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Ellis Woodman on Monditalia at the Venice Biennale

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Ellis Woodman visits Monditalia, an exhibition of the culture and history of Italy at this year’s Venice Biennale

In its focus on the common, Elements of Architecture excludes discussion of the specific cultural contexts that gave rise to the material on display. By polar contrast, Monditalia – its companion exhibition at the Arsenale’s Corderie – is entirely concerned with illuminating a  particular culture, namely that of Italy. Koolhaas has effectively mapped the Italian peninsular onto the Corderie’s considerable length, taking us on a journey that extends from the country’s southernmost island, Lampedusa, to its Alpine border in the north. 

As a piece of scenography, the show is a delight. A curtain printed with a 5th century map of Italy extends down the space’s full length, lifting and curling en route to define different spaces. It is complemented by 82 suspended film screens displaying clips from movies shot in the locations that  we encounter on our journey. Stages where dance and theatrical productions will take place throughout the biennale’s six-month run have also been thrown into the mix, reinforcing a sense of architecture’s place within a larger cultural discourse.

The topics the research teams address are fantastically diverse but recurring themes do emerge

But the meat of the exhibition comprises the contributions of 40 research teams, most of whom are drawn from the younger generation of Italian architects. The topics they address are fantastically diverse but recurring themes do emerge. Preservation is a key one - an inevitable preoccupation for the section devoted to Pompeii but equally so for the contribution on Pescia, where a number of buildings constructed during the economic miracle of the 1950’s now stand dilapidated. A more recent building already falling into decay is Stefano Boeri’s conference centre at La Maddalena: a lavish structure, commissioned as the venue for the 2009 G8 conference, only for Berlusconi to relocate the event to the recently earthquake-struck L’Aquila. Despite its considerable expense, Boeri’s building never opened. A film shows an elderly local resident crafting a chair from pieces of Murano glass that have fallen off its facade.

The portrait of Italy that Mondoitalia paints is certainly not rose-tinted: it also includes surveys of the residences of Mafia members in Milan and the sites of terrorist activity in Bologna. An introductory room presents a series of photographs taken by Bas Princen of The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, the 14th century fresco cycle in Siena’s Town Hall. Describing two possible visions of collective life - one ideal, one nightmarish - they establish a dichotomy that runs through Mondoitalia’s portrait of this most marvellous and troubled of nations.


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