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Venice in Peril

By Lady Frances Clarke CBE

The existence of the Warwick in Venice Programme goes back to the historic floods in Florence and Venice of 4 November 1966 which traumatised both cities, but in different ways and with diverse long-term effects. The dramatic TV documentaries by Franco Zeffirelli recording, live, the devastating flooding of Florence publicised the international appeal launched by the Italian Government through UNE SCO, to which the British government responded by asking its former ambassador in Rome, Sir Ashley Clarke, to set up an Appeal. This was constituted on 5 November 1966 as the Italian Art and Archives Rescue Fund (IAARF ). Its committee specifically included experts in paper conservation from the British Library, since a major victim of the Arno overflowing its banks was the State Archives. Not only the Italian army, but a voluntary international army of students, professors and citizens, including many Britons, rallied to the appeal for help, to such an effect that after two years the Florentine authorities were able to prove that thanks to their own efforts, and to American assistance in the form of CRI A (Committee to Rescue Italian Art), they had less need of IAARF ’s help.

At this point the Venetian Superintendent for Works of Art, Dott. Francesco Valcanover, came to meet us in Florence, making a case for a similar initiative to be launched in Venice, where there was a perennial threat of flooding, partly due to what is now judged to be climate change. After consultation with the IAARF Committee, it was agreed to dissolve the Florentine operation, transferring the residue of funds to a new body of trustees, the Venice in Peril Fund, constituted in 1971. Venice in Peril (VIP ) is a member of the Association of Private Committees for Safeguarding Venice operating in the framework of the UNE SCO Regional Bureau for Science and Education in Europe, established in Venice in 1976.

The first major project undertaken by VIP , whose operations are always carried out with the local representatives of the Ministero dei Beni Culturali, was at the church of the Madonna dell’Orto. Situated on the northern periphery of Cannaregio, where its distinctive campanile dominates the Fondamente Nuove as the vaporetto approaches from the Lagoon, this church was greatly admired by Ruskin. In 1966, however, the area was little explored by visitors, despite this being Tintoretto’s parish church, enriched by his great paintings in the chancel and the former organ doors, now mounted over the entrance to the sacristy. VIP ’S commitment to the conservation of this church, always in collaboration with the Superintendents for Monuments and Works of Art, has concluded with the restoration of the fine Bazzani organ. The church is now part of the circuit of churches open throughout the day monitored by the Chorus Organisation, who have arranged a small museum on the ground floor of the bell tower recording the link with VIP.

From Cannaregio to Dorsoduro, where VIP took up the appeal from the Superintendency of Monuments to tackle the problem of flooding in the church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli at what was originally the extreme western approach to the city from the Lagoon. Now the area is extended by the maritime port of San Basilio, with its regular ferries to Greece, and expanding facilities for the increasingly frequent cruise liners moving slowly along the Giudecca Canal.

The pink and white Verona marble floor of San Nicolò was taken up and damp-proofed, while the extensive wooden fixtures supporting the series of paintings all around the church, and the ceiling painting showing St Nicholas in glory, were all restored during the years 1972 to 1977. Again, an area of the city of great antiquity, but by that time seriously neglected, had been brought to the notice and appreciation of the discerning visitor, enlivened by the redevelopment of the former Cotonificio – cotton factory – into a vital area of college facilities for the Venice University of Architecture.

Since the early 1970s VIP has undertaken a programme to adopt projects on the ‘waiting list’ of the Superintendencies, whether these involved buildings, sculptures or paintings of high aesthetic value, or work considered worthy of scholarly or scientific investigation – all located in Venice and on the islands of the Lagoon.

A major project was on Torcello, where other international committees joined VIP in collaboration with the Superintendency and the Curia Patriarcale to monitor and consolidate the vast expanse of the mosaics on the West Wall and in the apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. On the cemetery island of San Michele in Isola, VIP , with a major donation from Mr Peter Boizot, undertook the difficult structural project of consolidating the cupola and floor of the Cappella Emiliani – a monumental chapel attached to the church whose foundations are constantly lapped by the waters as the vaporetti pass on their way to Murano, Burano and Torcello. Since the church itself has undergone a major restoration in 2010, financed by the Municipality, the Cappella Emiliani has been used for the veneration of cremations, since there is a crematorium on the island. There is also the Reparto Evangelico, a special area administered by the Anglican, Lutheran and Valdensian churches in Venice, containing the graves and monuments of numerous historical figures who either lived or, by chance, died in Venice, reflecting the many different nationalities who resided here. This burial ground, with its historic graves and venerable cypress trees, is currently the subject of a projected agreement between the Municipality and the different Protestant communities to provide for its conservation and maintenance on a permanent basis.

Current VIP projects, subject to our financial possibilities, include monitoring the perplexing condition of the monument to Canova in the church of the Frari, suffering from a form of rising damp which has caused the surface of the marble figures draped over the brick pyramid to scale. Analyses by the Superintendency of Monuments, and by experts from Padua are awaited before a decision is made on necessary action.

But currently our main priority is the preservation of the unique hydraulic crane built for the Italian navy in 1886 by Armstrong Mitchell of Newcastle upon-Tyne, and still dominating the basin of the Arsenale, though no longer in use. From the numbers which were exported all over the world by Armstrong’s, it is the only surviving example of that particular model. Its conservation, which requires a considerable financial commitment by VIP, would be a witness to the engineering technology of an era which recalls the historic achievements of the Arsenalotti of previous centuries.

VIP is hugely indebted to Professor John Hale, Founding Professor of History at Warwick, a trustee whose academic specialisation in Venetian history, consolidated by his practical as well as imaginative approach to confronting the problems of Venice, was invaluable. The Fund, as well as the University of Warwick, has benefited immeasurably from the commitment of his successor, the late Professor Michael Mallett, to continuing the Warwick programme in Venice. I hope this programme will expand, developing practical collaboration with the University of Ca’ Foscari under the leadership of its dynamic Rector, Professor Carraro.

Since the days of the 1966 emergency, Venice has changed immeasurably, not least because of the exodus of the population to Mestre – which is, of course, two thirds of the Venice Municipality. The universities – both Ca’Foscari and the University of Architecture – are at the vital, even if sometimes controversial, stage of expansion, in which I hope Warwick will play a significant part.


‘Since the early 1970s VIP [Venice in Peril] has undertaken a programme to adopt projects on the ‘waiting list’ of the Superintendencies, whether these involved buildings, sculptures or paintings of high aesthetic value, or work considered worthy of scholarly or scientific investigation – all located in Venice and on the islands of the Lagoon.’

Lady Frances Clarke CBE is Co-President of Venice in Peril, which she founded with her late husband, Sir Ashley Clarke. She was awarded the CBE in 2000, in recognition of her work for Venetian culture. In 2010 she was named Ambassador for the culture of the Veneto region, and was made a member of the Istituto Veneto. In 2007 she was proclaimed Venetian of the Year by the Settemari Association. Lady Clarke has an honorary DLitt from the University of Warwick, and is a member of Warwick’s Venice Advisory Board.

Lady Frances Clarke

Lady Frances Clarke CBE

Venice Advisory Board