Monday, 26 September 2016

For Those Who Read - Mind-blowing Chanel & Cini Exhibitions in Venice

Magic Ingredients that make a Book - Mindful Hands at Cini Foundation

(Venice, Italy) As an author, I am in awe of the written word. The mysterious way words pour out of one's mind and onto the page is, to me, a little miracle, originating from somewhere above. And then to have those words bound together to create a tangible book is like giving birth to an entire world. Contained between the covers of a book is a universe of possibilities.

Just as astonishing is the ability of human beings to read. The transformative act of reading books is like projecting private movies inside our minds, each one of us adding our own unique elements. We use our powerful imaginations to lift the words off the page and formulate new ideas, create characters and pull concepts out of the shadows. A book is a window into the cosmos.

Chanel - Ritz in Paris, 1937 - Photo: Jean Moral/Brigitte Moral
Fashion icon Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (August 19, 1883 - January 10, 1971) was a voracious reader, and The Woman Who Reads exhibition from Culture Chanel has whisked elements from her library in Paris here to the Ca' Pesaro palazzo, Venice's museum for modern art.

The Woman Who Reads - Chanel
Books became Gabrielle Chanel's best friends when she was dumped in a convent along with two sisters at the formative age of 12 by her father, an itinerant peddler, after her mother, a laundress, had died. The nuns at the orphanage taught her to sew, but when Gabrielle came of age she became a seamstress who moonlighted as a cafe entertainer, earning her nickname by singing a tune about a lost dog named "Coco." She was a hit with the aristocracy, who took her under their wing.

Chanel created many myths and legends about her past, so the details are foggy -- except for the details of her birth, which were recorded, so we do know that she was a Leo with a Capricorn ascendant and a Pisces moon. If you want more juicy details about how a poor orphan morphed into a wealthy fashion icon, here is an excerpt from "The Secret Life of Coco Chanel" by Justine Picardie, published by The Telegraph back in 2010.

The Woman Who Reads - Chanel
Throughout her life, Chanel palled around with a Who's Who of artists, writers and musicians, and had affairs with prominent men, but her greatest love was Boy Chapel, who introduced her to Eastern philosophy and helped get Chanel's business off the ground. A philanderer who ended up marrying an aristocrat while maintaining his affair with Chanel, Boy Chapel crashed his car and died on December 21, 1919. Chanel was devastated, and proclaimed: "Either I die as well or finish what we started." The exhibition hints that the relationship continued beyond the grave.
The Woman Who Reads - Chanel
"In her apartment at 31 rue Cambon, the book shelves square up to the Coromandel lacquer panels. The comforting presence of the writings would accompany her and inspire the construction of her own pieces.
From the solitude of her years in the orphanage of Aubazine until the end of her life, books and their authors guided Gabrielle Chanel’s path. They nourished her imagination and responded to her mystical quest for the invisible, and showed her how, over time, her own view of the world might be set in place.
This dialogue through the ages, from antiquity to her contemporaries, is underlined in particular by the works of Homer, Plato, Virgil, Sophocles, Lucretius, Dante, Montaigne, Cervantes, Madame de Sévigné, Stéphane Mallarmé, and resonates with the writers she knew and admired like Pierre Reverdy, Max Jacob and Jean Cocteau. This diversity allowed her to find in her own vocabulary - that of fashion - a modernity that defied its own temporality and projected itself far beyond it.
In Venice, one of Gabrielle Chanel’s main sources of inspiration, the public will discover these works for the very first time."

The Woman Who Reads - Chanel
Filled with Chanel's fashions, books, handwritten notes, statues, designs, paintings by the likes of Picasso and much, much more, The Woman Who Reads is like visiting the inside of Gabrielle Chanel's mind, and brings new depth to the woman who "wrote with fabric." Chanel No. 5 morphs from perfume to magic potion; the little black dress is a foundation no woman should be without.

