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VENICE — Normally in European social circles, it’s the English who carry on about the weather. But during the 50th Venice Biennale, the city’s equatorial heat was as inescapable as a malevolent stalker. And everyone was morbidly fascinated by it.

“You go into the Arsenale [exhibition hall] and you enter a sauna,” said Mexican Ana Lucia de Theresa Addam.

This story first appeared in the June 23, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I saw nothing,” added New Yorker Anh Duong. “I thought I was going to faint.”

“It’s not, ‘Which pavilion is the best?’” suggested Londoner Jessica de Rothschild. “It’s, ‘Which pavilion has the best air conditioning?’”

“I’m only here to enjoy the…heat,” said non-exhibiting Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, as she met her companion, John Armleder, at Harry’s Bar, a heavily air-conditioned rendezvous point which also drew the likes of Azzedine Alaïa.

While the art professionals had no choice but to sweat through their appointments, those who came for personal interest — or to attend Venetian Heritage activities — were more selective in their visits to the national pavilions in the Giardini and the Arsenale’s main exhibition, “Dreams and Conflicts.” One afternoon, Bianca Jagger staked a claim on a shaded patch of Piazza San Marco after she’d met her limit.

“Death by art,” was her growling assessment of the weekend.

“Morte di arte,” corrected her companion, Cambridge historian John Adamson.

In fact, the informal reviews of the Biennale — the inaugural effort from new director Francesco Bonami —were the only things chilly about the weekend. On the other hand, the social scene was a knockout. Prominent visitors included luxury kingpins François Pinault and Bernard Arnault; artists Maurizio Cattelan and Damien Hirst; designers Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs; collectors Ronald Lauder and Miuccia Prada; art professionals Thomas Krens and Larry Gagosian, and Princesses Firyal of Jordan and Michael of Kent.

But the heat imposed limits even on social rounds.

“Today is the no-kiss day,” cautioned Roman patrician Patricia Aldobrandini at a cocktail Thursday on the roof of the Palazzo Brandolini. She tried to avoid the body heat by perching on the roof’s ledge as hostess Marie Brandolini, Pierre Rosenberg, Philippe Starck, Claudia Ruspoli and Rebecca Carcel sweltered in the crowd. The hostess’ mother, Beatrice de Rothschild, hobbled with an injured foot and a crutch but still managed to pass a tray of snacks.

Meanwhile, at the Palazzo Volpi, Francesca von Habsburg and London-based curator Max Wigram (who was with Chloé designer Phoebe Philo) gave a party for the Danish contingent. “The palazzo was shaking like a boom box,” boasted von Habsburg, guessing that some 400 guests had poured through.

At the Monaco Hotel, François and Maryvonne Pinault presided over Christie’s dinner for Jeff Koons (who just had an opening in Naples) that attracted Gloria von Thurn and Taxis and Alessandra Borghese.

On Friday, the social set angled for a spot at the Hotel Cipriani pool, the only one in Venice. A story spread that estranged lovers and former business partners Simon de Pury and Louise MacBain were startled to see each other from opposite sides of the lunch buffet. MacBain had been making her rounds with Salzburg dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, while de Pury escorted Duong to events.

That night proved to be the apex of the weekend’s social activities, as Bernard Arnault gave a dinner in honor of French artist Jean-Marc Bustamente that attracted, among others, Lagerfeld, Jacobs, Diego della Valle, Carla Fendi and Elton John. But Sir Elton didn’t stay for dinner — he and partner David Furnish motored over to the staggering Palazzo Albrizzi for another dinner, hosted by the Prada Foundation.

There was more: Gagosian’s dinner for collectors and his artists, including Hirst and Jenny Saville; Venetian Heritage supporters were welcomed by jewelry designer Attilio Codognato and, across town at the Palazzo Gradenigo, art restorer Toto Bergamo-Rossi held a dinner at home for young friends of Venetian Heritage such as Dora and Manfredi della Ghirardesca, Luca and Veronica Marzotto and Celia von Bismarck. (One room was air conditioned, the other not, prompting a guest in the hotter room to quip that he should have written a bigger check.)

But the best came late at an informal gathering at the Palazzo Grassi Hotel, where everyone wound up after the other hotel bars closed. There, Sir Elton and Furnish joined Sam Taylor-Wood, Hirst and Jay Jopling, while Delphine Arnault, Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer and the Missonis took other tables. The staff, a little overwhelmed by the hullabaloo, tried to block Lagerfeld and Sandy Brandt at the door, while inside, von Habsburg lead a sing-along of the Rolling Stones classic “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“I had 10 people singing backup,” von Hasburg reported later, belting out the famous “Woo-Wooo” chorus. “It was wild.”

Saturday was slightly calmer — and for some, a mite shakier. Visitors dispersed to lunches around the city and by nighttime the heat was worse than ever. But Venetian Heritage ticket buyers rallied for Dodie Rosekrans’ Ballo di Acqua at the Palazzo Brandolini. As taxi boats unloaded their jeweled guests at the baroque palace, flags fluttered overhead and attendants costumed as nymphs and sea gods (seashells barely covering the naughty bits) tossed confetti from the balcony.

Inside were co-hosts Brando and Cristiana Brandolini, as well as Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota; U.S. Ambassador Howard Leach and his wife, Gretchen; Prince and Princess Lichtenstein; Prince and Princess Michael of Kent; Marina and Michel of Greece; Sylvie and Pierre d’Arenberg; Jacqueline de Ribes in major vintage jewels; de Theresa Addam and von Bismarck, both in shreddy dresses by Trash Couture; Audrey Gruss; Alex Gregory, and Pierre Durand. No one better embodied the ball’s water theme than Betsy Lovett, who wore a frothy blue Blanche DuBois-style gown and a frisky, and very tall, fish headdress.

“I’m high water,” she cried, a reference to the dreaded “acqua alta” that inundates Venice in the wintertime.

The one man who avoided sweating in a dinner jacket was Ignacio Segorbe, the Duke of Segorbe, who exemplified aristocratic style. Responding to the theme, he dressed in a short-sleeve striped shirt, penned tattoos on his arms — and called himself a gondolier.

Throughout it all, the hostess herself was more steady and smiling than anyone could expect, especially given that she was wearing a heavy Christian Dior couture gown and a beaded fish headdress. In fact, she seemed to be the only one who didn’t mind the heat.

“You know, I think it actually added something,” Rosekrans said later. “A challenge.”

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