It’s the Venice Biennale. Art aficionados flock to the Giardini, where each country has its own pavilion and its own art: they gossip, plot, criticise and do a little business.
Not so the gondoliers. Here they snatch a moment off duty to lark and frolic; young men, lithe, relaxed, off-duty, throwing gondola cushions back and forth. At a nearby restaurant, tourists scoff delicious Venetian dishes – truffle ravioli for me. My photograph reminds me how delicious it was. Venice offers untold pleasures: the brisk divide between formal tourists and local providers disappears. All enjoy its beauty, coloured houses, ancient pavements, the quayside, the glimpse at every moment of something beyond.
The biennale is a serious matter. This was its 59th year, and there were about 200 artists from 58 countries. Those are the figures; the impact is something else. Its title was The Milk of Dreams, a reference to the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. And this is a woman’s exhibition. Britain’s pavilion was led by Sonia Boyce, the black Royal Academician who created a tapestry of work woven with the songs of five black female musicians. One is the daughter of the jazz singer Cleo Laine, who once told me never to divulge my age to the press. As far as I know she never did, and posed decades later for Portrait Artist of the Year, the Sky Arts programme I present. Boyce would like the thread of time that links our lives. Her pavilion won the Golden Lion.
Germany’s pavilion was more austere: great slabs of raw brick set within white-painted walls. Korea displayed a glittering mass of convoluted shiny metal. Belgium showed a series of gentle watercolours by Francis Alÿs. People strolled between and within, moving from sunlit warmth to shady interiors.
At one point, sitting down for coffee, I found that my wallet has been snatched. I should have been careful. There were posters warning of pickpockets by all the vaporetto stations. Life’s a mixed bag.
Back by the water, the gondoliers have finished their lunchtime break. The fun is over and they are back lunging forward on their poles, navigating the long gondolas through narrow waterways. Snobbishly, I think of gondolas as meant for transient tourists – having been so often and knowing the city well, I have never been in one.
For the gondoliers, as for me, there is a sense of renewed joy in being in Venice at all. We are on the other side of the pandemic and sensing a joy of release from its severity: now we can move freely, come and go, joke and cavort together, mix without masks in our renewed freedoms. Venice, like everywhere else, suffered its severity; but more than anywhere else knows how to rejoice in its passing. Of course, risks remain: we all have masks tucked away in our homes, we had rapid flow tests at the ready should the worst happen. But here in Venice in the summer of 2022 we let pleasure prevail, laughing together with renewed joy in this gem of a city.
Joan Bakewell is a writer and broadcaster