The Blessed Josef Mayr-Nusser

The life of Josef Mayr-Nusser (1910-1945) is a chapter in the complicated story of South Tyrol.  Born in Bolzano Bozen, he was an active German speaking Catholic, contributor to the subversive young Catholic newssheet Tiroler Jugendwacht (subversive because the Italian government banned use of the German word Jugendwacht – literally “youth watch”).  Despite reservations about Italy’s treatment of the South Tyrol, he was unmoved by the Nazis’ siren calls to German speakers and became a key member of the South Tyrolean resistance group, the Andreas Hofer Bund. 

The Blessed Josef Mayr-Nusser, beatified by Pope Francis for his heroism in defence of South Tyrol and martyrdom by the Nazis.

This Bund was an anti-Nazi association and resistance movement, formed in opposition to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s “Option Agreement” of October / November 1939, by which the German- and Ladin-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol were given the “option” of either remaining in their homes and facing Italianisation or migrating to the Germanic “homeland” – in this case the recently seized lands of Western Poland.  The Bund was formed particularly to protect the remainers (“Dableiber”) from the aggression of the leavers (“Optanteren”).  Of the 75,000 who eventually opted for migration – mainly the landless rural poor, few burghers and almost no farmers – many got no further than the Austrian Tyrol, and after the war around one third of them returned.

When Mayr-Nusser was drafted into the SS he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, claiming it contrary to his faith.  For this he was sentenced to death.  Beatified by Pope Francis in 2016, he is referred to as the Martyr of the First Commandment (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”). His reliquary casket is in the south aisle of Bozen Cathedral.

Venice attempts to stem the tide

(and some news from Rome and Florence)

by Alta Macadam

The long-discussed entrance restrictions to Venice are finally to become operational on 25th April. The system is designed to limit the numbers of day-trippers, who come to the city for just a few hours (often as part of a tour group) and from whom the city reaps very little benefit, if any. Overtourism has damaged Venice in many ways and the declared aim is to reduce the crowds, encourage longer visits and improve the quality of life for residents. It is also a way in which visitors can be monitored so that certain days of the year do not become too crowded, and it provides an incentive to visitors to come at the least crowded periods. It is a genuine experiment to regulate the flow. Venice is supposedly the first city in the world to undertake this experiment.

All the (fairly complicated) details are given here.

This is the only official City of Venice tourist information website, even though it rarely comes up as one of your first search results, and the website itself adds to the confusion by not giving any information on the ‘Venice access (entry) fee’ on its opening page (you have to go to the next page).

The first step is to look on the calendar to see which days are subject to the restrictions (these generally include all weekends). On these days, if you are entering the city between 8.30 am and 4pm, you are subject to an entrance fee of 5 euro. (The 4pm limit means people are free to come in to the city in the evening – for instance those who might want to have dinner there or attend a concert).

You are not subject to an entry fee if you are staying overnight or longer somewhere in the historic city (or even within the municipal area, which includes Mestre on the mainland) in any type of accommodation. However, you are now obliged to ‘register’ by filling out a form to get a QR code to show that you are exempt from the entrance fee as the “guest of an accommodation facility”. On the form provided, the names of everyone staying with you, the dates of your stay and the name of the place where you are staying, will all be required. You will need to use the QR code for access and show to any official doing a check while you are in the city.

For a direct link to the forms to fill in, if you are staying in Venice for at least one night), see here.

For the exemption rules (which include children under 14 and the disabled), see here.

It seems there will be one or two offices in Venice, including at the railway station, where you will be able to register and pay but clearly you are much better off to arrive fully armed with your QR code. There is also talk of a number of access points (airport, railway station, car parks, etc.) where you will be required to have your QR code passed.

If, sadly, you can only visit the city for a day, see the website for the procedures, which include payment of an entrance fee.

Many people in Italy and abroad will be eagerly waiting to see how this new system works and if it produces the hoped-for results. For now, the signs are positive and everyone is feeling optimistic.

This long thought-out attempted solution to Venice’s problems seems far distant from the latest campaign to encourage tourism by the flamboyant Minister of Tourism. One wonders if it isn’t going a bit too far to dress up Botticelli’s Venus (a detail from his iconic Birth of Venus) in a T-shirt and show her eating a pizza on Lake Como, or in shorts outside the Colosseum. She is touted as the Minister’s ‘virtual influencer’. The whole campaign is bizarrely titled ‘Open to Meraviglia’.

