Venetians should start learning the backstroke

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Venice is dying.

That's the sober message of John Keahey's new book, "Venice Against the Sea." The city is slowly sinking, Venetians are fleeing, oceans are rising, and the Adriatic's waves are lapping at the bricks like a ticking clock.

It's a dark thought, that Venice could slip into the sea. In its glory, the Serenissima controlled much of the Mediterranean. It was one of the most powerful cities in the world and, as an independent republic, the longest-lived democracy ever (1,500 years). Venetians are credited with inventing modern capitalism and the banking system that made them so rich. In the 1200s, Venetian shipyards turned out a ship a day.

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The 20th century, however, was a different story. Decades of neglect and industrialization took their toll on the city's infrastructure. Much of the old city has been bought up by wealthy foreigners; locals have moved inland. Today, Venice has become a living museum, filled with treasures from other lives, than a city with a life of its own. You can't even find a good pizza there.

But more recently, and more ominously for the city, are the growing episodes of acqua alta or high water, that force Venetians to walk on duckboards and in golashes. Keahey writes with this premise: Over the coming decades, the condition will only get worse.

Keahey's book centers on this problem, one faced not just by Venice, but by coastal cities around the world. In the next 100 years, sea levels will rise, not just because of melting icecaps, but because of expanding oceans: With rising temperatures, water molecules expand and the oceans get bigger.

What does this mean for Venice? It means something has to be done to keep the city from gradually being submerged and corroded by salt. This has been clear since the 1966 flood, when more than six feet of water washed across the city and caused massive damage.

One solution Keahey seems to endorse halfheartedly is a series of mobile gates that could be raised during high water to hold back the tide. In typical Italian style, this was first proposed in 1970, and in the following 30 years, committees were formed, and the project was debated and postponed; funds were solicited, then allocated, and finally used elsewhere.

Opposition to the mobile gates from locals and environmentalists has grown. Meanwhile, governments have risen and fallen and done nothing about Venice.

Corruption, intrigue, and an entire city in peril – this is all good drama. But Keahey spends most of the book talking about the minutiae of global warming, scientific reports, the intricacies of tidal movements, repairs to city canals, and the feasibility of gates.

Sadly, the larger picture gets lost in these details. What does all this mean for the people who live there and have lived there for centuries? What does it mean for us? Why is it that outsiders and foreigners want the gates, while Venetians don't? What does the dilemma tell us about the kind of world we live in? Why is Venice, and this book about it, important?

These are all avenues not followed in "Venice Against the Sea." Nevertheless, it's a well-reported book, and Keahey is a brave man for walking into the labyrinth of Italian politics. There is much good information here about Venice and its problems, and Keahey's take is refreshingly cleareyed: His Venice is far, far from the Tuscan sun, and his history of the city is fascinating.

Unfortunately, when he moves into modern times, the book shifts into low gear and the story is overwhelmed by reams of data and long passages only a climatologist could love.

Why do we want to save Venice? That is the central question that goes unanswered. The outside world has a love affair with the city that people who live there do not. Are we saving it for ourselves or for them?

The book ends with this statement from the city's mayor: "All those who are using Venice for their own interests must make a contribution to preserve the myth." What that myth is, we are left to wonder.

• Frank Bures is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

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