Archive for Cacciari

Nov
18

It’s all about the money

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No ghe xe schei” (No ghe zeh skay).   It  means  “There is no money,” in Venetian, and it’s a phrase one hears all too often.

If Venice were to have a soundtrack, it wouldn’t be the shimmering arpeggios of Vivaldi or Marcello, it would be this monotonous lament.    The statement obviously refers to the state of the municipal coffers, but it’s an extremely versatile and handy tool.   It can be used either as a weapon of attack or defense, and is also useful as an accusation.   It’s as much a political as a financial remark, because it explains, excuses, and removes from discussion any problem, decision, action or inaction.   “No ghe xe schei” will be the reason why  something was done, or why it was not done, or how it was done, or by whom, or when.    Whatever happens, it will be because there are no schei.

Two recent campaign posters. (Upper) "Independent and loaded with money," written in Venetian; (lower) "With independence we're rich," in Italian.

Two recent campaign posters. (Upper) “Independent and loaded with money,” written in Venetian; (lower) “With independence we’re rich,” in Italian.

Schei is an old Venetian word from the period between 1797 and 1866, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled the once-independent Venetian Republic.   There was an Austrian coinage called “Scheidemunzen” (a generic term indicating that the coin was legally worth more than the metal it was made of), clearly  a word that was born looking for a nickname.   So the  Venetians chopped off the first bit and pronounced it their own way.   One scheo (SKAY-o) was one cent, that is, one one-hundredth of a Scheidemunze.

You will also  still hear people use the term “franchi”  to mean money.   (If you were to earn some extra money, you’d tell your friends you’d “ciapa’ un franco,” grabbed some money, in the casual way we would refer to doing something on “my dime,” even if actually cost $40,000.)

The franchi don’t refer, as I once assumed, to francs circulated during the brief period when the French were the rulers here, but rather to the coinage of their successors, the Austrians.   In that period there was another Austrian coin in circulation which carried the Latin name of the Emperor Franz Josef, i.e. Franciscus  Iosephus.   With the passion for diminutives that is one of Venetians’ more endearing traits, the money became “Franks.”   So spending  “franchi” would be like spending a batch of Abes or Georges today for the newspaper or a pack of gum.

While I’m off the track here, you also occasionally hear an older person refer to spending lombardi.

A one-cent lombardo, 1822

A one-cent lombardo, 1822

That goes back to the period   of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia (1815-1866), a sort of subset of the Austrian dominions about which I will tell you nothing more because life is short, but I will mention that Lino told me he has, somewhere in his impedimenta, at least one genuine lombardo.   Very cool.

Venetians buy and sell in euros now, a word which is hopeless for fantasy, but it’s used  here only in specific situations, such as paying the gas bill or pricing products.   Peaches would cost four euros (not schei) a kilo, but the shopper would put them back because they cost “massa schei.”   Too much money.    But back to the budget.

How much money does Venice need to live on?   And why does it keep coming   up short?   (And why do the lights blaze on all  night  on every floor of the Palazzo Balbi, in the offices of the Veneto Region??)  The numbers, as reported in the press, don’t seem  to match up, and studying the documents on the city’s website gave me the staggers, so I can only sketch some broad outlines.

As with any entity, the city has Income and Expenses.   You need to increase (A) or decrease (B), or both,  to keep going.   Even I know that.   And there has been a terrifying drop in (A) recently, the fiscal equivalent of the effect suffered by non-seat-belted passengers on a plane which suddenly hits one of those invisible air pockets.     Furthermore, the world economic implosion has meant fewer tourists,  and those who do come are spending much less.

Conversely, the increase in (B) has been relentless.

So while the larger world worries about water rising in Venice, the mayor  is fixated on  the ebb and flow of funds.   That sound you hear is the city government squeezing 7 million euros out of this year’s budget.   There’s plenty of pain to go around.

Income, some major sources of:

  • The Casino.      It pays half of its profit every year to the city; in 2007 and again in 2008 the city received 108 million euros from it.   But the economic crisis has been hard on the Casino, too, and the projection for 2009 was  a drop of  10 million euros from last year’s contribution.   This has created a severe ripple effect on all sorts of groups who  benefited from  sponsorship by the Casino, which is regrettable.   But for the city it has been a real body blow.
  • The Port of Venice (cargo and cruises).   Happily, in 2008 the Port experienced increases in both categories; Venice is now the #1 port in the Adriatic for Ro-Ro and container traffic (take that, Trieste).   As for cruises, Venice is the #2 homeport in the Mediterranean and #4 in Europe.   Last year Venice reached a historic maximum of 1,216,088 million cruise passengers,  each of which pays a 157-euro port fee.   This comes to 190,925,816 euros.
On a Sunday morning in high season, you can count six of these mammoths, trunk to tail, entering (and later, departing) the city.

