I tried not to read about Venice before I visited but it didn’t matter, only clichés sprang to mind anyway. In the art world, Venice is synonymous with glamour, with the Venice Film Festival and the Venice Biennale. A good writer earns their place in these spaces through original observation–but Venice doesn’t care if you are good.
The government of Venice announced in February that they will charge 3 euros admission per person to visit the historic city. The governor’s desire to reposition Venice as an “open-air museum” is just the latest acknowledgement that tourism has accelerated the Disneyfication of what was once a thriving city. Replicas of Venice exist in Las Vegas, China, Azerbaijan and actual Disneyworld. It was inevitable that the city would someday become a reproduction of itself.
When I visited in 2017, the grounds of the Art Biennale at Giardini felt like Epcot, with each of the biennale’s 29 national pavilions dedicated to a different country. Every pavilion is maintained by its home nation, and visiting them in quick succession feels like a crash course in architectural vernacular, if not geopolitics. They are partially open to the elements, most of them a single floor.
I was coming from Budapest, where I’d traced my family’s history to the former home and workshop of one of Hungary’s greatest decorative artists, Miksa Róth. The keepers of this museum, of no relation to Róth, were happy to present my family with a translated copy of his autobiography and a list of his works, which included the “permanent Hungarian exhibition hall” in Venice.
However, they also told us that only 15-20 percent of his works still remained, and knowing that translations can be imprecise it wasn’t until I stood in front of the Hungarian pavilion and felt a shiver of recognition that I knew I would have something to say about Venice after all.
Miksa Róth was born in 1865. His sister, Helene, was my great-great grandmother. Their father, Zsigmond, was a glazier. His father’s work helped launch Miksa Róth into the applied arts, but the son’s recognition and achievements in stained glass and mosaic art far eclipsed his father’s.
Among these achievements were the windows of the Hungarian parliament, the ceiling of the Széchenyi bath house, stained glass decoration in Gresham Palace (which is now the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest), and the Hungarian Pavilion. In the 1890s, Franz Joseph I of Austria, the King of Hungary, awarded Miksa Róth the Golden Cross of Merit.
Róth’s pivot from stained glass to mosaics came midway through his career at the age of 32. In his autobiography, he adopts no false modesty about his role elevating the entire medium: “It was I who introduced mosaic art in to our country in 1898,” he writes, “In Hungary, apart from the Roman Age marble floor mosaic fragments uncovered at the excavations, mosaic art was completely without traditions. When I started to deal with mosaics seriously, this art was practiced mostly in Italy.”
Róth’s interest in mosaics started in Venice, as he underwent the traditional study tour for young gentlemen and artists of the day. His mosaics went on to win the Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and Gold Medals at the First International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin (1902) and the Saint Louis World’s Fair of 1904. According to The Glass Paintings of Miksa Róth by Tibor Fenyi, Róth was the first artist in Austria-Hungary to experiment with Louis Comfort Tiffany’s opalescent glass (both in windows and mosaics). He also used porcelain tiles that were produced in Hungary by the Zsolnay factory. A special ‘eosin’ glaze gave them a metallic sheen.
Róth associated with the Art Nouveau artists of the Gödöllő colony. The group was started by painter Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch and active from 1901 to 1920. The Gödöllő artists were sponsored by the Hungarian Applied Arts Society, of which Róth was a part. According to the book Hungarian Ceramics from the Zsolnay Manufactory, 1853-2000 by Piroska Ács, some of these affiliated artists were chosen to design the Hungarian Pavilion after the success of an earlier (temporary) pavilion in Milan designed by Géza Maróti with mosaics by Róth. Maróti, an architect, sculptor, painter, and applied artist, also wrote a 600-page study about the city of Atlantis which has never been published.
The Italian government offered Hungary a permanent pavilion in Venice, the third national pavilion built, after Italy and Belgium. Elek Lippich Koronghy, consultant to the Hungarian Ministry of Culture, selected the artists. In 1906, Lippich sent Róth the following praise:
“Having learnt of our things in Milan, I hasten to send you the warmest regard to congratulate you on your beautiful success. God bless you and give you strength and health so that you could do yet a lot more for the honour and reputation of the art of this country.”
