The city of Venice is not like any other city in the world and so is the way it finances its cultural heritage. A lot of the historical buildings suffer daily from the struggle with the water, and their restoration and protection requires a lot of money and constant attention. Due to this, Venice’s primary focus is not just to repair of what gets damaged, but on preventing the damage in the first place – so a lot of its financial resources are channelled on the Mose project, which is a project to limit the acqua alta and the damage it causes the city as a whole. (You can read more on this topic in my post on the love-hate relationship of Venice with water). On top of that, many of the daily expenses of the city government are much higher than in other cities, simply because of managing the complexity of a floating city. Think about simple things such as waste collection which costs 4 times more than in a mainland city. Where other cities only need a number of vans driving around the city, Venice needs to send out boats as well as lots of people to walk through the small calle and collect the garbage.
As the government doesn’t want to raise more money from the local inhabitants, they have to look for alternative means. These creative new ways to co-finance the protection and restoration of its cultural heritage are necessary to preserve the historical beauty of the city.
So, what are the financial resources that support the Venetian cultural heritage and traditions?
The Italian government
Culture is a very important aspect of the Italian lifestyle, so it is obvious that the state government is one of the prime sources of money for every Italian city. Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, announced at the end of 2015 that almost 1 billion euros would be spent on culture. As part of this program, Venice will receive 6 million euros for various cultural projects.
A second, and the most visible, funding resource is the restoration of historical monuments using sponsorship by large multinationals. The Bridge of Sighs for instance is now as beautiful as ever, but has been covered in advertising for many years. Different companies were involved in this project, so it was always a surprise to see who was on the billboard when I passed by.
The Rialto Bridge has also been renovated recently. The whole reconstruction lasted for 18 months. The complete amount of 5 million euros is being funded by fashion tycoon Renzo Rosso, president of OTB Group and owner of the brands Maison Margiela, Marni, and Diesel. In exchange he gets a large billboard with his brands attached to the bridge. As the Rialto bridge is amongst the most photographed tourist attractions in the world, this advertising will be seen by many customers across the world and the money will be well spent.
Another recent example is the restoration of the golden lion on the façade of the San Marco basilica thanks to Chanel. Coco Chanel used to love lions and this one in particular, so in her commemoration, the company agreed to revive its original golden colours. At the same time, the star-studded mosaic behind the lion was also preserved. It took several months of work, which included cleaning, repairs, and three applications of a new gilded coat, but the lion looks brand-new. Don’t forget to admire his new look next time you’re on the San Marco square.
In 2017, restoration is planned for the balcony of the Palazzo Ducale, paid by Volotea, and the Accademia bridge, sponsored by Luxottica. More information on the history of the wooden Accademia bridge, and why this was originally meant to be a temporary bridge, can be read in my post on Dorsoduro.
You might not like to see all the advertising in the historical centre, but it is the only way to make sure the city doesn’t fall apart. It is probably better to have some advertising now, then to realize in a couple of years that there’s nothing left to see.
Private Committees for the Safeguarding of Venice
After the extreme flooding of Venice in 1966, UNESCO launched an international request for funding to repair the damages to the city. Several international committees were created at that time under the umbrella of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. However, after the restoration was done, they still continue to exist. There are still approx. 30 of these committees of culture-minded individuals who want to preserve the history of Venice and who fund different projects of restoration of monuments and works of art. Since 1966, they have restored more than 100 monuments and 1000 works of art, from the San Marco basilica and Palazzo Ducale to smaller churches and palazzos.
The Dutch committee De Poorters van Venetië (The gatekeepers of Venice) for instance focuses mainly on the San Zaccaria church and have not only paid for the restoration of the façade but also for the marble floor, the wooden statue of Christ and many other smaller elements. Larger projects such as the restoration of the Torcello cathedral are co-funded by a group of these committees. They also grant scholarships and finance scientific activities in the field of restoration, and undertake fund-raising promotional activities. The Venetian Heritage Council for the Restoration of the Jewish Museum and Synagogues of the Venice Ghetto is one of these committees, established just in 2014. The Council, headed by fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, has so far raised 2 million euros but needs another 6 million euros. They are targeting famous members of the American Jewish community such as Barbra Streisand and Donna Karan.
