For every resident Venetian, hundreds of visitors pour into the city each year to savor its gilded charms. Most will take in this view across San Marco Basin. Many could find themselves in acqua alta—high water.
Nowhere in Italy, where calamity comes embellished with rococo gestures and embroidered in exclamation points, is there a crisis more beautifully framed than Venice. Neither land nor water, but shimmering somewhere in between, the city lifts like a mirage from a lagoon at the head of the Adriatic. For centuries it has threatened to vanish beneath the waves of the acqua alta, relentlessly regular flooding caused by the complicity of rising tides and sinking foundations, but that is the least of its problems.
Just ask Mayor Massimo Cacciari, broody, mercurial professor of philosophy, fluent in German, Latin, Ancient Greek; translator of Sophocles' Antigone; a man who raises the level of political intellect to just short of the stratosphere. Ask about the acqua alta and Venice sinking, and he says, "So go get boots." Let them wear boots.
Boots are fine for water, but useless against the flood that causes more hand-wringing than any lagoon spillover: the flood of tourism. Number of Venetian residents in 2007: 60,000. Number of visitors in 2007: 21 million.