How Many Pizzas Does It Take to Save a City?


Twenty-one years ago Peter Boizot, the chairman of Pizza Express, came up with the idea of donating a portion of the profits from one of his pizzas to the Venice in Peril fund. The pizza was, and remains, the Veneziana, a hybrid of onions, capers, sultanas and pine kernels, and 5p was donated for each one sold (it has since risen to 25p).

Last October, Peter Boizot was the guest of honour at an Italian Embassy reception. Everybody was eager to shake his hand and clap him on the back; a cross-section of Britain’s great and good, Viscount Norwich, Lady Thorneycroft and Lady Hale among them, could not thank him enough. Boizot’s pizza had raised more than pounds 500,000.

That money comprises a large part of the entire funds raised for Venice in Peril, the British appeal for the preservation of the city. The charity was set up by the late Sir Ashley Clarke, Britain’s longest-serving ambassador to Rome, as the Italian Art and Archives Rescue Fund, after horrific damage to Florence and Venice in floods in 1966. By 1971, Florence had more or less been salvaged. Sir Ashley’s attention turned to Venice, which needed help on every conceivable front – from living conditions to architectural restoration.

The Venice in Peril committee, now chaired by the art historian Viscount Norwich, has concentrated on restoring churches, paintings and statues. The money that has not come from pizzas has been raised partly at events such as glittering private receptions at the Royal Academy, concert trips and opera outings, but mainly in donations from the charity’s patrons – whose names read like a condensed version of Who’s Who – and the 1,000 names on its British mailing list.

The committee stresses that it keeps its social events to a minimum, to avoid unnecessary expense on anything that is not a Venetian artefact. “We do not have any single annual event,” says Nathalie Brooke, the Hon Secretary. “We only organise a charity gala when funds are needed for a new project.”

But given that Venice is supposedly “in Peril”, aren’t funds for new projects needed all the time?

“Venice is no longer in peril. We all know that,” says Lady Sheila Hale, an American-born writer who is on the committee. “The town’s new mayor, Professor Massimo Cacciari, has made a concentrated effort to implement the canal-dredging and improve pollution, and the Italian government has realised that it needs to give more to the arts and their upkeep.

“The real problem now in Venice is massive depopulation. Just before the opera house burnt down, we had decided to stop restoring churches and concentrate on striking a deal with the municipality whereby we would restore the old artisan houses if the Venetian government would in turn rent them out at an affordable price.”

If those houses are made affordable, the charity argues, then young professional couples can afford to stay in Venice rather than leave and the city’s metamorphosis from tourist trap to theme park can be prevented.

Lady Hale says that Venice in Peril’s influence is so strong now that the municipality listens hard to whatever it suggests. “The American charities may have more money to give than we do,” she says, “but we are the oldest.”

When, three years ago, it was mooted that Venice might hold a grand carnival for the millennium – Expo 2000 – the wear and tear of which, experts suggested, would finish the city off, Lady Hale wrote an article in the Times to complain. “The Italians didn’t like that at all,” she chuckles. “They have enormous respect for the British. I think you can safely say that it was our influence in the end that polished off Expo 2000.”

That, and the pizzas.