to develop a truly working Plan for Resilience and Revitalization worthy of that name; we can either acquire the resources needed for revitalization or snk the country for good, sanctioning its operational inability, hostage to a politics that has failed miserably in its management function and direction. We surrendered to the specialist uncertainty of technicians who sat with politicians on the armchairs of talk shows, where we have heard everything and its opposite said. What do we want to do? An exchange between culture and politics which is centered on rigor of method and patient systematic research upon which to base concrete and impactful actions is urgently needed, but the coexistence of politicians and technicians in the halls of power does not appear to be producing the hoped for result, creating the innovation of political culture for which many feel the need. What’s needed here is a cultural revolution which, if not permanent, must at least be of adequate duration.

Aerial view of Venice and the Lagoon. Photo by Giovanni Leone

Recently Europe has become closer and more present, to which we could make an appeal to launch an international experiment in Venice that would make it the “Laboratory of the IIIrd millennium”. Not for the privilege of a city of art (an expression that no longer denotes a cultural identity but economic utility as a tourist destination), the reason is that many of the problems typical of our era are present here in an exemplary way. Here we could profitably experiment with approaches, strategies and solutions that are reproducible elsewhere, of a technical, scientific, economic, environmental, social and administrative nature, centered on the lagoon, which is a complex system on several fronts: technical (MoSE and the activity of maintenance and safekeeping), scientific (under the environmental-ecological-hydrodynamic profile connected to the lagoon morphology and the care of the ecosystem), economic (with the necessary conversion of Porto Marghera and study of a new port facility), social (the zoning and use of the lagoon archipelago, gentrification, the demographic problem). We could start from here.

The study of solutions for a new port facility is not only a technical-constructive or aesthetic subject (when you hear talk of mitigation you get goosebumps); it is a complex subject which concerns all the aspects of the lagoon just mentioned. A scientific working group of international experts in different fields of study could work on it, with the assurance there would be no conflicts of interest. We do not intend to renounce our territory’s right to decide its own destiny, nor do we fear forms of cultural neo-colonialism, against which the city has solid antibodies. We do want, however, to put the resources our area has available to use, enriched by the contribution of those who love Venice and want to make themselves available not only to Venice but to the entire international community, with a spirit of service and altruism: we will bring Venice to the world and the world to Venice.



Giovanni Leone is an architect living in Venice, the city of his choice (having wanted to live in this house in the form of a city) and adoption (after having landed there from the other end of Italy), where he was welcomed: first in the community of out-of-town students, and migrants/inhabitants, who metabolize and spread around the world the awareness that a different way of life, on a human scale, is possible; later welcomed in the Venetian community, especially among the populace, introduced to the pleasures of the lagoon, the culture of land (gardens and fields) and water (boats and fishing) and islands; before, during and after, from a habitat that is an environmental and social context to be worn as a dress in whose pockets the spirit of the place is deposited.

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