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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning


San Giorgio Maggiore from the water taxi

During the second half of our recent field trip to Northern Italy, the Fine Art and Liberal Studies majors (numbering no more than ten) separated from the Architects in Milano and boarded a train to spend a few days in Venice. The experience in Venice was very different from our previous trips, partially because of the magical atmosphere of the city, but also because our guides, history professor Paolo Alei and studio professor Luana Perilli, truly tailored our agenda to our interests.

The canals and colors of Venice

I would say that Venice is perhaps my favorite place in Italy; it is a completely mysterious and unique city, with a rich cultural scene from both a historical and contemporary perspective. It is difficult to summarize all of the wonderful things we did and saw, both as part of our agenda and through our own exploration, something both professors highly encouraged on this trip.

We visited many important art spaces that are tucked away throughout the city, on the first day we navigated the maze of little streets and canals to see the Peggy Guggenheim collection which boasts a very comprehensive collection of 20th century art in a beautiful building along the canals. After this we visited another very interesting space with huge group show of contemporary work at the Punta della Dogana.

Matt Mullican at the Arsenale

In the evenings we were sent off on our own to explore Venice by night, and we managed for the most part to escape the more touristic venues and find some beautiful bars and restaurants where we were able to sit and observe the piazzas and canals.

The second day of our trip began with perhaps the most spectacular view of Venice from the bell tower of the island monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. Against the panoramic image of the city, Paolo lectured to us about the fascinating history of the Venetian economy and carnival, a subject on which he is an expert. It was wonderful to imagine the city in its lavish mode of celebration, with floating palaces, exotic animals and, of course, the entire population in masks.

Paolo lectures on his speciality subject.

Another extremely important piece of our agenda was an afternoon spent at the  55th Venice Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni around the theme of the Palazzo Enciclopedico / The Encyclopedic Palace. We were fortunate to spend as much time as we needed exploring both the main exhibition at the Arsenale, as well as the Giardino where the international Pavilions are situated. The show was very inspiring, for me it was refreshing to see a curator who was interested not only in the contemporary art scene, but how various so called ‘self-taught artists’ and pieces of cultural history figure into the greater context of art now. The show was full of the works of these non professional artists, many of them driven to their practice for spiritual reasons, as well as strange collections of rocks, Carl Jung’s ‘Red Book’, artifacts from Haitian Voodoo rituals, alongside a very elegantly selected collection of contemporary artists dealing with the encyclopedic impulse. As it grew later we explored the different pavilions in the Giardino, my favorite of which was Great Britain. The British pavilion was bustling with life and energy; there was a station where one could stamp one’s own souvenir card from the show, many different installations and finally a tea salon with complementary tea and long communal tables where one could pause to reflect a moment on the show.

While the throngs of tourists and floodwaters deterred us from visiting some of the more famous sites in Venice, those who were determined were able to wade through knee high water into the Basilica San Marco where we were fortunate to happen upon Sunday mass, a beautiful ceremony beneath the gilded domes, complete with an orchestra.

High waters and long lines in Piazza San Marco

This post can account for only a fragment of the things we experienced in Venice; perhaps some are best left to imagination and memory, to better preserve the mystery of the city. While I am not sure I was ready to leave when we did, I also felt that perhaps if we stayed too long the magic would subside, or perhaps overwhelm, taking us in forever into a lost palace or secret alley.

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