The Vatican in Venice (and a cardinal who walks on the wild side)

The Vatican in Venice (and a cardinal who walks on the wild side)

Norman Foster joins Lou Reed-loving cleric for church’s debut at architecture biennale

[Met Gala II? – This time in Venice]

Norman Foster’s woodland chapel for the Vatican at the Venice Architecture Biennale. 

When the Venice Architecture Biennale opens on 26 May, the genius of cutting-edge designers from around the world will be celebrated. But the show will also be notable for a different kind of innovation: the involvement for the first time of the Vatican, in collaboration with Norman Foster.

The Catholic church’s debut pavilion will consist of 10 full-scale chapels built on an island in the Venice lagoon, all commissioned from top architects, including Foster. That the Vatican agreed to sponsor such a venture is down to one man – the trailblazing Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who is bringing a new dimension to the sometimes vexed relationship between church and world. It’s the second time this month that Ravasi has been instrumental in creating such a high-profile arts event. Without him, the New York fashion exhibition Heavenly Bodies and its associated, controversial Met Gala, where pop star Rihanna dressed as a sparkly pope, would never have happened.

For the past 11 years, Ravasi has headed the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture – in effect, a thinktank set up to encourage dialogue on behalf of the pope with the contemporary world. It has brought the cardinal into contact with celebrities not normally associated with senior clerics, such as Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour. He has raised eyebrows by praising Lou Reed and David Bowie, and embraced opportunities to change the image of the Roman Catholic church as the fusty custodian of centuries-old art.

So this week’s opening in Venice will produce nothing remotely like Rome’s ornate St Peter’s Basilica. Instead, the 10 chapels have been built in a sheltered woodland on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, inspired by a woodland chapel created by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund in 1920. A model and drawings of Asplund’s building will be the first item in the Vatican’s pavilion; visitors will then be encouraged to tour the series of chapels, whose architects include Eduardo Souto de Moura and Terunobu Fujimori, as well as Foster. Ravasi describes this as a pilgrimage.

Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour with Cardinal Ravasi.
Donatella Versace, Anna Wintour and Cardinal Ravasi line up for New York’s Heavenly Bodies fashion show. 

Norman Foster decided to be the lead architect himself on his practice’s wooden, tent-like chapel. He was struck by the location, which was “perfect for contemplation”.

He told the Observer: “My emphasis as an architect has always been about lifestyle, quality of life, issues of the spirit alongside material needs. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that I was attracted by the idea of doing a small chapel – the essence of shelter and contemplation. The idea of being removed from distraction to appreciate the framing of a view and enhancing the natural world to give pause for reflection was instantly appealing.”

Ravasi, who has called modern churches ugly and inhospitable to prayer, said of the Vatican involvement at the biennale: “It is a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland, where one can experience the rustle of nature, which is like a cosmic temple.”

If the Venice show is anything like the Met Gala, there will be voices raised in horror. Conservative Catholics tweeted their disgust that the Vatican was linked to the event, which they called obscene and blasphemous, through its involvement with the associated exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

But Ravasi, who arranged the loan of 40 priests’ vestments from the Vatican collection for the show, defended the involvement of the church: “Beauty and art have been the inseparable sisters of faith and Christian liturgy for centuries,” he wrote in the exhibition catalogue.

It’s a thesis that he has explored regularly since he was first appointed to his role at the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2007. “It’s in the DNA of Christianity to reach out to all aspects of society while keeping in mind its own identity,” he said.

Ravasi has long been motivated by an interest in the arts. He grew up in a Catholic family, and his father was in the Italian army during the second world war, but deserted, taking 18 months to return to his family. His absence disturbed the future cardinal profoundly, who has said: “My search has always been for something permanent, for what is behind the transitory, the contingent. I’m fighting loss and death, which probably relates to the absence of my father in my first years.”

Later, Ravasi became a priest and was then put in charge of the historic Ambrosian Library in Milan. He himself has written 150 books.

His major venture into artistic collaboration with the secular world came in 2013 when the Vatican exhibited for the first time at the Venice Art Biennale, with a display inspired by the Book of Genesis. Then, in 2015, he agreed that it would exhibit again.

In 2016, Ravasi wrote a paean to David Bowie when the star died, describing him as “always on the unstable boundary between the sacred and the profane”. “Bowie’s unique voice managed to make the souls of all those with a restless conscience vibrate,” he said.

Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said: “Cardinal Ravasi emphasises God is revealed in things of beauty and in creativity. He believes the church needs to understand contemporary culture and to engage with it. This is not about proselytising; it’s about a dialogue.”

In Rome, Ravasi is a survivor, first appointed by Benedict XVI but kept in post by Pope Francis. Another Vatican official said: “Benedict was an intellectual professor pope and Ravasi engaged with him on that level, but he has adapted to working for Francis by finding more practical ways of engaging with the secular world.”

As well as the fashion exhibition in New York and the art and architecture biennales, Ravasi also commissions talks between believers and non-believers called the Courtyard of the Gentiles, which have taken place for nine years. But his next practical project for engaging with the secular world is through sport. Talks have been held with the International Olympic Committee. So, after New York and Venice this year, the cardinal’s next stop may well be Tokyo.

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