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The grand ambitions of Venice’s new centre for photography

26 May 2023

At times culture in Venice can feel tidal. The art and architecture biennales bring with them a rush of openings before the crowds inevitably recede. Yet in recent years there have been a number of more permanent cultural institutions setting up in the city. In 2022, the Anish Kapoor Foundation acquired the Palazzo Manfrin in Cannaregio for its headquarters. In March this year, Le Stanze della Fotografia, an exhibition space dedicated to photography, opened on the island of San Giorgio.

‘Venice was missing a fixed place with the capacity to develop a continual activity in relation to photography,’ observes Denis Curti, Le Stanze’s artistic director. ‘There was an institutional void that we wanted to remedy.’ The project began back in 2012, with a series of temporary photography exhibitions organised by Marsilio Arte that brought artists including Helmut Newton, Letizia Battaglia and Sabine Weiss to the Casa dei Tre Oci, a neogothic building famed for its beautiful windows that overlook the city from the island of Giudecca.

Installation view of Ugo Mulas at Le Stanze della Fotografia. Photo: © Luca Zanon

When Casa dei Tre Oci was bought by the Berggruen Institute in 2021, the project found a new, larger home on the neighbouring island of San Giorgio where the Fondazione Giorgio Cini already holds one of the most important photographic collections in Europe. Once the warehouse of the Cini foundation, and then a boarding school, the building provides two floors and 1,850 square meters of exhibition space. Each room contains a network of moveable walls, suspended from high ceilings, ready to be adapted for whatever kind of installation is required. The inaugural exhibition is a survey of the Italian photographer Ugo Mulas; on the second floor, an exhibition of works by the contemporary photographer Alessandra Chemollo captures a ghostly Venice in all its splendour, with architectural shots soaked in golden light.

The works of Rauschenberg transported to the Venice International Art Biennale (1964), Ugo Mulas. Photo: © Eredi Ugo Mulas; courtesy Archivio Ugo

Variety is key for Le Stanze, which seeks to attract as wide an audience as possible and puts on an accompanying events programme with educational courses, talks and book presentations to complement each show. The next exhibition, opening this autumn, will look at the work of contemporary photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin, showing his images in the context of his reportage right up to the present day with his coverage of the war in Ukraine. ‘For us photography is of interest in all its complexity, as a language all of its own,’ says Curti.

The history of photography in Venice is rich. Most famously, in 1979, the city hosted the large-scale event Venice ’79 La Fotografia, with 26 exhibitions, 46 workshops and a large program of seminars and conferences taking place across the island from June through to September. Curti hopes that La Stanze will revive this tradition, but also move it forward. ‘Our objective’, he says, ‘is to share the culture of photography, to make Venice become a point of note, a kind of capital of photography in Italy. We don’t merely want to present exhibitions, we want to develop engagement, a continual movement.’

Le Stanze della Fotografia is now open.