Latest On the Trail of the Black Water
Karen Krüger


F.A.Z., 15.05.2023, Feuilleton

It opened over fifty years ago as a place of encounter for Italian and German culture and scholarship. But what does the German Center for Venetian Studies actually do today?

During her time in Venice, the artist Sophie Schmidt painted Madonna with Protective Cloak. The Madonna here has a proud and pensive look, her cloak flowing around her like lagoon water around the buildings of Venice, with as many folds as the awnings of St. Mark's Square. Shells grow at her feet, which are encased in high-heeled ankle boots. Delicate white herons cluster around her legs and shoulders. Bird embryos are visible in the abdomen of the female figure. The picture, painted in 2021 in ink and red watercolours, was inspired by Paolo Veneziano's Madonna with Child and Two Donors, which hangs in the Galleria dell'Accademia, just a few minutes’ walk from the German Center for Venetian Studies, the Centro Tedesco di Studi Veneziani.

For fifty years, artists like Schmidt have polished their talents and sharpened their viewpoints at the Center, while young scholars pursue their own lines of research. Financial support primarily comes from Germany’s Ministry for Culture and the Media. But isn’t this just an ivory tower in one of the world’s most beautiful places, paid for by the German taxpayer? Not at all. In fact, the “Centro” is among the most important institutions for German-Italian cultural exchange. For many Venetians, the readings, concerts, exhibitions, and panel discussions put on by the Tedeschi – the "Germans" – are not-to-be-missed dates in the cultural calendar. The experience offered by the Centro frequently offer an early foretaste of phenomena which go on to reach a wider audience, in Italy and further afield. Take the choral piece "Alas de Noches" ("Wings of the Nights") by Diana Syrse, a Munich-based Mexican composer: after its composition in Venice in 2022, it was premiered by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in February of this year. It was during a stay at the Centro that Leona Stahlmann wrote her much-discussed novel Diese ganzen belanglosen Wunder (All the Inconsequential Miracles, published by dtv in 2022), which depicts a largely-submerged Venice. For his part, the legal historian Kevin Kulp used a an archival research fellowship to study Venetian records of how child abuse was dealt with in the pre-modern church. His book on the subject will be published early next year.

On the evening I visit, the Centro is staging an ‘artist talk’. Nearly two years after her residency, Schmidt has returned to the Barbarigo della Terrazza for a presentation of a book documenting works she created in Venice and later in Taipei. Some forty visitors take their seats in the first floor space to listen to the thirty-seven year old artist and performer. Crests and coats of arms of the Barbarigo family are carved into the stone walls. White Murano glass chandeliers hang from a painted wooden ceiling. On the podium, Schmidt explains her work to Petra Schaefer, an art historian and assistant director at the Centro. The unifying element in her paintings and collages is water, she tells the audience. Not the most original conclusion to draw from a month in Venice, you might think. But in fact, Schmidt’s work captures both sides of Venice’s liquid world, its captivating painterly qualities but also, even more so, its threatening, oppressive aspects. Time and again, water proves to be stronger than human beings; it licks away at the walls, dissolves boundaries, surges up into buildings, joins together spaces, plants and animals. It renders all things blurred and fleeting.

Out of a shell’s body

To live in Venice is to be at the mercy of the water. Everyone and everything is in its power. Water means a life lived in close proximity to death. This ambivalence comes across wonderfully well in Schmidt’s visual world. ‘In her pictures, water seems to stream through all of the creatures of Venice’, says Petra Schaefer. Schmidt's performance this evening can be seen in a similar way. She climbs onto a chair, wearing a helmet she has made from symbols of everyday Venetian life, including an espresso pot, radicchio, and eggs. She sings, she whispers, she recites the short texts which accompany her paintings and collages: ‘I try to understand the city as if from the body of one of the shellfish living with me here, at the base of the Palazzo Barbarigo della Terrazza. I leave my shell and become soft shellfish flesh moving through the city; everything presses into me, everything leaves a mark on the soft flesh, which completely becomes its surroundings.’ The audience watches, holding its breath. At the end, there is a standing ovation, then the prosecco flows.

The reception takes place next door in the salotto: the music and reading room. Here, an animated flutter of voices in German and Italian are discussing Schmidt’s work, as well as expressing admiration for Petra Schaefer and the director, the Romance literature scholar Marita Liebermann. After six years in the post, Liebermann will step down in June, handing over to the musicologist Richard Erkens. Recipients of fellowships work on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from classic Venetian topics including the Doges, the Renaissance, and the Venetian Republic, to more recent issues including the Biennale, migration, climate change, and the Anthropocene. Much of what is happening globally can be studied in microcosm in the lagoon city, as if under a magnifying glass. ‘The things that are created here, and the research done here, is always connected to our Venetian identity. And of course, evenings like this also help Venice to remain the city that it is’, says one guest, adding in a conspiratorial whisper: ‘When my husband moved here first, he hated all the water everywhere.’ The architect Francesco Callegari is visiting the artist talk with Filippo Trevisanello, both Venetians by birth. Trevisanello has a framing workshop in the city, beside the Guggenheim Museum. He points to the Rubelli tapestries displayed in the salotto: ‘In many palazzi everything has been done up for the tourists. Here, they have a sense for things that are old.’ Venice could do with more institutions like the Centro, he says: ‘The Germans love this city, you can tell.’



