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How to save Venice: a five-point plan by a leading citizen

Polls show that Venetians are about to re-elect a populist mayor who promises to bring back all the tourists—but none of the other eight candidates has presented a realistic alternative

Tourist crowds have disappeared from Venice since Covid-19 © Arrigo Lupori

If you have been lucky enough to visit Venice since Covid-19 hit us, you will have seen it looking more beautiful than for decades. The voices in the narrow streets are Venetian voices and there is room to walk comfortably and contemplate the glories of the city in all their detail and variety. The uncontrolled crush of visitors, the hucksters selling imported rubbish, and the pizza parlours have faded away.

But it has also become desperate because one mayor after another has allowed Venice to become a mono-economy, with everything sacrificed to tourism. Take that away and it loses its activity and life-blood.

On 21 September, there will be the elections for mayor and the polls are showing that the incumbent, Luigi Brugnaro, a very rich, populist right-wing entrepreneur who lives on the mainland, will be re-elected by a large majority on a platform of restoring the status quo. This should be a time of reckoning, but not one of the nine candidates, especially not Brugnaro, who has done everything in his power to bring more and more tourists to the city, has come up with a realistic, sustainable plan for Venice.

Favourite in the polls, the former mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, promises a return to quick profits

David Landau, an Israeli who lives much of the year in Venice, has therefore decided to write a five-point plan, which has been published in the two local newspapers. In the process of suggesting how the city can be revived and physically saved, he also lays bare its current deficiencies.

Landau is a respected scholar, curator, co-author of the fundamental work on the Italian Renaissance print, but also a very successful businessman who invests his money in clean technology. He is or has been on the boards of numerous cultural institutions, including London’s National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art.

A quiet supporter of good causes, together with his wife, Rose Kahane, he has done more for the faltering Venetian glass industry than anyone since the Second World War by financing the Stanze del Vetro exhibition space and study centre on the island of San Giorgio, and founding Venice Glass Week, a mecca now for everyone interested in hand-made glass, with its fourth edition from 5-13 September this year.

He says, “None of what I propose is going to happen this time round, but if we get together and formulate a clear plan and offer it to the electors at the following elections, with a candidate chosen from the many intelligent people available here, there is a chance that Venice will then get the mayor it deserves”. Anna Somers Cocks

An open letter to the candidates for mayor of Venice

Venice's economy has been devastated by the lack of tourists during the pandemic © Dorian Mongel

I am not a politician and have no ambitions or designs of any kind regarding public life: I am, furthermore, a foreigner and live abroad, but I come to Venice, the city I love more than any other in the world, whenever I can. This letter is a reaction to the passivity that the pandemic seems to have induced among some Venetians, making them think that Venice can only survive by again becoming what it was before lockdown—a city dominated by tourism. The disappearance of the tourists has devastated the economy of the city, which over the years had more or less allowed itself to rely solely on this source of income. The current financial and emotional depression is the measure of the scale of such a mistaken choice.

Fortunately I am not alone in thinking that Venice can have a different future, without huge ships, without thousands of groups of tourists trailing after each other in the streets, without “in-and-out” visitors, or at least with a limited, well-controlled number of day trippers. The proposals I am now putting forward are intended to favour changes that many long to see: a Venice where the number of residents increases rapidly, restoring facilities and services so that that Venice is reborn as a true city, full of restaurants for local people, of children playing in the squares, of butchers’ shops and fruiterers, as in Bologna or Milan.

These are proposals based on the historic experience of Venice, a city that over the centuries protected the lagoon as carefully as one protects one’s own house, which protected its own safety by not allowing massive foreign vessels penetrate its waters, which dedicated itself to all aspects of seafaring and navigation as the undisputed queen of the Mediterranean, that always treated its citizens with respect, and that over the centuries generated an art and architecture that was and is the envy of the world. Let us therefore return to these splendours, but with a plan for the 21st century. In the glorious past of the city there is the clue to its future, a future that can be equally glorious or even more so.

