Venice is not a city of conservation but, first and foremost for physical reasons, it is a city of perpetual renewal: without continual interventions, the land or the sea would have reclaimed it, as is the destiny of every lagoon, and its appearance would have remained that of a refugee village. Today there is controversy over the excessive modernity of structures such as the Calatrava Bridge, the People Mover stop, and the new buildings in Giudecca, and yet Venice has always been this way: putting the new next to the old without fear of daring juxtapositions. Sansovino, Palladio, Longhena succeeded in bringing new styles to the city, making the Venice of today that splendid catalogue of different times and mentalities.
It was logical, after the unification of Italy, when it remained peripheral and languished under the stereotype slapped on it by the eighteenth-century romantics – a city of death and a symbol of the past – that an enlightened mayor like Riccardo Selvatico should devise a way of reintroducing the concept of novelty to the city. The Biennale was born thus, with the intention of making Venice once again a crossroads for contemporary international arts, and so it has been from 1895 to today. All of the greatest artists in the world have participated, initially only in the visual arts, and then also in cinema, theatre, architecture, dance and music: Venice is not only the oldest Biennale in the world but also the only one that includes so many disciplines.
The result was surprising: Peggy Guggenheim would never have permanently settled in the city if she had not, in 1948, brought the best of American art to the Biennale, inaugurating a series of private institutions culminating in the restoration of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, given by François Pinault to the city, and chosen as the venue for his contemporary art foundation. Other foundations are smaller, yet an integral part of the fabric of Venice, from Emily Harvey to that dedicated to Emilio Vedova, a salt warehouse restored by Renzo Piano, as well as non-profit centres set up by the younger generation, poor in means but rich in enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, public museums have not taken advantage of this patrimony of people and ideas, and instead of gradually acquiring one of the greatest collections in the world, they have often viewed the Biennale with condescension. Too bad: after Gustav Klimt’s Judith, bought from the Biennale before the Great War, acquisitions petered out. What has increased is the relationship between Venetians and the Biennale itself, since for at least three decades, the spaces at the gardens have proved insufficient and during every edition, for six months a year considering the success of the Architecture Biennale, alongside the one dedicated to visual arts, many countries and many special events seek spaces in the city and thus rent palaces, central or decentralized locations, and unused churches to set up exhibitions: the flow of intellectual energies, but also of money and resources that this brings is an immeasurable and growing fortune. The Biennale is no longer foreign to the city, as it was at first, but a presence that has remained vital, a tiny yet remarkable miracle to be cherished, like all contemporary creativity that rejects the idea of a Venice Theme Park, dedicated to tourism and only capable of living on memories.