The Venice pavilion was inaugurated on April 24, 1909. The entrance was a wide, recessed arch lined in Zsolnay tiles that glimmered in the light of the lagoon.
Almost exactly 20 years later, on May 5th, 1939, Róth closed down his workshop after the passage of the second Jewish law restricting work and employment. Róth transferred ownership of his assets to his Catholic wife, and forged baptism certificates for his parents for the safety of his children. Although Róth converted to Christianity in 1897, any person with a Jewish grandparent was considered Jewish in the eyes of the law.
The man who once wore The Golden Cross of Merit now had a yellow star. He died at home on June 14th, 1944. His autobiography, published in 1943, excludes any of his works affiliated with Jewish institutions so we may never know the full extent of his contributions.
According to family lore, during WWII one of Roth’s medals– possibly the Golden Cross– was hidden in an opaque bowl of jello in the refrigerator to avoid confiscation. It was discovered in 1945 when one of the remaining family members bit into it.
Some facts, in no particular order:
Venice was settled by Northern Italians fleeing Attila the Hun.
Attila the Hun is a Hungarian hero.
Hungarians are not descended from Attila.
Attila is depicted on the side of the Hungarian Pavilion in Venice by mosaics laid by Miksa Róth, a Jew.
The Venetians loved it anyway.
Attila is looking at a flock of storks.
According to legend, a stork was the omen which led Attila to capture the Roman city of Aquileia.
The Latin word for stork is ‘ciconia’.
The Venetian word for ghetto is ‘ghèto’.
The world’s oldest Jewish ghetto was established on March 29th, 1516 in Venice.
Rising seawater coupled with the 20 million phone-wielding tourists that descend on Venice every year have turned the city into a carnival on borrowed time. But even this trajectory feels like part of its essential character. Venice becomes more itself by becoming more enigma, like an Escher folded into an origami crane. It has been compared to Atlantis, a city submerged in plain sight. In 2000, the Hungarian pavilion hosted an Architecture Biennale exhibition titled ‘Towards a New Atlantis,’ featuring a model of Géza Maróti’s Atlantis.
It’s easy to confuse the hidden with the utopian, so of course I set out to find the unpublished English translation of Maróti’s 600-page study of Atlantis, and of course I didn’t find it. I emailed the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest and the Hungarian National Gallery and corresponded with archivists from Cranbrook and Yale.
Instead, I found a connection between Maróti and one of my favorite architects, Eliel Saarinen. The two met in Finland, and when Saarinen designed the Cranbrook Educational Community in Michigan, he asked Maróti to add sculptural flourishes around the campus.
“Unfortunately, Maróti’s wife, Leopoldine, did not like living in Bloomfield Hills which was, in the mid-1920s, a far cry from the city life she was used to in Budapest. After a few projects in Detroit – most notably the Fisher Building – the Marótis returned to Hungary,” a Cranbrook archivist explained via email.
In cities, as in love, there can be no substitutions.
In The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton, the author muses on why–in this modern age–we cannot simply recreate the cities we most love. “We should not have to feel alarmed by the waters that lap threateningly against Venice’s shoreline. We should have the confidence to surrender the aristocratic palaces to the sea, knowing that we could at any point create new edifices that would rival the old stones in beauty. Yet architecture has repeatedly defied attempts for it to be set on a more scientific, rule-laden path. Just as the secrets of good literature have not been for ever unlocked by the existence of Hamlet or Mansfield Park.”
What is authentic? Not the Hungarian pavilion. The building deteriorated after WWII, and was refurbished in 1958. The shape of the building was altered, the original mosaics were walled over, and only the sparkling entrance arch remained. In the 1990s the mosaics were uncovered and restored and a new roof was constructed with Zsolnay tiles.
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