Unbelievable part 7: The Venues

20 December 2019

In part 3 of this series I pointed out that given Venice’s history and signs of things to come there was no location more relevant for Damien Hirst’s most ambitious show to date. Looking more specifically now, anyone would be hard-pressed to find more appropriate exhibiting venues. A show as spectacular and excessive as Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable required an appropriate stage – or two, as was the case. For much of 2017 (a biennale year), Treasures spanned Venice’s substantial Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi galleries, marking the first time both were used for a single exhibition of work by a solo artist. Now owned and operated by the François Pinault Foundation, the venues are each part of the city’s historical fabric, denoting its once powerful maritime trade and renown for its display and collection of classical and ancient art, adding further meaning, gravitas and a sense of verisimilitude to the myth-based Treasures. The following post outlines a brief history of each building.

Punta della Dogana

Functioning in a way similar to Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, Punta della Dogana often houses exhibitions of its owner’s vast collections of modern art. But as recently as the mid-1990s the formerly named Dogana di Mare (or Dogana da Mar) operated, as it had done for centuries, as a maritime customs office. Situated at the meeting point between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, the building completed in the seventeenth century was renovated and became an arts centre in 2009. In its earlier life where imported cargoes and goods for export were brought for inspection, Dogana was no stranger to artworks causing controversy. 

The story goes, according to Giandomenico Romanelli, that after many renovations over the years, Dogana’s distinctive cubic tower was designed by Giuseppe Benoni and built of Istrian stone in 1677 (p. 406). It is the roof of this tower that displays the pair of atlases holding up the globe upon which is thought to be the figure of Fortune, all still present today. These were made in embossed and gilded copper by artist Bernardo Falconi, who resided in nearby Padua, under the commission of the Procuratori de Supra (p. 441). Romanelli posits (p. 443): 
In his work for the Dogana, Falconi’s standards slip. Such a lapse is perhaps attributable to limitations inherent in a certain type of commission, but it is also probably due to a lack of concentration, which brought him into conflict with his clients on at least two occasions. The monks of the monastery of SS. Giovanni e Paolo initiated a lawsuit against him over the statue on the high altar of the church, and the Procuratori de Supra ordered the removal of four other copper statues made for the Dogana and already in situ.’

I know little else about this history, and it provides the most tenuous of links to the building’s present function. I suppose it is telling that the group is still there three and a half centuries later and the building is now owned and operated by a foundation that drives as much as it benefits from Venice’s current main trade of tourism, and which can well afford to take risks in its display of art.

When it became the Centro d’Arte Contemporanea Punta della Dogana, Pinault, who co-owns Palazzo Grassi as well, financed renovations designed by architect Tadao Ando. Jonathan Buckley describes it thus (p. 85):

The exterior has been restored in a way that gives no indication of the building’s new function [...] and the shell of the interior has similarly been left unaltered, with massive wooden roof-beams spanning walls of beautiful raw red brick. Within this casing, Ando has inserted walls of pale grey concrete, to create two storeys of elegant exhibition space, centred on a single double-height room.’

This double-height space featured what for me was the most striking work in Treasures that I’ll spend time with later in the series. Buckley continues to list some of the artists whose work has featured in Dogana, including Cindy Sherman, Luc Tuymans, Thomas Schütte and Marlene Dumas. He states that ‘[u]sually, exhibitions at the Dogana are twinned with equally vast shows at the Grassi’ (p. 85), which has seen its fair share of tumultuous histories.

The Fate of a Banished Man (Rearing) (Damien Hirst, 2017, on the Grand Canal in front of Palazzo Grassi, Venice)

Palazzo Grassi

Palazzo Grassi began life, as its name indicates, as the Grassi family’s palace in the eighteenth century. Overlooking the Grand Canal, the building was designed by Venetian architect Giorgio Massari in 1748 and completed in 1772. According to Romanelli, it ‘was the last great private building to be constructed ex novo in Venice’ and ‘was the most luxurious example of a noble residence before the end of the [Venetian] Republic’ in 1797 (p. 563). Like so many Venetian nobilities, this family of wealthy merchants and maritime suppliers gained their status through financing war, in their case against the Turks in 1718 (Buckley p. 175). The display of art is woven into the very fabric of the building, between its late-baroque flourishes and the interior frescoes added around 1770. Romanelli describes them at length (p. 563):

