Amidst the splendour and magic, it is difficult to remember that Venice was founded in adversity, on tiny islands amidst swamps, out of reach of the marauding barbarians from northern Europe. These early settlers were able to contrive extraordinary advantages from this unlikely setting making the Venetian Republic one of the most astounding achievements in government, empire and indeed culture. The interventions of man in the Lagoon throughout this period, in building palaces and maintaining navigation routes, carefully observed the underlying symbiotic relationship between the islands of the city and their surrounding environment, harnessing and channelling natural processes where possible.
But the sheer scale of human interventions since the last century have by now called into question to what extent has the Lagoon been ‘anthropicised’ and must the so-called natural dynamics be maintained – or what will happen if they are ignored?
The Venice Lagoon is, above all, extremely complex. It is a place of transition between terrestrial and aqueous environments, fresh and saltwater systems, human intervention and a natural ecology that is simultaneously resilient, versatile and delicate. A unique type of ecosystem has emerged that supports a rich biodiversity, including certain species that are only found here. There are also other species that depend specifically on the Lagoon for key stages in their life cycle and a large number of species found in the Lagoon that are highly rare elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
The historic and cultural marvel of Venice makes it easy to overlook the fact that the Venice Lagoon is a world-renowned wildlife habitat. It is the largest wetland in Italy and one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the whole Mediterranean region. This is ostensibly one of the most studied coastal wetlands of the world due to the longstanding interrelationship with human activities, its unique biodiversity and conspicuous government funding of safeguarding measures since the 1980s.
Observed changes in the Lagoon, especially rapid and marked since the mid-20th century, are the result of direct human intervention, induced consequences of other human activities and natural processes. To grasp, and address, the challenges for Venice a solid understanding is necessary as regards the dynamic and complex interactions between the city, the Lagoon, bordering mainland and Adriatic Sea. Not just in terms of physical processes but also the chemical and biological ‘metabolism’ of the Lagoon.
The Italian expression ‘the appetite comes with eating’ is wholly apt when studying the Lagoon system. Recently there have been advances in scientific theory together with more finely-tuned ‘data sets’ from increasingly detailed physical, chemical and biological monitoring programmes. These do as much to expose intractable, underlying complexities in cause-effect relationships as to clarify other trends and variables. It is imperative that the detail and sophistication of these advanced techniques like ‘remote sensing’, ‘real-time digital data collection’ etc. does not exclude human scale evidence like the experiences of fishermen and rowers who inhabit the Lagoon on a regular basis and can accomplish more complicated assessments than any computer modelling.
To facilitate this integration of diverse information, the British Pavilion will host a series of workshops to address open questions concerning Venice and her relation to the Lagoon. Appropriately these will take place in the Stadium of Close Looking, against the backdrop of the Lagoon installation. This is a significant opportunity for Venice to debate its current situation and possible futures. And ideally it may also produce tools and experience that can be transferred to the UK, or indeed wherever there is a similar need to envision viable futures in a complex environment and historically rich framework.