Rome
A few months ago some very negative news came in from Rome. It is now necessary to purchase a ticket (and therefore join a queue) to enter the Pantheon, the greatest ancient building in the city to have survived virtually intact. This was met with great sadness by many inhabitants and visitors alike as, without an entrance ticket and the paraphernalia that entails, it had always been a place to savour whenever one was in the vicinity: with even just a few minutes to spare, one could stand in one of the most extraordinary spaces ever created. The disappointing decision to impose an entry fee was taken by the Cultural Ministry and the Roman diocese in June 2023.

Florence
One of the most curious recent events in Florence has been the decision of Eike Schmidt to stand for Mayor in the forthcoming local election (to be held in June). After eight years as the much-admired director of the Uffizi, he has put on hold his next appointment to the Capodimonte museum in Naples, become an Italian citizen, and begun his campaign in Florence, running as an independent. He launched his campaign for “Firenze Magnifica” on 17th April.

Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guides to Venice, Rome and Florence.

Most rare in marble portraits

The above title is a quote from Giorgio Vasari. They are the words he used, in his famous Lives of the Artists, to describe Alessandro Vittoria (1525–1608), a man who became one of the greatest Italian sculptors of his age.

Vittoria was born in Trento, a city in the far north of Italy, on the border of the Italian and German-speaking worlds. In the mid-16th century, when Vittoria was a young man, it played host to the famous eccelsiastical council convoked to discuss the threats posed by the growth of Protestantism and to agree a response. A portrait of Vittoria exists from this time, painted by another north Italian, Giovanni Battista Moroni, from Bergamo. Moroni, like many other artists, had gone to Trento, attracted by the opportunities presented by the prominent Council delegates, many of whom wished to have their likenesses taken. In Moroni’s portrait (now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), Vittoria appears as a confident young man holding a small marble torso. The musculature of this torso is rather peculiar: either Vittoria was very young at the time and not yet very skilled, or else Moroni had never studied anatomy, but nevertheless it serves as an emblem of the kind of sculpture that would make Vittoria famous. He developed a prodigious skill at sculpting portraits in the style of ancient Roman busts, a genre he effectively re-invented and re-popularised, and he became sought-after by numerous patrons. In Vittoria’s native Trento today, there is a square that bears his name with an early 20th-century statue in it showing a middle-aged man holding a sculptor’s chisel, dressed in a frock coat and looking like a dapper Edwardian official from some municipal board of works. He is nothing at all like the confident and self-aware young man that Moroni depicted and which hangs in Vienna. One suspects that the young Vittoria was very confident indeed.

Portrait of Alessandro Vittoria by Giovanni Battista Moroni. Kunsthistorisches Musem, Vienna.

Vittoria was also skilled in plasterwork. When he first went to Venice, he was taken on by the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino, with whom he worked on the steep barrel-vaulted entrance staircase to the Biblioteca Marciana, a space overwhelmingly encrusted with painted stucco. If Vittoria had stuck to this kind of thing, it is unlikely that today we would know his name. The skill is very great, but the overall effect is too much. It is perhaps lucky for posterity that he quarrelled with Sansovino and found a different outlet for his talents. He went on to sculpt bust after bust of well-fed statesman and administrators, and today they provide a fascinating window on an age. In his native Trento, in the magnificent Castello di Buonconsiglio, there are two characteristic portrait busts of Venetian notables. But by far the best place to admire Vittoria’s work is Venice: in Ca’ d’Oro, in the Frari, the Museo Correr, the Doge’s Palace.

Two examples of Vittoria’s portrait busts of dignitaries of his day. In Castello di Buonconsiglio, Trento (top) and in Ca’ D’Oro, Venice (bottom).

Vittoria was a contemporary of Tintoretto and Veronese, and with them he helped Venice in her project of self-glamorisation in an era when her best days were already beginning to be behind her. We know where Vittoria lived in Venice: his house was just off the Riva degli Schiavoni behind the church of the Pietà. A hotel stands on the site of the building today. Here he had a beautiful garden and a fine collection of works of art, including a marvellous self-portrait by Parmagianino, shown reflected in a convex mirror (also now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum). When he died, he was buried in the nearby church of San Zaccaria: his tomb slab is very simple, a black flagstone laid in the floor of the sanctuary. On the wall next to it, however, is an elaborate monument designed by himself with a portrait bust in the antique style and mourning figures of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture.

