Magazine article The Spectator

Dispatch from Venice

Magazine article The Spectator

Dispatch from Venice

Article excerpt

Roderick Conway Morris on how the city is trying new ways to overcome its economic crisis

When the Venice Biennale was founded in 1895 it was in many ways a response to the crisis facing the city.

No longer an independent republic and marginalised in the newly reunified Kingdom of Italy, Venice was seeking ways to re-invent itself, attract new types of visitors and boost the local economy.

Most of the great exhibitions during that period were one-offs but the forward-looking poet, playwright and mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, and his circle could see the benefit of making the exhibition a regular event. This year's edition, which continues until 22 November, is the largest ever, with 77 countries participating and with scores of associated shows.

Most visitors to the Biennale this year - there were 320,000 in 2007 - will come and go unaware that Venice is experiencing a new economic crisis at least as serious as the one faced in the late-19th century. For the city has run out of funds in a spectacular fashion. After the disastrous flood of November 1966, the Italian state enacted a Special Law to repair and restore not only Venice's public monuments, but also to help maintain the whole fabric of a city in which even many of the humblest houses are historical treasures. Contributions reached a high of nearly .269 million in 1997. This year only .4 million is guaranteed, with a further .24 million promised, which may or may not arrive. The municipality reckons that it needs an annual minimum of .70 million to maintain the city.

The most visible signs of this crisis are the enormous advertising hoardings now enveloping some of Venice's most famous monuments. Until a few days ago, visitors arriving at the railway station were confronted across the Grand Canal by a gigantic image publicising a fashion goods company covering the scaffolding on the facade of the San Simeon Piccolo church (the only one where the Tridentine Mass is celebrated every Sunday).

Part of the Doge's Palace and Bridge of Sighs are still covered with a massive ad featuring a trio of leggy, scantily clad models.

Across the Piazza, Sansovino's Marciana Library has a hoarding with a gigantic wristwatch. These three sponsorship deals have brought in nearly .4 million for urgent consolidation works on these buildings.

To the vociferous protests of the Venetians at the gaudy vulgarity of these ads, Massimo qCacciari, the city's mayor, has responded saying, 'Find another source of money, and we'll take them down immediately.'

Other initiatives include a concession to put more than 100 food and drink vending machines at boat landings and other spots.

This should earn the municipality a further million or more euros annually. However, since the shortfall remains so great, the city's marketing department is also preparing, among many other smaller fund-raising projects, simply to solicit donations. 'There are around 20 million visitors to Venice a year, ' Claudio Madricardo, the department's head, told me last week, 'and if every one of them gave just one euro - that would be .20 million extra a year.'

Three years ago the French magnate Francois Pinault took over the maintenance of Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal in exchange for the use of the space to hold temporary shows of his collection of contemporary art and host lavish parties. …

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