Sunday, January 5, 2014

Dreams, Resurrected: The Encyclopedic Palace at the Venice Biennale

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it…”
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

I’m looking at an advertisement where a woman stands looking over her shoulder at the viewer, and I know exactly where she is. She’s on the second-floor loggia of the Doge’s Palace and, behind her, across the Bacino San Marco, is Palladio’s Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Years before I found myself staring deeply at an Absolut ad (“Absolut Venice”) that had pigeons arranged in the shape of the vodka bottle, and I was holding it very close to my face to see if any of the photoshopped pigeons had been repeated. That night I had a dream that I was with my sister in a fantastic circular flying machine that was spinning effortlessly along the edge of Dorsoduro, along the Fondamenta delle Zattere, hovering just inches above the water. I could see everything outside us with the utmost clarity. We crossed the Grand Canal and hewed close to the shore, passing the Piazzetta, the south-facing front of the Palazzo Ducale, the Riva degli Schiavoni. My sister and I, over our complicated blue-lit consoles in our pod-like flying machine, couldn’t believe our luck.

The stuff of dreams. Ruskin called his beloved Piazza Ducale “the central building of the world.”

The first time I went to Venice was in the early ’90s. Late one day I found myself in Canneregio trying to get to the other side of Venice before the Guggenheim closed. I was young and very much aware of the fare la bella figura phenomenon and so of course was too cool to walk with a map in my hand. So what I would do was find a dark, narrow sottoportego, pull out the map and memorize my path, put it away and then make my way through the maze of calli and campi until I needed the map again. I was dashing through a campo when something amazing happened. I heard a man call my name: Firmani! 

I stopped in my tracks, and turned to see who it was. And there he was, some man, sitting at a table decorated with a red bunting, holding out a pen to me. My first thought was, How does he know my name? My people are not from Venice. It freaked me out and I took to my heels, and got to the Guggenheim before closing. Later, on my way back across town to our hotel, I went through the same square. Now it was deserted but the table was still there, its red bunting half-fallen off. On the wall behind the lonely table was a sign, white lettering against a red ground: Partito Socialista Italiano.

What I’d heard was Firmate, not Firmani. He’d merely been asking people to sign something for the socialist party.

But so uncanny is Venice—so dreamlike and yet indelibly familiar—that I was perfectly willing to believe that this unknown man knew my name. He knew my name, part of me understood, because I was supposed to be there.

Venice lived in my memory before I ever visited it, and yet I still can’t get my hands around it. I’ve chased it through many pages, of Mary McCarthy and Italo Calvino and John Pemble and Henry James, Andrea de Robilant, Jan Morris and John Ruskin. And yet the more I read the more it recedes from me, there but not there in a strange pink shimmer. 

Ruskin is no kind of easy to the 21st century ear, but his love of architecture and will to understand it
and his fervor to explain his (often idiosyncratic) conclusionspulls me in. He is not at heart a systematizer, and yet he tries to be, which in a place as various and order-resistant as Venice (where, de Robilant writes, the centuries-old custom of wearing masks from October until Lent “added a little intrigue and mystery to everyday life”) seems a fool’s errand. “Picking the spot on earth most overgrown with art, he would find the order that must lie buried beneath,” the extraordinary architecture writer Robert Harbison says of Ruskin in Eccentric Spaces. “He gave up, of course, before numbering every stone, and by the third volume [of The Stones of Venice] talks about anything but buildings.” I read a pathetically chopped-down version of The Stones of Venice, but even so I could feel Ruskin’s ardor giving way to something like exhaustion in the course of its pages. Venice has suggested death and decay for many visitors for many years, but Ruskin might be unique in pushing back the starting date of Venice’s period of decline all the way to 1418when the Renaissance and the notion of man-made perfection began to encroach on his beloved God-centered Gothic. 

Ruskin hated this building. Go here for a very well done discussion of The Stones of Venice by Janice Daul in an online exhibit from the University of Mary Washington. Also see the amazing Churches of Venice website, where I found this image.

In writing about Venetian campi, Harbison, who regularly stuns the reader with miraculous insights and meltingly beautiful sentences, makes the observation “…because every surface in Venice is built, every one has the capacity to fall into disrepair, hence the city’s mournfulness…” Sometimes walking the streets in the less travelled sestieri, I would turn my face to a broken window and the deepest, coldest blast of air would come out; in Manhattan I associate this with construction sites, but in Venice it feels like a memento mori. Everything in this city, where you can readily put your hand on a thousand-year-old wall, is to some degree a ruin.  

“Nothing is quite symmetrical in Venice—the Piazza is not only irregular, but also slopes toward the Basilica, and has a heavy floor pattern that does not fit.” Jan Morris, The World of Venice.
It is also a place haunted by so much looking. It’s as if so many years of this looking have left a trace on the thing being looked at, physically worn it down not by touch but by the sheer force of ardor. Conversely, the mere fact of its innumerable pleasures to the eyethe “loot,” as Mary McCarthy saysembedded in its churches and building walls and bridges can make you feel as if you are the only person who could possibly have noticed and loved that particular roundel, that cryptic patera, that ancient corroded shutter dog shaped like a tiny man. Since you love it, maybe in your mind the thing becomes uniquely yours. Harbison again on Venice, from Eccentric Spaces: “Because it is more intricate, it is more private than other cities, making everyone feel he knows her best.”
Could this postcard be commemorating the moment in the First World War when the horses of St. Mark’s were “…shipped away in a barge for safety: through the lagoon and down the dismal tributaries of the Po, watched all along the route by sad groups of villagers, and eventually to the garden of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome…”? Jan Morris wrote those words, as well as a great many others in a style that is at times eye-closingly delicious, with both a leisure and precision I’d imagine it impossible to replicate by any American writer. Morris also wrote this warning to the wise: “More slush has been written about Venice than anywhere else on earth, more acres of ecstatic maiden prose.”

