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Venice at the Biennale

In Life in Italy, Venice on June 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Venice is the stuff of legends—so why has it taken me so long to write about it? The answer is simple: Venice wears many masks. In fact, it’s almost as if I experienced a new Venice every week.

I started with tourist Venice, facing the challenges of the tangled labyrinth of streets and the unique Venetian working schedule. But as I learned how to navigate this island, I discovered other Venices.

There’s student Venice, characterized by private house parties, cheap Spritz and slices of pizza to go, and a full library where half of the people seem not to be working.

Or there’s expat Venice, where British and American dreamers who have spent years aspiring to live on this island of legends finally make it here, perhaps by chance—by falling in love and marrying an Italian—or perhaps by hard work, the result of a successful career which allows them to shuttle back and forth to their second home in Venice.

There’s the Venice of the locals—numbering less than 60,000, Venetians pause to chat on the street, dash into hidden eateries for an authentic bite, or converse from second-floor windows across narrow alleyways.

Then there’s Venice at Carnevale, a tourist orgy where streets are packed to overflowing and folks in rented costumes seek to recreate Venice’s storied past.

There’s historic Venice—the old cafés of San Marco, the few remaining squeros (shipyards) where workers spend months slowly laboring to create a single gondola, and the hundreds of palazzi packed with art and history.

And then there’s the Venice of the Biennale, a biannual celebration that attracts the best of modern art, a time when Venice pulls out the stops and glories in her true splendor.

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Venice of the Biennale
It’s two in the morning. We approach Venice from the island of San Servolo, and watch as the city unfolds before us. Everything is aglow with light. Mega-yachts dot the shoreline, framing the city skyline. To our left is Santa Maria della Salute, emerging from the dark water like a pillar of light. Behind us, the churches of Giudecca hover, silent testaments to the city’s historic past. Straight ahead lies Piazza San Marco. The Basilica of San Marco reflects sparks of gold-hued light, while the square itself shimmers, filled with well-dressed people even at this late hour.

Every single part of Venice seems to have pulled out all the stops, to have bathed itself in brilliance in honor of this most special of occasions. The terraces at five-star hotels are awash with colors, filled with private events, well-dressed partiers dancing to the rhythm of the latest hits or relaxing and savoring a moment’s reprieve to the sounds of a string quartet.

The canals are packed. I’ve never seen so much traffic in Venice’s “streets.” Taxi drivers work overtime, chauffeuring fashionable couples from one event to another, from hotels to restaurants to private islands. Vaporettos are packed to overflowing. Their schedules have been extended until later in the night and reinforced to handle the traffic of special parties and events. And ironically, the service appears to be free. A visiting friend asks if anybody ever pays for the vaporettos—she has no idea how to do so. With the number of people on the boats, it probably doesn’t matter—it would be nearly impossible for an inspector to push through the crowds to check your ticket, anyways.

Every June, the city welcomes the Biennale. In even years, it hosts the architecture Biennale, while in odd years, the art Biennale stops in. Either way, the entire city is transformed. The Giardini Pubblici – a far-off corner of the city few tourists ever reach – is recast, as its 30 international pavilions are decorated with art installations created by citizens of their countries. Disparate in styles, the pavilions square off as a testament to the multi-national flavor of this international event. Created by Napoleon, the Giardini – normally a quiet place of reprieve – shift gears, as gaggles of people queue up to see works by the featured guest countries.

But the Giardini cannot contain the Biennale. Indeed, every corner of the city is transformed by this colossal event. Art galleries and pavilions for countries not lucky enough to have a permanent headquarters at the Giardini spring up in warehouses, palazzi, and almost any other space that can be rented out. Even in my own neighborhood, a corner of Dorsoduro far from the tourist track, galleries have opened in libraries, storage spaces, and historic homes. In addition to the Biennale’s main events, there are hundreds of officially sponsored eventi collaterali (supplementary events), and then there’s everything else. Local galleries plan special events and hold openings to coincide with the Biennale, and art students even take to the streets to stage performance art pieces. Venice, long renowned as the mystical artistic city on the water, puts on its Sunday best and comes into its own.

Venice at Biennale is a constant party, a whirlwind of activities – for those who are in the know. During the week of the Vernissage, the extended pre-party leading up to the official inauguration of the Biennale, dash from one pavilion opening to the next. Slide in and grab a prosecco as you listen to the de rigeur speeches by politicians bestowing their official blessings and artists selling their cryptic contributions. If you’re lucky, afterwards you’ll manage to actually see the pavilion—although it almost seems as if the art is merely the excuse, a reason to socialize and be seen, to grab a drink and be merry before you dash off to the next opening on your busy social agenda.

