Few cities are under such scrutiny as Venice, yet much slips under the radar. From the bank clerk who is the illegitimate son of a conte to that tiny bar in deepest Castello where the taxi-drivers drink, La Serenissima simmers with secrets.
But the lack of attention paid to Palazzo Cini is an enigma. Crouched on the Rio di San Vio in Dorsoduro, one of Venice’s most visited quarters, the vast 17th-century palace could never be described as off the beaten track. Perhaps its austere appearance has conspired to keep it invisible. In a city where so many palaces seduce with glowing colours and arabesque curves, the Cini is straight of line and spartan of ornament.
“The palace was hidden in plain view,” observes Luca Massimo Barbero as we gaze up at its unadorned façade. “No one ever talks about it or him,” he continues, referring to the building’s former owner Count Vittorio Cini. Certainly, after living for nearly a decade in Venice, my brow still furrowed if someone asked me where Palazzo Cini was.
Last month, however, the palace surrendered its anonymity. Marking the 60th anniversary of the Institute of Art History at the Giorgio Cini Foundation (of which more later), it will be open to the public from late May until November every year. As a result, the public will be able to see the rooms that were Cini’s Venetian home from 1919, and the remarkable art collection that adorned them.
Barbero, the institute’s director, rings the doorbell and we are greeted by Bepi Teso. Now in his sixties, Teso joined Cini’s staff at the age of 16 and worked his way up to the position of butler. “He is the only person with keys to the palace,” Barbero tells me. “When I mentioned some ugly plastic lights in the hall, Bepi asked me if I wanted him to dig out the Venini lamps that had been packed away in a trunk.”
He smiles, aware that the story sums up the paradox of Cini, a man who was simultaneously modernist and patrician.
Explaining to me that his challenge was to undertake a restoration of both paintings and interiors that would not betray their original state, Barbero leads me through a low-ceilinged vestibule quite at odds with the sky-high courtyards that announce many Venetian palaces.
When we reach the first floor, I understand why the palazzo’s inauguration is cause for celebration. Here, framed by damask wallpapers and terrazza floors, hangs a collection of Trecento Italian Tuscan painting to rival a good museum. Highlights include scenes from the life of St John the Evangelist by Taddeo Gaddi, who was said to be a pupil of the great innovator Giotto. Another Sienese star, the so-called Maestro dell’Osservanza, has captured Christ as the Redeemer purring with sphinx-like calm.
This cache bears witness to a society on the cusp of change. From having the status of icons, religious paintings were being reconsidered as works of art. Wealthy individuals were purchasing small-scale Madonnas and crucifixions for their own houses where they simultaneously functioned as a site of prayer and aesthetic admiration. It is a treat to see these little panels in a proper home where they belong.
The upstairs gallery transports us to Quattrocento Florence and Ferrara. These were sophisticated centres of humanist learning where painters had mastered perspective and were learning the secrets of oil. Among the Tuscans, pride of place must go to the “Madonna and Child”, attributed to Piero della Francesca. A tight-lipped beauty, more damsel than mamma, her marble-skinned ethereality speaks of a painter who jettisoned the here and now in favour of a higher realm.
The magnet, however, is the series of Ferrara paintings. A tiny panel of San Giorgio by Cosmè Tura depicts the dragon killer as a wiry, raspberry-skinned fiend. From Dosso Dossi, four faces twisted with rage are crammed into a lozenge-shaped frame in an allegorical scene that has perplexed scholars for generations. These are just two of a dozen-plus masterpieces from a region whose yen for mixing a sinewy northern naturalism – “they seem to carve their colours into the wood”, as Barbero puts it – with allegory and mysticism sets them apart from both Florence’s Platonic harmonies and the chromatic ecstasies that stamped the school of Venice. As those latter regions colonise the international exhibition circuit, the chance to see the Ferrarese peers in depth is not to be missed.
“Ferrara was a centre of humanism to match Florence,” says Barbero, referring to the period from the mid-15th century to the end of the 16th, when the duchy was ruled by the cultivated Este family. “But while Florence was like a nation that was open to the world, Ferrara was a court. It was a hortus conclusus, closed and hermetic.”
He may have had his origins in that shuttered environment but Vittorio Cini, born in Ferrara in 1885, was nothing if not open to the world. A powerful industrialist, together with fellow Venetian entrepreneurs Giuseppe Volpi and Achille Gaggia, he was responsible for the construction of the port of Marghera that turned the Veneto into a commercial hub. A stalwart of Mussolini’s Fascist administration, he resigned from the cabinet in 1943 over a difference of opinion with Il Duce. Later that year, he briefly suffered internment in Dachau.
