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August 22, 2009 1:56 am
When Lord Byron wrote that he (or Childe Harold) “stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,” he inspired a permanent pedestrian traffic jam on the parallel Bridge of Straw. That is the best place from which to view the Bridge of Sighs, and incidentally where Byron/Harold actually had to be standing to see the view described in the poem.
But the Bridge of Sighs has all but disappeared. Tourists who flock to see it have to strain to identify it as the small limestone arch set into an enormous frame of billboards, above, below and spilling over on to the neighbouring state buildings – Byron’s “a palace and a prison on each hand”. Painted sky obscures the real sky above the bridge, and there is a caption below declaring “Il Cielo dei Sospiri”. It is all for the proclaimed glory of Sisley, the clothing company.
Nearby in the Piazzetta, the Marciana, Sansovino’s state library, is decorated with giant Swatch watches. At the west end of the Piazza San Marco itself, the Napoleonic wing that houses the Correr Museum is covered by a cinema-screen-sized billboard that, in a triumph of relative restraint, merely bears the name of the non-profit association of restorers, Prorestauro. So far. The space has been suggested for electronic advertisements and controversy continues over whether the city will allow it.
Venice has always had the problem of frequent, costly restoration and, as money is especially tight now, so the city began renting out the façades of its architectural treasures.
Previously, public buildings undergoing restoration were covered with witty, life-sized renditions of the buildings themselves. When the Doge’s Palace was last done, there was a cut-away on the piazza side that showed the façade broken open to reveal the sumptuous interior. Scaffolding on the basin side had been covered with a huge version of Carpaccio’s lion.
Venice never used to have any billboards, other than at outlying places, on the Lido and around the carpark. Throughout the city, shops are marked only by modest signs, and advertising was previously limited to small placards inside the ferry boat stops. But when the clock tower in the Piazza San Marco was restored, the name of the sponsor, Piaget, appeared on the protective scrims, and the scaffolding displayed pictures that were not of the tower inside but, strangely, of famous foreign towers. Then Rolex appeared on the Marciana library.
It is hardly fair to conclude that Venice has gone commercial. Venice has always been frankly and happily commercial, and never more than in its days of splendour. Venetians of any century would have been bewildered by that aristocratic sneer at those “in trade.” All the Venetian aristocrats were in trade, and proud of it.
But they were also fiercely proud of the beauty of their city. Riches were supposed to be used to glorify the Republic, not Venetian individuals, whatever their standing or achievements. Historically, detailed sumptuary laws damped, although obviously failed to prevent, competitive showing off on the part of the rich. If you wanted one of the great Renaissance painters to immortalise your family, you would have been wise to request a pose showing you and your relatives on one side of the canvas, humbly kneeling to a mythological or religious figure representing or protecting the state. Venetians were particularly protective of the city centre and determined that there would be no free-standing representations of any statesmen or heroes – indeed of any human beings – in Piazza San Marco. To this day, only its former and present patron saints, Theodore and Mark, stand in the Piazzetta on their respective columns, although there were two brazen assaults (one bronze, the other marble) made on that unusual stricture. When the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni left money to the state with the provision that his statue be placed at St Mark’s, the money was accepted with the cunning interpretation that he must have meant it to be placed way over by the confraternity of St Mark’s. A marble statue of Napoleon did break the rule after his conquest of the Republic, but was banished when he traded Venice away.
Last year, Lancia automobiles roared over the first Bridge of Sighs set-up, and then Sisley models frolicked over the Doge’s Palace. Further up the Grand Canal, on the façade of the church of San Simeone Piccolo, there was a giant model apparently wearing nothing but a Valentino handbag across her breasts; her successor was a model with her legs pointing upwards to advertise Roccobarocco bags and shoes. When outraged religious dignitaries complained, they were asked if they had other resources with which to restore the church.
The official Venetian position is a plea of desperation. Federal subsidies are down; the tourism business, on which Venice’s economy is almost entirely based, is down. And parts of the buildings are falling down. What lifted the barrier last year was a piece of marble that fell from the Doge’s Palace on to a German tourist. The fear of lawsuits was raised and renewed this year, when the Correr discharged a piece of its marble into the piazza.
Venice may urgently need funds for such restoration, but the question remains whether its tourists will withstand bombardment from the same international advertising they could stay at home to see for free.
Judith Martin is the author of ‘No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice’ (2007). Her book ‘Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding’ is published early next year
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