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)


  1. I don't recall a blog post about the Viva Vittorio bridge, but I do seem to remember that it's in or near the Campo Santa Maria Formosa.

    1. As Bert's comment below shows, Helen, you're exactly right--it is very close to that campo. Thanks!

  2. "We cross Ponte del Paradiso again and walk alongside the canal, Fondamenta del Dose, that leads to Calle del Dose and Calle de Borgoloco where we turn right. This will take us to Ponte Borgoloco. Its 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." You read it (probably) on The bridge is in Castello, quite near to Campo Santa Maria Formosa. There is a photo on the webpage.

    1. Thank you very much, Bert, that's great to know. I'll insert a link to the page now.

  3. I thought it might be on Fausto Maroder's now defunct blog, but I have not been able to find the particular post.

    1. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was also mentioned there, Yvonne, and was actually where I saw it, as A Lover of Venice's information about the bridge is part of a longer (and very interesting) walking tour of Castello, rather than an individual post, and I don't recall reading through that particular guide to the area. Though I will now.