How long can Venice stay afloat?

Monday 01 Nov 2010

Battle rages over adverts hung from renovation scaffolding in centre of Venice

Over the past months the traditional architectural heritage so intrinsic to the character of Venice has begun to dwindle, courtesy of a number of high profile advertising campaigns hung from the scaffolding that envelopes some of the city's most prestigious landmarks. Journalists, tourists and historicists alike have spoken out - sometimes harshly - to get these brash billboards removed; however the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, has fiercely defended his decision to allow upmarket brands to splash their campaigns across the city in order to generate much needed funds for the upkeep of some of the world's finest architecture.

Colossal billboard-style advertising campaigns have played a major part in high-density metropolitan environments for many years, with many cities such as New York and Los Angeles incorporating them as an integral part of the urban landscape. Statistics show that billboards are the second most popular form of advertising in the US, with $5.5bn spent on outdoor advertisements each year. Experiments have proven that these large campaigns in areas of high density up sales dramatically, and whilst the costs of such projects may be as high as €40,000 per month, the return on investment can be huge. These immense payments can then be fed back into the development of the city, refurbishing existing architecture and building on contemporary projects.

This is the tack taken by Orsoni, who claims that whilst the city's classic buildings undergo extensive regeneration work their scaffolding can be adorned with flashy artwork which will in turn finance the entire operation. In an ideal world this may sound like the perfect solution to Venice's economic issues, however with 20 million tourists visiting the city each year, covering the elaborate stonework and intricate carvery with impenetrable boards may hinder rather than help the city's economic recovery.

Venice in Peril is an independent British organisation that has worked tirelessly over the last 40 years to preserve the timeless elegance of Venetian architecture. Through a variety of lectures, debates, conferences, concerts and gala events, Venice in Peril hope to raise both awareness and financial aid for the preservation and restoration of the city's architectural gems. Recently, a body of individuals from the organisation released a public letter to the Italian government imploring that it remove the advertising billboards from the scaffolding on public buildings throughout the city.

Backed by high profile figures such as architect Norman Foster, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Mark Jones, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Malcolm Rogers and Director of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky, the letter argued: "They [the billboards] hit you in the eye and ruin your experience of one of the most beautiful creations of humankind. Their scale dwarfs the fine detail and proportions of the buildings...Other ways of financing restoration must be found, otherwise Venice is doomed to be covered in advertisements for the rest of its life because its buildings will always be undergoing work due to their great age and the environmental fragility of the city."

In all fairness to Orsoni, of the estimated 1000 buildings currently undergoing renovation work in the city, less than ten have been ornamented with adverts. It is however the nature of these few buildings that has angered the architectural community so, as they are of such classical and international importance. Two main contenders for the worst hit are the Bridge of Sighs - renamed the ‘Bridge of Signs' by the critical media - and Piazza San Marco (or St. Mark's Square), both big hotspots for tourists and therefore offering the highest possible return for investors.

Today comes news that the Italian government is planning to tax tourists entering Venice in another bid to increase revenue. Figures for this taxation remain fully under wraps, however it is thought that they will be applied regardless of whether visitors enter via rail, air or sea. It is too early to say what effect this decision will have on visitor numbers - currently estimated at 100 times the total of residents - especially since some of the city's greatest architectural sights now bear the face of Julianne Moore and sinuous limbs of Guess Jeans models.

There is no doubt that the historical buildings that ornament Venice's skyline are in desperate need of restoration, however the question remains; in these difficult economic times, what are we willing to sacrifice to settle our financial debts?

Sian Disson
News Editor

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