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Finding a balance for cultural regeneration and heritage in Venice

Paul Atkin, CEO, Teatro San Cassiano, Jon Greenfield, Founder, Greenfield Architecture, Heather Fearfield, Co-founder, Future Cities Forum and Carla Toffolo, Co-ordinator, Europa Nostra

The Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, said in his book 'The stones of Venice' that 'to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality', and this statement became a theme in our cultural regeneration panel at Future Cities Forum's recent discussions at our event - Venice Sustainability 2023.

Paul Atkin, CEO of Teatro San Cassiano, Jon Greenfield, Founder, Greenfield Architecture and Carla Toffolo, Co-ordinator, Europa Nostra, all spoke at our forum held in the Procuratie Vecchie, San Marco, Venice - at the Home of the Human Safety Net, and courtesy of Generali Group.

The panel gathered only weeks after the UNESCO threat this summer to put Venice on the list of endangered cities due to over-tourism. There has been concern that tourists now outnumber resident Venetians, that young people are leaving the city and that Venice is facing climate-driven challenges of rising sea waters and sea salt attacking the fabric of historic buildings and private dwellings. How the city manages the vast swell of visitors that arrive daily on planes, coaches, trains and cruise ships remains to be seen. Venice's Dorsoduro Museum Mile - which connects eight museums - is also an attempt to engage tourists in a deeper appreciation of the city's heritage.

Paul Atkin spoke first about the need to recreate the original public theatre in Venice, Teatro San Cassiano, for the sake of experiencing in cultural terms what opera sounded like when first performed in the city and also to encourage a better form of cultural tourism.

Reflecting on Ruskin's statement, would the recreation of the first public theatre and opera house in Venice, Teatro San Cassiano, need to be a perfectionist's copy of the original, how could the new generation of artisans working on it leave their individual mark, and how could the theatre product fresh and exuberant reactions from those experiencing opera for the first time?

Paul Atkin said:

'This theatre is fundamental, it is what Venice is about, it is the birthplace of public opera and this theatre no longer exists. It is the most important theatre in the world, it is where opera started and the whole flow of opera came from it. Nobody has experienced the musical performances as they were, so no one has really heard Monteverdi for example in the original productions, so we must re-create that. All the stage machinery was made by artisans from the Arsenale, the glass that made the theatre lights came from Venice - these are artisan skills that we can nurture for the future among those young people in Venice that can be trained in these crafts.

'We are providing a commercial foundation that brings in tourism but which is part of the 'good tourism' of Venice and creates further investment in the city. We can grow the student population in Venice through artisan programmes and they can become part of the city's culture again. This is sustainable because we can take in young people who are interested in working on the stage crafts or sustainable tourism, it is that wide. They would work in-house because they need to be in contact with the musicians and everything that goes on in the theatre, they would all blend together, but they do need places to live and the issue of accommodation at the moment is a real problem in Venice.'

Above: the model of the proposed theatre, courtesy of Teatro San Cassiano

Architect Jon Greenfield who has been working on the design of the theatre with Paul also referenced Ruskin:

'In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin describes art as humanity's expression of doing work - when you make something, your humanity is going into it. The world is full of machines and so I want the opera house to use tactile material and everyone to be able to see the human working on it, the tool marks, to give a sense of the people who have worked on it. We are working from things we know, but some information is missing, so we will be discovering things. I worked on The Globe (in London) and the Sam Wanamaker theatres, and we were working from secondary not primary information. This theatre is slightly bigger than the Sam Wanamaker (on Bankside) but still tiny and everyone can see all the faces of the audience, it will be quite a special experience.'

Paul added:

'It has to be carbon negative and sustainable. We need to be aware of the sustainability issues in the flora and fauna around the lagoon and we need to try to add greenery into the theatre. I would like the theatre to be porous, we are re-imagining public opera and so we should have an open door policy. We would like people to come in to watch rehearsals and also take productions out to schools. It is a theatre for Venice and for the people, it is theirs. Every performance will also be streamed to reach a wider more diverse community. The future is about technology, so we must embrace it.'

Carla Toffolo, Co-ordinator, Europa Nostra, joined our panel discussion and agreed that we all owe so much to the heritage of Venice, that it is now time to give something back:

'I think it is the balance that we experience in our daily life. If we look at heritage we can learn a lot from the past, where they used building techniques that saved energy. We could adopt these techniques for our own buildings and combine them with our modern technology. We could learn from the past and do something good for the planet.

'Europa Nostra has been advocating for this for decades now and trying to show what can be done. We are doing this by awarding heritage projects through the civil society as all of us can play a role in our daily lives to protect our heritage. We have nineteen partners and are trusted by the European Commission, so we currently have a youth-funded european heritage project going on. We must also focus on the challenges ahead and the green transformation, helping to mitigate climate change.

Above: war damaged Ukraine (courtesy Huffington Post)

'We are concerned with heritage being lost in war zones too and have been working in Ukraine since March last year, only days after Russia invaded. We have started crowd-funding and finding that this is being matched too.

'But I want to say again, we owe so much to Venice, to its art and democracy. We learn something from all the different places we go to and the world is so inter-connected that we should know that we are all responsible for everything that happens.'

Europa Nostra runs The 7 Most Endangered programme which identifies endangered monuments and sites in Europe and mobilises public and private partners on a local, national and European level to find a viable future for those sites.

The 7 Most Endangered programme was launched in January 2013 by Europa Nostra with the European Investment Bank Institute as founding partner and the Council of Europe Development Bank as associated partner. The 7 Most Endangered is supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, as part of Europa Nostra’s European Cultural Heritage Agora: “Empowering Europe’s Civil Society Movement for Heritage”.

In June this year, Europa Nostra joined representatives of over 30 European organisations in Tartu, Estonia to exchange views on the Culture and Creative Sectors and Industries driving Green Transition and facing the Energy Crisis. The brainstorming meeting was organised in the framework of Voices of Culture, the platform for dialogue offered to civil society by the European Commission. The Tartu dialogue, the fourth Voices of Culture topic for 2021-2023, aimed to reflect on the state of the art and generate recommendations for policy and actions for decision-makers. The Voices of Culture dialogue was well timed to coincide with the launch by Europa Nostra and partners of the new EU-funded European Heritage Hub project. The Hub aims to build the resilience of the European heritage sector and its capacity for action and advocacy in the face of our society’s great transformation, including climate change/green transition.

Europa Nostra used the opportunity presented by the Voices of Culture dialogue to share with participants the concept of ‘Triple Transformation’ – green, social and digital – which provides the overarching theme for the Hub. ‘Triple Transformation’ is meant to describe transformative trajectories that pursue the dual goals of living within planetary boundaries and strengthening sustainable development, fully reaping the opportunities offered by new technologies while paying close attention to equity and wellbeing for all.


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