On a Sunday morning in high season, you can count six of these mammoths, trunk to tail, entering (and later, departing) the city.

  • Passenger numbers are projected to increase in 2009, despite the general economic gloom.   Therefore, appalling as the sight of these pachyderms may be as they lumber past San Marco (I refer to the ships, of course, not their passengers), to the city they are bags of money floating in on the tide.
  • The Special Law for Venice, the instrument by which national funds are allocated annually for a wide range of activities.   This used to be a very deep pocket for Venice to reach into, but now there’s more hole than cloth.   Only about 5 million euros can be expected to come from Rome, and it’s not clear if the city will even get them all, or exactly when.
  • Historic buildings.   In the past five years, the city has been selling whatever historic buildings it can, realizing some 400 million euros.     (The sale  of the former Pilsen  brewery, for example,  netted 40 million euros;  it is destined to become yet another hotel.)     The anticipated income from the next batch of buildings (if they were all to occur) is 98 million euros.      But eventually there will be no more buildings left to sell, so it may be better not to count too much on this for long.
  • Taxes.     It’s not so much that there need to be   more; there need to be more people paying the taxes which are already required.   Many, many people all over Italy  are known to evade paying   tax on their real income.   (Shocking, I admit.)   Those who can manage it  declare only the minimum income required by law,  and the city has become involved in its own fiscal version of a land war in Asia in the effort to get the tax money it’s due on the real income made.   This effort has led to many battles with, so far, not much result.
  • Sponsors.   This is a highly desirable source of money but, being impossible to predict or estimate, can’t be listed or quantified in any serious budgeting efforts.

Expenses:

These are all the unromantic elements of keeping a city alive, if not well, and the budget has to cover not only the historic center of Venice, but its municipal partner, Mestre, which has its own particular problems.   The struggle to resolve the very different demands of the two entities —  dredge a canal or build a parking lot? —  is never going to let up.   But whereas people come to the historic Venice and spend money (and even respond to appeals for donations for same), it’s unlikely that the same amount of money would be forthcoming from appeals to help Mestre avoid becoming a souvenir.   So there is tension.   Unfortunately for historic Venice, Mestre has twice as many  voters.

  • Sanitation
  • Canal dredging
  • Restoration of monuments
  • Schools
  • Public transport
  • Hospitals
  • Housing
  • Anything imaginable which I have left out, including the unforeseen disaster such as the storm of September 26, 2007 which merely drenched Venice but submerged large tracts of Mestre — garages, basements, etc.   The damages claimed by the residents have left a big black bruise on the budget.   And there was the resolution of a festering conflict between the city and the croupiers at the Casino (the city is the Casino’s largest shareholder) concerning the declaration of their tips (taxable, naturally); the croupiers sued the city and the court found  in their favor, so  the city will have to pay  them 11 million  euros in  settlement.     This hadn’t been listed in the budget for 2009, one can imagine.   I have no doubt that the city has a fund to absorb a certain amount of shock, but there can’t be much left  anymore.

To sum up: The city budget currently shows 546 million euros in income, and the same amount in expenses.   467 million of those expenses are for operating costs: 134 million for personnel, and 79 million for the various departments.    Welfare (a general term for various social costs) is 44 million.   The police get all of 2 million.   I won’t go on.   Not much left over, as you can see, for the restoration of monuments and other more visible  concerns of the most beautiful city in the world.

Mayor Massimo Cacciari  could see trouble coming a year ago (even before the roof caved in on the economy of the Milky Way galaxy):

“TO SAVE VENICE REQUIRES 70 MILLION EUROS,” the Gazzettino headline read, beginning its report on the mayor’s unproductive trip to Rome, where he discovered that the Special Law had allocated Venice a mere 5 million for 2009.   This is depressing, not only in itself, but because in a situation this dire, the need for money will tempt the city to give all sorts of waivers and exceptions and permissions to do things which are prohibited by various   laws.   The wild call of the schei, especially when it’s looking for a mate, is more unnerving than the cry of the migrating sandhill cranes at dawn.