I would hope to make the reasoned contribution of one who, being “outside” may have the objective advantage of studying the problems of the Venetians from a distance—detached but by no means indifferent! I have five practical and feasible proposals to make, which, if adopted over time and after an adequate, scientific and systematic preparation, would change the future of the city. Will they be of interest to the people of Venice and the candidates for mayor? I truly hope so, and I invite them to criticise my proposals constructively in the newspapers and wherever else they please. I have said what I think and will not reply: it is for the electors to decide what they want for their city and for the politicians to implement such wishes, transforming them into a strategy and an action plan.

Venice should be "full of restaurants for local people, of children playing in the squares, of butchers’ shops and fruiterers" © Suzanne Emily

These are my proposals:

1. Aspire to become the European Capital of Culture, not for a year but every day. Make an inventory of all spaces available for public performances—fortunately there are dozens of places suitable for such functions—and train a task force of “impresarios” to develop contacts with academies, conservatories, acting schools and other cultural institutions in Italy and abroad, so as to guarantee a continual flow of excellent musicians, singers, choirs, soloists, trios, quartets, orchestras, actors, directors, film historians, screenwriters, curators, designers, organisers of exhibitions, plays, puppet shows, mime, galleries, and any other innovative and viable cultural form. Prepare a packed and interesting programme that will make a visit to Venice, at any time of the year, a rich and surprising experience. Let the world know that whatever taste one may have in the cultural field, Venice will offer the best, always. At the same time, transform the Lido into a permanent cultural centre for all aspects of the cinema, including production, that will be open all year round for enthusiasts, and not just in the two weeks of the festival. All of this would cost comparatively little, but would substantially raise the quality of the tourism, particularly of the resident kind, given that a great part of the cultural events would take place in the afternoon or evening, thus bringing customers to the restaurants and hotels. The more residential tourism grew, the less space there would be for the “in-and-out” type, that is, the day trippers. A decision must therefore be reached, based on the work of a commission of experts, on the maximum number of visitors the city can host daily without being exposed to damage. Those who do not spend the night in Venice and who do not belong to exempted categories (such as, for example, all citizens of Veneto and Friuli, those who work in the historic centre but do not live there, the relatives of Venetians and many others to be identified in a study to be carried out over time) will therefore have to book their visits. Those who do not do so and are identified by the inspectors specially appointed by the Municipality will have to pay a fine that will be high enough to constitute a real deterrent.

All of this is very easy to implement from the technical point of view (and I am told that a solution to legal objections can also be found). Booking just to enter the city will be free, but a booking that includes basic services, such as the vaporetti, admission to museums, the use of public conveniences, will be subject to a reasonable charge and will ensure a more hospitable reception for visitors than at present.

2. Aspire to become the first city in the world entirely dedicated to the study of the environment, ecology, global warming and pollution. Challenge the European institutions to transfer all of their offices that deal with these great and urgent problems physically to Venice. Also challenge the UN to move similar offices of theirs to Venice, so that all those whose formal business it is to deal with these questions must put on their wellington boots and fight the effects of global warming at the front, and not from the comfortable distance of Belgium or New York. Do the same with all the institutions, foundations, and think-tanks that deal with the environment (there are hundreds of them in the world, many of them very rich); invite them to transfer to Venice, the new citadel of the environment. Contact the thousands of private companies operating in this sector and facilitate them in opening offices, also with common services, in the city, thus allowing them to have direct contact with all those who deal with these same problems but at the public level, in a virtuous network.

Ask the companies involved in transport using alternative energy to help Venice to convert all public transport, including the ACTV, Veritas and the taxis, to the use of electricity, hydrogen or other sources of non-polluting energy, in a reasonably short space of time. In return, Venice will be able to offer all these new residents a magical city where they can live with their families; a healthy city, people-friendly, unpolluted and safe, from which, with its superb airport, it is easy to travel to all major cities in the world. This quality residential flow, combined with the results achieved by the implementation of Point 1 above, would help the city to come to life again, because all these families will need bread, artichokes, stationers, shoemakers, and restaurants where they can meet. Hotels will see their rooms occupied, even in November, by people dealing with the environment at a high level, who have come to participate in work meetings, conferences, symposia.

