In Venetian art, Venetian arts and crafts

The Venezia Pavilion is an exception in the history of the Venice Biennale. Designed in 1932 during Fascism on the island of Sant’Elena, the reason why it was built is quite interesting and very relevant nowadays still. But let’s start from the beginning!

The poster of the 18th edition of the Venice Biennale in 1932 (note the Venezia Pavilion across the bridge)

The Venice Biennale (1895)

In 1895 the Venice Biennale was born in the area of the Giardini, originally monasteries and convents, all secularised in 1807. Its original mission was to exhibit works of art from different nations in the world. Starting in 1907 each nation would be given a different pavilion, thus supporting the connection between art and a specific country.

Before COVID-19: the poster announcing the Venice Biennale in 2020 outside the Arsenale

Casting an eye over the Munich Secession movement and keeping in mind what happened in Paris in those years, a group of Venetian intellectuals and artists understood the value of exhibiting works of art at an international event. In their mind, Venice would be the venue where visitors could compare and create their own artistic evaluation and where artists could ideally converse together. 

An exhibit on the history of the Venice Biennale “The Disquieted Muses” (2020): from Aug. 29 till Dec. 8, you will have the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Giardini uniquely dedicated to the history of this institution. Filling up the gap left by the cancellation of the Venice Architecture Biennale due to COVID-19, “The Disquieted Muses: When the Biennale Meets History” will bring all six of the Venice Biennale’s sections together: art, architecture, cinema, dance, music and theatre.

The Venezia Pavilion (1932), a short history

When visiting the Biennale Giardini, among the different national Pavilions, you will also see the one named Venezia.

Detail of the writing “Venezia” outside the Venezia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Brenno Del Giudice, 1932)

Why then a one city pavilion? The Venezia Pavilion was not born to respond to some provincialism. Belonging to the City Council of Venice, the Venezia Pavilion was originally designed to host arts and crafts excellence from Venice, and not just. The idea was to select artisans’ creations and elevate them at the “pure art” level.

Interiors of the Venezia Pavilion while getting ready for the Art Salons of the Biennale 2020

Some protagonists of the Venezia Pavilion’s foundation

It was the 18th edition of the Biennale. The president was Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, the man who had started the industrial development of Venice, had imagined the exploitation of Lido targeting high quality tourism and had become Minister of Finance for Benito Mussolini’s government between 1925 and 1929. In the direction committee Beppe Ciardi, the son of Guglielmo while in the consultive committee there were Nino Barbantini, Felice Casorati and Margherita Sarfatti among others. Barbantini and Casorati, the rebels of Ca’ Pesaro movement. Sarfatti, not just Mussolini’s Jewish lover, but for sure one of the most active Italian intellectuals of the time.

The first film festival in the history

Decorative arts and artisanal production: this would be the reason for this new pavilion. The same year, Giuseppe Volpi launched the International Film Festival at the Lido. Venice became the city where the very first film festival in the history would be held, thus recognising cinema as a true art at a time when many intellectuals would not agree.

The poster of the first Film Festival in Venice, 1932 at the 18th edition of the Biennale

The role of the Istituto Veneto per il Lavoro

A leading role in the creation of the Venezia Pavilion was played by the Istituto Veneto per il Lavoro (The Veneto Institute for Labour). It had been founded in 1915 by the entrepreneurs Gian Carlo Stucky and Angelo Gino Toso —both running industrial mills, the one led by Stucky on the island of Giudecca— and the engineer Beppe Ravà. The institute promoted specialisation courses, sponsoring collaboration between artisans and artists for a renewal of decorative arts, arrange exhibitions and support commercial deals.

A summer day outside the Venezia Pavilion on the island of Sant’Elena

Which arts and crafts were promoted in the Venezia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale? 

Of course the ones in which Venice excelled: glass, lace, mosaics and ironwork.

A cooperation between artists and artisans was the chore mission. Paolo Venini for glass and chandeliers, Checchin for crystal, Giovanni Anfodillo for artistic furniture, Giovanni Pasinetti for decoration, Nicodemo Cecolin for metal, Luigi Bevilacqua for textiles and velvet, Arturo Chiggiato for printed fabrics (Fortuny), more for goldsmiths and floors. They composed the so-called Venetian group of decorative arts. The young architects collaborating at the group “Alveare” took care of the interior design and set-up.

A competition between Venice and Milan

Contrasts arose as the intention to arrange such a section on decorative arts in Venice would “burn” the Triennale exhibit planned the year later in Milan, whose goal was exactly to promote arts and crafts. But, in a few months of frantic work, Venice managed not just to organise the event, but also to build the pavilion. And what a pavilion.

The Venezia Pavilion by Brenno Del Giudice (1932)

Brenno Del Giudice was the architect in charge. Born in Venice in 1888 and strongly interconnected with the Ca’ Pesaro movement milieu (Guido Cadorin, Vittorio Zecchin, Napoleone Martinuzzi), he had built some Liberty villas on Lido, the church of Sant’Erasmo, the terrace and the cafe at the Biennale in 1928 to move towards sheer geometry. 

Sant’Erasmo Church designed by Brenno Del Giudice in 1926-1929, Venice

The new pavilion had to be on Sant’Elena island close to the Giardini, where the first Biennale had developed and where room was no longer available. A bridge connected the two islands and as the shape of the new section was thin and long, Del Giudice came up with an “exedra of light”, as Ugo Nebbia wrote. Or “a praiseful work where the Italian spirit would breathe” (Antonio Maraini).

Palladio as inspirational motif

The new pavilion was inspired by Andrea Palladio whose façade for San Francesco della Vigna and whose Patriarch’s cathedral of San Pietro di Castello were not too far. It was characterised by rigor and whiteness, as most of Fascist architecture. Illumination would be from above, filtered through white linen. Inside, a colourful, but discreet floor in marble. Anything that could be uselessly decorative was eliminated towards essential formal simplification. Outside you could see semicircle-shaped steps and a major pool in the centre surrounded by pillars.

The Venezia Pavilion by Brenno Del Giudice at the Venice Biennale in 1932

Interestingly enough, a discussion arose then, and Alberto Magrini highlighted that in Venice we should not replicate the past, otherwise “placing replicas close to the ancient, we will destroy Venice while thinking we turn the city eternal.”

Detail of the Venezia Pavilion (1932, Brenno Del Giudice), Venice Biennale

The partial failure of the project, its recent years and the project for 2020

This project was eventually aborted and especially when in 1964 the Brazilian pavilion was built, the Venezia Pavilion lost its consistency even if it continued its function till 1972. But, after the important restoration in 2011 by Louis Vuitton and Arzanà Navi Peruzzo with the intervention by Fondaco srl, the Pavilion is still there.

I am very much looking forward to what will be arranged after August 29. Giovanna Zabotti, the curator of the Venezia Pavilion, is strongly convinced of the need to contaminate artisanal production with art, as in the original plan. Artists from different disciplines will be invited every weekend to talk and meet with emergent artists in the pavilion. Her idea is to explore the artists instead of the art works, to turn to human labour, education and growth and to understand “know-ledge”. 

Participation to these art salons will be free (just pre-book your presence online) and the beautiful park will be there to enjoy, too.

Most importantly, while COVID-19 has strongly hit culture and has led many to think culture is “useless”, let’s instead meet at the Venezia Pavilion to strongly state that in Venice arts and crafts will not be silenced.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Bibliography: Catalogo Padiglione Venezia, 1932-2011, 2011 Peruzzo Editoriale

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