Venezia, a place like no other! A living, breathing, jaw-droppingly beautiful, renaissance painting come to life. As you dodge the hoards of tourists in the most famous squares, it also offers deserted canals and shady bridges, that give chills when night falls. Who could forget the 1973 iconic Julie Christie film ‘Don’t Look Now’ a thriller set in this water city of dreams and nightmares.
Venice Biennale, one of the most glamorous and respected art festivals in the world, has a cache and romance unreplicated anywhere else. The theme of this year’s 58th edition “May you Live in Interesting Times’ was curated by Ralph Rugoff, from London’s Hayward Gallery. His invitation to the 79 participating artists (half of which were women) was to explore the social, economic and political state of the world we are living in, to challenge existing thought and forms, and in turn invite the viewer to do so. The works seek to help us understand what it means to live in these ‘interesting’ times.
Here’s our guide to this year’s Venice Biennale.
The main exhibition is split into two locations The Giardini and Arsenale. In addition to this, 40 countries host pavilions and there are also numerous shows outside of the main catalogue. There is a mind-boggling amount of art to occupy any enthusiast for weeks, so I’ll share with you my personal highlights, if you only have a couple of days.
Jannis Koullis, a conceptual artist whose show at the Fondazione Prada, though not officially part of the festival, is arguably one of the best. A seamless symphony of works in the exquisite space that is the Palazzo Ca’ Corner delle Regina. Using music, smells, graphics and an array of diverse materials, he creates a visual poetry that increases in intensity as you move up the floors. A sublime and exquisite sensory experience, that will appease your soul.
A one stop on the Vaporetto to the San Giorgio Maggiore will reward you with a stunning and ambitious exhibition of Sean Scully’s works. The main centrepiece is a bright felt sculpture towering inside the dome, leading up to the heavens.
His trademark contemporary stacks of colour leap out against the muted grey of the ancient stone. His sketches and writings are explored in various parts of the church, which he describes as ‘his muse.’ The most significant book is a manuscript of his life works, which will be left with the monks after the exhibition has closed. Scully explores the parallels of art and worship in a way that leads the viewer to a higher state of colourful consciousness. His take on the spiritual path is an almighty and must- see sight.
The Indian Pavilion is dedicated to an array of sensitive works inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. I particularly loved the late Rummana Hussain’s installation using the simple clay vessel, mirrors and shadows as a medium for expression of the feminine. Also representing India in the main exhibitions is Shilpa Gupta whose highly political and emotive works, violently force the viewer to consider the oppression and divisive nature of the world we live in. In my opinion, she is one of India’s best conceptual artists working today.
The Icelandic Pavilion shows a wild grotto of fabulousness created by Shoplifter the Icelandic conceptual artist a.k.a Hrafnhildur Arnardottir. It is an otherworldly, disorientating, surreal and colourful immersive experience, like a psychedelic hairy trip. Shoplifter was inspired by 1970’s women’s craft art, which was considered inferior back then. She celebrates wool, women and colour in this glorious and happy installation.
The Lithuanian Pavilion has to be seen to be believed. It has been transformed into a live beach complete with deckchairs and sand shipped over from Lithuanian beaches. There are regular performances of opera running and if you register in time, you can actually sit on the beach while they are happening and be a part of the art.
In the Romanian Pavilion, Belu-Siion Fainaru’s Monument for Nothingness is a deliberate and delicate work in progress; a shrine to aspiration. Visitors are invited to take a rose petal, make a wish and insert it into a hole in a white wall – a tender installation of hope and beauty charged with the dreams of many.
There is so much more to see but of course, Venice is not just about world class art. If you avoid the usual tourist haunts you can eat and drink exceptionally well too. As the biennale is on until November, take your time to enjoy everything the city has to offer. Here are my tips of where to head.
