Chiaroscuro italiano

Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible.

From chiaro (meaning “clear”) and scuro (meaning “dark”), chiaroscuro is a technique of the visual arts using light and shade to define three-dimensional objects. But for shop owners in Conegliano, a small town north of Venice, it has come to mean the art of imposing silly taxes

Giovanni Battista Cima (c. 1459 – c. 1517), also called Cima da Conegliano since he was born in this small town in Italy’s Veneto region, was a Renaissance painter. He was one of the first Italian artists to explore landscape in his paintings and to formulate rules about how to use shadow to emphasise highlights.

Five hundred years after his birth, Cima’s shade may be less than enamoured with the town council, which imposes a tax on small business owners for the shadows they cast. The levy, about €100 per year, has been paid by shopkeepers – largely unknowingly – whose signs block out the light on public walkways.

Bizarrely, the tax is being charged for a sign on a door or shop window that creates shadow, not for the shade provided by awnings or tables and chairs outside the shop (for which there are other taxes). Now, shop owners are fighting back.

It’s likely plot for a village drama like the French writer Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochemerle, or a verismo opera in which the local tax collector is in love with the daughter of a café owner. In fact, the tax is not unique to Conegliano, having been levied under a country-wide 1993 law that is being strictly applied by local officials.

Until recently, business owners had not taken much notice of the tax, in part because it is a relatively small sum and in part because contesting it could prove costly. But many consider it a form of legal extortion.

The mayor of Conegliano has declined to comment, but his telephone answering message has been changed to a well-known Venetian proverb: Per gnente l’orbo no canta – literally “For nothing the blind man doesn’t sing” or “You don’t get something for nothing.”

The art of making the possible impossible.

conegliano

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