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As debts pile up, Venice mayor considers auctioning off museums’ artworks

by Mariano Maugeri

Venice is collapsing.” Yes, Mayor Luigi Brugnaro is braced for a flood—but the weather has nothing to do with it.

The city is drowning in debt so great that the newly-elected mayor, in a shocking announcement, is planning to auction off artwork now displayed in its most prestigious museums, including a painting by Klimt, the stupendous Judith II (Salomè), and a work by Chagall, for a base price of €400 million.

Brugnaro first raised these sales as a serious possibility during his political campaign earlier this year. Spending needs have repeatedly exceeded funds from the Stability Pact (€64 million in 2015) and now the city faces an “imminent drama of not being able to finance even its nursery schools,” he said in dire tones.

If the climate metaphor makes sense, it can be expanded to include the Casino of Ca’ Vendramin, which, a decade ago, flooded the city with cash (more than €100 million) but now barely contributes—only a trickle of around €10 million.

The world has changed, even for the city that’s most beloved by international tourists on land and sea. Having completed the sale of historic mansions (Ca’ Corner della Regina palazzo went to Prada, and the city has allowed Benetton to change the Fontego dei Tedeschi palazzo into a shopping center), the mayor has decided to address the structural red ink with drastic measures.

So much so that the file of individual artworks for sale (with the Klimt alone valued at €70 million) was on the mayor’s desk the day after he took office. “These are works that have no relation to the artists and cultural history of Venice,” the mayor’s advisors clarified.

That’s to say, works by Canaletto and Giovanni Bellini, for example, are still safe.
It’s reality. Brugnaro, who was a businessman before becoming mayor, is clear on this. “It’s pointless to pretend that Italy’s public debt doesn’t exist. If we could reduce it, [Italy’s economic] recovery would be much more robust and we would eliminate a massive weight from our children’s future. So Venice is ready to inaugurate a practice that could be followed by other cities as well.”

The mayor is studying additional measures which have often been discussed but never realized. On of them: an entry ticket for tourists to access Piazza San Marco or the Rialto area. It’s a measure that would require passage of a specific national law.

“I have no desire to survive by taxing tourists. That’s not how I am. But a city as unique as ours is can't face problems this big by itself,” Brugnaro says.

The mayor will discuss these issues in the coming days with Claudio De Vincenti, undersecretary of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Brugnaro would like certain requests, at least the most urgent ones, to be included in the next Stability Law. At least €40 million is still needed for the maintenance of buildings and cleaning the waterways.

Michele Zuin, city budget director, puts it bluntly: “We only have €200,000 in the bank to preserve an immense heritage of historic properties.”

Venice’s public works chief Renato Borsch is also outspoken about the city’s financial situation. “We haven’t paid our suppliers since April. In the mythical capital of the Northeast, it’s become an enterprise to start an enterprise,” he said. His comments are an effective synthesis of a package of proposals that basically require a kind of special city-state statute.

“We won’t make it alone, that’s clear,” said Brugnaro. “I don’t think it makes sense to keep saying, ‘Everything’s fine, Madam Marquess.’ [French song from the 1930s]. I’m sure of one thing: if Venice can do it, so can Italy.”