Venice is becoming a city of mega-advertising but outsiders are making the real money
The well known economist, John Kay, who took part in the Venice in Peril Debate about expenditure on Venice in 2006 and who recently won the new Istituto Veneto Prize for outstanding journalism about Venice (his acceptance speech is published in the Venice in Peril Newsletter Winter 2008/9), has also given us the things he loves and hates most about the city.
His first three loves are all the great views of Venice, the views that have moved travelers for centuries and catch our breath even if it's the hundredth time we see them. He says: "First: The opening scene of Visconti's Death in Venice. Aschenbach sails from the Adriatic into the lagoon and city on board a steamer. Second: Thirty years later, I sail from the Adriatic into the lagoon and city on board a yacht. Third: To travel down the Grand Canal in a water taxi and land at the mooring to receive the Istituto Veneto's prize."
Well, it is precisely these views that have been desecrated in a way that has never occurred before in the history of Venice. The pale pink façade of the Doge's Palace now has two Lancia cars careering out from one corner on a bright blue background, while the villain of a James Bond movie lunges out of a huge Swatch ad on the Piazzetta. Vast ads are cropping up on more and more palazzi on the Grand Canal and it is clear that any public building is now up for grabs.
The agencies dealing in mega-advertising locations have realised they can exploit a recent change in the law to sell space there and make a large profit, yet they still get called sponsors by the authorities. This law allows the scaffolding on public buildings under restoration to carry advertising so long as the local Superintendent considers that it does not "detract from the appearance, decorum or public enjoyment of the building"-a condition that is clearly not being taken seriously at present.
Yet, while the ads have aroused local and international protest, Venice Superintendent Renata Codello insists that she has been very discriminating: "I have turned down masses of proposals, including one with the entire Italian football team dressed only in their shorts," she told the Association of Private Committees for Venice in October.
We asked three advertising agencies to contact Plakativ Media, the main firm handling the Venice sites, and enquire as to how much it would cost to hire the two other spaces that are about to go up in St Mark's Square. Plakativ is paying E3.5m to restore the Correr Museum side of the Square in exchange for a 240 sq. m advertising screen (half the size of an Olympic swimming pool) on the scaffolding of the façade.
We discovered that near the Campanile there will shortly also be a 60 sq. m ad, which has already been let out, and for which the asking price is E165,000 a month. The ad on the Correr is currently for rent at E50,000 a month, E75,000 in February when the carnival is on, but its price rises to approximately E158,000 a month for a minimum of 12 months when the screen goes digital.
It is difficult to calculate exactly how much money Plakativ will make on the deal because it depends on its success in selling the spaces over time, on its discounts, and the duration of its agreement with the authorities, but at these prices it is likely to a very large profit indeed-not to the benefit of Venice, of course.
But there is also an unpleasant uncertainty about what these ads will look like and how long they will be up. The Superintendency say that the big one will be only for the duration of the Correr restoration, due to end in 2012, but Plakativ has told potential clients that its agreement is for seven years plus. As for their appearance, Dr Codello told the Annual Meeting of the Association of Private Committees that she would definitely not allow digital advertising, but that is precisely what Plakativ is currently offering potential clients.
In defence of her decision to allow all these ads, Dr Codello said: "I have no choice: last year some of the marble facing of the Doge's Palace fell down; this year it was a bit of the cornice of the Correr Museum. Under law I am personally responsible if a tourist is hurt. With the cuts to the funding of our ministry [25.8% in 2009], I can expect no help from government."
It really is a tragic situation when a government which repeatedly boasts that its art and beauty are the country's major assets can put a government official in such in a quandary. For while Italy has indeed got major public expenditure problems, it is not a poor country. That these ads are being allowed is a sign of how an outdated and inefficiently interpreted ideology of the free market has taken over the governance of heritage and culture in Italy. From a policy of meticulous, if sometimes over rigid protection of historic buildings, we have come suddenly to this slap in the face of the visitor, who may be seeing Venice for the one and only time in his life and will be bitterly disappointed.
John Kay's thesis is that any perceived shortage of money for Venice is a sign of mismanagement, that if run properly and with a long term strategy (here he compares the city unfavourably with Disneyland, not because he thinks Venice is like Disneyland, but because it would be better run if it were Disneyland), it would raise abundant funds for its conservation.
Sadly, many, including Mayor Cacciari, chose to misunderstand what John Kay was saying, but from within Venice itself, among the younger professional classes, and in the outside world, a sense of indignation, a sense that things must change, is spreading. For Venice is not just another city, it is the "fairy city of the heart". Tread softy for you tread on our dreams.
Anna Somers Cocks