Cruise ships have been ploughing their way through Venice’s canals for the past couple of decades. You may have seen those canals, either IRL or in some mid-afternoon History Channel show about 16th-century art—they’re definitely not built to accommodate gigantic boats carrying thousands of people.
While mooring up in the Venetian Lagoon (near St. Mark’s Square) might give tourists the kind of views they installed Instagram for, the boats’ giant engines are shaking the foundations of the centuries-old city and depositing a huge amount of pollution into the water every year. Local environmentalists, understandably, aren’t happy about this and have been campaigning against the boat traffic for a number of years through the No Grandi Navi (No Big Ships) committee.
The group’s protests, though passionate, are usually relatively small. So while organizers were putting together a rally for this past Saturday, June 7, they presumably didn’t anticipate quite how large the day’s demonstration would become.
The campaign’s recent boost came courtesy of a scandal at the MOSE Project, the multimillion-dollar flood-protection system that broke ground 11 years ago and has since suffered a series of delays and setbacks. Over the past week the Italian judiciary uncovered how businessmen, retired police, and a number of public figures—including Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni and former president of the Veneto region Giancarlo Galan—had allegedly been siphoning off millions of euros from the project by taking bribes from the consortium behind construction, the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, in return for fast-tracking the approval of contracts.
Riled up by both the nautical assault on Venice and the authorities’ apparent willingness to fill their pockets instead of doing their jobs properly, protesters gathered on Saturday at the Piazzale Roma in front of the Constitution Bridge. They were mostly twentysomethings holding “No Big Ships” banners and flags of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, the emblem of Venetian separatists who are campaigning for independence for the region of Veneto in a bid to avoid the corruption they say is rife in Southern Italy.
The demonstrators’ chants ranged from “The Lagoon has no fear” to direct calls for politicians to stand down. “[Current president of the Veneto region] Luca Zaia should resign!” shouted one protester. “If he knew about the corruption, he must resign because he didn’t say anything. If he didn’t know, then he must resign anyway because he’s a dickhead!”
Besides that biting political commentary, people were mostly shouting about the Consorzio Venezia Nuova. “Today was supposed to be a day of action against big ships in the Lagoon, but it’s now become a day of struggle against the Venetian system," announced one of the organizers. Another added: "In Venice, the mafia has a name: Consorzio Venezia Nuova."
At about 2:00 PM the crowd moved 100 yards up the road and began blocking the Liberty Bridge, which connects the group of islands that make up Venice to the rest of Europe. Aiming to stop tourists from boarding a cruise ship, the protesters started putting together a barrier, first out of their own bodies, then out of a more practical fishing net.
Bar leaving a crowd of tourists visibly confused, the protest didn’t really seem to achieve very much. Of course, finding a solution to a problem like this is always going to be complicated, and there's a lot more to be done than waving banners around in the street.
According to Venice councilman Beppe Caccia, it’s not just a couple of “rotten apples” that need to be removed, but great chunks of the ruling system. He told me, “That’s why we have proposed the dissolution of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, as well as calling for a real, independent investigation into the progress of the work and the adequacy of the costs. Because a criminal system was used to bypass all those elements of audit and control."
Others, like Marco Baravalle, one of the organizers of the demonstration, had more instantly achievable goals. He told me that instead of having the ships anchor in the Lagoon, therefore crossing the St. Mark’s Basin, they should stop in the stretch of water where the Lagoon and the Adriatic Sea meet. From there, he said, tourists could be brought into the city on boats that don’t destroy what it is they’ve come to look at.
For now, however, the protesters have little control over what happens, leaving them to watch on as their city continues to deal with both the cruise ships and a ruling system apparently built upon corruption and greed.
Follow Pietro Minto on Twitter.