This once proud hospital served the people of the Lido for over seventy years. The Ospedale al Mare was a product of alternative thought in medicine with an Italian twist. An innovative healthcare center, it was the only tuberculosis treatment center in the world which offered patients hydrotherapy, heliotherapy, beaches, and operas.
While fine arts and ocean spray may have helped patients, they couldn’t help the hospital. By the turn of the century a lack of funding and the condition of the now-antiquated facilities were key factors in its ultimate closure. Files and records were left behind when it was improperly abandoned in 2003; over a decade later, it still hasn’t seen use.
The story of the Ospedale al Mare (map) begins in June of 1868. The founder of the first hospice along coastal Italy, Bellarai Joseph, held a conference in Venice about tuberculosis and its effect on underprivileged children.
Joseph’s message resonated with the community, and within two years the Hospice Marino had been constructed on the beach of the Lido, built to serve two hundred children afflicted by the disease.
Giovanni Battista Fisola offered his land on the beach of the Quattro Fontane for a nominal fee; continued donations from the community helped the facility grow to over 450 beds by 1873.
At the turn of the century Lido residents were threatened by over-development as real estate investment moguls determined land values were appreciating rapidly. Healthcare facilities were inadequate for the growing population, and the Hospice Marino was limited in size and scope.
In 1921, 22,800 square meters of land and 50,000 square meters of beach were earmarked for construction of a larger healthcare facility to supplant the hospice and serve the Lido.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
Over the next twelve years, more than a dozen structures known as “pavilions” were erected in the new complex which would be called the Ospedale al Mare (“Hospital of the Sea”).
The pavilions were named for benefactors: Belluno, Friuli, Cassa di Risparmio, Verona, Vicenza, Venezia, Principe di Piemonte, Schio, Valdagno, la Chiesetta di Santa Maria Nascente (Church of St. Maria Rising), and Orfani di Guerra (the Orphans of War).
Between 1923 and 1925 the complex was enlarged; the top two floors now included the Educatorio Ricketts Queen Margaret, a schoolhouse which began hosting elementary classes on site by 1926.
aerial view & outline of Ospedale al Mare complex
Ospedale al Mare
The hospital of the sea was officially inaugurated in 1933 when it replaced the Hospice Marino. The concept of the hospital was to offer therapies in a natural setting of sky, sun, and water.
To this end, the new facility offered unique treatments such as hydrotherapy & heliotherapy – something made possible by the geographical location and sunny climate of the Lido. The new hospital also had a thalassotherapy pool, another uncommon form of treatment at the time.
While the hospital specialized in treating tuberculosis, it was also capable of handling orthopedics, pediatrics, and polio.
The complex would have more than exotic forms of treatment. It boasted a library, workshops for artisans, multiple kitchens, full laundry facilities, a church, the aforementioned school, shops, a theater – and of course the expansive beach.
Six years after opening the Ospedale al Mare was classified as a “first-class specialized hospital” and it had become one of Europe’s most significant institutions for marine hydrotherapy.
Dignitaries and leaders throughout Europe drew crowds during their numerous visits.
By the beginning of the Second World War, the facility had become a leading treatment center in alternative medicine.
Between 1940 and 2003 an on-site weather station conducted daily measurements tracking the hospital location’s bioclimatic effects on the patients.
[ In 1955 the Ospedale al Mare had 1,400 beds, 10,000 patients, and 450,000 visitors ]
The theater was built in phases through donations, with construction beginning in 1921.
The hall was dedicated to Mario Marinoni (1885-1922), a professor and scholar of international law who was a key figure in support of the economic and social fabric of early 1900s Venice.
Known as the Teatro Marinoni, the art nouveau-styled hall was designed to entertain the hospitalized children.
Talented Venetian painter Giuseppe Cherubini (1867-1960) transformed the ceiling of the theater with a fresco depicting a cheerful marine scene featuring Neptune surrounded by playful cherubs and cupids (below).
The building contained expansive windows including a stained glass feature with a winged lion. Numerous chairs and sofas were loosely arranged in hopes of creating a relaxed atmosphere for guests.
It was pioneering in its goal as a place where art and culture found a role in healthcare. Former patients remember how they could enjoy “therapy of the arts” by watching operas, orchestras, plays, and later, films – when the theater’s backdrop would double as a large screen.
For decades the Marinoni pavilion – later known as the Liberty Theater – would conduct shows for the hospital’s patients. However by the 1970s, a difficult economic climate forced the hospital to wind down operations. As various pavilions were shuttered the hospital population dropped.
Theater attendance likewise suffered, and with financial resources now exhausted, the performance hall was closed in 1975.
Today little original furniture remains. Vandals have broken windows, torn curtains, and damaged the remaining fixtures. Water leaks in the ceiling threaten Cherubini’s fresco, and the fanciful stained glass depiction of the winged lion sits broken. A beautiful curtain painted by Cherubini once hung behind the stage has also disappeared in the years since the building was closed.
If approved, future owners of the property would be obliged to recondition the theater and preserve it to a satisfactory state of repair.
