Benetton store is latest 'indignity' for Venice's Grand Canal

The city's most desirable address has a new tenant - and not everyone's happy about it

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The Independent Online

Venice’s Grand Canal, possibly the world’s most evocative address, looks set to suffer what conservationists are labeling another indignity, as one of its grandest palazzi is turned into a Benetton megastore.

The high street clothing giant bought the Fondaco dei Tedeschi building at the foot of the Rialto bridge for €53m (£45m) in 2008 and promised to spend millions more in restoring the 13th century palazzo that was originally built to house German merchants.

But permission from Venice’s council to open the store, which was withheld during years of protests from cultural conservationists and green campaigners, was only granted this week.

Representatives of comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement (M5S), which currently looks to be assuming the role of kingmaker in Italy’s hung parliament, led opposition in the council.

Announcing that the go-ahead had been given, Venice’s mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, said: “We will see an important part of the city reborn.”

The development comes after several years of arguments over the extent to which the city should embrace sponsorship and commercial development in order to obtain the money it needs to fund conservation work that can stop it sinking into the lagoon.

In October 2010, Mr Orsoni hit back at international criticism of the city’s decision to allow lucrative and very large floodlit posters for Coca-Cola, Rolex and Bulgari to deck palaces up and down the Grand Canal, saying the funds raised were vital for the city’s future. The unique environmental pressures on Venice will be highlighted tonight when high tides of over a metre spill into the city.

The Italian news service Ansa reported that as part of the new agreement between Venice and the Benetton group, the clothing giant will pay an additional €6 million into the city’s coffers. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has been commissioned by Benetton to restore the building and remodel the interior. His plans will incorporate a shopping centre and public space inside of the structure’s 10,000 square meters. Mr Orsoni said the development would bring “great advantages to Venice”.

The converted palazzo will reserve spaces for the community, including a large inner courtyard and a fourth-floor seating area. Some observers note the project will create welcome employment opportunities in a city whose permanent population has drained away as locals are replaced with tourists.