Tue, Mar 03, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Venetians fear for their cultural heritage

Jobs have disappeared to the mainland, tourists now outnumber residents and locals fear the Queen of the Adriatic is in danger of losing her soul

By Tom Kington  /  THE GUARDIAN , VENICE, ITALY

As the remaining carnival confetti was cleared from the narrow, labyrinthine streets of Venice last week, residents emerged here and there from behind closed doors to watch bleary-eyed revelers stream down the Strada Nuova on their way back to Milan, London, Tokyo and beyond. At the Casino, housed in a palazzo perched on the Grand Canal, organizers totted up the numbers — 1 million visitors; hotels 95 percent full and 100,000 packed into St Mark’s Square to watch a woman dressed in white wings descend on a wire from the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica.

Alongside the jubilant carnival managers stood Massimo Cacciari, the heavily bearded, stick-thin mayor of Venice who still comes across as the distracted philosopher professor he was before seeking election. Given the stellar returns from his city’s latest masked spectacle, Cacciari seemed subdued. And as the carnival-goers left he had good reason to be.

For months now, Cacciari has been under attack from locals who believe that he is failing to protect the soul and vibrancy of perhaps the most beautiful city in the world. There was outrage when the mayor allowed the erection of massive advertising hoardings in St Mark’s Square, which Cacciari claims are essential to pay for the upkeep of the city as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government squeezes funding.

There was further restlessness when officials announced the installation of 60 Coca-Cola vending machines in the city’s piazzas, in return for 2.5 million euros (US$3.2 million) over five years from the drinks giant. The deal has a whiff of double standards, critics argued, since the city has been sending out “decorum” patrols to stop tourists picnicking in St Mark’s Square and dropping Coke cans in canals.

But Cacciari again pleaded poverty, arguing: “We need a financial strategy to save our cultural heritage.”

And then there are the growing number of Venetians, such as Matteo Secchi, the combative son of a Venetian wine merchant, who has been totting up some alarming numbers of his own. Every week Secchi heads to the town hall to check on the number of residents in Venice. Almost every week that number is lower than the week before. Armed with the latest grim statistics, Secchi updates the electronic board he has erected in a shop window near the Rialto bridge.

Venice, as a lived-in city, is dying. A population that peaked at 164,000 in 1931 is now hovering at around 60,000. Since about 20 million tourists pour in each year — 55,000 a day — it’s a safe bet that most days there are now more tourists than locals in Venice.

“The number of locals has dropped 600 since we started counting last March and we are set to go under the psychological 60,000 barrier in May,” said Secchi, who heads a residents’ group, Venessia.com, which is planning a procession to mark the occasion. “We will hold the funeral of Venice and take a coffin down to the town hall.”

Secchi and the 600 members of Venessia.com did not stay at home during the carnival, but organized their own protest party for residents by the Rialto, dressing up as native Americans.

“Tourists were welcome, but the point was to show we feel like we are living on a reserve,” Secchi said.

Leaflets in five languages said: “Our cultural identity is at risk of dissolving if Venice becomes a theme park — we Venetians will not surrender!”

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