The 18th-century novelist William Beckford wrote that he couldn't help thinking of this city's most beloved sight, St. Mark's Basilica, as a mosque, with its "pinnacles and semicircular arches" all "so oriental in appearance." But despite the profound stamp that Islamic culture has left on Venice's art and architecture over centuries, it remains one of the few prominent European cities without a mosque near its historic center, leaving Islamic residents who work there to pray in storerooms and shops amid the tourist crush.
For the next seven months, however, Venice will find itself in the middle of the roiling debate about Islam's place in Europe. On Friday, as part of the Venice Biennale, a former Catholic church in the Cannaregio neighborhood will open its doors as a functioning mosque, its Baroque walls adorned with Arabic script, its floor covered with a prayer rug angled toward Mecca and its crucifix mosaics hidden behind a towering mihrab, or prayer niche.
The transformation is the work of a Swiss-Icelandic artist, Christoph Büchel, who has become known for politically barbed provocations. But the mosque, which will serve as Iceland's national pavilion during the Biennale, is a cultural symbol and a kind of ready-made sculpture conceived with the active involvement of leaders of the area's Islamic population, which has been growing for many years.