Some days before Dior’s Tiepolo Ball, at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the city’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, took care to issue a press release. He claimed he would not be attending the social event of the season due to a “political engagement.” The real reason he wasn’t in attendance that night is because he’d been left off the guest list.

Animosity between the mayor and some of Venice’s oldest families is nothing new. If Brugnaro did feel a slight that evening two years ago, this year’s Biennale might be the stage for his revenge.

Well before the coronavirus shut down the city’s entryways, Brugnaro had already started making enemies with the upper crust by putting the needs of tourists before theirs. Pre-pandemic, it was Brugnaro’s policies that filled Venice with an average of 30 million tourists per year. Now, with the 17th Architecture Biennale finally set to open on May 22, Brugnaro is once again looking to make a buck or two—at the locals’ expense.

Venice’s locals are pushing back against the mass tourism of pre-coronavirus times.

Venice’s palazzo owners are like the owners of England’s stately homes: property rich but cash poor. What’s more, the upkeep costs of a number of the city’s oldest homes, some of which date back to the 14th century, reach into the millions each year. This alone has forced many of Venice’s oldest families to sell, while others, such as Bianca Arrivabene, deputy chairman of Christie’s Italy, have maintained their ancestral homes by leasing portions of them. (In Arrivabene’s case, the family rents the bottom seven floors of the Palazzo Papadopoli to the Aman hotel and keeps the top floors for themselves.)

The few who have managed to hang on to their properties rely on events and parties to make ends meet—and when it comes to these, nothing is more important than Venice’s art and architecture Biennales. Last year, the Biennale was canceled. This year, Brugnaro has put into effect a law which forbids the owners of private palazzi from hosting art exhibitions for more than six months, or consecutively within a two-year period. This means that some of the most popular Biennale venues—ancient, privately owned palazzos—will not be allowed, legally, to open their doors.

Typically, a Biennale show will last 9 months; until now, any event staged in a private space for less than 12 did not require a “change of use” certificate. However, Brugnaro’s recently introduced Destination of Use law now states that no such event may continue for more than 180 days, including mounting and dismantling, and, further, that no more than one show can be held within a 12-month period.

This will effectively bar many spaces from showing for the full duration of the Biennale, and from hosting events in consecutive years. (The Biennale switches off between art and architecture annually.) “This will kill a huge amount of high-end opportunity,” says Filippo Gaggia, owner of the Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore, a 15th-century gem on the Grand Canal, and director of upscale property company Views on Venice.

The new law is seen by many owners as an attempt by Brugnaro to force Biennale clients to show in properties owned by the city, thus diverting the significant income to the city council. Brugnaro is in effect shooting the moon, accumulating cards in the form of laws and edicts in order to bleed out the local palazzo owners for everything they have left.

“A Mafia-ization of the Biennale”

While the post-pandemic rhetoric on Venice’s future is all about protecting the city, the comune’s actions appear to be working toward an exactly opposite goal: encouraging the return of hugely destructive mass tourism. Despite the Italian government’s much-publicized ban on cruise ships, it came as no surprise to weary Venetians when Brugnaro announced a reversal of the ban—they will, in fact, be returning to the lagoon in June.

The way the locals see it, Venice’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, has one thing in mind: money.

Pushing art exhibitors and their hefty budgets into spaces owned by the city similarly undermines the mayor’s claim to be promoting a more sustainable economic model. “It’s a Mafia-ization of the Biennale,” says Gaggia. (It doesn’t help that Brugnaro, a successful entrepreneur before entering politics, has frequently been accused of lining his own pockets at the city’s expense.)

Aside from the official pavilions at the Giardini and Arsenale, numerous Biennale exhibitions take place off-site, at mixed-use or private venues all over the city. Some are official “collateral” shows, while others use the draw of the Biennale to attract visitors to independent events.

Venice’s mayor is once again looking to make a buck or two—at the locals’ expense.

Michele Marcello, the founder of Venice Palaces, an initiative aimed at helping palazzo owners preserve their ancestral properties, is up in arms at the new legislation. Like those of his patrician peers whose names can be found in the “Golden Book” of Venetian aristocracy (closed to new entries since 1296), Marcello eschews a title, preferring the simple “N.H.” (nobil homo). Now Marcello is leading an informal group of palazzo owners in protesting the law. “This is a direct attack on private owners,” Marcello says. “There is no logic or justification beyond pressuring owners to give up and sell to hotels.”

Marcello stresses that hosting exhibitions is vital to the preservation of many palazzo owners’ homes, which form an integral part of Venice’s fabled beauty and for which they receive no support from the state. Theoretically, it is possible for owners to apply for a change-of-use certificate, which would permit them to continue to show, but—aside from the tortuous bureaucracy involved in changing a historic building’s purported use in a city where seeking permission to hammer in a nail can take months—acquiring the certificate costs an average of $70,000.

“The use of private homes for exhibitions allows the raising of critical funds for their upkeep,” says Markus Reymann, director of TBA21 Academy, a contemporary-art organization based at Ocean Space, at the San Lorenzo Church. But it also “provides an alternative to other, less sustainable forms of mass tourism,” he says.

If owners are permitted only one biannual show, then smaller displays such as the Venice Glass Week risk finding themselves homeless, and the type of tourist the city attracts will skew further in the direction of the cruise-boat day visitor rather than people interested in extended stays to explore the latest in art and architecture, displayed in the city’s oldest palazzos.

“This will be a disaster for huge numbers of people,” said one owner. “Why would prestigious institutions want to show in second-rate spaces? They want the historic palaces—that’s what people come for.” Gaggia agrees: “For many visitors, it’s not the contents of the exhibitions alone which are the attraction. Tourists and Venetians alike get the opportunity to see architectural treasures which are usually closed to the public.”

Filippo Gaggia with fellow Venice locals Hughes Le Gallais and Mario Donati.

All might not be lost, though. Toto Bergamo Rossi, the author, master restorer, and director of the Venetian Heritage organization, thinks the new ruling will be revised. “It’s an ignorant law, but it’s basically a communication problem. People have nothing to fear,” he says. To prove it, he places a call from the ornate library of his home in the Palazzo Gradenigo to Simone Venturini, Venice’s public assessor for tourism, who agrees that the legislation is shortsighted and unsympathetic—but not necessarily insurmountable.

Marcello and his supporters are hoping to organize a legal challenge to the ruling, but meanwhile he’s proposing that palazzo owners affected by the law cover their properties in Christo-style wrapping, displaying the slogan Se non me vuoi, non mi vedi (If you don’t want me, you can’t see me). At this year’s Biennale, the patricians’ revolt may prove to be the boldest installation of all.

Lisa Hilton is a Venice-based writer. She is the author of numerous novels and history books, including Queen’s Consort and Maestra