by Lucio De Capitani
To explore Venice from the perspective of the Anthropocene—the era in which humanity has risen to the role of a geological agent with devastating ecological consequences for our planet—is a complex task that can take many forms. In that regard, three out of the four essays presented here engage with this endeavour by looking at Venetian history. Francesco Luzzini explores how the Venetian Lagoon has been historically—and successfully— managed, critically reflecting on our contemporary practices of environmental governance. Marianna Tsionski examines the workers’ struggles in Porto Marghera—Venice’s gargantuan industrial area—since the 1960s, framing their fight against toxic working conditions as an important environmental justice experience. Lastly, Shaul Bassi presents the Jewish Ghetto of Venice—created in 1516—as an example of a community forced to live within restricted cultural and material boundaries that nevertheless managed to thrive, hence becoming a source for precious lessons on our environmentally beleaguered times. As the fourth essay suggests, the Anthropocene in Venice can also be engaged through one’s body. Gina Caison and Léa Perraudin invite their readers to participate in a “walkshop”—carrying water on a leaky recipient through the streets of Venice—an experience able to provide useful insights on the roles played by both humankind and the Water City in the current era of climate breakdown.
"To explore Venice from the perspective of the Anthropocene—the era in which humanity has risen to the role of a geological agent with devastating ecological consequences for our planet—is a complex task that can take many forms." - Lucio De Capitani
The Floating Price of Beauty: water and Land Management in Venice through the Centuries
By Francesco Luzzini
In 1751, the mathematician Bernardo Trevisan (1652-1720) published Della Laguna di Venezia (“On the Venetian Lagoon”). In this treatise, the author—a patrizio (“patrician”) of the Republic and one of the foremost hydraulic experts of his time—discussed the most important actions taken by the Serenissima in the centuries-long effort to preserve the balance between land and sea. These actions included periodical dredgings, the building of channels, embankments, dams, and works of hydraulic engineering like the diversion of rivers and streams on the mainland.
Trevisan’s book is embellished with an allegorical frontispiece epitomising the environmental challenge which Venice has faced since its legendary rise from the ashes of the Roman Empire. In the engraving, two figures wrestling (a boy and a girl, embodying the land and the sea) try to force each other back into their respective domains. Above them, the phrase Opponesi elemento ad elemento (“Two elements oppose each other”) leaves little or no doubt for how the scene should be interpreted.
It is worth noting that in this plate, the land (the boy) seems to prevail over the sea. In fact, when the book was published the most pressing environmental threat to Venice was the shoaling caused by the sediments carried and deposited in the Lagoon with the inflowing streams. Had the engraving been done today, the scene would have been quite different, with the girl taking revenge on the boy for his past bullying. In any case, in this seemingly eternal conflict between sea and land, neither opponent prevailed completely, nor was it in the interest of the Serenissima that either should do so. Thus, Venice invariably joined forces with the losing side: from time to time, the Republic strove with similar zeal to avert both shoaling and submersion.
This prolonged effort produced many interconnected consequences that shaped Venice’s history as well as its culture and landscape. On an administrative and political level, for example, in the early 16th century the Republic established the Magistrato alle acque (“Magistrate for the Waters”), a powerful and long-lasting institution (it endured, although discontinuously, until 2014: its last headquarters was based in Palazzo dei Dieci Savi) responsible for water management in the Lagoon. And, of course, throughout its long existence Venice became a hub for scientific and technological innovation. Hydraulic experts, mathematicians, engineers, geographers, natural philosophers, miners, explorers: the interaction of scholars and technicians—of theorists and practicians—sparked new knowledge and allowed the Serenissima to promote and carry out pioneering projects. Just think of the Taglio di Porto Viro (1600-1604), an unprecedented work of hydraulic engineering that diverted the main branch of the Po River south of the Lagoon; or the establishment (in 1710) of the Giornale de’ letterati d’Italia, the first Italian journal featuring a specific section devoted to science; or think of the complex system of storage and filtration of fresh water in subterranean cisterns—the so-called pozzi (“wells”)—which became a distinctive feature of “the city that is in water and has no water”; or, finally, consider the proposal by cartographer Vincenzo Maria Coronelli (in 1712) to build a diversion channel to connect the Adige River with Lake Garda in order to prevent the river from flooding the neighbouring plains, a project so ambitious and controversial that only in the 20th century was it realised by Italian authorities.