Chanel carried a handwritten note inside her wallet, an excerpt from "The Sentimental Initiation” by Joséphin Péladan:

The life we lead always amounts to so little, the life we dream of, that's the great existence because it will continue beyond death.
The Woman Who Reads (La Donna Che Legge) will run through January 8, 2017. You will be lost without the catalogue, so bring your reading glasses for the tiny script, and definitely get the headset (included in the ticket price).

Mindful Hands - Cini Foundation
Meanwhile, over at the Giorgio Cini Foundation on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, there is another amazing book-related exhibition going on, Mindful Hands. Masterpieces of Illumination from the Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

During the Mediaeval and Renaissance times, illuminated manuscripts were handwritten, hand-painted, and hand-bound, using a potpourri of natural ingredients. Silver and gold, peacock feathers, eggs, and precious stones like lapis lazuli were some of the components of the magical concoctions. Initials, borders and miniature illustrations supplemented religious text; as time went on secular topics were also illuminated. There was some serious alchemy going on.

During the Napoleonic suppressions in 1792, 1798 and 1810, many books and illuminated manuscripts that had been safeguarded in convents, monasteries, confraternities and professional societies began to circulate on the market. Beautiful illuminated pages were sliced right out of their books and put onto the antiques market.

The letter "C" - Mindful Hands
For the first time in over 35 years, a large part of the collection of Mediaeval and Renaissance miniatures acquired by Vittorio Cini back in 1930-40 is on display, and it is really something to see. The exhibition is deliberately staged to appeal to the general public, which is not that easy to do when displaying pages cut out of books. But the layout is fascinating, and it is so beautifully lit that it is like stepping into a Wonderland. I literally gasped when I entered the central room with its twinkling lights illuminating the illumination.

"Q" on loan from the Benedictines
The show opens with a rare reunion between a book and a long lost page. The Benedictine Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore loaned their enormous book quintessentially named "Q," to the exhibition. Q is an Antiphonal for the Common Office of the Saints, or, more simply, a book with sung parts of the liturgy, a really big choirbook so all the monks could see to sing along. Q is displayed next to a page that had been sliced out of that same choirbook in the past, and is now part of the Cini collection. So the lonely page is finally back with the rest of its family.

Upstairs is equally amazing. There is a riveting video, Cuttings, that documents the production of a parchment sheet, down to the lamb; how the pigments and colors are made from an assortment of precious stones and other elements; and how the whole thing is bound together.

Facsimile Book of Hours - Mindful Hands - Cini Foundation
A small Book of Hours, or Offiziolo, is one of the most sensational parts of the exhibition. Commissioned in the late 15th century by Federico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, to be presented to Charles VIII, the King of France, a Book of Hours was sort of like a prayer for the day. There is a little facsimile that you can actually touch and flip through the pages, while the original remains inside a glass case. Month by month blow-ups are decked upon a wall.

Original Book of Hours
Mindful Hands. Masterpieces of Illumination from the Fondazione Giorgio Cini runs through January 8, 2017, just like Culture Chanel. The Woman Who Reads. Is it a coincidence that both exhibitions concerning books are showing at the same time? If you are interested in knowledge, they are both so refined and delicious, it is worth a trip to Venice to give your mind a sweet treat.

Warning: NOT FOR THE SLEEPY. To truly enjoy the exhibitions, it is required that you make the effort to think.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. As an author, I am in awe of the written word. The mysterious way words pour out of one's mind and onto the page is, to me, a little miracle, originating from somewhere above. And then to have those words bound together to create a tangible book is like giving birth to an entire world. Contained between the covers of a book is a universe of possibilities.

  2. !!!!!!!!!!! What a wonderful post! I wish I was there to see it.I am hoping to be in Venice in Feb and will try to meet with you for a drink.

  3. I am glad you enjoyed it, Theresa! I don't know about you, but if I am only consuming digital information it gives me a headache. I love books; I have always loved books, and think that after so many thousands of years, the gatekeepers of knowledge will always be around.

    If you do manage to land in Venice, I'm always around:-)