Decline & Abandonment
Whispers of contraction first appeared in the late 1960s with the closure of the asylum and medical facilities on the nearby island of Poveglia (map) in 1968. It would continue with the transfer of the health department from the Lido in the 1970s.
[ In 1969 the Ospedale al Mare’s staff had grown to over 1,500 ]
Beyond the economic crisis, resort developers posed the largest threat to the hospital’s continued operations. As the city found it harder to meet financial obligations, pressure increased to sell valuable land on the Lido to developers.
Municipal balance sheets deteriorated due to rising healthcare costs for the nearly 18,000 residents of the Lido, and the hospital – by this time was hemorrhaging money – was a budgetary anchor. At the same time Italy was in a fiscally-motivated transition to broaden the regional centralization of medicine.
Over the next thirty years the Ospedale endured a long, slow contraction, until it was finally shuttered on the first of October in 2003. Numerous protests – including a bonfire and a hunger strike – failed to stop the Police & Fire brigade from sweeping the complex during final shutdown.
The city’s lack of financial horsepower meant little was re-appropriated and much was left behind: Furniture, medical equipment and supplies, clothing, books, and medical records – the latter of which caused a furor among residents when it was discovered and broadcasted on the news.
In the years after closing the complex fell victim to vandalism. Salvage thieves stole copper pipes and electrical fixtures. Leftover equipment was looted while vagrants in search of shelter moved in.
With no private financial interest in the abandoned property, no efforts were made to protect or secure the buildings.
Those behind the plans spoke of having it completed in time for the Venice Film Festival. Mayor Massimo Cacciari announced “we want to create a real city of cinema, similar to Rome’s Auditorium, which has become our competitor.”
To this end, the mayor signed an agreement allowing the city to sell the Ospedale al Mare to developers with the caveat at least €100M be earmarked for a futuristic Palazzo within the grounds.
Selling the Ospedale was necessary, noted Cacciari, because “it would be unthinkable right now to get the new Palazzo built with public funding… But the hospital area’s conversion plan is attracting private investors.”
Several suitors emerged, but ultimately it would be Est Capital’s real estate investment arm Real Venice 2 that would land the deal in 2008.
Originally founded in 2003 by Federico Tosato and former councilor Gianfranco Mossetto, the investment services company enjoyed a successful debut and had grown assets under management to €847M by 2011.
“Est Capital’s Real Venice real estate fund is renovating the town’s entire 2.2km sea promenade.“
Deal on Shaky Ground
In December of 2009 Est Capital made the first payment of €16M to the city for the former Ospedale al Mare; however, within months the deal would go south over a sequence of disagreements and delays.
The two principal obstacles were: A disagreement over which party was responsible for cleaning up the site, and the city’s stalling of the project until it could approve a new Health Plan for the Lido – a requirement before any party could tear down the existing hospital.
By August of 2010 it became public Est Capital had no intention to pay the estimated €10M needed for remediation of the former Ospedale.
City residents sent an open letter calling for the resignation of Special Commissioner Vincent Spaziante, who in March of 2011 urged his compatriots at city hall to approve a new Health Plan:
Without the approval of a new Health Plan for the Lido…Est Capital would have the right to withdrawal from the purchase agreement for the Ospedale al Mare. And if we lose the sale of the former hospital, we can forget about a new Palazzo del Cinema.
Included were a parking lot with over 500 spaces, three six-floor towers, a supermarket, and shopping. The residences would have private beachfront with 300 arranged sunbathing huts, all complimentary to the style of the Lido.
Residents voiced concerns regarding overdevelopment of the Lido, preferring instead to maintain the current building and vegetation landscape of the isle. City representatives countered that €30M from the sale of the Ospedale would be used toward the new Palazzo del Cinema.
Commissioner Spaziante warned “the dock for boats and mega yachts along with luxury hotels in San Nicoletto must be done, otherwise we can wave goodbye to the new Palazzo del Cinema.”
Meanwhile, during excavation at the site of the former Palazzo del Cinema discovery of an ancient Austrian fort and asbestos during excavation of the site drove up costs and held up development.
According to Manual Cattani, director of the site work at the Palazzo del Cinema:
The site of the Palacinema remains suspended and we still have to pay €20,000 per month for caretaking and surveillance while we wait for a solution.
Hopes of progress had been dashed by June of 2011. Remediation could not be completed at the old Palazzo site due to asbestos and the Ospedale al Mare complex was in purgatory until the city could determine what to do with the Monobloc health facility (map), the Teatro Marinoni, and the Ospedale’s original Thalassotherapy pool.
Little effort was made to secure the buildings; doors were left open, windows broken, and walls torn apart as scavengers retrieved valuable piping. Toxic waste and radioactive x-ray equipment were discovered abandoned in the buildings.
Since developers had no intention of re-using the structures, no attempts were made to secure the dilapidated buildings.
In August of 2011 the Environmental Assessment Board approved the plans to build the €181M resort and dock, re-engaging Est Capital in the development.
