Renato Brunetta: On a mission to save La Serenissima

Short in stature but big on work ethic, Italy's ambitious 'mini-minister' is after a second job – as mayor of Venice. Peter Popham reports

They call him the "mini-minister", and if one of his attractions for the modestly scaled Berlusconi is that the Italian Prime Minister has a good 10 or 11 inches on him, Renato Brunetta has made good use of his physical distinction.

It is all grist to the mill for the economics professor turned politician, the son of an impoverished Venetian peddler, who since taking up the job of Minister for Public Administration two years ago has shown a genius for attracting attention.

Nobody, he told a dinner audience some months after his appointment, ever wanted to be Minister for Public Administration. It was regarded as a graveyard job where nothing was possible due to the strength of the civil service trade unions. The only thing to do was keep out of mischief and wait for something better to turn up. Only a fool would try to do any good.

But Brunetta, the bustling, fanatically punctual former MEP whose talent for explaining arcane economic theories in vivid language brought him to Silvio Berlusconi's attention in the mid-Nineties, turned that logic on its head, using the job as a platform to launch guerrilla attacks on chronic civil service absenteeism and other ingrained vices with which the long-suffering Italian public is all too familiar. In the process, he drew predictable fire from the left, but much support from the public: here was someone willing to say what they were thinking.

An off-the-cuff remark about those whom the Italians call bamboccioni (big babies) – the millions who continue to live at home, frequently at their parents' expense, well into their thirties – brought much publicity. Admitting that he himself did not leave home, nor make his own bed, until he was 30, he proposed a law compelling children to leave home at 18. It struck a chord, although it failed to gain traction with his cabinet colleagues.

Now, Brunetta is aspiring – without giving up the ministry – to take on Italy's other impossible job: mayor of his home town, Venice, in regional elections to be held at the end of this month. He may well win: recent opinion poll findings are disputed, but most give him a useful lead over his opponent, the little-known centre-left candidate Giorgio Orsoni.

First question: could Brunetta really do both jobs at the same time? "I can, because it's allowed, it's not against the law," he claimed recently.

But even if that is the case, it begs the real question. If making Italian civil servants get to work on time and stop throwing sickies is a major challenge, doing what Brunetta says he wants to do for Venice – making it "a world city again" – is hardly less so.

Venice is Italy's most popular city, drawing 20 million visitors a year. But the flipside of that popularity is an unlivable city, and Venice is also a city that is dying: its population has slumped from 164,000 to 60,000 in 80 years.

Another problem that an ambitious mayor would have to wrestle with is that Venice is not one but at least two cities. The Venice of the world's imagination is only a fragment of the Venice of which Brunetta would be mayor. Mestre, the other part which lies on terra firma, has completely different needs and priorities from what is slightingly called the "centro storico" (historic centre). A hint of that is seen in the billowing chimneys and industrial apparatus of the huge chemical complex visible on the far side of the lagoon from Venice proper.

Mr Brunetta's appeal to the voters is emotional. His manifesto begins: "Letter to my Venetians: You know me, I am one of you. I have made myself what I am, no one gave me anything. Like many of you, I have worked like a lunatic all my life... I want Venice, great Venice, the many Venices, of land and water, to return to being a place that is nice to live in. For us and for our children. There are many things to be done to reverse the decline... I love you, Renato Brunetta."

He goes on to list his goals for the city: to make Venice once again "a World City", a "Capital of Trade", a "Capital of Culture", and a "Capital of Tourism". The city under his leadership would see "an increase in the resident occupation level of around 45,000-55,000 units". Investments are promised, amounting to €25bn (£23bn), including building a sub-lagoon underground train link between the historic Venice and Mestre on the mainland.

The implication is that the money is there for the taking, but Italy's budget is in grave crisis, with the third largest public debt in the world. The national government has already imposed such swingeing cuts that the present mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, has been obliged to allow advertisers to plaster the city's most famous buildings with advertising hoardings, and to permit Coca-Cola to install dozens of vending machines around the city.

But the more profound question, one which Brunetta's manifesto does not even try to address, is, what is to become of the Venice the world knows and loves? Because regardless of whether it is broke or flush with funds, the city finds itself today in a blind alley with no obvious way out.

Venice has been in trouble before, of course: it has arguably been facing the crunch since long before Napoleon brought the 1,000-year-old Venetian Republic to a brutal end in 1797. That sad event, like the boom in mass tourism of recent decades, provoked a surge of people away from the city. In 1816, an English visitor wrote home that: "Venice indeed appears to be at her last gasp, and if something is not done to relieve and support her, she must soon be buried again in the marshes from which she originally sprang."

But the city's problem today is the absence of any vision of where it can go next.

The creation of the Art Biennale 115 years ago was a visionary initiative, and the city has built well on that foundation, becoming a sort of highbrow holiday camp for the world, with important art museums, the film festival and much more.

But all that has been overshadowed by the explosion of mass tourism in the past 50 years. Now, on any given day, the tourists in the city come close to outnumbering the residents. Today's Venetians dread the arrival of an army of snapping Chinese holidaymakers in much the same way that their ancestors feared the Turks.

Proposals floated in recent years for limiting tourist numbers include charging for entrance to the city and requiring advance booking. But neither Brunetta nor his mayoral opponent seem willing to grasp that nettle. In the absence of a vision for the future, Venetians are inevitably sceptical about the seriousness of either candidate.

Brunetta can propose building thousands of new homes, but has yet to offer any idea of what the new Venetians might do for a living. The only obvious option is for them to put on white coats and serve up pizza and beer.

Some years ago, the British economist John Kay enraged Italian opinion when he pointed out that the city was a theme park, and should be run as such. "If the Disney Corporation was in charge of Venice, it would not be in peril as it is today," he reasoned. "At present no one is in charge of Venice. That's why it is dying."

That would be a way for Brunetta to galvanise the media's attention all over again: to promise that, if elected in the 28-29 March poll, he would save the city and its budget at a stroke, by leasing Venice to Disney. But perhaps not even the mini- minister could pull that one off.

Venice: City on the edge

* Venice today is made up of 118 islands and the mainland, and there are almost 400 bridges.

* Known as 'La Serenissima' ('the most serene one'), it was independent for centuries until 1797.

* The city is sinking into the lagoon at the rate of 1cm each year.

* While its permanent population has slumped from 164,000 to 60,000 in 80 years, more than 55,000 tourists visit each day.

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