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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of Punta della Dogana in Venice

What is Punta della Dogana?

Punta della Dogana is a venue for cutting-edge contemporary art exhibitions set in a 17th-century naval customs house.

Punta della Dogana

Punta della Dogana History

You can expect the unexpected at the Punta della Dogana. From stuffed horses leaping through exposed brick walls to enormous, gleaming balloon-sculpture puppy dogs, the creative and often iconoclastic curation here will definitely have you looking twice. Past exhibitors have included Donald Judd, Maurizio Cattelan, Sigmar Polke, Subodh Gupta and enfants terrible Jake and Dinos Chapman. The Punta della Dogana is the companion museum to the Palazzo Grassi, home to entrepreneur François Pinault’s immense modern and contemporary art collection. The twinned museums present blockbuster temporary exhibitions, with the Punta della Dogana usually hosting innovative thematic group shows. Both venues rotate their shows at least once a year, so make sure you check what’s on before your visit.

The area’s curious triangular layout was recognised in 1682 by architect Giuseppe Benoni. Originally known as the Dogana del Mar, it was used as a customs post, ensuring no ship entered Venice’s waterways without paying the appropriate duties. After 300 years of daily use, the low-slung customs house was abandoned, and slowly faded into dereliction. The building sat unused for 30 years, before being leased to the French billionaire in 2007, to be converted into a centre for major exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.

Before you head inside, take a look at the fantastic sculpture on the building’s roof. Designed by Bernardo Falconi to represent the supremacy of the Venetian Republic, the work depicts a pair of muscular Atlas figures struggling under the weight of a golden globe, on top of which the figure of Fortune changes direction with the prevailing wind. The Punta della Dogana’s striking renovation was completed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who had taken on Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi project just a few years previously.

After the building’s original stuccoed brick exterior, it’s a surprise to encounter its minimalist, industrial interior. Exposed polished concrete and smooth surfaces are Ando’s trademark. Stripping back centuries of alterations and additions, he added this startlingly contemporary vision to the red brick and wooden beams of the original interior. In a conscious juxtaposition of old and new, Ando has succeeded in honouring the city’s seafaring history whilst staying true to his own cutting-edge minimalist style. To celebrate its maritime past he has cut viewpoints out of the walls to reveal the ships passing by, while concrete floating staircases have been designed in homage to innovative Venetian modernist Carlo Scarpa.

The Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi are the city’s ultimate destinations for anyone in search of a sense of the zeitgeist in modern and contemporary art. Overseeing these two venues, Pinault remains dedicated to the aim of sharing his passion for modern and contemporary art, and he continues to support and commission living artists worldwide. From painting to photography, installation and sculpture to video, Pinault’s representative collection has ensured that Venice has become one of the world’s most important capitals of contemporary art.

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