Stories of AquaGranda 2019 | Interview with Marigusta Lazzari, director of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia

February 09, 2023
In October we had the pleasure of meeting Marigusta Lazzari, director of the Querini Stampalia Foundation, to talk with her about 12 November 2019 and its consequences for the Foundation. This conversation was an opportunity, among other things, to recall the momentum of solidarity of citizens towards the Foundation and to share, accompanied by the words of Carlo Scarpa, the values dear to AquaGranda: the role of the community and that of cultural institutions for the city and the importance of memory to build a sustainable future.  

VDG: On the night of November 12, 2019, Venice was submerged by exceptional high water. The Querini Stampalia was one of the most affected institutions. Where were you at the beginning of this event? How did you hear about the consequences for the Foundation and how did you experience it?   

ML: On November 12, I left the Foundation around half past seven in the evening. That day high water was expected - anyone who lives and works in Venice knows that high water is a recurring phenomenon - so we had organized accordingly. It was planned in the margins of ordinary management and therefore the Foundation had prepared for closure, with a normal prevention activity and with the implementation of bulkheads. 

In fact, from half past nine - ten, from memory - a series of messages began to arrive from the Tide Forecast Center of the City of Venice. They increased the tide forecast within a few tens of minutes. It was incredible. It didn't seem possible. Then within half an hour it all happened. The Foundation was closed at the time, but we had staff on duty and the images they sent us were terrifying. The water had entered all the spaces with violence and even with the formation of small waves. 

We were in telephone contact with a group of people to understand how to take action, but even those who lived near the Querini could not get to the Foundation. The Campo di Santa Maria Formosa was completely flooded. You couldn't cross even with your boots high in your groin. The wind was very strong. The bridge of Ruga Giuffa had discovered only the upper part and a step.  

The next morning we arrived very early and we found ourselves living a truly unreal situation. The city was devastated. It was all up in the air, in the shops, in the supermarkets, the streets full of debris and dirt, everything was closed. A great silence. 

Inside the Querini it was to tear out the heart, because the water had entered everywhere on the ground floor of the building and had wet everything with its salt and its violence. All the systems had been switched off and therefore there was no electric light. During the restoration work that over the decades had restored the ground floor, it was decided to raise the floor level in order to bring it to a safety measure of 1.60 m and this had allowed us in all these years to avoid the invasion of water. But it was not enough for November 12, 2019. The tide at 187 brought 27 cm of water inside. The water knocked down the bulkheads and entered the internal deposits, and the external ones. The water of the river, overlooked by the large gate of the Scarpa area, has poured inside, also covering the level of the garden: a dramatic situation.  

It wet the furnishings of the auditorium and the bookshop, the objects contained were dragged away by the water and then abandoned when it drained.  

At that time in Area Scarpa there was an exhibition on a wooden structure designed by Carlo Scarpa for the Sala Luzzatto. There the water entered for more than 60 cm. 

The first things we did to manage the emergency were: secure important materials, start making a census of the damage and make a program of interventions. Technicians, workers, maintenance workers, electricians called during the night, were already on site to restore the functions as soon as possible. 

VDG: Soon after, a total of 400 volunteers came to the Foundation to help. How was this initiative organized? What do you think this solidarity mobilization reveals?  

ML: From the next day, November 13, without us doing anything to make this happen, dozens and dozens of young people, adults, professionals began to arrive at the Foundation to make themselves available and help. 

We started organizing ourselves using the entire library as a workplace to save flooded books. The librarians organized the transport, the work teams, the actions to dry the books that could be saved. A series of procedures such as interposing absorbent papers between one page and another, changed every day, but also the census of the damage, the recording of what was happening and what had happened. Actions repeated every day for many weeks.  

We immediately contacted the main restoration institutes in Italy that deal with the recovery of book material ruined as a result of floods and made a small negotiation. 

We had the urgency to immediately freeze the flooded volumes so that molds and spores did not multiply until they were sent to specialized companies for recovery. Bofrost, contacted, immediately responded positively. They came with their staff and their vehicles on a Saturday of pouring rain, and, together with our staff and some volunteers, they managed to load into the boat all the material that went to their warehouse in Friuli and was frozen.  

The situation was dramatic because the high water did not arrive only on November 12. It was repeated almost until Christmas but especially in the week after the 12th. Exceptional high water practically endless. We lost one lift out of three because as soon as it was restored, the technical pits were filling up with water. The other two needed extraordinary maintenance with huge costs. A lot of plants and machinery have been blown. The floors are soaked in salt water, even today, after two years, they regurgitate salt. 

