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Sicily abounds in unique places most visitors to the Mediterranean’s largest island never see. John Keahey is exploring the island far away from the typical tourist destinations. His next book, yet to be titled, will reveal these places and expand mightily on his best-selling third book, Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean.

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Past Appearances

Marriott Library
University of Utah
‘Hidden Tuscany’
01 March, 2015
Salt Lake City, Utah

Reading
Weller Book Works
23 August, 2014
Salt Lake City, Utah

‘Sicilitudine: The Uniqueness of Sicily’
13-18 June, 2013
Conference on Ancient Arabic & Medieval Sicily
Siracusa, Sicily

‘Seeking Sicily’
19 February 2013, 6pm
Italian Studies Institute, Seton Hall University
South Orange, New Jersey

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Seeking Sicily
Publisher’s catalog page (PDF)

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Photos from Seeking Sicily

Links for A Sweet and Glorious Land

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Reviews of A Sweet and Glorious Land

“. . . Keahey distinguishes himself by leading readers on a detailed trip through an area few tourists visit: Calabria, with its scattering of small towns running from mountain to sea.”

— Publisher’s Weekly

 

“John Keahey’s idea of visiting the shores of the Ionian Sea under the expert guidance of his predecessor, the Victorian novelist and traveller George Gissing, has proved a brilliant one, fertilizing his own originality and giving breadth to his lightly—worn learning.”

— Pierre Coustillas, editor of The Gissing Journal and Professor of English Literature at the University of Lille, France

 

“A crisp travelogue from Salt Lake Tribune reporter Keahey, laced with appealing historical references, that follows the itinerary of a century-old trip made by novelist George Gissing through southern Italy.

“At the turn of the century, Gissing traveled by steamer, horse cart, and [rail] around the heel and toe of Italy. He wrote an account of the trip, By the Ionian Sea, that Keahey suggests is one of the best pieces of travel literature ever published. From the quotes Keahey uses to salt his own journey, it is difficult to understand why: Gissing comes across as dour and petulant. “It disappointed me that I saw no interesting costume; all wore the common, colorless garb of our destroying age,” he complains, declaring that village after village presented him with “a horrible time.” Keahey, on the other hand, is energetic and curious and willing to look the fool in order to explore where his nose tells him he must go. The landscape and its past have their hooks in him. He gets mugged, suffers the smog of Naples with its too-numerous automobiles and smoking buses, he is hurt by the ragged poverty of the south, but he is also lifted by the land’s sere beauty — its orange and lemon groves, as well as its tangible links to antiquity (for this is a place that knew Hannibal and Pythagoras, Herodotus, Horace, and Strabo).

“Keahey is a first-class story storyteller, calling up the grandeur and fabulous historical tableaux from the dust, sunlight, and ruins that stand before him. Italy, Keahey explains, is one of history’s great crossroads, and there is no better testiment to that than the Via Appia — the end product of Egyptian and Phoenician surveying, Etruscan and Carthaginian paving, and Greek masonry. It is the road that takes one back in time, as well as to Rome or Taranto.

“Lucky for us to have Keahey as narrator to the region. He can keep Gissing. ”

— Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2000

 

“Veteran newspaperman Keahey, now an editor and reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, has retraced the footsteps of George Gissing, a Victorian writer (and good friend of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells), who traveled to Southern Italy in 1897. His subsequent accounts became a classic in travel literature titled By the Ionian Sea. A hundred years later, Keahey visits such fascinating and historical destinations as Naples, Paola, Cosenza, Sybaris, Taranto, Crotone, Catanzaro, Reggio di Calabria, and Squillace and notes changes and similarities over the past century. The result is an informative and well-researched work on one of the most popular parts of Italy that provides a historical perspective on the area and its people. A detailed chronology, maps, the author’s photographs, and a bibliography are all useful, but an index would have been helpful as well. Recommended for public libraries with large collections on travel and Victorian literature.”

— Library Journal

 

For the last century or so, literary travellers to Calabria have been forming something of a conga dance across the generations. As he moved through the region in the winter of 1897, Gissing had a copy of La Grande-Grèce in his baggage, and was consciously following in the track of François Lenormant a decade earlier: he was thrilled to see the French scholar’s signature in a visitors’ book at Reggio. A few years later, before the First World War, Norman Douglas pursued Gissing into and out of the hotels he had immortalised—if that is the right word for it—and already found much improvement. The ever-informative H.V. Morton, head full of the memories of his illustrious predecessors and others even earlier, joined the procession in the 1960s, writing up his impressions as A Traveller in Southern Italy. The Coustillases followed the Gissing trail first in the summer of 1965 and again in October 1998: their typically thorough and charmingly personal enquiries, under the title “Revisiting the Shores of the Ionian Sea,” appeared as a supplement to this Journal as recently as October last. Sometimes it seems as if the only traveller to the South who was not in quest of some admired predecessor was Alaric the Goth. He, at least, had had nothing more elevated on his mind than getting off the peninsula altogether, with his Roman loot.

