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Catherine Kovesi: How witlessly lucky we were…

Oct 13, 2020

Image caption: Rainbow over the lagoon. Credit: Gigi Bon

Ingenuity, gilded beauty, and fragility might be the watchwords for Venice in these surreal, liminal, COVID days.

Plagued by mismanagement and scandal, no one in the city had quite believed the MOSE gates would ever be completed, let alone work. And yet on 3 October, a forecast acqua alta of 135cm was reduced to a mere 70cm and the city’s lowest point, the Piazza San Marco, stayed completely dry. Whilst the gates are not scheduled for full implementation until the end of 2021, the fact that the trial’s success was followed by a magnificent full rainbow arched over the city seemed a heaven-sent sign that a possible new flood-free era is dawning for Venice.

Peace for the lagoon is also the message of Fabrizio Plessi’s extraordinary video and sound art installation, ‘L’età dell’oro’ – ‘The Golden Age’. Plessi has filled fifteen windows on the west side of Piazza San Marco with cascading waterfalls of gold, and the projected words ‘Pax tibi’ – ‘Peace be with you’ (an abbreviation of the words legendarily uttered by Christ to the city’s patron the evangelist Saint Mark when imprisoned in Alexandria). In a dialogue with the Basilica on the other side of the piazza and to a soundtrack of Michael Nyman’s minimalist music, Plessi sends a gilded message of hope to the city, his adopted home for many years, and a city which he sees as made ‘flexible’ – literally and figuratively – through its location on the water.

With this installation as their backdrop, the orchestra of the Fenice and some of its operatic stars, performed in the piazza on the evening of 8 September to inaugurate a year of celebrations for the 1,600th birthday of this city. 1,200 Venetians were able to sit in this extraordinary sound- and visual- scape whilst listening to Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini.

Ingenuity, beauty, and an embracing of Venice’s liquid environment was also witnessed at the Cinema Galleggiante, or ‘Floating Cinema’, in late August and early September, with its movie festival theme ‘Unknown Waters’. Conceived by Edoardo Aruta and Paolo Rossi of Microclima, in collaboration with ‘Ocean Space’ (a new ‘embassy for the Oceans’ based at the ex-Church of San Lorenzo), and sponsored by the Palazzo Grassi, and Pentagram Stiftung, a large floating cinema screen bobbed on the waters behind the island of the Giudecca. In this amphibious setting, patrons could choose to go to the movies either in their own boats, or by standing on a floating platform. The Festival was inaugurated with the surreal addition of a floating piano, on which Ulisse Trabacchin improvised music whilst unseen silent footage from the archives of Mariano Fortuny was screened.

September Champions who dined at Elisabetta Czarnocki-Lucheschi’s beautiful Palazzo Nani Bernardo, whose gardens were devastated in the high-water event of November 2019, will be pleased to hear that her gardens have now been restored and her pomegranate tree has sprung back to life.  And those fortunate enough to visit David Landau’s Stanze del Vetro on the Isola di San Giorgio last May, will be gratified to learn that Landau’s Venice Glass Week, held in September and now in its third iteration, was, once again a great success. Showcasing Venetian glass craftsmanship of the highest order, activities were organized throughout the city and on the island of Murano in particular. But the cancellation of other major events, such as Homo Faber, and the delay of others, such as the Biennale Architettura to 2021, and Biennale Arte to 2022, have left many in the city without much work. The closure of two iconic stores in Piazza San Marco, that of Venini glassware and Pagan embossed leather goods, was also a worrying reminder of the commercial fragility of this city.

Plague time is a time of liminal suspension. Recalling her time in Venice last May 2019, a Venice Champion wrote to me this last week, ‘We all reminisce, particularly in lockdown. How witlessly lucky we were.’  Here’s to more witlessly lucky times ahead in this incomparable city.

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Learn more about the Australia at the Venice Biennale.