There is, honestly, never a shortage of reasons to visit Venice. Even without the big-ticket sights like Piazza San Marco, or the thrill of riding the local vaporetto water bus out to the glass blowers of Murano, it’s with good reason that Venice ranks as one of the bucket-list destinations in Europe.
And in 2022, after two years on hiatus, you can once again add the Venice Biennial to that list. This landmark arts festival was first held in 1895, and has grown into the world’s most respected gathering of visual artists across the glove. In fact, the Venice Biennial is often dubbed the ‘Olympics of the art world’. This year the theme is ‘The Milk of Dreams’, and it also marks the first time an Italian woman — Cecilia Alemani — has filled the coveted role of curator.
But the term Biennial isn’t entirely clear. Rather, it’s an umbrella term for a diversity of exhibitions organised by the Biennial Foundation to celebrate art, architecture, cinema, dance and more. The Art Biennial runs in even-numbered years, with the Architecture Biennial operating in odd years .
Each Biennial runs for about six months, from late-April to November, and is interspersed with the Theatre, Music and Dance Biennales that take place annually — just to confuse you further — and run for roughly 10 days. The Venice Film Festival, which is held in late-August, is also an annual highlight on the calendar.
That’s prime time, but visiting before July and after September is best, as you’ll avoid the peak European holidays when the city is both insanely busy and oppressively hot.
The heart of the Art Biennial is hosted at two venues in the city: the Giardini, and the Arsenale.
The Giardini park is the spiritual home of the Biennial, and has played host to the event since 1895. Here you’ll find a vast central pavilion surrounded by dozens of national pavilions showcasing art from those countries. The second centre is the Arsenale in the northeast of the city — a vast complex of former shipyards and armouries that has hosted exhibitions for the Biennial since 1980. This year it will also host the national pavilions of more than 20 countries, including SA.
‘Into the Light’
SA has been a permanent exhibitor at the Biennial since 2012, and this year’s work comes together under the theme of ‘Into the Light’. It’s a play on our collective post-Covid-19 recovery and reflection, and includes work by Roger Ballen, Lebohang Kganye and Phumulani Ntuli.
“Just as our featured artists have undertaken their own journeys of discovery in search of artistic truth and reimagined self-identity, we want to encourage visitors to our stand to embark on their own similar journeys,” explains Amé Bell, curator of the South African Pavilion. “Through the creative use of lighting, dressing and exhibition stand design, we aim to inspire and draw visitors into exploring unknown realms.”
To enter either of the two main venues you’ll need a Biennial ticket, which costs €25.50 (R436). This allows you a single entry to the two key exhibition venues on a day of your choice.
Historic sleeps gone chic
Just steps from the Arsenale you’ll also find one of the city’s most exciting new boutique hotels.
Situated alongside the Arsenale and right on the popular Riva promenade, Ca’ di Dio is housed in a property dating back to 1272. It’s the latest addition to Italian hospitality brand VRetreats, and Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola has managed to honour the rich heritage of the building while injecting some serious Italian style.
Think bespoke lamps from Murano and Italian marble in the bathrooms. Most rooms look into the serene central courtyard, while 13 boast views of the lagoon. If you can stretch your budget, the Altana suites offer private rooftop terraces with gorgeous city views.
Beyond the Biennial
Aside from the two flagship venues, there are more than 50 smaller exhibitions held in museums and palazzos across Venice, and one of the highlights well worth the diversion is the Punta della Dogana in the artsy district of Dorsoduro.
This remarkable gallery in the city’s former customs house is home to the private collection of French billionaire Francois Pinault. Re-imagined by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, it’s a light-filled space that’s home to a remarkable cross-section of contemporary artists.
It’s also right in the heart of Venice, a stone’s throw across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco. This famous square is as touristy as hell, but go on. Get it ticked off the bucket list.