Students Abroad: Excursion to Venice

Welcome to the Architecture Biennale 2021 in Venice (Photo: Tamina Volpp)

In the theory project of the winter semester 2021/22 How Will We Live Together? The City in the Age of the Anthropocene, 15 students traveled to Venice with Professor Dr. David Quigley to visit the Università Iuav di Venezia as well as participate in a workshop of the symposium Looking Forward: The Education of the Architect. The symposium was organized in collaboration with universities worldwide and was part of the Architecture Biennale program. At the university, a meeting was scheduled with Professor Angela Vettese to discuss a potential partnership between the Università Iuav di Venezia and the Merz Akademie. Angela Vettese directs the graduate program in visual arts there and teaches theory and criticism of contemporary art as an associate professor.

Photograph of the Collapsed Campanile of San Marco 14 July 1902

I had printed out a photograph of this pile of rubble, the campanile after it had collapsed in 1902. This image, and more generally the city itself, are both metaphor and the really existing examples of the looming global climate disaster that haunts the present world. This improbable place built in a marshy laguna landscape on stilts made out of trees (that have since become semi-petrified)…just barely above sea level, in some places, namely here on Piazza San Marco, even below sea level…what better place to think about the topic of our project:

“How will we live together?” The city in the age of the Anthropocene.

We meet next to the Lion of Venice and Theodore atop a slain dragon (which I always thought was Saint George), the statues perched high upon columns that frame the entryway to the piazza from the sea. As most tour guides point out and as I too would reiterate: Before the railroad bridge was built in the mid-19th century and the automobile bridge in the 1930s, this was the first thing visitors to Venice would have seen.

On the piazza, we talk about the traces of colonialism and conquest but also the often astonishingly random and even, quite frankly, bizarre history that lies behind these monuments.

Photo on the left: Tamina Volpp; Photo on the right: Sophie Famula

The Leone di San Marco: we don’t really know where it is from. It may be a 2,400-year or merely roughly 1,000-old, modified griffin or chimera statue; it may be Assyrian, Chinese, or Greek; It was first documented in the 13th century as being in need of restoration (so it was already around for a while). Much more recently and well-documented: Napoleon pilfered the Lion after his invasion ended the nearly 1000-year reign of the Republic, shlepped it back to France and erected it atop a pillar in Paris to celebrate his conquest. It was eventually returned to Venice after 1815, but during transport (or while they were taking it down) it broke apart and was then “put back together again” in Venice (with the tale no longer between the lion’s legs but rather upright).

The statue, much like the many stories surrounding it, is something of a composite of a composite of a composite…

When talking about the Lion of Venice it is impossible not to talk about one of the most central stories about the origins of Venice: the “translation” of the corpse of Saint Mark to the basilica. Talk about crazy. The myth is that while Mark the Evangelist was on his way to (or from?) the ancient port city of Aquileia (which is now completely inland), his boat was forced ashore due to a storm at the very place where Venice was to be built roughly 800 years later. According to legend, he and his followers heard the archangel Gabriel say:

Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescit corpus tuum.

Which is why in the 9th century, November 827 to be precise, Venetian merchants (named Rustico da Torcello and Bon da Malamocco!) stole the 800-year old corpse from a cemetery in Alexandria and snuck it away hidden in a barrel of pork—saving it from being desecrated by the heathens and bringing it back to its rightful place of rest in the laguna. For hundreds of years, the presence of this relic in Venice remained of central importance, part tourist destination for the faithful and part raison d’état. Later that day we would talk again about this story in front of equally fantastic and phantasmagoric painting The Translation of the Body of Saint Mark by Tintoretto.

The famous Horses of Saint Mark have a similarly complex history. They were stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and then later taken by Napoleon to Paris in 1797. This might sound flippant, but if anybody ever asks you what your favorite Crusade was, I would recommend claiming the Fourth (although a case can probably be made for others…). What other Crusade so completely reveals the brutality, hypocrisy and utter stupidity not only of the historic “crusades” but of any war—especially any war that would think of itself as being just? With the stated goal of freeing Jerusalem (of course anyway a highly questionable endeavor), it ended up conquering the Catholic city of Zadar and concluded with the sack of Constantinople that likely contributed to the downfall of the Byzantine Empire. In any case, it has been claimed that any time these horses are moved (the actual ones are on display inside the Basilica), great Empires and Republics fall…

Thomas Struth in Front of Veronese in Front of Tamina Volpp

In addition to the obvious environmental challenges faced by the city, Venice is a good place to think about the role the imagination plays in identity. There is, of course, a level of existence that is truly material…but where is it? Very immediate and undeniably here right now: I pinch myself… ouch… I am here and at the same time, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the histories of nations, our mythologies, narratives, even perhaps our own consciousness derive from such distant and partially fictional, in many cases, wholly fictional events. The pure fiction at the heart of social reality. Jesus’s birth 2022 years ago, his later crucifixion and resurrection, the evangelists spread out across the Mediterranean, Saint Mark shipwrecks at the Rialto, dies and is buried in Alexandria, merchants steal his body, the remains are revered as a relic for thousands of years in Venice…and we are standing here now looking at our smartphones connected to a world-wide super computer trying to figure out how to buy tickets online…

I never found the argument: “credo quia adsurdum” very convincing, but perhaps it is more relevant than we might think.

After a morning spent wandering the streets and alleyways of Venice and a brief visit to the Gallerie dell’Accademia, we set off to meet Professor Angela Vettese from the Università Iuav di Venezia. In typical tourist fashion, we get lost on the way there and I make a panicky call to tell her that we are going to be late. Finally, with the help of the students’ cool heads and GPS, we are able to meet her and explore the newly developed university campus in an area of Venice that long ago was mostly devoted to the harbor and industry. Tomorrow we go the Architecture Biennale. The next day to the international symposium “Looking Forward: The Education of the Architect”. Ein volles Programm.

(Prof. Dr. David Quigley)


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