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Sior Rioba is back... but how to safeguard the rest of Venice's outdoor heritage?

The theft a couple of weeks ago of a marble head from Campo dei Mori has had me thinking about the difficulties inherent in protecting a city where little bits of art and history are slotted into every crevice, open to the elements and – sadly – prey to anyone sneaky enough to wait until there’s no one around and snaffle them.

Venice’s sovrintendenza (cultural heritage department) is currently mapping and documenting all the city’s ‘external’ artworks: wellheads, statues, reliefs, carved doorways… the list is endless. In the end, they expect to have about 3500 items on their files – so many temptations for the would-be thief.

Minor churches – and in Venice many of these contain priceless works – provide easy pickings for the ill-intentioned, of course. Marble objects embedded in the fabric of the city seemed slightly less vulnerable (though any number of massive carved wellheads have disappeared from Venice’s squares over the centuries). Now, however, it's clear that anyone with a little determination can hack off a marble head, complete with rather comical iron nose, and make off with it in the dead of night.

Sior Antonio Rioba – as this (currently headless) figure hunched beneath the weight of the merchandise he’s carrying on his shoulders is called – is very important to Venetians. For centuries, anyone with a complaint to air would scribble it on a scrap of paper and stick it on the figure for everyone to read. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve followed the Venetian practise of giving Sior Antonio’s iron nose a rub for good luck as I’ve passed by the campo and along the Fondamenta dei Mori. 

The theft prompted outrage and dismay in equal measure. So when this friendly face was found abandoned in a nearby alleyway not long afterwards the city exploded with joy; rubbish collector Stefano Scarpa who stumbled across it became a real local hero.

Police say they'll be returning the head – thankfully unharmed – any day now to the owners of the palazzo from where Sior Antonio has been keeping an eye on passers-by since the 12th century. There has been no such happy ending, however, for a beautiful 15th-century frieze of two cats pouncing on a mouse, hacked off the wall in Corte della Malvasia just a few days after Sior Antonio disappeared.

So how should Venice protect its unique – and very exposed – heritage? Former sovrintendenza chief Giovanna Nepi Scirè weighed into the debate after the Rioba theft with a very logical solution. Venice, she said, needs more Venetians (for a look at Venice's shrinking population, see my previous blog post Venice with Venetians: how the city should really be). The more vigilant residents there are out on the city streets, the less outrages such as this are likely to happen. It’s a sad admission, of course, that the city can’t look after its art. But it’s a good argument for citizen-power.