It has been almost 50 years since Venice last cleaned its canals, and the dirt and the smell were beginning to get out of hand, as when any housecleaning is put off too long.
Venetians themselves, typically defensive about the city’s periodic and characteristic bad odor, had to admit that the smell was a bit strong, particularly in the back canals where at low tide there was only 15 inches of water, sloshing over 6 feet of mud.
In some neighborhoods, the mud was so high that fire and ambulance boats couldn’t get through to respond to emergencies. Even gondoliers were unable to get their sleek black vessels through the muck.
And yet, now that the city has finally begun the laborious job of dredging its internal waterways, who is complaining? The gondoliers of course, whose livelihood depends on the canals and on the tourists who pay about $75 for a half-hour glide through their darkened waters.
“It is a tragedy for those of us who work this job,” said Stefano, 36, a gondolier who refused to give his last name. He berths his gondola in a small canal near La Fenice Opera House, one of the most mud-clogged areas, where the city has already blocked off several sections of canals for dredging.
“I am not saying they should not clean the canals, I am saying it should be done quickly,” Stefano said as he steered the gondola through a circuitous route to avoid the closed areas. “But we can only protest so much, because these things are necessary.”
The complaints prompted the Institute for the Conservation of the Gondola and the Protection of the Gondolier to call for a mass demonstration by gondoliers, but that was put off when the city agreed to speed up its work, and to consult with the gondoliers before shutting off particularly popular canals.
(Luckily, both the Grand and the Giudecca Canals - the two largest - get a twice-daily scouring from the tides that sweep through Venice.)
Fulvio Scarpa, leader of the city’s 403 gondoliers, said they still insist on reopening the canals around La Fenice by May 30, or else they will go ahead with plans to block off 10 canals. “And if that doesn’t work, we will end up closing off the Grand Canal,” he said.
The canal-cleaning project has already been much delayed; ideally, the mud should be cleared every decade or so, as it was when Venice was a republic.
This time, it took a national law, passed in 1992, and then more than a year of interjurisdictional quarreling to figure out who had the responsibility for the $10 million project.
In the end, the city, which is charged with maintaining the canals, won, beating out the Veneto region, which is responsible for controlling pollution, and the national government, which has responsibility for flood control.
Dirty canals are the least romantic of Venice’s problems. Several years ago, the world responded with alarm to reports that the city was sinking, but that threat subsided after industries on the mainland were ordered to protect the water table that lies beneath the city.
The elaborate $5 billion Moses project, a flexible seawall with a series of flap gates that would stretch along the lagoon and block high tides from reaching the city, has been put on hold, awaiting further study.
After they drain the canals of water, the city’s next task is to get rid of the mud, which is expected to pile up to a whopping 500 cubic meters (17,660 cubic feet). When Venice last cleaned its canals, in the 1950s, the mud was dumped in the lagoon.
Now, with new environmental laws in force, it must be separated and catalogued, with the most polluted part sent to the treatment plant and the least polluted destined to shore up two islands in the lagoon, including San Michele, which is Venice’s cemetery.
Work on the canal dredging finally began in October, starting in La Fenice neighborhood where a mile of canals are being drained in 100-yard sections.
Over the next 20 years, Venice hopes to drain and clean all 30 miles of its waterways.