Monday, November 27, 2017

Venice Wants to Live: A Protest with a Keen Sense (or Senso, As the Case May Be) of the Past

A flurry of red, white and green flyers protesting the bargain-basement sale of public properties to private interests set on converting them into hotels drifts down upon the opening night crowd of La Fenice (photo credit: Julia Nikitina, Gruppo 25 aprile)

In an inspired act of peaceful protest by the Venetian activist group Gruppo 25 aprile on the opening night of La Fenice's season, 24 November, life imitated art (which had imitated life which had drawn from art which had responded to life). And right on cue Venice's spotlight-loving mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, stepped into a role for which, alas, he's proven himself all-too-perfect.

The specific focus of the protest was the continued sale--typically at cut-rate prices and without competition--of publicly-owned properties in Venice to private interests planning to convert them into hotels (as recounted, for example, on the Campaign for a Living Venice website). The form of the protest imitated the one which opens Lucchino Visconti's 1954 film Senso, as RAI's coverage of the protest effectively shows: the flurry of green, white and red flyers in the old film's La Fenice setting cross-fades almost seamlessly into the falling flyers of last Friday night.*

In the film, set in 1866, shortly before the unification of Venice with Italy, Venetian protesters in the nosebleed seats of the theater drop thousands of leaflets decrying the occupation of their city by the hated Austrians, a large contingent of whose soldiers sit in white-coated splendor in the orchestra seats below. The film's protest occurs during a performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore, which is no accident, as Verdi was strongly associated with the drive for Italian unification and his work interpreted as coded encouragement for resistance and insurrection. Even his surname was used as an acronym for unification, and shouts of "Viva Verdi" were meant to convey (at least in certain contexts) "Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia."**

And so, too, it was no accident that last Friday night's protest preceded a production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, or that the message on each flyer emphasized the letter V, reading:


Venezia Vuole Vivere

(Or ""ENOUGH HOTELS / Venice wants to live")

Everything about the protest, in other words, was meant to evoke in anyone familiar with Visconti's film, and the Venetian and Italian history upon which it was based, the sense of Venice as a city presently being occupied and governed (or mis-governed) by forces hostile to its best interests.

It's not simply a matter of the cruise ships--to which the recently trumpeted "solution" is no solution at all, and Orwellian in its deceptions--but of an unavoidable sense that the city's assets are being plundered, as Austrians, for example, plundered the city's archives, as Napoleon plundered its art (and as the old Republic of Venice plundered Constantinople and plenty of other places).

The sense is that the government of Venice is operating along the lines of a traditional colonial government: stripping and selling off anything of value, without concern for either the citizens (who are generally treated as profit-inhibiting nuisances) or the future. A short-sighted wholesale sell-off which, as Salvatore Settis explains in his important book If Venice Dies, is actually encouraged by the Italian government itself in a legislative decree signed into law by Berlusconi in 2010.*** (America is also set on encouraging this kind of sell-off: one need look no further than the full-out assault on the very notion of National Parks.)

But this kind of predatory mis-government is simply in keeping with a strategy of predatory mismanagement widespread in the business world, extending far beyond Venice or Italy, and known as "asset stripping."

When citizens--whether they be Italians, who, after the fervor of the Risorgimento, began (with no lack of reasons) to distrust their national government as soon as they had one, or Americans, whom a steady diet of anti-government vitriol since 1980 have brought to a political cynicism/nihilism now equaling that of Italians--choose to fantasize that the solution to all their problems is for their city or state or nation to be "run like a business," perhaps they should take the time before casting their ballots to look at just how businesses are run these days (often by the very people, eg, Mitt Romney of Bain Capital, Donald Trump, for whom they're voting).

With Luigi Brugnaro, Venice and Mestre elected their very own uomo d'affari to run one of the world's most celebrated cities "like a business" and, well, he certainly is. Venice needs to convert already existing properties into affordable housing for people who work here; what it ends up with is even more hotels.

Mayor Brugnaro tweeted his criticism of RAI
But last Friday night's protest opened up the role of the foreign occupier for Brugnaro and Venice's non-resident mayor enthusiastically leapt into it, taking his cue from the latest edition of the wanna-be authoritarian handbook and responding not to the issue raised by the protest but to the coverage itself of the issue. Though he is currently in Brazil, Brugnaro felt the need to dismiss RAI's segment on the protest as merely politically-inspired--"politica non informazione!" In other words, with his own version, complete with exclamation point, of another infamous tweeter's oft-repeated refrain of "fake news." For, after all, as Brugnaro never tires of repeating, he himself is above mere politics and is "neither left nor right." As if activities involving conflicts of interest and the short-sighted pursuit of profit over all else occur in some transcendent heavenly realm, and are carried out only by the unsullied Select.

The fact that Brugnaro is well known for falling asleep at events such as operas and symphonies makes his lament that RAI's coverage of the protest neglected the "magnificent spectacle" of the opera itself rather funny.

There's nothing amusing about what's going on in Venice, though, and Gruppo 25 aprile's protest last Friday night, with all its historic overtones, strikes me as a particularly compelling and successful way of foregrounding the situation in the city.



*After the interior of La Fenice was destroyed by fire in 1996, Visconti's shots of the theater with which Senso begins became a primary point of reference for the artists and artisans tasked with exactly recreating it.  

