Most of us had the sinking suspicion that something like this was bound to happen sooner or later, kind of like oiling our seas into extinction: One of Europe's great landmarks, Venice's Bridge of Sighs, has been nearly completely covered with advertising so that tourists who take a snapshot of it wind up bringing a corporate message home with them, too.
The bridge, connected to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) near Piazza San Marco, is one of Italy's icons. But last summer, it and the surrounding buildings were clad in massive scaffolding for renovations, and the city of Venice seized the opportunity to make money fast by milking the icon for advertising revenue. Observers howled in opposition.
But their protests didn't change things. Instead of lasting for a single miserable, photo-spoiling summer, the arrangement is slated to last for another four years, until 2014. Last year, the eyeball assault came from Sisley, a Benetton brand. This year, Mont Blanc took over the violation of the monument. You can see from my photo how the bridge, built in 1602, is now almost impossible to pick out of the ad clutter.
Obviously, selling advertising space on tourist icons is an unappealing precedent for American tourists who may only get one chance to see the world's greatest monuments in person. Civic leaders excuse the practice by saying they need the money for the upkeep of the same monuments since both national subsidies and tourism are slumping. The Doge's Palace, the complex affected by this commercialized plastering, already costs about $15 per adult to visit.
The Bridge, made of white limestone, is actually called Ponte dei Suspiri -- last year, when the brutality began, locals wittily dubbed it the "Ponte di Sisley." It's an enclosed passage between the Doge's Palace's interrogation rooms and the prison across the canal next door. Lord Byron gave it its English nickname in the 19th century, claiming (mostly erroneously, but don't let that stand in the way of romance) that those who crossed it received their last view of Venice through its barred windows before they were tossed into the clink. Visitors to the Palace can still cross it twice, in both directions, as part of their admission ticket.
Historically speaking, it's in character for Venice to exploit something for maximum cash. The city owes its location and its opulence to centuries of unrivaled success as a hub of the world's shrewdest merchants. A fair bit of its best booty was looted, too. Next door to the Doge's Palace, the Basilica has a mural celebrating the time locals stole the body of St. Mark from Alexandria by hiding it under slabs of pork that its Muslim guardians wouldn't be able to touch.
Venice's era as a glittering showplace of trade waned nearly half a millennium ago, and now, there are crumbling edifices to contend with, hence the urgent need for restoration that brought the scaffolding to begin with.
When times are bad, aesthetics suffer, and by the time the scaffolding is scheduled to come down, Venice will have benefited from half a decade of sponsorship income. It's hard to wean a cash-starved civic government off that kind of easy money, which means it could get harder in the future for American vacationers to make out the icons for the iconography.
Can you imagine Big Ben brought to you by Burger King, or trying to pick out the Taj Mahal from all the BP ads? The precedent has been set.
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