The Venetian Art of Discovery, Part I

Featured image
The Salute and the Punta della Dogana.

I had last been to Venice in 2017. The Biennale was on, and it was possible to find art all over the city. However, the city was overwhelmed by cruise ships, their passengers, and too many day trippers clogging up the over-trod routes from San Marco to the Rialto. I vowed never to return until the ships were gone. Venice was well on its way to becoming another Italian Disneyland. The city finally did ban the ships; and looking at images of Venice during the lockdowns gave me some hope. I twisted my husband’s arm and booked a trip at the start of this year’s Biennale.

The flight was a bit exhausting — between the late planes, changed itineraries, chaos at De Gaulle when connecting to Venice, and having to sit in Venice airport for four hours as Air France left my bag in Paris (they would not deliver the delayed bag unless you had an Italian cell phone). When the bag finally showed up, we headed to our rental in Dorsoduro.

I had never stayed in that sestiere, or quarter, before. So there would be a lot of exploring. Our apartment was near the Ca’ Rezzonico and also close to the Accademia. Dorsoduro is a vibrant neighborhood and was actually an island when the lagoon was settled in the 5th century. One of the Rivas, or quays, dates to the fourth century. I remember Venice from its pre-cruise ship days and was wondering how much better the experience would be post-cruise ships.

Dusk From The Accademia Bridge in Venice
Dusk from the Accademia Bridge.

We had booked a few dinners in restaurants that we had enjoyed before, without fully knowing what the pandemic had done to businesses in the city. We headed out to dinner on foot, crossing the Accademia Bridge into the San Marco sestiere. The view was sublime. What was not working was getting to the restaurant using a mapping app on the phone. The city of Venice with its many canals and small calles drove the app crazy. And addresses in Venice are misleading.

I had always stayed in San Marco and knew my way around by remembering landmarks like restaurants and stores. Unhappily many of the stores had vanished, so we wandered around in circles for about 45 minutes before we finally found the restaurant. I think we crossed both in front of and behind the Teatro La Fenice several times.

Scampi alla Griglia
Nothing beats scampi alla griglia.

We had a delicious dinner at Al Giglio. I am very happy any time I can have scampi and grilled veggies. It was a simple dinner, but wonderful. Getting home was easier as we followed the plaques marked for the Accademia bridge. But we had learned our lesson.

Al Giglio, S. Marco, 2477/78 (see what I mean). It is between the Gritti Hotel and S. Maria d.Giglio.

On The Grand Canal
On the Grand Canal.

We headed to the nearby Campo S. Barnaba in the morning and bought a real map. We photographed the neighborhoods we were going to; and getting around was much improved thanks to us using actual maps. A day at the Biennale was on the schedule. We savored the Grand Canal as we waiting for the vaporetto. The canal was full of gondolas and water taxis. Vaporettos are the water buses that serve as the vital public transport. The boats were always super crowded with locals and tourists.

Floating Past The Ducale Palace in Venice
Floating past the Ducal Palace.

Because of the pandemic, Venice had cut back on the vaporetto service and the system was now a little overwhelmed. Masking is obligatory on all public transport in Italy at this point until 15 June. But the boats remain the best way to see the palazzos that line the Grand Canal, and everything that sits on the Bacino di S. Marco. Boats are a key part of Venetian life. The Ducal Palace, like much of the city, is under renovation. Buildings that are centuries old require TLC.

A Ukrainian Statement
A statement in the Piazza Ucraina.

The Biennale is located at the far eastern end of the city in the Giardini Publici, built by Napoleon. The first Biennale was held in 1895. This was the 59th session, and it is huge. There was a kerfuffle when Russia invaded Ukraine, and the Russian artists withdrew from the show. Several Ukrainian exhibits were added. The memorial in the center of the grounds is a Ukrainian statue covered with sandbags. Which is how so many statues all over Ukraine are now seen. A scorched pavilion stands close by, and posters and drawings from Ukrainian artists line the area. A documentation of the experience of war.

A Time-Traveling Letter to Marco Polo
A time-traveling letter to Marco Polo.

Navin Rawanchaikul’s piece, The Description Of The World, is the original title of Marco Polo’s book of his travels.  The artwork is a three dimensional billboard representing  all the different immigrant communities in Venice. The piece also has speakers that play recordings of the artist speaking in the many different languages that have been heard on the lagoon for well over 1,000 years.

