Magnificent mansions, embellished with gothic arches and carved stone balconies, are being sold to the highest bidder, with the majority being turned into hotels.
Several of them look directly on to the Grand Canal, the historic waterway which winds through the heart of what was once known as La Serenissima (The Most Serene).
However, preservation groups say that converting so many palaces into hotels does not make economic sense because Venice’s existing hotels are struggling to fill their rooms, and that the trend risks turning the city into even more of a tourist ghetto, devoid of other economic activity.
Between 2000 and 2007, more than 40 new hotels opened in Venice, and the number of private homes converted into budget bed and breakfasts rose by more than 1,000 per cent, creating an over-supply of accommodation.
“Selling off the palaces is an ad hoc strategy driven by panic,” said Anna Somers Cocks, the chairman of the UK-based Venice In Peril Fund. “It’s like auctioning the family silver instead of sorting out your estate.”
“It’s very recent – it’s all happened in the last five years or so. We think it would be much better to offer some of the palazzos to research institutes, for instance. That would bring in a much wider variety of people. Otherwise you end up with a dislocated city, devoted only to tourism.” Venice’s council says the sale of the palazzos reflects harsh economic reality, as the city tries to adapt to a sharp fall in its public finances.
Earnings from the council-owned casino, near the world famous Rialto Bridge, which provides the city with a quarter of its annual income, are significantly down because high-rollers have been hit by the global economic crisis.
There has also been a precipitous decline in the amount of money Venice receives from the national government.
Funds have been diverted into the construction of a £3 billion flood prevention barrier, dubbed Moses, designed to save the city from rising sea levels.
The special grant that the city has received from Rome for more than 30 years declined from 592 million euros in 2002 to just 23 million in 2005.
While the grant increased in 2007 to 133 million euros, it is still a fraction of what it once was.
“Maintaining these old buildings, as well as the canal banks on which they sit, is very, very expensive,” said a spokeswoman for Venice city council. “We don’t have the money to do it because funding from the government has been cut in order to pay for the flood barrier.” Among the grand mansions being sold off are the Palazzo Soranzo Piovene on the Grand Canal, which was turned into a hotel; the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a former post office which is to be converted into a Benetton superstore; and the salmon-pink Palazzo Sagredo, a private home which is now a hotel.
“In just nine years, the number of hotel beds in Venice increased from 14,000 to 26,000,” said Francesca Bortolotto-Possati, whose family has run the five star Hotel Bauer since the 1930s.
“It’s ridiculous – occupancy rates are down to about 50 per cent and some hotels are close to bankruptcy because they can’t fill their rooms. Rather than having more hotels, we should encourage companies and cultural foundations to use these old palazzos as their headquarters in Venice.”
The palazzos are standing empty because banks, post offices and government offices have decamped en masse to the mainland city of Mestre, a few miles across the marshy lagoon, where the majority of Venice’s population lives.