Unsurprisingly, many actions promoted by the Serenissima triggered political, economic, environmental, and social issues both within the Republic and with neighbouring states. As it often happens in water management, fixing a problem at one point means causing other problems elsewhere: and Venice learned this lesson only too well. Another effect, however, was that in the Lagoon human and environmental history became so entangled that it would be hardly possible (and certainly pointless) to treat them separately. And in fact, in the stream of professional and public debates which arose from—and in turn, shaped—Venice’s efforts to manage a constantly changing environment, we can find the same mass of environmental, scientific, social, political, cultural, economic issues that we are facing today at a global level.
From this point of view, the history of water management in the Venetian Lagoon has much to teach us about which approach to adopt when faced with environmental challenges, an approach which is not necessarily supposed to be natural. In fact, Venice and its beauty could survive for so long precisely because the Republic learned how to adapt to a mutable environment. It preserved artificially—therefore unnaturally, and at a great cost—a landscape which was and still is bound to disappear by shoaling or submersion, and turn respectively into land or sea.
The choices made were not always the wisest, of course. Nor were they invariably honest, as the recent events surrounding the MOSE project sadly attest. Yet, Venice managed to survive. And as its history shows, unnatural does not necessarily mean bad for the environment or for us. Flexibility was and is the key: this concept applies to Venice as well as to today’s global community. Insisting more on this point, I believe, would help us to break the ideological gridlocks and prejudicial views that pose a serious threat to the evolution of the Anthropocene debate. After all, the goal of learning all together how to make the best out of seemingly unsolvable problems (like a chang-ing climate and a changing environment) is much more important than engaging in trendy but useless discussions on “who is most to blame for what is happening,” or in eschatological calls to “save the world before it is too late.”1
Porto Marghera: Working-class Environmentalism
By Marianna Tsionki
The beginning of the 20th century brought about great urban and territorial changes to the city of Venice, with its port reaching its maximum level of traffic and capacity. As a result, in 1917 plans were underway for the development of a new modern commercial port and an adjacent industrial zone. In 1919 the construction of the port began, at what was misperceived as a safe distance from the historic city of Venice; this involved large excavations and land reclamation for urban and industrial development and by 1928 almost sixty firms were established in the industrial complex of Porto Marghera.
Throughout the years, the zone saw exponential growth, with the increasing demands of World War II greatly accelerating industrial production. The short post-war adjustment period was followed by the new phase of the area’s development characterised by further expansion of the port and a second industrial zone, focusing primarily on the petro-chemical sector. In 1955 the Milanese electric utility company Edison opened a petrochemical plant; the subsequent merging of Edison and Montecatini a decade after signalled the peak of employment in the industrial zone, with 330 firms employing nearly 40,000 workers.
This new phase of the Marghera industrialisation mega plan fos-tered economic growth based on the production of petrochemicals, which were infamously associated with numerous environmental, health and safety hazards. Primary activities and manufacturing processes involved the usage of dangerous chemicals and particularly chlorine, which is toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic, and substantially disturbing to the environment. Their capacity to pollute and remain in the environment in the form of harmful by-products, the lack of adequate regulations, procedures and protocols resulted in a detrimental destruction of the surrounding ecosystem—water, soil, and air contamination with severe health impact on workers and wider population—all of which were considered as negative externalities. This was consistent with a view in which physical, human and natural resources should be overexploited to contribute to the profitability of private markets, framed in the form of progress.
