Woman About Town

Same beach, same sea

Rainy beaches and protests in Venice, and dance and sunshine in the South Downs as Britain and Italy trade places

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Stessa spiaggia, stessa mare (“same beach, same sea”): the rituals of the Italian holiday season have remained unchanged for generations. On 1 May, the bathing stations on the Venice Lido set up their beach huts and umbrellas for the opening weekend, despite it being ten degrees and pouring down. May in La Serenissima is now the season of pac-a-macs and weeping brides.

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Head for the hills …

Smart Venetians have concurred that it’s no longer the thing to attend the “exclusive” preview days of Biennale — too many people, too many parties, too much fawning coverage of painfully inadequate exhibits. Unless one has to be in town for professional reasons one goes (or pretends to go) up to Cortina, reserving the inauguration of the social season for September’s far more refined Glass Week. 

“Venice is the Lindisfarne of culture. When the lights have gone out everywhere else, it will endure”

Before skedaddling, I did catch one brilliant show at the Prada Foundation at Ca’Corner. “Everybody Talks About the Weather” combines contemporary and Old Master artworks with climate science installations, developed in conjunction with Ca’Foscari university, in an exhibition at once rapturously beautiful and utterly terrifying. 

Responding to our misinformed age, the curators have also included “Research Stations” where visitors can consult a library of books, scientific journals and interviews with scholars and climate activists, a tool which feels far more original than the confrontational urge still adopted by so many contemporary shows. 

• • •

Real-world confrontation was seen this month in demonstrations against the city’s much-loathed mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, best known for his resistance to banning cruise ships from the Venetian lagoon. At least he has a sense of humour; a man who could make Berlusconi’s mixing of business and political interests appear a model of transparency, he is currently plotting to close one of Venice’s few hospitals, the Giustinian, in order to use the building for the proposed headquarters of the European commission against money laundering. 

With Venice’s population now below 50,000, depriving residents of healthcare facilities can only accelerate Brugnaro’s policy of willed depopulation. Venetians made their objections clear in a series of flashmob protests. “Hands off Giustinian!” was the optimistic slogan, but as in the case of the mega boats, there won’t be much chance of saving the site unless central government intervenes. 

* * *

Stand and deliver

Brugnaro has provoked further outrage with his proposal to construct a huge sports stadium behind Marco Polo airport on the mainland using a combination of EU funds, public money and a €40 million mortgage charged to the Venetian taxpayer. The EU has wisely refused to finance the project, but since Brugnaro has failed to sanction any alternative schemes (which in order to receive funding have to be completed by August 2026), Venice now looks set to miss out on €93 million of investment in housing, transport and urban renewal. 

Venetians yet again brought out their banners, trumpets and whistles, but the syndicate which governs the city now proposes to fund this absurd and unwanted project (by a construction company whose investors reportedly include a blind trust for one L. Brugnaro), by flogging off a few of its priceless artworks.

• • •

Fond as I am of a demo (my homemade “Cruisers are Losers” sign was a hit), a hopeful sign for Venice is the number of creatives who are moving here. At the launch of his book Ateliers of Europe at Palazzo Contarini della Porto di Ferro, John Whelan, design wunderkind and new resident, explained his decision to relocate to the lagoon: “Venice is the Lindisfarne of culture. When the lights have gone out everywhere else, it will endure.” 

Other new recruits include Kieron Quirke, writer of the brilliant This England, and artist Patrick O’Reilly whose exquisitely restored eyrie near Accademia boasts one of the best views in Venice. Patrick’s current show Art and Soul is at Castlemartyr Resort, Cork, but his ludic, haunting, monumental sculptures can be seen from Paris to Cape Town. 

Collaborating with a furnace on Murano, Patrick is planning to make more work from Venice, describing its carnivalesque melancholy as an ideal inspiration.

Leaving drenched and flooded northern Italy for a meeting in Cannes, I hoped to catch a few Riviera rays, but the Côte d’Azur was equally grey and chilly. Maybe it’s time we did start talking about the weather, starting by admitting that we no longer have four seasons but two: a long, cool grey one and a brief, blistering inferno.

* * *

Observation on famous people: they really are just like the rest of us, in that mild gossip about people they know is often the main fuel for conversation. Other than the household names, I could have been at my mother’s gardening club in Chichester. Celebrity scoop central Cannes was not — the most memorable anecdote involved Mick Jagger’s trouble with his white carpets. Apparently there was an incident with red wine that he’s still getting over. This was a topic I could get on board with; everyone was definitely fascinated by my handy hint that shaving foam is superior to salt when it comes to getting Petrus out of the shagpile. 

Morris minors

Usually a return to Benefit Britain invokes a combination of sadness and fury, but driving over the South Downs, gloriously filigreed with mile after mile of hawthorn, did invoke a smidgen of sceptr’d isle sentimentality. More surprisingly, so did the thrum and jingle of the Priory Park Morris Dancing Festival. 

It might be the hobby that gave incest a bad name, but the drums and recorders and the clashing of (these days very discreetly), phallic staves felt witchy, ancient, compelling. My top team were Mythago of Horsham, whose steam-punk crow costumes and creepy masks conjured an unnerving darkness as they tripped through numbers like “Turncoat” and “The Changeling”. Moreover, half the participants looked about 20. Spooky, subversive, sexual — is “Morys” the new rock n’roll?

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