The decoration of the walls above the grand staircase in Palazzo Grassi [a cloudy blue sky], executed around 1770, adhered to this principle [to “beautify nature herself, and nothing else”], and to those of “rationality” and “convenience” so beloved by the theorists of the avantgarde. […] [T]he entertainment salon reaches a height of two floors, frescoed by the Tiepolo-influenced Giambattista Canal with the usual flock of allegories dispersed in the sky. But the true meeting-point of the building is the great staircase, whose decoration was possibly inspired by prints of the ambassadors’ staircase at Versailles. The first image is a relief of Hercules with a Sheaf of Arrows (the work of Gian Maria Morlaiter), signifying, as the engraved motto makes clear, the force generated by harmony. On the upper part of the walls, beyond a fake loggia, guests gather at a reception: ladies, gentlemen, people in the uniforms of procurators or masked orientals and servants, all appear on the level of the piano nobile like the “doubles” of the guests who thronged the palazzo on the occasion of some feast, a “live” tranche de vie [slice of life] [sic], with a certain allegorical significance, to which the relief of Hercules, the true symbolic center of the decorative scheme, provides the key. Those contemporary personages who are united within the dimension of the domestic celebration represent social harmony, which is restricted to the aristocracy. The era of gods and heroes seems to be over. Michelangelo Morlaiter, working in the wake of Petro Longhi’s painting and simultaneously exploiting the portrait style of Longhi’s son, Alessandro, has left us with a seductive image of Venetian society, a mirror in which it could contemplate and admire itself as a successful work of art.’

Notably, the relief of Hercules described here was perhaps the only appearance of Hercules/Herakles in Treasures as the demi-god warrior was conspicuously absent from the works. The idea that Venice could ‘admire itself as a successful work of art’ is pertinent too in that the city and these venues were as much a part of the Treasures experience as the works in the show. In a more implicit way, given the environmental and economic issues Venice faces in the immediate future, Treasures also held up a mirror, this time perhaps inviting Venetian society to consider the integrity of its excesses in tourist trade, and to broader, visiting society to do the same, as well as to see beyond the surface image of ‘successful’ art. How different are any of the patrons of contemporary art exhibitions to the aristocrats in the fresco? Do the Treasures works beautify nature, or reveal its grotesqueness?

As with the buildings’ exteriors, Romanelli points out that Palazzo Grassi as an ‘exhibition space continues the tradition of rebuilding, redecorating, and remodeling so characteristic of Venice’ (p. 563). First becoming the International Centre of Arts and Costume in 1951, Palazzo Grassi was purchased by FIAT in 1983 for use as an international exhibition centre designed by Gae Aulenti, who was also behind the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (Buckley p. 75). Major shows included Futurism and the Futurists in 1986 and German Expressionism in 1997, although, interestingly for my study, Romanelli asserts that ‘[t]he most popular exhibitions were those linked to ancient civilizations: “The Phoenicians” (1988), “The Celts” (1991), and “The Western Greeks” (1996)’ (p. 563). Buckley concurs that ‘[b]lockbuster overviews of entire cultures and epochs became the Grassi’s speciality’ while owned by Fiat (p. 76). It was put up for sale in the early 2000s, and in 2005, art collector Pinault, whose foundation also owns Gucci, Fnac, Le Printemps and Christie’s auction house, ‘paid €30 million [...] for an eighty percent share [...] (the Venice casino holds the other twenty percent), and commissioned the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to restyle the interior in his customary bleached tones’ (Buckley p. 76).

Buckley describes the multi-billionaire Pinault as ‘France’s most voracious buyer of modern art, whose ever-expanding collection ranges from Picasso, Mirò, Brancusi and Mondrian to contemporaries such as Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan and Marió Merz’ (p. 76). Hirst is as known for his own vast collection as much as he is as an artist. Along with the story of Cif Amotan II at the centre of the Treasures lore, the role of ‘The Collector’ is one to focus on in detail another time.


Buckley, Jonathan, The Rough Guide to Venice and the Veneto (Rough Guides, 2016)

Romanelli, Giandomenico (ed.), Venice Art & Architecture, translated by Janet Angelini, Elizabeth Clegg, Emma French and Gareth Thomas (Ullman, 2007)


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