Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Real Drama Over the Island of Poveglia Begins Now

A mix of blue sky and storm yesterday over Poveglia (background) and the former lunatic asylum island of San Servolo
For those of us fond of old movie depictions of auctions ending sonorously, dramatically and conclusively with the thwump of a gavel--"Sold to the man in the eye-patch for 120 million French francs!"--the bidding on the abandoned Venetian island of Poveglia was destined to be a bit of a letdown. For one thing, it was online, and it's doubtful that the winner even received one of those exclamatory E-bay emails ("Congratulations! You've won 99 YEAR LEASE ON POVEGLIA! Click here to arrange for payment and shipping!"). For another, this is Italy, where every supposedly dramatic conclusion usually turns out to be only the preface to another round of wrangling and dispute.

As it turned out, despite a late surge in donations, the nearly 4,000 members of the civic group Poveglia per Tutti fell a little less than 100,000 euros short of the winning bid of 513,000 offered in the first part of the auction. The identity of the winner was revealed to be entrepreneur Luigi Brugnaro, head of the company Umana and owner of Venice's pro basketball team, Reyer. But, congratulatory email or no, Mr Brugnaro had little if any time to enjoy his victory.

Suspected of, and portrayed as, harboring the most nefarious plans for the island while the auction was ongoing and he was known only as "User_10801a9e", "Mr X, or "Mr 513", perhaps it's no surprise that Brugnaro accepted his prize in a rather pugilistic crouch, declaring right off during a press conference after the auction's end that he "bought the island only to save it" from falling into the hands of rapacious "Chinese, Russians, Arabs, or Americans" (though, of course, by the end of the first part of the auction it was clear no such nasty foreigners had even made bids). He, too, he asserted, was motivated solely by the most community-minded sentiments, and was dedicated to preserving the island for public use and saving it from ugly exploitation or speculation. He was a good guy in this story, he insisted, not some monstrous Goliath, but when the press remained skeptical he become rather strident, if not a bit heated ("Brugnaro attacca il giornalisti" ["Brugnaro Attacks Journalists"] ran the title of a video clip on La Nuova Venezia website).

One of Brugnaro's key points was not just that he never had any plans to put a luxury hotel on the island, but that he was open to everyone's ideas, was just dying to hear them, and (as a local paper put it) he extended his hand to Poveglia per Tutti--which showed little if any interest in taking it.

And, really, who can blame them? For having garnered a tremendous amount of public support in only a month--blossoming almost overnight into a major presence in the discussion of Venice's future--the group seemed understandably hesitant to legitimate the unknown projects of an entrepreneur over whom they would ultimately have no real control. Instead, the group hopes that il Demanio (or state property department), which now has up to 30 days after the auction to decide whether to accept the winning bid, will reject it as being inadequate in the high-priced real estate market of Venice. After all, Poveglia per Tutti supporters ask, is it right that an island of 7 hectares (17.3 acres) should be leased for 99 years for the sale price of a one room apartment on the Zattere? Instead of dealing the property at such an absurdly low price to a private investor, wouldn't it be more fair to turn it over to those Italian citizens to whom it's supposed to belong in the first place?

In these questions, Poveglia per Tutti is echoed by Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni, for whom the end of the auction seemed to sound like the bell at the start of a boxing match, sending him into the ring swinging. Indeed, Orsoni declared, the state property office couldn't possibly accept such a low bid, but if it did the comune of Venice would make use of its right of prelazione, or pre-emption, to acquire the island itself. "Even a city with as many budget problems as ours," Orsoni announced, "must be able to find resources for a worthy expenditure of this sort." An announcement which, in a city where parents literally take to the streets in outrage because there are no funds to clean the filthy classrooms of their children, caused more than a few residents to chuckle bitterly, and others to assert that Italy is still plagued by Communists.

Brugnaro himself, however, didn't seem especially worried by the mayor's stated plans. Instead, he reminded Orsoni and the comune that the real cost of Poveglia will extend far beyond the 513,000 euro purchase price. Brugnaro claims that, according to his own calculations, the restoration of Poveglia will cost more than 20 million euros in addition to the original purchase price, and with this in mind, and with obvious sarcasm, he invited the cash-strapped mayor to go right ahead and pre-empt his winning bid if he wanted to. "Si accomodi," is how Brugnaro put it, using the phrase with which a polite host invites a guest to "make himself at home", confident that the seat Orsoni would be taking with his prelazione would prove to be extremely uncomfortable, if not ultimately untenable.

And so things now stand as the state property office crunches its numbers--or whatever they'll be busy doing for the next 28 days. I can't pretend to make any sense of Italian politics, but I'm not sure that Brugnaro will turn out to be the winner of this competition even if he does indeed win the lease on the island. Regardless of Brugnaro's claim that his bid was motivated solely by a selfless desire to do what's best for Venetians, I've yet to hear of the entrepreneur who is thrilled at the prospect of having people tell him how to spend his own money and go about his business, not even if only half a million euros were at stake, much less something like 20 or 10 or even 5 million.

Brugnaro is trying to position himself as a paternalistic benefactor to the people of Venice. I think he'd have more luck with this in America, where people have over the last 34 years developed a remarkably blind (and, I'd say, unfounded) faith in corporate benevolence. I don't see it playing well in the lagoon.  

In contrast, I can't see how Poveglia per Tutti--as long as they adhere to the principles they've espoused of transparency and community action--can completely lose, as both Brugnaro and Orsoni have declared they want to work with them on the future of Poveglia.

As for Orsoni... Well, the possible outcomes for him or any Italian politician are far beyond me.

In other words, the real drama of Poveglia, the real competition, is going on right now. There's hope among a good number of people here that if the community spirit evident in Poveglia per Tutti can be maintained and, ideally, expanded, the winners will ultimately (against great odds) be the residents of Venice. But it's not likely to be easy. 


  1. Hi, your post is well calibrated. Would you be interested in contacting the Associazione Poveglia? Are you already a member? If so please ask for Lorenzo. Thanks
    Lorenzo Pesola (or:

  2. Go! Poveglia per tutti. Tutti is also "me" and anybody that loves Venice.

    1. It will be interesting to see what comes of all this, Jon, that's for sure. We can hope for the best...

  3. Muito rico o bloque e estou a segui-lo.
    Grande abraço.
    Gilson (Brasil).

    1. Thanks, Gilson. I look forward to checking out your blog now.

  4. Is it possible to visit the Island to make an architectural survey

    1. Yes, I'm sure it is, as people take their boats to and walk around the island frequently, but I'm afraid I can't give you a lead on whom you might contact to take you out there. Perhaps contact Poveglia per Tutti to see if they have any leads for you (you can write to them in English):