VENICE, Italy – Venice, renowned for incomparable Gothic architecture and placid canals plied by gondolas that make it one of the most recognizable cities in the world, may have had enough of Italy.
A movement for the Italian region that includes Venice to declare itself an independent state, as it once was centuries ago, is gaining momentum here amid chaotic national economic policies from Rome and local pride in the region's 1,000-year history of achievement in the arts and merchant class.
"It bothers a lot of people to work hard and see the money just disappear, but I think that just feeds the region's independent spirit," said Angelo Alberti, 34, a coffee bar worker who said he supports the movement.
The region of Veneto, one of Italy's richest and the country's fifth largest with a population of around 5 million, is preparing a formal referendum about whether or not to secede from Italy.
Constitutional experts say such a move would be illegal. But momentum is building: an informal online vote last month saw 89% vote in favor of breaking away. And last week, police arrested two-dozen Veneto separatists on charges of terrorism for planning to take over Venice's iconic St. Mark's Square with a makeshift tank fashioned out of a tractor.
Venetians say they support the movement partially out of frustration at seeing their taxes used to support the under-developed southern part of the country. Campaigners say they pay out nearly $30 billion a year more in taxes than they receive in government benefits.
Locals mention frustration at the corruption and endemic tax evasion in other parts of the country, as well as the influence of organized crime. They say they also feel disconnected from the rest of Italy, and that the Veneto mentality is an independent one.
"I have always felt like a Venetian first and an Italian second," said Sylvia Barbarigo, 49, a school teacher and supporter of secession. "We're just different from most other Italians."
Venetians take pride in what they call "La Serenissima" — the Most Serene Republic of Venice. A maritime power from the days of the Middle Ages, it was a center of intellectual, artistic and commercial innovation in Europe for more than a thousand years until the last doge, or leader, surrendered to Napoleon's troops in 1797.
Alessio Morosin, a Venetian lawyer and one of the leaders of the breakaway movement, longs for a return to those days. He said it is not so much about economics or history or politics, but the right of a people to determine their fate.
"It's all about self-determination — a basic human right that trumps anything written on paper in the constitution," Morosin said. "Most countries, including both Italy and the United States, were created by this idea."
But Gaetano Azzariti, a constitutional law expert with La Sapienza University in Rome, strongly disagrees.
"It's egoistic and it's illegal," he said of the independence movement. "A referendum on independence is meaningless because it's illegal. We're in this together. There would be no end to it if any group of people could just decide on their own that they are independent," he went on. "You'd need a war for that to happen."
Government officials would not speak on the record about the Veneto independence movement. But Italy has taken actions against it.
Italian special operations units on April 2 arrested 24 secessionists who were allegedly planning a violent campaign for independence, charging them with terrorism, subversion of democracy, and making weapons of war.
"I don't think the risk is a full-out armed conflict but rather some rash acts by a small group of people," said Angelo Romano, a former army officer now a security consultant who has worked with United Nations and with the Italian government but who has no role in what is happening in Veneto. "You need just a small core of true believers to make a lot of trouble."
The Venetians who support the movement insist their goals are peaceful.
"I don't think anyone wants to take up arms," said Alberti, the barista. "If that's what it takes then it won't happen."
Andrea Soranzo, a 71-year-old clothing store owner who had a role in a similar short-lived movement in 1997 but who has not taken sides this time around, was philosophical about the latest developments.
"There's a difference sometimes between what you want and what you can get," he said. "I have lived my whole life here. I love Venice and I would love to see it return to its old glory. But that's asking a lot.
"I think we'll end up with a little more autonomy and a little more pride in our city," he concluded. "Maybe that's not too bad."