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Saving Venice

It’s not often Moses needed a hand in saving his people. But then again they have always done things differently in Venice.

The Italian city has been undertaking a controversial €4billion project nicknamed Moses (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), a series of 78 flood barriers to stem a sinking crisis that saw it subside 23cm (9ins) over the last century.
But many Venetians, including Venice mayor Massimo Cacciari, were strongly against the idea. Now a radical plan has been approved to run alongside Moses – one in which Venice’s historic palazzo buildings would be elevated using mechanical stilts to keep them above the rising waters.

Project Rialto is backed by Venice mayor Massimo Cacciari – no devotee of Moses – and gets under way in 2009. The stilts will be sunk into the foundations of properties in Venice, which will then be raised by up to one metre.
Needless to say, this painstaking work will not be cheap, quick or easy. Lifting up a 930sq m structure would take 10 months to complete and cost nearly €2.7million. But many residents are convinced it will be worth it to restore Venice, Italy’s most romantic city, to its former glory.

Project Rialto supremo Roberto Zago said: “The benefit is that you get back the ground floor, which is worth a fortune in Venice.” Mr Cacciari seems to think so too and said approvingly: “We’re pursuing this proposal with great interest.”

Property for sale in Venice

There will be also be great interest outside Italy. Not least among foreigners looking for properties to buy in Venice – homes, villas, flats and apartments for investment, as a holiday home or to retire to.

When in 1817, Lord Byron set up home in Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal – moving in with a number of mistresses and two monkeys – he paid under £4 a week in rent, £280 at today’s prices.

However, today’s actual rental prices in Venice can go up to around £5,000 a week, which is why many canny investors are keen to buy and then rent out palazzo apartments in swanky parts of the city, such as the stretch of the Grand Canal between San Marco and the Accademia gallery in Dorsoduro.

As ever, there are more affordable options to be had if you are prepared to look beyond the city borders at places within easy reach of Venice.

For instance a 220sq m home for sale in Veneto in the San Sabbiadoro area, boasting five bedrooms can be yours for €250,000. And a 260sq m property for sale near Venice, in Portogruaro, with three bedrooms, is on the market for €310,000.

It has been obvious for centuries that something drastic needed to be done to stem Venice’s flooding problem. Byron wrote with grim prophecy: “Venice! Venice! When thy marble walls are level with the waters, there shall be a cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls, a loud lament along the sweeping sea!”

The nine years to 2002 saw floods deluge Venice no fewer than 50 times. One scant consolation is that they were nowhere near as severe as the crisis of 1966, when this part of Veneto was swamped by nearly two metres of water as the rest of Italy was also hit by floods.

It saw invaluable monuments and works of art ruined, led to worldwide rescue efforts and the establishment of the Venice in Peril organisation. That the problem has worsened in recent years is undeniable, blamed on rising sea waters caused by global warming and on sinking city foundations, caused by industrial sites at Mestre and Marghera extracting water.

It means that when the waters of the Adriatic Sea rise, they surge unabated towards Venice, overwhelming St Mark’s Square with monotonous regularity. Moses was to have been Venice’s salvation – steel gates weighing nearly 80,000 tonnes apiece hidden under the water but able to shut off inlets at Chioggia, Malamocco and the Lido port entrance when needed.

The project, begun in 2003, is due to be completed in 2012. When then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi laid the foundation stone at Malamocco in April 2003 he crowed: “There is no way back.” And that should have been that. But for many opponents it was more a case of No way Mose. They included Mayor Cacciari, who eloquently spelled out his opposition in a 400-page document.

The focus of many antis’ anger is the fear the scheme is ruining species and habitats in the lagoon supposedly safeguarded by EU directives. Construction has been repeatedly delayed by green demos, Brussels probes and even doubts from the Italian Government’s Environment ministry.

Now enter Project Rialto. It may not help Moses part these waters. But at least, Venetians and all Italy hopes, it will help stem them.