Giudecca and its industrial development
Giudecca’s hidden beauty lies in its modernity. Located on the southern side of the canal leading to the tourist port, this island in Venice changed a lot when ships started passing by. Founded in 1880, the port of Venice grew very fast. Consequently, the island of Giudecca together with the area west of the port acquired a strong industrial nature.
Factories searching for space on Giudecca
Over a hundred manufacturing firms developed all over the city wherever land was available. Where was space still free in Venice? Obviously, either along peripheral areas or close to the railway or the port. Or, on the island of Giudecca where the local administration was eager to capitalise on secularised church properties that had waited for decades to be reconverted.
However, what made this Giudecca industrial development peculiar is that these factories were mainly founded by the European industrial élite, either aristocrats or the new bourgeoisie. Some Italians, few Venetians. This sort of a foreign industrial colonisation was welcomed by residents that could find an occupation, especially women, at a time when poverty had risen at high levels.
Villas and gardens on Giudecca
Moreover, after WW1, majestic villas as mansions for the factories’ owners were built, too, also on Giudecca. So while low class Venetians were employed in the factories, the high society living next door engaged itself in mundane events. High brick walls often protected the gardens, where elegant parties were arranged, from inappropriately curious eyes.
Behind the Zitelle Church
The story of one of these villas is connected to that side of the Giudecca island where the Zitelle Church greets some visitors with its elegant thermal window and a large dome. Likely designed by Andrea Palladio at the end of his life, today the church hides some beautiful orchards, partially run by a hotel, partially taken care of by a cooperative of young Venetians excelling in organic farming.
Walking down Calle Michelangelo, near the Zitelle church, you can reach the other side of the island facing the open lagoon. There, beautiful orchards once surrounded a small mansion where after 1914 an English artist would spend his summers painting Venetian views.
This idyllic vision risked to be suddenly interrupted when the Englishman sold his property in 1920 to a Venetian entrepreneur who needed a storage space for cement deposit. Sometimes good wins against evil, so no cement was ever left there. Instead, Madame Hériot bought the property with a completely different project. It was in 1926.
Madame Hériot among Paris, the Azure Coast and the Giudecca
Madame Anne-Marie Hériot, the widow of Zacharie Olympe Hériot, must have been a really interesting woman. She even inspired the French writer Émile Zola for his novel “Au Bonheur des Dames” when he described everyday life in a department store in Paris. Born in 1857, she left her humble home in Lot-et-Garonne to move to Paris and become a saleswoman at the Grands Magasins du Louvre. There she met the owner of the department store and married him.
Olympe Hériot died in 1899 and Anne-Marie well administered her wealth, financing charity projects, but also making sure her life would stick to the habits of a lot of European aristocrats. In 1904-1909 the architect Edouard Arnaud designed for her the beautiful Villa Cypris along the Azure Coast. The Italian painter Raffaele Mainella instead planned the villa interiors and the 4,5-hectare large garden.
Raffaele Mainella in Venice and his eclecticism
The year after, Raffaele Mainella together with another architect, Giuseppe Berti, was in Venice to design Palazzetto Stern along the Grand Canal for Ernesta de Hierschel Stern. Two years later, in 1911, still Mainella restored the cloister of San Gregorio Abbey for our Madame Hériot, who loved being addressed as Cyprienne now, like her villa in the Azure Coast but also like the Goddess of love Venus’ island, Cyprus. The cloister’s remains were turned into a 14th-century gothic villa for her.
Cyprienne’s taste was not different from many of the wealthy Europeans of her time. Eclecticism is the keyword, mixing Byzantine with middle-eastern, Muslim or ancient Roman design, whether it is architecture, interior design, cutlery, jewels, textile or any kind of crafts or applied arts.
No surprise to learn it was Raffaella Mainella (with the engineer Mario Radaelli) that took care of the property on the Giudecca island, near the Zitelle Church. In three years, by 1929, the whole project was completed. It included a main villa for the owner, another mansion as a guests’ home, a “cavana” (a covered pier) for the boat and a small construction as servants’ quarters on the backyard surrounded by a wonderful garden.
Hériot’s villas after WW2 becoming public property
Very little is left of the interior furnishings of the villas, unfortunately. During WW2 both villas were requisitioned by the German army and afterwards by the Allies. On January 25th in 1949 the last heir of the Hériot family sold it to the Venice municipality, when it became an elementary school for the several children living in this part of the Giudecca. The guest house was also used as a school for children affected by lungs’ weakness.
At the moment the main villa hosts the UIA (Università Internazionale dell’Arte) and its art restoration courses.
What used to be the guest house, instead, is the home to several associations, i.e. “rEsistenze”, “ANPPIA” for the persecuted people, “Associazione Famiglia Trentin”, “Olokaustos” and Fiap-Gl (the partisans from Giustizia e Libertà)
IVESER at Villa Hériot
It is here that you will also find the premises of “IVESER”, the Venetian Institute of the History of the Resistance and Contemporary Society. Connected to the national network of this same institute, in the villa there is an amazing archive about the history of partisans, trade unions and political movements and parties. More is available on the history of the industrial area in Porto Marghera. You can also have access to some private archive funds, a library with over 5700 books organised and many more to organise still.
Plans for the future of Villa Hériot on the Giudecca island
The new project in mind is to turn what used to be the guest house of Villa Hériot in a Home for Memory.
Its beautiful garden already plays the role of a Memory Garden. You can see Ravensbrück’s roses to remind of the concentration camp that had been designed for women and children. A pomegranate tree grows to remember Armin Theophil Wegner that helped Armenians and Jews. More recently, a rose was planted for Valeria Solesin, a young scholar from Venice and a victim of terrorists in Paris in 2015.
Madame Hériot and Raffaele Mainella saw in ancient and exotic art an allegory for their ideal, aristocratic aloofness. Doing so, they preserved a part of the Giudecca island from becoming a cement debris dump.
Nowadays, IVESER and its team of volunteers enhance the public value of the villa trying to preserve and narrate memory for a living community. As helping young generations share our recent history brings higher awareness and hopefully a better future, a home for memory in the middle of the Venetian lagoon is there on Giudecca. For all of us.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy