Monday, 15 October 2012

San Lorenzo

On, then, to more of the Architecture Biennale. I think I just about get the idea behind the Luxembourg pavilion (hosted in a palazzo looking out onto the Grand Canal), but it's a bit cryptic and the overriding impression is not so much "hmm, a thoughtful deconstruction of the idea of the mega-city in a hypothetical future" but more "wow, I really wish I lived here".

Latvia have a small but thoughtful installation in Campo San Zaccaria : a reconstruction of a section of a street in Riga next to a mirrored section that reflects the Venetian space around us (and they also provide a space to sit for the weary architecture hound).

We head on to the Georgian pavilion, in an office on the Riva degli Schiavoni, but it's closed. Peering as best I can through the window, it appears they might have gone home already. Oh well.

The real highlight of the day, however, is a visit to San Lorenzo,  the church that no-one ever quite got around to finishing. It was last rebuilt four hundred years ago, but the facade was never finished. It was suppressed by Napoleon, fell into disuse, and was badly damaged during World War I. There have been a number of restoration efforts since, and attempts to make use of the space (viz. Luigi Nono and Renzo Piano's staging of Nono's opera Prometeo) but, infuriatingly, the interior of the building has been closed off for years now. As Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti reflects "The brick fa├žade of San Lorenzo had been free of scaffolding for the last few months but the church still remained closed...he knew that the church would never be reopened, not in his lifetime...".

Well, the good Commissario was wrong, because San Lorenzo is open again. The reason is that Mexico have taken a lease on the church for the purpose of hosting their Biennale exhibitions for (I think) the next five years; as a result of which the space has been opened up.

The Mexican "pavilion" itself is actually in a temporary wooden structure directly outside the church. We have a look around it, but we find it hard to get too enthused. Part of the problem is the annoyingly insistent background music that loops over and over and over again, making it impossible to concentrate on the actual exhibition itself. We also feel a sense of injustice on behalf of the stray cats, whose home has had to be moved from its usual position in order to accommodate it. But the main reason is that we're mainly here to see inside the church.

You can't just wander around the interior, as most of the floor is dug up at present. But you can make your way through the door and see pretty much all there is to see. What strikes you is the sheer scale of the place. It's a ruin, yes, but a magnificent one.

Prometeo must have been something to see!

Sunday, 7 October 2012


 The important thing to know about the Murano glass-makers is that almost everything they make is, at least to my taste, perfectly hideous - Jan Morris.

I'm kind of with Jan on this. Well, up to a point. They do make some quite funky jewellery these days. And given that they've supplied Caroline with regular birthday and Christmas presents over the past few years, I'd do well not to speak too harshly of them. But "classic" Murano glass - those great, swirling rococo chandeliers of candy-coloured glass? Oh yes, I can see it's fantastically clever but I have to confess the main reaction it inspires in me is a kind of "Yechhhh...".

Anyway, we'll come back to glass in a moment. The Palazzo Franchetti is an almost impossibly pretty building in Campo Santo Stefano that overlooks the Grand Canal. It always seems to be hosting some event or other but, at the same time, there's always a charge for entrance, so we've put off having a look around, until now. Because, at the moment, it's hosting an exhibition called Nine Rooms, by the Swedish glassmaker Bertil Vallien. It's a high-profile event - images from the exhibition are posted all over town, including the vaporetti - but it's gone rather over our heads. Until Caroline reads that there's a free guided tour of the exhibition on a Sunday morning as part of the European Day of Patrimony (an event which has already led us to, shall we say, a rather challenging evening of Latin poetry at the Palazzo Grimani), and we think well, the glass might be a bit dull but it's a chance for a free look round the palazzo.

And how wrong can you be? Because all our impressions of the palazzo itself are completely blown away by the glasswork. Quite simply, it's the best exhibition of contemporary art we've seen since we arrived. It is a stunningly beautiful body of work.


The Sleeping Girl



Vallien's work contrasts with the traditional Murano chandeliers hanging in the palazzo, which (to our eyes at least) look fussy and frivolous in comparison. But maybe that's unfair. They're extraordinarily complex pieces of work in their own right. It's not their fault that tastes have changed. And Vallien himself recently spent time in Murano learning some of the techniques of the glassworkers there. 

The pictures don't do it justice, but I found it the most persuasive argument I've seen for glasswork as art as opposed to decoration. The exhibition is on until the 25th November. If you're in Venice during that period, do try and see it.