Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Welcome to Brugnaroland, "An Amusement Park for Cretins"

Barriers at the Ponte della Costituzione (see the full slideshow of images by the Corriere del Veneto)

Okay, I've put this off as long as I can, let's get it over with.

The quotation in the title of this post is from art critic, gallerist, and tv presenter Philippe Daverio, and was among the remarks he recently made on RAI about Venice and its mayor Luigi Brugnaro.

If you've ever watched Italian television you've probably come across Daverio talking about art. I've had very little access to television since we moved here and even I've caught glimpses of his programs on art history.

In response to Brugnaro's decision to reroute tourist traffic in Venice over the May 1 holiday weekend by installing manned turnstiles on the Piazzale Roma side of the Calatrava Bridge and at the entrance to the Lista di Spagna near the train station, Daverio issued a broad condemnation of the city's non-resident mayor, saying "Il sindaco ha deciso definitivamente di assassinare la Serenissima Repubblica."

That is, "The mayor has definitely decided to murder the Serene Republic."

For as much as Brugnaro tried to frame these manned barriers as just part of an experimental approach to crowd control that would only be employed on those weekends when crowds were expected to be overwhelming, critics of his plan saw them as the perfect symbol of his continued efforts to turn Venice into a theme park. 

As Daverio put it, Brugnaro's barricades are just a small part of the Treviso-based mayor's larger project, in the implementation of which, given the choice of trying to design policy aimed at reinventing Venice as a real city or reducing it in every detail to nothing but a tourist trap, Brugnaro has consistently chosen the latter:
Il sindaco cosa deve fare? Esagerare la trappola per turisti o trasformare di nuovo Venezia in una città? E’ più importante che Venezia torni ad essere di nuovo una città.
Il sindaco inventi non un tornello per enetrare, ma un progetto per il futuro della città. Lo stato provvede alla cultura della propria società o no? Non provvede ai maccheroni o alle feste. La cultura fa parte dell’istruzione o dei maccheroni? Per il sindaco di Venezia la cultura fa parte dei maccheroni. Ha deciso che la città non avrà più un’importanza politica, Venezia è un turistodromo, un luna park per cretini, è una scelta fatta dal sindaco.
"For the mayor of Venice," he says, in the final sentences above, "culture is nothing more than a cheap diversion. He's decided that the city will have no more political importance, Venice is a tourist park, an amusement park for cretins, that's what the mayor has chosen."

The second part of Brugnaro's new two-pronged approach to managing tourist flow--note, not reducing tourist flow, as has been long recommended by those concerned with the survival of Venice, but simply rerouting it, so as to pack in even more tourists--the second part was to have the large boats (lancioni granturismo) that transport tourists from places like Punta Sabbioni dock not at the over-crowded Riva degli Schiavoni near Piazza San Marco but at one end of the Fondamente Nove in Cannaregio.

And there goes another neighborhood... (from Corriere del Veneto)
I haven't the heart right now to belabor yet again the dangers to resident life presented by this plan (see my blog post of April 8), but as you can see in the article at right, even the boat operators, tour guides, and tourists themselves don't seem too pleased to find that a 45 minute walk now lies between their new point of disembarkation and Piazza San Marco. 

I must say at this point, though, that if anyone still thinks Brugnaro is concerned about the quality of the tourist experience in Venice they really haven't been paying attention. Attention to the quality of the tourist experience would require, as noted already above, the reduction of tourist numbers. Brugnaro has shown that this is the last thing he is willing to consider. Better, he thinks, to increase the influx and find better ways of forcing them into relatively open spaces.

You say you're dying to see Piazza San Marco?

Well, how about the Scuola Grande di Misericordia instead?*

Indeed, one of the things that forcing large masses of tourists to disembark at Fondamente Nove does is put them within very easy reach of a large exhibition space to which it just so happens that our non-resident mayor himself holds the concession until 2051.

Perhaps this is just a coincidence. Perhaps our non-resident mayor doesn't actually profit from his 35-year concession. I don't know the details of the arrangement. But it does strike me as a curiosity worth noting.

In all fairness, though, I must point out that Daverio's description of Burgnaro's project as being that of simply turning Venice into "an amusement park for morons" is not entirely accurate.

That is only one part of what clearly is a two tiered plan of development.

Venice proper as a kind of Coney Island for the masses, into which they'll be stuffed as grain is forced down the throat of a goose being readied to become fois gras, is what might be called the lower tier of the plan.

The upper tier, the luxury tier--a word our non-resident mayor loves so much that it was, to the embarrassment of most Venetians, the actual theme of the Venice Pavilion at the last art Biennale**--is to be developed on the publicly-owned islands which the cash-strapped state is auctioning off at bargain prices to private interests. Public islands like that of Poveglia which--and by now this should come as no surprise--Brugnaro himself once tried to purchase.