“I explained to the Ministers that Venice needs annual refinancing of at least 60 million euros on the basis of the Special Law,” Mayor Massimo Cacciari said at the subsequent press conference.   “Otherwise it will be difficult to guarantee — on the contrary, they could be blocked — projects tied to the maintenance of the city, of the dredging of the canals, to the restoration of the private buildings of the patrimony, to interventions for the socio-economic revitalization of the city, to the restructing of the government buildings.”

This billboard was affixed to the Accademia Galleries for a while, visible to anyone near the Accademia Bridge.  Its appeal -- "Would you let Venice become only a souvenir?" is heartfelt but possibly a bit inscrutable to a tourist who doesn't know the whole context. Many tourists ask their guides "What time does Venice open?"  Also, it asks for money without giving any hint as to where it's ever going to go.  Paying the electricity bill of Palazzo Balbi, perhaps.

This billboard is currently affixed to the Accademia Galleries, visible to anyone either crossing the Accademia Bridge or even passing on the vaporetto. Its appeal — “Would you let Venice become only a souvenir?” is heartfelt but possibly a bit inscrutable to a tourist who doesn’t know the whole context (many tourists ask their guides “What time does Venice open?”). Also, it asks for money without giving any hint as to where your well-meant contribution is ever going to go. Paying the electricity bill of Palazzo Balbi, perhaps.

Anyone who has seen the swarms of summer tourists naturally assumes that they are all thickly padded with money, but this is not the case.   On the contrary; tourism imposes more demands on maintenance (money out) than it gains from its wildly assorted visitors, most of whom — the merchants confirm — carry very little spare change these days.

Over time, the city has hazarded various proposals to increase income (and limit the number of tourists at a time, thereby controlling the maintenance problem, at least somewhat).   One idea was to charge one euro from each tourist who stayed overnight (most tourism is of the “bite and run” sort,  as they put it).   This raised shrieks from the hoteliers, who saw it as punitive to the very people who were already actually spending money in the city.   Another idea that keeps coming up is to sell an admission ticket to the city, but apart from conflict over its philosophical justification, no one has yet come up with a way to actually make it work.

So “Let’s find a sponsor” has probably surpassed “Let’s have a drink” in frequency, if not in popularity.   Last year the mayor was wooing the German government for money; the movie stars who attended the Venice Film Festival were  snagged as spokespeople more or less soliciting contributions; Elton John donated a bit of his music as a cell phone ringtone, the proceeds of which would go to the city.

Certainly something is better than nothing, but many of these maneuvers do have a sort of tin-cup aspect to them.

The billboards on the Doge's Palace and the New Prisons have left the Bridge of Sighs gasping for air.

The billboards on the Doge’s Palace and the New Prisons have left the Bridge of Sighs gasping for air.

Then there are billboards, another form of sponsorship.   The most overwhelming at the moment are in the Piazza San Marco area, covering the facades of the Marciana Library, part of the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, and the New Prisons.     The aesthetic impact of these monstrous advertisements blatantly contradicts the notion that the sponsor is paying because he/she/it is sensitive to beauty and historic value.   The cost of restoration has increased, and the funds have  shrunk, to the point where these swathes of space are now regarded as the perfect commercial space for rent.   Not a revolutionary idea in itself, but pretty subversive in a town which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is one more aspect of the budget situation here that requires mentioning, and that is the Parris-Island-obstacle-course which  an entrepreneur with a good idea has to attempt to run, from  bureaucracy to high taxes to entropy, all  exacerbated by the normal political parry and thrust which require time and attention too.

One such  entrepreneur is  yacht broker Stefano Tositti, director of BWA Yachting, and he maintains that there is much more to be earned from the luxury-yacht business than has yet been asked.   “Luxury yachts is a sector that brings Venice about 10 million euros,” he told the Gazzettino; “it’s a lot of money when you consider that the work focuses on only 15 moorings used mainly in the summer.   It’s not enough.   There needs to be a marina adapted to the needs of people who come to Venice; here we’re not able to furnish certain services which our clients normally expect.”

