Why Giudecca is the place to go

Home to hotel that’s part of the history of Venetian hospitality, the island has also become a destination for international curators and collectors thanks to its thriving contemporary art scene. Lee Marshall reports


It’s coming up to midday when I emerge from the fishmonger’s on Venice’s Giudecca island clutching a bag of vongole that clack a little as I walk, like seafood castanets. Already the locals are spilling out of La Palanca bar a few doors down, with their pre-lunch glasses of Spritz or Prosecco. The Venetian dialect is so thick you could cut it with a knife, and on this bitingly cold January day no other languages, not even Italian, dilute those sharp vowels, those truncated syllables.

There are tourists in Venice even at this lowest of low seasons. But few of them make it over to Giudecca. It involves a boat ride, and apart from Palladio’s Redentore and Le Zitelle churches, there is ‘nothing to see’. Nothing, that is, except one of the few remaining bastions of utterly authentic Venetian life. That and a contemporary art scene which, in the past four or five years, has made the island something of a favourite stopover for international curators and collectors.


Left: The Giudecca studio of Argentinian artist Carolina Antich. Right: Zuecca Project Space. Photographs by Alessandro Bello

There was a time when Giudecca was considered a leafy Arcadia, a semi-rural retreat from the medieval Manhattan just across the water. Jacopo de’ Barbari’s famous map of Venice, published in 1500, shows the long, thin island — actually a string of eight islets separated by canals — divided up by verdant formal gardens, orchards and vegetable plots, some belonging to private palazzos, some to convents and monasteries.

It was only in the late 19th century that this little strip of paradise began to change. It became Venice’s industrial estate, home not only to boatyards and artisans’ workshops but also to some of north-eastern Italy’s largest factories, as well as niche luxury-goods makers such as the Fortuny textile works and showroom, which will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary.

The lasting symbol of this transformation is the huge Molino Stucky flour mill, built in 1895 by Swiss industrialist Giovanni Stucky in a jarringly un-Venetian Hanseatic Gothic style. In its early years it employed 1,500 people, but the boom was brief, and after a slow decline between the wars and a period of abandonment, the factory was restored and occupied by a Hilton hotel — worth a visit solely for the view from the Skyline Rooftop Bar.


A view across Giudecca from the Hilton hotel’s Skyline Rooftop Bar. Photograph by Alessandro Bello

By the time the Molino Stucky closed, in 1955, Giudecca’s image had darkened. Full of low-rent apartments, and largely left to its own devices by the city authorities and law enforcers, it was seen by many across the water as a kind of Venetian Bronx, inhabited by smugglers and ne’er-do-wells.

Argentinian artist Carolina Antich still remembers vividly that, when she was negotiating the rental of her Giudecca studio space in the mid-1990s, the landlord — a well-to-do Venetian from a more genteel neighbourhood — would turn up with a burly friend of his who had once been a policeman, so leery was he of the island’s dubious reputation.

What was once a Bronx with canals is now more of a Venetian SoHo. Antich’s studio is in the former Dreher brewery, now a thriving art village in which ateliers alternate with galleries and exhibition spaces. One of the latter, Spazio Punch, is co-directed by Antich’s partner Augusto Maurandi. Here, he and fellow director Lucia Veronesi host shows centred on the interplay between art and publishing, fashion, cinema and design.

Another Dreher space, Galleria Michela Rizzo, is equally synchronised with the artistic time zones of New York, Berlin and Tokyo — unlike the majority of ‘galleries’ in Venice proper, which exist to peddle high-class souvenirs. Rizzo, who was the first gallerist to move to Giudecca, in 2004, works with a carefully selected roster of Italian and foreign artists who, she says, ‘are not over-exposed on the market’, among them Vito Acconci, Franco Vaccari and David Tremlett.

Directly above Rizzo’s gallery is the private fiefdom of Venice’s most celebrated living artist, Fabrizio Plessi. Born in Reggio Emilia, Plessi studied at Venice’s Accademia di Belle Arte and began to explore video installations during the early 1970s in a city often (wrongly) considered to be a technological backwater. Plessi’s installations are created inside a huge hangar in the northern Italian town of Bolzano with the help of dozens of assistants.

Here on Giudecca, in the all-white loft space where his books and archives are meticulously filed, he comes to work, he says, ‘like a monk in his cell. This is my thinking space, where I can be alone with my spirit, and create.’ For Plessi, the daily boat journey from his home in central Venice is ‘a kind of ritual… Venice is an island, and Giudecca is a marvellous island within the island; the journey here sets up a membrane that shuts out the banality of everyday life.’


A view towards Giudecca from the St Mark’s Square bell tower. Photograph by Alessandro Bello

Plessi’s main subject is that archetypally Venetian element, water. Another trademark is the juxtaposition between the cathode ray tube (or, more recently, the digital monitor) and the weathered materiality of stone, wood, coal or iron — a combination that Giudecca, with its mix of ancient crafts and early-modern industrial infrastructure, seems to encapsulate. ‘I couldn’t work in a place without an identity,’ says Plessi. ‘When I’m here at my drawing table I can feel the energy of the industrial archaeology all around, the work and the sweat and the raw materials.’

Other Giudecca studio spaces, in the cloister of the former convent of Cosma and Damiano, are assigned to young artists as part of the Atelier programme of one of Venice’s oldest cultural institutions, the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa. The same space hosts the Luigi Nono Archive, dedicated to the influential Italian avant-garde composer and directed by his widow, Nuria Schoenberg Nono. Not far away, the former Junghans precision-instrument factory, focus of an ambitious renovation project by architect Cino Zucchi, now hosts the Accademia Teatrale Veneta drama school, several student residences, and a stack of private apartments that mostly seem to have been bought up by foreigners, if the names on the intercoms can be trusted.

