Venice has so much visual stimulation to offer along all its watery shores, from the artisan glasswork of Murano island to the colorful fishermen’s houses of neighboring Burano and beaches of the Lido, where the Venice Film Festival is held. But this summer the Giardini gardens lining the Grand Canal and nearby Arsenale, the two main Biennale exhibition sites, take center stage alongside world-class shows in other locations that are not to be missed. No wonder there’s a “Not Only Biennale” listing to let visitors know what else to see.
To do justice to this world-class show, featuring 213 artists from 58 countries, allow at least three full days to view the best of the art in comfort. It’s logical, if not vital, to start at the Giardini, with its central pavilion espousing an overarching theme—this year The Milk of Dreams—as well as most national pavilions.
As suggested by the name—the title of a poem by British artist Leonora Carrington—the theme is women and Surrealism, dazzlingly represented in the central pavilion, with the thrilling Witches’ Cradle gallery at its heart. Carrington and Dorothea Tanning are both well known, but less-so fellow Surrealists of their times Remedios Varo and Leonor Fini are both showcased here, and in the Surrealism and Magic show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection across town.
However, what the Biennale sites have, not found elsewhere in Venice, is eye-popping modern art from the furthest corners of the globe—paintings from the Congo, hangings from Haiti, larger-than-life woven figures from India, and Inuit photography are just a few examples. The late, great Paula Rego has been accorded two rooms of her own in the Central Pavilion; look out for her startling sculptures of cloth dolls, which extend her fascination with parables to three-dimensional forms.
Also worth seeing are Zenib Sedira’s vintage room sets for the French pavilion, styled for her work Dreams Have No Titles as if about to be filmed, and the huge, accusing sculptures by Simone Leigh in the U.S. pavilion, talking to a history of slavery and colonialism. Even more arresting than the pieces shown here is Leigh’s towering black female with no eyes, a star exhibit of the Arsenale site (not all national artists are shown exclusively in their country’s pavilion).
At the Arsenale, room after room stretches for what seems like a mile, and it’s a relief to get waylaid by an absorbing video. One irresistible set of screens plays haunting videos by Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyen Phan addressing love, loss, local architecture, and the significance of the controversial durian fruit to a couple divided by death. These beautiful films command a contemplative 15-minute seated pause in the long walk through a rewarding but seemingly never-ending gallery.
The exquisite Peggy Guggenheim Collection is also a highlight. Guggenheim was one of the greatest collectors of Surrealist art. Her museum on the Grand Canal was her home, a palazzo whose waterside terrace and beautiful back garden make a visit a delight even without the world-class art.
Don’t miss Surrealism and Magic, but do leave time for the canalside building with its exquisite collection of blue glass sculptures, made by a local artisan for Guggenheim from Picasso’s drawings and displayed in a window overlooking the canal.
Leaving the museum, stop at the private Galleria Ravagnan near the exit, showing surreal sculptures by Bruno Catalano that talk to the memories we lose on our journey through life and the baggage that stays with us. The most amazing of these figures are on display in the gallery’s San Marco branch next door to Florian, the famous 18th-century coffee house where every visitor to Venice should stop at least once for a €10 cappuccino and to sit beneath the colonnades and be serenaded by live music, day and night.
The most famous bar in San Marco and, indeed, all of Venice, is Harry’s, the founding establishment of the Cipriani family whose name is synonymous with top-end hospitality. The Bellini made with fresh peach juice is de rigeur, and the famous beef carpaccio is spectacular.
Across on Giudecca island, reached by vaporetto from San Marco, is Harry’s Dolci, an elegant lunch spot on the water where the vitello tonnato is the star turn. Lunch could last into early evening, so keep going to the Hilton Molino Stucky, a little further along Giudecca, for Venice’s famous rooftop Skyline Bar, which is a great place to watch the sunset.
At the other end of Giudecca, the pride of the island is the Cipriani Hotel, no longer owned by the family, but a jewel in the crown of Belmond. Its new alfresco poolside restaurant, Il Porticciolo, is divine, with its raw bar, huge roast prawns, and a signature frozen lemon packed with lemon sorbet and pistachios.
Actor George Clooney is said to be fond of the hotel’s Gabbiano Bar, but his favorite eatery is Ristorante da Ivo, a tiny canalside restaurant in San Marco, which any visitor not in the loop would bypass, unaware that despite its modest frontage it’s an A-lister haunt, and the place Clooney chose for his stag night. Famous for its Tuscan dishes, notably aged beef and porcini, not to mention superb seafood from the lagoon, this is a red tablecloth delight with a mission to give guests a good time.
Da Ivo has no bar—you come here to eat and quaff fine Italian wine—but for an aperitivo try the Zoja bar at the Radisson Palazzo Nani, the exquisite new conversion of a 16th-century residence preserving all its original features. Opposite is the most startling work in this year’s Biennale, the takeover by Anish Kapoor, who represented Britain in 1990, of the Palazzo Manfrin. Expect the usual pools of scarlet pigment, swamps of red and black wax, a smattering of Kapoor’s signature distorting mirror sculptures, and other works designed to trick the eye.
Like everything at the Biennale, a visit provides an intense visual feast that may require stamina and frequent breaks to navigate, but whose best moments will never be forgotten.
Banner image: Maskenfiguren by Lavinia Schultz and her husband and artistic partner Walter Holdt. Credit: Alamy