A fight has broken out in Venice over plans to build a museum of Islamic art on the banks of the Grand Canal (pictured).
The initiative was announced by Enrico Letta, the prime minister of Italy, during a diplomatic and trade visit to Qatar.
Speaking in Doha, Mr Letta said his government had "made a commitment to explore the opportunity to build an Islamic museum in Venice on the Grand Canal".
But the plan was immediately attacked by the separatist Northern League, which counts the region around Venice as one of its strongholds.
Luca Zaia, the governor of the region and a senior member of the League, said he found it hard to believe that the government in Rome had âmoney to throw at an Islamic museumâ when Venice had so many other problems, with its cultural heritage under threat from rising sea levels and the crushing weight of mass tourism.
The museum would be âa waste of resourcesâ, he said.
âI'm amazed that with all the problems that Italy has, from sky-high unemployment to businesses closing down because of excessive taxes and the worst economic crisis since the Second World War, that they could even think of putting money into a new, useless museum. âIs this really the priority?â
Massimo Bitonci, a senator in the anti-immigration party, said: âWe don't want any Islamic museum in Venice. Letta would do better to focus on the economic crisis instead of thinking (of ways) to spread Islam.â
As an independent republic that existed for more than 1,000 years, Venice spent centuries trading and fighting with the Ottoman Empire as it competed for control of the eastern Mediterranean, inflicting a crushing defeat on the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in Greece in 1571.
Five hundred years on, the attitude towards Islam appears to be as ambivalent as ever.
"The League will never allow such a mess, the Veneto (region) wants independence, not Islamic museums," said Lorenzo Fontana, an MEP from the League.
"We will stay day and night in front of the (construction area) and obstruct work.â
But the museum project was welcomed by Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, who said it dove-tailed with the city's ambition to attract more cultural institutions and international organisations in order to ease the heavy reliance on tourism.
The creation of a museum would be an expression of Venice's âopenness to dialogue between cultures and religions," the mayor said.
The city offered ''a special thanks to ... (Italian Prime Minister) Letta for his interest in the creation of an Islamic museum of great international scope in Venice, a sign of the history of this city and its openness to dialogue between cultures and religions'', added Orsoni.
He accused the League of a knee-jerk reaction founded on prejudice and ignorance. âThank God, these retrograde League attitudes have nothing to do with our city, which has always been open to dialogue and a cultural crossroads.â
Nick Squires, "Venice at war over Islamic heritage" The Telegraph UK February 4, 2013
Stefania Fumo, "Letta moots Islamic Museum on Venice Grand Canal" People's Daily February 5, 2014
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today