Even a snatched wallet couldn't dim the joy of my return to Venice | Joan Bakewell

As the city came to life after the pandemic, gondoliers and tourists alike sat back, laughed and let fun and pleasure prevail

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


Joan Bakewell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Venice in Vantablack: Anish Kapoor’s disappearing act
The artist learned of the technology that absorbs nearly all visible light in the Guardian. As two shows featuring it open, he talks of a ‘stupid’ spat, his new foundation and dismay with England

Charlotte Higgins in Venice

21, Apr, 2022 @2:02 PM

Article image
Venice Biennale: women outnumber male artists in main halls for first time
Black women occupy prominent pavilions with some venues showing work from non-binary, disabled and trans artists

Charlotte Higgins in Venice

22, Apr, 2022 @6:44 PM

Article image
British artist Sonia Boyce wins Golden Lion at Venice Biennale
Winning piece, Feeling Her Way, described as ‘perfect selection for this time in UK history’

David Connett

23, Apr, 2022 @8:43 PM

Article image
Venice Dance Biennale review – Wayne McGregor delivers sinners and shapeshifters
The British choreographer’s programme includes beguiling digital dance created by Tobias Gremmler, a reckoning with desire from Rocío Molina and seven visions of vice

Chris Wiegand

29, Jul, 2022 @2:27 PM

Article image
Sonia Boyce’s Venice Biennale winner to be exhibited in UK next year
Feeling Her Way, featuring videos of five black female musicians, to be shown in Margate and Leeds

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

26, Oct, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Cyborgs, sirens and a singing murderer: the thrilling, oligarch-free Venice Biennale – review
The Russian pavilion is closed and you can’t speak in the Italian one. Thank goodness for the opium-smoking cat and the human turning into a mobile phone. Our writer reports from the groundbreaking arts spectacular

Adrian Searle

25, Apr, 2022 @4:19 PM

Article image
I thought mourning the Queen would be a personal choice – until I saw the billboards | Billy Bragg
As I drove away from Winchester service station, a long-planned campaign was being put into action, says musician Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg

15, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
This obscure portrait gave me goosebumps – but I never expected a bidding war | Carol Morley
My film about Audrey Amiss was done. Now I had a chance to own a piece of her work, says film-maker Carol Morley

Carol Morley

17, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
In homage to Harry Styles, I tried to knit a grungy cloak of homemade smugness | Rebecca Nicholson
I wanted to learn a skill that would come in handy after society collapsed – perhaps I should have taken up unarmed combat, says Guardian columnist Rebecca Nicholson

Rebecca Nicholson

24, Dec, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
A placard on the street said all we need to know about the violation of Child Q | Lola Okolosie
The protest against the police abuse of a teenage girl at her school showed that people refuse to tolerate black children being seen as less than human, says teacher and writer Lola Okolosie

Lola Okolosie

16, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM