24 March 2008

Rio Chiuso

Venice may appear to have sprung to life from a billowing crest of seafoam tumbling over the pearly lip of a scallop shell, like Botticelli’s Venus. But that romantic idea fades fast when one watches city engineers drain, dredge, and repair the infrastructure of a local rio – a messy process you see in progress here.

In fact this elegant city on the sea was hard won, wrested from the unpredictable lagoon, pinned into place with thousands and thousands of wooden poles pounded into its sticky mud. By happy accident, those poles petrified instead of rotting, due in large part to the oxygen-starved lagoon waters, thus providing as firm a foundation for a city as one could hope for away from terra firma. Later came the gouging out of the canals…

When La Serenissima’s not-so-pretty underpinnings are exposed for maintenance, the contractors always rig up some flimsy blind to hide the grim activity. It almost seems they want to protect her modesty. But I suspect it’s really intended to protect the tourists, to ensure that their image of the “fairy city of the heart” (that’s Byron, not me) is not spoiled by visions of scaly pipes, mottled muck, and the rotted refuse that collects at the bottom of her shallow waterways.

Nevertheless, if there’s a gap in that blind, natives, near-citizens (me included), and tourists alike all stop and take a peek at the goings-on. Fascinating! A canal dredge is a slippery, slightly smelly reminder that lovely Venice raised herself up from the sea almost 1,500 years ago and, impossibly, still stands against all odds.