Narrative and watercolor sketch © Brigitte van Bakel
Photo © Wolfgang Moroder

A sixteenth century former convent on Giudecca in Venice hosts the Zuecca Project, directed by Alessandro Possati. It programs an exhibition parallel to 'Fundamentals', the 14th La Biennale di Venezia. On display from June 7- November 23, 2014 is the Yenikapi Project, curated by Maurizio Bortolotti: A design by Eisenman Architects and Aytaç Architects aiming to weave the past into contemporary life of Istanbul.

A white marble Roman classical façade hides the exhibition on Peter Eisenman’s Yenikapi project. It is slightly dark when I enter the exhibition room that occupies the left side of the impressive building complex aligned on the Fondamente delle Zitelle along the Giudecca Canal. The visitor is welcomed by a film showing the archaeological excavation of the building site in Istanbul. This uncovers the traces of shipping and trade that bound Mediterranean cultures, both European and Asian, for centuries. One enters the display of the cordial essence of the exhibition, bridging not only two continents but also the cities of Venice and Istanbul.

The exhibition room reads as a fragment of Venice’s urban space, folding and unfolding its arches, alleys and courtyards in asymmetrical spaces. Spaces rather than masses are suggested by shaded coloured volumes acting with 16th century generated daylight in deep red and ochre atmospheres. Recognizable on the floor is part of the lay-out of the Yenikapi plan, the archaeological exhibition site, thus merging Istanbul with Venice. To call this exhibition a collateral event to the Biennale seems somewhat understated as at this Zuecca Project history is seamlessly weaved into the actual presentation of today’s future plan. What more can we wish for in Fundamentals?

One saunters from one place to the other, accompanied by drawings and physical models on the walls. A clear understanding of the roots of the plan is called to emerge. Several stages of development of the plan and manifold layers of research are displayed in diagrams, layouts and 3D urban models. Even the representations of the plan by pictured renderings, rarely found communicating anything else but atmosphere, contribute to a convincing plan. The main issue that is put forward here is how presentation in itself becomes an architectural statement. As an exact counterpart the plan exhibits the ongoing excavation on site, with two buildings for research and display. The public is allowed to partake into traces of history by criss-crossing the multiple links of the park.

Following track when outside the exhibition room, two building volumes merge their façades with the adjacent sixteenth century church called Santa Maria della Presentazione. The complex on la Giudecca in Venice is shortly referred to as: Le Zitelle. Generally, but not undisputedly, assigned to Andrea Palladio it was built from 1582 to 1586, shortly after his death. Reason for doubt is the apparent clumsiness of the construction-details. But pollution of the handwriting is known to be a general effect of the physical absence of the architect at the construction-site. None of us was actually present on site at the given time, nor have signed drawings survived, so discussing the attribution of the handwriting remains in fact of non-existent importance. I tend to follow imagination in this case, as it invokes exciting prospects.

Monica Chojnacka writes in the Chicago Journals*1 the sixteenth century found a group of noble women taking care of young women at risk of falling into prostitution. In order to fit this definition girls had to be poor, physically attractive and, following social codes about female behaviour, at clear risk of becoming prostitutes. Various charitable institutions were established. Among them Zitelle, which means: girl without dowry, unmarried of course. Procuratici(executors) provided guidance and protection to these girls and paid for the dowry so as to get them married. On the part of the administrators there were enduring connections with the girls. Monica Chojnacka describes this philanthropic institution as a new type of female community that drew both on familial structures and the traditional female networks. In content as well as organisation wise, these networks were characteristic of Venetian neighbourhoods. The latter reflecting the vicinity of private grounds of both rich and poor families in Venice that lived cheek by jowl according to the existing environmental structures and hierarchies. Networks of women were informal and cross-class through their meeting in the central campo of the neighbourhood or through the window of an apartment in the alley. In a similar way the Yenikapi exhibition depicts the spatial attributes of Venice as they have remained constant and accommodating over centuries.

Some of the history of this former church and hospice for orphans and poor young women I tasted fourteen years ago on my first visit to Venice. This was also on the occasion of the Architecture Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Fuksas at the time. I was recommended a hostel on the Isle of Giudecca, accommodating women only. Being on my own I was happy to go and see for myself. Indeed I was admitted to what seemed to be a convent, conveniently running on a huge flock of tourists. There was a single dormitory for women only with about fourty beds, each standing half a meter apart from the next. The dormitory closed its doors at 9.30 pm. every night. Around 10.00 pm one of the nuns in charge went on ward round. Here and there she would tick off one of the guests for an untidy nightstand, hurling socks or unfolded towel. Dawdling women were swept out of the common shower room. At 10.15 pm she would stick her hand around the doorframe to switch off the electric lights. Early morning we were navigated to the streets, but before finding the way out some of the women would have to stand comments on their outfit. Finding it all quite amusing I stayed for a couple of nights. Provided that I was subject to the regime I was undoubtedly taken care of.

Presided by Francesca Bortolotto Possati the complex of Le Zitelle since 2006 houses a five star luxurious hotel & spa resort. The right side of the building offers the entrance to the present hotel and spa resort. Straight on to the enclosed gardens. Two wings form an open square at the rear of the building. The shape of the wings are symmetrical. The grouping of the openings of the façades however differ significantly. On the detail level one recognizes similarity again. The façades of the semi-open courtyard frame a grand stage to a relatively straightforward hotel-terrace bordering the magnificent tranquillity of an informal cloister garden. In the backyard there is, somewhat hidden, another smaller building. The previous dormitory is converted to a spa-hotel.

In common with the past purpose and use of the building complex it has of course the hosting of guests. Roles and functions however are now completely reversed. At present the accomodation is tended in a liberate manner, breathing love and care for history combined with modern comfort. I would say it displays a masterpiece of redevelopment, renovation and restauration, which is for a living presence highly dependent on paying guests.

Le Zitelle is an example of how a building complex is only loosely attached to its original function and founding morality. How the enduring capability of hosting various functions is crucial to its survival. The church itself for instance stood empty for about a hundred years, but survived the time lap apparently untouched. This is what le Zitelle reveals: History and contemporary architecture to be one, appreciated for what they are, a continuum of events, one flowing into the other.


*1 Monica Chojnacka “Women, charity in early modern Venice”, Renaissance Quarterly 1998, Vol 51, no 1, p69-91. displays a 1780 painting by Francesco Guardi;
Church of Santa Maria della Presentazione;