Some years back I found myself at a party in a beautiful old classic eight on the Upper West Side, the home of a newspaper editor. It was during that often terrible period in a woman’s life known as one’s late 20s, and I was unable to make any kind of smart conversation, was tied in a thousand knots, and retreated into the empty living room to hide. There was an old engraving over the mantelpiece and, moving to look more closely, I realized it was San Zaccaria. I felt my heart flood. It was like this: I had been there—it had been wonderful—there was a feeling of newness then—that feeling was gone. And yet there was San Zaccaria, looking the same in this 16th century engraving as it looked when I had seen it in my lifetime. It remained the same over so many years, while I had changed, and—a piece of melodrama I very much believed at the time—for the worse, in a much shorter time.

The host, nice as he was, had followed me into the living room. I turned to him and opened my mouth to say something of this, explain what seeing this image meant to me and maybe along with it apologize for my general wretchedness. But when I tried to speak I couldn’t say anything at all.

“I know, dear,” he said, patting my arm sympathetically, “it looks just the same now, doesn’t it?”

The unthinkable: the Campanile collapses, 1902.
From RIBA's website.

And so for me Venice is about architecture, it is about memory, it is about an irreplicable experience of place; and it is also my own personal repository of dreams. Perfect then that this city, which lived in my heart in such a strange and singular way, should be the city in my grandfather’s homeland where his labor of love would be shared with the world.

Years back I was talking with a composer about the Encyclopedic Palace, and he suggested that it might have owed its origin to the idea of the memory palace—a mnemonic device in which a person organizes thoughts or facts into an imagined structure, and visually walks through that structure to recall them. The Encyclopedic Palace would be a kind of realization of such a structure, idea made reality. 

The Temple of Time, created by educator Emma Willard, “a three-dimensional projection of historical chronography.” Image and text from
Architects Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore took the idea of a memory palace as their organizing principle in Chambers for a Memory Palace, an exchange of letters that contain their thoughts on the places that speak to them, organized into something like typologies with “nameable parts [and] ephemeral sensations.” I read the book wrongly, as if to find a key to architectural understanding (my own Key to All Mythologies), rather than reading it for the writers’ very specific architectural pleasures. I came across this sentence: “Memories lodge in places that are distinct.” My old officemate Michael and I, working in the World Trade Center on September 11th and both delayed in getting to the office that day for different reasons, both felt the need to make lists of the things that were on our desks when the Trade Center came down. It was not a distinct place, and maybe we both knew our memories would quickly recede, that maybe all the media directed at the event, the endless replication of horrible images, would have the effect of obliterating our own very specific memories.

When I think of Venice, I think of singularity, of the impossible vistas that come to you at every turn and stay so indelibly in the mind. I think of Damian and me sitting on a bench in Giudecca, after seeing Ai Weiwei’s Straight—a commentary on unethical and inhumane architecture—looking across the water to the Piazzetta as a huge cruise ship, like some insane floating apartment building, sails by, completely obscuring the city for one long minute.


It was amazing to come out of the train station this last September and see, down the steps and right in front on a bright red kiosk, a poster for Il Palazzo Enciclopedico. I had to stop and stare at it, touch it. The sight would be repeated across the city—on signs, banners, advertisements, maps, guides. What’s impossible to explain is the crazy dissonance that came from seeing what had been for my family for many years a very private combination of words now written across an entire city. It’s the name of the architectural model that my grandfather built, but it’s also the name of the Biennale and the organizing principal behind the show—and, in a way, it’s as if the Biennale became a sort of realization of the actual museum that my grandfather envisioned. 

And so, I find myself out of words before I even get there. How can I explain what it was to come into the Arsenale and be greeted by a wall with the story of the Encyclopedic Palace written across it? On November 16, 1955, self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti filed a design with the U.S. patent office… And then to step around the wall and see, raised up on a dais in the middle of an enormous room, the Encyclopedic Palace.

Of course, I cried.

And again I struggle to think what my grandfather, a dour, anti-grandstanding, supremely un-whimsical man would have made of the whole thing. I loved the show, the thoughtfulness of the curation and the very smart ideas about visual progression—how wonderful it was to go into the room beyond the Encyclopedic Palace and see, suspended from the ceiling, Roberto Cuoghi’s Belinda, in size and massing a kind of inverted Encyclopedic Palace. The section curated by Cindy Sherman, her own “imaginary museum,” blew me away; for me, she defines what it is to understand the punctum in a photograph, haunting, funny or unheimlich—Linda Fregni Nagler’s collection of Victorian photographs, The Hidden Mother, were sometimes all three—and the sculpture Sherman curated (Jimmie Durham, Mirosław Bałka, Charles Ray, among others) was just as uncanny. I could talk of many more great things throughout the Biennale, Lara Almarcegui’s piles, Nikolay Bakharev’s photographs, Guo Fengyi’s drawings, Kan Xuan’s video series, Eva Kotátková’s installation, Lin Xue’s drawings, A.G. Rizzoli’s visions, Welcome to Iraq, Ai Weiwei’s chairs, the artists of the Indonesian pavilion, those of the Chinese pavilion (particularly Shu Yong and Wang Qingsong) the artists of the Latin American pavilion…many more. And how it felt to see my grandfather’s name in this continuum, one artist among many.

Even if what he was at heart was an architect.

And that is maybe the closest I can get to it. The more tangible the idea of my grandfather being put on a world stage becomes, the more the actual story behind it feels like a fiction, something private and inexplicable. And so perhaps I am afraid of losing my own experience all at once, if I continue to write of it. Now I will just let it live in my mind, as images and sensations, and let the words disperse into the air.  

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