From Melbourne to Prato and onwards to the Mecca of the art world: The Venice Biennale Part One
by Tiziana Borghese
Prato, Italy, about 25 minutes by car from Florence is a hidden treasure. It has all the quiet tranquility of a small regional town with the option of being a train ride away from the high fashion, culture and art of one of Italy’s largest cities, Florence. Surrounded by green luscious mountains, it is a medieval town with high stone protective walls, a castle which belonged to an Emperor and a Cathedral and churches which attracted such esteemed artists of the Renaissance as Pisani, Lippi, Donatello and Della Robbia.
E-ticket in hand I make one final check to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. Passport-check, accommodation vouchers-check, Euros-check, hand-luggage and suitcase with distinctive rainbow ribbons-check.
I have been looking forward to this day for an eternity. I am flying to Italy for a three month gorging on art, architecture, history and Italian food and culture. My first stop is Prato, via Singapore and Rome. I intend to spend 5 weeks researching food, culture and the Italian way. Being so close to where it all began… where Dante wrote his Divine Comedy, where Machiavelli wrote The Prince and where some of my favorite Renaissance artists worked, walked and loved is like being projected into a parallel universe of visual splendor connected by a synchronicity of images in time. Prato is so close to Florence and Florence is magnificent. Walking on the same cobbled stones as the Medici’s might have done and where Michelangelo and Leonardo might have had their famous artistic banters, where Lippi and Lucrezia had their clandestine assignations and where ordinary medieval people went about their daily lives caring for families, buying food and clothes and travelling on horseback, brings the past into the present and connects who I am now with my origins.
Although my family migrated from Italy when I was six years of age, Italian literature, culture and art is as much part of me as my Australian upbringing. Migrants who are not lucky enough to become totally assimilated find that their identity is split between their sense of where they come from and their adopted way of life. When I come to Italy and I hear Italian spoken around me my heart races as if meeting a lover for the first time. But the same happens when I hear that familiar Australian accent overseas. There is an instant connection and affection toward cultures that are the basis of one’s identity. The first time I heard the Venician dialect on my return I felt an instant kinship with total strangers .I felt at home. A chance encounter with an Australian family in Florence had a similar result…instant bonding. Italy is in my blood and Australia where I belong.
Trouble magazine have commissioned me to do a series of articles on my research in Italy, especially the Venice Biennale, this is the first article, focusing on the journey and first impressions. In the following articles I will report in more detail on the Biennale, but also on art in Italy In general. I will be conducting interviews with artists in and outside the Biennale.
My two main destinations are Prato, near Florence, and Venice. Prato has a vibrant artistic community and in the summer months there is a smorgasbord of cultural events, most for free, on every street corner and venue of the old city. There are musical events from jazz and rock to opera and rap, there are wine tastings, artist’s talks on graphic novels and photography and interviews with leading literary and cultural figures. Two years ago Simple Minds gave a free concert in the Piazza della Republica in Florence and Patti Smith is scheduled to give a concert this year.
Monash University has a campus in Prato and attracts students all year round, but in summer students of Fine Art and Design converge on Prato to study Renaissance art and its contribution to modernism and contemporary art, and the Venice Biennale, a mecca for art and artists from all over the world. Pilgrimages to these iconic art events, galleries and museums are always more fun when they are shared with others who have the same passion. And nothing can replace the sheer joy of talking about discoveries of the day over a few glasses of wine or beer, or a Spritz (a popular cocktail of Prosseco, soda and Aparol) in the evening. Residencies are all the best part of shared housing with art thrown in. The camaraderie, the sharing of ideas and experiences, the company and support, and the warm feeling of having shared a journey not only of place but also of mind, is part of the residencies’ experience; memories, which stay with us forever.
With anticipation and a bit of trepidation I board the train to the city and take the Sky bus from Southern Cross station to Tullamarine airport, terminal 2. My flight on Singapore airlines leaves at 3.45pm but international flights require you to be at the airport at least three hours before that …. an inconvenience but you don’t want to miss that flight!
The flight is an endurance test. I can never sleep and for virtually twenty four hours (approx. 8 to Changi, then a long wait that is in the middle of our night, and then 12 hours to Rome) I watch every new release video I can access; Cloud Atlas, Stoker, The Story of Pi and a number of others. Due to the late night and jet lag their plots become intertwined and characters jump randomly from one scenario to another. With the lights on a constant dim time is irrelevant, compressed, expanded and elastic. Space is constricted.
At Changi airport trying to remember the time difference (back two hours?) in a state of apprehension that I might miss that connecting flight, I buy a few trinkets for family and friends. Trying to do mental arithmetic with conversion rates after an eight hour flight and watching mind-numbing screens for hours proves impossible. The basics of economic rationalism and the dictates of demand and supply mean that I am willing to pay anything to a guy behind the counter with an ever expanding smile. The Singapore government has given all travelers 40SGD (Singapore Dollars) as an added incentive to buy from traders, but the catch is that you have to line up for a voucher. There are only three people behind the counter and a multitude of travelers from flights from all over the world rushing to get their voucher and spend it before their connecting flights. The result is an ever-increasing tension as time seems to slow down and blood pressure rises as the line crawls along. A type of Monty Pythonesque surrealism.
My connecting flight leaves from terminal three at 1.05am local time, which is 3.05am in Australia. My brain has shut down; my body is on automatic pilot. I think of Dawn of the Dead and feel like one of Snyder’s minions. I shuffle from shop to shop, one eye on the clock, the other on the departure board. I find some way of spending my voucher and miraculously I make it to the right gate and board. Back on the plane I take a deep breath and settle into my seat knowing that the next leg of the flight is going to be even longer than the last. More movies … here we go.
We touch down in Rome at 7.45am local time. Who knows what time it is in Australia and who cares? I am now well and truly beyond that. My biological clock has been flipped upside down. I have lost eleven hours, have witnessed sunsets and sunrises every few hours and have lost count of the number of lunches, dinners, breakfasts and snacks served during the flight.
Sleep deprived and sense deprived I find my luggage and proceed through Italian customs. The customs officer doesn’t even look at me, stamps my passport and tells me to move on. No baggage check … and I’m in Rome. Italy has a different light, a different feel, a different smell. I am arriving at a time when the whole world of art is descending on Venice for the 55th Venice Biennale. For now I sit back and enjoy the 4 hour bus ride to Prato.
A preview of the next article from The 55th La Biennale di Venezia
Photos from the Arsenale, The Giardini and some of the Collaterals, Spotlight on Marc Quinn, Bart Dorsa, Australia’s representative Simryn Gill, and four Australians at the Palazzo Bembo, plus an interview with new rising star sculptor Peter Simon Muhlhauber.