Venice the menaced

The AGM of the Private Organisations for the Protection of Venice is still afloat, thank you.
A tall, lithe figure in a tweed suit, Donatella Asta of the World Monuments Fund, addressed her well-heeled audience in almost accentless English. "Pigeons in Venice mate eight times a year if well fed. If not, they have to go hunting for food, so they don't have time... It is therefore fundamental that we prevent people from feeding the birds."

Smoothing back her cropped ash-blond hair, Ms Asta went on to explain how low-voltage cables were also an option to prevent pigeon droppings. "Can't we provide contraceptive bird food in St Mark's Square?" queried one of the 60 guests.

"Wait a moment," exclaimed the chairman of the session, Count Alvise Zorzi, as patrician and silver-haired as his name suggests. "We're getting bogged down here. It's the Venice Council's job to get rid of the birds. We simply have to decide if it's worth holding a seminar on the problem."

At the annual general meeting of the Private Organisations for the Protection of Venice, under the auspices of Unesco, no one was sniggering at the pigeon pooh problem. AGM participants - a swath of art experts, aristocrats, historians and business people - had gathered in the library of the former Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, just across the lagoon from St Mark's Square.

Forget Woody Allen; these Venice-lovers are another breed. In terms of grey heads, sensible shoes and devotion to a cause, they could have passed for a meeting of the Tunbridge Wells branch of the Trollope Society - except that these people deal with millions of dollars, priceless art treasures and one of the most loved, visited and endangered cities in the world.

The get-together of the Venice luvvies had fallen, by chance, at a time when the city was awaiting a crucial decision on its future. A report had been expected the previous Wednesday on the controversial mobile flood barrier project that would stop Venice sinking, but the Environment Ministry had implied that the government crisis meant that no decision could be made public.

The Moses Project (Modulo di Sopporto Elettromeccanico) was conceived in the Seventies. The plan is to seal off the three entrances to Venice's lagoon with huge mobile inflatable barriers, 100ft high and 65ft wide, whenever the sea level puts the city at risk. Critics argue that the gigantic mobile barriers are too costly (the estimated cost is pounds 1.5bn) and won't resolve the problem of flooding, which is also caused by excessive rain and swollen rivers.

The representatives of the 26 committees, who work alongside Unesco, had assembled in Venice to discuss projects for protecting the historic and artistic heritage of the city, not to look at the environmental risks. But, as one delegate put it, "if you have cleaned up the jewels, you can't ignore the jewellery cabinet."

Among the long-term Venice-lovers from around the globe there was cautious optimism. The Berlin art history professor Wolfgang Wolters, who has worked with Save Venice for 20 years, thinks the slowness in finding a solution to Venice's problems has been in its favour.

"Had they moved on the Moses Project 10 years ago, it would have been a disaster," said Wolters, a tall, relaxed man who looks as though he would play a good game of tennis. "We have learnt much more since then about climate change, the environment and the city itself." For Count Alvise Zorzi, the Venetian historian and novelist who heads the committee that co-ordinates the activities of all the other committees, Moses is essentially a good plan, and should be implemented.

The bulk of the protection of Venice committees were formed after the catastrophic floods of 1966 that devastated numerous monuments, churches and works of art and reminded the world just how fragile Venice is. Since then they have been responsible for restoring hundreds of monuments and works of art, and have kept the problems of the lagoon city on the agenda of the world's media.

The 26 committees from Europe, the US and Australia consider themselves "a family" despite significant differences in size and style. Attempts to locate areas of potential friction were politely rebuffed. "We are like a family and we all like working together," proclaimed Bob Guthrie, whose US-based Save Venice is by far the richest of the committees. "In a good year we can generate close to a million dollars. Every two years, at the end of summer, 300 or so members are invited to a four-day gala in Venice. In the intervening years there's a dinner dance, which is a real society event, and a Mediterranean cruise."

Save Venice is decidedly Wasp. Around half its members are based in and around New York, and it attracts Italians rather than Italian-Americans. It also runs a licensing deal whereby selected businesses put together a Venice collection and pay for the use of the Save Venice label. Their big budget allows them to choose expensive, high-profile restorations, such as that of the interior and facade of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

Like its leaders, Lady Frances Clarke and the historian John Julius Norwich, the activities of the British organisation Venice in Peril are decidedly more traditional. Its subscription fee has risen to pounds 50, and most of the other revenue comes from private donors. Lady Frances said: "Of course the difference in capabilities according to one's financial contribution is immense, but I think anyone involved loves Venice deeply. We are also committed to keeping it alive; if we can produce a new generation of craftsmen, that will help."

The "poor relations" of the I-love-Venice clan are obliged to choose more circumscribed projects from the list provided by the Superintendency of Culture in Venice, or to join forces. The Dutch Committee raises around pounds 50,000 per annum. "That may not sound like much, but the Dutch are rather stingy when it comes to culture. They prefer social causes, like Aids or drug prevention," confesses its president, Bernard Aikema, over a lunch- time plate of tortellini in the refectory.