A Very Bad Night at the Opera

Photo of La Fenice engulfed in flames

The inferno at Venice's exquisite opera house in 1996 posed an intractable mystery: was it arson? Or was the Mafia to blame? Its legacy is a bureaucratic imbroglio that has dogged all efforts to rebuild. .... Alix Kirsta investigates.

La FeniceThe 1996 log book at Venice's Vigili del Fuoco, the city's central fire brigade, records that Monday, January 29, was a largely uneventful day for the fire-fighters. As darkness fell, the men in C team reported for the night shift at the main station just off the Grand Canal and began settling down to play cards, watch TV, read the sports pages or doze on their bunk beds. With the Christmas and New Year festivities long over and the carnival several weeks off, the old town centre was relatively empty. This inactivity, with the cold, damp, still air, made the risk of fire thankfully low.

Fire takes holdAt 9pm the phone rang. A policeman patrolling the canals near Venice's 18th-century opera house, La Fenice, had seen smoke coming from somewhere near the theatre. As the alarm went off, the men ran down to their fire boats. "We knew that if a fire had started anywhere near or in the theatre, we had to act fast," says Commandante Alfio Pini, head of the Vigili del Fuoco. "The square where the theatre stands, in one of the oldest parts of Venice, is very small and crowded with old, mainly wooden buildings, restaurants, bars, hotels and homes all very close together, and the risk of a fire spreading fast is enormous." The canals and a small lagoon surrounding a major part of the theatre had recently been drained for the first time in 40 years for dredging and restoration work, and this would hinder access to the area and eliminate the nearest supply of canal water. When the team arrived at Campo San Fantin less than three minutes after 9pm, flames were shooting from an upstairs window at the side of La Fenice. By 9.10pm, the whole upper floor was a fireball. Here was every Venetian's nightmare come true.


Most visitors to Venice remain unaware that, although the city is built on water and regularly flooded by high tides, fire is the most dreaded of all disasters. There were, until very recently, no fire hydrants in the streets. Without space on firm ground to erect a 100ft hydraulic ladder, fire-fighters here still rely on old-fashioned extending wooden ladders, which usually reach low levels only; the amount of equipment that can be transported on their fire boats is limited; and when high tides swell, the canals boats often have difficulty passing under many of the bridges. That night, outside La Fenice, the firefighters were forced to run their hoses from more distant canals, only to have insufficient pressure to tackle the spreading blaze. One bystander likened it to "trying to put out the fires of hell with a garden hose". At 9-20pm, the men watched helplessly as the floors and supporting structures of the sumptuous rococo salons and ornately gilded multi-tiered auditorium crashed in, and the stage collapsed in a roar of flames, showering the neighbourhood with embers.

"We only just managed to get clear when the floor and stage caved in — we saved ourselves by a hair," recalls one fireman. Pini and his men knew almost from the outset that there was no choice but to let La Fenice burn to the ground. They evacuated the surrounding buildings and then turned their hoses on them to prevent the fire from spreading. "We had to choose between the theatre and the town: it was either save La Fenice or save Venice. So we switched from attack to control tactics. We got back-up from the mainland fire services, including a helicopter to collect water from the lagoon and spray the area from above. Luckily, there was no wind that night, which prevented a disaster. It was the worst fire the Vigili has ever worked on." When, at around 11pm, the theatre's roof collapsed with a massive explosion, shooting 50-metre flames into the air, the theatre became a virtual chimney whose blaze illuminated the whole sky, belching smoke over the city throughout the night and following day.

This week, the fifth anniversary of the fire, vivid memories and intense emotions are likely to be revived as the story is retold, inevitably, in the many nearby bars and cafes. Few will have forgotten that night, or completely obliterated the shock and disbelief generated by the tragedy. Lady Clarke, president of Venice In Peril, the charity dedicated to preserving the city, was among the crowd of horrified onlookers. She stood throughout the night beside the mayor, who watched the fire with tears streaming down his face. Barbara di Valmerana, as the president of the opera house's main funding organisation, Friends of La Fenice, was distraught. To her, the scene resembled an image from the Vietnam war: "I have never witnessed a war, but this seemed like the nearest thing to it. The helicopter up there was like a small useless toy battling the blaze. After a while, I didn't want to see any more — I was too sad — so I went home."