The German passion for Venice

This love for Venice was what led to the Center’s foundation. In 1966, the city was hit with devastating floods, prompting an outpouring of support from West German organizations. This led to the creation of an institutional framework for the German passion for Venice, the city which has ahd such a deep influence on art and science north of the Alps since the Middle Ages. A palazzo was acquired and renovated with help from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. In 1970 the German Center for Venetian Studies was founded; the first fellowship holders arrived two years later. Today, the Center hosts a changing cast all year round, with two artists and six young scholars always in residence. Art history, music history, literature and history are particularly well represented among the scholars. The idea underlying everything is interdisciplinarity; this is one difference between the Centro and other institutions working to support culture. The exchanges between fellowship holders are often highly productive. Schmidt, for example, ended up working with items given to her by another fellowship holder, an art historian; these included a photograph of a Venetian work of art and an entry from a German book of superstitions. [Tintoretto's "Baptism of Christ" and a text on water from a book of superstitions.]

Everyone at the Center has their own room; the building’s communal spaces include the library and the kitchen, a large terrace above the Canale Grande, and the salotto, which serves almost like the living room in a shared flat. Anyone familiar with film adaptations of the Commissario Brunetti novels may recognize the building. In the films, Brunetti lives directly across from the Center, on the Rio San Polo. In scenes on his small roof terrace, the Centro is visible to the rear. Even late in the evening, the view from the terrace is breathtaking in all directions. To the right: the silhouette of the University of Ca’Foscari, and its twin building, the Palazzo Giustinian, then the bell tower of St. Mark’s. To the left: the curve of the Grand Canal, leading down to the Rialto Bridge. By now, the water is black and calm, as calm as the city itself. Across the canal, the gondoliers at the Traghetto landing stage have finished up for the night. Only a lone vaporetto still disturbs the water.

The next morning there is coffee in the communal kitchen. Sophie Schmidt's battered performance helmet lies on the counter, like debris from a party that got out of hand. In Venice, they have a saying: the worse the weather, the louder the seagulls cry at night. Everyone agrees, the birds were silent last night. But the voice of Venice is always audible at the Centro: the soft slosh of water against the base of the palazzo, the regular sound of the bells of San Polo, the rubbish barge in the early morning. Breakfast itself comes with quite German sounds: the clatter of muesli bowls and the whirr of a smoothie mixer. Energy food for a long day in the library or the archive.

Venice never stops overwhelming you with its beauty. It lurks round every corner, in alleyways where you get lost then find your way again. The city is a constant temptation. ‘That's why, beforehand, I thought carefully about what I wanted to work on here and what I wanted to see’, says Elke Heinemann, an author living in the studio apartment the Centro provides for fellowship holders. On the apartment wall there is a map of the city, alongside a 1920s photograph of the violinist Olga Rudge. Rudge is the reason why Heinemann is in Venice: for five decades, she was the lover of poet Ezra Pound, and the mother of his only biological child, Mary de Rachewiltz. She also nursed him after his return to Venice, when he came back a physical and mental wreck after a stay at an American mental hospital. Pound fell in love with the city as a young man and died there in 1972. Rudge's house, not far from the Centro’s palazzo, is where she tried to get Pound to talk, pressing the record button on a tape recorder, saying ‘Ezra, speak!’ Sometimes she told him: ‘Now pull yourself together, Ezra!’

The resulting tapes still exist. Heinemann included excerpts from them in her radio feature, ‘Ezra Pound Reloaded: What Remains of the Poet; Aftersong’, but only used a fraction of the material. She has continued to work on it ever since, unwilling to let go of the subject: an artist-couple in which the male poet became world famous, while the woman, far better known when they first met, ended up in obscurity. Some obituaries referred to Olga Rudge as Pound’s housekeeper. He thought women talked too much. When he took over as the editor of a literary magazine, he announced that standards would be raised by publishing no more women authors. ‘What does it mean for the world, for art, for society, when men like Pound, who to this day are made out to be so great, have made claims like that? And what does it mean when women are content to stand in their shadow?’ asks Heinemann, outlining the questions that shape her writing.

Venice certainly made an impression on Pound and Rudge: they are buried in the city, with a space between them reserved for their daughter. But what is it exactly about this place? Perhaps the city born from the sea is just as Sophie Schmidt describes it: a place where everything presses upon you, leaving a trace behind. Some fellowship holders are affected so deeply they end up staying on here. Or else they keep coming back, like so many German intellectuals before them, for centuries now. Many establish their own presence in the city known as the Serenissima. Marita Liebermann herself is a former fellow of the Centro, as are Petra Schaefer and Richard Erkens. It all begins with the waters of Venice.

A retrospective by Sophie Schmidt – Ein schweres Herz muss man sich leisten können (One must be able to afford a heavy heart) – is on show at the Kunstverein Friedrichshafen until June 11, 2023. The book Sophie Schmidt: How much Venice Water do you carry in your legs, still? How much Taipei Water do you feel in the fields, now? edited by Marita Liebermann, with texts by Marita Liebermann, Clara Stratmann, Petra Schaefer, and Sophie Schmidt, is published by Verlag Hamman von Mier (Munich, 2022).

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 15, 2023, feuilleton section, page 13; edition D1, D2, D2N, R1, R2, E1.

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[Article]: All rights reserved. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH, Frankfurt. Provided by Frankfurter Allgemeine Archiv.
[Photos]: Barbara Klemm

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