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Walls of ads test Venice's patience
Elisabetta Povoledo
Herald Tribune 11/9/2010

While some say enough, officials argue billboards needed to pay for repairs

Legend has it that the Bridge of Sighs, which connects Venice's Palazzo Ducale to an ancient prison, got its name because it gave convicts their last glimpse of the limpid lagoon before being incarcerated. Were the prison still operating today, jailbirds would get an extra eyeful: gargantuan billboards of the actress Julianne Moore plugging Bulgari, the luxury goods company. The gigantic ads on tarpaulins are hiding it must be said facades of buildings under restoration, and the profits derived from the sale of the space contribute to the costly renovations of Venice's fragile monuments. Among those who have also advertised recently are Mot & Chandon, the Champagne maker, and Coca-Cola. But this summer, the city's patience with being a huge backdrop to sell beverages and necklaces came to a boiling point, and heritage organizations as well as many residents cried basta, or enough, to what they perceive as an unregulated tarnishing of Venice's image. What's missing is a set of criteria that makes the advertising compatible with the environment so that the buildings are not offended, and so that they are still visible, said Maria Camilla Bianchini d'Alberigo, the president of the local and regional chapter of the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, or F.A.I., a heritage protection association. For the past few years, billboards on buildings being fixed up in Venice have become an increasingly common sight. Too common, perhaps. When the Coke billboards went up this summer on buildings that abut Piazza San Marco the historic and, perhaps more to the point, touristic heart of Venice Mrs. Bianchini d'Alberigo's organization denounced their intrusiveness, and that started the public debate. We couldn't stay quiet, she said. Too much is too much. Venice officials counter that without these ads the city could not begin to keep up with the maintenance of its historic monuments, many of which bear the burden of centuries of wear, accentuated by Venice's aquatic nature and its erosive effects on the city. Ads pay for the restoration of public buildings, which would not get repaired otherwise, even though many are a hazard for public safety, said Renata Codello, the Culture Ministry official responsible for Venice's monuments. In 2010, the Culture Ministry's primary budget for the restoration of architectonic monuments was just over 36 million, or $46 million, of which 1.4 million was allocated to the entire Veneto region, which includes Venice. Ms. Codello said her department ha received 150,000 for restorations so far this year, well short of the 2 million to 3 million she requests annually to keep abreast of the most precarious situations. But Italy is a heritage-rich country with hundreds of sites, and funds are always tight. And Venice, Ms. Codello added, ha relatively few ad spaces on scaffolding compared with other art cities, like Rome and Florence, where billboard are far more prevalent. We're just not in a position to say no to money, not for aesthetic reasons,' she said. I can't turn down the image or a bottle when there are pieces of the Palazzo Ducale falling to the ground. Private sponsorship of restorations was given more flexibliity by a 2004 law that allowed companies to have a more direct involvement in the restoration, including carrying it out. Previously, sponsors could contribute funds to renovation projects only. The change in the law, in any case, has not had a huge effect, according to a Culture Ministry official, who spoke on the condition that he not be quoted, in lime with ministry policy. And discussions persist in Italy on the extent to which business interests should intrude upon cultural undertakings. Though private enterprises have been active within the state-controlled system for more than a decade through bookshops, restaurants an ticketing services diffidence remain on the part of many Culture Ministry officials entrusted with protecting an preserving Italy's cultural heritage. When Mario Resca, who ran McDonald's Italian subsidiary for years, was appointed to a new ministry post to develop museums two years ago, there was significant outcry that the ministry's mandate to safeguard Italy's patrimony would he bartered for an entrepreneurial model and over-commercialization. Now alarm bells have begun to go off because the Italian state has been debating whether to turn over some properties, from mountains to army barracks, to local administrations. Limits have to be set, said Alessandra Mottola Molfino, president of Italia Nostra, another heritage protection agency. We can increase efficiency and improve results but we can't commercialize everything, she said. The lesson that goes out is that there is a price for everything. In the case of the Bridge of Sighs and the Palazzo Ducale, two years ago the city signed an accord with Dottor Group, the company responsible for the restoration, allowing the restorers to sell ad space in exchange for their labor. One phase of the restoration of the palace was presented Thursday, and in a statement issued when the accord was first signed, in 2008, the company said it expected restorations to be completed by October 2011. The city coffers were empty so we had to find sponsors, said Venice's mayor, Giorgio Orsoni. Dottor Group, based in San Vendemiano, near Venice, pledged to raise 1.5 million over three years through the ads, which are affixed to a huge, cloud bedecked blue tarpaulin designed by the photographer Oliviero Toscani, best known for his ads for the clothing company Benetton. Pietro Dottor, president of Dottor Group, said he preferred to concentrate on our work, not the polemics. We are carrying out high-quality projects at zero cost to the city. That's what is important. The total costs of the restoration of the Canonica canal side of the Palazzo Ducale, including the Bridge of Sighs, will come to 2.8 million, and all the money raised from the ads will go to the restoration. Why not use this avenue? What do we gain by leaving the scaffolding blank? Mr. Orsoni, the mayor, said. One proviso is that the ads must not offend public taste. You can't show everything, but I don't understand what the deal was with the Coke bottle, Mr. Orsoni said. Sure the colors were bright, but frankly, we're used to seeing them all over the world. In a statement, Coca Cola said it had chosen to advertise on the Palazzo Ducale not just to help promote our brand, but because it would also help preserve some of the city's culture. When we advertise, we are always conscious of local artistic and cultural heritage. Government belt-tightening which has been substantial in the arts has increased the need for private financing. In July, the Culture Ministry announced that it was seeking private sponsors for a 25 million restoration of the Colosseum in Rome, which last year was visited by nearly 4.7 million people. The tender for sponsorship is open until Oct. 30. Organizations like F.A.I. acknowledge that private sponsorship is a valuable asset but say that Italy's cultural heritage is not being safeguarded as long as advertising is not more contained. It's not a question of ideological radicalism, but of preoccupation with the invasiveness of the ads in delicate places, like Piazza San Marco, Mrs. Bianchini d'Alberigo said. Venice is unique, and a special dialogue exists between architecture, stones, water and man, which the ads shatter, she said. Other critics of the Palazzo Ducale ads take a different tack, asserting that Venice is not fully exploiting its value as a location set. City Hall, they note, is not sufficiently selling the concept of Piazza San Marco, said Pieralvise Zorzi, a descendant of one of Venice's most historic families and an ad man by trade. It's a location that could be sold better, capitalizing on its fame, he said. And because there is a lot of potential positive fallout for a company to say, We restored this, he added, businesses could be more directly involved as sponsors creating ads made to measure for the location, even though it would cost them more. Others say there is more money to be made for restorations through direct fund-raising, or by getting the city itself to sell the ads in much the way that some professional sports teams buy all time and produce their own broadcasts, keeping all ad revenue for themselves. But this is a notion that Mr. Orsoni, the mayor, dismisses out of hand. City Hall is not an ad agency, it's not our business, he said. And like any Italian politician, he walks a fine lime between art and commerce. It's clear that we try to exploit these occasions to the best of our ability, making sure that business does not prevail over culture, he said.


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