Higher Tides In Venice

No Quick Fix For A Fabled City That Is In Peril From Surging Seas

On Tuesday, Feb 6, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, 60 Minutes II will air a report on Venice, which is slowly sinking. In the meantime, CBSNews.com's Gary Paul Gates dives into this very complex subject.

Back in the days when The New Yorker was widely regarded as America's most sophisticated magazine - a weekly trove of sparkling wit and satire - one of its most celebrated writers was Robert Benchley.

What brings Benchley to mind is this week's story on 60 Minutes II about an elaborate - and rather far-fetched - scheme to save the city of Venice from sinking into the sea.

One time, while on vacation in Venice, Benchley was gliding serenely on a gondola through the canals that form the main thoroughfares of that glorious city when he suddenly had a brainstorm that led him to cable an urgent message to his boss back in New York.

His boss was Harold Ross, the founding editor and guiding genius of The New Yorker.

Almost everyone who wrote for that magazine in those days agreed that Ross was a brilliant editor. Yet they also couldn't help but notice that at times he seemed to be naïve - even ignorant - in subjects about which a man in his position should have been informed.

For example, there was the question he presumably raised while editing a piece in which the author made a passing reference to Moby Dick. According to legend, Ross circled the two words and wrote in the margin: "Who he? The whale or the guy with the peg leg? Not clear."

Benchley, of course, was aware of Ross' odd blind spots about people and places that, to most people, were common knowledge. So, while basking in the splendors of Venice, he had a hunch that Ross might not know what it is that makes that most enchanting of cities so distinctive.

To test his mischievous theory, Benchley hustled over to the telegraph office and fired off the following cablegram to the editor of The New Yorker:

ROSS
STREETS HERE FILLED WITH WATER - ADVISE
BENCHLEY

There is no evidence that Ross was hoodwinked by this prank, but you get the idea. And whatever the case, if Benchley were still alive and visiting Venice now he would soon discover, to his dismay, that not only are the streets filled with water but the entire city is in danger of being engulfed by the rising tides of the Adriatic Sea.

This is not a new concern. Ever since 1966, the year Venice was deluged by the worst flood in its history, the voices of pessimism have been warning us that the city is doomed, that it is only a matter of time before the Piazza San Marco and all the other magnificent landmarks are washed into oblivion.

What is new - or relatively new - is that engineers have come up with a plan to deal with the peril, and that is the subject of the 60 Minutes II report by CBS News Correspondent Bob Simon.

The proposed solution calls for the installation of giant mobile gates that would separate the Venetian lagon from the Adriatic. When high tides are forecast, the huge gates would rise from the ocean floor and prevent the surging sea from flooding the city.

What the scheme would accomplish is nothing less than parting the waters, and for this reason the enterprise has been christened Project Moses.

It's worth noting perhaps that the Italians have long had a penchant for Biblical nomenclature, although as a rule they tend to draw their inspiration from the New Testament rather than the Old.

A few years ago, while on an assignment in Verona, I was urged to dine at the city's most renowned restaurant, 12 Apostoli, and the superb dinner I had there was almost matched by one I had a few nights later at another Veronese restaurant called Il Cenacolo, which is Italian for The Last Supper.

And for those patrons who may have needed help to place the reference, a huge reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting adorned the central wall of the dining room. Adding to the atmosphere were other pictures portraying scenes from the Stations of the Cross.

For reasons that probably require no explanation, I chose to forfeit that evening my customary pleasure of having wine with my dinner.

And speaking of wine, who else but the Italians would bestow on one of their sweet white wines the name lacrima Christi - or tears of Christ, as we would say in English?

As for Project Moses, it took nearly 20 years for the plans to be drawn up, and Italians have been arguing vigorously over its merits - or lack of them - for the past 10 years.

The many Venetians who favor the project have long since run out of patience, and at this point they no longer care by what name it goes by.

As Simon puts it in his report, their attitude is "Do something, call it whatever you want. Moses, Abraham, Isaac. Even Jacob. But do something."

Unfortunately, the supporters of the project are at the mercy of the Italian government which, to state it as mildly as possible, has never been known for its efficiency or stability.

Over the past few decades, Italian governments have fallen out of power with almost comic regularity. Uncertainty and a kind of amiable chaos are recognized as part of the routine.

So much so that on one occasion when a fragile coalition collapsed only weeks after it had been hastily cobbled together, an amused journalist chose to characterize the political breakdown as a situation that "is critical, but not serious."

What many find alarming about the situation in Venice is that it may be both critical and serious. Yet even if the government suddenly made Project Moses an urgent priority - a concept that is almost beyond comprehension in Italy - engineers estimate that it would take at least 10 years to build it and put it in operation.

But as every Italian learns at an early age, Rome wasn't built - or overrun by the Visigoths - in a day.

And so, whether Venice eventually succumbs to the tides and vanishes to the bottom of the driatic or is saved by a modern Mosaic miracle of parting the waters, you can be sure that it won't happen in a hurry.

Written By GARY PAUL GATES ©