Bob visits Venice to talk to the artists and inmates behind the Biennale's must-see prison show

VENICE, Italy (AP) — Venice has always been a place of contrasts, stunning beauty and devastating fragility, where history, religion, art and nature have collided over the centuries to produce another gem of a city. But even for a place that prides itself on a culture of unusual encounters, Pope Francis' visit on Sunday stood out.

Francis traveled to the beach city to visit the Holy See's pavilion at the Biennale of Contemporary Art and meet the people who created it. But because the Vatican decided to hold his exhibition in the women's prison in Venice, and He invited prisoners to collaborate with artiststhe entire project took on a much more complex meaning, touching on Francis' belief in the power of art to uplift and unify, and the need to give hope and solidarity to the most marginalized groups in society.

Francis touched on the two letters during his visit, which began in the courtyard of Giudecca prison, where he met with female prisoners one by one. While some of them wept, Francis urged them to use their time in prison as an opportunity for “moral and material renaissance.”

“Paradoxically, being in prison can mark the beginning of something new, through the rediscovery of unexpected beauty in ourselves and in others, as symbolized by the artistic event you host and the project you actively contribute to,” Francis said.

Francis then He met the Biennale artists In the prison chapel, decorated with an installation by Brazilian visual artist Sonia Gomez of objects hanging from the ceiling, intended to draw the viewer's gaze upward. He urged artists to adopt the biennial theme this year “Strangers everywhere” To show solidarity with all those on the margins.

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The Vatican exhibition has turned Giudecca Prison, a former monastery for reformatory prostitutes, into one of the must-see attractions of this year's Biennale, although visitors to see it must book in advance and undergo a security check. It has become an extraordinary artistic world that welcomes visitors at the entrance with Maurizio Cattelan's fresco Giant dirty feeta work that recalls Caravaggio's dirty feet or the feet that Francis washed every year in the Holy Thursday ritual he routinely performed on prisoners.

The exhibition also includes a short film starring inmates and Zoe Saldana, and prints in a prison café by Catholic nun and American social activist Coretta Kent.

Francis's stunning morning visit, which ended with Mass in St Mark's Square, marked an increasingly rare outing for the 87-year-old pope, who had… Due to health and mobility problems Which has ruled out any foreign trips so far this year.

Venice, which has 121 islands and 436 bridges, is not an easy place to negotiate. But Francis pulled it off, arriving by helicopter from Rome, crossing the Giudecca Canal in a water taxi and then arriving at St. Mark's Square in a small carriage that crossed the Grand Canal via a pontoon bridge erected for the occasion.

During a meeting with young people in the famous Cathedral of Santa Maria della Salute, Francis acknowledged the miracle of Venice, admiring its “enchanting beauty” and tradition as a meeting place between East and West, but warning that it was increasingly vulnerable to climate change. and population migration.

“Venice is at one with the water it sits on,” Francis said. “Without care and protection, this natural environment may cease to exist.”

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Venice, which is sinking under rising sea levels and burdened by the impact of overtourism, is in the early days of an experiment to try to limit the kind of day trips Francis took on Sunday.

Venice authorities last week Launched a pilot program Charge day travelers €5 ($5.35) per person on peak travel days. The aim is to encourage them to stay longer or come during off-peak times, to reduce congestion and make the city more livable for its dwindling population.

The Catholic Patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Francesco Moralia, sees the new tax program as a worthwhile experiment and a potential necessary evil to try to preserve Venice as a livable city for visitors and residents alike.

Moralia said Francis's visit – the first by a pope to the Biennale – was a welcome boost, especially for the women of Giudecca prison who participated in the exhibition as tour guides and as protagonists in some of the artworks.

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

The relics of Saint Mark – the chief assistant of Saint Peter, the first pope – are preserved here in the cathedral, which is one of the most important and magnificent churches in the entire Christian world. Many popes have come from Venice – in the last century alone three popes who were Patriarchs of Venice were elected. Venice hosted the last conclave outside the Vatican: the votes in 1799 and 1800 to elect Pope Paul VII.

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But for centuries before that, relations between the independent Republic of Venice and the Papal States were not at all cordial, with the two sides disputing over control of the Church. The popes in Rome issued interdicts against Venice that led to the excommunication of the entire region. Venice flexed its muscles by expelling entire religious orders, including Francis's Jesuits.

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

Moralia said the turbulent history is long past, and that Venice is receiving Pope 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 unites – there is this historical character that says Venice has always been a meeting place,” he said.

Francis said as much as he did at the conclusion of Mass at St. Mark's Basilica in front of an estimated 10,500 people.

“Venice, which has always been a place of encounter and cultural exchange, is called to be a sign of beauty available to all,” Francis said. “Starting with the youngest is a sign of brotherhood and concern for our common home.”

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

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