Thursday, June 7, 2007

Day 1 in Venice

Venice. We arrived yesterday (Wednesday) morning at 11:30 at the Marco Polo airport. Our Air France flight was an hour and a half late departing and we arrived in Paris equally as latel, missing our connecting flight (at 7:30 am Paris time) to Venice.

I had never been to Venice before. I’d see many wonderful paintings and photographs that intrigue, that thrill, that ply the imagination. I had read Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and seen films where Venice is the location.I have many friends for whom Venice is their most favorite destination, for whom it is evocative of history, of love and romance (and sex), and heard descriptions of their rapturous  memories. None of it, however, nothing compares to the real thing.

So great, so fabulous, so wondrous is the actual experience that any words I might use will be inadequate expressions of the inner thrill of arriving and then even moreso, being here.

On first sight, from the air, Venice itself it is a tiny little island packed with red rooftops, ancient towers and domes in the midst of this vast Adriactic lagoon barely isolated from a vast encroaching sea. From that vantage point, it is difficult to understand how such a tiny little island could command such profoundly charismatic mystique.

The Marco Polo airport is on the mainland which is part of Metropolitan Venice/Padua (population approximately 1.6 million -- about 215,000 are citizens of Venice proper). Access to Venice is either by causeway or by boat. Having got our bags (which made all the connections, missed and otherwise), we walked about a half mile of pavement to the docks where you can take a large floating boat-bus or hire a private water taxi. We chose the latter: 90 euros plus 4.5 euros per bag. Plus tip. The boat way is marked by wooden pylons as wide a two lane highway. It’s about a twenty minute trip to the island which on approach is packed with ancient stucco buildings of pale reds, yellows, orange, white, along with occasional marble and brick facades.

Ca Rezzonico
Once inside Grand Canal which is as wide as a six-lane marine highway, one is architecturally transported back seven or eight centuries to a place that was the center of commerce of all of Renaissance Europe. There are many signs of modern times, namely the boats transporting us (not to mention costumes of the present day). But one is almost instantly swept away by the aura of the past, by the lurking shadows of reverie, benchmarks of a thousand years of humanity, dwelling, having dwelled in this enclave of bricks and mortar, stone and stucco, bordered only by sea and sky.

People swoon over this place and on first sight (and almost all moments thereafter) it is easy to understand. This week visitors are drawn here from all over the world for the Venice Biennale, one of the great art exhibition and fairs that is staged here every two years. A smaller group of mainly Americans are attending the annual gathering of members of the Venetian Heritage, the organization the raises funds to restore historical Venetian buildings. The Venetian Heritage runs a series of lectures, tours, dinners and luncheons for its subscribers, providing an intimate and informed view of the city’s art and architectural history.

There are banners hanging from some of the palazzi advertising their shows. Ca Rezzonico, the late 17th century palazzo has an enormous banner advertising its exhibition. There is a Canaletto painting of the first two completed stories from the early 1700s. One of the Rezzonico family sons became Pope Clement XIII. The palazzo was once the Venetian home of the poet Robert Browning. Whistler and John Singer Sargent later had studios there in the late 19th century; and in 1927 Linda and Cole Porter rented the place for what was then a princely sum -- $3000 a month -- for parties and pleasure and work (Porter wrote “A Rose In Bloom” there for comedienne Fannie Brice).

Just across the way the Palazzo Grassi houses the enormous contemporary art collection of Francois Pinault, the  French tycoon, on the terrace of which is a gigantic skull looking bejeweled like the now famous Damien Hirst platinum and diamond skull, but made out of shiny tin cans.

Farther along the water lane is the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, low, sprawling and far more commanding in presence than any pictures ever revealed to me. Guggenheim, daughter of Benjamin (who went down on the Titanic) and niece of Solomon (whose name dominates the museum on Fifth Avenue and 89th Street), came to settle in Venice right after the War in 1946, because she could afford it, and because it was accessible to her many European connections. Here she established the home for her art collection and consequently (because of the expanding influence of the artists in her collection) largely influenced the emergence of this great ancient commercial center into an art mecca for the contemporary world.Just across the canal and up the way is The Europa (a Westin hotel) where we were booked.

