Three-hundred banner-wielding protestors gathered on Sunday outside the main entrance to the Venetian Arsenale, the sprawling 12th-century former shipyard containing exhibition spaces reserved for the city’s famed Biennale. Their aim is to stop plans to cede a further city-owned portion of the 48-hectare site to the historic arts organisation.
A protocol due to be jointly signed by the municipality and the culture and defence ministries would transfer ownership of half of the contested area to the defence ministry. The other half, which would remain under city ownership, is destined to be transformed into a new site for the Biennale’s Historical Archives, using €20m of state funds and €105m from Italy’s EU Covid-recovery funds.
Forum Futuro Arsenale (FFA), the alliance of around 40 local associations that organised the protest, has written to culture minister Dario Franceschini urging him not to sign the agreement. “Venice and Rome must listen to the residents,” FFA President Luigi Fozzati tells The Art Newspaper. “We object to the Biennale’s invasion [of the Arsenale].”
Numerous senior politicians have thrown their support behind the protestors, with the Democratic Party’s Venice branch reportedly sending a separate letter to the two ministers.
However, a spokesman for Luigi Brugnaro, Venice’s centre-right mayor, tells The Art Newspaper that the protocol would allow the municipality to finally redevelop the area, removing restrictions linked with a previous agreement that currently obliges the city to ring fence the space for the navy’s use free of charge.
By also making the Galeazze canal navigable, he adds, the accord would cut boat journeys from the San Marco Basin to locations in the northern lagoon by 30 minutes.
In its heyday, the Arsenale fueled Venice's rise by providing the ships and arms with which the Republic commercially and militarily commanded the Mediterranean. The structure gradually slipped into disuse following the Second World War. Parts of the site have progressively been transformed into Biennale exhibition spaces since 1999.
In 2012, the state transferred ownership of two-thirds of the complex to the municipality. Three years later, in a 48-page proposal, FFA proposed transforming the site into a centre for reviving traditional—including marine—industries through production, research and cultural activities.
However, in December Brugnaro’s administration officially gave its consent to the plans outlined in the protocol.
In an open meeting organised by the municipality on 2 February, Roberto Cicutto, the president of the Biennale, argued that, while the Biennale would benefit from the plans, the city would also gain from a “centre that is open and vibrant all year round", the Italian daily La Repubblica reports.