Pope’s Visit to Art Exhibition in Prison Is a First for Venice Biennale

Landing by helicopter at a women’s prison where the Vatican has mounted its pavilion for the Venice Biennale international art exhibition, Pope Francis on Sunday told the women incarcerated there that they had a “special place in my heart.”

“Grazie,” one woman called out. Others applauded.

Many of the women had participated with artists in creating works that hang throughout the prison for the exhibition, titled “With My Eyes.” Francis, the first pope ever to visit — if briefly — a Venice Biennale, said that it was “fundamental” for the prison system “to offer detainees the tools and room for human, spiritual, cultural and professional growth, creating the conditions for their healthy reintegration.”

“Not to isolate dignity, but to give new possibilities,” Francis said to applause.

Over the decades, countries participating in the Biennale — the world’s principal showcase for new art — have used deconsecrated churches, former beer factories, water buses and various other sites to display their art, but this was the first time a prison was selected.

That made the project “more complex and more difficult to implement,” Bruno Racine, the director of two venues of the Pinault Collection in Venice and a co-curator of the Vatican Pavilion, said in an interview. But the setting is consistent with Francis’ message of inclusivity toward marginalized people, he added.

The Vatican project has received an overwhelmingly positive public reception, but it has not been without controversy. Some critics raised ethical concerns about the intersection of powerful institutions like the Vatican and the Biennale with the limited autonomy of imprisoned women. Others suggested that the Vatican, in mounting the show, was complicit in a penal system in which overcrowding remains a serious issue.

Still others demanded that the pope request pardons or at least reduced sentences for any women who were incarcerated because they had responded violently to domestic abuse.

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