Married twice and the father of four children, his life was marked by such periods of darkness. In 1949, his son Giorgio was killed in a plane crash. Fourteen years later, the collapse of the Vajont dam in the Piave valley killed around 2,000 people, and Cini found himself in front of state prosecutors; as president of SADE (the Adriatic Society of Electricity), which oversaw its construction, he faced accusations that he had ignored engineers’ warnings that it was unsafe.
Although many complained of a whitewash, neither Cini nor any other member of SADE senior management was convicted of malpractice. What is not in doubt is that he was not only one of Italy’s most serious art collectors – British art historian Bernard Berenson described him as the “only Italian Faust I have ever met” – but also a genuine cultural philanthropist.
Indeed, Cini’s most valuable legacy is the cultural foundation that he dedicated to Giorgio’s memory. (Barbero stresses that the palazzo, for all its glamour, is an “antenna” that should alert people to the work of the foundation.) Its seat is the Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Overlooking St Mark’s Bay, the square façade of the eponymous church, designed by Andrea Palladio, rises above the water like an ephemeral pearl. All but destroyed by Napoleon and the Austrian occupation that followed, the monastery’s splendour embraces a library designed by 17th-century architect Baldassare Longhena and cloisters by Palladio and Giovanni Buora respectively.
Cini was ceded the island on condition that he restored it to glory. As Barbero ushers me between the columns of the Palladian cloisters, it’s clear that he kept his word. Pride of place goes to the Nuova Manica Lunga. Once a dormitory designed by Buora, the 128-metre manica (“sleeve”) has been transformed, through a judicious use of wood, by Milanese architect Michele de Lucchi into a luminous tunnel of books.
The two libraries, which are open to the public and between them contain more than 300,000 volumes, make the Cini Foundation a true think-tank of learning. There is also a rich collection of archives including photography, drawings and illuminated manuscripts. At any moment, the halls and cloisters are peopled by scholars and students engaged in research or attending the conferences and seminars that are weekly events.
My own favourite memory is of a May evening three years ago. As the midges buzzed in the salt-stained air, we were held spellbound as the recorded voice of the late Jorge Luis Borges floated over one of the monastery’s gardens where a labyrinth was being unveiled in his memory. The Argentine writer, who once imagined the universe as an infinite library, would surely have approved.
La Galleria di Palazzo Cini, sponsored by Assicurazioni Generali, is open until November 2; cini.it
Events in Venice
YAA (Young Architects in Africa)
June 6-August 31
Ca’ASI Palazzo Santa Maria Nova, Campiello Santa Maria Nova, Cannaregio, 6024
Architecture Studio will host an exhibition of creative projects from leading young African architects. Selected from nearly 200 proposals, three finalists and nine runners-up were selected for this exhibition. The event will provide a platform for visitors to learn about the social and environmental challenges in Africa and explore the architectural solutions proposed by young architects.
June 7-November 23
Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Campo San Lorenzo, Castello, 5069
The magnificent church of San Lorenzo is a notorious example of the gradual decline and dereliction of Venice. A symbol of the architectural struggle faced by the sinking city, the weather-worn and crumbling façade represents La Serenissima’s eternal project of preservation and conservation. Masegni is a construction consisting of two large walls precariously situated in the interior of the church. The installation encourages visitors to confront the derelict interior as they pass through the narrow passage designed by Roz Barr Architects.
The Yenikapi Project
June 7-November 23
Zuecca Project Space, Complesso delle Zitelle, Fondamenta delle Zitelle, Giudecca, 32
The Yenikapi Project is the winning design for a museum, park and transport hub in Istanbul by Peter Eisenmanand Aytaç Architects. The ambitious design will transform this ancient peninsula into a new cultural destination where the remains of 35 trade ships and recently discovered artefacts will feature in the new Archaeological Museum. For this show, models, designs and research will be exhibited, highlighting the mercantile trade links between Venice and the 1,600-year-old Theodosius Port in Istanbul.
Time Space Existence
June 7-November 23
Palazzo Bembo, Riva del Carbon, San Marco, 4793 and Palazzo Mora, San Felice, Strada Nova, Cannaregio, 3659
The Dutch not-for-profit Global Art Affairs Foundation has put together an exhibition of architectural and contemporary art works that engage with philosophical themes – time, space and existence. The influence architecture has on our experience of time and space is explored through a number of site-specific works and original models on display at Palazzo Bembo. A large sculpture by Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, winner of the 2011 Pritzker Prize, will be on display against the typically Venetian features of the Palazzo Mora.
Z Club On Money, Space, Postindustrialization, And . . .
Palazzo Trevisan degli Ulivi, Campo Sant’Agnese, Dorsoduro, 810
For seven days as the sun sets on the Biennale, Z Club will open up to provide some unusual evening entertainment. ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts) hosts performances and concerts that touch on the subjects of money, space and post-industrialisation through a series of curated events. The programme includes an evening exploring the theme “Design – a Social Machine?” through theatrical and discursive performances, as well as live audiovisual works.