Dear Readers, the Arsenale in Venice has existed since about 1100, and at the height of Venice’s sea power in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was probably the world’s first production line for ships. At its busiest it employed over 20,000 workers, who were divided into teams who made the frame, the hull, the rigging, the sails and the munitions separately and then put the ship together – legend has it that they could construct a battleship in a single day. Dante described the process in his Inferno:
As in the Arsenal of the Venetians
Boils in winter the tenacious pitch
To smear their unsound vessels over again
For sail they cannot; and instead thereof
One makes his vessel new, and one recaulks
The ribs of that which many a voyage has made
One hammers at the prow, one at the stern
This one makes oars and that one cordage twists
Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen…
Well, these days the buildings are home to the Venice Bienniale. In ‘even’ years, it’s art, but in ‘odd’ years it’s architecture, so for the first time this year we decided to see what was going on. But first, we had to visit the lions that surround the old entrance to the site. First up is the Piraeus Lion. He was originally sculpted in about 360 BC and was stolen from Piraeus in Greece in 1687 by Venetian commander Francesco Morosini. Morosini was something of a character, who apparently always dressed in red from top to toe, and never went into battle without his cat Nini beside him. Nini is embalmed in the Museo Correr on St Marks Square, with an embalmed mouse between her paws.
Anyhow, the Piraeus lion is covered in runes, apparently inscribed by Scandinavians at some point in the eleventh century (they were probably mercenaries hired by the Byzantines, and they were clearly a long way away from home). Some people just can’t resist a bit of graffiti, clearly.
Because the runes are so weathered, attempts at translation have been somewhat hindered, but the consensus is that the 1914 translation by Erik Brate is probably the closest to what the runes actually say. So here it is:
They cut him down in the midst of his
forces. But in the harbor the men cut
runes by the sea in memory of Horsi, a
The Swedes set this on the lion.
He went his way with good counsel,
gold he won in his travels.
The warriors cut runes,
hewed them in an ornamental scroll.
Æskell (Áskell) [and others] and
had them well cut, they who lived
in Roslagen. [N. N.] son of [N. N.]
cut these runes.
Ulfʀ (Úlfr) and [N. N.] colored them
in memory of Horsi.
He won gold in his travels.
There are three other pillaged lions sitting in front of the gates (the winged lion is the symbol of St Mark, the patron saint of Venice), but this one is my favourite. Whenever I see him, it makes me laugh. Lion or dachshund? You decide.
And look at that face.
This is the Delos lion, another statue nicked by Morosini during the wars with the Ottomans in the seventeenth century. This lion probably dates back to the sixth century B.C., and the head was added later, probably after the lion arrived in Venice. Incidentally, Morosini tried to hammer off some of the horses and chariots from the Parthenon but they fell out of the frieze and smashed. Dear oh dear.
Anyhow, finally we get into the Architecture Bienniale itself. Sometimes, the language used to describe what’s going on at these events is basically word salad, and I don’t think that it’s always a problem with translation. But several exhibits really did stand out. One was a very thought provoking piece about a city in Ukraine dating to 4000 B.C, contemporary with Uruk, usually thought to be the first city in the world, but I want to do a whole post on this so I will leave it for now.
The other exhibit was the Slovenian display, which wondered why we didn’t learn more from vernacular architecture about how to conserve energy, adapt to climate change etc. They used some excellent examples. One was the way that, in the past, people would use only part of their homes during the winter rather than the whole thing, sharing their space with animals or additional people, closing down some rooms and using things like hangings and tapestries to lower ceilings and insulate walls. Whenever I see the latest enormous white box that someone has built in Grand Designs, I always think how cold it’s going to be, even with our excellent insulation and fancy glass.
There’s also much to be learned from places in North Africa and the Middle East about adjusting to hot weather – smaller windows on the outside, courtyards with fountains in the centre that stop ‘thermal load’ and keep the living spaces cool. I found myself nodding up and down like one of those plastic doggies that people used to have on the rear windows of their cars. Below are just some of the questions asked, and the answers they came up with from the past. People have always adapted to climatic problems with creativity and intelligence. Why reinvent the wheel? There’s much from other times and other places that could be useful. I always fancied one of those little sleeping cubby holes meself.
Anyhow, this all seemed so sensible to me that I feel quite inspired, and it’s no different from what my parents and grandparents used to do to save money on energy bills. I bet if we thought about there are ways that we could use our homes differently to adapt to how the climate is changing.
And then I went for a walk outside the Arsenale, because I just love all the bits of engineering from previous iterations of the building that are still hanging about. Like this Armstrong-Whitworth crane, for example, which would have been used to loading/unloading ships, and for building ships. It was originally built in Newcastle and is the only one of its kind left anywhere in the world – in fact, it was the subject of a ‘Venice in Peril’ appeal about twenty years ago, which looks to have been completed.
I absolutely love these gigantic oil tanks, which are slowly being repossessed by nature. The one in the middle looks to me as if it has a cartoon face.
There is yet another lion, this time just a head, presumably to tie a ship up to.
And then there are these enormous white hands and arms. As we got the vaporetto home, I noticed that they form an arch. The installation is called ‘Building Bridges’ and it’s by Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn. They were put in place for the 2019 Bienniale, but like his previous installation ‘Support’, which drew attention to rising sea levels in Venice, this one was so popular that it’s still in place. Apparently the six sets of hands symbolise friendship, hope, love, help, faith and wisdom, and we could all do with a bit more of all of those.
And so, it’s time to head home. We get the vaporetto around the east and north of the island, and walk back home. You don’t have to go far in Venice to find a quiet alleyway or a peaceful unpopulated canal if you keep away from the main Rialto/San Marco/Accademia stretch (though if you only have a few days these are the things that you’re definitely going to want to see). It’s worth sometimes just exploring gently, though. Not all who wander are lost, and in Venice even those who are lost are generally unconcerned.