Friday, September 4, 2015

Venice's Own "Baby Berlusconi" Takes His First Steps--and They're Backwards

Always dignified, never "kitschy", Venice's new mayor does the city proud by tweeting an image of himself with Michelle Obama (photo credit:

The owner of a prominent professional sports team, this politician asserts that his vast personal wealth elevates him far above the petty and venal political bog in which all hope of progress in Italy has been mired for decades, to a lordly height of clear vision. His status as a "self-made" entrepreneur, he tells us, is proof that he knows how to get things done. He is a vital man of action, a force of nature, a knight, taking up arms against the benighted legions of the "Party of No", that is, against those whose only goal is to impede progress and growth. And yet for all of his great wealth and success--you haven't forgotten his enviable wealth and success, have you?--he is also a man of the people. Not some dry-as-dust technocrat, some impotent intellectual, some mealy-mouthed wind-sniffer, strait-jacketed by politically-correctness... No, he's the embodiment of the assertive Italian spirit, forging ever forward, glad-handing, backslapping, grandstanding.  

I could be recounting the self-presentation of Silvio Berlusconi above. But, actually, it's Venice's new mayor I have in mind: 53-year-old Luigi Brugnaro, born and raised on the mainland (in Spinea); son of an elementary school teacher and a union leader in Marghera; founder of Umana Holding, a temporary employment agency which, after just a decade of operations, was doing about 300 million euros' worth of business; and owner of Reyer Venezia Mestre, which fields both a mens and womens team in Italy's top professional basketball league.

He took office in June and if--based upon his bold promises that he was "neither Left nor Right" and would tolerate neither the waste nor corruption that was killing Venice--you thought he might first turn his keen, fearless, all-seeing businessman's eyes upon MOSE, the forever-inoperable mobile flood gates project which has sucked up 5 billion euros over the years (a full 1 billion of which it's estimated has been siphoned off by corruption), you'd be wrong.

It turned out, instead, that the first great battle against budgetary waste that Venice's righteous defender chose to wage--the one with which, it's assumed, he intended to set the tenor of his mayoral term--was against 18 of the city's librarians.  (

In ringing tones (Agamemnon at the gates of Troy), he announced their contracts would not be renewed. For he was outraged to discover that each of them was making 7.50 euro per hour. This, he declared, is exactly the kind of absurd expenditure that is draining the city coffers dry. (His actual metaphor involved "eating the soup of the city", but I can't locate the exact quotation at the moment.)

Having thus with one heroic stroke set the city's account books in order, Mayor Brugnaro then turned his attention to school books and, fulfilling a campaign promise, ordered 49 titles removed from the shelves of preschools. The books had been purchased by the previous administration to expose young children to simple tales designed to counteract discrimination against people based on race, culture, disability, sexual orientation, family configuration (eg, a single mother or same-sex parenting), or gender identification.

It was not, Brugnaro explained, that he personally had anything against tolerance, but that he feared that children might be confused by a depiction of, say, a family with two parents of the same sex.

Or, in other words, as much as the city's 28 preschools may be actively engaged in transmitting cultural norms (and I speak here from personal experience, as the father of a child who attended one), they should do absolutely nothing that could in any way interfere with parents' inalienable right to raise little bigots.

Besides, Brugnaro noted--clad, I like to imagine, in gleaming Crusader's armor, with the beaver of his helmet up and accountant's half-spectacles perched on the end of his nose--10,000 euro were spent on those books! (

(Or .00001 of a percent of that money lost to MOSE corruption alone. But who's counting?)

Well, at this point the new mayor would have liked to focus all his attention on arming the city's vigili urbani (the metropolitan police force) and creating the occupying-army-style police force now in vogue in cities around the world (

Or in inviting the Mayor of Barcelona to Venice to show her how extremely well-founded--oops--foolishly ill-founded were her fears that residential life in her city might become "like Venice" and be utterly destroyed by mass tourism (

Or simply in taking and posting "selfies" of himself with Michelle Obama on his Twitter account. (

But his removal of those books from preschools angered a lot of people. And the next step he took of returning all but two of the titles to the schools did not mollify them, as the two titles he continued to deem inappropriate for young children were both devoted to showing that a same sex couple could, in fact, make very good parents.

