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Venice's cultural institutions hit hard by floods

Stefan Dege eg
November 13, 2019

The lagoon city is used to the phenomenon known as "acqua alta," but the record-breaking floods put Venice in an emergency situation. Many cultural venues had to close and are tracking the damage caused by the water.

Saint Mark's Square in Venice sits under water witht he basilica in the background
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ComunicareVenezia

"We did not expect such a level [of flooding]," says Petra Schaefer from the German Study Center in Venice. The institute, which is responsible for German-Italian cultural and scientific exchanges, is housed in the historic Palazzo Barbarigo della Terrazza, directly on the Grand Canal, the majestic major waterway that snakes through the city.

On Tuesday night, the water level reached a record-breaking 1.87 meters (6 feet). The art historian told DW that, "1.45 meters had been predicted, and we were prepared for 1.6 meters."

The archives of the study center flooded knee-high, as Schaefer's photos show. Files with documents, advertising material and books were immersed in the saltwater that had been pushed into the lagoon by the storm's winds, along with constant rain.

Schaefer, who has been living in Venice for 20 years, says that people in her neighborhood didn't seem to be panicking, even though the extreme-flooding alarms rang at least four times during the night. "Everywhere people were offering their help. There was a great wave of solidarity."

The German Study Center in Venice on Wednesday morning
The German Study Center in Venice on Wednesday morningImage: Petra Schaefer/Deutsches StudienzentzrumVenedig

St. Mark's Basilica flooded

St. Mark's Square in the center of the UNESCO World Heritage city has been completely flooded since Tuesday evening. That morning, tourists and locals in rubber boots were still wading across the square. In the evening, only the police was on the square — in boats.

St. Mark's Basilica, a 9th-century church and iconic city landmark, was particularly affected by the floods: At one point, the water in the building stood 1.10 meters high. The lower crypt was completely flooded. The masonry was damaged by the water, Italian media reported. "We are trying to contain the damages," the basilica's engineer, Pierpaolo Campostrini, told Italian news agency ANSA.

Read more: Climate protesters crash red carpet at Venice film Biennale

Karole Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, described Venica as being in "a state of disaster and alertness."

"Fortunately, the museum staff is doing well," Vail told DW, adding that "the museum and the collections were not damaged." She added that for security reasons, the much-visited private museum will remain closed to the public through Thursday, November 14.

Water in St. Mark's Basilica
Water in St. Mark's BasilicaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Bruno

Many cultural institutions closed

Many other institutions in Venice were forced to take the same precaution and close their doors. These included the Palazzo Grassi, on the banks of the Grand Canal, which is currently showing a retrospective of the works of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, as well as the Teatro La Fenice, the city's largest and most famous opera house.

The Castello district, which serves every two years as the main venue for the Venice International Art Biennale, was also affected by the floods. The country pavilions, including the German one, are located in a parkland area known as the Giardini. Parts of the Biennale extend to the halls of the historic shipyard Arsenale.

"The Giardini and the Arsenale are difficult to reach," Marco Carrino, who works for the German Biennale Pavillion on behalf of the German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, told DW. "The vaporettos [water taxis] are not in service."

The German pavilion, located on a hill, was not affected by the flood itself, Carrino said; instead, the main threat came from trees that had been damaged by the storm and risked toppling over.

Parts of the Arsenale could be under water, Carrino said: "I fear there was damage there."

Read more: A huge migrant shipwreck on show at the Venice Biennale

The flooding phenomenon, known as "acqua alta," is typical to Venice. But this time, things were worse than expected. "The situation is dramatic," Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of the northern Italian city, wrote on Twitter. "We ask the government to help us. The cost will be high. This is the result of climate change."

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