The next day, as smoke and flames still curled from the crater piled with charred rubble and the blackened outer walls which were all that remained of La Fenice, di Valmerana opened a bank account for donations to fund its rebuilding, and to replace all the musical instruments, scores, sets and costumes that had been lost. Thankfully, the theatre's archives, containing countless historical documents, including Verdi's handwritten opera scores and letters, were housed elsewhere. Like all Venetians, Countess Valmerana went about her business with a heavy heart. But there was one thing of which she, like every citizen, was convinced: rebuilding what had been one of Europe's great opera houses for 200 years would be a top priority.

Com'era Dov'era

At a press conference that day, the mayor, Massimo Cacciari, promised that La Fenice would be rebuilt "com'era, dov'era" — as it was, where it was — a much used phrase that encapsulates the city's sense of heritage and was the rallying cry for the rebuilding of a replica of the 14th-century bell tower in St Mark's Square, which collapsed in 1902. Cacciari also added, unwisely, that there would be no delay, with December 1999 the estimated reopening date.

The mayor, a former philosophy teacher, was acutely aware of the symbolism behind his promise. When the opera house opened at its present site on Campo San Fantin in 1792, it was named La Fenice — the Phoenix — not only because its half-completed structure was destroyed by fire in 1790, but also because it was intended to replace the nearby Teatro San Benedetto, which had burned down 18 years earlier. La Fenice was again destroyed by fire in 1836, when it was rebuilt in 10 months.

Who could doubt that the Phoenix would rise again?

Funds began rolling in almost immediately. The newspaper La Repubblica raised nearly $lm in four days. Generous donations came from America, Britain and the rest of Europe. Even Venice's prostitutes gave the mayor three million lire for the theatre, citing their appreciation of Venice's health and social rehabilitation programmes. The government immediately allocated 20 billion lire (approaching $10m) for the reconstruction project, and put the Prefect of Venice in charge of the project, with special powers to sidestep regulations covering restoration.

La Fenice had been one of the world's great opera houses, with famously perfect acoustics and an impressive artistic legacy; its loss was a tragedy for artists and opera lovers throughout the world. "It was like suddenly losing something you thought was immortal," declared Riccardo Muti, musical director of Milan's La Scala. With its majestic foyers and glittering auditorium, decorated with gilt, frescoes and Murano glass chandeliers, it was the most entrancing of opera houses. As Luciano Pavarotti said the morning after the fire, "La Fenice was a jewel and architecturally the most beautiful. theatre in Italy", and then he volunteered to sing in a benefit concert in St Mark's Square.

Interior photo

The renowned mezzo-soprano Regina Resnik, who lives in Venice, remembers watching the fire with her husband, the designer Arbit Blatas. "We both wept like children. It was heartbreaking. It was at La Fenice that many great works, including La Traviata, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra, were first performed."

Count Girolamo Marcello saw the blaze from his nearby palazzo. From the first flames, he knew it was the end of the theatre — and of a piece of social history. He still has the brass key to one of the three private boxes owned by his family since the 1700s. "In the old days, you went to La Fenice not for the opera but to see and be seen. In winter, it was cheaper and more convivial to spend the evenings in a private box than to heat a palazzo. With the curtains drawn, one was served dinner by one's own servants and only opened the curtains for highlights on the stage."

To reassure the public that steps to tackle the disaster were being taken, the city authorities, with uncharacteristic promptness, announced a plan of action. A new temporary home was to be built outside the centre of Venice for the Fenice Opera Company, which was touring abroad when the fire broke out. The new Pala Fenice, a 3,000-seater tent with adjoining Portakabins, was constructed at Tronchetto, the vast city car park on an island connected to the outskirts of Venice, and opened on March 22, in time for the company's 1996 season. The prefecture announced there would be an international competition for the reconstruction of the theatre.