These are very noble initiatives and they are important for the future of Venice. If you want to donate or become a member of any of these organizations, you can find the complete list on the website of Venice in Peril. Most of them are not as exclusive as the Venetian Heritage Council, so you will certainly find one within your budget.
In one of many attempts to find funding for Venice, the mayor Luigi Brugnaro announced in October 2015 that he wants to sell some pieces of art, which are held by the city museums and don’t have a clear link with the history or culture of Venice. The shortlisted works include paintings from Gustav Klimt and Marc Chagall, and should raise up to 400 million euros in total. The decision is very controversial but according to Brugnaro, nobody is coming to Venice to see Klimt (which is a fair point, I think). It is not yet sure if it will really take place, as it might conflict with the state’s heritage code, which declares that public collections cannot be broken up. In the recent past, the city also sold some of its historic palazzos (such as the 16th century Fontego dei Tedeschi to the Benetton family) to replenish the budget of the municipality.
Cultural heritage is not only about monuments and historical buildings. It also relates to the traditions and values of a city. In the last couple of years, Venetian inhabitants have launched several initiatives related to this topic. Their common purpose is to preserve the city of Venice, with respect for the historical customs, but they all look at it from a different angle.
The best-known trade in Venice is of course that of the gondolier. For the first time in more than 1,000 years, the Gondolier Association of Venice – which represents Venice’s 433 licensed gondoliere – has aligned itself to a sponsor in 2015. Al Duca D’Aosta, a Venetian clothing group, has developed a range of clothing with a new logo for the gondoliere, such as red and white or blue and white striped t-shirts, polo shirts and sweaters, black or dark blue dress pants, winter vests and ribboned-straw hats. These were given to all gondoliere, but can also be bought by tourists. The Gondolier Association will invest all royalties earned from the sales in projects in the city of Venice which safeguard the gondolier and artisan trades that surround the gondola and the Venetian rowing style tradition. The items are available at the historical Emilio Ceccato clothing store at the foot of the Rialto Bridge or online. For more information on what it entails to be a gondolier, you can read my post ‘An insider’s story from the world of gondoliers‘.
Some organizations focus on the authenticity of the city. Masegni & Nizioleti Association (started in March 2014) for instance strives for the correct use of names on the signs (nizioleto in Italian) indicating monuments or street names. They intervene at the institutional level to make sure errors and inaccuracies are corrected, and they even prefer to have the names mentioned in the traditional Venetian dialect. Their main concern is the dignity and respect for the historical values of the city. Venezia Autentica (launched in October 2015) is creating a network of Venice lovers, both in the city itself and abroad, who want to support the authentic Venice. Their goal is to make sure people really understand the city and to do that, they share a lot of information on social media (on history, legends, events and so on), and in the near future on their website. At the same time, they want to create opportunities for the Venetian artisans and promote Venice.
Other volunteer organizations focus on keeping the city tidy, to ensure it is a nice environment for people to live in and for tourists to enjoy their visit. One of these is Masegni & Nizioleti Association (the same one as mentioned above with the signs), whose self-organized group of citizens volunteer to clean the city by removing graffiti for instance. Another group is the crowdfunding project Don’t Waste Venice (started in 2015). They concentrate on cleaning the canals of floating garbage, as well as sunk and stranded waste within the internal areas of the lagoon. Both organizations accept donations but are also looking for volunteers to take part in the clean-up.
Finally, in December 2015, a group of campaigners, including citizens movements but also the Italian Environment Fund, have urged the UNESCO World Heritage Center to put Venice on the list of world heritage in danger. They say the situation has reached a crisis point as mass tourism is jeopardizing the future of the city. If residents continue to leave, the city will lose its ties with the lagoon and risks becoming an open-air museum where the craftsmanship will be lost. They also warn about the damage caused by the huge cruise liners. In the meantime, UNESCO has requested some changes from the city of Venice such as a sustainable tourism strategy, the regulation of the number and speed of boats and the prohibition of large cruise ships. If these changes are not made, Venice will be put on the list of world heritage in danger. A final decision of UNESCO is expected in the summer of 2017.
Maintaining and preserving the historical beauty of the city of Venice requires a lot of effort and money, but if we all contribute, the city will remain as beautiful as ever.
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(This article was first published on January 29, 2016.)