How did Italy get so ugly?
While the art world celebrates Palladio’s quincentenary, no-one is pointing out that his famous villas and the sublime countryside around them have been wrecked by hideous urban sprawl
By Edek Osser. Features, Issue 196, November 2008
Published online: 05 November 2008
“The Veneto is one great construction site that has produced monstrosity after monstrosity over the past 50 years, damaging both people and the environment,” says Francesco Vallerani, a geography professor at Venice University “On the one hand, you have a region of outstanding natural beauty and extraordinary architecture; on the other, an ugly urban sprawl that has obliterated the countryside.”
The Veneto has mountains, alpine lakes, romantic hills and rivers, the lagoon and the sea. It has more medieval city walls than any other region in Europe. Most importantly, it has thousands of 15th- to 18th-century villas that are the very symbol of the Veneto. The patricians of Venice bought land, invested in huge estates and commissioned famous architects to build magnificent residences.
The Istituto Regionale Ville Venete (IRVV)—the regional institute for the conservation of Veneto villas—has statutory powers to help 4,270 properties, around half of which are listed, with 30 designed by Andrea Palladio. Unfortunately, however, these powers have always been limited to the buildings, and it has no official remit for the unprotected land surrounding them.
In the 20 years since the Veneto Region set up the IRVV, the institute has distributed preferential loans and grants to 1,750 villas for repairs. In 2007 it contributed over €3m to 22 restoration projects, and this year the figure will be almost €5.5m. Yet there is still a lot more to be done: one obvious example is Palladio’s Villa Chiericati in Vancimuglio, which is in a dire state of repair, and surrounded by warehouses, a shopping centre and an incredible new “Palladian style” hotel. Lionello Puppi, an art and landscape historian and member of the scholarly committee of the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio (the international institute for Palladian studies), says: “We are celebrating Palladio’s 500th anniversary with a host of exhibitions and events, including ‘Palladian’ tourist itineraries, but I’m afraid that some important sites will not be visited because of the terrible condition they’re in. There’s Villa Zeno in Cessalto, for example, a Palladian masterpiece built in 1554 to be the centrepiece of a large estate. It is boarded up and in danger of being demolished. The current owners used to run a large farm on the estate, but the villa itself was no use to them and expensive to run, so they abandoned it. New buildings are engulfing Villa Forni Cerato in Montecchio Precalcino near Vicenza.
The last owners went bankrupt and abandoned the villa, which is now in ruins and has been repossessed by the bailiffs.” Nadia Qualarsa, director of the IRVV, says, “Our number one challenge is to make the villas pay their way. If they remain uninhabited, and particularly if no one finds a use for them, the taxpayers’ money that has been spent on them will have been wasted. We have also had to look beyond our specific mandate, and have worked very closely with the Veneto Region to come up with a new conservation scheme for the land surrounding the villas. It’s a crucial time for the Veneto: new urban zoning legislation has come into effect, and the Veneto Region should be following through by implementing the laws in collaboration with the various municipal councils.”
The Veneto Region’s recent planning memo does now stress that urban planners must recognise the importance of the land itself: a villa cannot be considered out of context of its surroundings. But havoc is still being wreaked.
Around 2000, the Veneto’s local industries, which had generated great wealth for the local economy, were in crisis, and the building boom appeared to have abated. Not so: it just took on a different form. In the 2003 budget, finance minister Giulio Tremonti slashed funding to the provincial governments and municipal councils. The municipal councils in turn tried to generate revenue by levying one-off taxes on construction work. The situation deteriorated further with the abolition of the ICI (Imposta Comunale sugli Immobili), the municipal council property tax. “It’s ironic,” comments Professor Vallerani: “For years, the municipal councils sold off the land to property developers in order to get the ICI on the new buildings. Now the ICI has gone and there are empty factories and warehouses everywhere, monuments to the blinkered property speculation.”
The villas and countryside of the Veneto are now also under threat from the massive expansion of the US military base at Dal Molin in Vicenza. Professor Puppi, who has studied the project in detail, is alarmed. “It will be catastrophic for the countryside, with miles of concrete in an area where Palladio built some of his finest masterpieces. The most serious case is Villa Caldogno, which was rescued by the Veneto Region and Caldogno municipal council and is now home to a Centre for Contemporary Culture, which will be hosting a programme of events this year to celebrate Palladio’s quincentenary. The villa is located slap bang in the middle of this concrete jungle. Villa Valmarana in Vigardolo, one of Palladio’s earliest works, is facing the same problem, along with another villa in Tricoli built in 1537. In my view, this project also contravenes Italy’s international commitments, for example to The Hague treaty on the protection of cultural heritage and countryside. No one bothered to remember that.”
Another high-profile project currently underway is the new A31 Valdastico Sud motorway. For years now, charities such as Italia Nostra, the World Wildlife Fund and the Landmark Trust, along with local citizens’ groups, villa owners and farmers, have been fighting to stop the motorway and prevent the countryside from being destroyed further. In October 2007, Italy’s high court, the Consiglio di Stato, finally ruled in favour of the motorway, overturning an earlier decision by the regional administrative law court to reject it. In fact, some of the strongest support for the motorway has come directly from the municipal councils, the provinces, and the Veneto Region itself, which even campaigned for it during the last elections.
