THE ATENEO VENETO, a grand 16th-century palace near the Fenice Opera House, once hosted a fraternal order which cared for convicted prisoners in their final days. For the past 200 years, however, the site has been a forum for discussion, drawing together people from the city’s many communities to contemplate art, literature, science and politics. Now it is home to a different set of noisy and troubled souls. In the Aula Magna room—where scenes of conflagration adorn the ceiling—stands a porcelain box filled with 2,000 books by exiled writers, from Ovid, through Dante, Voltaire and Victor Hugo, to the present day.
At the heart of this piece by Edmund de Waal, a British ceramicist and writer, is a lost library. In 1938, weeks after the Nazi invasion of Austria, his great-grandfather’s home on the Ringstrasse in Vienna was stormed and the library was seized and Aryanised. The story of the tragic dispersal of that household formed the basis of Mr de Waal’s bestselling family memoir, “The Hare with Amber Eyes” (2010). “This is a project that I have always dreamed of doing,” he says of the Venice show. “It is about exile—what it means to move to another country, to speak another language.” He reckons it will be “the most significant sculpture of [his] life”.
The exhibition, entitled “psalm” after a book in the Old Testament, exists in two parts. In the Jewish Museum in the Venetian Ghetto, Mr de Waal has installed ten works of porcelain, marble and gold that reflect on the cultural heritage of the area (he is the first contemporary artist to create a major project for the Ghetto). In the Ateneo Veneto, he covered the exterior of his library in gold leaf, which was then coated with white porcelain slip, a kind of slurry. On that surface he has etched the names of more than 60 lost libraries, including Alexandria, Nineveh, the Rabbinical libraries of Lvov and Odessa, Aleppo, Mosul and the classical collection of Viktor von Ephrussi, his great-grandfather.
Inside the library, alongside the shelves, are four glass vitrines holding small porcelain works. Mr de Waal says the layout of the space is intended to evoke the edition of the Talmud created by Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer, in Venice in the early 16th century—around the same time the Ateneo was built. The project reflects the city’s long history “as a place of translation, a space to sit and read and be,” he says; the books are arranged chronologically by country, though most have been translated from their original language, and visitors are encouraged to seek out titles in their own tongue as well as those that have been translated from it. Readers search for the nations they know, and within them the writers they have loved and followed even as they fled abroad. Your correspondent was born in Africa, and was happy to find volumes by Patrice Nganang from Cameroon and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer who has said that “resistance is the best way of keeping alive.”
In the tumult of the Venice Biennale, there is something special about any spot that is quiet. The project encourages the visitor to reflect on returns, a theme that recurs throughout the artist’s work. Mr de Waal’s great-grandfather’s books were never recovered, probably dispersed throughout Austria or destroyed, but with this new “library of exile” he has devised his own kind of restitution. The exhibition will travel to Germany, to the Japanisches Palais in Dresden—which was operating as a public library when it was partially destroyed during the second world war—and then to the old King’s Library at the British Museum. After that, Mr de Waal aims to give the 2,000 books to the city of Mosul, which will house them in the new library the city is building to replace the one destroyed by Islamic State. He plans to add 800 books of his own, including the 18th-century edition of Voltaire that his grandmother managed to save from the Ephrussi library before she went into exile herself.
“psalm”, an exhibition in two parts, continues in Venice until September 29th. The “library of exile” will be presented at the Japanisches Palais in Dresden from November 2019 to February 2020, and at the British Museum in London in 2020