[ CDP Investimenti Sgrproduced this pdf suggesting an investment in the former Ospedale ]
The terms would give Est Capital the Monobloc and permits to begin demolition of the Ospedale in February of 2012.
However a lack of faith things would proceed resulted in Est Capital requested €8M be refunded by the city to cover expenses already incurred during the design and acquisition of permits.
When no agreement was reached by March of 2012, the dispute went to arbitration.
In June of 2012 it was noted Est Capital’s investment fund failed to honor terms by June 15th. Real Venice 2 had refused to sign the deed, but according to the city, the investment group shouldn’t expect a refund of the €61 already paid:
“Siete inadempienti, ci teniamo i 61 milioni”(You are in default, we will keep the 61 million).
The city didn’t have a choice, as the money from the sale had already been factored into the next fiscal year’s budget.
By this time protests from the residents and the strict terms which came attached with the sale – including the preservation of the Marinoni Theater and St. Maria Nascente church, and mandatory public access to the beach for tourists – had become enough to deter Est Capital.
[ An expose on the local news in July of 2012 revealed the horrors of record keeping at the Ospedale; slides of autopsies remained behind (pictured below), and medical certificates of those who died in the hospital as recently as 1992 were found. ]
Representatives from Est Capital shared reasons why the company soured on the prospects for the property: Resident protests, strict preservation terms for the Marinoni Theater and St. Maria Nascente church, and the mandatory public access to beaches requirements.
Citizens were cheering for the deal to collapse while the anti-development sentiment ran high amongst those on the Lido.
(Thanks for giving up) to the great project of transforming the old Ospedale al Mare on the Venice Lido in a giant (and frankly horrible) tourist village with an equally horrifying adjoining dock, as big as the island of Giudecca.
If the parties could not come to an agreement by July 24th, the judge would decide.
The city of Venice presented a claim of €100M against Est Capital for damages in dropping out of the sale of the Ospedale. Lawyers for Real Venice 2 were vocal about their being able to dismantle the City’s case, noting there was “never a commitment regarding the reclamation of the former Ospedale,” and pointing to the city’s delays in allowing Est Capital to proceed with construction.
On August 12th, 2012, an oral agreement between Mayor Orsoni and Est Capital was announced. The mayor indicated build permits would be expedited so that progress could begin immediately.
Meanwhile a critical article is published in the Gazzettino lambasting city hall for making a bad deal, selling a €80M complex for €61M to build a Palazzo del Cinema that never came to fruition. The article goes on to say the Lido has lost an important hospital, a large park, and a vast stretch of public beach – for nothing.
Ultimately a deal was not struck by March. Est Capital voiced their displeasure with the proceedings and requested €54.9M through the courts, claiming the amount was the sum of their advances and compensation already paid – including damages over the delays.
In late March of 2013 the civil case concluded with the judge siding with the City of Venice. In addition, the judge ruled the city gets to keep the €31M deposit paid by Est Capital. The investment company said they believe the verdict was “completely wrong and unfair” and proposed they would appeal in hopes of finding a better result through a “more competent” court.
The investment company formalized a complaint against the order of Judge Manuela Bano for allowing the city to keep the €31.6M.
Est Capital won an appeal which resulted in €31M held in escrow to be returned to Est Capital. Shortly thereafter the Ospedale was listed for sale once again – this time for €58M.
The city claimed the asking price was dictated by the municipality’s needs to satisfy the constraints of the Stability Pact.
In late December of 2013 it was announced the city would sell the Ospedale to a Deposits and Loan fund, a joint investment under public control which manages a large part of national savings.
But the transaction was held up due to lingering lawsuits from the Est Capital deal.
The final sale price was expected to be below the €58M asking price, given the property is distressed and the city’s desperation to satisfy the terms of the Stability Pact.
[ In November of 2013, urban explorers returned from their trip into the Ospedale and shared their findings with a local paper.
What they found: Abandoned & broken medical equipment, scattered unkempt medical records, dead animals, and dung. Using a geiger counter while walking around the former radiology department (in the Vincenza Pavilion), the explorers realized radiation dosimetry when handling red canisters and abandoned x-ray plates.
Also discovered: a nauseating smell permeating the complex. ]
By April the economic climate had improved. The Venice Superintendent of Architectural Heritage and Landscape revised his decision disallowing developers to demolish certain protected properties which had deteriorated beyond repair.
Real estate investment group Hines Italia SGR purchased the portfolios owned by Real Venice 1 and was reported to be reaching a deal with Deposits and Loans for an “integrated enhancement of the Lido.”
Absent a wealthy preservationist benefactor, the Ospedale al Mare’s fate is likely demolition.
There are asbestos concerns, mold permeates the complex, and the years of seafront exposure have all contributed to deteriorating most of the structures beyond a reasonable repair cost.
Resort developers are largely turned off by political red tape and the vocal backlash by citizens against attempts to raze the buildings. Preservationists want to protect the buildings, which would require a larger investment than developers are willing to spend.
Before anything is done, the investors, residents, and city hall must agree to a course. Without an accord between the public and private sectors, the stalemate can only persist, allowing the Ospedale to deteriorate further.