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Venice's existential crisis
 
Posted on: Tuesday, January 19, 2016 Category: Cities
 
La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic of Venice, is agitated. It's a sunny day in late October - the squares are full of pavement lunchers, the motoscafo drivers are wearing sunglasses and look like Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita - and outside the Doge's Palace, under the noses of tourists queuing to get in, an impromptu demonstration is taking place. No grandi navi, say the flags: No cruise ships. It's a complaint that has been gaining traction in Venice for years. But the banner hastily taped to the wall of the palace reveals the latest twist: 'Exhibition banned in the Doge's Palace on the say-so of Luigi, King of Venice.' Luigi is Luigi Brugnaro, the new mayor of the city, and a pun highlighted in the word for king (MONArca) leaves anyone familiar with profanities in the Venetian dialect in no doubt what the protestors think of him.

A maverick right-winger, Luigi Brugnaro has shown a fondness for banning things (he ordered the removal of books featuring same-sex families from schools and threatened to ban gay pride marches) since his election in June. His latest proscription is of an exhibition of photographs of cruise ships in Venice which he would not allow in the Doge's Palace (administered by the Comune of Venice) on the grounds that it was anti-cruise ship - he believes the white behemoths are a force for economic good. The furore this has caused is merely one expression of a widespread disgruntlement afflicting one of the most beautiful, most visited, most compromised cities in the world. Venice is in a kind of existential tumult over its future, as abstractions seemingly beyond its control - mass tourism, globalisation, pollution, corruption - grapple over its very soul. The massive ships that slob down the Giudecca Canal, like halitosis insinuating itself in a perfumery, are a handy symbol of that process (critics say they are grotesquely out of scale, cause pollution and damage, and disgorge millions of tourists who pay and contribute little) but an equally significant struggle has been taking place, out of sight of the tourist honeypots, that has gained far less attention and is about to reach its end game. Funnily enough, this struggle also features Luigi Brugnaro.

In April, 2014 the Italian state announced the online auction of an uninhabited island in the Venetian lagoon - along with other historic properties elsewhere in Italy - on a 99-year lease to help ameliorate the national debt (currently running at more than two trillion euros and rising by the second). The island in question is called Poveglia and if it is known at all beyond the ambit of the lagoon it is for being 'haunted' by the ghosts of plague victims, lunatics and lobotomising doctors (in fact the supernatural claims are a recent fabrication). Poveglia is a small, fan-shaped island that lies some 500 yards off the shore of the Lido in the south of the lagoon, the body of water and marshland that buffers Venice from the Adriatic Sea. At the base of the fan, and separate from it, is the remains of a 17th-century octagonal fort. The main part, divided by a narrow canal, occupies 17 acres and is covered with derelict hospital buildings dating from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries, and former gardens and orchards consumed by thick tangles of undergrowth. Its one feature of distinction is a campanile, all that's left of the church of St Vitale.

People assumed Poveglia would go the way of other, nearby islands in the lagoon and end up as a luxury resort. But something happened that Agenzia del Demanio, the government body responsible for the auction, had not bargained for. A man who owns a bar on the Giudecca, the island chain to the south of Venice proper, read about the auction in a newspaper and alerted his friends and customers. They formed an Association called Poveglia per Tutti (Poveglia for Everyone) and asked interested individuals to stump up an initial 99 euros each so they could stake their own claim to the island as a place for the whole community to visit and enjoy. The response was remarkable. 'I think the reason we became so suddenly beloved by a lot of people as an association is because most people living here have almost lost hope,' says Lorenzo Pesola, a passionate spokesman for Poveglia per Tutti, who grew up in Perugia, studied architecture in Venice and worked in the US before returning to live on the Giudecca. We are speaking in La Palanca, the Giudecca bar where it all started, while the man who got the ball rolling, Andrea Barina, serves us a lunch of seafood from the lagoon. 