Monument to Alessandro Vittoria in San Zaccaria, Venice. The Latin description praises him as someone ‘who when alive drew out from marble the faces of the living’. (The sculptures of Architecture and Painting appear to have been miscaptioned.)

Annabel Barber

See here for details of our relevant titles: Blue Guide Venice and Blue Guide Trentino & the South Tyrol.

Venice in Peril

The UK-based Venice in Peril Fund is one of several international charities devoted to safeguarding the future of this unique city. Guy Elliott, Chairman of Venice in Peril, outlines some of its recent projects.

The Venice in Peril Fund was founded in 1971, succeeding an earlier fund instituted in 1966 in response to that year’s devastating floods. Today, more than 50 years later, Venice may be in even greater peril. Climate change is increasing the frequency of high tide occurrences, known as Acqua alta. These, as well as causing flooding, allow saline penetration of the brick which lies above the hard Istrian stone foundations. In certain atmospheric conditions, these saline deposits crystallise, causing the mortar and brick to fragment. Rising sea levels will only accentuate this problem. Other factors, such as more turbulent water traffic and deteriorating air quality, also contribute to the degradation. Taken together these threats pose an existential threat to the city.

Over this long period, Venice in Peril has focused chiefly on the conservation of monuments, especially in stone, for example the Porta della Carta (Doge’s Palace) or the Loggetta around the campanile. But the charity has also conserved works of art and smaller projects ranging from a globe by Vincenzo Coronelli to 18 Goldoni puppets. Over 75 projects have been carried out using its funding alongside the City, Museum and Church authorities. At the same time the charity has aimed to broaden public understanding of the city’s challenges. 

One of Venice in Peril’s most recently completed conservation projects is the monument to Antonio Canova in the Frari church. Within it lies his heart. The rest of his remains—except for his right hand, which is in the Accademia Galleries—are at Possagno, his birthplace. The remarkable pyramid-shaped monument, built according to Canova’s design for a monument to Titian that was never executed, was inaugurated on the 200th anniversary of the great sculptor‘s death. British donors were prominent among those who financed its construction in the 1820s and Venice in Peril’s present supporters carry on the same proud tradition. The conservation project took ten years to complete and its challenges reflect all the environmental assaults described above. In addition, the problems of earlier conservation efforts (which followed best practice at the time) needed to be reversed. Major projects such as this provide training opportunities for young conservators as well as highlighting the harmful effects of neglecting maintenance, which is everywhere accorded low priority.

These same problems of Venice’s foundations being eaten away or suffering other environmental damage have been the focus of the charity in many other projects. One example is at the imposing Gothic church of Madonna del Orto in Cannaregio. Another is at the Basilica of Torcello, where recently the iconostasis was conserved. An ongoing project is at the Archivo de Stato, where following our earlier restorations of its main monumental doorway and its Baroque well-head, further interventions are planned to the archangels guarding the corners of this former cloister, once attached to the Frari. 

The Italian authorities, despite many competing demands placed on them, are not altogether neglecting the challenges which Venice faces. The massive MOSE project, which consists of retractable floodgates built between the outermost islands of the lagoon, has been a welcome development—unfortunately not operational for the Acqua alta of 2019, the worst since 1966. The MOSE barriers were first raised in October 2020. On a smaller scale, a glass barrier has been put in place around San Marco, reflecting the basilica’s position as one of the lowest lying points in the city. Venice in Peril has likewise assisted San Nicolò dei Mendicoli with similar counter-measures, the latest after the 2019 flooding, in a series of interventions at the church made since the 1970s. 

Venice’s challenges are not confined to the environment. As is well known, giant cruise liners have been controversial. Their enormous scale, dwarfing the city’s greatest monuments, caused much offence. Since 2021 ships over 25,000 tonnes are no longer permitted to sail up the Giudecca Canal or moor in the basin of San Marco. They instead take a different route to the port of Marghera on the mainland. While this diminishes the visual impact, nothing changes the disgorgement of very large numbers of passengers who make a negligible contribution to the city’s economy since they tend not to stay overnight. In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, the city had 5.5 m overnight stays and 13 m overall visitors. The pandemic emptied Venice, but since 2022 tourism has resumed, with all that that entails. 

The city’s overdependence on tourism has changed the housing rental sector. Many residents have quit the old city for the mainland, renting out their apartments, often in an unregulated manner. This undermines the formal hotel and pensione sector. It also accelerates depopulation. Venice’s present population, which has been consistently falling, is around 50,000 as against its peak of 175,000 in the early 1950s. This partly reflects the lack of employment prospects, especially for young people, except in the tourist sector. 

