I can’t stop taking pictures of the big ships; I’m doing it this afternoon with Teresa, just as I did that day at the end of July in 2013. I was sitting in the usual bar, on the Riva dei Sette Martiri, where you barely even notice the passage of the cruise ships anymore. They are a corollary of the view. And they poison it. It’s a disturbing juxtaposition that has by now become part of your landscape, integrated into what your eye expects, like a bad habit. For this reason, in Venice, if you’ve grown accustomed to the mammoth hustle and bustle of big ships over the years, a small change, in what remains an anomaly, catches your eye. And so, that morning at the end of July, the passing of the Carnival Sunshine so close to the bank inevitably made me jump. A few seconds of amazement later and there I was following that impulse – surely new at the time, but soon to become habitual – of pulling out my smartphone and taking pictures or shooting a video. First-hand evidence of an obvious spin of the ship’s rear, necessary – I guess – to compensate for veering a bit too close to the bank, swinging the stern closer to the shore than I’d ever seen, with a drift that for some seconds seemed unstoppable, catastrophic, before the whole thing finally corrected itself and turned onto the Giudecca Canal. I am a writer and I don’t know anything about maritime routes and manoeuvres, but that didn’t seem like a normal manoeuvre to me, despite claims made immediately afterwards by the Harbour Office. But what do I know? What remains is the dramatic visual impact: the inertia of the spin, with the ship listing towards the bank. Was it normal for that to be happening just a few dozen metres away from where I was sitting?

Within hours my pictures and video went viral. The photos were published by the then Venice Green Party councillor and writer Gianfranco Bettin, to whom I had sent them immediately and who, like me, was alarmed by the manoeuvre. And who, like me, found himself the target of a rather clumsy attempt at media retaliation, launched by that small number of people who make exorbitant profits from the cruise industry. All the newspapers and TV channels talked about it, I was interviewed by TG1, and the whole thing was the fourth most important news item of the day, a ranking that not even a Nobel Laureate in Literature would reach in Italy.

I’ve been sued for endangering navigation, causing alarm, and simulating a crime, by a committee that supports the passage of big ships across the lagoon. They described me as a ‘manipulator of perspectives’.”

It was disturbing evidence. And yes it was new to both of us: me, testifying as any sensible citizen should; and him, spreading the news on behalf of the City Council, openly declaring that ships shouldn’t be allowed in the lagoon, even though the Municipality had no jurisdiction over the cruise companies. For a long time now, in Italy, the citizen who follows common sense, who knows their rights and claims them, who knows their duties and fulfils them, runs a risk. The citizen who questions, with clear and well-grounded evidence, in absolute good faith and awareness, what in the eyes of the rest of the whole world is pure madness, is first mocked, then insulted and, in the end, accused of very serious crimes.

I’ve been sued for endangering navigation, causing alarm, and simulating a crime, by a committee that supports the passage of big ships across the lagoon and is directly linked to the cruise industry. ‘You risk years in jail,’ a lawyer friend told me, in all earnestness. They described me as a ‘manipulator of perspectives’, and hired two young detectives to dig up something on me that might support their theory about my friendship with the Green Party councillor – which, for some, was synonymous with intrigue, or fraud – as well as to confirm ‘shady’ sightings of me in the bar the day before and after the incident. A quick search on Google would have been enough, there was no need for private detectives. (Just think, dear detectives, that I am right here again, at the Melograno Bar, adding this parenthesis as I’m proofreading my book. I am adding it, because even if six years have gone by, it still bothers me to know that a couple of nobodies, hired by a third nobody, intruded into my life to try to find out God knows what. I can just imagine your silly and morbid questions to the bartenders. I just wanted to tell you about my annoyance and I wanted to do it in a book because, you know, books are long-lived things, they last over time, go beyond seasons, ages, lives… even your lives, dear detectives, yours and the lives of those who hired you.) A couple of months later, the captain of the ship, questioned by a magistrate – who, by the way, never summoned me nor Gianfranco Bettin – admitted he had made a more hazardous manoeuvre than usual, because of a ferry coming in the opposite direction, or so he claimed. The case was dismissed in the summer of 2008.