Despite the atrocious health and safety conditions and irresponsible behaviour towards workers, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the workers, who previously had acted separately in a series of protest actions, united in organised groups. In 1962 a widespread class struggle in Italy begun with Porto Marghera, becoming the centre of activity of radical and libertarian leftist groups, namely Potere Operaio (“Workers’ Power”, 1967-73) and its later transfiguration Autonomia Operaia (“Workers’ Autonomy”, 1976-78). Potere Operaio was a joint effort between a group of radical-left intellectuals including Antonio Negri and factory workers, organised in Workers’ Committees. By bringing together theoretical tools of anti-authoritarian and libertarian aspects of Marxism and the actual struggles of the working class, Workerism’s (Operaismo) raison d’être was a reorganisation of working-class institutions toward direct democratic control. They participated in a wider revolt against capitalist exploitation, characterised by authoritarianism and poor working conditions, health and safety hazards, low wages, and drastic increase in work intensity. The Workers’ Committee of Porto Marghera operated throughout the 1960s to 1980s and their connection to Potere Operaio lasted until 1972. Through powerful strikes, pickets, protests, and occupations, they demanded improvement of labour conditions as well as highlighting related environmental degradation, practising a form of so-called working class environmentalism.
Thus, in Porto Marghera there was an extensive mobilisation of industrial workers with the aim to unequivocally challenge issues of “harmfulness” or “noxiousness” (Italian: nocività) immanent to the chemical substances and methods of work in the petrochemical industry. The argument that harmfulness—affecting human health and the environment—is inevitable was challenged by the Worker’s Committee, which demanded changes to plant and equipment and the reduction of working hours—while maintaining current wages—to diminish exposure to toxicity and establish controlled, sustainable modes of production.2 The underlying environmental dimension in workerism has also been analysed by political ecologist Emanuele Leonardi. He has argued that “In Italy, environmental issues became politicised through workers’ struggles, and not in spite of them. […] The paradigmatic [case was] the dispute over workplace harmfulness in Porto Marghera’s petrochemical hub, since 1969”.3 In this way working class environmentalism challenges capitalist techniques based on the mastery and exploitation of nature and labour with the aim to increase capital accumulation.
In the 1990s strict environmental regulations were introduced to reduce soil and groundwater contamination but despite the restrictions the Lagoon is still affected by nonbiodegradable pollutants, which contribute to the accumulation of phytoplankton blooms and in turn can cause major environmental problems. Nevertheless, the long-term consequences of industrial activity do not only manifest in the destruction of the ecosystem but also the workers’ deaths from mesothelioma, an incurable type of cancer linked to asbestos exposure, the symptoms of which tend to develop gradually over time. Cases of infected workers exposed to asbestos in the 1970s are expected to peak between the 2010s and 2030s. Thus the aftermath of industrial activity calls for a revaluation of the notion of economic progress in today’s post-industrial societies. This means taking into consideration that working conditions in noxious, industrial production have not improved; rather, they have been outsourced to distant, hidden territories, in turn contributing to diminishing class struggle.
Living Under Water : Reading the Anthropocene in the Ghetto
By Shaul Bassi
How does the Anthropocene—by definition all-encompassing and indifferent to borders—affect a small square created for the purposes of social containment? The Ghetto may be a good example of a famous Venetian site whose history seems initially to suggest no obvious connection to anthropocenic themes and concerns. Established by the Republic of Venice as a segregated Jewish quarter in 1516, the Ghetto is today a religious centre and a popular tourist destination, with five 16th century synagogues and a museum; it is a site of memory with monuments and ceremonies bearing witness to the impact of the Shoah. Its name, originally referring to a local copper foundry (getto), has become a word that many use in various languages, unaware of its Venetian origin. “Ghetto” is now a global metaphor of exclusion, referring historically to other early modern Jewish quar-ters, to Jewish segregated areas established by the Nazis in World War II, and more generally to urban ethnic enclaves. Figuratively, “ghetto” may signify any form of physical or psychological isolation and is also appropriated as an expression of minority pride, resistance and creativity. The sociologist Richard Sennett’s provocative definition of the Ghetto as an “urban condom”, a prophylactic space intended to protect the Christian majority from the contamination of the Jewish other, indicates processes of inclusion, exclusion, and adaptation that offer potential analogies with the dynamics of the climate crisis. Ghettoised Jews were a mosaic of communities of multilingual refugees fleeing war and persecution. Their history demonstrates how states enforce biopolitical measures realising the control, surveillance, and economic exploitation of vulnerable minorities. From a more empowering perspective, the adaptive strategies used by the Jews to adjust to the new urban environment, harsh restrictions, and unfamiliar cultural coordinates can provide a model for the soaring number of ecological migrants displaced by climate change.