In 2008, 173 of these peerless vessels adorned the embankments at the Punta della Dogana, the Riva dei Sette Martiri, and the Riva San Biagio.   Some of these berths can cost 10,000 euros a day, presumably for mega-yachts such as Paul Allen’s “Octopus”

"Rising Sun" in Stockholm

“Rising Sun” in Stockholm

Larry Ellison’s “Rising Sun,” and Barry Diller’s “Eos,” the world’s largest sailing yacht, all of which put in to Venice from time to time.   In the case of “Rising Sun,” it’s not easy to find berths it will fit into.

“Eos” in Dartmouth Harbor (Simon Poole).

Tositti says that there are investors ready to support a marina project, and that an  investment of 250 million dollars could bring earnings of 30 per cent within five years.   He claims that the city could earn another 10 million euros if there were a structure for off-season storage.   “The problem here is unfortunately bureaucracy,” he told the Gazzettino.   “It seems as if the city  doesn’t want to pay any attention to this niche market.   In fact, very few berths are dedicated to this type of boat — there are very few services for yachts in general, and marinas are completely lacking in the historic center.  ”

Happily, on July 2 it was reported that Moody’s had reviewed Venice’s books and awarded the city a rating of AA2, which is just below AAA and AA1.   It is heartening to see that the city’s finances still pass muster.   But with an eye on the  drop in income from the Casino, Moody’s has also given Venice  a friendly heads-up.

It appears that, at least for the near future,  the margin between money made and spent in Venice  will continue to be  so narrow that you couldn’t even slip the average “suspension of service” notice through it.   Yet still, schemes are proposed from time to time, such as the idea (since abandoned, or at least not mentioned) of  installing turnstiles on all the vaporetto docks,  which the city inexplicably is able to  afford.    This kind of maneuver only deepens the chasm between fiction and fact in this fairytale city.   Yesterday the city couldn’t afford to pay more ambulance drivers, yet somehow money has materialized to install turnstiles?

It doesn’t do to dwell on these things.    They only make you tired and unhappy.

Categories : Problems, Venetian-ness
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Nov
17

Exodus but no promised land

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Esodo.   (EH-zo-do.)   It means “exodus,” but this simple term — like “Fort Sumter” or “potato famine” — is freighted with history and emotion.

When  a Venetian refers to the Esodo, he or she is referring to a   Gordian convolution of elements of which the Mother Strand which  is knotting up everything else is this: Everybody’s leaving.   Not all at once, obviously, but at a fairly steady rate of 1,500 a year.   This has been going on for decades.

In 1981, the population of the "historic center" was just below 95,000.  On December 31, 2008, it was touching 60,000.  (Source:  Statistics and Research Service, Comune di Venezia.)

In 1981, the population of the "historic center" was just below 95,000. On December 31, 2008, it was touching 60,000. (Source: Statistics and Research Service, Comune di Venezia.)

In 55 years (1951-2006), the “historic center” (“postcard Venice,” as I put it) has lost 65 percent of its population.   It shrank from 171,808 residents to 63,925.     At this writing, the population is 60,311 and still falling.   I’ll pause to let that sink in.

If “exodus” seems to be  a dramatic word, calling to mind haggard refugees plodding toward the horizon, the reality it connotes is not less  dramatic, and potentially fatal to the city’s future.     “‘Save Venice’   is passe’,” professor Fabio Carrera, a Venetian, told me, only slightly in jest  — ”  We need ‘Save the Venetians.'”

The reason the city doesn’t look like the desolate wasteland it is becoming is partly because the casual visitor doesn’t miss what he/she/they never knew.   If you’re just walking around for a day, everything looks fine.   Self-suggestion is a powerful force, and if you believe that Venice is inhabited by Venetians, you probably won’t notice much to contradict that idea, even though it’s mostly tourists who are filling up the empty spaces, both on the streets and in the apartments.

Economic pressures generated and intensified by the steady increase in tourism (3 per cent a year, till this year), have conspired to cause something resembling forced migration.   Venetians have been packing up and moving out for many reasons: Lack of jobs here (businesses closing, even as you read this, due to rents which keep rising, and competitivity which keeps falling), the exaggerated cost of housing, the general cost of living, and even the nature of ordinary daily life (“fatiguing,” demanding,” “inconvenient,” even diehard Venetians will admit).

Over the past 20 years, the proportion of families in the historic center made up of only one person (most often a widow) has reached almost half of the total.  Not a factor conducive to a long and prosperous municipal future.  (Source: Statistics and Research Office, Comune di Venezia.)

