Saturday, 12 October 2013

Behind the scenes at the bank

It would be fair to say that the headquarters of the Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia in Campo Manin does not feature highly on any list of the city's most loved buildings.

It's an ultra-rare example of modernist architecture in the city and so, the complaint goes, it doesn't fit the surrounding environment. I don't think it's such a bad building - in other cities it might be thought of more highly - but there's no denying that it seems strange and out of place at first sight.

The history behind it is interesting. Towards the end of the 19th century, the city wanted a permanent monument to Daniele Manin, the hero of the rebellion against the Austrians. As a result, the church of San Paternian (already closed by Napoleon) was demolished to make way for the statue of Manin, and the square was renamed in his honour. In 1883, the first Cassa di Risparmio was opened there. By the 1960s, the bank had outgrown the building, and a new one was commissioned which opened in 1972. So it's worth stressing that the new building replaces one less than a century old - it's not as if one of the truly historic monuments was demolished to make way for it.

The architects were Angelo Scatolin and the great Pier Luigi Nervi.We had the chance to take a proper look around it during a one-day event called "Il Palazzo - Arte e Storia nelle banche" (think of it as a banks-only equivalent to "Doors Open Day" in the UK). We were taken round by one of the bank staff who explained its history. On the very first day of business, he told us, the bank took the grand total of 1.5 lira in deposits; the one from a bishop and the half from an ordinary member of the public.

I really like the interior, which feels spacious and full of light, due to a ceiling supported on just four pillars. I wasn't sure if I should take photographs or not - banks, understandably, get twitchy about that sort of thing - but the guide was quite happy for me to do so. Architecture students, he said, are always particularly interested in the staircase which shows the influence of Scarpa.

Beyond the architecture itself, there's some interesting art to be seen, and midway through the tour we were handed over to the bank's archivist. One of the board rooms holds one of the preparatory designs of the Paradiso, the full-scale version of which can be seen in the Palazzo Ducale. Another holds a portrait of a Venetian nobleman that is commonly attributed to Tintoretto's son Domenico. But, in the  opinion of the archivist, it may be something far more exciting : the lack of a signature and pentimenti (found throughout Domenico's work) might mean it is actually the work of Tintoretto's daughter Marietta, la Tintoretta.

He took us through to the archive itself, where he put on a pair of white cotton gloves and reverentially took down a small book, perhaps no more than 5" by 3". The Life of the Virgin, he announced, and turned to the beautifully illustrated front page. Painted by Giovanni Bellini with a brush made, it is said, from the hair of a newborn baby.

The  book, bound in Hungary,  was thought lost until an antiquarian in Vienna came into possession of it in the early 1990s, not long after Hungary had re-opened its borders. Funding was found to secure its return, and so the archivist travelled to Vienna, handed over the money, and returned to Venice with a book illustrated by Bellini tucked into his jacket pocket. He was, he told us, too scared to transport it any other way.

As I said, the building itself is a controversial one. But in its own, unique way, it's one of the most interesting in the city.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

San Francesco del Deserto

One of the more remote installations at the Biennale is on the tiny island of San Francesco del Deserto. It's not the easiest place to reach. You need to arrange a transfer from Burano, in advance, following which a boat will pick you up and take you to the island, where one of the frati will show you around. And no, they're not monks : as it was explained to us, monks are self-sufficient, and live an ascetic life cloistered away from the world. Friars belong to mendicant orders and live an evangelical lifestyle in which they move around on a regular basis.

They say the convent was founded in 1220, following a visit by St Francis after his return from the Holy Land; making this the northernmost Franciscan outpost in Italy. It's a lovely place, extremely peaceful. The convent itself underwent restoration in the mid 20th century, removing previous work that was not felt to be in keeping with the Franciscan ethos. There is no great art to be discovered here, but that's not the point. It doesn't distract from its simple, meditative beauty.

The main Biennale work had finished by the end of August, but there was one quite jolly piece that still remained (as the artist hadn't got round to removing it) :-

- entitled "Soft Carnivorous Machines", it consists of a number of fragile, crab-like claws of Murano glass emerging from the lagoon. In her statement, the artist claims that "St Francis would have liked these animals". I'm sure he would!