In the autumn of 1997, John Keahey, a Salt Lake City journalist, chanced across a copy of By the Ionian Sea and found it entrancing. Although he knew little or nothing about its author, he realised that he was reading the book at a propitious moment because the centenary of Gissing’s trip was approaching. He decided to retrace its course through the cities, both extant and extinct, which are strung along the edge of the Italian boot—the Magna Graecia, or Greek colonial settlements, of antiquity. Like Gissing he started from Naples (though not by sea) and then passed through Paola, Cosenza, Taranto, Metaponto, Crotone, Catanzaro, Squillace and Reggio, trying everywhere to see what Gissing saw, and comparing his own impressions with his. Everywhere he goes he finds change; and everywhere he finds continuity too.

Keahey describes A Sweet and Glorious Land as “a personal narrative and a work of journalism, not a footnoted history or a scholarly work”. That is a description, of course, that would also serve quite well for the impressionistic “ramble” of By The Ionian Sea itself. And therein lies a problem. Any book of travel which belongs, like this one, to the sub-genre of “in the footsteps of the master” is apt to be read as a pale shadow of its inspiration, and to invite invidious comparisons which are probably unfair and unreasonable. This must be especially true when the “master” in question is from the literary world and has written a book fairly similar in nature to its successor.

There are many ways in which By The Ionian Sea is a hard act to follow. Like much of Gissing’s work, it has an obsessional quality about it. It has a peculiar tone: a mixture of romantic exaltation over the irrecoverable past and a prolonged lament for it, all salted with a good deal of saturnine humour. This surely reflects the peculiar circumstances that produced it. The experiences behind By The Ionian Sea and its composition span the whole gamut of emotions in Gissing’s life. The writer who left England in September 1897 was a harried man indeed. He was not merely taking a trip. He was abandoning his second marriage and his two young sons. He was able to get away at all only because of the altruism of his sisters and women friends in coping with his children and his vengeful wife; he was perfectly aware of that and, not surprisingly, he carried a heavy load of guilt in his luggage. On top of that, he had a difficult critical book to write (he did it in Siena) before he was able to free himself for his trip to the South.

Entirely different was the situation when he began to write up his travels eighteen months later at the end of June 1899. Externally at least his life was transformed. He had moved to France and started a new life with Gabrielle Fleury, and he began the book in her mother’s apartment in Paris, completing it during an idyllic August holiday in the Alps. It would not be long before Gissing’s old devil, neurotic restlessness, would start troubling him again. But in that magical summer of renewal, he felt, as he wrote to his friend Bertz, that “for the first time in my life, I am at ease”. Surely not many travel books have gathered their material in one extreme state of mind and been composed in another at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

Naturally (we presume), A Sweet and Glorious Land did not emerge from circumstances even faintly resembling these. The persona of the narrative is that of a relaxed, humorous, urbane, middle-aged, happily-married American, off whose back the familiar minor irritations which beset every tourist in Italy bounce fairly readily. Where Gissing is carping and ill-tempered (as he is from time to time: think of his references to the “coarse and bumpkinish” faces at Crotone, for instance), Keahey is sunny and untroubled. Actually he had more personal reasons for complaint than Gissing; for though the latter occasionally felt uneasy about the predicaments he got into, he was never really threatened; whereas Keahey’s pocket was picked and he was set upon by a mugger and bag-snatcher in Naples even before his journey started, and during a bus journey he was taunted about being a “rich American,” with more than a hint of violence in prospect.

Then again, Keahey travels as an informed and intelligent tourist who is open to all that he sees and hears. But Gissing did not pass his month in Calabria out of any broad touristic impulse. His appetite for the region was a purely romantic one; it was, in the absolutely literal sense of the word, escapist. He is quite explicit about this in his introduction. He went to the South, he says, to “to escape life as I know it and dream myself into that old world”; the world of “vanished life so dear to my imagination”. He wanted to “wander endlessly amid the silence of the ancient world, [with] to-day and all its sounds forgotten”. It reads like an act of renunciation. Given the well-known dangers of travel at that time, and remembering Gissing’s personal circumstances and the fact that he did nearly succumb to an illness, one wonders whether he was not, in some covert fashion, tempting Fate, if not actually courting suicide.

