Dearth in Venice

Every year, hundreds of residents are fleeing Venice, abandoning it to multinationals and art speculators and leaving behind a ghost town. Attempts to revive its economy are being hampered by a lack of state funds and the fatalism of those who have stayed behind.

Published on 12 April 2012 at 10:25
Spirosk |  Souvenir shop in Venice.

For Massimo Cacciari, a former mayor, Venice is under the baleful influence of two curses: countesses that are trying to save her, and the character of her inhabitants. “Venice is dying!” cry the aristocrats and the Venetians. In fact, Venice is already dead. It has been raised from the dead and has become a showcase.

By day, Venice has nothing sad or even melancholy about it. Quite to the contrary, it has never been so beautiful and so alive. Never has so much money poured into it, from Italy’s northeast, from Milan, Europe, and America. But the money is coming from private pockets. It is money from businessmen, not patrons.

Everywhere in Venice, restorations and foundations are flourishing. But by night, Venice becomes what it is when left to itself: a depopulated city, like other historic centres. But here, surrounded by the beauty, the spectacle of shuttered shops and boutiques with their lights off, the silence, it’s sadder.

Meanwhile, Venetians “from the mainland” and of out-of-pocket tourists head for dry land. The only places that remain lively are those where students gather: the Campo Santa Margherita, Giacomo dell'Orio, the Rialto market. Residents, however, have complained and the city has brought in a curfew at midnight.

The most striking example of the new money is the French businessman and art collector Francois Pinault, who has bought a piece of Venice – the wonderful Punta della Dogana, facing the Piazza San Marco – to exhibit the artists in his collection, which he will then sell in his auction house. Today, controversy is swirling about the Fontego dei Tedeschi, bought by Benetton, on which the star of Dutch architecture Rem Koolhaas has designed a controversial terrace overlooking the Ponte di Rialto. What is also true is that no one had set foot in the Punta della Dogana for decades.

The municipality is penniless

Massimo Cacciari recalls: “You have no idea what I found inside the Punta della Dogana! Rats scurrying about in all directions, employees holed up in tiny offices. In the tower facing San Marco, perhaps the most beautiful place on earth, someone had carved out for himself a very discreet apartment. On the day the work was to begin, a pile of old boards was uncovered. I said, ‘Get rid of them’. That’s not possible, I was told; it was the responsibility of the Superintendency [equivalent of the Heritage Branch]. I called the Superintendency: ‘Come and get them’. That’s not possible, I was told – the boards are the remains of an ancient floor. At this point I started yelling. A hysterical scene. I went mad.”

The same thing happened to the Piazzale Roma, where the new Palace of Justice will stand, at a cost that has tripled since the original estimate. “I can well believe it,” says the former mayor. “Contaminated ground. Delayed projects. And obstacles of all kinds, including this one: just when the work was about to get underway, I was told about a sensational discovery. Some boxes full of animal bones. I said it was no discovery at all, since it was known that there were slaughterhouses here until the nineteenth century. The matter, I was told, was of the highest significance: it would help reconstruct the entire food chain of Venice in the eighteenth century. I went there and was shown a bone from a goat, from a calf, from a cow... I started yelling again. Another hysterical scene. And again, I went crazy: ‘If the work doesn’t start right away, I’ll take a hammer and pulverise all these bones one by one!’”

Massimo Cacciari says he can no longer bear the “nauseating snivelling” about Venice, the complaints that “those damn salon snobs” are making, and a people that loves to whine so much. He thinks back on what has been done over the last twenty years: the new Arsenal with the Thetis research centre, the reconstruction of La Fenice theatre (despite many twists and turns) and the restoration of Ca 'Giustinian, headquarters of the Art Biennial.

The problem is that the municipality is penniless. The two historical sources that fed it, special laws to protect the city, as well as the casinos, have dried up. The state has reduced its subsidy and all the money is going into the MOSE project, the biggest hydraulic engineering project in the world, designed to shelter Venice from the rising waters of the lagoon. Five billion euros have already been sunk in that project and there are still two years of work to go.

Venetians want what the rest of us want

The other money-chest is the casino. Once upon a time, the baccarat players in white smoking jackets would flock to the Lido. Today it is the Chinese who head to the mainlaind to huddle around the slot machines at Ca ‘Noghera. Between the crisis and competition from the state in the form of on-line gambling, this manna, which was once 200 million euros per year, has fallen in recent years to just 145 million, from which 100 million in fixed costs must be subtracted. The revenues of the city have collapsed.

Today Venice has to face two major challenges: the depopulation of the historic centre and the fate of the largest industrial area in Europe, the Marghera.

The digital counter at the Morelli pharmacy on the Campo San Bartolomeo reminds passers-by of the long haemorrhage of Venice, which today has only 58,855 residents left. Venetians, unfortunately, do not want to live in Venice, not just because the upper-floor apartments are extremely expensive, and nobody wants the ones that are by the water, which are too humid; nor do they want the ones under the roof, which get baking hot in summer.

No, the Venetians want what the rest of us want: to have the car at home and not in the huge parking lots of Piazzale Roma. The town hall has 6,000 apartments, mostly rented to Venetians of modest means. It's the middle class that is leaving, the bourgeois who lived between the first floor and the attic.

Get back in the race

The Venetians are leaving for the mainland – for Mestre, once the ugliest city in Italy. Recently, though, the Piazza Ferretto has been converted into a pedestrian zone and woods have been planted on the city’s outskirts. The San Giuliano landfill has been turned into a landscaped park, with broadband Internet, and soon the ground will be broken at the building site of the future cultural center of Mestre, the M9.

Pierre Cardin, born Pietro Cardin in Sant'Andrea di Barbarana (near Treviso), would like to see built in Marghera before he dies the “Tower of Light”, 240 metres high and with sixty floors, to house a ‘University of Fashion’, at a cost of one and a half billion euros. The mayor is not opposed to the idea.

Venice certainly remains a popular destination for honeymooners, and for many the Basilica San Marco is the most beautiful building in the world. One has only to admire the dome of Creation, Genesis for the illiterate, where God places Adam’s hand on the lion's head to signify the rule of man over animals; the same lion that on the neighbouring mosaic emerges from Noah's ark and, after months of being in a cage, stretches its legs before beginning to run.

This is what Venice should do: get back in the race, despite the weight of the immense task of preserving all this beauty, and to bring a city back to life around it.


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