A great deal of work has been done, only possible thanks to an extraordinary mobilization. People who have shown how much they care about this place. They have demonstrated the value of a place that has always been important and central in the history of Venice, of the Venetians, of the many students who study in the halls of the library daily. The Querini Stampalia has always been renewed over time, it has never been just an ancient place: for over 150 years it has welcomed "those who love good studies and useful disciplines" as Giovanni Querini wrote in his will, with contemporary instruments, atmospheres, languages. It is a place of meeting, comparison, respect and openness to contemporaneity with an eye to the future.  
The damage was enormous: almost 800,000 euros, which we fortunately recovered in full.  

In fact, we immediately started a fundraiser to which many supporters and friends joined. "Vogue Italia" with a special campaign paid 15,000 euros. Ca' Foscari intervened with a cheque for 25,000 euros. Many organizations, associations, institutions, private foundations have supported the collection. 
VDG: In your opinion, what is the role of a cultural institution so closely linked to the memory of Venice, at a time like that of high water?  

ML: This mobilization was a very important recognition for us. We work, plan and organize activities with a spirit of service, trying to interpret the needs and emergencies of our time in order to fully respond to these needs, but we are not always sure that we have achieved the goal and if our actions have obtained the expected results. The immediate, spontaneous response - those who helped us came feeling part of the Querini project and with the desire to lend a hand, to be part of this serious event - made us truly feel loved and supported. It was a moment of great emotion and participation, a demonstration of belonging and gratitude towards the Foundation that was fundamental, very important. 

The role of the Foundation in the city is determined by the important book and artistic heritage of the Foundation, but also by the enhancement actions, exhibitions, research, conferences, publications that are proposed. In addition to the many stories we tell starting from the works of art, paintings and books, we have continuously updated the services and installations making this place more and more welcoming and inclusive. Through membership and corporate we share with people and companies the idea that culture is also fundamental for everyday life. We are doing a job of recovering stories related to industrial activities that we find in the documents of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and that we revive by connecting them to the present we live. We use documents that until now have been seen and consulted only by experts, that many people do not know and have never seen, to talk about current, contemporary issues.  

There is no future without a past. From the experiences we can learn a lot if we have the ability to interpret it in a lucid way, actualizing the message and working the future.  

Respect the city, its stones, the light, the water, its traditions, its history. The Foundation has always cared for these values and has used the beauty and quality of which it is a part as an educational program. The administrators of this place have done a truly extraordinary job. They have been examples of righteousness, visionary projection and also respect, which has always been an important value in this place. Respect also for the people who use the Foundation, respect for the service we are required to give, respect for the mandate of the founder. It is something that I, as soon as I entered, I heard repeated continuously and then enters you ... it becomes a mode of doing.  

VDG: Three years later, how can we describe the current situation?  

ML: The work is pretty much done. The floors continue to expel salt and some damage on the walls is evident only today. The works in the Scarpa area that required design and authorizations from the competent bodies have recently ended. We can therefore say that today everything has been restored. 

VDG: In a letter, the architect Carlo Scarpa wrote about the space on the ground floor that he conceived for the restoration of the Foundation: "inside, inside the high water; inside as in the whole city. Only it is a matter of containing it, of governing it, of using it as a luminous and reflective material: you will see the play of light on the yellow and purple stucco ceilings. A marvel!" The Querini has a very special relationship with high water. What do you think, as director of the institution?  

ML: This quote came to mind many times after high water because it's a beautiful phrase, but at that juncture it was terrible. When Scarpa talks about high water, he talks about the city and the role that Querini plays in Venice. The transparency that Scarpa achieves in his speech underlines how much the activities that are done inside the Querini are strongly cohesive activities with the city and how everything that happens inside the city is part of the Querini's doing, absolutely coinciding and interesting for both parties. The transparency, the play of light (just visit the Scarpa Area on a sunny day around two in the afternoon), this wonder of which Scarpa speaks, is a magic that is repeated every day. 

Today, after this experience and the Covid lockdown that followed, we ask ourselves: what city do we want and what needs to be done so that Venice can be a city and not a museum? Which residence for Venice? The world has changed and the ways of living a city have changed. Venice is itself a sustainable city: a city where you walk on foot, where nature is an integral part of architecture, is built on a forest planted on water. During the lockdown we saw fish, ducks, dolphins regain possession of the lagoon and the canals. We ourselves, walking in a deserted Venice, like no one had ever been able to see it before, we realized how exceptional it is. A virtuous example of sustainability. The idea of the city must be reviewed. The new residents can be young people, families, mobile workers who work for a year or six months here and then move, but who need all the proximity services that a resident, a family, needs. Venice is a university city, with, in addition to Ca' Foscari and IUAV, also the university center of San Servolo, that of the Global Campus of Human Rights. Over 30,000 students living the city and its services. There are many activities that today can contribute to building an extraordinary future for Venice. They only have to be designed, incentivized, managed.  

Valentine De Gobbi 

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