by Roderick Conway Morris

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Comune di Venezia
San Clemente

For Rent

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 20 January 1995


'I tried to persuade the municipality to let me rent a deserted island a few years ago,' said Filippo Valenti, a 50-year-old electrical engineer from Sicily who has lived in Venice for 25 years, 'but I didn't get anywhere.'

'I'm fascinated by the lagoon and its fauna and flora, and as I went around it over the years, I became increasingly depressed at the neglect and degradation of its abandoned islands. But when I suggested to the authorities that I'd be willing to clear one up and look after it just for the pleasure of parking my sailing boat there from time to time, they seemed to think I was joking.'

Valenti realized his ambition, nonetheless, just before Christmas when the Italian state auctioned the first of a series of islands, Monte Oro, on six-year leases. With only one other bidder, Valenti secured his 4,200- square-meter (45,000-square- foot) handful of paradise in the wilds of the north of the lagoon for an annual rent of 1.235 million lire (about $770). 'It's a kind of atoll, with Monte Oro at the center, with lovely views of Torcello and Burano. It's also where the fresh water of a river meets the salt water of the lagoon, and a wonderful place to observe the huge numbers of migratory birds that stop off there.'

The leases of two other islands are to be auctioned off next week: Sant'Angelo delle Polveri (Tuesday, starting price 9 million lire a year) and the Ottagano Ca' Roman (Wednesday, starting bid 2.4 million lire). And it is expected that other islands should become available later in the year.

'Many of these islands have been abandoned for 50 years or more,' said Carmelo Ianni, the director of the technical section of Venice's Treasury Office, also a Sicilian who long ago left his native island. 'And, for once, it is a state administrative body - when the state is so often seen as representing inaction, slowness, immovability! - that has been able to get something going with the islands.

'There are more than 40 of them in the lagoon, apart from the main inhabited ones, like those that make up Venice itself. Some are owned by the municipality and others are private. The state owns more than a dozen - many of them former convents and monasteries, which were nationalized in the Napoleonic era, and forts that belonged to the government during the Venetian Republic.

'The reason we want to rent them out is not mainly to raise revenue but to stop them going to wrack and ruin, because we simply don't have the resources to maintain them. One of the islands we were intending to auction in December was a military octagon, which was withdrawn because the archaeological services said it was of exceptional interest - and that was fine by us, because now they will be the ones to look after it and safeguard its future.'

Ianni said he would be watching with particular interest next week to see who might take up Sant'Angelo delle Polveri. Lying between Venice and Fusina on the mainland, the island was once a Benedictine convent, then a gunpowder magazine (hence its epithet, 'of the powder'), which spectacularly blew up in 1689 when it was struck by lightning. Rebuilt and used again as a munitions depot, it has an area of more than 5,000 square meters, several buildings and a wharf.

The island auctions are open to all comers, but bidders or their representatives must be able to identify themselves and make a deposit of 10 percent of the starting price to participate. All islands are offered on six- year leases, which can be renewed only by returning to open auction.

The shortness of the leases could obviously deter those interested in some of the larger islands due to become available, where costs of clearing, restoration and maintenance could be considerable. Principal among such state-owned properties are Poveglia and Lazzaretto Vecchio, close to the lagoon-side shore of the Lido, both used as quarantine islands by the Venetian Republic. Poveglia has extensive orchards and vineyards, and both have numerous buildings. 'For islands like these,' said Ianni, 'we are hoping that another system of leasing can be found and we are working on this now.'

Meanwhile, the municipality - which is responsible for many of the most attractive disused islands in the lagoon, some of which have magnificent churches, monastic buildings and superb, if neglected, gardens - is renewing its efforts to attract potential tenants, with the possibility of granting long leases. (Some former hospital islands officially belong, as from the beginning of this year, to the local health authority, but remain within the municipality's sphere of interest, since alternative uses must be approved by the city authorities.)

Marco Agostini, director of the Municipal Properties Office, said, 'Massimo Cacciari, our mayor, has invited whoever is interested to put forward plans for new uses for these islands, given that public funds are still not available, and he does not want to delay things any longer - and we are hoping that some interesting and viable projects will emerge.'

One of the most enticing propositions is San Clemente, which has some fine monumental architecture, courts and gardens (and is only a few minutes by boat from Piazza San Marco) and has been in the sights of Club Med. Since ceasing to be a mental home, San Clemente has been on loan to Dingo, Venice's animal welfare organization, and more than 300 stray cats. Amid a chorus of meowing and frolicking cats audibly tapping the line, Maria-Grazia Macaluso, who runs the clinic there, confirmed over the phone that Dingo had just been offered alternative premises on the Lido - so any tenants should now have the prospect of having the entire island to themselves.

The next Italian state island auctions will be held at the Ufficio del Registro di Venezia, Cannaregio 4314, at 9.30 A.M. on Tuesday and Wednesday. For information: Ufficio Tecnico Erariale, Riva del Vin, S. Polo 764/E; tel: (041) 522- 3476, or Servizi Demaniali, Campo Sant'Angelo, S. Marco 3540, tel: (041) 528-3335.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023