by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ca' Pesaro, Venice
The One Thousand and One Nights (detail) by Vittorio Zecchin, 1914

Ca' Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art reopens at last

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 January 2003


On 30 November 2002, the Ca' Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice finally reopened, having been closed since 1983 - something of a record even by Italian standards - the restoration of this huge, complex baroque structure on the Grand Canal and its conversion to meet modern museum standards having proved an epic task

Ca' Pesaro was left to the city in 1899 four years after the first Venice Biennale by the Duchess Bevilacqua La Masa on condition it be used to show contemporary arts and crafts and especially to display the works of emerging young artists who did not have access to large institutional exhibitions (such as the Biennale) and as a result fell into the hands of unscrupulous dealers, whom the duchess robustly described in her last will and testament as 'vampires.'

For much of Ca' Pesaro's history the duchess's wishes have been honoured in the breach rather than in their application. The new museum first greeted the public a hundred years ago this May, showing an initial nucleus of 66 works, obtained by purchase and donation - Whistler, for example, who participated in the Biennale of 1897, giving nine watercolors.

It was only in 1908 that the city fathers woke up to the fact that if they did not find some unknown young artists to exhibit at Ca' Pesaro pretty quickly the donation of this stately pile would be annulled. From that period until 1920 the mezzanine floor was employed to show budding young practitioners, particularly those whose work was found too avant-garde for the Biennale.

For a while the mezzanine served its purpose well and what came to be called the 'Ca' Pesaro Movement' embraced the likes of Gino Rossi, Felice Casorati, Arturo Martini, Ugo Valeri and Vittorio Zecchin, who are now regarded as mainstream 20th-century Italian artists, although it was to be a long time before many of these works made it into the permanent collection, these gaps being filled mostly after World War II by purchases and important bequests.

The current arrangement of the gallery consists of some 250 works, including classic pieces by Italian and foreign painters and sculptors - Arp, Bonnard, Chagall, Dufy, Ernst, Kandinsky, Klee, Klimt and Matisse among them - as well as a goodly number of artists whose names may be less familiar but are of considerable interest.

Zecchin was one of the first young artists to exhibit at the Ca' Pesaro 'alternative' shows, and he is the subject of a timely exhibition, 'Vittorio Zecchin 1878-1947: Painting, Glass, Decorative Arts,' at the Correr Museum until Feb. 9.

Born on the glass-making island of Murano, Zecchin at first devoted himself to painting, and was initially much influenced by Symbolism and Art Nouveau, notably by Jan Toorop, Gustave Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley, but also found inspiration in Venice's Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance traditions.

The high point of Zecchin's endeavours as a painter was reached in 1914 with his opulent 30-meter-long (100-foot) series of a dozen canvases depicting the procession of Aladdin and his fabulous, gift-bearing entourage of eastern princes and princesses, arriving to seek the hand of the Sultan's daughter.

These were commissioned for the dining room of the Hotel Terminus on the Lido, but later, alas, scattered between diverse public and private collections, and are brought together here for the first time since their dispersal.

Ca' Pesaro presently owns half of the 'One Thousand and One Nights' panels. It can only be hoped that through purchase, donation, or at least long-term loan, the entire cycle might one day be brought together again on a more permanent basis.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023