You arrive dockside wherever you go and the only noise of traffic that this city knows is the muffled sound of the motorboats, the calls of the gondoliers and boat captains and the squeak of the hulls gently hitting against the docksides. This heavenly lack of the noise of horns and motors is, according to one sophisticated citizen, why visitors find it so easy to get a good night’s sleep in Venice.

Once ensconced in the hotel, and after a much needed nap for the jet lag, we were off on a walking tour to meet friends at a cafe in one of the squares. Venice on foot is infinite in size because the walkways are narrow, as are the canals and the tiny bridges. It was grey and spritzy yesterday but  the umbrellas of the cafes protected us from any excess moisture.
Last night in Venice. The hotels are booked solid with the international art nomads, including many Americans -- artists, collectors, and celebrities. The designer Marc Jacobs is here, as is Elton John and David Furnish. Prince and Princess Michael of Kent are with the Venetian Heritage, along with Prince Dimitri, Vicountess Jacqueline de Ribes, Judy Taubman, Patricia Patterson, Donald and Muffy Miller, Tom Quick. Beth DeWoody is here for the Biennale, along with Patrick McMullan, R. Couri Hay, Liliana Cavendish,  Bettina Zilkha, Alice and Paul Judelson, Barbara Goldsmith.

Last night we were guests of the Russian businesswoman Janna Bullock first at cocktails on the terrace of the Gritti. After drinks we embarked in her private water taxi to Gardini Island where the pavilions are set up for the Biennale exhibitions. Then it was on down the Grand Canal to a party given by the Icelandic business tycoon Tryggvi Por Herbertss. Opening of art exhibitions in Venice are not unlike openings in Chelsea or SoHo. In fact, the guestlist looks close to identical in costume, personality and artistic content. This party was in a palazzo that was gutted and is in restoration. Pieces of art were displayed in a series of rooms. An artist who played for Bjork was performing with a horn and electronic accompaniment. In what might be a garden someday, a long bar was set up and the room was packed.

About ten o’clock we departed the palazzo gallery for the Cornice Art Fair, a “new contemporary art fair on Tronchetto, another island in the Venetian archipelago.

This is the first year of the new art fair. It was created by a young man named Augustus Rylands, age 25, a lifelong resident of Venice (although educated in England, and speaking with an English accent).  The dinner was called for 8 pm. We arrived about ten fifteen to find all of the ten or twelve tables were seated but ours. Neverthless we’d made it just in time for the main course -- lobster and risotto.

By eleven dinner over, it was back into the water taxi for a trip to the Europa to a big dinner for a Russian woman named Olga. The majority of the guests (there must have been 200) were Russian, all there for the Biennale. I’d first heard of Olga when we traveled to the Moscow Art Fair in May of 2006. People in the know said to be on the lookout for Olga. Not last name furnished. She was (and is) we were told a most influential personality in the Russian art world. Olga’s party was in full force when we arrived. There was a band with a vocalist playing rock. It was that time of the evening when even the shy ones who claim they don’t like to dance were out on the dance floor boogeying. The champagne was flowing. A few feet away the lights of the palazzos were dancing on the waters of the Grand Canal. We almost four thousand miles from home and yet there was that social frenzy we know as New York filling the dining rooms of the Europa. The night was young. For some people, but not this jet-lagged traveler. I hit the hay and was out in a minute.
Our water taxi driver Clay ready to take us to Venice. Another water taxi passes on en route to Venice.
A lone fisherman on the Grand Canal.
Tourists watching over the Grand Canal.
Venice scenes amongst The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (top left) and Hotel Europa (top right).
Liliana Cavendish, Janna Bullock, and Brooke Neidich
Liliana Cavendish, Janna Bullock, R. Couri Hay, Giorgio, Patrick McMullan, Phillipe, Renee Lucas, and DPC
Arriving at Tryggvi Por Herbertss' gallery for Biennale preview party.
Guest book signatures at Tryggvi Por Herbertss'.
Barbara Goldsmith and DPC
Augustus Rylands
Erika Cornali and DPC
The dance scene at Olga's party.
Olga and Janna (above); Alice Judelson (top right).

Comments? Contact DPC here