'Even in [the last] 15 years we've seen the city change dramatically,' says Pesola. 'And so there's a sort of desperation in hoping that a group of people can make a stand and try to imply [sic] a different city.' This sense of desperation is widespread. People I meet in the course of my annual five-day visit - Venetians with generations of ancestors lying on the cemetery island of San Michele, incomers from other parts of Italy, British and American expats, architects, engineers, hoteliers, teachers - are committed to this unique city but feel its spirit ebbing away. Mass tourism is a 'plague', Venice is a 'hollow museum' or 'a cow that's being milked by everyone around it'. Pesola himself says it's 'close to extinction'.

The crisis can be quantified: a permanent population in the historic city of well below 60,000 and falling (compared to175,000 in the early 1950s) due to soaring property and rental prices that are pushing Venetians out to the mainland (initiated in many cases by Venetians themselves, who are making a killing on their apartments and houses); the consequent loss of traditional shops and craftspeople; 30 million tourists a year and rising; a fivefold increase in cruise ship traffic in 20 years; and so on. Grassroots movements dedicated to a more sustainable vision had already formed before Poveglia per Tutti came along. But many Venetians have become fatalistic over their city's future - hardly surprising when faith in officialdom has been abandoned like a holed gondola since last year's shenanigans in city hall: the then mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, was placed under house arrest before resigning over a kickback scandal involving more than 20 million euros.

These are the frustrations that formed the backdrop to the Italian state's attempt to auction off Poveglia in the spring of 2014. Venice is a place of deep history and, small as it may be, the island occupies a certain place in the Venetian consciousness. Popilia, as it was originally called, was one of the first islands in the lagoon to be inhabited and by the 14th century it was a thriving community, loyal to the Doge, which resisted the invading Genoese before its citizens beat a retreat to the Giudecca (it's no coincidence that Poveglia per Tutti sparked into life there). Nowadays it holds fond memories for many Venetians of young middle age - the demographic that the majority of Poveglia per Tutti's supporters belong to - for when they were growing up it was a piece of campagna in the lagoon. 'Young people came here to smoke their joints, have sex, have some shade from the adult world,' says Pesola. 'It's tied to a lot of people's biographies.'

More than 4,500 people, from Venice and beyond, responded to Poveglia per Tutti's crowdfunding experiment. To Demanio's dismay there were only two contenders in the phased auction, the other being an anonymous bidder referred to by the Association as Mister X. He bid 513,000 euros while the Association put 444,000 euros on Demanio's table. The identity of Mister X now emerged: he was Luigi Brugnaro, an entrepreneur who owned the local professional basketball team. At this stage the incumbent mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, had yet to be arrested and Brugnaro's ambitions in that direction were not known. His stated plan for the island was to invest many millions in a private clinic for the treatment of people with eating disorders.

Knowing it could never outbid Brugnaro, Poveglia per Tutti now set about frustrating him. Its decision not to match him in further bidding rounds - even though a donor had offered to make up the shortfall - meant that he was unable to improve on his original offer as he had nobody to bid against. 'And that's where we nailed him,' says Pesola. Demanio deemed his bid of 513,000 euros too low and called off the auction. The word is that Demanio would have accepted 10 million - the amount the state is clicking up in debt every hour - and Pesola believes the whole premise of the auction was wrongheaded: 'Selling Poveglia with its millenary history and tradition for just one hour of interest on our national debt is criminal.'

When his bid was turned down Brugnaro started legal proceedings but his attention switched after Mayor Orsoni resigned in mid-June 2014 (Orsoni was found to have taken bribes from Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the company building the Mose flood defences in the lagoon; more than 30 CVN employees were also implicated). Once Brugnaro decided to run for office he dropped his official interest in Poveglia. The mayor's office ignored the Telegraph's request for an interview but did provide a statement: 'During his election campaign Luigi Brugnaro said that in order to avoid conflict of interest he would renounce any intentions regarding the site [ie Poveglia]. And once he was elected mayor of Venice that's exactly what he did.' Lorenzo Pesola and I leave Andrea Barina's restaurant and walk to the south side of the Giudecca to rendezvous with a boatman called Raffaele, who guides us due south across the glittering lagoon in his small boat. On the way we pass islands that in the Association's view are testament to all the wrong turnings Poveglia could take, including San Clemente, where two luxury hotel ventures have failed in the last five years (the hotel is due to re-open under new ownership in 2016), and Sacca Sessola, with a Marriott resort plonked on it. 'That belltower in front of us is Poveglia,' says Pesola after half an hour, and there it is, matching Jan Morris's description of 'a low huddle of buildings on a flat islet, with a single tall campanile in the middle'.