Over the past 20 years, the proportion of families in the historic center made up of only one person (most often a widow) has reached almost half of the total. Not a factor conducive to a long and prosperous municipal future. (Source: Statistics and Research Office, Comune di Venezia.)

To consider each of these points more closely, let’s look at the last first.   Living in Venice, beautiful and fascinating as it may be, is not for everyone.   Living here is a vocation, like being a priest, and it too  involves sacrifices (and rewards).      Considering how heavy — and even impossible — some of those sacrifices have come to be, I can understand why the city can’t keep its kids at home.   Not everyone wants to walk five miles a day shlepping the shopping, wedging themselves and their kids onto vaporettos crammed with tourists and their inconceivable  luggage, paying prices for even the simplest items which you know cost half as much on the mainland.

Leaving Venice — apart from being carried out in  a pine box — has usually meant a move to the mainland towns.   First it was Mestre and Marghera, then the territory of Venetian exiles expanded to a  series of smaller sub- and exurbs such as Zelarino, Chirignago, and Favaro Veneto.   I think of it as Venice’s “near abroad,” the way Russia refers to its former republics.   Except some of these settlements were mere wide spots in the country roads winding through fields till the Esodo began.

Mestre and Marghera have been part of the municipal entity known as the Comune di Venezia since 1926.   In 1951, the proportion of inhabitants between Venice and its mainland component was 55:21.   In 2006, it was 23:66.

Second point: Cost of housing and of living.   Here again, the pressure of tourism works against the city’s ultimate well-being (as a city, I mean, not as a theme park).   There is very little residential space for rent (for many reasons, one of which is laws which heavily favor the tenant), and the passion which non-Venetians have for buying a place here has led to phenomenal real estate speculation, pushing prices so high a normal Venetian can’t even spell them, much less pay them.   The Giudecca has replaced Tuscany as your well-off Briton’s favorite Italian place for a second home.

The future of a real Venice needs to have many more of these.

The future of a real Venice needs to have many more of these.

Depending on the neighborhood, a modest dwelling can cost up to $5,000 per  square meter (or 10 square feet).   For the same amount of money (assuming you might have that much), or even less, you could get a place on the mainland that was multiple times larger, in better condition, with an elevator, and a garage, and a garden, and so on.   If you’re a young family on a budget, you’re going to delete “romance” from your list of domestic requirements and go west.

And finally, the first point: Lack of jobs.   Until the middle of the last century, Venice was a city that worked.   The Arsenal was still going strong, repairing ships; the colossal Molino Stucky was making pasta, from grinding the wheat to  boxing and shipping the final product; there were 20 printing presses; there were factories in Venice and on the Giudecca making cigarettes, cotton thread, asphalt, clocks, pianos, fireworks, beer, and luxury fabrics.   I’m probably leaving something out.   If you needed work, you’d have had to stay in bed to avoid finding it.

The cost of everything has not only forced out families, but also businesses.   They keep closing, or moving, taking their  jobs with them.   Now, some 20,000 people commute to work on the mainland every morning.

So while “esodo” is what everybody calls it, I’d compare it more to a Class III hemorrhage, caused perhaps by several events but  which, taken together,  damage the vital functions and left unaddressed will probably kill you.

I know a number of ex-residents — they would still call themselves “Venetians” — who have moved to Mestre.   (If you’re a native of Mestre, you’re referred to as a “Mestrino/a.”   If you go anywhere outside the Veneto region, though, you will almost certainly tell people you’re from Venice.   Technically, it’s not a lie, but your listener will be imagining you in a gondola and not stuck in traffic on the way to the airport.)

The older these exiles are, the less willing they were to make this move.   One of them, a guy I know who belongs to a boat club over there, makes a point of rowing over here with his buddies as often as he can.

They stopped in the canal outside one afternoon and rang my doorbell.   We had a little schmooze, but he ignored his three companions’ pleas to get going because he had to — HAD TO — show me something.   Because his grandparents used to live in  our building, and when he was born — he dragged me around the corner — his grandfather immediately took him  to this very canal (he showed me the very steps going down into the very water) and dunked him three times.   “This red bandanna,” he pointed to his neckerchief, “means I’m from Castello.”   His friends were rolling their eyes,  but to him it was something utterly crucial about him, about the city, about the world the way it used to be, a world that doesn’t and can’t and won’t ever exist on the mainland.