A few examples can come from material culture. Prohibited from owning property in the Ghetto, the Jews were very creative in accommodating more and more residents in a very limited area. Food was also subject to limitations dictated by lack of room and by the Kosher dietary laws: hundreds of geese roamed around the Ghetto in the early modern period. Kashrut rules are not synonymous with sustainability, but they depend on a very high degree of awareness regarding ingredients, the treatment of animals, and the mediation between appetite and its satisfaction. In this light, they can serve as an example of a more conscious and ethical approach to food in a world of limited resources.
Emancipated in 1797, Jews were gradually integrated into Italian society. It was at the peak of their cultural assimilation that the Fascist regime declared them an “enemy Race” in 1938, paving the way for the deportation of 246 Jews from Venice to Auschwitz in 1943-44, with only eight survivors. Two Holocaust memorials and several Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) in the Ghetto offer dire warnings of how lethal biopolitical distinctions can be abruptly applied in times of crisis.
Moving to the new millennium, the Ghetto has provided inspi-ration to visual artists and writers in the larger context of Venice’s vulnerability to sea-level rise, demonstrating the anticipatory and cognitive power of the arts. Connecting distant times and places, Meena Alexander’s poem “Acqua alta” (2018) brings different climates together: “As a child, half a world away / I floated in a black canoe, then it sank in high water. // The lagoon swells at monsoon time and floods the Ghetto”. This poetic image reveals the uncanny confusion and inter-connectedness of disparate meteorological systems characterising climate change. Similarly, the destructive storm in Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island seemed unlikely at the time of publication in 2019 but became a literal truth a few months later with the Acqua Granda. This original novel makes the Ghetto the focal point to reflect on the par-allel stories of the ecological refugees of today, not yet recognised by international law, and the early modern refugees of five centuries ago. By focusing on the Bangladeshi community of Venice, escaping the flooded lands in southeast Asia to come to a flooded city, Ghosh reactivates the view of Venice as a cosmopolitan city defined by global routes of people and commodities, against the modern fantasy of the island of romance and escapism.
Even more directly, in 2018 a group of artists and scholars, invited by the organisation Beit Venezia, participated in the residency project Living Under Water – Jewish Explorations of Climate Change, which has produced exhibitions in Jerusalem and Krakow, a large-format zine including site-specific artworks and texts, and a small book with collages and concise Jewish ecological perspectives. Living Under Water establishes the Ghetto as an anthropocenic site in an international context, corroborating Ghosh’s observation that religious cultures have an important contribution to make to the general debate on the environmental crisis and questioning the stereotypical dichotomy between a uniform Western culture bent on the domination of nature versus more eco-friendly indigenous knowledges. Europe is also inhabited by various minority cultures whose ecologies can be mobilised, alongside mainstream science and cultures, to rise to the challenges of our uncertain world.
To Carry Water: An Invitation to Move and Sense Otherwise
By Gina Caison and Léa Perraudin
The Venetian imaginary is carried by water, and Venice carries everyone who moves through the city on, through, over, and along the water. But how could one carry Venice? One may claim that Venice is water, so by carrying Venetian water through the streets of Venice, one is engaging in an exercise of carrying Venice. But how to carry open water?
