In the past centuries many metaphors and analogies have been made in order to point out one or more essential features of Venice. These, however, limited their imagination to the city or its direct environment. When we speak about the lagoon as a whole, we need a reference to an equally vast system that is characterised by a continuously transforming, ‘no-equilibrium’1 state. The ecological system that seems to suit best is unexpectedly a desert which elimates 90% of the lagoon’s physical substance.
It proves to be an adequate analogy thanks to many similarities. Among the more obvious ones there are: the agglomeration of human life in very few spots and the overall low density of urbanisation. In this terms, the lagoon becomes what has been the ‘city’ for Koolhaas: ‘A city is a plane of turmuc with some red hot spots of urban intensity. (...) These red hot spots radiate city-sense. If not taken care of properly, it tends to quickly ebb away.’2 As examples for these spots there are Venice, Chioggia, Jesolo as well as major islands like Murano. The geographically imposed obstacles that alter the relation between time and distance resemble moreover the conditions of a desert: Moving in space is generally limited to vaporetti, motorboats and car traffic on a single stripe of land along Lido. It is not only the restraint of transport but also other aspects that create difficulties for displacement: firstly the constantly changing weather condition (strong wind, fog and storms) causing heavy waves; secondly the varying navigation depth which limits transportation routes; last but not least the proximity to islands/buildings which requires speed limits to avoid erosion. As a result, the perception of distance is by no means proportional to actual distance. Tellingly, there are no stated time estimations of a trip crossing the whole lagoon whatsoever on touristic websites. The supply with resources, moreover, is similar to a Saharan scenario: the lagoon is limited to a few gains from local ‘production’ (fishery or small-scale agriculture) and is characterised by a scarcity of potable water. These aspects point out that the challenges in economic terms are similar to a desert since shortage of local products lead to dependency on import.
There is another intriguing parallel which is the nomadic ‘colonisation’ of certain parts of the lagoon: for instance, fishermen built temporary constructions as intermediate stopovers on their main routes and used them for some years. Often such constructions (also known as casoni) would have been abandoned and reused later on. Furthermore we can witness the phenomenon of temporary settlements by convents that established clerical centres on remote places in the lagoon. These convents often lasted for centuries before vanishing due to further relocations. In the case of Sant’Angelo della Polvere something rather surprising happened: the convent turned into a getaway from morality far from family, society and church. Fishermen enjoyed the intimate company with the domiciled nuns. In the 16th century the authorities got informed by the outraged wives about the frivolous practices and decided to suspend the convent relocating the nuns to Giudecca to keep them ‘better under control’.3 Less controversial and more recent nomadic trends could be experienced in the last decades: shallow waters, especially close to the ‘Bocca di Lido’, have been occupied in summer times by the inhabitants of the lagoon as ideal spot for sun bathing; uninhabited islands have been used by families with children for camping. This behaviour changed significantly in the last two generations. In the course of time the islands became mostly inaccesible due to urgent security measures. Shallow waters where deepend for ships or for the construction of the MOSE project.
The most miraculous phenomena to be found in the desert are mirages. The optical phenomenon occurs because rays of light are bent when they pass through air layers of different temperatures. These mirages appear in the distant horizon promising a saving resort from the heat of the sun. Where we imagine a settlement or a standpost there is nothing but sand - a deception, an illusion only. Indeed also the lagoon amazes us with mirages of similar kind: leaving behind the densely populated parts like Venice we encounter places that from far seem to bear cultural significance but turn out to be abandoned quarantines, convents, fortresses etc. The scattering of similar disused artefacts is symptomatic for many islands. The islands became less and less accessible in the course of time due to their severely damaged buildings.
The abundance of this phenomenon is considerable: San Giacomo in Paludo, Santo Spirito, Sant’Andrea, Isola del Lazzaretto Vecchio, Madonna del Monte, Sant’Ariano, Sant’Angelo della Polvere and San Francesco del Deserto are just the most known examples.
Some of these abandoned islands has been subject to transformation in the recent past: the main reason is that investors discovered them as potential developments for the tourism industry. In times when real estate value is extremely high and there is little or no space for new constructions, speculation for new projects has increased significantly. In order to alleviate public debts the municipality decided to sell or to lease islands on a long-term basis. The critical situation of most of these projects, however, made the sellout of the lagoon generally questionable.