Another problem is that the reflective traveller-historian is hard put to see something to write about. Gissing’s choice of southern Italy, for a man bent on soaking himself in the remnants of classical antiquity was not the best one. Sicily would have offered him more; and for a man who had already visited Greece, North Africa or south-western Turkey would have offered more still. For, of course, the truth is that earthquakes, ecological disruption caused by deforestation, shifting coastlines, malaria and human despoilation over many centuries have left few remains south of Paestum for the imagination to feed upon. Apart from a few new excavation sites which are comprehensible only to students, and some better exhibits in the museums, nothing much has changed in this respect since Gissing’s time. The region is still, as H.V. Morton said, pre-eminently a country for scholars. There is a passage in Edward Hutton’s old Naples and Southern Italy which conveys this very well. Hutton is summarising Reggio’s (Rhegium’s) calamitous history. He picks up the story after a siege in 387BC, when the city was laid waste and all her citizens sold as slaves. In 191BC it was half-wrecked by an earthquake; then “it fell to Alaric in 410 . . . it was taken in 549 by Totila, in 918 by the Saracens, in 1005 by the Pisans, in 1060 by Robert Guiscard, and was burnt out by Frederick Barbarossa. Rebuilt, it was sacked by the Turks in 1552 and burnt to the ground by them in 1597. Rebuilt again, in 1783 it was totally destroyed by an earthquake, as it was again in 1908.” The town was still mostly rubble when Hutton passed through. This paragraph adequately explains why there is little of the past left in Calabria; and what there is of the present is not especially inviting. As it happens, both Paul Theroux in The Pillars of Hercules and the anonymous writer for The Rough Guide to Italy independently quote Gissing’s comment on Crotone (“this squalid little town”) with the notation that it is still not a bad description. Few of the towns are of much intrinsic interest: whatever charms they once had—if any—have been wrecked by careless industrialisation and illegal property development.

Gissing himself solved this problem triumphantly by merging his vivid historical musings with wonderfully acute contemporary observations. Of the former, the high point is of course his famous account of the hallucinatory visions of antiquity that visited him as he lay on his sick-bed in the grip of la febbre. But the latter linger equally in the memory. His eye for the compelling concrete detail is unfailing. It is one thing to say that he found Squillace a desolate town. It is quite another, though, to notice that the sole sign of animation in the place was a pig and a cat playing together, rolling over and over in a muddy gutter. It is one thing to speak of the unhygienic and sluttish habits in the hotels: it is another to capture their essence by noting that the butter is being served up in an eaten-out cheese rind, or to notice the diner who puts his hands over his eyes and actually weeps tears of “indignant misery” at what is put in front of him. Not for a moment do we forget that we are in the hands of a master novelist.

Keahey’s comments on modern Italian life, while often quite amusing and informed, cannot match this acuity. He complains that Gissing “voiced numerous laments that today, against the backdrop of modern Italy seem silly”; but his own observations on modern life are perhaps a bit too cliched to be memorable. He does not seem to have his intended reader quite in focus. His lengthy description of his Naples pensione seems aimed those entirely unfamiliar with Europe, and he is not the first Italian visitor, nor will he be the last, to rue the “quiet town squares” that have become “gigantic parking lots,” or the “small darting cars,” or the “careening teenagers” on scooters. Indeed, if Keahey’s book has a fault, it is that parts of it make for rather mundane reading.

That is not altogether his fault, of course. As the books of Paul Theroux and many others illustrate, a sense of boredom, disgust and loneliness does lend spice to travel narratives.Gissing’s trip through Calabria had all these things in plenty. It was altogether a stronger, and a much stranger, experience that can be obtained easily a century later. Nowadays the intrepid traveller would have to work a lot harder and go a lot further to get the experiences Gissing had all for the cost of a few days on a train from London. The shocking roads, the verminous beds, the vile and sparse food, the medieval living-quarters, the tedium, the risk of contracting a lethal infectious disease: it is only the remotest regions can provide their like today. Calabria, nowadays, is no dark place of the earth. The lodgings, even in the smallest and most remote places, are now almost beyond criticism; the food is varied and agreeable; journeying is easy and reliable. Forty years ago H.V. Morton was loud in his praise for what the Cassa del Mezzogiorno has done for the South: the alleviation of really grinding poverty, the smiling cornfields replacing gloomy marshland, the bright promise of tourism. But even those remarkable feats were achieved long enough ago to be taken for granted today. Keahey complains, not about malaria, but about the Mafia, but it’s no substitute really and seems rather forced. A century ago the omnipresent malaria could quite easily kill you; whereas organised crime is hardly likely to touch the casual foreign visitor.

Where Keahey does most usefully is to supplement Gissing is in his role as historian. He is much better—or more explanatory, at any rate—than Gissing in supplying a straightforward account of the long, long history of Magna Graecia. Most people who read By the Ionian Sea today must be puzzled by its allusiveness. Gissing was writing, of course, for readers who had been educated as he had been, and he takes a great deal for granted. He translates few of his Latin quotations, for example. For the modern reader for whom Virgil and Horace are but names, and who has never read an original line of either, Gissing’s eager search for, and disappointment over, the little Galeso river at Taranto must seem rather mystifying. Keahey has an appealing sense of wonder at the remoteness of these events—the fact that these fantastically opulent cities grew, flourished and started to decline before anyone had ever heard of Rome—and his determination to get the sequence of events right, to understand motives and historical causation, makes him a good instructor. He repeats himself a good deal (the book could have been more firmly edited: we are told three times in as many pages that Crotone gained its current name in 1928, for example) but this is itself a teacher’s trick.