Meanwhile a major inquiry into the cause of the disaster began. While early reports attributed the fire to a probable electrical short-circuit, no one who witnessed the speed and ferocity with which the flames ravaged the building took this seriously. Even Mayor Cacciari was dubious: "The fire didn't start by itself. Those responsible, if there are people responsible, will be punished" he said ominously as the city's public prosecutor, Felice Casson, began his investigation. And, in the following months, as investigators collected eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence, it became clear that, far from being an accident, the devastation of La Fenice was either due to negligence on a spectacular scale or had been a meticulously planned crime. The more damning the facts that emerged, the more likely the explanation that the fire was caused by a combination of crime and negligence.

Most suspicious was the fact that, at the time of the blaze, La Fenice had been closed for five months for extensive renovations. The work — which was nearly finished, with the theatre scheduled to reopen in March 1996 — included the replacing of electrical wiring, the relaying of wooden floors, and the installation of a new fire alarm and sprinkler system to bring the theatre up to date with new government and EU safety regulations. The building was constructed throughout mainly of wood. However, none of those responsible for its day-to-day running, upkeep or refurbishment — not the Venice city council, the theatre's general manager, or the building firms contracted to work there — had maintained even the most basic of safety measures.

Quite the contrary. On the night of January 29, only one stage doorman was on duty throughout the entire premises. And this despite the draining of the surrounding canals. Several containers of gas and highly inflammable material had been left lying around in areas that were still being refurbished, many of them dangerously close to exposed electrical circuitry and gas or motor-driven tools such as soldering irons and blowtorches. "Had our men not entered the burning theatre at the start of the blaze and retrieved several cylinders of gas," says Commandante Pini, "there would have been massive explosions resulting in extensive damage and probable loss of life."

Fire doors and some windows had also been left wide open; the old fire alarm system, which was about to be replaced, had been disconnected, even though recent tests had showed that it was still functioning, and someone had switched off all the theatre's smoke alarms.

The Venice fire service's report, after six months' forensic analysis and numerous reconstructions of the fire by incendiary experts, concluded that the blaze had been caused by someone, or something, igniting wooden planks that were impregnated with highly inflammable material.

New flooring

It isn't merely how the blaze began, but where, that strongly points to arson. The planks in question were part of new flooring being laid in a rehearsal room and in the third floor foyer, the Salle Apollinee, explains Pini. "We know the Apollinee is where the fire started. All the high-risk areas, where wires might have been touching, were destroyed after the blaze began elsewhere." He has no doubt that it was arson, but hesitates about using the word on record. "What I can say is that the fire was provoked, by the accelerant in the wood. It was not an accident. Open windows and doors allowed a current of air to suck the fire through very rapidly."

Even before Pini's report was released, most Italians, suspecting the worst, had stopped wondering how La Fenice burned down and instead began asking who did it, and why. Several months into the enquiry, two electricians who had been working in the theatre for some weeks before the blaze were arrested and charged with setting fire to the building to avoid paying contractual penalties if the work was not completed by the following week. The idea seemed implausible, even absurd. Could the prospect of sums amounting to no more than the equivalent of several thousand pounds, which would anyway have been paid by their employer, have driven the men to such extremes? Especially when most building projects are delayed, especially in Italy? "

The men denied all charges, and the mystery grew. There was one obvious knee jerk reaction: for many people, crime in Italy means one thing, the mafia. Why should the destruction of La Fenice be an exception? Despite the absence of any hard evidence, there were enough rumours and unsubstantiated claims for the public prosecutor to investigate possible leads. Although the mafia has no obvious foothold in the art world, and would have had no apparent motive for burning down La Fenice, it had been responsible in the past for the bombing of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Church of St John Lateran in Rome and Milan's Gallery of Modern Art, as well as scores of art robberies and various other attempts to damage cultural institutions.

