St. Mark’s Basilica Is Slowly Falling Victim to Venice’s Rising Tides

The 927-year-old cathedral has suffered more than $3.6 million in flood damage in recent years

St. Mark's Basilica
St. Mark's Basilica
Niklas Hamann

The city of Venice is more than 1,200 year old, but between overtourism and the effects of climate change, the 21st century has been exceptionally unkind to the Floating City — and it’s beginning to show.

According to a new report by Atlas Obscura, St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city and famous basilicas in all of Europe, has begun to show traces of irrevocable damage as a result of what is now regular flooding of the city.

In a recount of one particularly sinister flood, Rebecca Ann Hughes writes, “Vicar Angelo Pagan rushed to move 17th-century pews and other precious objects clear of the water, but looked on helplessly as the tide reached more than six feet, the second-highest level ever recorded in the city.” Carlo Alberto Tesserin, the man charged with overseeing the historic preservation of St. Mark’s, later described the building as having “aged 20 years in a day.”

Following that night, the 927-year-old basilica would flood 2-3 times per day, everyday, for three weeks. Glass was broken out of the windows, ancient floor tiles and columns comprised of saltwater-susceptible materials eroded, and the crypt below was left totally submerged, for a total of $3.6 million worth of damage. Then, it could be argued that monetary figures are meaningless in this situation, since what was lost can not really be replaced at all.

The previously installed flood defense system — which involved “automatically inflating barriers in the tunnels beneath the church that help redirect water out to sea” — is no longer a sufficient barrier against rising sea levels, and efforts to effectively rinse the cathedral with fresh water to combat the damage from salt build up have fallen short. It’s left those with a vested interest in the basilica scrambling for an alternative.

The latest of independent flood-defense proposals, according to Atlas Obscura, is a $4.2 million project headed by engineer Daniele Rinaldo and architect Mario Piana. Their plan involves a series of valves inserted into the drainage system, which will reroute water away from the cathedral. There has also been discussion surrounding the installation of a four-foot glass barrier in front of the basilica, to separate it from the piazza where water tends to accumulate.

While the plans have already been approved, it remains to be seen for how long they will suffice to save St. Mark’s from continually rising sea levels. After all, recent studies suggest that the entire city of Venice may be underwater by the end of the century should current trends persist.

As far as the new flood-defense plans go, “The projects are a little outlandish,” Hughes writes, “but proponents argue they might be what it takes to preserve one of the finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture.” And for that, we must applaud their efforts.


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