Amnesty International protested this decision; as did PEN Italia, Venice residents, people around the world, and Elton John (who has a house in Venice) ( this NY Times piece does the best job of discussing this conflict within the larger context of contemporary Italian politics). And the Pope even sent a supportive letter to the writer of one of the two books (

Brugnaro had nothing to say to the Pope on the matter. But the possibility of making headlines by mixing it up with a world-famous celebrity seemed too much for him to resist and--as has become his wont--the new mayor took to his Twitter account to respond to John.

There, Brugnaro dismissed John's criticism as "represent[ing] the arrogance of someone who is rich and can do whatever they want" (,

For a politician who flaunted his own personal wealth during his campaign (which included a firework display), this was an odd strategy of attack. Indeed, Brugnaro's own campaign slogan of  being "Neither Left nor Right" rested upon the notion that his own personal wealth freed him from all obligations and debts to parties or interests. Like Berlusconi, Brugnaro presents himself as one of those towering figures whose success has liberated him "to do whatever they want." But, like Berlusconi, Brugnaro assures us, of course, that his decisions (issued from on high) would be for our own good. Even if we don't realize it--or aren't included in the decision-making process.

After all, though Brugnaro criticized the previous city administration for being so arrogant as to place such titles in schools without first consulting the parents of students, his removal of them was also done with even less consultation (as not even the city council was involved in it). But (again like Berlusconi) as rich as he may be--you do remember his wealth, yes?--he has an intimate connection with the will of the people and voices their unspoken desires, even as he seems only to be doing whatever he wants. Or, as the case may be, catering to the wants of one extreme of the Italian political spectrum.

In any case, to show that he was unbowed by the book battle, he more recently announced that, though he "has friends who are homosexual", he will never allow Venice to be the site of a Gay Pride Parade. They are, he declared, "a buffoonery, as kitschy as it gets" (

A comment which has made more than a few people wonder if the new mayor of Venice, the boy from the mainland, has actually spent much time in the city during Carnevale or, really, at any other time.

But this is just the beginning of Brugnaro's term (or is it, "rule"?) and this post touches upon only a few of his many questionable steps so far. Other ones, like his canceling of an exhibition of photos of big ships by the famed photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin ( scheduled for the Palazzo Ducale, will no doubt feature in future posts. Though you can read one account of that particular controversy here:


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  2. Thank you for this very sad and accurate summary. Is there a solution? Can he be recalled? Is Venice stuck with this bully of a clown for 5 years?

    1. I don't know how many people would want to recall him right now, JoAnn. In fact, I suspect there are Venetians who are even quite enthused about him (such as the bar owner down the way from where we live). As in the US, there are a lot of people who believe that a wealthy businessman can work "magic". Or, at least, magic for their own personal bottom lines. But there's much more to write about Brugnaro...

  3. When will Venice get the person she needs/deserves? So sad you're saddled with yet another idiot.

    1. I suspect both Brugnaro's supporters and those folks who dislike Venice (and they do exist), Andrew, would say (for very different reasons) that Venice has gotten just the person it deserves. But, like you, I keep hoping for something (and someone) better.

  4. As he is the owner of a basketball team and not of a football team, may be he is a bit more honest than others. That seems to be the only hope for Venice in the following years. Beyond that, he seems perfectly stupid. Unfortunately he is in the spirit of the times as many others politicians in Europe. Great struggles in prospect about Big Ships! Waiting for your post about Berengo Gardin. Thank you by anticipation. (by Auvraisien)

    1. I can only hope, Auvraisien, that you might be right, but I fear that regardless of what kind of team he owns he's likely to do little more than open the city up to even more unrestrained and rapacious exploitation, regardless of longer-term consequences. As you say, this is the spirit of the time. Though not the only one, I hope.