Venice is home to the Biennale which was founded in 1895 to promote new artistic trends in the contemporary arts and in architecture. We decided to go there this past week to see the 2013 Arts Exhibition (The Encyclopedic Palace) before it closes in two weeks time. Its a 3.5h journey from Rome on the train which got us there just in time for lunch. The Vaporetto (water bus) leaves from just outside the train station and took us the length of the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco. Venice is a magical city and this journey alone is worth the trip to Venice as one gets to see the facades of all the Palazzi which face directly onto the water. The boat goes under the Rialto bridge and suddenly the vista opens up and you see the tower in the Piazza San Marco and the dome of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute across the lagoon. I could have just stayed on the boat and gone up and down the Grand Canal all afternoon. My pleasure was most definitely enhanced by the fact that its low season in Venice at the moment so there are less tourists and less activity on the Grand Canal which is the city’s main thoroughfare for boats carrying not only passengers but supplies and commercial goods. We stayed in a beautiful converted Palazzo right on a small canal and less than 5 minutes walk from Piazza San Marco.
The Biennale is held in two locations, the Arsenale and the Giardino. The Giardino houses pavilions representing different countries each of which houses a show. Canada’s pavilion built in 1958 has a sort of spiral shape and is built of wood and glass. To me, it had aspects of an igloo or a tepee. Shary Boyle (Music for Silence) was chosen to represent Canada and since the entire show was mounted in darkness and silence, it did have a feel of entering into an igloo. The Arsenale which was originally the city’s shipyards and armories is a vast complex. It would take me pages to describe what we saw as the exhibition is immense and quite overwhelming. This year, there were 150 artists from 38 countries represented.
There were many exhibits which engaged my attention for various reasons but being taken by colour and smell, I was drawn to one by Sonia Falcone from Bolivia who filled a whole bunch of large clay pots with herbs, natural pigments and powdered spices of different colours. The idea was to represent the role that spices have played in the history of the world’s commerce and also to comment on the ephemeral nature of sensory perception and ultimately the fleeting nature of life (or so the description said!). The fragrance, even after being on display for 3 months, and the rich colours were intoxicating.
After spending the whole day tramping around, all we wanted to do was sit down and have ‘un bel bicchiere di vino’. Not a problem as prosecco and other excellent wines are produced in the Veneto region. Needless to say, fish is a major part of the cuisine and I particularly enjoyed the baccala (salt cod) which is made into a creamy paste and is quite delicious. The best thing we had though was an inexpensive seafood lasagne which we got in a small family-run restaurant in a small street where we randomly stopped to have a quick lunch (12 Eur for the lasagna followed by a plate of fried seafood with vegetables and roast potatoes). The lasagne was filled with moist shrimp, baby octopus and small squid in a bechamel sauce. I’m determined to try and make it one of these days though I think it may take a few tries to reproduce what we had.
We really enjoyed walking around and losing ourselves in the narrow streets of Venice and seeing how people live. The art and architecture are breathtaking and there is a slightly oriental feel to it as some of the textiles and jewellery still have echoes of its Byzantine past. However, its not an easy city to live in I don’t think. When we were there, rain and high winds were forecast and ramps were already being piled up on the larger streets in case of flooding which is not uncommon at certain times of the year. The shops which don’t cater specifically for tourists feature wellingtons and waders which cover one’s thighs.
Doors have flood panels at the bottom to prevent water seeping in though I think it gets in anyway.
I couldn’t help thinking of how different (and less pleasant) it must be during the tourist season. The population of Venice is just under 60,000 and the number of tourists are an estimated 80,000 per day, 30 million per year! Massive cruise ships disgorge hundreds of day trippers. There is a move underway to stop the cruise ships which create environmental problems. Tourism has displaced other economic sectors like banking and one reads articles about the city dying as a place where people live. It is a terrible problem and I don’t know what the answer is. It is so beautiful that one wants to go there again and again but yet should we be going to places that can’t sustain visitors in these numbers? The estimated ideal number of visitors is about 7 – 8 million per year. Maybe there should be lottery tickets for who can go at any given time!