Murano glassmaking needs more funding © Frenjamin Benklin

3. Find, probably in the European institutions, the funds necessary for a structural relaunching of Murano and the glass produced there. This is already underway, but there is need for much more funding and, to obtain it, a systematic and ambitious plan of action. Murano must also become the most important experimental centre for glass in the world, inventing colours made with substances that harm neither man nor the environment, and new artisanal and industrial processing techniques for glass. In addition, Murano must become carbon-neutral, learning or inventing the various systems for recycling waste materials and, even more importantly, recycling the thermal energy of its furnaces, which burn day and night for 11 months in the year and lose a mountain of energy, all of which should be recovered and used for the benefit of Murano and Venice. I do not support protectionism, but if it is true, as reported in the press, that every year 2 million glass objects are imported from China through the customs of Venice, the tourists who buy them must absolutely know where they come from. All such items must be diamond-engraved before arriving in Italy with the clearly visible brand MADE IN CHINA, and similarly all pieces made in Murano must be engraved with the brand of the island.

Furthermore, as a deterrent, I would like to see, both in Venice and Murano, little checkpoints providing instant chemical-physical analysis of the glass to determine its origin: the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV), at my urging, has developed such a device of small size, and it is time now in my opinion, to use it, if only for the sake of clarity and honesty with regard to Italian and foreign visitors. Murano, with its history and artistic and artisanal production, must definitely aim at quality rather than quantity and become an example to follow, a jewel in the crown of Venice and the whole of Italy in its tangible combination of work, quality and environment in the name of the virtuous sustainability we all want nowadays.

4. Launch a plan for transforming Marghera [a dying industrial port inside the lagoon], between Fusina and the Ponte della Libertà, into the most attractive marina for pleasure craft in the Mediterranean. A safe place for the boats of thousands of Italians and Europeans, close to Austria, Germany, Switzerland, protected against bad weather, and easily accessible over land by motorway or train or by sea via the Canale dei Petroli. Cleanse the polluted ground from the entire area—sooner or later this will have to be done so let’s do it now, even if it costs the state a one-off investment of hundreds of millions—and construct the shipyards, assistance services, docks, piers, villas and houses in leafy parks for those who work with or want to be near their boats. In short, create an entire infrastructure that will support this very large marina. This part, that is, not the land reclamation work, but the development of the marina and supporting services, could and should be financed by private parties, by equity funds that invest in infrastructure or sovereign funds making long-term investments, thus creating thousands of jobs for those who live in Mestre or Marghera. At the same time, implement an ambitious programme for the regeneration of the entire lagoon, the health of which is essential to that of Venice and Mestre, and turn it into a source of revenue for the municipality with an ambitious carbon-capture programme. Have Duferco or another party construct a port in the Adriatic for the big ships and organise a service for passengers and goods with boats that will transport them into the lagoon or city, or on to the mainland. Close the lagoon forever to the big ships, leaving it open to very small, small and medium-sized ones, perhaps using the free parts of the Arsenale to receive, repair, exhibit and sell them.

Big ships should be banned from the lagoon

5. Do all this in absolute respect for the law, as advocated by General Bruno Buratti of the Guardia di Finanza in his intelligent article in the Gazzettino newspaper of 22 May. Become a beacon in Italy for the fight against the infiltration of criminal elements into daily life and the enslavement of the labouring classes, who are burdened with the most menial work and have no real rights or certainty or hope for a better future. Enough of the stalls that infest the most beautiful parts of the city, like the Riva degli Schiavoni, and that instead of selling artisanal Venetian products offer only junk, with some existing only to launder dirty money. Enough of the kitchen-hands and porters controlled by criminal cooperatives and paid in the black. Enough of work with no dignity or security that is no less than a modern form of slavery, and enough of the “untouchables” who operate above and outside all laws and regulations, throwing a dark shadow over the very integrity of the city institutions that should discipline and control them. Venice must become a clean city again, in all senses of the word.

That’s it. A simple, practical and entirely feasible plan, closely linked to the history of Venice, even if it might seem revolutionary to some. The city is full of women and men of great intelligence, ability and integrity, with ideas, some differing from mine and possibly better. It has world-class cultural institutions and foundations, from the universities to the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, from the Istituto Veneto to the Conservatorio, from the Ateneo Veneto to the Querini Stampalia, peopled with minds that the next mayor should listen to attentively in order to conceive an ambitious and exciting vision for the Venice of this century. Candidates, embrace and absorb the cultural and manufacturing potential of the Serenissima, and make the future of Venice as glorious as its past. David Landau