I’ve met ex-Venetians who come over from Mestre on Sunday afternoon just to stroll around, just to be here.   Like going back to the old home place.   On a personal level, it is pure pathos, which doesn’t primarily mean “sad,” it means “suffer.”   I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a transplanted Venetian say, “Life is so much better since we left Venice.”   I have heard some say, “We really, really miss it.”   The emotional reality of this erases much of the importance of factors such as cost of living, crowded vaporettos, and all those other drawbacks I mentioned above.

In many ways, Venice is an excellent town for older people; lots of human contact, and you are compelled to walk, whether you feel like it or not.  But as the shape of families changes, more of the elderly are living alone.

In many ways, Venice is an excellent town for older people; lots of human contact, and you are compelled to walk, whether you feel like it or not. But as the shape of families changes, more of the elderly are living alone.

The city government is not oblivious to what’s going on.   There are spasmodic attempts to get a grip on some appendage of this monster, and a recent recalculation shows that the departures have slowed, if not stopped.   New apartments built or renovated to be made available at advantageous prices to Venetians was an excellent idea, then it was discovered that there were Venetians buying them in order to  re-sell them.   Jobs?   Nobody seems to   know where more  might be found.   I think I saw one around here the other day, but I can’t remember where.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be the mayor of Venice and go abroad to some big international conference of mayors.   And someone asks, “So, how are things in your city?”   (I overlook his probable first response which would be “Fine, except that the people are morons.”)   I imagine him saying “Fine,” period.   Or maybe, “Well, could be better.”   Or maybe, “We’re  evaluating some  exciting new projects,” or however mayors phrase it.

It would be much harder to have the nerve to admit, “There are a lot of great things about my city, except that nobody can live there.   I’m mayor of a city in which it is becoming literally impossible to live.”   What response could anyone give to that statement?   It would be like asking a ship’s captain about his vessel and hearing him say, “She’s in great shape, except for that large hole in the hull.”   Nor would it make much sense for him to say, in effect: “Hey! At least we’re still floating!”

In the end, there may not actually be any compelling reason to halt this hemorrhage.   Mestre is big and modern and loaded with taxpayers with disposable income.   Venice is little and decrepit and not really self-sufficient.   If I block the emotional component, it may make more sense to just keep the patient on life support (tourists, sponsors, etc.) than attempt to return it to health and vigor.

It bears some thinking about.   In fact, now that this radical  thought has occurred to me, it’s going to be bothering me a lot.

Categories : History, Problems
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Oct
24

The Venice Olympics?

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IMG_0200 venice view 4 comp

 olympic logo 2 comp

 

 

 

On October 2 at 6:53 PM,  the news broke upon an unsuspecting city — and even some unsuspecting city councilors — that the local headmen had cooked up a new scheme: Officially proposing Venice as the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics.

I’ll pause while you adjust your screens.

Technically speaking, “Venice Olympics” wouldn’t necessarily connote the same thing as “Venetian Olympics.”

The “Venetian Olympics” would consist of any typical activity of any typical day in almost any typical week.   Medals would be awarded for such events as:

  • the 2000-meter walk home  over five bridges carrying 20 pounds of shopping in plastic bags and a six-pack of mineral water bottles during Carnival (an event which could be adjusted for difficulty according to the distance, bag weight, number and height of bridges, density of crowds, and whether you   have up to three small children with you);
  • the  vaporetto-boarding-at-6:15 PM  in the rain with two runs having been skipped, leading to a phenomenal accumulation of enraged, wet, tired mammals (starting line: Piazzale Roma, finish line at Rialto, San Toma’, or San Zaccaria);
  • choice of one of several activities at the train station (buying a ticket at  5:45 AM; finding a bathroom at  9:30 PM;  locating your departure track in the absence of any information on any notice boards, five minutes before departure), to be judged not only on  speed but style;
  • getting from  San Marco to the Lido in the fog  during a transport  strike;
  • obtaining a package from abroad via  SDA, a delivery company which does everything but give correct  information in a timely fashion,  or deliver.

Actually, I think the “Venetian Olympics” could be a spectacular event, for those in the right frame of mind,  and best of all,  they could be held any day of the year, practically.