Located on Calle Rosa, in the Santa Marta area of the Venetian sestiere of Dorsoduro, is one among Venice’s several public water fountains. Here, we encourage readers to put down this Anthropocene guide temporarily to become a part of an ongoing “walkshop” intervention (an activity conceived by Astrida Neimanis and Perdita Phillips) that began in the fall of 2021. Readers are invited to fill an empty container with water and leave it uncovered as they walk through the streets along and near the Dorsoduro waterfront. Certainly, a container is a problematic artefact as it suggests that ideas and substances can be neatly contained; this activity, however, asks the reader to understand that spillage is inevitable. One cannot come to Venice and expect to stay dry. One cannot live in the Anthropocene and expect things to stay contained. This joint activity between members of the 2021 walkshop and the current reader constitutes a liquid bond. As an act of hydrofeminist kinship, our shared experiences of Venice are—although separated by time and specific circumstance—linked through our proximity and attunement to the waters we carry. Hydrofeminism seeks out these kinds of liquid bonds, leaks and their messy, turbid fluidity, and confronts them with the gendered properties and material relations persistently ascribed to bodies. Rather than find deficiency in spillage and leakiness, hydrofeminism asks us to give power to the liquids that move through and over bodies despite socially created gendered hierarchies and differences that privilege containment. In this way, we ask the reader to overflow these measures of containment and join us in a liquid bond. Indeed, rarely does a travel guide ask one to do something, but in the Anthropocene merely observing what has been done deserves a challenge of embodied action. Thus, this is an invitation to join us in thinking and moving with the water.
In a city known for its relationship to the lagoon environment, this experience asks the reader to reflect on the spatial and social effects of water as a spectacle. Up until relatively recently, carrying water was a daily activity for most humans’ survival as they needed to bring freshwater into their living spaces and remove wastewater without the convenience of modern plumbing. The abstraction of labour from the presence of water relative to sites of home and leisure causes the appearance of water to appear as disruptive. However, rather than view water as disruptive, this experience reorients water as central to the experience of the city and reminds the reader to connect with the histories of how water has been and is still carried through urban spaces. While carrying water, we invite readers to reflect on three core experiences, as well as make note of their own sensations as they interact with the waters of the island.
To carry water slows one’s pace through the city. The reader will notice that it is nearly impossible to travel quickly through the labyrinth of Venetian streets while carrying an open container of water. One is inclined to choose their steps carefully, rolling their feet from heel to toe in an effort to retain the water in the vessel. Such a change in pace allows one to consider the pace of Anthropocenic change and geological time. While tides ebb and flow along the canals of the city, how does one experience the slow creep of consistently rising waters across the planet? Seeing as the Venetian Lagoon itself is in a con-stant process of subsidence—residing on both “natural” and human-made elements, exposed to pollutants that are carried by the tide—what is left to raise? The act of carrying water reminds the reader that perceptibility and scale are matters of perspective and positionality. The Anthropocene is indeed a rupture in the scale of geological time; however, in the scale of human perception, such change is often too slow to affect human behavioural change. Interrogating the Anthropocene forces a consideration of both the event and the slow violence of extractive capitalism. The act of slowing down through the city to carry an open container of water pushes the reader to con-sider changes that are too gradual to observe at a brisk pace. Similarly, examining the causes and effects of global climate change in a specific location challenges universal notions of scale. This activity passes from us, participants in 2021, to the reader in some future year, and in this passing, we ask the reader to reflect on what we cannot yet know: how does carrying water in Venice feel today? So, let’s dare to pass the vessel while moving.
To carry water challenges one to move courageously and sense otherwise by allowing for encounters in the likelihood of spillage and wetness. Where one might desire to stay dry and invoke common touristic sensibilities of passive observance, in this activity we ask the reader to use this opportunity to resist such friction-free movement. The walking-carrying changes one’s embodied practice of perceiving and moving through the urban space. What does it actually take to move through this city—a city that is predominantly catered towards bodies who are able to walk by themselves? No means of land transportation (cars, buses etc.) are available to assist and carry bodies. Bridges, stairs, crowded narrow streets, and cobblestone are everywhere. All of these aspects of the city also cause one not to walk smoothly but potentially to drift, bump, and spill. In that sense, one is also invited to perceive the carrying activity as something beyond maintenance while caring through spilling. Yet not every act of spillage is a loss. Spillage can also constitute a return, a movement, a cycle, acknowledging that we are also, as Neimanis reminds us, leaking bodies of water. To embrace spillage is to encounter, carry, and care for our fellow travellers.
