Since the Venice Biennale opened in 1895, it has spread from its original site in the Giardini through the entire city as palaces, gardens, galleries and shops rent themselves out to host exhibitions. In 1980, it occupied the Arsenale for the first time when it installed the Biennale of Architecture in the cavernous bays of medieval Europe’s most important naval base.

On balance, the event has been welcomed by Venetians who appreciate both its injection of contemporary culture and its boost to the local economy. Now, however, the relationship is strained.

In February this year, more than 300 angry Venice residents gathered around a banner unfurled across the bridge that spans the shipyard’s grandiose, tower-flanked watergate. Their flag’s sentiment — “the Arsenale belongs to the city” ­— protested bold new plans, including an expansion of the Biennale, for the hallowed district.

Source of their ire is an agreement between Italy’s ministries of defence and culture and the Venice municipality, where the latter cedes half its portion of the Arsenale to the defence ministry for use by the Italian navy. The other half, while still property of the municipality, is conceded to the Biennale and will be used to house a new international research centre for contemporary art whose core is the Biennale’s historical archive. Set to be inaugurated in 2024, the plan is funded by €20mn from the Italian ministry of culture and €105mn from EU Covid-recovery funds.

But residents say the plan ignores their needs. After decades when the Arsenale was off-limits to any development, now that it is finally available, the Venetians assert they deserve a say in its future.

A man wearing black on a canalside with a protest sign around his neck in front of people waving banners
The plan divides part of the Arsenale between the Italian navy and the Venice Biennale

“Please understand. We love the Biennale . . . but it has become our competitor for space in the city,” says Giorgio Suppiej, the secretary of Forum Futuro Arsenale (FFA). An association of around 30 organisations, representing Venetian rowers’ clubs, boat restorers, artisans, environmental and social activists, senior political players and many national and international maritime-focused groups, the forum’s intention is to reclaim the Arsenale for Venetians.

Their resistance must be seen in the context of a city where residents’ voices have been ignored by generations of politicians, many of whom live on the mainland. So disenfranchised do today’s Venetians feel that in 2019 a referendum was held which called for the historic centre of Venice to split from its mainland borough of Mestre. Although the lack of a quorum ensured no change, the majority of Venetians voted for division.

Their lack of faith in their leaders reflects a situation where 1,000 residents, unable to earn a living outside the poorly-paid tourist industry in a city where tourism has hiked up property prices and eroded social infrastructure, depart for terra firma every year. Today, the population in the historic city stands at around 50,000, half the number of a generation ago, and the exodus continues.

The protocol has gone ahead despite a detailed alternative proposal from the FFA. The 48-page manifesto would animate the Arsenale with boatyards to build and restore Venetian craft, workshops for artisans, a marina, a maritime museum and art-production spaces.

Aerial view of an island filled with low buildings and a large dock
The Arsenale was Venice’s highly productive shipyard

The manifesto of the FFA, which says the protocol was passed without “any democratic discussion” with Venetian residents, respects the fact that, as Suppiej puts it, “the Arsenale is a unique expression of Venice’s maritime history”. Within its cavernous brick chambers and docks, more than 2,000 workers manufactured the ships that enabled La Serenissima, through a mixture of trade and war, to become medieval Europe’s wealthiest city.

But the FFA strategy also speaks to Venice’s present tense. Venice’s genius loci is its waterways and the boats which criss-cross them. Although the manifesto includes boatyards for motorised craft, it prioritises those who make traditional Venetian boats, powered by oar rather than motor. As such it also sustains the city’s buildings, which are being eroded by motondoso, the wave action of motorised vessels.

The Arsenale would also make an ideal home for Venice’s broader artisanal community which, forced out by high rents, has shrunk by more than 50 per cent in the last half-century. Suppiej points to the presence of 19th-century forges that are in working condition. Relit today, their creations — for activities from boat construction to building restoration — would sustain dozens of jobs, he says.

A man with a facemask carried a sign with a large heart drawn on it
Venetians have to pay €20.50 to visit the Biennale

Crucial too is the demand that the 48-hectare space be made accessible all round to local people. “At the moment the Biennale opens up their spaces for just five months of the year and Venetians must spend €20 each for a single day,” says Suppiej. (Biennale tickets for residents are priced at €20.50, a discount of €5 on the full price.)

Roberto Cicutto, the president of the Biennale, strongly defends his project. As a child growing up in Venice, he remembers the Arsenale as an “abandoned, inaccessible space where no one ever entered”. Although he admits that he does not envisage “much change” in ticket prices for Venetians, he promises that his development will be open to the public all year round, even when the exhibitions are off-limits.

Furthermore, the research centre will “create residentiality” for the city, attracting both long-term visitors and those who “work permanently inside”, he says. Crucially, the Biennale plans not only to restore the buildings but also to install restaurants, a public library and an auditorium. “If I’m Venetian, I will be able to visit the Arsenale to eat, drink, read, visit the theatre and watch my children play in the sunshine,” says Cicutto.

The Venetians’ quarrel, he says, is less with the Biennale than the politicians. He adds that the navy occupies most of the spaces that the FFA would like to utilise. “Their problem is that the municipality gave the spaces to the navy without asking for anything in return for the city.” (Suppiej says the FFA wants to use all the Arsenale’s spaces.)

About a dozen people hold a long banner
Roberto Cicutto, the president of the Biennale, says Venetians ‘will be able to visit the Arsenale to eat, drink, read, visit the theatre and watch my children play’

The municipality and the state ministries did not respond to questions from the Financial Times, but in a press release the municipality hailed the agreement as a way towards the “revaluation and redevelopment” of the Arsenale after years of disuse. It also said events there which “promote Venice’s excellence”, such as the Venice Boat Show, could still be held there.

Of particular interest to locals is the news that vaporetti, Venice’s public transport, will now traverse the Arsenale to reach the northern lagoon. Undoubtedly, this will save passengers time but there are environmental implications. “The vaporetto urgently requires an upgrade to meet 21st-century criteria of sustainability. At the Arsenale, the priority should be reopening access for traditional boats and rowers,” said Jane Da Mosto, the environmental scientist behind research/activist collective We are here Venice.

A revitalised, accessible Arsenale is preferable to the shuttered, empty, crumbling district of yesteryear. But it’s foolish of the city’s power base to have ignored, yet again, such a significant local squadron. Until Venice’s custodians learn that it is real people rather than glossy events — or even historic buildings — who are the lifeblood of this unique urbis, Venice’s future remains as precarious as ever.

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