Saturday, February 7, 2015

Behind the Mask of Carnevale: A Bit on Schools in Venice

Venice is a great place to be a child, but one with very limited quality educational options
We recently were notified by the public school our son attends here in Venice that his second grade class next year will be sticking to the same three half-day two full-day weekly schedule it follows this year. We were pleased to hear this, as we saw no need to increase the number of full days each week to three for second graders, as had been discussed as a possibility.

We were not pleased to find out, though, that the decision was not based upon any pedagogical considerations. No, the educators believed the third full day was necessary, but it turned out that there was simply no money in the city budget to pay for staffing it. 

This is the reality of living in the "fairy tale city" of Venice.

Last year parents literally took to the streets more than once in public marches to protest the fact that budget cuts to school maintenance had left the schools so filthy that some literally had to be closed as unfit for classes.

Of course nation-wide Italy already spends the least on education of any EU country ( Not surprising, perhaps, in a country run for nearly two decades by Silvio Berlusconi. For in the blithely cynical and remorselessly corrupt world view of Berlusconi, in which (to use a line from Eugene O'Neill) "every man is a knave with his soul for sale, and every woman who isn't a whore is a fool," what use, really, is education?

But Venice has its own particular problems. As Ana Somers Cocks has diligently reminded whomever will listen, the federal money that once came to Venice for the special maintenance required in a city like this (592 million euros in 2002) has been reduced to less than 1/20th of that amount. If it shows up at all (

The rest of the funds from Rome have been poured into the great slop trough that is the MOSE mobile tidal barrier project: a trough surrounded by a legion of ravenous venal swine whose behavior might shock even Dante, familiar though he was with characters who richly merited a spot in the lowest depths of hell. (See Venetian artist Elena Tagliapietra's recent site-specific performance piece depicting corruption as the new plague on the city:

Indeed, one might argue that this Grand Project to, purportedly, save the city has done more to kill it as a city for residents than any of the lagoon's well-documented economic environmental challenges. Of the 5.6 billion euros funneled into the project, it has been estimated that as much as 1 billion was siphoned off for graft.

That was not a typo: at least 1 billion euros swallowed up by corruption.

(And, incidentally, I saw that Matteo Renzi was recently in California's Silicon Valley, hat in hand, talking up Italy as an excellent destination for investors. Good luck with that, Matty. See:

Oh, and by the way, the barrier gates that will save the city from high tides are nowhere near functional. Their operational date has been pushed off, once again, until 2017. And, of course, billions of euros more will be needed to meet even that deadline.

Or to not meet it. As, really, deadlines come and go here without consequences, just as large criminals pursue their crimes, and are arrested, also without any consequences. More than 100 people were arrested last spring, including the head of the powerful Consorzio Venezia Nuova (Giovanni Mazzacurati), a conglomerate of companies with a monopolistic no-bid right to all MOSE contracts, but who has gone to jail? The mayor of Venice lost his job for corruption, but his punishment was nothing more than a few days of house arrest.

Mazzacurati himself, called "the mastermind" of the system of corruption, has been deemed too old to serve a prison term even if he were convicted of anything.

But Venetian children are not the only ones profoundly affected by this criminality at the highest levels. For while they must make do with schools of dubious quality--finding a good school in Venice is quite difficult--other residents, including the city's large elderly population, must make do with what my Venetian physician bitterly refers to as "half of a hospital."

And we are lucky to have that. Only a concerted opposition by determined citizens was able to change the regional government's plan to essentially close Venice's hospital and move most of it to the mainland.

In other words, for all the choreographed evocations and celebration of Venetian culture on offer to visitors (for a price) during Carnevale, it's pretty easy for residents to feel that those with real power over the city not only care nothing for those who live here full-time, but would find the city much more profitable and efficient if we were gone completely.

A city devoid of actual residents would mean no more money "wasted" on educating children, on facilities for the sick or aged. All the big money of transporting tourists to and from the city--on big ships, on planes, trains, buses, lancioni (the large boats that shuttle tour groups from outlying landing areas to the city center)--could still be made, all the things people come to see would see be here.        

Indeed, a city of commuting employees, not residents, seems, ultimately, to be the implicit ideal for most of those with power, whatever they may sometimes sentimentally, even operatically claim.

I sometimes think about what could be done for the city with just the 1 billion euros that went to corruption--not to mention the other 4.6 billion or so that supposedly found its way to legitimate MOSE-related uses (if any money toward MOSE can be considered well spent anymore). But then I remind myself that the criterion for a huge money project such as MOSE (and not only in Italy) is not whether it benefits citizens, or in this case "saves" the city of Venice, but whether the money ends up in the right well-connected hands and bank accounts. And in these terms, no doubt, MOSE has been a smashing--or should I say, crushing?--success.


  1. Thank you for this sad but thoughtful account of one of the things that ails Venice in regards to its residents!! I am a long time visitor to Venice (These days I try to come at least once a year.....and hope to maybe spend at least a year in the near future)......we need these honest perspectives.....thanks!!!

    Cecelia Pierotti

    1. Thanks very much for your comment, Cecelia: such problems may be the kinds of things that even frequent visitors such as yourself might not be aware of, but that are never far from the minds of those who live here, or (even worse) grew up here and hope to raise their own kids here.

  2. Jeudi soir, nous serons à Venise pour boire un Spritz.

    1. I don't know how I came across these comments so late, but I hope you enjoyed your Spritz--and much else besides. Though sometimes a Spritz is enough...

  3. Ciao. Thanks for writing such "real" posts on Venetian life and not just the typical rose tinted views on this amazing city.
    I'm planning on moving to Venice in November this year with my eight year old daughter. We are both dual Australian/Italian citizens and I'm trying to enrol her in school there (Renier Michiel in Dorsoduro). We are both just learning Italian so Im really throwing her in the deep end :p I'm crossing my fingers that everything goes okay for her, that she gets a nice teacher and is able to make friends quickly. Do you have any advice for us?

    1. We looked into sending our son to Renier Michiel; there are good things about it, but I can't remember now exactly what they are. I think it is definitely among the best options. The good thing about moving here with a child is that you will find it much easier to meet people than if you moved here as an adult alone, and Dorsoduro has long been one of the more "cosmopolitan" sestieri: a long tradition of ex-pats, and probably among the more outward-looking populations. Some other sestieri can seem more cloistered, more ill-at-ease with anyone from the outside. But, yes, the teachers that your child get have everything to do with the experience. But if they are good your child will have the same ones through the 5th grade: teachers typically stay with the class of children they begin with, which works out nicely (unless, of course, they're bad teachers). Once you get here, we've found that everything--from schools to other bureaucratic issues--usually go better when you handle them in person rather than over the phone or email. But we also have to do what we're able to do, and sometimes the phone or email is all we can manage. Good Luck! I think it will go well.