But I am only slightly jesting.   The headmen, on the other hand,  are completely serious.   That’s because they are: Massimo Cacciari, the mayor; Giancarlo Galan, governor of the Veneto Region; Franco Manzato, regional vice-president AND councilor for Tourism; and Andrea Tomat, president of Confindustria Veneto, the regional  business association.   Politicians and businessmen — it’s the winning team in most Olympic efforts, I have no doubt.   And as soon as Madrid lost its bid to Rio, thereby re-opening the field to a European candidate for the next go-round, Venice pounced.

The Region of Veneto.

The Region of Veneto.

But “Venice Olympics” is a loss leader.   What they mean by “Venice Olympics” translates into “Olympics scattered around the Veneto region.”   Everybody wants to get into the act.

The only foreseeable competitor in Italy would be Rome, which hosted the Games in 1960 (perhaps a handicap, though capital cities seem to do well).   I”m not sure what card Rome will be playing in an attempt to become the national candidate, but it’s true that they wouldn’t have to face the quips that almost certainly will soon be lobbed at Venice.   I can imagine the helpful suggestions for organizing the pole vault over the campanile of San   Marco; synchronized swimming in the Grand Canal; the hammer throw and shot-put aimed at the taxis churning along the Giudecca Canal.    Field hockey in the Piazza San Marco.

Let me not blemish the euphoria by mentioning crass numbers; clearly the visions of new everything being built all across the region has got lots of people all worked up.   I merely mention, at random, that the candidacy of Madrid, which made it all the way to the finals, cost the equivalent of $55 million.

And that’s just the cost of candidacy.   Once you nab the Games, the real bills start to mount up.   Brazil has budgeted $14 billion to host the Games in Rio.   Venice has a few handicaps, in my opinion, in that regard:   It’s already the most expensive city in Italy (this ought to really lure spectators), and it has made a career of rattling its tin cup, wailing that it has no money.   But… but… If there is no money for schools, monument restoration, policemen, hospitals, firemen, and so on, how  can they  suddenly  find millions — gosh, it was right here behind the Encyclopedia Britannica all  the time  — and be prepared to expend billions, if they get the nod?   (That was a rhetorical question.)  

The notables who have spoken  have been refreshingly direct about why they want the Olympics.   Skipping entirely any mention, however brief, of desiring to add to the glory of Italy, or the honor of the city, or the splendor of our athletes (somebody did refer to that, I think, but I can’t see how that matters), they’ve gone right to the point.

“Promoting and organizing the Games of 2020 would permit the city and the entire metropolitan area represented by the triangle of Venice, Padua and Treviso (italics mine) to accelerate the numerous improvement and renewal projects which for years have filled the agendas of the institutions of the territory,” said  Mayor Cacciari.    

“Venezia 2020 represents a strategic project for the development of the infrastructure of the entire Region,” said Dr. Galan.   For the record, the entire Region covers about 7,000 square miles.  

“Our businesses realize that having the Olympic Games   in Venice in 2020 could act as a catalyst for a series of ‘virtuous’ processes in the economic field and help the consumer regain confidence,” said President Tomat.

But don’t break out the Prosecco just yet.   First of all, Rome isn’t going to  shrink  from the fight — au contraire.   This was the home of the gladiators, after all; also, the mayor of Rome belongs to the right wing of the political spectrum, while the mayor of Venice is from the left.   They’re used to fighting.   So, like every war, this brewing conflict has a long history and many undetected combatants.

And a few cautious voices — important voices — have sounded their notes of warning amid the chorus of praise for this audacious notion.

If you cross your eyes just a little, the big picture comes into better focus.

If you cross your eyes just a little, the big picture comes into better focus.

“Extremely important economic guarantees are going to be needed,” commented the head of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), the group which will adjudicate which city carries Italy’s banner into the final selection.   Not a very heartening public statement, though unusually honest.   They were polite enough not to refer to the recently (finally) completed   Ponte della Costituzione (“the Calatrava Bridge”),  which required 11 years,  many lawsuits and an impressive cost overrun (final cost:  $18 million compared to the $10 million quoted in  the winning bid), to span  265 feet of the Grand Canal.   But an Olympic Stadium ought  to be a lot simpler.

“It would undoubtedly be a great opportunity for the entire Veneto [there we go again] to furnish itself with facilities adequate to such an event which would then remain at the disposition of  local groups….It would require an enormous investment with the complete participation of the government as well as the industial sector,” remarked Renzo Di Antonio, president of the  Olympic Committee’s Veneto division.

