A brief history of I Giardini: Or a brief history of the Venice Biennale seen from the Giardini
[This text has been published in Muntadas/On Translation: I Giardini, Spanish Pavilion, Actar, Barcelona 2005. This is an updated version.]
[Translated from Italian by Jennifer Knaeble.]
In 1797 Napoleon invaded the Republic of Venice, treading on eleven centuries of history.
As with the other capitals he conquered, Napoleon quickly devised a new layout for the city of Venice.
The history of the Giardini begins here.
Napoleon had great plans for Venice: by expanding the Arsenal, he planned to make it into his chief port on the Adriatic Sea. The principle idea was in step with the era of Enlightenment and envisaged increasing the number of public facilities. The city was meant to become not only a functioning organism, but also one which would bear witness to contemporary science and culture of the time. Parks and gardens were necessary features that would represent healthy, green spaces and free lifestyles in touch with nature even if “always under the vigilant eye of reason”.1
The Napoleon government accepted the plan proposed by the Venetian architect Giannantonio Selva in 1807. The project called for the demolition of the furthermost part of the Castello quarter, an area densely populated and rich with vegetable gardens, convents and some of the oldest churches in the city. The rubble left over from the demolition of the buildings was used to settle and consolidate the ground in the area and to erect a small and artificial hill as a means of enhancing the aesthetics of the landscape.
In the general project of transformation, Selva also designed via Garibaldi, in semblance to a Parisian boulevard, bringing a touch of modernity to the city’s medieval streets. Via Garibaldi was, and still is today, the only authentic street, in Venice, the largest and most illuminated, and became the perfect entrance into the new Giardini.
It is also important to remember that the canal bank, currently used as a landing stage for vaporetti, was not built until 1937.
In designing the project Selva was assisted by a botanist responsible for choosing the types of plants and their placement—a difficult task considering the climate of the lagoon area. Today the green areas of the Giardini, including all the trees, have become protected areas.
Confronted with a space that was “destined for the public”, Selva chose the “simplicity of the Italian garden” as his design guideline for the area and one which would reflect, in cultural and educational terms, the “modest possibilities of abstract thinking of the working class – the intended inhabitants of the Castello quarter”.2
The Giardini extend along two axes: the first leads from the city towards the man-made hill, at the extreme eastern point of the Giardini; the second begins at the sea front and continues in the direction of the Giardini.
Before the arrival of Napoleon, the city’s boundaries ended where via Garibaldi lies today, and the island of Sant’Elena, then just a small island, was assuming its present-day form, thanks to the ground filling operations employed under Napoleon’s direction.
However, it resulted in the Giardini becoming disproportionate in size with regards to city conditions at the time, and decentralized with respect to the heart of Venetian life taking place among the campi of San Luca, Rialto and San Marco. Selva’s project also envisaged a series of recreational facilities for the green areas which were never realized, however, due to lack of public funds.
Only a few years after being built, the Giardini were not being used as intended and began to be seen as extraneous elements lacking in purpose.
In 1841 the railway bridge connecting Venice to the mainland was built, shifting the city’s central access point from the San Marco Basin to the part of the city nearest the mainland. As a result, the San Marco Basin became merely a representative and ceremonial centre of the city.
Despite the economic decadence of the times, Venice remained, or rather increasingly grew, as a place of tourist attraction for writers, poets, literary scholars, painters, collectors and travellers, whose journey to the city was in the form of a true pilgrimage.
The history, beauty and architectural singularity of Venice, which were born out of political and economic necessity, became the distinguishing attributes of the “Patrimony of Venice”.3
It was in this way the universal legend regarding the city’s charm began to be used for commercial aims.
Curiously enough, in 1807 Napoleon banned all forms of gambling throughout the conquered territories save for the “cities of water”, thus giving an unconventional and evasive character to the holiday resort locations, which were beginning to flourish in the area. A good example of which was the Lido, at the time still a wild and uninhabited island.
It was during this period that Venice began to be considered as a place where “quality and artistic attractions could be combined with the more fashionable attractions of seaside resorts”.4
By 1857 the first bathing establishment on the Lido was in full operation and in 1869 the Bathing Society was founded, giving way to the island’s systematic development of entrepreneurial activities which were assured to make profit, thanks to the Lido’s close vicinity to Venice.
From 1861, the larger cities of Italy celebrated the country’s recent unification in the form of national fairs, which gave occasion to inaugurations of statues honouring the founders of the kingdom. The Italian political unification also imposed the need of national celebrations in the artistic realm, where artists from all regions in Italy could display artworks.
Venice—the last city to be annexed to the Kingdom of Italy—was beginning to taste the success from other national celebrations around the country and desired to take part.
Unlike the industrial exhibitions in Rome, Milan and above all in Turin, the Venice National Exhibition was concerned strictly with art.
The Giardini, as the venue of the exhibition, was an excellent choice and it was a great public success. No other capital possessed such an adequate and beautiful location with such a unique panorama. Indeed, the location seemed to have been made purposely for hosting this exhibition.
Among other things, at this time a restaurant and a cafeteria were opened on the exhibition grounds, as indispensable services that had been lacking for years.
With the founding of the National exhibition, the Giardini were once and for all detached from the heart of the city. They became the new urban and modern space of Venice, an alternative to the ancient and traditional one of St. Mark’s square.5
Following the success of the 1887 National exhibition, a group of Venetian intellectuals—including the city mayor and lay poet Riccardo Selvatico—met to discuss the future of Venice, about how to revive the city with an international perspective. The meetings took place at Caffè Florian, in St. Mark’s square. The idea of creating a fixed expository structure that would become a lasting tourist attraction for the city and would reinvigorate it on an economical level, rose in the municipal context. And while Selvatico and his friends were looking for a way to implement this new plan for an institution in an area rich with history, art and culture, plans for the royal celebration of the silver anniversary of king Umberto I and queen Margherita of Savoia, were announced for April of 1893.
Selvatico saw his chance and proposed the creation of a periodic exhibition to commemorate this date. It was just the excuse he was looking for.
So, in this way, patriotic motivations were found for transforming the legendary idea of Venice as a glorious economic and naval power, into that of a modern city and centre: a new international and contemporary art market which would undoubtedly attract “a new and distinguished type of tourism”.6
Thus, the heart of the project lay in the utilization of the traditional and international vocation of Venice, for centuries the cosmopolitan city par excellence.
Having remained under the influence of Middle European culture for years, Venice had already formed strong and stable ties with artists, making it natural for the city to aspire to the Secession of Munich model, rather than to the essentially Italian system of “Promotrice delle Belle Arti” and of Accademia. Furthermore, a system of awards was created for the exhibition which served to stimulate the influx of foreign artists to the city. The awards were sponsored by various city institutions including CIGA – Compagnia Grandi Alberghi Italiani (Company of Large Italian Hotels), which later grew to monopolize Venice’s elite tourism sector.7
By this time the city’s economy was so well known to largely depend on tourism, that in 1904 the New York Times described the Lido as the most interesting of summer holiday resorts.
Thus, it seemed natural to construct the new international exhibition building in the Giardini of Castello, a location which a few years earlier had hosted the national exhibition.
In order to build the exhibition palace and leave free the nearby storage spaces, a fence was erected curtaining off 42 thousand square meters of garden out of the total 60 thousand square meters garden, available for public use.
These were soon-to-be the headquarters of the first Biennale.
On 30 April 1895, the first International Exhibition of Art was inaugurated in a building composed of seventeen halls separated by courtyards and arranged around one large central hall. By 1909 the need to enlarge the exhibition space was already greatly evident and led to the palazzo’s present-day composition of nearly 65 halls.
In spite of its more than one hundred years, and notwithstanding diverse liftings, the façade of the Exhibition Palace has always maintained a provisional appearance, due to it having never been built with material resistant enough to withstand the salty air of the lagoon.8
During the era of the first Biennale, the method of displaying the exhibition halls was typical of that found in that period, for example, in Parisian salons: paintings were hung one above the other and the halls alternated between the works of foreign artists and Italian artists, grouped according to region.
The Sponsoring Committee—which remained active until 1901—was directed by the city mayor and composed of distinguished Venetian figures. The mayor would personally invite non-Italian members to join the Committee, usually internationally renowned artists.
For the first edition it was decided that the Biennale would host 150 artworks by artists from 14 countries, 150 artworks by Italian artists, and 50 artworks selected by the Committee, with the condition that the number of Italian participants would not surpass that of foreign participants. However, an imbalance was soon evident with the invasion of Italians works in the Palazzo.9
By the end of the first edition, the Biennale had seen over 200 thousand visitors and its formula—although still not perfect—proved to have worked.
