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Venice’s flood sirens sing, piercing through the early morning fog. Metal bulkheads are in position, securing shops and grocery stores. Wooden walkways sneak through calli and salizade – our streets. Locals sport emergency rubber boots. These are routine acqua alta (high water) preparations. But on 3 October, for the first time in our city’s history, all of it was superfluous. The Adriatic waters that have been both curse and lifeblood to the city were held back. As Tommaso, a Venetian gondolier, exclaimed in dialect familiar to me from childhood (I grew up nearby): “Xe un miracoo!” – It is a miracle.
But far from being proof of divine providence, this modern parting of the waters is the work of Mose, or Experimental Electromechanical Module, an integrated system of coastal barriers and mobile dykes designed to protect the Venice lagoon from exceptional acque alte up to 3 metres above normal sea levels. It has been long in the making: construction – and controversy – started back in 2003, after decades of deliberations and tests following the destructive tide of 4 November 1966, to date the highest on record.
It is also the latest in a string of successes for the centre-left Italian government led by Giuseppe Conte, the university professor and jurist first chosen as the country’s unlikely prime minister in 2018. Conte had held no political office before, and was widely seen as a weak, technocratic figure, favoured only for being a compromise between the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Conte is now the most popular politician in Italy, surpassing Matteo Salvini, leader of the League and fan of Donald Trump. The reason? Conte is providing a modicum of effective government to a population starved of political competency, and he is being rewarded accordingly. The populist, far-right Salvini has been beaten where it hurts: on substance.
Like many Italians, I am somewhat bewildered. Italy is usually portrayed as a land of untold beauty and charm, fated to be governed by corrupt, greedy, incompetent politicians. But in 2020 we have first been praised by pundits worldwide as a beacon of collective civility for our response to Covid-19. Then, our country played an important part in the renewed European taste for federalism by lobbying hard for – and obtaining – a common recovery fund. A soft nationalisation of Italian highways smoothly concluded the tragic saga of the Morandi bridge collapse. And now, a massive public infrastructure project has been successfully brought to completion. Fiercely criticising our country – except when we win at football – is our favourite national sport. Together with carefree hugging and kissing, could that soon also be taken from us?
Not so fast. The number of people testing positive for Covid-19 is now steadily increasing in Italy, too. Italian influence over EU politics is still limited: eurobonds could not have happened without German chancellor Angela Merkel’s change of mind. Italian motorways are crumbling after years of scandalous underfunding. And the Mose system itself was a quintessentially Italian infrastructure project: spiraling costs, corruption charges and lengthy delays.
When commenting on Mose, the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnano, was at first laconic: “The Mose is stable,” he said and we remain on standby, but for now we are satisfied.” Although he did join in the celebrations, his initial reticence is understandable. Mose ended up costing more than three times the original estimate – €5.5bn (£5bn) against €1.6bn. It was meant to have been completed by 2011, and yet the final checks will only be done in 2021.
On top of that, 36 politicians, judges, businessmen and technicians were arrested on corruptions charges related to Mose in 2014. Perhaps even more worryingly, some experts doubt the system will be resilient enough to face rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis.
And yet, its difficult gestation notwithstanding, Mose is very much delivering: the city is dry. Pigeons harass the few hapless tourists for crumbs in San Marco square. The Basilica, a wondrous commixture of Byzantine, Islamic and Catholic art, is secure.
In a mystical coincidence, on the same day the renowned Italian conductor Riccardo Muti led an inspiring and emotive Concert for Dante in Rome. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, introduced it by paying tribute to the old master: this year marks the 700th anniversary of The Divine Comedy. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence Dante’s work still has on Italian culture and society.
He wrote that “the path to paradise begins in hell”. That aptly describes both the difficult genesis of Mose, as well as the surprising Italian renaissance we are witnessing. Despite its imperfections and contradictions, the centre-left government of Conte is showing the world that Italy can be a reliable and effective partner. At times even an inspiration. And, just maybe, the way Salvini has been stymied hints at a blueprint for dealing with far-right extremism. At the very least, after almost a year of Dantesque purgatory, let us hope that 2021 brings, if not exactly paradise, something resembling normal life.
• Gianmarco Raddi is a molecular biologist and a student doctor at the University of Cambridge