In short, on this occasion, the smear machine – a tiny smear machine, to tell the truth, a bargain-basement version of it – set in motion immediately after media outlets all over the world picked up the story, didn’t work. And neither, unfortunately, did our evidence of a narrow escape, a disturbing anomaly. The ships are still there, despite the demonstrations, despite the petitions, despite the citizens’ committees against them. They parade around the lagoon undisturbed and in ever greater numbers, bigger and more polluting. Luckily, my primary school teacher, who taught me citizenship, will never know how useless his efforts were. Or mine.

Then it happened again, years later. I was there, as before, on a Sunday, in the middle of writing a book – on Antonio Tabucchi this time – with the black sky behind San Marco, still and threatening. All the weather apps concurred: 100 per cent likelihood of heavy thunderstorms at around 6pm. And shortly after 6pm, a strong wind announced what was to follow. I moved inside the bar, sat at the farthest table and got back to work, earphones at almost maximum volume, U2, I think, or a seventies playlist. It was then a thundering noise drowned out both my music and the voices around me. I looked up and saw hailstones, big as golf balls, bouncing off the little tables outside. I grabbed my iPhone, headed for the door and began filming the hail. But then something else entered the frame, for three minutes and fifty seconds. The next day, La Repubblica asked me to write about it. Which I did.

This second video also went viral. I’m not proud of it, as once again it was about a near-tragedy, involving a cruise ship in Venice. After half of the world had watched it, I was asked: Can you describe to us what you saw? But how can I? How are you supposed to describe certain images? Even if you were a writer who happened to shoot a video like the one I did on Sunday, 7 July 2019 on Riva dei Sette Martiri in Venice, what words would you use to recreate the power of that moment, the sounds, the emotions, the amazement and, above all, the fear? No doubt you would reach for some little used, rare, indisputable phrases, but in the end, the video would still speak for itself. Words would only ever be a caption, an added extra, and in any case they would sound muffled, reassuring even by comparison. Yet we have to try. I have been going to the Melograno Bar in Riva dei Sette Martiri to write since 2002. I have seen hundreds and hundreds of cruise ships passing by. I have also been there on Sundays. Then came the storm, announced by all the weather forecasters and clearly visible, for some time, in the sky behind San Marco. The customers on the terrace took shelter inside. As it grew dark and the surrounding landscape quickly disappeared, obliterated by the storm and the hail, I looked through the doorway to film those gigantic ice-balls that threatened to smash those tables outside to pieces. Across from us, everything had disappeared: the island of San Giorgio, the lagoon, San Marco, everything. Then a puff of smoke entered the frame first – black, much blacker than the dark grey wall created by the storm – the smoke of a tugboat that had been struggling with forces hitherto unseen. Until that moment when suddenly, immediately behind it, and just a few metres beyond the bank, the massive, imposing anvil of the bow of a cruise ship appeared. And from that moment, the storm became ‘Deliziosa’, delicious. Not even the bravest writer would have dared to be so ironic with the choice of name he gave the Costa Cruises ship.

I continued filming, as the hail became something of an insignificance and the Deliziosa veered first towards the bank in front of me and then the luxury yacht berthed further downstream. When the bow bore down on the yacht and the siren went off – horrifyingly – the passengers of the yacht started jumping overboard, terrified to the point of seeming suicidal. By this point, however, the struggle between the little tugboats and the deranged mammoth was over, a victory for the underdogs, thanks to the captains, and to fate as well. When this video went viral I received requests from all over the world, bringing with it a realisation: it would be the rest of the world, not us Venetians, nor even us Italians, who would save Venice.

Alternatively, we could consider the photo I took one evening in July, a couple of weeks after the aforementioned near-miss at sunset – a purple, lilac, blue, yellow sunset – with a cruise ship leaving Venice, black against the light, with San

Marco in the background. We were on the vaporetto returning from Lido, and there, above the magnificent skyline of the island of San Giorgio with its tree-lined park: two vermilion-coloured flames, tens of metres high accompanied by black smoke, slightly darker than what comes out of the ship’s chimney.

Half the city – the one that saw only the smoke and glow of those flames – believed it to be a fire, and as every Venetian does on such occasions, they immediately thought of the evening of 29 January 1996, when the La Fenice Theatre was burned to the ground. This time, however, it was the two torches of the Versalis cracking plant, burning tons of toxic substances: ethylene and propylene. The preposterous municipality website kept posting that everything was fine, that the air quality was still OK, as if the emissions of the big ships were as sweet as eucalyptus and menthol. The flames could be seen from miles away, and every time you did see them, you feared the worst. Assuming it was not, in fact, the actual worst.