Ashore, we pick among the crumbling buildings. The island was a quarantine station, a sanatorium and latterly, until its closure in 1968, a nursing home. In the undergrowth a Latin inscription on a headstone dated 1793 says: 'Do not dig. Those who suffered contagion in life lie here.' But there's little basis to the lurid supernatural tales which have trivialised much of the reporting of the Poveglia auction in the foreign media - a handful of plague victims lie here, says Pesola, not the 'hundreds of thousands' of popular myth; and the mad doctor who supposedly carried out experiments on elderly patients is a fiction. Nevertheless a forlorn air hangs over the place. In the old hospital, boundaries between inside and out have been blurred. Floors are tiled with leaf litter, lianas twist through glassless fanlights and a roof has been replaced by vegetation. Beyond the buildings, the old vegetable plots and orchards are obliterated by brambles. It takes some effort to imagine Poveglia revitalised but Lorenzo paints a picture: of a public park, a marina, a restaurant, a hostel ('where groups can sleep, not necessarily a place where young tourists can come in droves'), a study centre. He estimates the amount they need to raise at 25 to 30 million euros.

This is the plan but the Association has some distance to go to realise it. Since the failure of last year's auction Demanio has sat on its hands and Poveglia per Tutti now finds itself in a strange place, like the bathtub we stumble across in the undergrowth. Its members built a self-destruct clause into their constitution - if they have not secured some sort of title on the island by the beginning of 2016 they will return all the monies to the subscribers and disband. 'We need to progress, keep everyone's optimism high and right now what's happening is, Demanio is just killing it,' says Pesola.

A spokeswoman for Demanio confirmed to the Telegraph that the agency is talking to Venice city council and to Mayor Brugnaro directly over the redevelopment of Poveglia and that it is aware of the Association's self-imposed deadline. Poveglia per Tutti believes that Demanio has the legal authority simply to grant it the lease on the island, if only for a probationary period. 'We think we can do what the Italian state has not been able to do for 50 years - find the money,' says Pesola. 'We have this presumption. Perhaps it won't be something that will happen in five or 10 years but we also think that taking care of the common good is an inter-generational effort.'

This sense of being custodians of Venice's precious heritage for future generations is a theme that runs through other organisations in the city, from the loose grouping of likeminded professionals known as the New Venetians to Forum Futuro Arsenale which is dedicated to revitalising the historic Arsenale shipbuilding neighbourhood - part of which is the HQ of the disgraced Consorzio Venezia Nuova. These concerned citizens are out in force for the opening of the photographic exhibition of cruise ships, by Gianni Berengo Gardin, that Mayor Brugnaro banned from the Doge's Palace. It takes place instead in a private gallery on St Mark's Square and the queue of people waiting to get in is so long it stretches into the middle of the piazza. For once Venetians are blocking the path of selfie-stick-wielding tourists instead of the other way round.

Poveglia per Tutti's supporters are well represented. One I talk to describes the Association as 'one of the best things that has happened to Venice in ten years' - but says in the next breath that his interest has waned: 'Too many voices, not enough leaders.' Such criticism is par for the course in a city where backbiting and intrigue are as much of an art form as the Bellini. But the energy and integrity of Poveglia per Tutti have expanded the idea of what's possible. Its members seek the chance to put a different vision for Venice into practice - in the hugely symbolic waters of the lagoon, the amniotic fluid in which the city was born a thousand years ago. 'The worst that can happen is that the state gets an island back with work done on it by people who have tried to take care of it,' says Lorenzo Pesola. 'And then they can sell it to a Chinese billionaire.'

Published in the Telegraph Magazine on December 19, 2015



 
   
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