For this reviewer the most memorable detail in this cheerful and unassuming book has nothing to do with Gissing or Italy. According to Keahey, who learnt it from a movie about wolves, you can keep off aggressive dogs by urinating around the perimeter of a circle and staying inside it. As a dog-hater and dog-fearer on a par with Keahey himself, I intend to try out this tip at the first decent opportunity.

— The Gissing Journal, Volume XXXVI, Number 3, July, 2000

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Keeping Disaster Beyond the Gates 
By Chris Lehmann

All empires are ultimately destined to be history’s flotsam, but Venice seems poised to make this much more than metaphoric prophecy-speak. The North Adriatic lagoon over which the city arose on alder poles well over a millennium ago is rising steadily, and Venice’s once rare acque alte (high waters) are becoming extremely commonplace. Flood tides of more than 31 inches inundated the city on 99 occasions in 1996; the more general recent annual average is 50 high tides a year — still enough so that most of the city’s inhabitants of ground-floor residences have moved either up or out. By comparison, the city’s Piazza San Marco, which floods at a 27-inch tide, was flooded only seven times in 1900, and 20 times a year throughout the 1950s. Over the 1970s, it flooded 1,013 times.
The greater frequency, and deeper volume, of Venice’s flooding has a number of causes: the ill-advised dredging of the lagoon to deepen shipping lanes for oil tankers; the pumping of the groundwater beneath the city for industrial development; the neglect of the city’s canals, building walls and general infrastructure since World War II (to this day, Venice has no modern sewage system, relying on the lagoon’s high and low tides to flush its wastewater out to sea). But the most potent source of Venice’s modern sogginess is also the one over which Venetians have the least control: the steady rise of sea levels in response to global warming.
In “Venice Against the Sea,” veteran American journalist John Keahey describes the remarkable architectural history that unwittingly placed the once-noble republic in its current plight, and surveys the bitter present-day political disputes over what can be done to stem the tide. As he explains at the outset, Venice is, in geographical terms, a quite literal freak of nature. “A lagoon is theoretically a transitional phase in the building up, or breaking down, of things terrestrial,” he writes. “If left undisturbed over a relatively short period of time, a lagoon becomes either land or sea. . . . The artificial restraints early Venetians built into their lagoon have fought this natural cycle until this very day.”
Indeed, what’s been remarkable about Venice’s defiance of nature’s course is that it’s been so successful for so long: By laying the foundations of Venice on wooden pilings, the city’s fathers actually placed it on a layer of exceptionally solid earth beneath the lagoon’s sediments; the water surrounding the poles encased them in a vacuum that worked to steady them further; and the alder “became stronger — almost petrified — with each passing century.”
This ingenious balancing act has kept Venice afloat — and, just as important, protected from would-be attackers — for centuries. It’s only with the recent rise of the surrounding seas that so much of Venice has become so regularly waterlogged. Keahey reports that “the earth’s temperature increased by at least 1.1 degree Fahrenheit . . . over the last century. Within the last twenty-five years, temperatures seem to be rising at a quicker rate.” This may not seem like such a dramatic shift — except that by some estimates, the world today is “only five to nine degrees warmer” than it was during the Ice Age. And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded, the last century’s warming has produced a “rate of sea-level rise . . . about ten times greater than the average rate over the last 3,000 years.”
But the global, inevitable sweep of a hotter climate is just one of Venice’s problems. It is also saddled with the task of formulating some strategy of civic flood protection in a postwar Italian polity that is all but allergic to long-term planning of any kind. After the Allied powers vanquished Mussolini in 1943, they re-engineered the structure of Italy’s government, pitting scores of rival national parties against one another in frail and ever-shifting parliamentary coalitions — and for good measure, they instituted a new layer of regional government, which added another 20 bureaucratic sectors to mediate between municipal and national bodies. The idea was to prevent Italy from reuniting into an authoritarian or fascist power, and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams; in the 55 years between the end of World War II and the turn of the 21st century, Italy went through 58 national governments.
It’s scarcely surprising, then, that even as the waters in Venice continue to rise, the pace of political change is glacial. In 1973 — already seven years after the worst flood in the city’s modern history — the national government finally passed a vaguely worded “special law” calling for a “united effort” to safeguard Venice, recommending in particular the construction of retractable gates that would rise out of the water as flood conditions worsen to repel the Adriatic’s tides, and keep the lagoon below flood levels. A full decade later, the Consorzia Venezia Nuova (CVN) was founded; it is a private consortium of corporations charged with defining the scope of Venice’s flood troubles and mandating the solution. The CVN has been pressing steadily for the gates’ construction, but its corporate composition, as well as its tight connections to the country’s political class, has made it vulnerable to charges from understandably cynical citizens that it’s out to feather the n! ests of the contractors, engineers and civic leaders on its board and in its orbit.
Meanwhile, environmentalists and civic preservationists claim that the gates would cause still more damage to the lagoon — and point out that much of the flooding within the city could be manageably contained with less disruptive infrastructure improvements, such as sealing canal walls and better floodproofing for buildings, walls and bridges. Moreover, opponents of the gates plan argue that even by the best estimates, the gates would only be operable for the next hundred years, at which time engineers would have to devise some massive new remedy for still-higher rising tides. But Silvio Berlusconi’s new center-right government unexpectedly announced last year that it intended to move forward with the gates’ construction.
Keahey — author of “A Sweet and Glorious Land,” an account of his re-creation of Victorian novelist George Gissing’s tour of Italy’s Ionian coast — is an admirably dispassionate chronicler of the alternately epically stalled and intensely heated controversy over Venice’s fate.
He’s clearly animated by a great love for the city, but he also possesses a reporter’s healthy skepticism about the deeply politicized state of the debate, as well as an infectious curiosity about how all things Venetian work, and could be made to work better. As a result, ardent Venice preservationists will find precious little consolation in this smoothly written, cautionary account of the far-ranging worldly forces that are pushing one of the world’s most magnificent cities ever farther below sea level.

