Venice, 1st March 1993. A 15th-century oil painting, a masterpiece by Giovanni Bellini featuring a Madonna and Child, gets stolen overnight from the Church of Madonna dell’Orto. The umpteenth theft of a precious artifact in a Venetian Church. Corriere della Sera, one of the leading Italian national newspapers, reports the crime and reminds its readers of the lack of care, custodians and alarm systems affecting the over one hundred historic Churches of Venice, referred to as being both ‘museum-like‘ and ‘a cultural hazard‘.
Only one year before, in February 1992, Don Aldo Marangoni (the president of the Venice Parish Priests’ Board and director of the Churches’ Office, and a parish priest himself) had made a shocking announcement: public access into most Venetian churches was no longer possible but for “Holy Service times, only”. The non-stopping depopulation of the city, along with the dwindling community of faithful (and, consequently, the lack of volunteers), and last but not least, a series of deep funding cuts carried out by both the Italian State (liable for the heritage of the whole country) and the City Council (since 1990 no longer liable for granting contributions to places of cult) had made the keeping of historic religious buildings and their artworks unsustainable. The menace of a churches’ “shut down” alarmed institutions, scholars, city lovers and the tourism industry. The total and/or partial closing of most Venetian churches would almost certainly carry with it increasing acts of vandalism and thefts, a general decay and the strong disappointment of visitors and tour operators. The religious heritage of the city was being put at risk more than ever before.
The Italian State granted, then, a new flow of fundings. As it was expected, the amount (ca. 2,000,000 euros) could only cover the expenditures for the installation of alarm devices in some twelve of the many city churches and the costs of a team of custodians who ensured the churches’ opening for a couple of hours a day until the beginning of 1997. The 2000 Jubilee was only 36 months away. Don Aldo Marangoni and a group of other concerned parish priests decided to look at the big picture and act accordingly.
Venice, a World Heritage site since 1987, is now a city of barely 57,000 residents hosting around 130 religious buildings of outstanding universal value, of which 113 are still ‘working’ (the maintenance of an historic church may cost around 30,000-50,000 euros/year). The depopulation of the city began long before the famous 1966 flood (called ‘Acqua Granda’), and precisely in the early 50s (when the number of residents dropped from 174.808 to 174.448). When Don Aldo and his priest-friends started brainstorming, Venice counted around 69,000 residents and was experiencing a remakable increase of tourist flows every year. Many visitors were also demanding increasing access into sacred places of cultural interest during the day. It was clear by then that these “new stakeholders” would soon outnumber the faithful and that the Venetian churches were easily running the risk of becoming spaces of conflict between the few pious and the many visitors.
In 1997, Don Aldo and his religious companions tried an action of conciliation to the advantage of their own buildings. They agreed to set up a “network” of churches (the chuches at risk involved in the project were initially 13, the network now counts 16) within the framework of a lay not-for-profit organization, which they named Chorus and for which they coined the slogan ‘Fruire per conservare’ (‘Enjoy & Preserve’) – see www.chorusvenezia.org.
Chorus was designed to create a virtuous self-financing system, apt to allow the opening and the maintenance of the buildings of the whole network (all of them being ‘working’ churches and some of them even parish churches), on the basis of a series of criteria, that can be briefly synthesized as follows:
1. The involvement of the visitors in the project of safeguarding and promotion of the Venice religious heritage in general and of that of the ‘Chorus-network’ in particular, by means of a fixed contribution, 3 euros for the visit of a single church and 10 euros for 16 churches (Chorus Pass, validity: one year)
2. Above contribution is to be imposed only on the “extended use” of each sacred site of the network, away from Holy Service times. It applies therefore exclusively on lay visitors (both foreign and italian) and not on faithful (from whichever country) or locals (both lay and faithful). Everyone is granted reliable and longer opening times, an adequate lighting system, museum-like labels on artworks, a clean environment, staff assistance. Ad-hoc contributions are required by Chorus from those asking to make use of one or more religious buildings – where and if applicable – for the organization of non-invasive, unintrusive, church-friendly events, like selected temporary art exhibitions and/or concerts.
3) The activation of a mechanism of “solidarity” amongst churches: all contributions given to access/use the well-known (and most visited) churches of the network are also intended to finance the management of the less known (and less visited) ones. Every church plays a distinctive role in the network, each one serving the purpose of the network.
4) The idea of providing an effective contribution to the spatial distribution of the tourist flows – one of the main issues of the city – by supplying the city guests a map showing the location of all the ‘Chorus-churches’ (which are scattered all over Venice), implicitly suggesting new routes across the maze of streets and canals, and so inviting the curious travellers to explore and experience the beauty of less crowded surroundings, away from the so called ‘must-see’ destinations (Piazza San Marco, Rialto).
The Chorus’s model has proved to be flexible and adaptive enough so as to be borrowed by another Italian city whose churches are also at risk, Erice in Sicily (see: http://www.amei.biz/musei/mems-museo-erice-la-montagna-del-signore-di-trapan). Erice’s religious authorities admit they owe Chorus and its innovative proposal of “conciliation” a lot, in all respects.
Lastly, only recently did Unesco recognize the distinctive nature of religious World Heritage properties within the framework of the World Heritage Convention and encourage new forms of action on the purpose of safeguarding religious heritage of outstanding universal value for future generations (Kyiv Statement, 5th November 2010). In this sense, Chorus appears to have been all the more innovative and far-sighted already from the very start (1997), when, showing uncommon pragmatism and excellent problem-solving qualities, a group of citizen-priests decided to conciliate lay and religious needs – meanwhile rescuing 16 churches – by exploiting the potential and the power of a virtuous network, which other Venetian churches might need to join.
P.S.: Giovanni Bellini’s painting is still missing.
Qualified Guide of Venice and its Heritage
Laurea Magistrale in Economia e Gestione delle Arti e delle Attività Culturali
(Master’s Degree in Economics and Management of Arts and Cultural Activities)
Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice, Italy