In the first half of 2019, there was an accident every month. Compressor blockage in April, plant restart in May, pump failures in June and July. The natural colours of the city that evening – marvellous; the shadows of the palaces, bell towers and churches – splendid, against the richly-hued backdrop of the sunset; but then the whole image made putrid by the ship and the torches firing flames and poisons into the sky. Harmless? And some idiot still insists on having the cruise ships park right there.

The number of fine particles released into the air by a single cruise ship is equivalent to fourteen thousand cars running around for one day. A floating eco-monster, advancing towards the San Marco basin.”

Alone or with Teresa, sitting down to write or walking hand in hand, I often raise my eyes just as a ship detaches itself from the dock of the Maritime Station and its imperious bow starts to loom over the city even before it passes through it. The absurd steel iceberg disappears after turning portside, towards the Giudecca Canal. Now the big ship overlaps with the spectacle of Porto Marghera, behind it: smoke on smoke (sometimes smoke on flames); tons on tons. Clearly that landscape in the background, already so incongruous, so out of place, so toxic, was not enough. There was apparently a need to add even more metal, poison, and danger, even if only in transit. Yet, it is a never-ending transit. Permanent now. The number of fine particles released into the air by a single cruise ship is equivalent to fourteen thousand cars running around for one day. A floating eco-monster, advancing towards the San Marco basin where, a little further down, the old man of the lagoon is already reeling in the line of his fishing rod, wheezing.

I would really like the saboteurs of the landscape to listen to him one day, the old man of the lagoon, and ask him about these fumes. Because he knows. They could catch him on his corner as he quickly reels in his line, and he would make a list of all the pollutants present in the dust particles emitted by those monsters. He would do it calmly, precisely articulating the names of the poisons that pollute the air of Venice: Pm10 and Pm2.5, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, benzoapyrene, benzene, as well as heavy metals and dioxins. He would take a pause after this litany recited without taking a breath, then he would say, ‘Do you understand, dear sirs? Poisons concentrated together in those little black, fetid clouds that according to you – tell me if I’m wrong, dear saboteurs of the landscape, pillagers of the lagoon – emit sweet wafts like eucalyptus and menthol.’ He wouldn’t give them time to reply. He would nail them with a look, the old man of the lagoon, he would enjoy their embarrassment, watch them sweat for a moment, or throw in some data from a research study – a tragic one – carried out in Civitavecchia: the population residing within five hundred metres of the harbour where the ships moor can expect a mortality rate increase of 31 per cent in lung cancer cases and 51 per cent in cases of neurological diseases. Not to mention the fish. He would have told them about his fish, by now disappeared from these waters, thanks to the emissions of the big ships, and the millions of tons of steel that have been roving around unpunished for years, devastating the lagoon’s fragile seabed. ‘And so, now’ – the old man of the lagoon might conclude, a little melodramatically, as he looked the cruise company owners straight in the eye – ‘now, I am forced to wind in my reel for the final time; and it will creak in the emptiness left by your final devastation.’ And if next to him that day stood Teresa’s counterpart, the old woman of the who-knows-what, those men dressed in suits and ties would have had to hear her exasperated ‘Maria Signor Benedeto!’ – Benedeto with one ‘t’, as we Venetians always ignore the double letters – and her declining their formalities, shaking only her head, and that would have been enough to make them feel even more uneasy, even more guilty. Maybe.

Detail from a panorama of a cruise liner passing Piazza San Marco. Wikimedia Commons

When the mastodons pass by, the people on the banks always look up in admiration; gigantic things always amaze us. They scare us, but it’s a perverse, attractive fear that seduces us. It becomes a simple aesthetic fact. A collective ‘ooooohhh’, shared by adults and kids alike. On board, up there, perched dozens of metres above the surface of the lagoon, we can make out slight, dark, vaguely anthropomorphic shadows. Figurines made flesh, taken straight from a multilingual brochure that promises cruise-goers a breathtaking view of Venice, from there, from above. And from the water. Dark silhouettes waving their hands – once again – ciao, ciao – as well as firing tiny white lightning bolts, flash after flash, another promise of the brochure: pixels to be sent immediately, via mail or WhatsApp, to relatives and friends. Instantly shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Dark bodies faintly outlining the hundred thousand tons of machinery ploughing through the delicate waters of the lagoon, millions of kilogrammes disturbing the stones of Venice, shaking the windows of the houses, making floors tremble, foundations stagger, but apparently leaving the water around them perfectly intact. You see – say the conmen of common sense, the pillagers of the lagoon to those raising the issue – these ships don’t make waves. Except that, here it is, several minutes later, the suction and piston effect, and you on the pontoon, waiting for a vaporetto, suddenly feeling the floor moving under your feet, as if racked by a storm that isn’t there, as if a cruise ship were passing by, as if tons of goods were passing by, which is what actually happened, indeed, but a few minutes ago, not now, and the wave surges from the depths, millions of litres of displaced water, violated a few minutes before, because a body can’t plough the sea without displacing an equivalent quantity of it, of the sea that is.