**The highly informative website A Lover of Venice has an image and description of a bridge a short distance from Campo Santa Maria Formosa whose "wrought iron railing is said to represent an acronym for Viva(long live) Vittorio Emanuele. Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy, visited Venice in 1866, when the bridge underwent its last reconstruction." This suggests the intertwined Vs, which can easily be taken for intertwined hearts, were created after October 12, when Venice was ceded to Italy, not before, while still in Austrian possession. Vittoria Emanuele himself arrived in Venice with much fanfare on November 7 of that year.

***Named after legislator Roberto Calderoli, the act which bears his surname transfers public heritage sites which, as federal property had once belonged to all Italians, to individual city governments. Settis writes "once transferred [in this way], the majority of these assets and heritage sites become instantly available for sale to private interests and investors. In fact the Calderoli Act allows for city governments to literally give these properties away to [private interests]." Indeed, "city authorities are encouraged in every possible way to sell off their patrimony, to the point that another law requires them to furnish a yearly report on their 'real estate disposals' alongside their budgets."--from Chapter VII of If Venice Dies (my emphases)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Details, Details... Palazzo Grassi

Gaudy as the handles to the French doors of the piano nobile of Palazzo Grassi are (see an example of one above), I recently turned to them--and really noticed them for the first time--as a respite from the massive display of kitsch filling the center of the palazzo's exhibition space: Damian Hirst's Andromeda and the Sea Monster (detail below), which is a comically overwrought combination in bronze of, among other things, woman-in-peril pulp fiction and comic book covers of a half-century ago with the unconvincing rubber sharks that surfaced in popular films of around the same era (and then, most famously and profitably, in Spielberg's Jaws).

So much has been written about the Hirst show that I've never felt any need to bother with it myself. You can still catch it until December 3. There is no time limit on when you can have a look at the flashy door handles, about which, I must admit, I know nothing. 

Sometimes a piece of art, no matter how spectacular it aims to be, only becomes interesting in the presence of viewers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

7 Views of the Festa della Madonna della Salute, Today

Candles, balloons, castradina, and sweets, thanks for one's good health and prayers for good health in the year to come: these are the key elements (sacred and profane) of the Festa della Madonna della Salute.

For more on this major Venetian holiday, please see:

For information on the three-day process of preparing the feast's ritual dish of castradina, see:

One can't help but have candles on one's mind when it comes to this festa

For those concerned about the health of their soul, as well as their body, the sacrament of confession was available

The speed with which balloon vendors locate and disentangle a specific balloon from the massive cluster of them they sell strikes me as one the day's minor miracles

Friday, November 17, 2017

Unseen Venice: A Cantiere in Cannaregio

Every two years the city of Venice is supposed to hold a lottery for its resident boat owners to assign any new mooring places (ormeggi) around the city that have opened up since the prior lottery (something I've written about both here: "Adrift in Venice" and here: "Moorings Found and Lost"). The latest statistics show no less than 180 ormeggi are now free. However, it's been a full five years since the last lottery and the calls of local politicians, such as Monica Sambo, and resident activists for another lottery have fallen on deaf ears.

Embroiled in the corruption charges that would ultimately lead to his removal from office, perhaps it's understandable that ormeggi were the last thing on the mind of the city's previous mayor, Giorgio Orsoni. But what about the current one, the one who likes to present himself as Mayor Can-Do?

Some harbored the suspicion that as Mayor Brugnaro was born and raised on the mainland, and continues to live on the mainland, near Treviso, he was unfamiliar with the boat culture of Venice, and the importance of ormeggi to residents. These people tried to alert him to the fact that this was not just a matter of leisure boats--as a terraferma-dweller (the less-polite term would be campagnolo) such as himself might imagine--but that having access to one's own boat, for work and for other everyday needs, was a defining feature of Venetian life.

Once again, this fell on deaf ears. It seems difficult to get the attention of Venice's "First Citizen" when it comes to issues affecting the lives of those residents who might very well be his neighbors if he deigned to actually live in Venice. Brugnaro's focus is almost invariably on developments (in all senses of that term) related to tourism: whether he's very publicly insulting four British tourists who wrote to him with their concerns that they'd been ripped off by a Venice restaurant or supporting the continued sell-off of public properties to be turned into hotels.

Which means that more than a few Venice residents, my family among them, find themselves renting space to keep their boat in one of the private marinas at the edges of the city or in a cantiere (or boat workshop and warehouse) of the sort you see pictured in this post--and of which most visitors are completely unaware, concealed as they are behind walls and stretching through neighborhoods that appear simply residential.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Wild in the Streets (or Calli), Five Years On

During our first couple of years living here, to pick up our son from school was to be reminded how in car-free Venice pre-schoolers and kindergartners are the kings and queens of the calli, frolicking through them with complete (and sometimes operatic) abandon, as I recounted in this post:

This begins to change as they move toward the end of first grade, and by the time they hit their fourth year of elementary school, as our son has, they've mostly abdicated what was once their realm, bowing, on the one hand, to a creeping sense of what it means to be "cool" and, on the other, to the unmistakable fact that in many parts of the historic center the streets really belong to the tourist masses, who greatly outnumber them.

But sometimes, as in the instance pictured above, as a chain of boys make their way to an after-school birthday party, they reassert their old dominion and for a short time there's some life--rather than just foot traffic--in the city again.