Eat & Drink
Sestiere di S Marco 950, 30124 Venice
The perfect breakfast place, pastries, tramezzini’s, coffees, juices. Service may be a little slow, but worth people watching whilst you wait for the perfect macchiato and tramezzino. Website
Piazza San Marco 57, 30124 Venice
Visit St Marco square for an extremely expensive but classic coffee experience, in the most famous spot in the city. Website
Fondamenta dei Ormesini 2679, 30121 Venice
An unassuming Osteria canal side in Cannaregio consistently served some of the best seafood pasta I have ever had. The classic spaghetti vongole and spaghetti with anchovies were outstanding in the reasonably priced trattoria
San Marco 2814, Venice 30124
A dreamy romantic Venetian paradise. Take your lover, book a suite and dine in the Pisanino restaurant overlooking the grand canal. Website
Guidecca 10 30133 Venice
Visit Cipriani’s in Giudecca to push the boat out for the ultimate in Venetian experience. Iconic Harry’s bar is a must if you want to try the Bellini in its original birthplace in sumptuous settings. Website
Il Paradiso Perduto
Fondamenta della Misericordia 2540, 30121 Venice
Situated in the Cannaregio district, this lively hipster trattoria come bar serves a whole host of small plates of Cicchetti and a Cacio Pepe pasta mixed hot at the table. Live Jazz on a Monday night and a lively atmosphere as the sun goes down. A great place to meet friends for aperitivo. Website
The Bauer Hotel
Piscina San Moise, 1459, 30124 Venice
This venue never fails to disappoint open till 3am every night. If you look the part try the members bar to dance with the glitterati of the festival. Website
Calle Fiubera 943, 30124 Venice
One of the last remaining original places to buy the slippers worn by the Gondoliers. Friulanes as they are known use offcuts of fabric to fashion this soft slippers. You can find every colour and size in this store, as well as designer versions by their in-house designer Laura Biagiotti. With all the walking you will do, they are a handy flat to have in your capsule wardrobe.
The Unexpected Shop
Calle Lunga San Barnaba
If you are lucky this shop of curiosities and ‘found’ objects may be open. More of an art installation than a shop you can purchase an array of bizarre and surreal object from sketches by the owner at 5 euro each to a large piece of crystal to toy collectable cars from the 1950’s, who knows what you may find in this unique spot. Something unique, a treasure perhaps.
Calle de le Boteghe 3182, 30123 Venezia
The Venetian island of Murano, is world famous for the handblown glassware and you find it all over. However, this particular boutique specializes in artisan jewellery. They blow their own glass beads in the traditional lampwork technique to make exquisite pieces with a modern sensibility. You can even watch the process in their workshops at the atelier.
O.L.D. Original Laboratory of Design
Fondamenta de S Basegio 1643, 30123 Venice
If Vintage is your thing, this tiny treasure trove will have you hooked. A well curated assortment of designer and interesting pieces from military jackets and bowler hats to pre-loved Missoni, Versace, Marni and Fendi. You are likely to find something you didn’t know you wanted!
Calle Lunga San Barnaba 2729, 30123 Venice
More than Venice’s only design bookshop, Bruno is a graphic studio, publishing house and a place for talks and presentations. Using their passion and previous careers in graphic design, founders Giacomo Covacich and Andrea Codolo birthed this creative hub in 2013, where you can find the most beautiful limited edition print titles and enjoy events. Check out their newest project ‘book biennale’ on till the end of November.
Pied à Terre
Ruga dei Oresi, 60, 30125, Venice
This is the place to buy furlane, those chic velvet gondolier slippers. Soon to become your favourite wardrobe item, the soles are old bicycle tires, so very durable. Come walking around London, New York or Paris, or jumping on and off gondolas, they’ll last you a lifestyle and you’ll always feel effortlessly stylish.
Gianni Basso Stampatore
Calle del Fumo, 5306, Cannaregio, Venice
Make your way to this traditional shop in Cannaregio for bookplates, business cards and stationery printed on antique printing presses. Make sure to ask Basso, who began apprenticing to Armenian monks at only 14, to show you the engravings from the first edition of Pinocchio, which hangs in the back room. Remember, it’s cash-only.
Calle del Lovo, 4813, 30124 Venice
The go-to milliner stocking Montecristo Panama hats imported directly from Ecuador, hats for gondoliers, hats and headgear for the Venetian Carnevale. Run by the women of the family since 1901, Giuliana’s shop is the dream hat-cupboard of any true sartorialist.
Read our weekend guide to Venice here