Once every two years, the contemporary-art world descends on Venice. The vernissage of the Art Biennale is an intense three-day ciao-fest, a long, sleepless, prosecco-fuelled performance. This year’s preview (May 6-8) will introduce the event’s 56th exhibition directed by its first-ever African curator, Okwui Enwezor, and entitled All the World’s Futures. It will be the longest yet, opening a month earlier than usual on May 9 and closing on November 22.
The rest of the time, so the cliché goes, Venice lapses back into its assigned role as a large, water-bound museum of old things – what decadent poet Arthur Symons called “a finished, conscious work of art” to which “you can add nothing”.
That’s not quite true – you simply need to be careful how and where you add to it. Venice is good at changing in order to stay the same, to paraphrase Lampedusa’s twilight-of-the-aristocracy novel, Il Gattopardo. Take the legendary Gritti Palace hotel: between 2011 and 2013, £35m was poured into a top-to-toe restoration that mobilised an army of skilled Venetian artisans. It was an object lesson in artful nipping and tucking, designed to make the Gritti look not so much exactly the way it used to, as more the way you always imagined it should.
Another example: in the residential eastern part of Castello there’s a Renaissance-era waterside cavana, once a bishop’s boathouse, that has changed little since Canaletto painted it in 1755. Venture inside, however, and you’re in a 21st-century glossy interiors magazine. A six-bedroom townhouse, rentable for four nights or more, Casa San Pietro belongs to the Roman designer Ilaria Miani and her husband Giorgio – famous for a stylish gaggle of Tuscan farmhouses they have restored in the Val d’Orcia. Perfect for a large group of friends, it’s also an ideal base for the two main Art Biennale venues – just a 10-minute walk away.
A similar old-yet-new rule applies to many of the city’s humble bacari, or wine and food osterias. Just because buzzy, tasty Estro Vino e Cucina has exposed stone walls and wooden ceiling beams, don’t assume it’s been there forever. In fact, it opened in June 2014 and has quickly become the Dorsoduro set’s new favourite pit stop for gourmet refuelling.
There is, however, one way in which Venice has changed more radically. In fewer than 10 years, it has reinvented itself as a contemporary-art destination – and not just during the Biennale. The catalyst was French fashion and luxury-goods magnate François Pinault, who in 2005 bought stately 18th-century Grand Canal pile Palazzo Grassi from the Fiat Group. Two years later, Venice’s city council gave him one of its most iconic empty buildings, the Punta della Dogana, a former customs house, on a 33-year lease. Both renovated by Tadao Ando, they now show themed selections from Pinault’s vast private contemporary-art collection, alongside newly commissioned exhibitions – such as the impressive Rudolf Stingel show that took over the whole of Palazzo Grassi in 2013.
In the years since Pinault splashed down on the lagoon, a raft of new contemporary art and design spaces has opened. In 2011 Fondazione Prada reached out beyond Milan to occupy historic Grand Canal palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina. And the island of San Giorgio Maggiore – almost entirely occupied by the Cini Foundation – has become the venue for some world-class art in recent years, from an absorbing 2013 Marc Quinn survey to Le Stanze del Vetro, a series of shows dedicated to the glass creations of 20th-century design talents such as Carlo Scarpa. Over by the Punta della Dogana, there is the dynamic little Tre Oci photo gallery and the Fondazione Vedova, where the canvases of abstract expressionist Emilio Vedova are set in waltzing motion thanks to an ingenious conveyor system designed by Renzo Piano. Once, this dreamy eastern part of Dorsoduro had only the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Salute church to shout about; now it’s become something of an art-maven magnet. Playful baroque-modernist boutique hotel Ca’ Maria Adele distils the area’s relaxed elegance. And as of spring 2014, it has expanded into a delicious townhouse annexe, Palazzetto 113, whose two bedrooms can be booked separately or combined to form an independent Venetian pied-à-terre.
The result of all this is, quite simply, a sea change. One of the city’s leading galleristi, Michela Rizzo, reckons that “in the past 10 years, Venice has become one of the top cities for contemporary art in Italy, alongside Milan and Turin”. This despite the daunting organisational challenges – which, in her case, have included working out how to get a 2,500kg sculpture by Tony Cragg up the Grand Canal. Next door to Rizzo’s gallery, in the increasingly art-oriented Giudecca-island district, Spazio Punch was launched by curators Augusto Maurandi and Lucia Veronesi in 2011. In a bare rectangular brick shed, where punch and other alcoholic beverages were once stored, the duo host shows focusing on design, avant-garde publishing ventures and the interface between fashion, art and film.
One of the joys of this ancient city with its age-old trades and traditions is the way the line between art and artisanship is so often blurred. There is still some superb Murano glasswork being created, from Count “Gibi” Arrivabene Valenti Gonzaga’s classy Giberto tableware and the eminently wearable jewellery of sisters Marina and Susanna Sent, to the fluid, fantastical sculptural creations of Venice-based artist Maria Grazie Rosin. Over lunch at persuasive osteria Acqua Stanca, on Murano island, Rosin tells me she could do what she does nowhere else: working closely with master glassblowers, she says, enriches and inspires her art. In a 2013 project, Fractal Lace, she took on another of the city’s traditional crafts, collaborating with a veteran Burano lacemaker to create woven drifts that echo the delicate patterns and textures of the lagoon’s salt marshes.
Rosin is represented here by gallerista Caterina Tognon, a glass specialist who has branched out into contemporary art tout court, helping to organise site-specific projects by Cerith Wyn Evans and others. Though it’s a challenge working in a city where most collectors are just passing through, Tognon points out that Venice also offers the culturally curious some unique experiences. Like taking in a show by US glass artist Toots Zynsky in the setting of Palazzo Loredan – an ornately frescoed, stuccoed and mirrored Renaissance townhouse not normally open to the public.
But perhaps the best-known living Venetian artist is Maurizio Pellegrin. His light-filled studio, designed by architect Vincenzo Casali, is a modern-day Wunderkammer of curiosities waiting to be assembled into found-object canvases – among them 18th-century funeral wreaths made from glass perline, wire birdcages and animal skulls. The studio can be visited as part of the Contemporary Venice tours offered by Cristina Gregorin – “the only guide in the city who will touch anything north of the 20th century”, in the words of Venice expert and Bellini Travel CEO Emily FitzRoy.
I meet Gregorin for dinner at Riviera on the Zattere, where the view is romanticissimo and the fresh, local menu is a few cuts above the Venetian norm. Gregorin’s love of Venice past and present is infectious and she likes nothing more than to create short-circuits between the two. “Think of Palladio,” she tells me, pointing across the water to the architect’s Il Redentore church. “Today he’s part of the city’s heritage, but he had problems getting his projects approved at the time; Venetians saw his work as too new and revolutionary.” It is perhaps precisely this aesthetic conservatism that makes La Serenissima such an invigorating place to experience the shock of the new.