In The Central Pavillion
In the Central Pavilion.

The Milk of Dreams is the name of 59th edition of the Venice Art Biennale. This year it showcases the art of women and other under-represented artists. The Central Pavilion space houses hundreds of works, including the painting and sculpture of Cecilia Vicuña. She is a Chilean who worked in exile during the Pinochet-led coup.  She constructed the installation at the center with ropes and debris found around Venice, and her paintings are on the left hand wall.  She won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement this year.

Art WIth Issues
Art with issues.

As we wandered around the show, I was underwhelmed with much of what was exhibited. A few pieces stood out. This piece by the Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego combines painting and sculpture. In it she seeks to show 18th century women from literature and folklore who have fallen from grace.

The Brazilian Pavillion Highlights Colonialism and Nature
The Brazilian Pavilion highlights colonialism and nature.

Some of the National Pavilions were head-scratchers. But two really stood out. The Brazilian Pavilion had an installation by Jonathas de Andrade. You entered and exited the pavilion through a set of sculpted ears. The two rooms were full of ideas and underscore some of the issues facing Brazil both socially and ecologically.

The Heart Emerging From the Mouth
The heart emerging from the mouth.

One surprise was an expandable heart that came out of a sculpture of a mouth, and grew, and grew.

Gyre In the Korean Pavillion
Gyre in the Korean Pavilion.

The Korean Pavilion featured work by Yunchul Kim. The large scale kinetic installations were fascinating. Chroma V, pictured here, features many glowing screens generated by algorithms set into a dinosaur-like framework.  The open and airy pavilion contrasted the mechanical against the natural.

Walking to the Arsenale in Venice
Walking to the Arsenale.

We left the Giardini and walked along the riva to the Arsenale. The view was impeccable, S Giorgio Maggiore, the Salute and the Campanile of San Marco seen across a pretty much empty Basin of San Marco. In years past, there would have been multiple oligarch-owned super-yachts docked here.

The Entry to The Arsenale
The entry to the Arsenale.

We missed the entrance to the Arsenale segment of the show, but did some exploring around the shipyard itself. Venice was a great sea power for so much of its 1600 years.  The building was started in the 12th century, and this was where the warships of la Serenissima were built. The Italian navy still keeps a base here.  Normally it is closed to the public, so explore it while it is open during the Biennale. There are Pavilions for other countries scattered here, too.

Part of The Barbara Kruger Installation
Part of the Barbara Kruger installation.

We doubled back and found the small entrance to the Arsenale exhibit. There were more than a hundred works here. Some, like Earthly Paradise, a large piece of land art that resembles Walter de Maria’s Earth Room from 1977, fill entire rooms. This new piece was full of  biting and flying insects and could be smelled from hundreds of feet away. Barbara Kruger’s three-part installation, Untitled (Beginning/ Middle/End), is powerful. The artist has been all over the papers recently, with a New York Times Op-Ed and a cover of New York Magazine featuring her political statements. The bright screens clicked alternative words.

Lorenzo Quinn Hand Sculptures
Lorenzo Quinn hand sculptures.

The show had some logistical issues. The Biennale has grown significantly since 2017. The official handbook is some 168 pages long. There are now Official Collateral Events, National Participations that are sprinkled all over the city, Exhibitions (in collaboration with many art dealers) and Foundations. The Arsenale was huge, and the exit left you at the top of Venice  in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. Interestingly Lorenzo Quinn’s Building Bridges hand sculptures from the last Biennale are still here. The design of the show was meant to take you on a long walk back to the Giardini.

Leaving the Arsenale in Venice
Leaving the Arsenale.

We walked through Castello, another sestiere. There are actually Venetians living here. The tourists were few and far between, and the locals’ laundry was hanging everywhere. It was another Venice. We found our way to the Grand Canal, stopping here and there. We got a vaporetto and headed home. We ended up going back to Al Giglio for more scampi, and got there easily. It was about a twelve-minute walk.

Sometimes Small is The Best
Sometimes small is the best.

