From its glittering zenith as mercantile republic to hedonistic decline, Venice has for centuries been a source of fascination, spectacle and intrigue to outsiders, day trippers, and grand tourists looking in at the city that rises out of the sea. All have brought with them their own fantasy projections but what constitutes the real Venice?
A new exhibition of photography at London’s Somerset House explores this theme as taken up by fourteen contemporary artists including Nan Goldin and Philip Lorca di Corcia and is curated by Ivorypress and the Venice in Peril fund, an organisation dedicated to the future sustainability of the city and a pressing question for the heritage sector as Italy’s economy strains.
Most of the works on show have resisted the expected carnival cliches, some instead looking at forgotten spaces of the banal; safety instructions in a budget hotel room out of season, an empty conference centre, resonant with potential and past narrative, or the strange stillness of La Fenice between performances. Others celebrate rather than deny the saturation of tourism and its sale of cheap and crude souvenirs that is as much part of Venice’s contemporary identity as high culture and history.
On the whole, the show strikes a note of darkness and seductive melancholy, reminiscent of du Maurier and Thomas Mann, with misty vistas and mirrors made opaque by years of damp and desertion, harnessing both nightmares and desires. Despite peeling back the edges, the ‘real’ Venice however remains ever, exquisitely, elusive.