The Coming Death of Venice?

Felipe Rodriguez/Trigger Image
A cruise ship in front of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, August 2011

Fortunately, the €1.5 billion investment will probably not be found, but if it is, the City Council of Venice will be giving permission in July for an 820-foot-high skyscraper (130 feet taller than the Tour Montparnasse in Paris) to be built on the mainland behind Venice, about six miles from St. Mark’s Square.

The mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, assures us that the building will not spoil the skyline of Venice, but The Art Newspaper, of which I am the founding editor, published a photomontage based on calculations of what it would look like from the Lido, the strip of land opposite St. Mark’s Square separating the lagoon from the Adriatic. The skyscraper looms up, two thirds the height of the campanile of St. Mark’s, and would ruin the iconic (appropriate use of the word here) view that we all have in our mind’s eye.

Not true, insisted the mayor. So I asked the consulting firm Millerhare, which does this kind of projection for all big buildings in London, to go over the calculations. Like so many people, especially outside Venice, they love the city, so they donated their expertise. Their findings confirmed ours.

What is going on here? The answer is that over the last thirty years Venice has become the object of so much politicized wrangling, in which the truth has been the first victim, that an arithmetical fact can be treated as a matter of opinion and most people will just shrug their shoulders. This attitude lies behind much of what is described in this article and is putting the city at risk.

In 1987, Venice was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at which point it was supposed to come up with a management plan. This March, the City Council finally presented it to the public. Its purpose, the council said, was to “define the strategies and choose the ways of putting them into practice through action plans.” Unfortunately, the document fails almost completely in both these objectives because its authors have funked all the big issues.

Being a World Heritage Site is not an accolade spontaneously awarded by UNESCO, but something that requires an application to be made by a nation-state. Italy asked for Venice to be put on the list. Not surprisingly, the city was found to fulfill all the necessary criteria, and in exchange for the title, Italy signed up to produce a management plan and define a “buffer zone” around Venice. Being a World Heritage Site does not guarantee any funding because UNESCO has a mere $3.25 million to spend on its activities and on all heritage sites this year (besides $4.5 million for its offices and $7.5 million for specific projects, including Mali).

The most UNESCO can hope to do is keep watch, and if it sees…

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