Those with the sunniest aspect have one of Venice’s most elusive views — the southern lagoon, where three islands emerge from the placid waters like grounded ocean liners. San Clemente and Sacca Sessola are now luxury resorts, belonging respectively to the Starwood and Marriott groups. The third, La Grazia, is about to go the same way.

Belgian fashion model Jessica Van Der Steen and her partner Fred Uribe, who works for Burberry out of Singapore, enjoy nearly the same view from the terrace of their apartment behind Le Zitelle church — part of a former boatyard complex that has been revamped by British architect Michael Carapetian. For Van Der Steen, the charm of Giudecca is easily summed up: ‘It’s about living in an area that makes you feel like a local.’ Plessi mentioned the same thing to me — the way fishermen and celebrities mix in the island’s drinking holes, where nobody really cares who you are.

In addition to the Hilton, Giudecca is home to a hotel that is part of the history of Venetian hospitality: the Cipriani — ‘the place to be with a Bellini at sundown,’ says Van Der Steen. But few of this illustrious resort’s guests even realise they’re attached to Venice’s SoHo. A private launch ferries them to and from San Marco, and the land gate is used mostly by suppliers and hotel staff. Those who do brave the tradesmen’s entrance need not fear any immediate culture shock, as this eastern stretch of Giudecca’s waterside fondamenta, or promenade, is something of a millionaires’ row; Elton John and David Furnish own an apartment here, as do Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli.


A room in the Casa dei Tre Oci, now a gallery of photography, Photograph by Alessandro Bello

It was here, in 1913, that the artist Mario de Maria, who called himself Marius Pictor, built one of the city’s most extravagant 20th-century private residences. An art nouveau divertissement, it soon became known as the Casa dei Tre Oci — ‘House of the Three Eyes’ — after its striking triple windows.For years, as well as being the De Maria family residence it was an open house for visiting artists and musicians. Since 2012, under the auspices of the Fondazione di Venezia, directed by Fabio Achilli, Tre Oci has become Venice’s only public space dedicated to the art of photography. For Achilli this was an obvious step, as the foundation owned two important photographic archives; but there was an element of fate, too, he says, in the name, ‘which we of course take to refer to the lens, the photographer’s third eye’. With exhibitions dedicated to greats including Elliott Erwitt and Gianni Berengo Gardin, Tre Oci attracts the kind of visitor — more than 100,000 of them in three years — that is changing the image of Giudecca.

Another such game-changer is Zuecca Project Space. It’s linked to the Bauer Palladio Hotel, in the former convent attached to Le Zitelle church. Occupying a hall on the ground floor, Zuecca (a dialect term for Giudecca) is directed by Alessandro Possati with a remit, he says, to curate or host exhibitions that revolve around the idea of displacement — something that has been part of the Venetian identity for centuries. In 2013, the gallery pulled off the major coup of curating, in collaboration with London’s Lisson Gallery, Ai Weiwei’s Art Biennale show Disposition. For Possati, ‘the big challenge with Venice is how to deepen vistors’ engagement with the city. And Giudecca is one of the best places to do that: it’s a still-authentic district that goes well beyond the quick-fix tourist experience.’

As you walk west along the waterfront, another masterpiece by Palladio, the Redentore church, marks the beginning of Giudecca’s lively, lived-in heartland. Here stands Galleria Upp, a tiny gallery space between a bridge and a post office. Owner Caterina de Cesero works mostly with young artists — including a few she discovered thanks to Bevilacqua La Masa’s nearby Atelier programme. She is also about to co-host an exhibition curated by the Tre Oci gallery, proof that Giudecca has begun to develop an integrated art network, with room for cooperation as well as competition.

A few doors along, in a former corn-plaster laboratory directly in front of the Palanca waterbus stop, British figurative artist Geoffrey Humphries came to paint in 1966, and never left. ‘Back then,’ he says, ‘Giudecca came under the jurisdiction of the Venice Port Authority, which would pacify the dockers by keeping the bars open until 2am — and reopening them again two hours later.’ Humphries’s studio is a fascinating Venetian Bateau-Lavoir. It was an artists’ hostel when he first arrived here, and although he and his brushes, canvases, props, hats and family now occupy the whole space, it retains something of the bohemian spirit of those years when Giudecca was still considered a no-go area.

It’s a measure of the distance the neighbourhood has come since then that one of its main cultural promoters can be found taking orders at the busy bar-trattoria I walked past in the first paragraph. Andrea Barina, the co-owner of La Palanca, is a giudecchino born and bred. In 2010, together with a group of friends and colleagues, Barina helped to launch the Festival delle Arti Giudecca Sacca Fisola, a five-day arts and music festival that brings performances, installations, theatre pieces, concerts and film screenings to the island’s squares, alleyways, canals and bridges, opening up private houses, gardens and artists’ studios in what Barina calls a ‘true labour of love’, adding: ‘We don’t get a single cent from the city council.’

But this independence is very much in keeping with the spirit of the place. ‘They don’t always make it easy for us,’ Barina muses, nodding across the water towards Venice’s political power centre. ‘We lost one of our two banks recently, and they’ve cut the frequency of the waterbuses. But Giudecca will always be “difficult”. And that’s just as well. It means those who come here do so out of passion. Because they believe in us.

Words by Lee Marshall. This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine.

Main image at top: A boatyard near the Redentore waterbus stop. Photograph by Alessandra Bello

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