In a sudden and unexpected move, Italy's Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani has appointed ex-Eni and Telecom Italia manager Franco Bernabe to replace Paolo Baratta as president of the Venice Biennale, the organisation that manages the Venice Film Festival.

News of Bernabe's appointment at the weekend caught many industry insiders off guard. While Baratta was expected to be replaced within the next few months as part of a wider shake-up of the film industry after the victory of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right government in last May's elections, his contract was not due for renewal until next April.

National daily La Repubblica reported that Baratta only learnt of his replacement in the press, an element likely to heighten tension within the Biennale, particularly after news emerged last week that government minister Vittorio Sgarbi had asked Martin Scorsese to replace Alberto Barbera as director of the Venice Film Festival [Scorsese reportedly refused].

While Barbera has one more year left in his contract, Urbani's decision to replace Baratta five months before the end of his contract, now adds a further degree of uncertainty to Barbera's position.

The left-leaning Repubblica quoted Biennale board member Giorgio Orsoni as saying: "[The suddenness of Bernabe's appointment] shows a lack of sensitivity and style on the part of the government and denotes its intention to break apart the Biennale's autonomy and impose the culture of the State."

Bernabei, whose appointment at the Biennale will have to be ratified by Parliament, is widely recognised as one of Italy's top managers. A former chief executive of Telecom Italia and Italian oil and gas giant Eni, he is credited with turning Eni into Europe's third largest oil company.

At the same time, Urbani also announced the appointment of Italian director Franco Zeffirelli as special arts and entertainment adviser to the culture ministry. Film and opera director Zeffirelli, who is currently finishing post-production on his widely-anticipated Callas Forever, said: "I am happy that [a government] has finally decided to use the experience of someone who works in the entertainment industry. While [my appointment] will create a certain conflict of interest for me as I will continue to work as a director, I will avoid any kind of favouritism."