As the Biennale was founded to “stimulate a new contemporary art market”,10 its Sales Office played a fundamental role in establishing the Venice Biennale as the largest exhibition market of that time. By the end of the first edition, more than half of the works of art presented had been sold. So many that together with the earnings from the entry tickets, the exhibition closed having made with a profit and was able to donate a considerable amount to charity. The Sales Office dealt with all sales transactions and acted as an intermediary between artist and client, retaining 10% of all sales.11 This percentage was of fundamental importance in sustaining the Biennale’s chronic lack of revenue.
With the first edition, the Biennale had already established its marketing strategy regarding tourism. Visitors were offered a package-trip combining discounts on train tickets and exhibition tickets and the first ten pages of the exhibition catalogue were dedicated to tourist information and local advertisings.
But the Biennale, born as a modern, open and international exhibition, had already changed by the second edition. In fact, in 1897, the president of the institution was no longer the progressive intellectual Selvatico, but Count Grimani, a catholic and conservative politician who would transform the Biennale into a sort of reactionary salon in which academism triumphed.
In the meanwhile Italian artists grew ever more impatient with the Biennale’s sanctioned internationality, and complained that there was insufficient space dedicated to them.
The solution was offered in 1907 by Antonio Fradeletto, Biennale’s General Secretary12 who proposed hosting the foreign artists in dedicated national pavilions to be constructed within the enclosure of the Giardini.
The idea presented many positive opportunities for the Biennale and gave the municipality the power to approve projects presented by foreign countries, and to authorize the space on which the pavilions would be built. Once authorized, the country could decide whether to build its pavilion immediately, at its own cost and with its own choice in architects, or to entrust the project to the municipality for development at a later date. In both cases, once the pavilion was agreed upon, it would become the property and responsibility of the foreign country involved, as it would all maintenance and furnishing costs.13 From this, the Biennale received another form of revenue and was able to deduct expenses while gaining additional space for Italian artists in the main palazzo.
This mechanism insured ongoing international participation in the exhibition and lent continuity to the Biennale.
The first countries to decide “to put itself on display” at the Biennale were large and powerful colonial powers such as Belgium, the first to erect a pavilion in 1907. During the twenty-year reign of Fascism there was an explosion of requests, and subsequent concessions for the pavilions. By 1942, a total number of 19 pavilions existed.
Today inside the Giardini of the Biennale, there are 30 national pavilions representing 34 countries, the last having been built by South Korea in 199514.
In order to meet the needs of countries still seeking pavilion space in the Giardini, a temporary pavilion was built in 1980 on the bank of the canal bordering the gardens. During 1982 and 1984 this pavilion hosted a total number of 15 countries including those from Latin America.15
In its centenary year, 1995, the Biennale embarked on a new initiative offering countries which lacked pavilions the possibility of exhibiting at chosen sites made available by the city, private owners, cultural institutions or the Church, guaranteeing that these sites were to become official national pavilions during the period of the Biennale.
Thus the Biennale at large became a laboratory where up-close studies could be made of the dominating economies and cultures which, in turn, reflected the functioning of the art market.
The possibility offered to foreign countries of presenting their best contemporary artists and art in such an internationally visible place as the Venice Biennale, has given sought-after prestige and legitimacy to so many people and countries.16
All that was modern was meant to pass through the Giardini and attract tourists and spectators even if, all the while, the Biennale continued to select and give awards to works of art that were far from the avant-garde trends emerging at the time.
The Biennale overcame World War I by remaining closed from 1914 to 1920. By the time it reopened, with a new and more progressive agenda instead of the excessively conservative one of the previous ten years, Fascism was already rampant.
In 1930 Mussolini and the king of Italy signed a law which transformed the Venice Biennale into an “Ente Autonomo” (Autonomous Organization): Biennale was no more runned by the city council, but became an organization run by few people and depended directly on the State.
Thus, the Biennale became Fascist.17
Former minister of finance Giuseppe Volpi Count of Misurata, was nominated the president of the Autonomous Organization.”Volpi personified the regime’s desire to appropriate the Biennale and give it a Fascist national character”.18 As the head of Confindustria—the Italian association of businessmen and industrialists—he pioneered the era of industrialized culture to Venice and the tourist-cultural potentialities of the city were aided by a new resource: industry. It was Volpi who created Marghera—the chemical industrial area flanking the shores of the lagoon. It was Volpi who decided to build the motor bridge alongside the railway bridge which still today connects Venice to the mainland. Furthermore, as president of CIGA, Volpi brought the Lido to its full splendour by founding the Biennale of Cinema and locating it at the Excelsior, the founding hotel of his luxury hotel chain.19
As a result, Venice became the site of festivals par excellence, a place of industrial culture which still attracts experts, enthusiasts, and tourists of all kinds.