“As a Venetian I couldn’t be anything other than happy at this proposal,” said  Andrea Cipressa, fencing gold medalist and vice-president of the national fencing association.   “Naturally, on the real feasibility of the project I feel some understandable doubts….There are many, many things to take into consideration and the first impact of the proposal is mainly emotional, romantic.   But then you have to start taking reality into account as well as the many problems which are  always connected with Venice.”

But perhaps he has failed to grasp the magnitude of the marvels which the Olympics would bestow on the Region (excuse me: ENTIRE Region], especially right around Venice, innovations which have already been discussed for quite a while in the government:

“I believe that Tessera” (the village near the airport) “has all the necessary potential,” said Laura Fincato, councilor for Urban Planning.   “We are discussing an area which would have a multilateral potential — an area of recreation including a new building for the Casino, a stadium, a concert hall and an structure for all sorts of sports.   In this area there is also the airport and the [future] passage of the high-speed railway [the TAV Corridor 5 which will connect Kiev to Lisbon, passing through  northern Italy].   If we then add a forest of 105 hectares [260 acres], it seems to me that we have all the right conditions.”   A forest??   Now that’s something that’s really been missing from the urban fabric.   We don’t have enough firemen — we don’t even have a breakdown lane on the Liberty Bridge.   But a forest by the airport?   Why didn’t anybody think of that before?

The mayor of the nearby beach resort  of Jesolo is already jumping up and down and waving his hand: “We could hold the windsurf and beach volley competitions,” is his contribution to the discussion.  

Paradoxically, though, the rowing competitions would be impossible to hold in the lagoon, due to the tidal currents.   Sailing in the Adriatic ought to work, but rowing would have to be somewhere else.   That’s going to be a little tricky for the public relations work.   Maybe they could dig the rowing basin in the forest by the airport.

Probably the only thing the campanile of San Marco hasn't seen since 1514 is a Summer Olympics.

Probably the only thing the campanile of San Marco hasn't seen since 1514 is a Summer Olympics.

One commentator, Tiziano Graziottin, sees the big picture this way: “However you look at it, there are many obstacles on the horizon to overcome; the ‘tripartisan’ group put into play by Cacciari, Galan and Manzato… looks at Venice as the figurehead of an entire Veneto system, using the icon of the most beautiful city in the world to fascinate world public opinion while aiming at developing the potential of an entire macro-region… Venice is the star that drives photographers crazy but the Olympic ‘film’ succeeds only if all the actors play their part under the highest-quality direction…. The good thing about this idea is the concept behind it, and it’s a key concept for ‘internal use’: To make clear to a public opinion frequently divided into provincial (in every sense) rivalries that Venice and the Veneto can and must march together.”   For those  numbed by  the endless bickering between Dr. Cacciari (center-left)  and Dr. Galan (center-right), this is a revolution.   “Bipartisan” isn’t a word you hear used very much; in Italian, it’s a knobby little word (bipartitico) which doesn’t really have a home in anyone’s vocabulary.   I think it must sleep in the political garage.

A closing note — more like a shot across the bow — from the ever-contrarian lawyer, Francesco Mario D’Elia, who has organized four (4) referendums with the aim of separating Venice from Mestre, all of which failed, but not by so much.   He has now organized a committee called “No to the Venice 2020 Olympics.”

“To propose Venice for the Olympics,” he stated, “is merely an operation involving  the image, in order to exploit the fame of the city without giving anything in return…. Therefore we say ‘Enough’ to those who exploit the name of Venice, a city which has no need of the Olympics.”

So he has wasted no time in writing to the  governor of the Region of Sicily saying that there’s a small group in Venice ready to support their candidacy for the Olympics, presumably at Palermo.   “The Palermo Olympics.”   That sounds even stranger than The Venice Olympics.

In all, a fairly audacious gamble, which will require betting millions of somebody’s money to play a hand which may not turn out to be as strong as its holder might imagine.   Venice isn’t in the habit of competing, really — people come here anyway, whether you invite them or not.    As a historic, artistic and even touristic city, who would it compete against?   So having to think as a global competitor for anything is going to be a short sharp shock to a few people here.   Especially when they come up against other potential candidates such as Cape Town and Mumbai and St. Petersburg.

But that’s the point of gambling — you’re ready to take a chance.   Perhaps it will turn out that  this whole Venice Olympics  business is going to be less like a game of poker or mah-jongg and more like a long and unfathomably expensive session of “Risk.”

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