And then there are the parties. Last week saw Palazzo da Brizzo turned into a Venetian-only private party as “in” Venetians made their way to this towering mansion. Well off the beaten tourist track, this villa-for-rent was recently the home to the behind-the-scenes team supporting the filming of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp’s The Tourist. On the night of the party, the music is thumping, the dance floor is moving, and the bar is packed with party-goers awaiting that summer treat, mojitos dished up by the dozen by a somewhat intoxicated bartender. The party spills out into the garden, as people socialize, catch up with old friends and make new ones, stitching together the social fabric of Venetian life.

Well-funded nations rent out historic palazzi and throw smashing parties attended by their invited guests and a smattering of literati from the arts world. Last night, we hopped on a vaporetto and crossed the lagoon to the Island of San Servolo. Tucked between Giudecca and the Lido, this small island is home to the Venice International University. Just a ten minute boat ride from Piazza San Marco, the university campus has been transformed into a private party thrown by the Spanish Pavilion. Torches light the pathways and the music beckons, and we stroll past sculptures and well-dressed waiters bearing trays of sumptuous hors-d’oeuvres, pass tables that have hosted the elaborate dinner for politicians and other bigwigs, and shimmy on up to the open bar where your drink of choice is served to you in a real glass—no plastic at these parties. An elevated deck provides stunning views over the lagoon, and I’m left marveling at the fact that a government has rented out a third of an entire island—a whole university campus—to throw a party for a thousand or so art-goers. I don’t even want to think about what it must have cost.

This exclusive side of the Biennale is all about connections. The real VIPs can get into any event, but others socialize at the pavilions of the Giardini by day (themselves open only by invitation), inquiring politely if their friend might by chance have an extra invitation for that special event this evening. Luckily, one of our friends penned this year’s guide to the Biennale, and therefore knows scores of people on the Venice arts scene. We show up at a party without an invitation and she makes a few phone calls. A moment later, her friends call back, and we step up to the entryway and say the “password”—literally, a special name that grants you access to the party. The list-checkers don wide smiles and wave us on in.

We ended up party-hopping two nights ago. With a bit of time to spare between the opening of the Catalan pavilion and the main event of the evening, we stroll over to a selective event in the Abbazia di San Gregorio, located right next to Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal. A quick phone call, the magic word, and we’re in, sipping away at drinks (the bartender ended up handing us our own bottle of prosecco) and ogling the incredible views of the canal from the stunning second-floor conservatory. We then jump on the vaporetto for a quick hop across the canal, and stop in at another party for a moment before heading to the evening’s finale. The United Arab Emirates are hosting a party on a boat they have rented out for the evening. The bouncer is a friend and waves us in, and we step up to the boat’s upper deck. We spend the evening cruising up and down the Giudecca canal, enjoying mojitos and daiquiris, and dancing the night away at this stellar open-air party.

At the Abbazia di San Gregorio, overlooking the Grand Canal

Venice at Biennale is about being seen, and being seen means dressing to the nines. Every group seems to have a different look: though the standard is jacket and shirt – no tie – you’ll see politicians in full suits inaugurating pavilion and gallery openings, waiters in tuxedo and bow tie dashing off to their next for-hire event, and of course, the inimitable artists, decked out in outfits from stylish to absurd—some sporting the classic all-black look, others pushing beyond hipster to the true domain of the independent artist, pairing flamboyant fabrics with seeming cast-offs to create extravagant combinations. No matter whether their ensembles flourish or flop, it’s always easy to spot the artists.

The Biennale is an incredible boon for the city. As packed as Carnevale, yet drawing a very different crowd, you’ll find that every hotel is booked solid months or even years in advance. Country delegations books blocks of dozens of rooms, and the press pours into the city, squeezing into every livable space. I check the internet: only two hotels in Venice have rooms available for the opening weekend of the Biennale, for a minimum of $300 a room—for a single. Even hotels on the mainland—half an hour from the city—have prices starting at several hundred dollars a night.

If you’re lucky enough to live here and have a few connections, though, you’ll find yourself enjoying an incredible time at the premier international art event: a week of fabulous parties, non-stop inaugurations, open bars, and art galore, without spending a single dime. That is, unless you’re like me, and pay for the vaporetto.

Thinking fondly about the Biennale...

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