— The Washington Post, April 2, 2002
Swimming in Culture, Drowning in Water
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA

Venice is sinking and always has been. When refugees from barbarian invasions first abandoned the Italian mainland for the Venetian lagoon in the fifth century, the sedimentary mud they stepped on had been compacting for thousands of years. And the rising Adriatic, fed for some 20 millennia by melting Alpine glaciers, was already encroaching. Thus the builders of the Most Serene Republic, in the words of the historian John Julius Norwich, sank “their foundations into shifting sands.”

The city’s slow descent has become part of its poetic myth, lending poignancy to the tourist fairyland of canals and gondoliers. Anticipating its disappearance, Lord Byron foretold: “A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls./ A loud lament along the sweeping seas.” The art critic John Ruskin called Venice “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak — so quiet — so bereft of all but her loveliness.” In art and literature, this sense of inexorable decline has blended naturally with the air of exquisite decadence that clings to the city of Casanova. Thomas Mann famously saw in Venice a setting for disordering passion amid waters bringing pestilence and death.

Floating Barriers

Sinking has almost come to seem an eternal characteristic of the place, yet over the past century this ancient tendency has turned critical. As journalist John Keahey reports in “Venice Against the Sea” (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 296 pages, $25.95), St. Mark’s Square was inundated seven times in 1900 and 99 times in 1996. The worst flood in the city’s history occurred on Nov. 4, 1966, when water more than 6 feet above sea level made 5,000 people homeless. Carcasses of cats, dogs and rats floated in the canals; electricity went out for a week; and the water turned black with spilled diesel fuel. This disaster inspired the founding of more than 30 organizations around the world, including Save Venice in the U.S., dedicated to preserving the city’s art and architecture. After all, it could happen again, as bad or worse.

Italy, too, is taking steps. In December, the government finally approved plans for a set of 79 floating barriers that will keep dangerously high tides out of Venice’s lagoon. These hollow walls, 65 feet wide and up to 100 feet high, will ordinarily lie flat and filled with water on the floors of the channels connecting the lagoon and the sea. When necessary, the barriers will fill up with compressed air and rise on their hinges, far enough in just half an hour to keep out tides 10 feet above sea level. The barriers will sway back and forth, absorbing the waves’ impact, until the danger is past, when they will refill with water and return to their usual hidden positions.

The barrier idea was first proposed in 1970. Bureaucratic sclerosis partly explains the delay but so does the opposition of environmentalists, who believe that the barriers will upset the ecology of the lagoon and thereby poison it. One critic has denounced the so-called MOSE project (a technical acronym as well as the Italian name for the prophet who split the Red Sea) as an instance of “technology-driven artificialization.”

Yet, as Mr. Keahey recounts, the lagoon no less than the city owes its survival to artifice and technology. From the 14th through the 18th centuries, Venetians manipulated nature on a vast scale, diverting major rivers to keep the lagoon from silting up and building walls to stem erosion of the barrier islands between the lagoon and the sea.

Industrial Threats

The point was to preserve the city’s strategic position, which was shielded from land and maritime attack; but independence ended with Napoleon’s conquest in 1797, and the industrial age that followed did not respect the fragility of Venice and its lagoon. More channels for shipping, and deeper ones, boosted the influx of sea water, leading to higher tides. Tapping ground water under the lagoon accelerated the sinking of the land.

But the industrial development most threatening to Venice, in Mr. Keahey’s view, is one of world-wide scope: carbon-dioxide emissions that heat up the planet. According to a United Nations panel on climate change, to which the author repeatedly refers, sea levels could easily rise far enough in the coming century to keep St. Mark’s Square under water year-round.

Of course there are those who argue that the U.N. panel has overstated the effects of global warming. Bjorn Lomborg, the self-described “skeptical environmentalist,” is only the most recent. Others have predicted far smaller sea rises and even cast doubt on the link between sea level and climate change. Mr. Keahey might have acknowledged their dissent.

