James Joyce hated Rome, for reasons that had much to do with him and little with the Eternal City. He was 24 years old, drifting with his new family, forced to work in an Italian bank copying letters — up to 200 a day.

“Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother’s corpse,” he wrote to his brother.

Harsh. Yet a damnation that echoed in my ears not only while revisiting the wonders of the Vatican Museum, its arching gilt hallways stretching to the horizon, but to other cities as well: to Florence, for instance, at the Uffizi, with its harem of Botticellis, and the Galleria dell’Accademia, Michelangelo’s David a marvel undiminished by 500 years.

Wondrous. But also half a millennium old, nearly. Doesn’t anybody in Italy do anything magnificent anymore? Besides Ferraris, I mean. Everything of value seemed either 500 years old or baked that morning.


As if to answer my question, as soon as we set foot in Venice, my 21-year-old, with the radar for the Happening Thing of the Moment the young innately possess, announced there was someplace he wanted to go. My wife and I tagged after him like a pair of pull toy ducks as he hurried through narrow alleys and across little bridges to the Palazzo Grassi to see the Damien Hirst show, “Treasures from thee Wreck of the Unbelievable.”

Hirst is a British artist. Going in, I knew exactly two things about his work: one, he created those huge glass boxes with sharks and cows suspended in formaldehyde; and two, a decade ago he crafted a diamond encrusted platinum skull that embodies the insanely inflated values of the contemporary art world.

"Goofy," one of 190 pieces in the massive Damien Hirst one-man show going on until December in Venice, Italy.

“Goofy,” one of 190 pieces in the massive Damien Hirst one-man show going on until December in Venice, Italy. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The first thing you see at the Palazzo Grassi is an enormous headless bronze man — well, it looks bronze, it’s really painted resin — 50 feet tall, filling the courtyard. Visitors are introduced to the show’s conceit. “In 2008, a vast wreckage site was discovered off the coast of East Africa. . . . The collection lay submerged in the Indian Ocean for some 2,000 years before the site was discovered.”

There is a short film, of divers uncovering wonders on the bottom of the ocean, amidst schools of darting fish. Cranes haul dripping sculptures onto the deck of a salvage ship, narrated with the expected Jacques Cousteau solemnity. Carved pharaohs, Aztec wheels, bronze gods.

But it’s all an obvious fraud. A second glance at the “Five Antique Torsos” reveals they belong to Barbie. That figure encrusted head to toe in barnacles? Goofy. All cooked up by Hirst and an army of craftsmen, at the cost of a supposed $50 million (one has to stick “supposed” in front of almost anything Hirst says. He is truly an artist for our time).

Some statues are pristine, others presented in their allegedly unconserved state, crusted with coral. Fifty rooms over two buildings — we crossed the Grand Canal to see the other half of the show at the Punta della Dogana (both museums the handiwork of Francois Pinault, owner of Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, Bottega Venetta and other vendors to the over-monied. Hirst fits right in).

The cumulative effect is overwhelming, almost deadening. Not only did Hirst create faux masterpieces of gold, silver, bronze, marble and malachite, but also the dull stuff that fills museums — cases of “eccentric flints, animal figurines and valuable shells.” Scythes, hoes, pouches.

Unicorn skull from the Damien Hirst exhibit, "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable," at the Punta Della Dogana in Venice, Italy.

Unicorn skull from the Damien Hirst exhibit, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” at the Punta Della Dogana in Venice, Italy. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

A comment on veneration of the past. Some Greek demigod, no less ridiculous than Mickey Mouse, becomes a coveted treasure after 2,000 years in the dirt.
Or you could see it as a mere brand enhancement. Hawking $5 million bronzes can’t be an easy job. It helps to build this aura around your stuff, a stunt to hook press attention. The British papers sent teams of reporters to cover it, and it’s telling that the Sun-Times would fly me to Venice just to take a look.

Oh, that’s a lie. The paper didn’t send me. Journalists just don’t enjoy the latitude for self-mythologizing that artists do. I was on vacation and blundered by. Or as Andy Warhol once said: “Art is what you can get away with.”