Police in Venice have been accused of being overly zealous after ordering an acclaimed British artist to pack up his easel and stop painting in St Mark’s Square.
Ken Howard, OBE, was painting one of his favourite views of the piazza when two police officers approached him and told him to move on.
The 86-year-old was sheltering from the rain beneath the portico of the Procuratie, a vast palazzo that flanks one side of the famous square.
He had moved there after initially setting up his easel along the Riva degli Schiavoni, a stretch of canal bank a few hundred yards away.
The artist, a former president of the New English Art Club and a professor of perspective at the Royal Academy, told them he had used the same spot for decades but they remained unmoved.
“I first came to Venice in 1958 and I’ve never had a problem,” Prof Howard told The Telegraph.
“But of all of a sudden they’ve brought in new rules which say you have to have a permit. It’s a bit daft.”
On Tuesday he duly went to the municipal office which issues the permits, only to find that it was closed.
“They told me to come back tomorrow. I said ‘I’m terribly sorry but I’m busy and I have to work.’ I don’t think I’ll go back to the wretched office. I’ll take a chance.”
Dora Bertolutti, his Italian wife, said: “No one has ever tried to stop him from painting in Venice before. But when they told him to pack up, he did. He’s very British – he’s obedient and didn’t want to make a fuss. But he’s fed up with this stupid bureaucracy.”
Police defended the officers’ intervention. “They acted correctly. It was raining and lots of people were trying to pass along the portico of the Procuratie,” said Marco Agostini, the commander of the municipal police.
“If we had not intervened, there would have been complaints. He should have asked for permission. There are rules and they need to be respected by everyone.”
But the artist received an outpouring of support from ordinary Venetians after the incident, which happened on Sunday, came to light.
Many locals said the police had acted officiously and accused them of picking on the artist when they ignored the more objectionable behaviour of tourists who swim in Venice’s canals, jump off bridges and picnic in piazzas.
“Are we really sure that these should be the priorities of a city that is adrift?” said Marco Gasparinetti, from Gruppo 25 Aprile, a group of local campaigners.
“Under these rules even Canaletto would have been forced out of Venice. We express our solidarity with Mr Howard.”
Massimiliano Bergamo, another Venetian, listed Prof Howard’s many awards and titles and said he had devoted “the last 50 years” to painting Venice.
“But on Sunday, while he was paying homage to our city with one of his paintings of St Mark’s Square, two police officers ordered him to move, shooing him out into the rain. Shameful. I apologise on behalf of Venice.”
Born in London, Mr Howard studied at the Royal College of Art.
He served his National Service in the Royal Marines and later became the Imperial War Museum’s artist in Northern Ireland.
He worked with the British Army all over the world, from Hong Kong and Belize to Borneo.
He was elected a full Royal Academician in 1991 and is represented by the Portland Gallery in London.
“He is hugely popular and very highly regarded. He always paints out in the open – you’ll find him out and about come rain or shine. The fact that he is up every morning to paint is pretty impressive at the age of 86,” said Maria Morrow, the director of the gallery, where the artist will have a show next year.
“Venice is one of his three favourite places to paint, along with London and Cornwall. Lots of other artists follow his work and attempt to paint in a similar style,” she said.
Mr Howard’s work is in several public collections, including the Imperial War Museum, the Ulster Museum and the National Army Museum.
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