Poveglia, Fort Sant'Andrea, the old military compound on Vignole, the old hospital on Lido... these will become the site of luxury private resorts, accessible only by private means, and closed to the public to which they had once belonged.

In tandem with development plans in Mestre, Marghera, and around the airport promoted by Brugnaro (and likely to financially benefit Brugnaro, as well), the mayor's grand project for Venice and the lagoon is nothing less than an inversion of the old relationship between the watery seat of the mighty Republic and the terraferma to its west, in which the former becomes nothing more than a "brand name" possession of the latter to be exploited to the fullest--even unto death.

Call it the campagnolo's revenge.


*In addition to being rented out for lavish private events, since being renovated by Brugnaro's company the Scuola Grande di Misericordia has hosted a heavily publicized exhibition of Giotto (complete with a hefty entrance fee) which included no actual works by Giotto, but rather a multi-media extravaganza instead. Given that you can see some of Giotto's greatest works in situ at the Scrovegni Chapel just a 30 minute train ride away, and that one of the main reasons to come to (or live in) Italy is to be able to see the actual works of Italian masters in person, I couldn't bring myself to pay 18 euro to watch and hear something I could just as easily watch and hear in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Buenos Aires, or Tokyo.

Forthcoming multi-media extravaganzas already announced for the Scuola Grand di Misericordia will focus on Raphael and Canova. At least Canova has some relation to Venice, but this show will put a private enterprise in direct competition with the city's Museo Correr in Piazza San Marco. And given the nature (and limited time) of mass tourism, it may very well turn out that more people will be interested in seeing multi-media depictions of Canova's work (and being told through narration and music what to think of them) than in seeing the works themselves in person at the Correr. 

**Never has a pavilion at the Biennale ever bore such a non-ironic resemblance to a duty-free airport shop. 


  1. (another interesting attempt)
    Maybe some solidarity with other cities facing the same problems (massive day tourists on cheap excursions and AirBnB) would be a tactic.. but fascinating that the nasty B profits from Misericord's very odd transformation.

    1. I'm not sure how or if the mayor profits from the renovation of the Scuola Grande, Mary. I mean the renovation is supposed to be quite nice, perhaps he is just recouping his expenses for the renovation? That would be the most generous interpretation of it, while others would leap to point out that a man is entitled to a healthy profit, etc. I just note that one of the largest cultural venues in Canareggio is under the control of the mayor, and how rerouting lancioni there could benefit it (and him).

  2. I wonder how the opposite aims of access control and mass tourism are reconciled in major’s mind.

    For access control to work a form of identification is necessary. Tickets holder is the most obvious but the entrepreneurial spirit can (mis)use public money in more creative ways. City of residence white list? Number of previous visits and spending pattern? Level of engagement on social media? You understand where this is going. The major may want to segment tourists and attract the most valuable. Or can just profile tourists with the help public money and sell the data to friendly businesses.

    Countless researchers have been financed (more often with public money than not) to study a way out of the tourist monoculture. The reality is a Venice Disneyland is easier to control for corrupted politicians. There is no lack of them.

    On a brighter note, after living in San Francisco, Hong Kong as well as in many cities in Italy and visiting many others around the world I can tell Venice is the most liveable I have experienced. Not counting the stunning beauty of the city itself - even a bad day turned into a good one after walking half an hour in the calli - it should be of no surprise that cities around the world are becoming more Venice-like by banning automobiles and embracing mixed use architecture to boost liveability. Venice has much more potential than it seems to teach us how our past should shape our future.

    1. I think you're right, Edoardo, that as other people have pointed out, too, Venice could serve as a laboratory for thinking about city living. Indeed, as Salvatore Settis details in a chapter of If Venice Dies, Venice was being explicitly invoked as a paradigm for Manhattan in the 1920s by an influential professor of architecture at Columbia, and it has continued to be invoked by thinkers around the world in this way. Alas, it seems the only places where such ideas haven't taken hold is among the city administrations of Venice itself.

  3. sindaco residente o non residente che vuol dire????italiano e non italiano potrei dire lo stesso di lei doppia cittadinanza ma sempre americano resta.....mica le dico di tornarsene a casa sua.leggo per curiosita come tante altre cose il suo blog e onestamente mi stupisco di cosa scrive vedute diverse ovviamente e poi ho letto anche altri commenti suoi che ha scritto in altri posti e le posso dire che se si vuole perorare una causa rimanendo nel giusto per difenderla certi epiteti che non riscrivo di certo non si usano. a ogni modo si candidi a sindaco di venezia alle prossime elezioni cosi se eletto potra rendere la città l eden che ha in mente lei venezia non è dei veneziani già da tempo vedesi quante attivita veneziane restano nei confronti delle gestioni straniere pronti a pagare fior fiore di affitti pur di esercitare affitti si li pagano è poi è da vedere se pagano le tasse e parlo di piccole e grandi imprese rispetto per venezia io direi rispetto per i turisti senza un mese ti turismo venezia sarebbe in ginocchio e per un 10 % che sono molti di turisti che non rispettano le regole e intendo regolamento comunale non il suo di regolamento immaginario ci sono un 90% di commercianti che non rispettano i turisti si si metta la foto dei gondolieri romanticismo nell immaginario della gente. e nel suo pure???? ma lei conosce il mondo dei gondolieri?????

