Scholars asked to save islands

November 14, 2003

Venice's abandoned outer islands are seeking new tenants to restore their decaying grandeur - universities and research institutes.

A couple have been saved by transforming their crumbling ruins into luxury hotels offering suites at up to €3,500 (£2,400) a night, where guests are cosseted with golf (just three holes because of the confined space), tennis courts, a swimming pool and yacht moorings.

But many Venetians feel some of their islands should become something other than a refuge for the super-rich.

MP Michele Vianello, former deputy mayor of Venice and a member of the parliamentary environment commission, suggested that universities and research institutes from all over the world might come to the rescue, taking over the deserted islands, to bring them back to life and save them from further damage.

He has presented a bill intended to ease the legal complications. "We already have the example of the Venice International University (VIU) on the island of San Servolo. There are at least two American universities interested in the Delle Grazie island, and the island of Poveglia has been given to the Student Tourist Centre.

"The idea is to open an international hostel, but there are still administrative problems to be ironed out. The point is that these islands are alive as long as they have a function, otherwise they slowly die."

The VIU, which is backed by a consortium of Italian, American, Israeli, German, Spanish and Japanese universities, has been operating from San Servolo since 1997. It runs undergraduate and postgraduate courses, research projects, conferences and seminars. Undergraduates from member universities spend 14 weeks on the island, while postgraduate students can apply from anywhere in the world.

The restored buildings, which have served as a former convent and a lunatic asylum, provide lecture halls, offices and lodging for 200 people.

"At first there were problems with transport to and from the island," said Francesca Nisi, VIU's deputy secretary-general. "But these have been solved. And working in this oasis of peace and tranquillity, just a ten-minute ferry ride from St Mark's Square, is an extraordinary experience."

There is no shortage of islands; San Giacomo in Paludo; Lazzaretto Nuovo and Lazzaretto Vecchio, once way-stations for pilgrims to the Holy Land; Santo Spirito and Madonna del Monte, with massive fortresses used by Napoleon's forces to store gunpowder; San Giorgio in Alga, and a few more.

Some belong to the province of Venice, some to the city of Venice and others to the Roman Catholic Church. All are potentially available and some are even up for sale.

Mr Vianello said: "We would welcome foreign universities and research institutes with open arms, and give them free, long-term concessions. Of course, substantial amounts of money need to be spent. The buildings are there but need to be completely renovated. There is a cost, but it is also a golden opportunity."

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