To carry water is ultimately a precarious offering to the space of Venice in an attempt to generate hydrofeminist kinship. It entails the queering of surroundings that are catered towards the touristic gaze and diffracts predominant scripts of how urban spaces are used and experienced. In that sense, by putting the representational capacity between map and territory to the test, the written artefact in your hands can be considered as an attempt to queer the genre and the vernacular of the travel guide as such. As tourists, we ourselves are only temporary dwellers on the liquid grounds of Venice, and we seek out ways to acknowledge the fact that every movement through this city that we perform is invasive because we participate in the infrastructures of globalised travel, short-term stays and their logics of supply and disposal, and engage in many of the commodities that come with it. Yet letting go of the idea of neatly contained spaces, the default of dryness and material integrity pushes the edges of agency towards the futurity of post-Anthropocene thinking. To carry water while simultaneously being carried by the waters of Venice presents itself as an exercise in liquid care.
We encourage reader to extend this methodology of hydrofeminist kinship and liquid care by recording their experiences of carrying water through Venice and tagging these artefacts on their preferred social media platforms with #CarryWaterAGV. In this way, we may begin to build a collaborative archive of how we will continue to carry and care for the waters of Venice.
Lucio De Capitani is a researcher in English Literature at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, working on ecocriticism, colonial, postcolonial and world literatures (especially Indian writing in English, the work of Amitav Ghosh and Robert Louis Stevenson) and the connections between anthropology and literary studies.
Francesco Luzzini is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Johns Hopkins University, and Contributing Editor for the Isis Bibliography of the History of Science. Formerly an Affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (2017-2022), now he collaborates with the MPIWG-Ca' Foscari Venice Partner Group "The Water City: The Political Epistemology of Hydrogeological Praxis". His work focuses mainly on the Earth and environmental sciences, natural philosophy, and medicine in early modern Europe, with important forays into modern and contemporary contexts.
Marianna Tsionki is a curator and researcher working at the intersection of contemporary art, ecology and technology. She is concerned with the role of curatorial and institutional practice in a time of ecological crisis, mainly focusing on methodologies of alter-institutionality and critical pedagogy. She is University Curator at Leeds Arts University, overseeing Curatorial Programmes and Library Operations.
Shaul Bassi is Professor of English Literature at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where he directs the Master’s Degree in Environmental Humanities. His research, teaching and publications are divided between Shakespeare, postcolonial literature (India and Africa), Jewish studies, and the environmental humanities.
Gina Caison is the Kenneth M. England Associate Professor of Southern Literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Her first book Red States: Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, and Southern Studies (UGA Press 2018) won the 2019. Hugh Holman Award for the best book in southern literary studies. Her work has appeared in academic journals including The Global South, Mississippi Quarterly, Native South, and PMLA.
Léa Perraudin is a media theorist and speculative material scholar and works as postdoctoral Research Associate at the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity. Image Space Material” at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Léa currently works on a habilitation project, bringing forth a media theory of phase transitions by investigating the ties of material and metaphor in contemporary technocapitalist media environments through transience, dispersal, abundance and solidification.
1 This contribution was supported by the MSCA-IF project SOUNDEPTH, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (grant agreement no. 101019781).
2 Feltrin, Lorenzo. Introduction to “Against Noxiousness” (1971) by the Political Committee of Porto Marghera Workers, in Viewpoint Magazine (2021).
3 Leonardi Emanuele. Lavoro, natura, valore. Orthotes 2017, 21