La Fenice, Venice's opera house and a potent symbol of the city's cultural riches, burnt to the ground a year ago. At first they said it was an accident. Now a more sinister story is emerging from the ashes.
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It's Almost a year since La Fenice burnt down. On the night of 29 January 1996, Venetians watched in helpless dismay as the famous opera theatre - a living symbol of their city's proud musical and theatrical traditions - went up in smoke.

It wasn't the first time. A theatre which stood on this site had already been razed to the ground in 1774 - just when the local opera society was looking for a new home. The sumptuous new opera house, called La Fenice ("The Phoenix") because it rose from the ashes, was inaugurated in 1792. It was rebuilt after another fire in 1836, and given a Fascist-style workover in 1937. The plain, harmonious facade is the only part of architect Giannantonio Selva's original design to have survived both fires.

Behind that facade, the building which hosted the first nights of Rossini's Tancredi and Verdi's La Traviata - and, more recently, Britten's The Turn of the Screw - is a burnt-out shell, full of charred wood and rubble. Through the central windows you can see the sky, framed by a pair of redundant statues. Down one side of the theatre, the posters for the 1995-96 season are still there, behind dusty glass cases, like stopped clocks. It was a season which never even got off the ground. Italian opera seasons always start late, but Fenice takes the biscuit, schedu-ling the opening opera for mid- March in an attempt to channel its meagre funds into a few top-quality productions.

Meanwhile, the official investigations are dragging on. But at least presiding magistrate Felice Casson has begun to ask the right questions. The issue is no longer how the fire that destroyed La Fenice was started, but who started it. Nobody is talking about "a tragic accident" anymore.

There Is another Venice just across the water from the tourists' playground. It's called Mestre-Marghera, and it accounts for almost two-thirds of the city's 300,000 inhabitants. Few visitors spend more time in Mestre than it takes to change trains - though in the summer the hotels around the station take some of the budget overspill from Venice itself, which is only five minutes away across the rail causeway. There's nothing wrong with Mestre, really, if you're just using it to sleep in. It's like Venice without the gondolas, the art, or the old buildings. And with cars.

Marghera, though, is something else again. South of Mestre, this sprawl of petro-chemical plants, warehouses and lorry parks - interspersed with grids of box-housing for the workers - is the city's dirty engine-room. Dirty in every sense: 31 top executives from the refineries here are currently awaiting trial, charged with allowing such vast quantities of dioxin to be pumped into the lagoon during the past 40 years that the marine ecosystem has effectively been killed off, apart from a few mutant shellfish.

The evocatively named Via dell' Elettronica is typical of Marghera: a street that leads from an industrial wasteland into what used to be the country, but is now simply an absence. It was here that the vice-mayor of Venice, Gianfranco Bettin, was brought by an unknown hoodlum on the night of 30 October. Dead tired after a long day at the office, Bettin got into his car to drive to his parents' house, just across the road from the Montedison factory. As he turned the key in the ignition a man loomed up from the back seat of his car, pistol in hand, in the best Hollywood tradition. Talking with a strong southern accent, he made Bettin drive until they reached a suitably deserted spot. Then he ordered him to throw the car keys out of the window, held the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.

"Next time," Bettin was told, "it'll be loaded." The mock-execution: a classic Mafia trick.

The man who threatened Bettin had nothing to do with the burning down of La Fenice (though, this being Italy, you can never quite be sure). He was connected to a local drugs or prostitution racket: activities which Bettin had made dynamic and partially successful attempts to curb. The mock-execution was a "you leave us alone, we leave you alone" message, directed at a man who had already had his house trashed, and who had received (and ignored) a series of anonymous letters and phone calls. Bettin is a charismatic figure: a writer, a former MP and a producer of successful current-affairs programmes on Italian television, he took on the low-profile job in his home town of Mestre because he wanted to do something to help the community he grew up in. Mestre-Marghera has one of the highest unemployment rates in the otherwise prosperous north- east, and has taken over Venice's traditional role as the place where the East sells to the West, and vice-versa: prostitution, drugs and illegal arms deals are everyday problems.

What Happened to Gianfranco Bettin should alert us to the other side of the picture-postcard. If you accept the fact that Venice's second citizen can be kidnapped by a bunch of petty criminals within sight of the campanile of San Marco, then the story that follows may be slightly easier to digest.

In an article written for the weekly magazine of L'Unita newspaper on 20 November, Italian journalist Sandro Onofri pitched in thus:

"La Fenice, the world's most beautiful opera theatre, was burnt down by elements of the Venetian underworld, in collaboration with the Neapolitan camorra. The job was done as a favour to one of the construction firms involved in the ongoing restoration work, to help it avoid the payment of the fines which were due in the event that they overran the estimated completion date - and with an eye to the public money that would be made available for the reconstruction of the theatre after the fire."

The first part of Onofri's argument - that La Fenice was indeed burnt down - is an increasingly safe bet. The circumstances were suspicious right from the start. On 29 January, the theatre was empty, except for the workers involved in the restoration work and the porter, Signor Visentin; the orchestra and choir was away on tour in Poland. The fire alarms, smoke detectors and sprinklers had been turned off, because they kept being set off "by mistake" by soldering irons and - one assumes - cigarettes. Two fire doors were wedged open with concrete blocks. The canal which ran along the back of the building had been sealed off and drained so that it could be dredged and made properly navigable once more - so as to allow access to the emergency services in the event of a fire. And as if all this were not enough, the restoration work was supposed to be completed on 31 January - just two days after the blaze. In reality, the job was running at least four months late - which meant that the firms involved stood to pay heavy penalties.

On 11 October, the technical commission which had been appointed to investigate the dynamics of the blaze presented its report to Judge Casson. All five experts agreed that there was no foundation in the "accidental" theory: a short-circuit in a drinks machine, a discarded cigarette butt, overheating caused by the arc lights used in the course of the restoration - none of these squared with the timing of the fire or its rapid spread.

The commissioners disagreed only on the question of where the blaze started. A majority of four favoured a single epicentre in the uppermost foyer at the front of the theatre - the foyer (in the process of conversion into a bar area) which served the audience up in the gods. But one of the experts, Amedeo Torzo, claims that the arsonists first set fire to an attic room below the small tower that marked La Fenice's highest point, before descending to the foyer and setting off a second more visible blaze there, next to an electrical circuit box, so as to "simulate a short-circuit". Torzo points to photographs taken just after the start of the fire from the roof of a nearby hotel, which show the flames coming out of the tower windows at 9.43pm, well before they would have had time to spread there from the foyer. "The fire which was started in the foyer," writes Torzo in his dissenting report, "aimed to attract the attention of the fire brigade to that area of the theatre while the attic [invisible from street level] burnt on. This demonstrates that the arsonists wanted nothing less than the complete destruction of the theatre."

There was no shortage of kindling in either place: the attic was being used as a storeroom for old seats - well-stuffed with horsehair - while the foyer was full of materials left there by the restorers. These included tins of paint and plastic resins, planks of wood and eight litres of Solfilp, a highly flammable liquid, which may even have been spread around by the arsonists to give the flames a head start.

In his classified report, Torzo even went so far as to map out the arsonists' movements. They strolled unobserved into the theatre at around 7.30pm, probably disguised as workmen, and hid in a cubbyhole next to the caretaker's office, from where they could observe people leaving the building. The last few workers left at around 8.30; Signor Visentin, the caretaker, followed them 10 minutes later, having completed his routine tour of inspection (though the sender of an anonymous letter received by Sandro Onofri after his article was published claims that Visentin was not alone when he left the theatre; an unnamed set-designer had also stayed behind).

The two men - who may later have been joined by a third who acted as lookout - then came out of their hiding-place, infiltrated the backstage area and climbed the metal steps that led to the attic room, through the stage-design workshop. They set fire to the seats, having first sprinkled them with a fuel that leaves no trace, and descended to the foyer of the gods, where they set fire to the planks and other materials used in the restoration work. By 9pm they had finished the job, and left the theatre through the same staff entrance they had come in by, closing the door behind them. The alarm was only raised 15 minutes later, when the fire had already taken a firm hold. Though much was made - in the immediate aftermath of the blaze - of the fact that the fire brigade's work was hindered by the drained canals around the back of the theatre, the legal experts were unimpressed: this was such a professional job that the firemen could do very little by the time they arrived.

Direct evidence linking the arsonists with organised-crime networks is difficult to come by, but sources close to Judge Casson say that he is planning to take the lid off a very large can of worms. It is a fact that both the Sicilian and the Neapolitan branches of the Brotherhood have been intensifying their business interests in the Veneto recently, ever since local boss Felice Maniero decided to turn state's evidence at the end of 1995, leaving the field open to his southern competitors.

One of the reasons why investigators have been moving so slowly is that the five firms involved in the original restoration work had farmed out most of the work to sub-contractors, some of whom, in their turn, took on sub-sub-contractors. The order to torch La Fenice could have come from any point in the pyramid. Fourteen people have been under investigation for criminal negligence since February - including the Mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, and the director of La Fenice, Gianfranco Pontel. But while some fairly stupid mistakes were made - such as the failure to provide a single night watchman at a time when the entire fire detection and prevention system was out of action - nobody really believes that these officials bear any direct responsibility. More interesting is the addition of six new names to the list of suspects in October. Their identity is a closely guarded secret, but we do know that they are facing a charge of arson.

One other coincidence points to a Mafia connection. There have been 15 theatre fires in Italy over the last 20 years, six of which were definitely caused by arson. Of these, the most destructive was the blaze which destroyed the Teatro Petruzzelli opera house in the southern city of Bari on the evening of 26 October 1991. The timing of the fire (just after closing time) was identical, as was the arsonists' method: they lit fires at several points high up in the building, before fleeing. The only difference was that the two men were surprised by the rapid spread of the blaze, and ended up having to a hammer a door down to get out. Five years on, the investigating magistrates have still not managed to unpick the tangle of debts, blackmail and favours that they suspect lies behind the Petruzzelli fire.

But the various Italian Mafias often need less of a motive than either we or the judges give them credit for. The Uffizi bomb of May 1993 demonstrated that Cosa Nostra is perfectly capable of destroying prominent cultural landmarks in a totally gratuitous fashion, whenever it feels that the state - which has scored some notable successes in its anti-Mafia campaign over the last few years - needs to be taught a lesson.

A year after the fire, the authorities are still promising to put La Fenice back together again "as soon as possible". Mayor Cacciari says that the opera house will be rebuilt "where it was, as it was"; tenders submitted by 10 Italian and foreign firms are currently under consideration. Work should begin in July, and last until November 1999, at an estimated cost of 150 billion lire (around pounds 60m). So far only around half of that amount has been raised, partly from public funds and partly through private donations (insurance pay-outs amount to no more than 18 per cent of the total reconstruction costs). The rest, says Cacciari, will have to come from government-approved bank loans.

Meanwhile the legal saga drags on, with new conspiracy theories being aired every other week. Venetians have had enough of the delays: assailed by summer tourist hell and autumn high-water emergencies, they desperately need to be able to tie up the plot of an opera which is getting increasingly difficult to follow, even for those who speak the language. !