Nobody except its caretakers can enter the largest private garden in Venice, the “Garden of Eden” on Giudecca, a property that the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser instructed be left to nature when he died in 2000.
The previous owners of the villa and its hidden garden were legendary horticulturists—from the Englishman, Frederic Eden, who bought it in 1884 and turned it into a paradise of pine, pomegranate and magnolia trees, to the Greek princess who planted other Mediterranean flowers and plants.
Now, the Hundertwasser Foundation owns the garden and, in accordance with the artist’s wishes, won’t allow anyone in. Gliding past it in a boat, I’m always reminded of what a siren call Venice has been to the eccentric.
Every Biennale, countries that weren’t given a pavilion in the Giardini, such as Mexico and Ireland, stage their own separate national pavilions, often in far-flung places around the city. The list of countries with permanent pavilions is a reminder that the Biennale has long been about geopolitics, and Italy’s history of emigration in the post-war years, as well as its need for natural resources from abroad.
History reveals itself through the buildings: the Israeli pavilion dates back to 1952—just four years after it was founded as a nation, a testimony to Italy’s quick acceptance of Israel as a state. Egypt was given a pavilion in that same year, a post-war balm for Italy’s longstanding trading partner with whom relations had become strained under Mussolini. Russia’s pavilion was founded in 1914, just three years before the Bolshevik Revolution and some years has sat empty due to lack of submission or political issues (Russia didn’t show between 1938-54 or 1978-80).
Most curious, perhaps, is the German pavilion, which was rebuilt to reflect the authoritarian aesthetics of the Third Reich in 1938. People commonly misattribute this to the infamous Nazi architect Albert Speer but it was actually the work of Ernst Haiger). The architecture remains, although artists are constantly refashioning the pavilion, convulsing against the country’s modern history and its relationship to national identity.
Tennis in Venice?
It used to be that one of the only places to play tennis in Venice was the Hotel Des Bains on the Lido (the other is the Cipriani on Giudecca). Thomas Mann, who authored Death in Venice, would stay here to write.
Later, the hotel ballroom would make celluloid history when Luchino Visconti’s film based on the novel, starring Dirk Bogarde, was filmed there in 1971. Sadly, the hotel closed in 2010 to be converted into apartments—which are still pending, so now there’s just a security guard patrolling the grounds.
Urban planning fact: after the Second World War, the Italian government worried about the declining population of Venice and so built housing projects. Amidst such Renaissance splendor, it’s always fascinating to see the Modernist “case popolari” in parts of Venice such as Giudecca and Mazzorbo, a small island adjoining Burano (which is itself one of the most colorful places in Venice—the houses are painted in various bright colors).
From leprosy to enlightenment
It’s a special experience to visit the small island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where the artists Jean Boghossian, Rafael Megall, Miro Persolja will represent the Republic of Armenia this year.
Formerly a leper colony, San Lazzaro was gifted by a Venetian Doge to an Armenian monk called Mekhitar fleeing persecution in Constantinople. He arrived in 1717 with 20 followers and founded a monastery dedicated to the Armenian people. Napoleon—of all people—would later safeguard the island by designating it an academic institution, thanks to its incredible library.
Tombs of the West
One of the great experiences during the Biennale is a trip to the Cini Foundation on San Giorgio Maggiore. I like being on that island and in this building, which is now a non-profit cultural institution.
This year, the Faurschou Foundation is staging three exhibitions there (one dedicated to the silkscreens of Rauschenberg and Warhol; another to the late work of Rauschenberg; and a third to the new media work of Paul McCarthy and Christian Lemmerz). It’s worth taking the time to visit the foundation’s libraries while you’re there—they’re vast and magical. It’s like visiting the sacred tombs of the West.
A really interesting excursion is to Isola di San Michele, an island dedicated to the dead. It’s very beautiful and strange. If you visit on a Sunday morning, you’ll see old Italian ladies bringing flowers to the deceased. Among the graves are those of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound.
Escaping the heat
If you ever catch a Biennale during a heat wave, you’ll need to escape, since the Italian idea of air-conditioning is the equivalent to standing in front of an open refrigerator. There’s a beautiful secluded beach called Murazzi on the Lido, which is heavenly. The only people I ever see out there are the few dealers I know who are keen swimmers. It’s just far enough out for the sea to start looking a little clean again.
Prosecco in the Piazza
Alongside the water, close to the Rialto Bridge, are two of my favorite places to sip prosecco—Osteria Bancogiro and Naranzaria (which is Venetian dialect for orange vendor). Near a particularly beautiful piazza that’s set back from the water, they’re especially airy for Venice.