The sky is blue. And on fine mornings like this one, Giovanni buys a paper and settles down on a stone bench on the Riva degli Schiavoni, in the shade of one of the large yachts moored in San Marco Basin. He always repeats the same ritual, lighting a crooked, nasty-smelling stogie, glancing up at the crowds of tourists filing past as he puffs on his cigar and opens his paper to the football pages. His friend Guido, a pensioner like him, joins him a bit later, armed with a fishing pole. Guido claims that the dozen cabin cruisers tied up at the berths between the Doge's Palace and the Giardini, most of them in town for the opening of the Biennale of Contemporary Art, attract fish. While Giovanni reads, Guido waits for a bite. The Biennale does not interest them, and, aside from the shadow they cast on the waterfront and the fish they supposedly attract, neither do the yachts.

Behind them, a large banner hung on the façade of the old Cornoldi barracks proclaims that, for the duration of the Biennale, the building is serving as the pavilion of the Principality of Monaco; two soldiers in uniform are always posted at the gates. A little farther up the dock, towards the Doge's Palace, another streamer notifies the passerby that Santa Maria della Pieta Church is hosting the Moroccan Pavilion. Increasingly, nations lacking an official pavilion in the Castello Gardens (the Giardini, traditional site of the Biennale) rent palaces and deconsecrated churches here and there in the city. The day before, in a vaporetto brimming with passengers bound for Giudecca, one Frenchwoman asked another, "Tu vas chez les Welsh?" She meant the Wales Pavilion, set up in a former brewery on the island, and devoted to an installation by John Cale, a musician who co-founded the Velvet Underground in 1965.

Scattered over the archipelago, then, are dozens of temporary pavilions heralded by large flags. Tourists hardly dare to venture into them, and Venetians tend to look upon them with a disapproving eye. For example, in the Cannaregio quarter in the northern part of the island, the venerable Scuola Grande della Misericordia is occupied by Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas. He specialises in salvaging videotape from discarded cassettes and using it for sculpture; in this case, a tunnel. No doubt he is unaware that the Scuola, built in the second half of the 16th century by Roman architect and sculptor Sansovino, is a response to another famed Venetian institution, San Rocco, designed by Bartolomeo Bon and completed in 1549 by Scarpagnino. Two ladies from the neighbourhood leaving the building know its history and the architectural prowess it represents (the meeting room on the upper floor is the second biggest in Venice, next to the one in the Doge's Palace). They seem to be less than enchanted by either the tunnel or the aluminium foil covering the back wall, hardly surprising in light of the fact that Tintoretto's "Last Judgement" hangs in a church just down the street, Santa Madonna dell'Orto. The art a society advocates and defends is also a reflection of the scale of its ambition.

The more the Biennale flourishes and spreads throughout the city, the less interest Venetians, suffocated by tourism nearly all year round, seem to take in the event. And that is not the only paradox: though we are in an era of globalisation, the Biennale is increasingly an accumulation of different nationalisms. On 30 April 1895, when the first Biennale opened, it was limited to one pavilion in the Giardini, housing a single large exhibition. Belgium built the first foreign pavilion in 1907; France designed her own five years later. Today, thirty national pavilions stand in the Giardini, and thirty-five temporary spaces are located elsewhere in the city. In 2011, even the Vatican will be represented – inspired, perhaps, by the arrival en masse of the Gulf states (the United Arab Emirates have one pavilion, as well as Abu Dhabi, their political capital). All are engaged in a competition that is more political than artistic, in which the values are influence, power and wealth. The Biennale has borne witness to the decline of national glory: at the 1964 event, American artist Robert Rauschenberg's victory over the Frenchman Roger Bissière confirmed the extinction of the French colonial empire in Africa. Rising stars can also be observed: China, currently housed in a warehouse located at one end of the Arsenal, next to the Italian pavilion, will undoubtedly obtain permission to build a home of its own in the Giardini soon. In a way, the national pavilions of the Venice Biennale can be read as an economic and geopolitical map of the world. For example, four years ago, the event's organisers "generously" donated a pavilion to Africa, forgetting that the land mass is not one single country, but a continent composed of fifty-four states. It is not hard to understand why the chief concern of Giovanni, Guido, and the majority of Venetians is football, an area where Italy still excels as one of the world's greatest powers.

The attention of the two friends was focused on the catastrophic ranking of the local team. SSC Venezia was facing relegation, but the club saved its skin at the last match of the playoffs, with a 1-1 tie against Pro Sesto (of Sesto San Giovanni, in Lombardy). However, the event occurred after the opening of the Biennale, and the art world had long since decamped from Venice for the Basel Art Fair, leaving the Giardini, outside the tourists' circuit, to be devastated by an unusually heavy storm.