The year 2019 was marked by catastrophes that hit two major jewels of European heritage, seven months apart: the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15 and the Venice floods that began on November 12. Drawing 13 and 35 million tourists a year respectively, Notre-Dame and Venice are internationally recognized symbols that have fascinated artists, believers and tourists for centuries.
Photos of their destruction have been shared over and over again in the media, far more than other disasters of the same scale, and have left their mark on people’s spirits and triggered countless political and social reactions. Both situations were followed by a call for donations to collect funds for repairing the damage.
The results of these appeals have been vastly different, however, and to understand why, we interviewed Italian colleagues doing research on philanthropy.
Two dramas, two strategies
Paris firefighters had just barely brought the flames under control at Notre-Dame when an incredible outpouring of generosity began. France’s Fondation du Patrimoine was the first to launch a fundraising campaign, swiftly followed by the Fondation de France, the Fondation Notre-Dame and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, all approved by the French government.
The country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, appeared on television that same evening to announce a national strategy for rebuilding Notre-Dame. By the next day, donations had exceeded expectations: 400 million euros pledged by the Arnault, Pinault and Bettencourt families, 100 million euros by Total and L’Oréal, as well as donations pledged from enterprises, communities and nations. Not to mention countless donations from individuals in France and from around the world, who donated 30 million euros in only a few hours, mostly online and via cellphones. By April 17, donations were estimated to reach almost 1 billion euros, an unprecedented figure.
The Venetian floods in November 2019 provoked an entirely different reaction. On Tuesday, November 12, a historic high tide flooded the city with 1.87 meters of water, followed by similar levels of flooding in the following days, with 80% of dwellings flooded and entire neighbourhoods submerged. On November 14, the Italian government declared a state of emergency and allocated emergency funds of 20 million euros to dealing with the flooding.
On November 15, Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, launched a public fundraising campaign to preserve the city, the “pride of Italy and international heritage”, by opening a bank account to which anyone can send a transfer. Other initiatives were also established: Italian embassies announced a call for donations from foreign donors, La Scala of Milan rallied to protect La Fenice, and various committees devoted to preserving Venice launched their own campaigns.
While the damages are estimated at around 1 billion euros, the funds collected are far from matching that figure. At best, only a few million euros have been raised, though it is difficult to know the exact figures. Why? Why were there unprecedented donations for Notre-Dame, yet we let Venice drown?
Notre-Dame, an unforeseeable disaster
The two events both involve internationally renowned “stars” of cultural heritage that now find themselves in dire straits. In both cases, the disaster was nor humanitarian nor social. Many have critiqued the irony of donors’ lack of empathy regarding societal problems and the lack of attention given to other historical monuments that crumble in silence.
Notre-Dame and Venice are both symbols of a collective identity that now find themselves at risk. The danger that threatens them can substantially impact those that see a part of themselves in these symbols. Angelo Miglietta, cultural management professor at IULM in Milan, said the following about the Venice floods: “It gives the impression of decline, with the risk of losing our cultural heritage”.
The two disasters are very different. Notre-Dame is a unique monument, the damage to which is both clearly visible and meticulously recorded. The striking images of the fire ravaging the roof and the fall of the spire were powerful, dramatic and unforgettable.
In Venice, the damage affects the whole city: monuments, yes, but also run-of-the-mill establishments like stores, dwellings and roads. While the devastation of Notre-Dame took the world by surprise, that of the city of the Doges was announced. While the Catholic church and heritage experts regularly warned about the poor state of churches in France, a fire of such size was unpredictable.
At the time, many theories circulated about the cause of the Notre-Dame fire: was it a terrorist attack, human error, an electrical issue? The Venice floods, however, are far from a new problem. Given its unique geographical position, the city has previously been subject to acqua alta (high water) episodes and exceptionally strong tides, a problem amplified by climate change. Devastating natural disasters are not rare in Italy and regularly result in the declaration of a state of emergency.
According to Sara Berloto, a philanthropy researcher at Bocconi University in Milan:
“The Venice floods were seen as a natural disaster; the Italians are used to that. Notre-Dame, on the other hand, was seen as a man-made drama”.
Omar Bortolazzi, who watched both events from afar in Dubai, where he is a professor of international relations, stated:
“For me, the Venice drama was less traumatic than that of Notre-Dame. The fire was an unprecedented event. For Venice, the floods have a bit of déjà-vu about them and are less startling. It seems like a natural disaster that could have been better handled and perhaps even partially avoided.”
Thus, the circumstances of the Venice floods seem to lend themselves less easily to calls for generosity…
Incomparable fundraising tools
The meagre results of the Venice fundraising campaign also have another explanation: strategic errors in how funds were raised. The Italian authorities were slow to react, while Macron declared a national campaign as soon as the fire occurred.
According to Antoine Martel, director of the iRaiser platform used by three of the four main groups raising funds for Notre-Dame, reactivity is key: “68% of individual donations were collected in the 48 hours following the fire. One emergency follows another. If you miss the media window, it’s over.”
Another point to consider is the difference in payment methods. For Notre-Dame, secure online donation platforms were in place the following morning, allowing individuals to donate quickly and easily from their computer or smartphone.
For Venice, donors could send a transfer to a bank account created for the occasion by city council. This solution that lacks flexibility, transparency and security, and is complicated by the fact that foreign transfers involve additional fees. The city also set up a campaign to donate by text but donations were capped at 2 euros per text.
In the end, the scattered nature of the fundraising initiatives has been detrimental to Venice. According to Angelo Miglietta:
“There was a total lack of coordination and governance on the subject. The big donors and enterprises are more inclined to give large sums in the presence of clearly identified representatives with a clear message.”
For Notre-Dame, each of the four private organizations that launched a campaign is a recognized entity with public, verifiable accounts, who were supported by the government immediately after the disaster.
Other than the different strategies, one last element explains the gap between the funds raised: the political handling of the disaster and the responsibilities of the State and local communities. In front of the still-smoking site, when Emmanuel Macron appealed to the French to rebuild Notre-Dame, he did so in front of Michel Aupetit, the archbishop of Paris; Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris; and Franck Riester, the minister of culture.
While the government was originally overtaken by private entities in raising money, it quickly got the upper hand by coordinating a national campaign and then supervising the cathedral’s reconstruction project, handed over to an ad-hoc public organization created on July 29. Despite some issues behind the scenes, the response fit the circumstances.
In Italy, the national disaster occurred in a complex political context, where the Italian government is emerging from a major political crisis. The tensions between the central government and that of the Veneto region, which has strong separatist tendencies, did not facilitate a unified and coordinated political approach.
Further, the disastrous management of the Moses project, which was supposed to protect Venice from high tides with a system of dykes, and has already cost almost 6 billion euros, experienced significant delays due to fraud involving the former mayor of Venice.
The system was supposed to launch in 2016, but now will not be operational until 2021. The November 2019 acqua alta also seems to have been met with “disillusioned cynicism” from the population, according to Omar Bortolazzi. The Italian public actors do not possess the legitimacy to encourage individuals and companies to act; according to Omar Bortolazzi, “resentment has taken precedence over the desire to donate”.
Despite the difference in generosity, the Notre-Dame and Venice dramas have one last thing in common: the criticisms mingled in with the sadness. While in France, these criticisms mainly targeted the major donors, and in Italy, they focused on how public power was managed, both situations show that the two monuments represent a collective identity of their respective country and have intensified already-present tensions.