For whatever reason, the Adriatic is rising. But what to do about it? Mr. Keahey, after going over the problem and various proposed solutions in often redundant detail, comes to no conclusion of his own. He tells us that today’s maintenance efforts — dredging and repairing canals, raising the city’s pavements, shoring up the edges of barrier islands — are insufficient to keep St. Mark’s Square dry without MOSE’s floating barriers. But he also notes that the flooding he witnessed on a visit in November 2000, when unusual wind conditions raised the waters of the lagoon higher than those of the Adriatic, would have been even worse had the barriers been in place. So is Mr. Keahey for MOSE or against it? He doesn’t say.

Based on the evidence in “Venice Against the Sea,” one can easily believe that the barriers, although very costly, would at least be better than nothing. The strongest objection to them — that ever-higher tides would require so many closings as to prevent the natural ebb and flow that cleanses the lagoon of contaminants — seems a defect that could be mitigated through trial and error.

An even more fundamental question that Mr. Keahey raises without even trying to answer is: Why bother? Why spend billions of dollars saving an anachronism while, as Mr. Keahey puts it, “thousands die in raging floods in Mozambique and Bangladesh”? The best reply is to note the millions of people, many humble day-trippers, who visit Venice each year to glimpse the relics of civilization in a sublime state. And a precarious one.

Mr. Rocca is a writer in Vicenza, Italy.

— The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2002

 

Venetians should start learning the backstroke 
By Frank Bures

Venice is dying.
That’s the sober message of John Keahey’s new book, “Venice Against the Sea.” The city is slowly sinking, Venetians are fleeing, oceans are rising, and the Adriatic’s waves are lapping at the bricks like a ticking clock.
It’s a dark thought, that Venice could slip into the sea. In its glory, the Serenissima controlled much of the Mediterranean. It was one of the most powerful cities in the world and, as an independent republic, the longest-lived democracy ever (1,500 years). Venetians are credited with inventing modern capitalism and the banking system that made them so rich. In the 1200s, Venetian shipyards turned out a ship a day.
The 20th century, however, was a different story. Decades of neglect and industrialization took their toll on the city’s infrastructure. Much of the old city has been bought up by wealthy foreigners; locals have moved inland. Today, Venice has become a living museum, filled with treasures from other lives, than a city with a life of its own. You can’t even find a good pizza there.
But more recently, and more ominously for the city, are the growing episodes of acqua alta or high water, that force Venetians to walk on duckboards and in golashes. Keahey writes with this premise: Over the coming decades, the condition will only get worse.
Keahey’s book centers on this problem, one faced not just by Venice, but by coastal cities around the world. In the next 100 years, sea levels will rise, not just because of melting icecaps, but because of expanding oceans: With rising temperatures, water molecules expand and the oceans get bigger.
What does this mean for Venice? It means something has to be done to keep the city from gradually being submerged and corroded by salt. This has been clear since the 1966 flood, when more than six feet of water washed across the city and caused massive damage.
One solution Keahey seems to endorse halfheartedly is a series of mobile gates that could be raised during high water to hold back the tide. In typical Italian style, this was first proposed in 1970, and in the following 30 years, committees were formed, and the project was debated and postponed; funds were solicited, then allocated, and finally used elsewhere.
Opposition to the mobile gates from locals and environmentalists has grown. Meanwhile, governments have risen and fallen and done nothing about Venice.
Corruption, intrigue, and an entire city in peril – this is all good drama. But Keahey spends most of the book talking about the minutiae of global warming, scientific reports, the intricacies of tidal movements, repairs to city canals, and the feasibility of gates.
Sadly, the larger picture gets lost in these details. What does all this mean for the people who live there and have lived there for centuries? What does it mean for us? Why is it that outsiders and foreigners want the gates, while Venetians don’t? What does the dilemma tell us about the kind of world we live in? Why is Venice, and this book about it, important?
These are all avenues not followed in “Venice Against the Sea.” Nevertheless, it’s a well-reported book, and Keahey is a brave man for walking into the labyrinth of Italian politics. There is much good information here about Venice and its problems, and Keahey’s take is refreshingly cleareyed: His Venice is far, far from the Tuscan sun, and his history of the city is fascinating.
Unfortunately, when he moves into modern times, the book shifts into low gear and the story is overwhelmed by reams of data and long passages only a climatologist could love.
Why do we want to save Venice? That is the central question that goes unanswered. The outside world has a love affair with the city that people who live there do not. Are we saving it for ourselves or for them?
The book ends with this statement from the city’s mayor: “All those who are using Venice for their own interests must make a contribution to preserve the myth.” What that myth is, we are left to wonder.

