Venetian tale of one city - or two?: La Serenissima votes on split

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THE winged Lion of St Mark, the proud symbol of Venice and her splendid empire, has snapped shut his Bible and grasped the sword of battle. His new motto, Iterum rudit leo (the lion roars again).

He is a mangey old lion, to be sure, but that is his trouble. He feels shackled to a larger, stronger, alien beast that is sapping his strength and threatening his life. He is demanding to be master in his own house.

The sword-bearing lion is the symbol of a group of Venetians who are demanding that the municipal chains, which for 68 years have bound the most beautiful city in the world to dull, industrial Mestre on the mainland, should at last be severed. And today the inhabitants will vote in a referendum on whether to divorce.

It is the third time Venetians have been called to vote on a split. In 1979, only 27 per cent said yes. Ten years later, it was 45 per cent. And until three days ago it looked as if it would pass with about 55 per cent. Then another poll had the yes vote down to 31 per cent, and no one knows what to expect.

The battle has been becoming more heated by the day, with charges of 'terrorism', 'dementia', 'plots' and 'scoundrels' hurled between the two camps. Last week Venice belonged to the Venetians. It was their sing- song accents, not the babel of foreign tongues, which dominated in the chilly, sunlit squares and the calli (narrow streets). For the moment - at least until the Carneval breaks like a gaudy wave over the city this weekend - Venice was turned in on itself, absorbed by endless debates in public, in the papers, and on air.

The Doges of yore would have beeen appalled that things had come to this pass. La Serenissima never allowed anything to develop on the flat, marshy mainland that could threaten her from behind, as she proudly ruled the sea from her islands in the lagoon. And the big industrialist families - the Cinis, the Volpes and the Gaggias, who bought slices of that land dirt cheap in the 1920s to set up new heavy industries for which there was no room in Venice - doubtless had no idea what they were starting.

In 1926, without asking anyone's opinion, the Fascist regime decreed that Venice and Mestre should merge into one city. And over the years the casual mainland overspill has outgrown its parent, its population swelling from 20,000 to more than 200,000 today.

In the meantime, the population of Venice has sunk from 200,000 to half that number: 70,000 in the city and the rest on the smaller islands. Another 2,000 left last year. Of the 60 seats on the city council, two-thirds are held by Mestrini.

'The problems of Mestre and Venice are totally different,' said Mario d'Elia, a lawyer who heads the 'Citizens for Yes' campaign. The burning issue in Mestre, he argues, is the fear of yet more factories closing down. In Venice it is the sirens in the night that warn people they have only a couple of hours to bring their things to safety before the murky, smelly floodwaters, the acqua alta, swirl into their shops, restaurants and ground-floor rooms.

The greatest fear of all is that Venice will eventually be bled of all its people, leaving it a ready-made theme park. Venetians are ending up in arid Mestre council estates, evicted by landlords who turn their flats into expensive second homes for rich foreigners or Italians who are absent for most of the year. Young couples who cannot afford Venice prices and people searching for jobs are leaving. Ever fewer children are being born - the average age of Venetian women is just under 50.

The separatist movement is, if anything, even stronger in Mestre. Freed from the Fascists after the war, they elected their own mayor, but independence was snuffed within days by the occupying Allies, under pressure from the former partisans.

So will separation solve the problems? Not according to the no camp. 'The trouble is that we have been governed badly for the past 50 years and people are sick of it,' says Arrigo 'Harry' Cipriani, of the famous Harry's Bar where Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Winston Churchill used to hang out before the war. 'It is too easy to say the solution is simply to divide into two.'

At last, since the November municipal elections, Venice and Mestre have a strong mayor with powers, under the new electoral system, to make clear decisions and get things done. It would be 'stupid' to change everything before he had had a chance to begin.

The no faction is backed by the former communists and other left-wing parties now in power in Venice, the industrialists and the main trade unions. The yes camp includes the hoteliers, shopkeepers, artisans and the Northern League and Italia Nostra, the organisation battling to save Italy's heritage.

The mayor, philosopher Massimo Cacciari, is officially neutral. But last week he intervened with a couple of things he 'felt people should know' before voting. One was the enormous financial cost of splitting up. 'The new municipalities risk bankruptcy,' he warned.

The effect was dynamite. 'An act of terrorism, a bomb, a grenade]' spluttered the moustachioed Mr d'Elia. Mayor Cacciari's move could have caused the upset in the polls, pollsters suggested, although the yes voters believe that the latest poll was simply a plot to sabotage their cause.

A lone gondolier was sitting reading the paper, his red-ribboned boater in grave danger from low-flying pigeons. 'I'll be voting yes,' he said. 'But either way things have got to get better. They can hardly be worse than now.'

(Photographs omitted)