Venice billboard plan seen as a bad sign

A view of Venice's Piazza San Marco with the Doge's Palace, right, taken during floods on Dec. 1, 2008 in Venice.

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Kai Ryssdal: Venice is getting it from all sides. The Italian city's just getting over the worst flooding it's had in 20 years. It's still sinking, too, with no real solution in sight for that. And if that's not enough, there's another problem from above. The buildings around its most famous public square, Piazza San Marco, are crumbling. Chunks of buildings are falling off. Megan Williams reports a possible solution has tourists and locals a little nervous.


Megan Williams: A gondola ride through the canals of Venice. Then a stop at Italy 's most stunning square: Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square. Nine-hundred-year-old palaces, archways and ornate marble form a space so intimate and elegant that Napolean dubbed it "The living room of Europe." Twenty million visitors come each year to enjoy a coffee or ice cream, feed the pigeons or snap photos.

But the buildings that face Piazza San Marco are falling to pieces. It would cost tens of millions of dollars to restore. So, Venice's mayor has proposed masking the construction with towering digital billboards. The advertising fees could cover the restoration costs.

Debbie: I think it ruins the charm.

John: Yeah, it ruins the charm if they're putting up technology.

Debbie: It modernizes it too much. Too much modernization.

John and Debbie from New Hampshire came to Venice to see old world charm. Not Times Square.

John: You've got to figure out another way to gather up some money.

But ads are tough to turn down. This year for the first time, Venice allowed billboards just outside the square. But they're not electronic with flashing lights and glare.

Alessandra de Bigontina is an Italian art curator. She says she'd hate to see Venice hand over its historic squares to advertisements.

Alessandra de Bigontina: I think that so important spaces in Italy are cultural spaces. They are not for advertising. On the other side I understand that the cost, they cost so much, for the renovation of the building cannot be paid by the government because we don't have the money.

It's a dilemma other Italian cities have had to deal with. Milan tried to put up advertising screens on its famous Duomo a decade back. But protesters, who feared the ads would never come down, blocked the plan.

Nicola is a waiter at the famous Gran Caffe in Piazza San Marco. The Caffe was closed down three years ago when chunks of wall fell onto outdoor tables. The city covered up the renovation work with an unsightly white net. Customers fled. Nicola doesn't want the big billboards. He says why not compromise?

Nicola [translation]: Paint a beautiful image onto the screen that depicts the Caffe, the archway, the windows of the building and have this cover the restoration work. Even put a tiny ad in the corner of it. I'm sure people still come to sit here instead of going to the other cafes.

And if there have to be ads, says fellow waiter Fabio, then make them tasteful. Only for products like luxury cars or designer goods.

Fabio [translation]: Not McDonalds, that's for sure. I mean, come on. The ads need to be for high-class things. That would be fine.

The mayor's office wants to see how much demand there'll be for the ads before pressing ahead. Whatever it decides, the city has to move soon. As the Caffe band plays on, Piazza San Marco is falling to bits.

In Venice, I'm Megan Williams for Marketplace.

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