The years that followed witnessed the restyling and remodelling of some of the oldest pavilions,20 a proliferation of the international ones, designed mostly by architects of the regime, and the saturation of the Giardini space itself.
The Biennale remained under fascist control until 1942 and became a fundamental instrument for national propaganda and for transforming the exhibition into a national celebratory event. In 1934, on occasion of a meeting with Hitler, Mussolini used the Venice landscape as a mean to impress the German dictator.21 It was in this year that Hitler and Mussolini visited the Biennale.
In 1942 the Biennale was dedicated to military art and witnessed the least national participation by far in its history. Despite the political climate of the time, there was no mention in the exhibition catalogue of World War II.
During the war, by the end of 1943, Cines, the film society of the Republic of Salò, moved its headquarters to the Giardini pavilions and began shooting films for the dictatorship.22
The Biennale reopened in 1948 with the inauguration of five new editions unique to the history of the institution. The Biennale president, Giovanni Ponti, and the General Secretary art historian Rodolfo Pallucchini, reconstructed in a philological manner the course interrupted by twenty years of Fascism and war, and were able to shed light on decades of art still unknown in Italy.
The war created a new geopolitical order which was reflected in the national pavilions of the Giardini. After World War II, every political change and re-establishment of borders was mirrored in the nomadic movements of the pavilions within the Giardini territory, and then of those located in the city within Venice itself.
While the past was being unearthed and revisited by Pallucchini, Peggy Guggenheim exhibited her collection at the Biennale’s Greek pavilion, to later have it housed in permanent location in Venice.23
There was a great increase in participation requests on the part of new countries, such as with Israel which after only a year of its statehood had already sent its request for a pavilion space to the City of Venice. Never before had the significance of having a “national art container” been so important.
During the 1950s, in the time of the Cold War, the Giardini were the scene to direct confrontation between the two rival powers—the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.
In 1964, just a few months before the death of President Kennedy, the award for best painting was given to Rauschenberg. This award not only brought American Pop Art to Europe, but also helped mark the final shift of contemporary art and its market from Europe to the United States, ushering in the beginning of American cultural and economic imperialism.
In 1968 political protests assailed the Giardini and slogans such as “Biennale of capitalists, we’ll burn your pavilions!” could be heard. For the protesters, the Biennale and the city represented that which they were fighting against at the time: institutions overrun by rampant capitalism encouraging the commodification of art.
The protests caused the Biennale Sales Office to close and transformed the nature of the institution, which by statute had been founded for creating a new contemporary art market, into an enormous international art exhibition. The manifestations also put a temporary end to the awards ceremony, only to be revived again in 1986 with the establishment of the Leone d’oro award. In 1973, on the wake of protests, the Biennale decreed a “democratic and anti-fascist” statute. It partially modified the structure of the Biennale Organization and restored a portion of its management to the city of Venice while still keeping strong ties with the state. With the reform an attempt was made to expand the Biennale’s seasonal use and new exhibition sites were added to the traditional seat of the Giardini.
Despite the fact that Biennale had always been defined as an international exhibition, the first non-Italian director was only nominated in 1995, the year of its centennial.24
A new reform law was passed in 1998 which transformed the Biennale from an Autonomous Organization into a Cultural Organization, a semi-private and legal entity open to investors and supported by the Italian government which by law had pronounced the Biennale of “prominent national interest”.
Apart from these facts, the Biennale has never—in its more than one hundred years of existence—been able to amass a sufficient patrimony, making it difficult to expect investment capital from private parties. Moreover, the fact that it is still greatly influenced by Italy’s frequent political changes, makes its constructive and positive continuity all the more difficult to ensure. Nor has the institution ever found a solution to its multicellular pavilion structure, nor to the Giardini’s abandoned state during the Biennale intervals.25 Round tables and meetings have been held among the Institution, the City and the foreign countries owning pavilions in order to find a solution to this problem, but the reality of the situation is that the Giardini continue to remain abandoned and prey to vandalism,26 which causes considerable restoration costs on the part of the pavilion owners. In addition, the restoration mainly serves to temporarily improve the pavilions’ appearance for the short-lived duration of each Biennale.
Today the Giardini remain a varied and intriguing place that owes its vitality to the presence of international pavilions and to the continual transformation of their borders. it’s a place that offers us a distorted, yet viable, mirror-like view on our present day world.