Christian Science Monitor
05/02/2002

Time and tide: Saving Venice 
By Scott Eyman

Venice is a miracle. It even feels like a miracle, bathed in a strange, pearly light that’s as much a treasure as any Titian.
After Rome fell, Venice ruled the eastern Mediterranean for more than 500 years, not through military means but simply by controlling commerce. In those years, the Piazza San Marco was truly the center of the civilized world.
But since Napoleon ended the Venetian Republic in 1797, Venice has been the Miss Havisham of cities, subsisting on its dense, baroque architectural and sense of the past, and reliably sending writers and artists into orgasmic states.
Everything about the city is jury-rigged, especially its construction. The immense stone palaces are essentially held up by an interlocking series of wooden poles, 10 to 15 feet long, buried in the mud of the Venetian lagoon, that have been nearly petrified by the passing centuries. Oak planks were laid across the top of the pilings, followed by Istrian marble, an impermeable stone serving as a sort of foundation, followed by rows of brick.
The miracle is in terrible trouble, but then, Venice has been in trouble for a long time. There are at least five levels of pavement in St. Mark’s Square beneath the level where the tourists and pigeons now congregate — as the sea rose over the years, the Venetians just raised the pavement.
The sea gave birth to Venice, and now the sea is taking her back. A hundred years ago, St. Mark’s was covered by water at extreme high tide about a half-dozen times a year; in 1999, knee-high water was present in St. Mark’s Square 99 times. That, however, was minor compared to the catastrophic floods of 1966, when a storm arrived at the same time as high tide and deposited 6 feet of water in the city. Homes and businesses were devastated, and dozens of historic buildings were damaged. To this day, you can see the waterline from that flood on hundreds of buildings.
That was the worst flood ever, but as recently as November 2000, a sirocco pushed nearly 5 feet of water into the city, flooding 93 percent of the historical center. Scientists believe that, if nothing changes, by 2055 most of the center of Venice will be underwater on a daily basis.
John Keahey’s Venice Against the Sea is a journalist’s account of the struggle to save one of the world’s great cities, even as its own population bails out, in both senses of the phrase.
The population that totaled 184,000 in 1950 is down to 60,000. Eighty percent of the 10 million yearly visitors are day-trippers from cruise ships — few stay in the hotels.
Between the rising water that has seeped into the bricks and caused them to begin crumbling, the exodus of the population and the corresponding deterioration of services, Venice is growing less livable every year, if no less enchanting.
What can be done to save it?
In the long term, nothing. In another 200 years or so, barring divine intervention, Venice will drown. The primary vehicles for short-term survival are giant gates to be built just beneath then. When the alarm for high tide is sounded, the gates will rise above the water and prevent flooding.
A similar project was installed in the London borough of Greenwich, near the Millennium Dome, and has worked very well. The English installation took about 10 years, while the Italians have been wrangling over everything for fully 30 years, with no sign of construction anytime soon. (In that time, the cost has ballooned from $367 million to around $3 billion.)
Smaller projects are happening, notably $24 million being spent to revamp the subsurface and drainage system of St. Mark’s Square so that routine high tides will be kept out.
Keahey seems to think that much of the bottleneck is a function of natural Italian attitude, which, in terms of Venice, can be summarized as “What is the problem? The water goes up; it goes down. No one is hurt. This has been happening for centuries, and we are still here!”
Italians are instinctive anarchists. The trains reliably run on time, but the people are essentially sybarites and work in order to live, not the other way around. Their attitude toward government is that it is an amusing irrelevance, which is why there is a new Italian government about every 18 months. This, remember, is the nation that elected a porn star to the legislature — which, now that I think of it, is a more sensible protest vote than Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan.
To get by, the Italians rely on guile and a bewildering bureaucracy. At one point, the Italians were taxing at 12 percent the foreign money that, you should pardon the expression, was flooding into Venice to finance restoration. At the same time, they were withholding their own money.
Venice in Peril, one of 29 private groups funding art restoration projects, began work at the Church of the Madonna dell’ Orto in Cannaregio — the parish church of Tintoretto — on the theory that it would take about $1 million and two years. It took four times the money and 10 years — the building disintegrated nearly every time it was touched, and massive amounts of the structure had to be rebuilt, using, of course, original materials and methods.
It would be easier to accept Keahey’s unease about laissez-faire Italians and resolute Americans if it wasn’t for the immediate example of 30 years of politicized stalling over the Everglades. And don’t expect our government to do anything about rising ocean levels until the Intracoastal begin slapping at CityPlace.
Venice Against the Sea is well-researched and cleanly written, but it has a provisional feel about it — a report from the front lines about a city that, along with Paris, is itself a work of art.
Whether Venice can survive for another millennium won’t be known for a good 10 years. That book, still to be written, will, one hopes, have a more upbeat ending than Keahey’s.

