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Art from the 1800s to the present

Carlo Scarpa's Biennale ticket booth (1952)

Continued from Rococo and Neoclassical

Whatever artistic spirit remained at the end of the 18th century evaporated after Napoleon. More was demolished than built in the 19th century – 49 churches bit the dust, and the splendid art that adorned them was dispersed to various galleries or simply destroyed.

One of the few names to drift down is that of Gian Antonio Selva, designer of La Fenice opera house. Foreigners such as Turner drifted in to paint the city, while John Ruskin wrote his Stones of Venice, which to his dismay didn’t educate his readers in the glories and pitfalls of architecture as much as begin a trend for ogival arches in Manchester.

But thousands were inspired to come and see the real thing, and when sea bathing became popular, the Lido was developed with its outrageous eclectic hotels, notably the Grand Hôtel des Bains—the setting for Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912). Another attraction was the great international art exhibits of the Biennale, inaugurated in 1895, and still one of the most prestigious in Europe. Over the years the Biennale would spawn offshoots in music, film and most recently architecture that bring visitors back over and over again.

The major Italian art movements of the early 20th century– Futurism with its emphasis on speed, and the Metaphysical School with its emphasis on stillness – had little response from Venice. In the 1930s, however, the city produced one of Italy's most passionate 20th-century left-wing revolutionaries, Emilio Vedova, whose experimental innovations put the city back on the art map.

In 1946, Peggy Guggenheim brought over her fabulous collection of contemporary art from New York and installed it in Venice like a breath of fresh air, even if misplaced atavism prevented the construction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s palace on the Grand Canal (although when the authorities vetoed a hospital designed by Le Corbusier, even Le Corbusier agreed they were right).

For years, preservation pretty much pre-empted creation in fragile, delicate old Venice. Saving the city and its art has become a major preoccupation of Italians and foreigners alike. The British Venice in Peril Fund, begun after the flood in 1966, is one of the most active of the 32 international organizations, and Americans and Italians have contributed buckets of money to keep the city afloat, most of it now spent in cooperation with the local UNESCO office, Amici dei Musei e Monumenti Veneziani.

In recent years, however, Venice's contemporary art scene has become one of the most important in Italy, thanks in large part to the success of the Biennale; some of the long-closed buildings of Arsenale have been converted into stunning exhibition spaces. French collector François Pinault has converted the Palazzo Grassi and Dogana di Mare into contemporary galleries; the Fondazione Emilio e Annabianca Vedova has put Renzo Piano in charge of transforming the Magazzini del Sale into a new exhibition space concentrating on Vedova's work.

The biggest and most controversial recent building project is a new bridge, the Ponte della Costitutizione spanning the Grand Canal from Spanish engineer-architect Salvatore Calatrava. Otherwise, most of the building work in the city involves conversions: palaces and monasteries and former island hospitals are being converted into hotels, including the luxurious Ca' Sagredo.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Seier & Seier, Creative Commons License