Francesco Vallerani is worried: “The motorway itself may not have such a devastating impact on the countryside. The problem is that when a new motorway is built, the land on either side of it can also be rezoned for construction. All it takes is for the municipal councils to amend their official urban plans, and you have pockets of urbanisation springing up everywhere. The municipal councils can create commercial or light industrial zones and the motorway is suddenly a Trojan horse for urbanisation in an area that has already been ruined by indiscriminate construction. The municipal council regulatory plans should be kept in check by the regional law, but we’ll have to see if it is enforced. Here’s an alarming fact: before this law was ratified, the Veneto’s 500-plus municipal councils were given a deadline to make changes to their urban plans—changes that effectively would allow more construction work: almost all of them did so. Despite the local economic crisis and the empty factories and warehouses, there is still a huge appetite for construction”.
In any case, the motorway seems to have been specifically designed to serve the many commercial and light industrial zones that have been planned or are already operating within the small municipalities. It could even hold the world record for the number of exits—seven over a total of 54 kilometres—almost one every eight kilometres. Margherita Verlato, director of the Medio e Basso Vicentino branch of Italia Nostra (an association set up to protect Italy’s cultural heritage and countryside), is decidedly pessimistic. “The race to buy up the land along the motorway has already started. It’s the last remaining agricultural area in the Vicentino, and the effects will be devastating. There are at least 23 listed buildings and sites in the zone, as well as numerous other magnificent buildings which, though not listed, are very important, including villas, medieval courthouses, funerary chapels and Benedictine oratories. All of them will be affected. This is an area with an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage. The motorway will be the death blow.” It will also run through thousands of farms.
One historic building that will suffer directly as a consequence of the motorway is Villa Saraceno, a listed masterpiece by Palladio designated by Unesco as part of a World Heritage Site. This little gem is now in perfect condition following its exemplary restoration. The villa belongs to the Landmark Trust, a British charity which owns some 200 historic buildings, mostly located across the UK with a few in the US and Italy. The trust, whose honourary patron is the Prince of Wales, was set up to buy, restore and let out historical buildings, relying on donations from thousands of individuals and organisations in the UK. The motorway will pass within 700 metres of the villa. Villa Saraceno is located in the municipality of Agugliaro, which has been in favour of the motorway from day one.
Agugliaro, the population of which is just 1,200, is typical of the small towns in the area. Some of the units in its light industrial zone have stood empty for the past five years, yet despite the economic crisis the municipal council has already approved a second industrial zone. Agugliaro is also home to the local headquarters of the construction company that will be building the motorway.
The motorway has caused a furore in Britain, where Save Europe’s Heritage has joined the campaign against it. The project has also come under scrutiny from Unesco. In 2005, after consulting its member states and their administrative bodies, Unesco and Icomos (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) sent a delegation to Italy to meet officials from the Veneto Region and the municipal council of Agugliaro. A dirty trick was played: “We were screened out of the entire process,” says Lorella Tonellotto, who runs the Italian branch of the Landmark Trust. “They didn’t even let us meet the delegation to put our point of view across. No-one told us they were coming, and the delegates were told that we had refused to see them.”
Nonetheless, Unesco put forward its own recommendations and asked the state and the municipal council to propose measures to limit the visual impact of the motorway on Villa Saraceno (e.g. creating an underpass, lowering the overpasses and changing the exit). Italy has until this month to submit the final plan for the motorway, which Unesco will evaluate at its annual meeting in February 2009.
It is clear that property speculation is still rife but the source of the cash pouring into the region is less easy to pinpoint. There is talk of shady dealing and money-laundering: everyone seems to know about it but it is hard to find proof. It is up to the municipal councils to be vigilant, because this is no longer just about the odd small house that a farmhand or factory worker might want to build for their family; it is about entire residential areas, shopping centres, even motor racing circuits, financed by foreign investors and anonymous companies. The stakes are high.
The Veneto has yet another festering wound: its quarries. All this urban sprawl feeds off raw materials, which ideally (from a commercial perspective) should be found locally. Quarries were gradually eroding the famously beautiful Euganean Hills until they were finally designated a protected Regional Park some years ago. They also represent a threat to many of the villas. Some villas have been saved by local people. One cheering case is that of Villa Emo in Fanzolo, the only Palladian villa to have been in the same family since it was built. The land next to the villa, which was once the park, was owned by the Venice Curia. When someone tried to buy it and turn it into a sand quarry, there was local uproar. In the end, the people of Fanzolo clubbed together and bought it themselves, with the help of a small local bank which set up a foundation to hold the land and save the villa.
The statistics on the Veneto’s quarries are startling: 603 are active, while 781 are disused, still scarring the countryside. But these are only the official figures. The Benetton Foundation is currently carrying out an extensive research project on the Veneto’s quarries, which is highlighting the discrepancy between the official figures and the real ones. In the province of Treviso alone, for example, a close examination of the details—municipal records, military maps, etc—has revealed more than 500 quarries covering 1,300 hectares. The number across the region must therefore be in its thousands.
It is becoming clear now how Italy has destroyed and is still destroying one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe: too many complicated laws; municipal councils funding themselves by handing out building contracts; major companies and politicians dreaming up new motorways; construction firms and quarry owners profiteering from the building boom. But we are starting to see a new phenomenon: increasingly, citizens are forming committees to fight against the destruction of their land. “There is a backlash among the people,” says Professor Vallerani, “although they need to be more savvy. In the Veneto, these local committees have also become a form of group therapy. We have an extraordinary cultural heritage, and this makes us all the more angry with ourselves for having taken part in its destruction. We used to be a nation of emigrants, but we stopped being poor in the 1990s; we now have to learn how to be rich, how to live in a different way. I hope our children will manage it.”
Save has done a photographic survey from a helicopter of the Valdastico motorway under construction: go to www.savebritainsheritage.org, click on “E Reports”, then “Veneto in Peril”
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