The fate that befell London’s pigeons is now about to befall the birds in another famous public feeding ground - St Mark’s Square, Venice.
Until now, the only creatures to outnumber the baggage-toting, camera-snapping tourists in Piazza San Marco, have been the pigeons - some 10,000 of them - strutting and fluttering around what Napoleon called “the finest drawing room in Europe”.
Years ago, a famous photograph was taken in the square using the pigeons to advertise Coca Cola…
…And for generations the grey angels of St Mark have pestered customers eating their expensive toasted ciabatte outside the grand caffés and - when indolently shooed away by the white jacketed waiters - have had to settle, instead, for vast quantities of bird seed sold (nowadays for 1 Euro a bag) to the hordes for whom a snap in front of the Basilica or the Ducal Palace with an entourage of birds is, de rigeur, a part of the Venice experience.
But the pigeons have been increasingly blamed for various ills… Obviously, their verminous presence is potentially injurious to health and having a dozen or more birds flapping their germ-infested wings in your face is not the healthiest of entertainments whether you are a small child…
…or an even smaller bunny!
Not only that, but research carried out by the Department of Environmental Sciences at Ca Foscari University in Venice has proved that the main cause of deterioration to the historic buildings in St Mark’s Square is the hundreds of pounds of excrement that the pigeons produce every day.
Various measures - including the use of wheat as a ‘contraceptive pill’ - have been tried in the hope of controlling or reducing the pigeon population, but always in vain.
The decision was finally taken to forbid street vendors in the square from selling the grain. In anywhere other than Italy this might seem obvious but the laws in Venezia are complex and convoluted and whilst an ordinance of the city of Venice forbids the feeding of pigeons, another ordinance grants concessions to vendors to sell bags of corn to tourists - presumably for their personal use!
Nineteen families have, for several generations, made their living from selling corn and have been thought to be "untouchable" - until now!
A change is about to happen as a result of which - for good or ill - St Marks will never be quite the same again.
As a Venetian website explained…
To accommodate the nineteen vendors who sold corn as bird feed, the municipality will now allow them to sell souvenirs, instead, but not in St. Mark's Square. Next Thursday, all the involved parties (vendors, Comune, Art Superintendance) will hold what should be the final meeting to finalize the details. It will create a completely new look for St. Mark's, free of birds which damage the monuments, bring disease, and are loved only by tourists and corn sellers.
We should, of course, applaud this move for its understanding of the issues of monument conservation and human health and hygiene, but the absence of that soft murmuration of cooing that has always underscored life in the square and the sudden rush and flap of wings as a great swirling mass of birds flew up whenever the bells of the campanile rang out will make this most enchanting of places seem curiously less magical.
After all, a custom (however disreputable) that has survived for a thousand years - and which was so intrincically a part of the Venetian scene - will have suddenly, and rather tragically, died...
[Photos: © Brian Sibley & David Weeks]