Photograph by James Mollison

What I’ve learned: Bianca Arrivabene, Christie’s ‘ambassador’ in Venice

The Deputy Chairman of Christie’s Italy on life in La Serenissima, and the ‘beautiful madness’ of the Biennale

The Christie’s office in Venice is like a kind of embassy. I am not just the ambassador, I am also the consul general, secretary, shipper and insurance agent, all in one. It’s fun, and it’s always interesting to travel and meet the people who are the face of the firm in other parts of the world.

I live in the 16th-century Palazzo Papadopoli on the Grand Canal. The house belongs to my husband, Giberto Arrivabene. The biggest project of our lives — apart from our five children — has been to convert the palazzo into a hotel. In 2013 it opened as the Aman Venice, which is a stunning place, and we are very proud of what we’ve been able to do. We live on the upper floor. This photograph was taken on the altana, the rooftop loggia.

The city dresses up in fantastic new clothes when the Biennale comes around. I love it when the exhibitions get under way, the museums throw open their doors, and every palazzo contains some wonderful project. Friends and collectors arrive from all over the world. For six months there are so many amazing things going on. It’s a joy, a kind of beautiful madness.

I am looking forward to the Italian Pavilion. Milovan Farronato, the curator, has done strong work these last years. It is a big challenge, I imagine, to create an exhibition that represents the art of a country at a specific historical moment. All the more so in our country, where the inspiration is so vast.

I’m not sure I have the collector impulse. But when we moved out of the palazzo in 2011, during the renovations, I had to put all my possessions into one room for storage. That’s when I realised I had quite a nice photography collection, one I had put together without noticing. Perhaps that is why I also love the 19th-century Italian painters who were working in the moment just before before photography. For those artists, the landscapes and views were all about the light, about what the eye sees.

‘There is a kind of independent spirit here. Venetians know where they come from and what their home is: a city unique in the world’

I did not study art — I didn’t even go to university. I finished school and started working at Cartier in Paris when I was 18. When I moved to Venice, I worked for UNESCO for a while. After the big flood of 1966, many countries got together with foundations and institutions to renovate churches or museums or paintings or altarpieces — all sorts of bits and pieces of Venice.

I approached Christie’s with an idea 22 years ago. My plan was to create programmes for visitors to come to the city for a week, enjoy lovely hotels and restaurants, and spend time investigating Venice with a specific art theme in mind: Veronese, or ceramics, or Palladio. I met the head of Christie’s to pitch it, but as I spoke he began to laugh. I asked what was funny. He apologised and said, ‘The thing is, we are interviewing you because we want you to come and work for us.’ I started a month later.

I am curious by nature. I go into every church I pass, again and again. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is one of my favourites. I want to understand on a practical level how Tintoretto painted his huge canvases, how they were hung, where he got the colours, who taught him. What a character he was, what a man, what a genius — to have painted the way he did, out of the box, in those days.

I am originally from Arezzo, the city where Piero della Francesca lived and worked. His fresco of the miracle of St Helena is in the main church there. When you are a child you think it is normal to have such things on your doorstep, you take it for granted. Then one day — perhaps in your teens — you grasp how exceptional that art is. You understand that, in Italy, everything started so early.

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The Venetian character is not like in other parts of Italy. Venice is an island, and it has historically been a republic. So there is a kind of independent spirit here. Venetians know where they come from and what their home is: a city unique in the world.

I like to take friends to the Chiesa dei Gesuiti on the Fondamente Nove. It’s off the tourist track and it is such a surprise. The walls appear to be covered with fabric, a brocade in green and white. It takes time to realise that this is actually a trompe l’oeil in marble. In the same church is Titian’s San Lorenzo in Graticola, showing the saint being burned alive on a gridiron. My children always felt so upset for him.

Everything is so beautiful here that you grow accustomed to it. I find myself avoiding anything that is not stunning. You can get spoiled by beauty.