Wednesday was to be spent on our side of the Grand Canal. The Accademia was a 5-minute walk from our home. We had wanted to go back to the Accademia in 2017, but since I had not booked tickets a wait of many hours would have been required. This time I booked tickets and had no wait.  It had been years since I had seen the Giorgione’s The Tempest, the nude and all the others. The Tempest may be small, but it is extremely beautiful. It is considered one of the first landscape paintings in Western civilization.

Altarpieces and Paintings
Altarpieces and paintings.

The Bellini Saint Giobbe altarpiece and paintings inspire. Venice dominated both the sea and the land when the paintings were conceived in the 15th century. The city was extremely wealthy and luxurious; and at the peak of its power. The arts certainly reflect that. Venice was a magnet for artists and creativity.

A Vision From Anish Kapoor in Venice
A vision from Anish Kapoor.

The Biennale brings an Anish Kapoor exhibit to the Accademia as well. The exhibition covers a lot of Kapoor’s career, with both older and new work. More works are found at the Palazzo Manfrin in Cannaregio.

The Other Side of the Wall
The other side of the wall.

As you pass through a door into the next room, you see the canon that has deposited the red wax. There are other striking and more minimalist pieces in the exhibit.

A Paper Sculpture Dominates The Room
A paper sculpture dominates the room.

There are a collection of palazzos on the Grand Canal that house some of the Collateral Events. The Palazzo Contarini Polignac is a few minutes from the Accademia. The Palazzo belonged to Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, and her husband Prince Edmond de Polignac. Both were music lovers and patrons of Satie, Stravinsky and more. The Palazzo is kept as it was when the Polignacs lived there, and it is rented out for exhibits.

The Korean artist Chun Kwang Young works in printed paper, which he folds and shapes into reliefs and sculptures like this one above. The exhibit, Times Reimagined, is a must-see. There are sculptures that sit in the couple’s rooms. This one was a study, and another sculpture inhabits the music room with the Prince de Polignac’s piano. The pieces were assembled in situ for the Biennale.

The Garden of the Palazzo Contarini Polignac
The garden of the Palazzo Contarini Polignac.

The Palazzo also has a garden overlooking the Grand Canal. It features a structure called Hanji House designed by Stefano Boeri. The house reflects the spirit of Chung Kwang Young, who invited the architect to design it. This interesting structure can be folded like orgami and moved.

A Botticelli at The Palazzo Cini
A Botticelli at the Palazzo Cini.

Just down the Canal is the Palazzo Cini. This Palazzo was owned by an Italian industrialist and art collector, and is now run by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. It houses among other things, a group of Tuscan paintings. This Bottecelli looked familiar when I realized I had seen it in Paris last November in the Botticelli exhibit in the Musee Jacquemart-André. There is also a large exhibit of the early works of Joseph Beuys called: Fine-limbed. It is a collection of the artist’s early works.

A Small Cafe in Dorsoduro
A small cafe in Dorsoduro.

We stopped for lunch at a small traditional cafe near the Palazzo Cini. This restaurant featured salads, pastas and lots of sweets. A table on the Calle was good for people watching.

Bar da Gino, Dorsoduro 850, near the Guggenheim Collection

A Surealistic Sculpture
A surrealistic sculpture.

The next stop was a minute or two away. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is always a pleasure to visit. This year it houses an exhibit called Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity. There are works from many surrealists, but I found those done by the British artist Leonora Carrington to be my faves. This sculpture, La Grande Dame, is one of her pieces. Carrington had a relationship with Max Ernst, who went on to marry Peggy Guggenheim after Carrington had moved to Mexico during WWII. Guggenheim had been collecting Ernst’s work before their marriage. There are some interesting exchanges of art between Carrington and Ernst in the exhibit.

Works by Leonora Carrington
Works by Leonora Carrington.

This piece is called The Pleasures of Dagobert. The exhibit examines the connections between magic and surrealism. If you are a fan of the movement, there are many works to discover and savor.

The Garden at Venier dei Leoni
The garden at Venier dei Leoni.

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni is an anomaly in Venice. Built in the 18th century, it was never finished. Whether the reasons were political or monetary, no one seems to know. Only about a third of the palazzo was built, and it was left at one story. That’s why is has such a large garden. The Byzantine throne to the left was a favorite perch for Peggy Guggenheim.

n The Garden of The PalazzoCanavis
In the garden of the Palazzo Cavanis.