Those apparently motiveless attacks took place in the mid-90s, after the government had declared all-out war on organised crime and several highly publicised trials involving prominent mafia leaders were underway. The bombings, according to Italy's Direzione Investigativa Anti-Mafia (DIA), set up by the government to crack down on organised crime, were intended as a show of strength and a warning to politicians and judges to back off.

According to one report, a Sicilian pentito (turncoat) had overheard a prominent mafioso ordering the destruction of La Fenice to intimidate the judges in the trial of mafia suspects for the murders in Palermo of Judge Giovanni Falcone, his wife and bodyguards in 1992, which for security reasons had been temporarily transferred to nearby Mestre. But all the conjecture was without a shred of evidence, and soon hit a dead end.

The Petruzelli Opera House fire

But what if there were mobsters closer to home who wanted to show their muscle? In fact, the Venice region has its own "Mafia del Brenta". Once headed by the flashy, champagne-swigging Felice "Angel Face" Maniero, it is said to have strong ties with the city's casino and waterboat business, and had been behind several well-publicised art robberies. Maniero, so the DIA discovered, also had ties with another sub-division of the mafia, the "sacra coronata unita" based in Bari, on the southern Adriatic coast. This development worried Casson's investigators in particular, because the Fenice fire had a great deal in common with the burning down in 1991 of Bari's Petruzzelli Opera House. Its general manager, who had run up extensive debts with local loan sharks, was convicted, in 1998, of arson, together with several mafia bosses, who had been promised contracts for the rebuilding of the theatre.

It was originally Carlo Maria Capristo, Bari's deputy chief prosecutor, then involved in the trial of those charged with the Bari opera blaze, who noticed the startling similarities between the fires that had gutted the two great opera houses. In particular, he was struck by a series of photographs recording every stage of the fire at La Fenice, taken by Graziano Arici, La Fenice's official photographer, who lives a few hundred metres from the theatre,

Arici had been hurrying past the theatre to dinner at a nearby restaurant on the evening of January 29-Noticing flames at a window on the left side of the theatre, he ran back for his camera and started taking pictures, continuing throughout the night from the top of a building opposite the theatre.

When Capristo studied Ariel's photographs and compared them to a set of stills from an amateur video of the Petruzzelli fire, his view was that "the photos are so alike they could be photocopies", pointing out that both fires had spread horizontally and at lightning speed, a pattern he claims is indicative of arson. The fact that the Bari fire was the mafia's handiwork added further to speculation that the Venetian mafia might in some way be implicated in the destruction of La Fenice. According to Capristo, the motive is likely to have been the same as in Bari: the prospect of lucrative reconstruction contracts. However, despite extensive investigations — before and during the proceedings, which began in May 1999, against the two electricians charged with causing the fire — the "mafia trail" has, so far, led nowhere.


All of which does not rule out the possibility that someone else had a vested interest in bribing the electricians to set the blaze. According to testimony by a former cell mate of Enrico Carella, one of the electricians on trial, Carella had confided in him that someone had ordered him to put the theatre to the torch in return for 150 million lire (£50,000).

RebuildingIn a previous hearing, the court had heard that Carella had debts for that same amount. He told his cell mate that the destruction of the theatre "was a question of contracts" and that he carried out the arson because he needed the money. He also named the people who had paid him. At this point the prosecutor barred the cell mate from giving further evidence on the grounds that the matter was under investigation, leaving yet another loose end to be tied up in the trial, which is set to continue until Easter, if not autumn.

Although his photographs have been used as forensic evidence, Arid — like many of those familiar with the case — dismisses both the "mafia connection" and the arson theory as speculative rubbish. At a computer in his studio, he clicks through his reportage of the blaze. Although the rapid spread of the flames becomes more evident with each close-up, he claims the pictures do not prove anything. "Some experts say the only way a fire could travel so fast from one side of the theatre to the other, with a wall in between, is if there were two, maybe three separate fires. Well, it may appear so, but with the inflammable material stored there, the dry, honeycombed wood throughout, and the draught from the open doors, the fast crossover makes complete sense"

