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A Biennale for all the Senses

One of the world’s most important cultural institutions takes centre stage in Venice

by Cat Bauer

Think Venice, and you conjure up an ancient city with gondolas gliding on canals, Palladian architecture, and masked balls during Carnival. But did you know that Venice is also home to one of the most dynamic contemporary cultural institutions on the planet?


La Biennale di Venezia is the granddaddy of art exhibitions. The first International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice opened on 22 April, 1895 in a purposely-built pavilion in the sprawling gardens of Venice’s Giardini sector. Belgium built the first national pavilion here in 1907, soon joined by Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France and Russia, creating individual art embassies where each country could shine their talent. Aside from interruptions by the two world wars, La Biennale has taken place ever since, and grown into a global event with the participation of 86 different countries.

Biennale Arte 2017 Photo by Italo Rondinella Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

Since then, it has evolved into a cultural colossus with a conscience. Six different sectors – art, architecture, cinema, music, dance and theatre – draw much of the world’s elite, as well as hundreds of thousands of curious travellers who seek to expand their horizons through contemporary culture.

La Biennale’s Art Exhibition, which kicks off in the spring of odd-numbered years, has been called “the most important event in the international art calendar.” In alternate years, the Architecture Exhibition is “one of the foremost platforms in the field” with impressive interpretations for designers and curious minds. The glitz and glamour of La Biennale’s Venice Film Festival – the first in history – entices the yacht set to its screenings and parties in palaces, and has earned a reputation as a launch pad for Oscar contenders.

Related: Unmissable Stops on a Tour in Venice

The international festivals of dance, music and theatre court a youthful bohemian crowd, setting a benchmark of what’s in vogue. And there’s the newly created Biennale College which grants young talents the chance to mix with masters in the fields of cinema, theatre, music and dance, as well as offering internships for students. All these are preserved in the organisation’s archives for future generations.

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At the conclusion of the Art Exhibition last year, which was visited by more than 615,000 people, Paolo Baratta, President of La Biennale, said, “We have noted a growing desire to discover first-hand the vitality of art, compared to the world’s daily onslaught of sounds and images. What interests us is the growing thirst for knowledge: 31% of the public was composed of young people under the age of 26.” In fact, the Biennale’s sense-centred experiences are proving to be a huge draw for travellers with children, too.

In 1980, the first Architecture Exhibition was held in Arsenale, a vast complex of construction sites where Venice once built its merchant and naval fleets. As La Biennale continued to grow in demand, the organisers transformed the historic shipyards into grand venues for its expanding exhibition and performance sectors, as well as for additional national pavilions. It is a prime example of how a space once used for war and commerce is revamped into an arena for art and culture.

This year, the Architecture Exhibition is curated by the Irish duo, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, who explained that their theme “Freespace” will “celebrate architecture’s proven and enduring contribution to humanity.” Dedicate some time to visit the venues and decide for yourself which architects have their finger on the pulse of mankind.

There are plenty of VIP perks available, too, such as tailored itineraries in eight languages, and exclusive tours of the Architecture Exhibition behind closed doors, before and after closing time.

George Clooney Red Carpet Venice Film Festival Photo by Jacopo Salvi Courtesy La Biennale

President Baratta stated: “La Biennale is a place of free dialogue and reciprocal recognition. As a cultural institution, it has one main goal: international trust and esteem.” From May through November, there are plenty of mind-opening events on the Biennale calendar to satisfy all your senses.

For more on what to do in Venice, visit our Destinations page