Mayor charged over La Fenice fire

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The Independent Online
A JUDGE in Venice has ordered 10 people to stand trial in connection with a fire that destroyed the city's world-renowned opera house. Two electricians, rewiring La Fenice at the time of the blaze, face charges of arson. The others - who include the city mayor, Massimo Cacciari, the former superintendent of the Opera Gianfranco Pontel and other administrators - face charges of negligence. The trial is due to begin on 31 May.

After a lengthy investigation, Venice prosecutors concluded that the fire that enveloped the 18th-century theatre was started deliberately by the two electricians. Enrico Carrella and Massimiliano Marchetti are accused of torching one of the world's most famous opera houses to avoid hefty fines for being behind schedule on restoration work. Both men, who work for a small company in financial difficulties, deny the allegations.

Massimo Cacciari, a left-wing philosopher who as mayor chairs the board of La Fenice, said: "I am deeply saddened that my citizens might think that I am to blame or have been negligent towards our theatre."

According to the investigating magistrate, Felice Casson, who had initially asked that even tougher charges be pressed: "Fire alarms had been disactivated and highly inflammable materials were stored in a haphazard manner in different parts of the theatre." Thus Mr Cacciari and technicians at La Fenice were responsible for the speed with which the fire took hold and the delay in putting it out.

On the night of 29 January 1996, La Fenice had been closed for work to bring it up to European safety standards. The fact that the surrounding canals had been drained hampered the firefighters.

The charges are particularly galling for Mr Cacciari, who in 1993 started a comprehensive cleaning programme for the city's canals. In a statement presented to the court, he stressed that the work at La Fenice had been urgent and the canal cleaning was to ensure that once the theatre reopened, "emergency and security services, above all the fire brigade [would be able to] access it easily".

The destruction of La Fenice, famed for its eacoustics and considered an artistic gem, stunned the world of opera and lovers of Venice. Millions of pounds were raised and stars such as Luciano Pavarotti and Woody Allen offered their support. Charities including the British Venice in Peril and the United States-based Save Venice Inc were sent donations.

Its name may mean phoenix but it is going to take a long time to rise from the ashes. Contractual disputes and now the trial mean that it could be years before La Fenice reopens.At the time of the blaze, Mr Cacciari swore that the theatre would be rebuilt "where it was and as it was". When the theatre was gutted in 1836, it took just two years to recreate it. But this time it will take at least double that.

The reopening was set for 29 December 1999, but a series of legal battles and bureaucratic hitches means it now will not be ready until Easter 2001. The task was begun in May 1997 after the Italian building company Impregilo, tied to Fiat, won the tender. An internationally renowned architect, Gae Aulenti, was in charge of the project.

However, in February 1998, a court upheld an appeal by a German-Italian consortium, which argued that Impregilo had neglected to say whether its tender included apartments used as theatre offices. As runner-up, the consortium took over the contract and is expected to start later this month: But a legal challenge from the third bidder, who argues that a new tender should be held, risks causing further delays.