    1. Though I'm well aware that there have been many rotten mayors native to the cities they've governed, I still prefer that a mayor lives in the city in which he or she is elected, especially when the city is as distinctive as Venice (just as I wouldn't vote for a mayor of New York City who lived in Syracuse, NY). For example, a Venetian (either from Venice proper or Mestre) might better understand the importance of finally holding the 4-yr-overdue lottery for the 180 boat mooring places in the city that are available but still unassigned.

      The term "cretini" was used by Daverio, as you can see from the quotation marks around the phrase in the title. I didn't take this as applying actually to the tourists themselves, but to the "entertainments" and experiences being approved for them by city authorities: ie, that the tourists are being treated as if they were "cretini." Actually, they're often being treated worse than that.

      In fact, as I've written before, the percentage of "bad" tourists in Venice in miniscule (far less than the 10% figure you suggest). The problem is that even if every single tourist were as intelligent and admirable as Einstein, crowding 100,000 Einsteins into the city would still be disastrous for the city's well-being.

      As for your 90% figure for commercianti, you can believe what you want, as I can't even comprehend its relevance here.

      And, yes, in fact, I do know 2 current gondolieri and one former gondoliere, who changed professions because he found the job to be both dull and dismaying in a number of ways. I don't believe I'm inclined to romanticize them.

  4. What is the gist of Anonymous' argument? He criticises your criticism of certain aspects of Venice. Then he says certain things should not be said, does he mean there should be a cover-up? Next he goes on to mention the businesses which are no longer in Venetian hands and perhaps not paying taxes and then alludes to the shadier side of the gondolier business as well as the tradespeople who do not respect tourists.

    So it seems that even he does not consider that "all is for the best in the best of (Venetian) worlds".
    Punctuation would have helped but, in some quarters, it seems to have gone out of fashion!

    1. I'm not quite sure, Rosalind, but, yes, tourists should not be referred to as "cretini"--but, as I explained above, I wasn't reading that term as being used in the way Anonymous read it. Daverio's criticism, as I read it, was aimed at Brugnaro and city officials, not the tourists themselves. On the other hand, Anoymous does seem to think it's okay to broadly slander whole groups of other people, so I guess the point Anonymous is trying to make isn't of the "let's all respect one another" sort.

  5. Intendevo parole come (idioti e cretini ecc ecc ) si possono anche non scrivere non servono a sostenere le proprie idee

  6. Veramente i termini usati non sono stati scritti qua ma come detto prima in altri social per perorare sempre la causa del buon turismo ....mica li ho scritti io mi sono limitato ha leggerli forse si scrive talmente tanto ovunque che qualcosa va nel dimenticatoio

    1. Actually, Anonymous, I don't "write so much everywhere" on social media--in fact, I rarely look at it lately. So, please feel free to indicate where you saw these comments you keep referring to.

      And by the way, who exactly are you? You know my name and have 8 years of my blog posts to look at here. But I know nothing about you. Would you care to identify yourself and the reason for your sudden interest in this particular blog post?

    2. Why do I get the sense, Anonymous, that you have something to do with the new waterbike rental place in the historic center? Please forgive me if I'm wrong in this assumption, as it's not something I myself would want to be associated with. But if you are, then I'll tell you directly that to me at least that enterprise makes as much sense as renting unicycles to ride in the middle of New York City's Broadway, or the Autobahn.

      Your business model requires that those whose livelihood depends on moving goods through the city's working waterways, and have typically spent years learning the rules of those waterways, take special care not to upset your clients as they flounder about cluelessly on watercraft they can barely maneuver in canals whose vital importance to the economics and operation of the city they know absolutely nothing about.

      In other words, that the vital commerce of the city allow itself to be disrupted and impeded so that you yourself can make money. After all, given the 100 euro price of a 30 minute ride you can't exactly claim to be performing an act of charity or providing a public service. On the contrary, your business model interferes with the usual operations and rules of the public waterways in order to turn a private profit.

      Of course everyone needs to make a living, and I hope that one way or another you succeed in doing so. And as the comune has apparently licensed this business of yours what you are doing is not illegal. But that does not mean that I have to applaud your enterprise or recommend it.

      In my opinion it does not provide an "insider's view" of Venice, but exactly the opposite. For it encourages a tourist to view the city's waterways as just another part of theme park Venice, open for anyone to use in complete ignorance of their actual functioning and of their historic importance to the culture.