VENICE: Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, City of Water, City of Bridges, The City of Light. All names by which the world's most beautiful metropolis, Venice, is also known. Its crown jewel, the 900-hundred years old Piazza San Marco was referred to by Napoleon as "the drawing room of Europe".

But the administration of mayor Massimo Cacciari plans to convert the piazza into a site for five giant electronic billboards – to help fund the restoration of the decaying charmer, now ravaged by the depredations of age, mass tourism and pollution.

Pleading civic poverty Cacciari claims his scheme is "not beautiful or ugly, just necessary. We need to take care of the monuments and artworks in this city, and to do that we need a hand from sponsors."

Unless Cacciari is deterred [perhaps by suspension from the Bridge of Sighs?] five screens, each measuring 250 square metres, will be placed in front of drapes hung on scaffolding along the square's facades to hide restoration work.

Few argue that the work – estimated to take more than six years – is unnecessary. It is the proposed method of funding that has thrown the proverbial cat among the piazza's thousands of pigeons.

Venice newspaper Il Gazzettino accuses Cacciari of trying to turn the piazza into the equivalent of Manhattan's Times Square, while art critic Philippe Daverio warns that other famous piazzas in Italy could be next.

"They already tried to cover the Milan Duomo with neon panels twelve years ago," he told national daily La Stampa. "We got that stopped, but now it's starting again."

But Venice's local architectural superintendent insists the billboards are "a lesser evil given that resources are short and monuments are falling to pieces."

Officials hope to collect €3.6 million ($5.29m; £2.89m) from the deal, sufficient to cover restoration costs. They also promise to pre-approve all advertising to avoid "lapses in taste".

A promise that does little to negate the fears expressed 153 years ago by poet Robert Browning: "Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned."

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff