Beauty and decay in Italy Venice: The fire that destroyed La Fenice has forced this fragile city to once again confront important questions about its future.

Sun Journal

July 01, 1996|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

VENICE, Italy -- The skies above Venice are clear and sunny, but the umbrellas are out in full force: ruby red, emerald green, peacock blue, brilliant circles of color moving up and down through the narrow Venetian alleys.

Carried by tour guides, the umbrellas of Venice are beacons to the lines of tourists on their way to see La Fenice, the 18th-century opera house where "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto" debuted.

But it is not La Fenice's gilded interior that draws the tourists. What they have come to see are La Fenice's skeletal remains. Perhaps the most beautiful theater in Italy, La Fenice was destroyed by fire in January and now is little more than a burned-out shell.

There, standing silent before the surviving neoclassical facade, tourists and heartbroken Venetians peer at the rubble. Birds fly in and out of what once was the gold-and-red velvet interior; stray cats sun themselves on the charred beams. Flowers and wreaths lie along the barriers erected to keep people at a distance from the ruins, where officials continue to investigate the fire's cause.

The destruction of La Fenice represents more than just a cultural and historical loss, especially for Venetians, who in an increasingly tourist-oriented city looked upon the opera house as one of the last gathering places that was for them rather than outsiders.

The fire brought into focus some of the urgent problems of the city: the lack of roads for a fire brigade, the lack of fire hydrants, the wooden buildings that are packed tightly together on impossibly narrow alleys.

The city's left-wing, intellectual mayor, Massimo Cacciari, has pledged that in two years La Fenice "will be rebuilt where it was and as it was." But bureaucratic and design problems have already caused that figure to slip to three years. Perhaps four.

La Fenice's demise has forced this fragile city once again to confront important questions: Can Venice continue to be a living city? Or is it destined to become only a beautiful museum for the 25 million tourists who visit each year?

"If we do not build La Fenice quickly, starting right away, it certainly will be a signal that this city has no future," Vice Mayor Gianfranco Bettin told reporters two days after the fire. But rebuilding a beloved opera house may not be enough to assure the city's future.

Decay has long been part of the Venice mystique.

"Everything here is ruinous, on the point of crumbling into the water that floats this poor, worn city on its surface," Guy de Maupassant wrote in the late 19th century. "The facades of the palaces are ravaged by time, stained by humidity, eaten up by the leprosy which destroys stone and marble.

"Some lean slightly to the side; they are ready to fall, tired of standing so long on their pilings."

In the past 50 years, the city's population has dropped to 60,000 from 250,000. Each year, another 1,000 to 2,000 people leave, many of them young people who cannot afford the high rents and cannot find jobs in an economy almost totally dependent on tourism. While the rest of northern Italy booms, Venice is, at best, stagnant.

All movement in the city is either by foot or by water, so the most ordinary tasks -- repairing a broken pipe, collecting garbage -- require immense effort. And since everything in Venice arrives and leaves by boat, the Venetians are obliged to leave their garbage alongside the canals.

A trip along the glorious Grand Canal, lined with historic, shimmering palazzi, makes even more clear the city's dependence on its waterways. Coca-Cola barges vie with rubbish barges and gondolas for space. Police, firefighters and ambulance service all operate by boat. So does taxi and bus service.

First-time visitors get a taste of how difficult transportation is when they find themselves deposited by vaporetto (a water bus) not at their hotel but only at a point somewhere nearby. There is no more forlorn sight than that of the tourist attempting to drag his luggage through the maze of alleys in search of his hotel.

It was just such a situation that caused humorist Robert Benchley to send this cable upon arriving in Venice: Streets Full of Water. Please Advise.

But if water constitutes the lifeblood of Venice, it also represents the main threat to the city's survival. Despite efforts to prevent the city from subsiding, Venice is slowly sinking into the water. Deep channels cut in the lagoon to allow the passage of tankers and promote industrialization of the adjacent area have made it difficult to stop the city's descent.

High tides from the Adriatic Sea pose a constant threat of floods. The great flood of 1966, which devastated large areas of the city, jarred officials into proposing flood barriers at the three entrances to the lagoon. The project has not yet been carried out.

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