As well as diverting the giant cruise liners, a daily levy has been introduced for day trippers. This innovation, like several others, has been controversial. But the scale of challenges that Venice faces requires considerable imagination. In many areas, solutions have proved elusive. Often, unpleasant choices need to be made in order to safeguard one of mankind’s most sublime achievements. This will not be the last such case. 

Venice in Peril Fund offers a unique and worthwhile channel to those who love the city, enabling them to discover more about Venice while contributing to conservation that can encourage sustainability and assist economic renewal. The website www.veniceinperil.org gives details about past and present projects and enables donations to be made easily. Funds are always needed to keep pace with the seemingly inexhaustible list of endangered buildings, monuments, sculptures and works of art. The charity holds regular events for its supporters, and can be followed on Twitter and Instagram.

Venice in Peril thanks the publishers of the excellent Blue Guide for again giving us space to explain our purpose and why it matters to those who love the city.

Guy Elliott, Chairman, Venice in Peril Fund CIO

The Venetian Republic in times of plague

The Venetian lagoon at sunset, the time of day when people in isolation traditionally gathered to sing the Te Deum. The island shown here is the old hospital island of Sacca Sessola. Image ©Blue Guides.

The Venetian Republic had to take steps to contain infection in the city as early as the 15th century. Their dependence on trade, bringing merchant ships from the East, meant that they were particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease (just as we are told today that globalisation has favoured the spread of Coronavirus). Venetians held that the ease of infection could well be attributed to flying particles in the air, a theory confirmed by scientists many centuries later.

The Venetians were able to make use of some of the islands in the lagoon, either for isolation hospitals or as quarantine stations. The 12th-century pilgrims’ hospice on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio was taken over by the Augustinian monastery of St Mary of Nazareth in 1423 and became the first-known permanent isolation hospital in Europe. The name Lazzaretto is a corruption of ‘Nazareth’, with a secondary etymology from Lazarus, patron saint of lepers. A lazzaretto or lazaret came to be a general term for a quarantine station. Right up until the 18th century those who were confined on Lazzaretto Vecchio would stand on the bank looking towards Venice at sunset each evening and sing the Te Deum together in thankfulness for their escape from contagion.

Perhaps the most interesting of the Venetian quarantine islands is Lazzaretto Nuovo. Local archaeologists and volunteers have restored some of its buildings and carried out excavations and the island is open to visitors on certain days. In the centre of the island is the Tezon Grande (one of the largest public buildings in Venice, more than 100m long), which was used to decontaminate ships’ merchandise. The goods were fumigated outside, using rosemary and juniper, or soaked in salt water in specially-constructed canals, or covered with vinegar. The splendid wood roof has been restored and the original brick herring-bone pavement survives. On the walls are some interesting inscriptions made by sailors in the 16th century. Some 200–300 sailors, merchants, and travellers could also be housed in isolation on Lazzaretto Nuovo, in small cells built against the perimeter wall, each with its own kitchen, fireplace and courtyard (in old prints the island can always be identified by its forest of Venetian chimneys). Today the island is inhabited by herons, cormorants, swamp hawks, kingfishers and egrets. A sea dyke has been constructed to the west, in an attempt to protect it from acqua alta, and a pilot project has been carried out close to the landing-stage which demonstrates that water can be purified by plant biology. The island also has its own website and a full description of what you can see there is given in our Blue Guide Venice. Ironically, research work for the next edition of Blue Guide Venice was interrupted a few weeks ago by the Coronavirus outbreak.

Another island, San Clemente, housed a quarantine station for overseas visitors until it became a large monastery in 1645. The island of Sacca Sessola (pictured above) was occupied by a hospital until 1980. San Lazzaro degli Armeni, and island just off the Lido, was used from 1182 as a leper colony and after occupation by the Benedictines was given to an Armenian Catholic monastery in 1717.

All visitors to Venice will be familiar with the church of Santa Maria della Salute, which stands guard at the entrance to the city, right at the beginning of the Grand Canal. It was built in 1631–81 in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague of 1630–1, which had claimed the lives of some thirty percent of the population (46,000 people). The Doge visited the Salute annually on 21st November, in a procession across a pontoon of boats from San Marco. Every year on the same date this Venetian festival is still celebrated and crowds throng to the church to receive a votive candle.

by Alta Macadam