View of “L’arte non è Cosa Nostra (Art Is Not the Cosa Nostra), 2011, Italian pavilion, Venice. Foreground: Bertozzi & Casoni, Sedia elettrica con farfalle (Electric Chair with Butterflies), 2010. Background: Gaetano Pesce, L’Italia in croce (Italy on the Cross), 2011. Photo: Kate Lacey.

THE VENICE BIENNALE may be the mother of all biennials, but it is also their Jekyll and Hyde. The Jekyll Biennale is the one the contemporary art world knows and praises. The Hyde Biennale is the one continually raped by the schemes of the Italian political underworld. To figure out the causes of the Biennale’s compulsion to jeopardize its own reputation, it is important to bear in mind a few details of its institutional structure that may be surprising to non-Italians.

Forgive the tediousness of the necessary explanation. The Fondazione la Biennale di Venezia is an autonomous institution that nevertheless depends on the national government’s culture minister. In a typical Italian paradox, the culture minister, although he or she is considered a kind of demigod in the country’s political hierarchy, is usually someone with a vague and flexible idea of what constitutes culture (and

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