Of the lagoon, in this case, which is not the sea.

The conmen of common sense, the pillagers of the landscape know all this perfectly well: a suction and piston effect, that suddenly empties the canals, only to refill them again, just as suddenly, causing initially almost imperceptible, mini-tsunamis that, in the long run, will prove devastating for canal banks, foundations, and the buildings of Venice generally. Finally, as if this weren’t enough, there are the big propellers, hidden down below, that lift and whisk and scatter sediments, that upturn and upset the seabed. Week in, week out, there’s a perpetual coming and going in Venice. As if great lorries thundered through Milan’s Piazza Duomo, or tanks crossed Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, or planes landed on the Champs Élysées in Paris or trains cut Rome’s Piazza Navona in two… every day, only multiplied. Because Venice is Venice. So ask yourself what happens to the foundations of Piazza San Marco, when those floating cities, by no means invisible, consisting of millions of kilos of steel, glass, plastic, liquids, humanity… what happens when all that passes, pressing down with all that tonnage, that strength, that unprecedented power, down and down towards the roots of the world’s most beautiful, most fragile city, mine.

Having reached their destination, passing parallel to Piazza San Marco, come six o’clock, or half-past six, or seven in the evening, more or less every thirty minutes – noisy and imposing and interfering – the ships start to leave the city, there, in front of Palazzo Ducale, darkening it in the setting sun. At this point, the dark profiles of the passengers, all clustered together up there against the light, finally reach their apotheosis of clicks, jostling to get the best shot. From down here, far below, someone wishes that a smartphone would slip out of somebody’s hand, aided by the humidity or the emotion or an unintentional elbow, to go plop, straight down into the water. From down here, that’s what we think about to sublimate at least some of the anger. A few seconds after they pass, the people on the bank will be hit by a gust of artificial wind, the reverberation of tons of air, no different to water in this regard. And then the smoke, up there, uninterrupted, black. Even blacker against the light. Poisonous.

From The Book of Venice, edited by Orsola Casagrande, translated by Orsola Casagrande and Caterina Dell’Olivo (Comma Press, £9.99)


Roberto Ferrucci (born in Venice, 1960) made his debut in 1993 with the novel Terra Rossa (Transeuropa Edizioni), which was followed in 1999 by Giocando a pallone sull’acqua (Playing Ball on the Water, Marsilio Editori), Andate e ritorni (Roundtrips in the North East, Amos edizioni, 2003), Cosa Cambia (What is Changing, Marsilio, 2007) and Sentimenti sovversivi (Subversive Sentiments, Isbn edizioni, 2011). He has worked as a journalist, filmmaker and editor, and is the Italian translator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Patrick Deville. Since 2002, he has taught creative writing at the University of Padua, and with Tiziano Scarpa currently co-hosts a writing workshop at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.

Orsola Casagrande is a journalist and filmmaker based variously between Venice, the Basque Country and Havana. As a journalist, she worked for 25 years for the Italian daily newspaper Il manifesto, and is currently co-editor of the web magazine Global Rights. She writes regularly for Spanish, Catalan and Basque newspapers and is the editor and co-translator of Comma’s The Book of Havana, and co-editor of The American Way: Stories of Invasion (with Ra Page) and Kurdistan + 100 (with Mustafa Gundogdu), both forthcoming from Comma Press.

Caterina Dell’Olivo is a Venetian translator and proofreader. After graduating from Ca’ Foscari University, she received a Masters degree in Translation in Turin, where she is now based.

The Book of Venice is out now in paperback and eBook in the acclaimed ‘Reading the City’ series from Comma Press.
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