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Pope visits Venice to speak to artists and prisoners and discovers that a city is taxing day trippers like him

VENICE, Italy (AP) — Venice has always been a place of contrasts, of breathtaking beauty and devastating fragility, where history, religion, art and nature have come together over the centuries to produce an otherworldly jewel of a city. But even for a place that prides itself on its culture of unusual encounters, Pope Francis’ visit on Sunday stands out.

Francis travels to Venice to view the Holy See pavilion for this year’s Venice Biennale. In a first for a pope, the 60th edition of the world’s longest-running international art exhibition has given rise to a new round of headlines.

The Vatican chose to place its pavilion in Venice’s women’s prison and, through an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Justice, invited prisoners to work with the artists. The result is a multimedia exhibition ‘With My Eyes’, which is only accessible to the public by reservation and under strict safety conditions.

Francis will tour the exhibition, meet the prisoners and then address Venice’s artistic community at large in the prison’s chapel, which was once a convent for reformed prostitutes.

The Vatican exhibition has made the monastery prison one of the must-see attractions of this year’s Biennale, an unusual art world darling that greets visitors at the entrance with Maurizio Cattelan’s mural of two giant filthy feet. The work, titled “Father,” recalls Caravaggio’s dirty feet or the feet Francis washes every year during a Maundy Thursday ritual he routinely performs on prisoners.

After that meeting, Francis will sail by boat along the Giudecca Canal to the iconic Santa Maria della Salute Basilica in Venice to meet young people. He is then driven by golf cart over a pontoon bridge built for the occasion over the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco, where he celebrates Mass in the shadow of the city’s spectacular Byzantine basilica.

Francis’s staggering morning visit, which will end before lunchtime, represents an increasingly rare outing for the 87-year-old pontiff, who has been hampered by health and mobility problems that have ruled out foreign travel so far this year.

But it is also unusual because Venice, sinking under rising sea levels and suffering the impact of overtourism, is in the early days of an experiment to try to limit the kinds of day trips Francis undertakes.

Venetian authorities last week launched a pilot program to charge day trippers 5 euros ($5.35) each on peak travel days. The aim is to encourage them to stay longer or come outside peak hours to reduce crowds and make the city more liveable for its dwindling population.

For the Catholic Patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, the new tax program is a valuable experiment, a potentially necessary evil to maintain Venice as a livable city for visitors and residents alike.

“Venice must be defended as a polis, as a city,” Moraglia said in an interview on the eve of Francis’ visit. “The city risks not being a city anymore; it threatens to become a cultural offering, an open-air museum.”

Moraglia said Francis’ visit was a welcome boost, especially for the women of the Giudecca prison who participate in the exhibition as guides and as protagonists in some of the works of art.

“These are places of sorrow and suffering, and that for these people someone of global importance, such as the Pope, comes to Venice to visit them is a real and concrete encouragement,” he said. “And there is also a message to the city and to civil society: that those who make a mistake must pay, but they must not be forgotten.”

One of the exhibitions in the prison is a neon sign in the courtyard, by the artistic collective Claire Fontaine, with the text: “Siamo con voi nella notte” (We are with you at night).

Moraglia acknowledged that Venice has had a long, complicated love-hate relationship with the papacy over the centuries, despite its central importance to Christianity.

The relics of Saint Mark – the highest assistant of Saint Peter, the first pope – are kept here in the basilica, one of the most important in all of Christendom. Several popes have come from Venice; in the past century alone, three popes were elected after being Patriarchs of Venice. Venice hosted the last conclave held outside the Vatican: the election of Pope Paul VII from 1799 to 1800.

But centuries before, relations between the independent Venetian Republic and the Papal States were anything but cordial, as the two sides dueled over control of the Church. Popes in Rome issued bans against Venice, essentially excommunicating the entire territory. Venice flexed its muscles by expelling entire religious orders, including Francis’s own Jesuits.

“It is a history of contrasts because for so many centuries they were two competitors,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, 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 independence.”

Moraglia said the turbulent history is long gone and that Venice welcomed Francis with open arms and gratitude, in keeping with its history as a bridge between cultures, even opposing cultures.

“The history of Venice, the DNA of Venice – in addition to the language of beauty and culture that unites – there is a historical character that says that Venice has always been a place of meeting,” he said.

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

Nicole Winfield and Paolo Santalucia, The Associated Press