Unless you really go for the sort of art for which you need an A4-sized explanatory label containing phrases such as ‘multiple discourses’, ‘time and transience’, ‘viscerally visual’, ‘expressive dynamism’, ‘atemporal incongruence’ or ‘axis of displacements’, ‘sonorous light of introspective dialogue’ (I could go on…), you will probably want to avoid the Venice Biennale, because (a) it is very expensive, and (b) the urge to throw the ‘artworks’ into the nearest canal may well be uncontrollable. The only advantages of going once are (a) that you can say you’ve been, and (b) that you get to go inside the Arsenale, which is an amazing place, even when full of art, but which (being still a military zone) is normally difficult of access.
But the virtue of the Biennale is that the countries without permanent pavilions in the Biennale gardens are assigned locations in palazzi, churches, and institutions not normally open to the public, and which are very interesting, sometimes in spite of the art. And these are almost always free.
One exception this year is the multi-artist exhibition in the cloisters of the Frari (now part of the Archivio di Stato). This would have cost €3 each, which from what we could see looked a bit steep, but the nice student on the gate said if we waited ten minutes we could come in for free, because there was a performance art event about to take place. At this news our hearts failed us, so we went into the Frari itself instead (waving our incredible bargain Chorus Passes) and spent a blissful hour or so wandering around, until all danger of performance art had passed.
Venues we have been to so far include the salt magazines behind the Dogana, the size of which is staggering and reminds one of the vital importance of salt to life and trade. Palazzetto Bru Zane was formerly the casino (i.e. little house, or pleasure dome) of the music-loving Marino Zane, who wanted a concert hall adjacent to the family palace and library, and so ran one up in 1695–7, using interior plans by Baldassare Longhena. The Zane were not exempt from the general financial collapse of Venice in the late eighteenth century, and the little casino remained in an increasingly dilapidated state for over 200 years until it was bought and magnificently restored by the French doctor, businesswoman and humanitarian Nicole Bru at the beginning of the 21st century: it is now a concert venue and research centre for nineteenth-century French music.
Palazzo Contarini del Zaffo is accessed via an insignificant little lane in Dorosduro.
Then there is Palazzo Falier, on the Grand Canal;
Palazzo Lezze in Campo San Stefano;
and the newly restored Palazzo Garzoni Moro, also on the Grand Canal, and the single-storey warehouse next to it.
The Ateneo Veneto, a learned society ‘for science, letters and the arts’, has a wonderful painted ceiling in its ‘aula magna’, and a Crucifixion sequence round the walls, as well as busts and memorials… These can be seen only if you are a member, or during the Biennale.
And that’s just one day’s haul! There are still Ca’ Dandolo, Ca’ Zenobio, Palazzo Malipiero, Ca’ del Duca di Sforza, Palazzo Pisani, the Biblioteca Marciana and the Pietà (Vivaldi’s church) to come. The Biennale is starting to wind down – in fact the most impressive of the exhibits we have seen, Grisha Bruskin’s remarkable tapestry-cum-digital display at the Museo Querini Stampalia, finishes today. But next year, of course, it’s the Architecture Biennale: and be warned – you can take or leave the art, but the architects have serious designs on the environment, yours and mine, and some of them might yet succeed…