Arid believes that the prosecutor is misguided in charging the two electricians with arson, and is convinced that the fire was nothing more sinister than a tragic combination of circumstances. "The danger involved in setting fire to a theatre, especially one with such a confusing layout as La Fenice, would put off anybody. I've known it for 20 years and was always getting lost. It was a rabbit warren. They couldn't have started a fire in that area and been sure of escaping in time through the labyrinth of staircases, corridors, steps, doors, turnings, dead ends. Being late with the renovation, they tried to speed things up a bit, were perhaps using something like a blowtorch, and some sparks fell somewhere. Or maybe they did want to do a little damage, an excuse to extend the deadline, and got scared when things went out of control. To destroy a whole theatre and risk your life just to avoid paying a fine of a few million lire would be unbelievable. The more important issue is that lack of security remains a fact, whether this was an accident or not."


And there, Arid has put his finger on far more shameful aspects of the case. No one knows more about the scandalously lax administrative standards and wanton disregard for the theatre's security than the stage door-keeper and "concierge", Gilberto Paggiaro. To his dismay, Paggiaro, who has worked at La Fenice since 1984, has been charged with "culpable negligence", along with the theatre's former general manager, its chief administrative supremo, the former mayor Massimo Cacciari (in his capacity at the time as representing the building's owners, the city council) and five surveyors and engineers, who are accused of failing to implement adequate safety measures during the theatre's refurbishment.

As far as Paggiaro is concerned, the administrative rot was all-pervasive and nothing new. "There has always been a problem with starring La Fenice," he says. "For years I'd been telling the management that I'm often alone on duty. Although there are three other caretakers, for many reasons they may not be there, and one man cannot properly supervise the theatre's safety. Their answer was always, 'It's too expensive to hire more staff.'"

Between August 1995 and January 1996, Paggiaro was under added pressure, having to monitor the comings and goings of the 50 staff members who had continued working in the theatre's offices for the duration of the refurbishment, while also keeping an eye on a daily influx of another 50 or more strangers — builders on varying shifts from different firms and casual shift workers whom he didn't recognise, as well as tourists who would wander in to look around and take photographs.

"The smoke alarm, which was installed in front of my office, used to go off with fumes from building works, so they had unplugged it weeks earlier. But no one thought it important to have a fireman on duty through the night, or to arrange for a hose to be connected to a central water supply since the surrounding canals were empty, just in case something happened."

Paggiaro's claims are backed up by recent evidence given by an engineer who was in charge of managing the site until the builders moved in. The engineer, who had tested the theatre's old firefighting equipment shortly before it was disconnected and found it in perfect working order, had at the time suggested that some empty cisterns, buried for years under the building but still watertight, could be used now to provide 200,000 litres of water in case of emergency. His proposal was not taken seriously, not even when, on January 12, a fire broke out following the overheating of metal on a piece of equipment that had been placed too close to a wooden beam. On that occasion, the fire had been put out quickly, because workmen were still on the site.

Only a month previously, says Paggiaro, a surveyor from the Prefect's office began drawing up revised safety regulations. "Even then, the administrators put off any decision about implementing those rules. They said it wasn't urgent, and that the various building firms should take responsibility for safety. The builders said it was the theatre's responsibility. Each one passed the buck to the other."

On the night of January 29, Paggiaro began making his safety rounds at about 8.30pm when he smelled smoke."I thought it was outside, perhaps from one of the restaurants next door. I looked into the street but saw nothing. It was strong enough for me to put a handkerchief to my mouth, but I carried on with my rounds. All at once, I saw flames and lots of smoke reflected in a mirror on an upstairs landing outside the Salle Apollinee." Running downstairs to his office, he phoned the Vigili del Fuoco, which told him that the incident had already been reported.