 – Palm Beach Post
May 5, 2002

 

“Venice is in trouble,” writes John Keahey. The city is sinking into the sea. It has lost six feet over the last millennium and soon will lose more. The problem has become so bad that hotel concierges routinely distribute rubber boots to guests, and tourists cross historic squares on elevated boardwalks. Long-time residents flee not only the rising water, but also the rising cost-of- living and the rising industrial pollution.
Venice, according to Keahey, “is evolving into a crumbling museum.” Once, of course, it was an economic powerhouse with global reach; later it became the repository of some of the finest art and architecture in the world. Now it’s sinking, largely due to the remorseless facts of geography, but also because the city’s residents have abused their underground water resources.
In Venice Against the Sea, Keahey offers a detailed description of what’s gone wrong–and explores how the city might be saved, at least temporarily, through innovative engineering. This is a book anybody who has fallen in love with Venice will want to read, yet it issues a stark warning for people in coastal cities all over the world. If sea levels continue to rise, Venice’s bleak fate may also be their own.

— John Miller/Amazon.com, Jan. 2002
Venice has inspired innumerable authors to praise its cultural treasures. Garry Wills (Venice: Lion City) continues a line that stretches back to John Ruskin and earlier. But their panegyrics, and the vital tourism industry, will sink if the Venetians can’t defend their city against the Adriatic Sea. The problem is hardly a novel one, having existed since the earliest inhabitants found refuge from the disorder of the Dark Ages in tide-washed mudflats. Living on mudflats proved so safe that to preserve the city, Venetians over the centuries have diverted rivers and built dikes to prevent their lagoon from silting up. Thus, the city’s environment is largely artificial, ironically enough, environmentalists fulminate, so far successfully, against further artificial measures such as constructing gates and locks. Keahey’s informative, readable report is based largely on interviews he conducted in 2000 with the principals – engineers, architecture aficionados, and politicians. The legions of Venice lovers will not want to miss Keahey’s reality check on Venice’s future.”

— Gibert Taylor, Booklist, Jan. 2002
“Venice is sinking” is no Chicken Little squawk, and journalist Keahey (A Sweet and Glorious Land, 2000) explains why and what is being done (or not being done) to counter the trend in this cogent and fluent piece of urban history.
Venice has had its highs and lows – as befits a place whose city fathers include Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun – but none so fraught as those last 50 years. As Keahey trimly unravels the situation, a combination of manmade miseries – including everything from the industrial pumping of well water, the filling of canals, the diversion of waterways, all the way to global warming – and natural ones, such as the compression of the silt bed, are spelling the doom of the city, its art and architectural wonders.
The beauty of Keahey’s study is its breadth of approach, covering not only the specific environmental problems besetting Venice, but also presenting a geological history of the town and the lagoon, the evolution of its urban morphology, and lovely interludes of his own late-night travels about Venice, as atmospheric as Whistler nocturnes. But what reveals the nature of Venice’s plight most of all is Keahey’s dissection of the Venetian political system, back through the period of the Republic – which impacts the way business is done to this day – though especially the period since WWII.
What becomes clear is that a long-term problem for the inundation of Venice couldn’t be a worse fit for a politics of patronage and favors and an elephantine bureaucracy. A perfect example is in the one best approach to the flooding – gates to control water flow – that have been stymied by a combination of vested interests, misallocations of funds, and conflicting impact worries.
Yet as Keahey notes, “humans, in the end, will have nothing to say in the matter.” Nature will have its way: Venice is going down. There is still time to see it. Bring your boots.

— Kirkus Reviews, Dec. 1, 2001
Built on a lagoon, Venice is now in constant danger of becoming a new Atlantis, explains journalist Keahey (A Sweet and Glorious Land) in this fascinating look at the ecological disaster facing the city of canals. Not only is sea level “sixteen feet higher than it was six thousand years ago when the lagoon was formed,” a situation made increasingly worse by global warming, but the foolish extraction of ground water for industrial uses has accelerated the city’s sinking. Indeed, a catastrophic flood in 1966 was a clear warning, and in 1996 there were “ninety-nine tides over thirteen inches,” all of which flooded St. Mark’s Square. Keahey writes perceptively of Venice’s ecology and history — its mythic founding by descendants of Trojan warriors, its involvement with the Crusades and the development of medieval trade routes — quoting a wide variety of sources from Livy to Jan Morris to scientists at the 1997 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the situation looks dire (malfeasance on the part of the Italian government has only made things worse), Keahey investigates several possible solutions, like a potentially promising plan for barrier gates similar to the ones London uses to control the Thames. This informative book examines an urban environmental crisis in the making.”

— PublishersWeekly, Jan. 28, 2002

A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea

sweetlandcover_200In the winter of 1897, Victorian writer George Gissing made a well-chronicled journey throughout southern Italy. The result was a book, By the Ionian Sea, which was published in 1901 and has since become a classic in travel literature.

A hundred years later, award-winning newspaper journalist John Keahey sets off to retrace Gissing’s footsteps. His goal is to compare and contrast the two Italys, seeing first-hand all the changes that have occurred over the past century. From train rides through the lush countryside to the crisp mountain air of Cantanzaro, Keahey paints a beautiful and compelling picture of one of the most popular parts of the country.

A Sweet and Glorious Land is not only a wonderful travelogue but also an intriguing history of Italy and its people.