Every two years since 1895 the city of Venice, Italy, has hosted a festival of the arts that draws art, artists, and art-lovers from around the world. I have attended this fantastic event every two years since 2009 (making this year my sixth visit) and found the art this year to be perhaps the most thought-provoking I have experienced so far at the Biennale. I have been to Venice once in the past ten years during an even-numbered year – so not during the Biennale – and find the excitement and richness of having this city, already an art form itself, completely immersed in modern art to be my favorite way to experience it. First, for those not fortunate enough to have visited Venice yet, a bit about the city.
As everyone knows, the city improbably rests on a nest of tiny islands (118 of them!) of land, surrounded by water. You can get around via water taxi if you have money to burn, a gondola once just for fun (try a traghetto across the Grand Canal for two euro to get the same feeling for a lot less), or a vaporetto (water bus on set schedules; buy a pass), but my favorite way to get around Venice is to walk. If you are able-bodied, you can walk from one end of Venice to the other in less than an hour, crossing bridge after bridge (there are over 400 of them) and wandering through twisting alleyways.
Forget about Google maps, just understand Venice enough to understand the basic location of the different sestieri (six neighborhoods) and know certain landmarks (San Marco, the main piazza where the Basilica and Doge’s Palace are; Rialto, the iconic bridge; Accademia Bridge, connecting San Marco sestiere with Dorsoduro and leading to you to Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo/museum; Ferrovia, the train station; and Piazzale Roma, the place near the port where buses from the mainland drive in). See above an example of the signs you will constantly see when walking through Venice that say “per San Marco” or “alla Ferrovia” to direct you. I usually stay in the sestiere Cannaregio and once I get off the main Strada Nova it seems I rarely take the same route twice to get to San Marco, but the signs always guide me correctly.
Back to visiting the Biennale – it is held in two locations, both within the sestiere of San Marco. Held in odd-numbered years, it runs from late May until late November (you have until November 24 to attend this year). My favorite time of the year to go is in fall (although I failed to do that this year, going in blazing August!). The disadvantage to fall is that you are more likely to experience aqua alta (flooding) but bring proper footwear and be prepared to walk along the wooden bridges the city places out, and the lack of heat and crowds will make up for the inconvenience.
To get to the Biennale, once you have found your way to Piazza San Marco, you will be looking at the lagoon, with the Doge’s Palace to your left. Turn left and walk along the water for about 15 minutes until you see the traditional red kiosk indicating the Biennale:
You will turn away from the water toward the kiosk and shortly will be at one of the two main venues, the Arsenale.
A ticket purchase allows you to visit both venues, and you can go to each on a different day – or if you start early and aren’t easily tired, can go from one to the other and see both in one day.
The theme this year is “May you live in interesting times,” and the curator did something different this year in that artists were chosen for their personal diversity of expression. So the same artists that you see in the Arsenale will have other works, in a different form, in the main exhibition area of the Giardini, the second site. One of the questions I have often been asked by people who have never attended the Biennale is if all the art is Italian. Far from it, this is an international art festival featuring artists from all over the world.
The amount of art can be overwhelming, and the media and topics are wide-ranging. One of my favorite things about visiting the Biennale is the idea that as I walk from giant room to giant room, or go behind a curtain, I never know what I will see. It’s thrilling.
Far from being simply a treat for the senses, modern art today stimulates the intellect. I found this year’s art overall to be more thought-provoking than other years I have been, and I have continued to think about some of the pieces since returning.
Your trip through the Arsenale will eventually lead outside. There is a cafe there for lunch or refreshments. Now on to the Giardini!
Head back to the lagoon and continue to the left for 10 minutes or so until you see another kiosk. The Giardini is, as promised, a garden – with a large exhibition hall as well as individual pavilions for art from countries around the world.
This year the large exhibition hall featured different work from the same artists who had been selected to present in the Arsenale.
There is a cafe in the main hall as well as a bookstore. Then wandering through the gardens, you come across the pavilions from different countries. Each country selects an artist to represent them for each Biennale.
To do both venues and all the country pavilions in one day starting at 10 and ending at 6 is certainly possible – it’s what I usually do. But it is an exhausting day, and not recommended for your first visit.
There are also auxiliary art installations and sites all over Venice. If you are in the city for several days, you will stumble upon several (many of which are free) and you can also look in your Biennale guide to see all the locations.
As mentioned before, the city of Venice itself is an enormous art form, and the best way to experience it (in my opinion) is to wander and get lost a bit. You can never get hopelessly lost as long as you know the landmarks and look out for the directional signs.
And finally, don’t forget to just enjoy being in Venice. A spritz on a piazza, soaking in the ambiance of Harry’s Bar, and enjoying gelato (I’ve tried them all and always go back to Ca’ D’Oro) . . . there is certainly an art in savoring life itself, and there is really no place to do this better than Venezia.