By then, the smoke was getting thicker and sparks were flying. "I waited a few minutes for the firemen, and when they didn't come I got frightened and went out into the square — and ran into Graziano Arici taking pictures of the blaze." What upsets him most, as an experienced veteran employee of the theatre, is the suggestion that he was negligent in reporting the blaze early enough because he was asleep, drunk or watching TV when it began."Had the smoke detector not been disconnected, I obviously would have known something was wrong and raised the alarm far earlier"

Spectral Ruin

The majority of Venetians regard the Fenice affair with weary resignation. Shock and sadness over the disaster, followed by a collective determination to triumph over adversity, has been superseded either by embarrassment or a near cynical indifference. Even the whodunnit element has lost its grip, as the trial drags into its fourth year, and all 10 defendants, apart from the two electricians, have moved on to other jobs. Besides, they now have a new focus for their anger: the five-year debacle over the rebuilding of La Fenice.

Interior collage photo

Today, the site is little more than a vast, spectral ruin, desolate as a war zone, open to the sky, its facade and outer walls clad in scaffolding, plastic sheeting, and boarded up outside. Inside, large cranes, transported, like all materials and machinery in Venice, piecemeal by boat along the canals and assembled on site, stand idle in the swirling winter fog. Underfoot, the ground, mostly rubble, remains soggy after recent weeks of unusually severe "aqua alta" — the annual high tides that are steadily eating away at Venice's fragile and diseased substructure.

Here a fragment of marble, there an isolated neo-classical column propped up by wooden posts, elsewhere a ragged section of dusty-pink fresco are poignant reminders of what was lost and how much has yet to be rebuilt. With few builders on the site and no work apparently in progress due to a new, acrimonious dispute over costs and scheduling between the German-Italian construction firm, Holzmann-Romagnoli, and the Cash appeal: In 1997, the Three Tenors staged a benefit concert for the opera house, which Pavarotti described as 'a jewel'. The theatre is due to reopen in 2003 — seven years after the blaze — but even that date is believed to be ludicrously unrealistic.

The fiasco over the rebuilding project dates back to May 1997, when the Fiat-owned construction company, Impregilo, one of five applicants whose design projects were considered by a commission set up by the Prefecture, was awarded the contract. Work began that summer and proceeded smoothly for almost a year. Hopes that La Fenice might reopen by the millennium were dashed when the rival consortium, Holzmann-Romagnoli — which had challenged the adjudicating commission's decision on the basis that Impregilo's bid, though cheaper than its own, was incomplete — won its appeal. Rebuilding ground to a halt. Impregilo counter-appealed, insisting that the judges had been misled by a last-minute addition to Holzmann's design, created by the architect Aldo Rossi, which, according to Impregilo, was not part of the original specifications for the theatre's reconstruction.

The disputed area consisted of an extensive property belonging to Emilio Baldi, who had his home and a restaurant abutting La Fenice: this was to provide space for a small auditorium. Although the sale of the property eventually went ahead, a friend of Baldi's says that the restaurateur, on practical grounds, refused, despite threats, to sell a large basement used as a laundry for his restaurant linen, a facility that, in this city, is virtually irreplaceable.

For the next 18 months, lawyers for the various parties locked horns in and out of court. When finally the State Council in Rome — the highest court of administrative justice to which the appeal was presented — ruled in Holzmann's favour, a third disgruntled bidder, the Genoese company Carena, insisted that the entire process begin again. After more appeals and counter-appeals, Holzmann was awarded the 90 billion lire (£30m) contract in October 1999 and began work, by which time the re-opening date was rescheduled provisionally for late 2001. It has since been further extended, to spring 2003.


But, given the unique problems of any construction work in Venice and the little so far accomplished, even that date seems ludicrously unrealistic. However, not everything is bleak. Despite still being housed in a tent, the Fenice Opera Company, rising to what they unequivocally call "this positive challenge", has continued to present varied and ambitious seasons of opera, music and dance. There are, reportedly, ample existing funds for the project: more than 90% of the cost is being met by insurance, state and local funding, with back-up from generous private donations controlled by such strictly supervised charities as Venice In Peril. To the delight of local architects, such as Francesco Da Mosto, who worked on the new plan for La Fenice with its original creator Aldo Rossi, killed in a car crash in 1997, the original architectural plans and written instructions by the engineers Tommaso and Giambattista Meduna, who rebuilt La Fenice in 1837, have been discovered in a forgotten archive. This means it is possible to recreate precisely both the theatre's celebrated perfect acoustics and its aesthetic grandeur.