The Palazzo Cavanis is located on the Fondamente Zattere facing the Guidecca Canal. It is home to Claire Tabouret: I am spacious, singing flesh. The Los Angeles-based French artist includes painting, sculpture and some ancient Roman pieces in her exhibit. Several sculptures sit in the garden. One of the best things about the Biennale is the fact that it is spread out all over Venice. One gets to visit private palazzos that are only open during the show. You see parts of Venice you never would have visited. And walk for miles on Calles along canals in the heart of the city, far from the tourist hordes.

Claire Tabouret at The Palazzo Canavis
Claire Tabouret at the Palazzo Canavis.

Her work includes many self-portraits, and other portraits. This piece is named Sitting 2016 and is part of the Pinault collection.

Looking Towards Giudecca
Looking towards Giudecca.

We then headed along the Fondamenta Zattere. The Guidecca Canal is wide, and at the far end of it is the more industrial part of Venice. Beyond this restaurant is the Gelateria Nico. One of the best in Venice, with long lines often outside the door. Venice is home to many Universities and schools. Some of the schools are in buildings located along the water.

A Shipyard for Gondolas
A shipyard for Gondolas.

As we were walking to our next stop, we passed one of the few gondola factories remaining in Venice.

Rachel Lee Hovnanian's Angels Listening
Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s Angels Listening.

We were looking for the Armenian Culture Studies Center. As we walked through an alley and up to the door, who should come out of the building but Rachel. We had not seen her in ages. She was heading back to her Tuscan studio that day. We got a tour and explanation of the space. Angels Listening is an immersive installation. There are seven strong angels cast in white bronze. They are silenced by crossed pieces of tape over their mouths and are arranged around a silver confessional. Rachel showed us the ribbons that were part of the piece. You write down your fears or thoughts that you hold to yourself on a ribbon. The ribbons are placed in the box in the confessional while striking a small bell that summons the Angels to listen. And they do.

The Garden of the Armenian Culture Studies Center
The garden of the Armenian Culture Studies Center.

Every day the ribbons are attached to the blankets that lie in the peaceful garden. Visitors are welcome to hang out on the lawn, and read the many thoughts that are shared. But only in this garden. Silenced voices are turned into shared confessions. We thought that this was a perfect way to end the day.

Even Shopping in Venice is Different
Even shopping in Venice is different.

We had spent the entire day in Dorsoduro. This is one of the oldest parts of Venice as it was a real island, not marshland like most of the city. We picked up a few necessities, including some fruit from our local vegetable stand, La Barca.

Heading Back Home
Heading back home.

Our narrow Calle was always sunny in the late afternoon. We were glad to have rented an apartment, but also  felt slightly guilty. So many of the buildings we had walked by that today were tourist rentals. And the same holds true in all neighborhoods. We had spoken to some Venetians in restaurants and on the vaporettos and learned that many of them cannot afford to live on the lagoon. Between the tourist rentals and the surge in university students moving to Venice, housing is hard to come by.

The View From Our Living Room
The view from our living room.

Our apartment had four terraces. From this one we could see the San Marco Campanile. Venice celebrated its 1600th  anniversary in 2021. Inhabitants of the mainland fleeing the Visigoths, and then Attila The Hun, settled in the lagoon in the early 400s. It was a marshland with a few islands. Their empire of the sea eventually spread along the Adriatic and over to Crete and Cyprus. Venice had a lock on commerce with the Levant, and made many fortunes. Hence all the beautiful buildings both public and private. The Republic was finally toppled by Napoleon in 1797. Venice remains an important port for the arts, if not for trading and commerce.

One of Our Locals
One of our locals.

We decided to stick close to home for dinner. A friend had recommended Oniga. It was cosy, and the food was wonderful. The restaurant had been founded by two men, Marino e Raffaele, about 20 years ago. The menu was market based and slow food Venetian-style. Our server was Chinese, and as we started to speak with her we learned that she and her husband had purchased Oniga a few years ago as the owners retired. The original chef and recipes remain. They are happy to be in Venice, and prove, just as the homage to Marco Polo in the Giardini states, that Venice still is a city of immigrants.

Oniga, Dorsoduro 2852, or on the far end of the Campo S. Barnaba

Stay tuned for Part II coming later this week.

Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn. 

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