The Science of Saving Venice

In the old days of the Venetian Republic, the doge would board his golden barge on Ascension Day to be rowed out beyond the lagoon into the waters of the Adriatic. There, he would throw a consecrated ring into the sea, saying “Desponsamus te, mare,” (We wed thee, O sea). On the night of 3 November 1966, that marriage—more than a millennium in the making—failed as a violent storm surge rolled into the city, flooding its labyrinthine canals to a depth of nearly two meters above mean sea level.

Miraculously, no one perished. Yet Venice was forever changed. As debris and pollution from oil spills flowed throughout the city, its most basic services rendered inoperable, the flood threw a harsh spotlight onto the crumbling architectural fabric of Venice, which had been slowly but surely sinking into the waters of the lagoon that had given it life, unbenownst to the outside world. Within weeks, the international community responded, pledging to aid Venice in its recovery.

Working closely with the soprintendenti, or cultural heritage officials in the Italian government, UNESCO drew up a list of more than 100 structures in urgent need of stabilization and conservation and launched an appeal for funds and technical assistance. Among the first to step forward were the British Art and Archives Rescue Fund (renamed Venice in Peril in 1971) and the U.S. Committee to Rescue Italian Art (CRIA). The World Monuments Fund (WMF)—known at that time as the International Fund for Monuments—partnered with the latter and established the Venice Committee to carry out restoration work. Its example was soon followed by the formation of a number of national committees dedicated to the preservation of the city.

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