The Pope traveled to Venice to speak with the artists and inmates behind the Biennale's must-see prison show.

VENICE, Italy (AP) — Venice has always been a place of contradictions, breathtaking beauty and devastating fragility, where history, religion, art and nature have collided over the centuries to create an otherworldly gem of a city. But even for a place that prides itself on a culture of extraordinary encounters, Pope Francis' visit on Sunday stood out.

Francis traveled to Lake City to visit the Holy See's pavilion at the Biennale Contemporary Art Show and meet the people who created it. But because the Vatican decided to place its exhibition in Venice's women's prison He invited prisoners to collaborate with artistsThe whole project took on a more complex meaning, touching on Francis' belief in the power of art to uplift and unify, and to bring hope and solidarity to the most disadvantaged of society.

Francis struck both messages during his visit, which began in the courtyard of Giudecca prison, where he met the female prisoners one by one. As some of them wept, Francis urged them to use their time in prison as an opportunity for “moral and material rebirth.”

“Ironically, a stay in prison can mark the beginning of something new, by reclaiming the unquestionable beauty in ourselves and others, symbolized by the art event you host and the project you actively contribute to,” Francis said.

Then Francis Biennale met the artists In the prison chapel, objects hanging from the ceiling, decorated by Brazilian visual artist Sonia Gómez, draw the viewer's eye upwards. He urged artists to embrace the theme of this year's biennale “Strangers Everywhere” Show solidarity with all the marginalized.

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The Vatican exhibition has made the Giudecca prison, a former convent for reformed prostitutes, a must-see at this year's Biennale, although visitors must book in advance and go through security. It's an unusual art world darling that greets visitors at the entrance with a wall mural by Mauricio Cattelan. Two big dirty feetCaravaggio's Dirty Feet, or Francis, is a work commemorating the feet he routinely washes over prisoners during a Holy Thursday ritual each year.

The exhibit featured a short film starring inmates and Zoe Saldana, and was printed in a prison coffee shop by Corrida Kent, a former Catholic nun and American social activist.

Francis' somber morning visit, which ended with Mass in St. Mark's Square, represented an increasingly rare outing for the 87-year-old pontiff. Hampered by health and mobility issues It has ruled out any foreign trips so far this year.

Venice, with its 121 islands and 436 bridges, is not an easy place to negotiate. But Francis pulled it off, arriving by helicopter from Rome, crossing the Giudecca Canal by water taxi, then arriving in St. Mark's Square in a mini popemobile that crossed the Grand Canal on a pontoon bridge set up for the event.

During a meeting with young people at the iconic Santa Maria della Salute basilica, Francis acknowledged the wonder of Venice, praising its “enchanting pedi” and heritage as an East-West meeting place, but warned it was vulnerable to climate change. and depopulation.

“Venice is united with the water on which it sits,” Francis said. “Without the care and protection of this natural environment, it may cease to exist.”

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Venice, weighed down by rising sea levels and the impact of overtourism, is in the opening days of a trial by Francis on Sunday to limit day trips.

Venice officials last week Started a pilot project Day-trippers will be charged 5 euros ($5.35) on maximum travel days. The aim is to encourage them to stay longer or come during off-peak hours, reducing congestion and making the city more livable for a dwindling number of residents.

For Venice's Catholic patriarch, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, the new tax plan is a worthwhile experiment, a necessary evil to try to preserve Venice as a livable city for visitors and residents alike.

In Moraglia, Francis' visit – the first biennale of a pope – was a welcome boost, especially for the women of the Cueteca prison who took part in the exhibition as tour guides and protagonists in some of the artworks.

He acknowledged that Venice had a long, complicated, love-hate relationship with the papacy for centuries.

The relics of St. Mark – the first assistant to St. Peter, the first pope – are housed in the basilica here, one of the most important and spectacular in all of Christendom. Many popes have come from Venice – in the last century alone three popes were elected as Venetian patriarchs. Venice hosted the last conclave held outside the Vatican: 1799-1800 votes elected Pope Paul VII.

But for centuries before that, relations between the independent Republic of Venice and the Papal States had been cordial as the two sides fought over control of the Church. The Popes in Rome issued bans against Venice that essentially expelled the entire territory. Venice flexed its muscles again by expelling entire religious orders, including Francis' own Jesuits.

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“It's a history of contradictions, because they were two rivals for centuries,” said Giovanni Maria Vien, a church historian and retired editor of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano whose family is from Venice. “The papacy wanted to control everything, and Venice jealously guarded its liberties.”

Moraglia said the troubled history goes back a long way, and that Venice welcomes Francis with open arms and gratitude for its history as a bridge between cultures.

“The history of Venice, the DNA of Venice — coming together beyond the language of beauty and culture — has this historical character that says Venice has always been a meeting place,” he said.

Francis said as he closed the Mass at St. Mark's before 10,500 people.

“Venice, which has always been a place of meeting and cultural exchange, is known as a symbol of beauty available to all,” Francis said. “Beginning with the least, a sign of concern for brotherhood and our common home.”

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Winfield reported from Rome. Associated Press writer Colin Barry contributed.

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