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Pope visits Venice to speak to the artists and inmates behind the Biennale’s must-see prison show

VENICE, Italy (AP) — Venice has always been a place of contrasts, of breathtaking beauty and devastating fragility, where history, religion, art and nature collided at the wire centuries to produce an otherworldly gem. But even for a place proud of its culture of unusual encounters, Pope Francis’ visit on Sunday stood out.

Francis traveled to the lagoon city to visit the Holy See pavilion at the Contemporary Art Biennale and meet the people who created it. But because the Vatican decided to mount its exhibition in the Venice women’s prison, and invited inmates to collaborate with artiststhe whole project took on a much more complex meaning, touching on Francis’s belief in the power of art to uplift and unite, and the need to give hope and solidarity to the most marginalized in society.

Francis picked up both messages during his visit, which began in the courtyard of Giudecca prison, where he met the inmates one by one. As some of them wept, Francis urged them to use their time in prison as an opportunity for “moral and material rebirth.”

“Paradoxically, a stay in prison can mark the beginning of something new, through the rediscovery of the unsuspected beauty in ourselves and in others, symbolized by the artistic event that you organize and the project to which you actively contribute,” Francis said.

Francis then met artists from the Biennale in the prison chapel, decorated with an installation by Brazilian visual artist Sonia Gomes of objects suspended from the ceiling, intended to draw the viewer’s gaze upward. He urged artists to embrace the theme of the Biennale this year “Strangers everywhere” show solidarity with all those on the margins.

The Vatican exhibition has made the Giudecca prison, a former convent for reformed prostitutes, one of the must-see attractions of this year’s Biennale, although to see it visitors must book in advance and pass a security check. It has become a quirky darling of the art world, greeting visitors at the entrance with Maurizio Cattelan’s mural depicting two giant dirty feeta work reminiscent of Caravaggio’s dirty feet or the feet that Francis washes each year during the Maundy Thursday ritual that he regularly performs on prisoners.

The exhibition also includes a short film featuring the inmates and Zoe Saldana, as well as prints made in the prison cafe by former Catholic nun and American social activist Corita Kent.

Francis’ dizzying morning visit, which ended with Mass in St. Mark’s Square, represented an increasingly rare outing for the 87-year-old pontiff, who was hampered by health and mobility problems who have ruled out any foreign travel so far this year.

And Venice, with its 121 islands and 436 bridges, is not an easy place to negotiate. But Francis succeeded in his bet, arriving by helicopter from Rome, crossing the Giudecca canal by water taxi then arriving at St. Mark’s Square aboard a mini popemobile which crossed the Grand Canal via a floating bridge erected for the occasion .

During a meeting with young people at the iconic Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, Francis acknowledged the miracle that is Venice, admiring its “enchanting beauty” and its tradition as an East-West meeting place, but warning that it is increasingly vulnerable to climate change. and depopulation.

“Venice is one with the waters on which it rests,” Francis said. “Without the care and preservation of this natural environment, it could even cease to exist. »

Venice, sinking beneath rising sea levels and weighed down by the impact of overtourism, is in the early days of an experiment to try to limit the type of day trips that Francis has undertaken on Sunday.

Venetian authorities last week launched a pilot program to charge excursionists 5 euros ($5.35) each on peak days. The objective is to encourage them to stay longer or come at off-peak times, in order to reduce attendance and make the city more pleasant to live in for a decreasing number of residents.

For Venice’s Catholic patriarch, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, the new tax program is a worthy experiment, a potentially necessary evil in trying to preserve Venice as a livable city for visitors and residents.

Moraglia said Francis’ visit – the first by a pope to the Biennale – was a welcome boost, especially for the women from Giudecca prison who participated in the exhibition as tour guides and protagonists of certain works of art.

He acknowledged that over the centuries, Venice had a long and complicated love-hate relationship with the papacy, despite its central importance to Christianity.

The relics of St. Mark – the chief collaborator of St. Peter, the first pope – are housed here in the basilica, which is one of the largest and most spectacular in all of Christendom. Several popes are from Venice: in the last century alone, three pontiffs have been elected after serving as Patriarchs of Venice. And Venice hosted the last conclave held outside the Vatican: the 1799-1800 vote that elected Pope Paul VII.

But for centuries before, relations between the independent Venetian Republic and the Papal States were anything but cordial as both sides vied for control of the Church. The popes of Rome issued interdicts against Venice that essentially excommunicated the entire territory. Venice flexed its muscles by expelling entire religious orders, including Francis’ Jesuits.

“It’s a story of contrasts because they were two competitors for many centuries,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, a church historian and retired editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, whose family is originally from Venice. “The papacy wanted to control everything and Venice jealously guarded its independence. »

Moraglia said the troubled history is long gone and Venice welcomed Francis with open arms and gratitude, in keeping with its history as a bridge between cultures.

“The history of Venice, the DNA of Venice – beyond the language of beauty and culture that unifies – there is this historical character which says that Venice has always been a place of meeting,” he said. -he declares.

That’s what Francis said as he closed Mass at St. Mark’s in front of about 10,500 people.

“Venice, which has always been a place of meeting and cultural exchange, is called to be a sign of beauty accessible to all,” Francis said. “Start with the smallest, a sign of fraternity and concern for our common home. »


Winfield reported from Rome. Associated Press writer Colleen Barry contributed.

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