"The decorative details are an integral part of the acoustic principles," explains Da Mosto excitedly, "The Medunas established specific techniques for cutting wood, so waves of sound from the orchestra and stage travel along the longest, uniform lines within the grain and are carried evenly to every part of the auditorium. Even the smallest bit of decorative wood panelling was cut this way and angled in a special way. The curves of each balcony, every papier-mache decoration was specially placed to ensure perfect transmission of sound. All these decorative elements will be replaced as they were, according to those organic principles." By studying Graziano Arici's photographs of the interior and such films as Visconti's Senso, largely shot inside La Fenice, he insists a perfect replica of the auditorium will be recreated.

But when? Shortly after Holzmann took over the project, work was suspended for seven months when Roman and medieval artefacts were unearthed beneath the theatre's foundations. Although reconstruction work began in earnest last May, so far only the perimeter walls have been reinforced, the foundations prepared for the installation of underground storage and rehearsal rooms and electronic stage equipment; it is, however, just possible to distinguish which areas will eventually become the auditorium, the proscenium arch and the stage. Venice's new mayor, Paolo Costa, ex rector of Venice University and a former minister of public works, has created for himself the temporary role of "commissioner extraordinary" with personal responsibility for the rebuilding project. At a press conference on December 4, he publicly lambasted Holzmann for falling behind schedule and so far completing less than 10% of the total building work.

Holzmann's response has been to demand another 30 billion lire, almost one-third of the total budget, to continue rebuilding, blaming the town hall for recently requesting modifications to Rossi's original plan, changes that, it argues, will cause delays and extra costs. Reconstruction is again at a standstill. A legal battle seems imminent, and the government has already approached the state legislature for guidance about the new costs of rebuilding.

National Asset

TenorsGiven that all my most recent requests, following the new year, to Costa, his press secretary and representatives of Holzmann-Romagnoli for information on this latest impasse have been ignored, it is impossible to determine the next twist in the plot. So far, no one in the whole bizarre saga comes out of this well. Although Giovanna Melandri, Italy's minister of culture, is known to be incensed over the whole affair, having released extra government funds for the rebuilding two years ago, she changed her mind about speaking to me without any explanation. Yet it was she, when commenting on Italy's creaky arts administration, who recently admitted, "We have to change the mentality in this country. Culture is a national asset, our equivalent of oilfields or diamonds." If so, then La Fenice must surely prove the ultimate challenge. Perhaps that is why an American adviser, Daniel Berger, who for 38 years was responsible for merchandising at New York's Metropolitan Museum, has been called in.

Berger, now an adviser to both the ministry of culture in Rome and to Paolo Costa in Venice, is optimistic about the future of La Fenice, while being bracingly candid about "the accepted Italian slyle of doing these things". Which makes the Fenice affair, though deplorable, in his view, nothing unusual: "For every winner of an important contract, there are two who make a ricorso — a petition to the courts. Here, they don't accept, as in England or America, the finality of any decision. In Florence, we had five consortiums bidding to set up a new merchandising and publishing venture at the Uffizi. Hours after the winner was announced, two of the losers were in front of the magistrates, saying their bids hadn't been properly considered."

While dismissing the current fracas between the town council and Holzmann as "a pissing match", he genuinely believes that Costa is the only man who can succeed in getting La Fenice built, against all odds. "He was elected last June, and inherited a terrible nightmare, not of his making. That makes him especially determined to see this through. The man is tough and businesslike, and not a bullshitter. He knows the whole world is watching. He's made it his mission to ensure that La Fenice gets built — soon. And it will."

Maybe. As everyone knows, the saga isn't over until the fat lady sings.

This article in its entirety is copyright © 2001 Alix Kirsta.
First published in the Guardian, 27 January 2001.

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