The Venice Biennale was born by a resolution by the City Council on 19th April 1893, which proposed the founding of a "biennial national artistic exhibition" to take place in the following year, to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy.
The event in fact took place two years later, on 30th April, 1895 . In the period between the idea and its realisation, the commitment of the then Mayor of Venice Riccardo Selvatico turned out to be successful. He strongly wished to transform the artists' evening meetings at Caffè Florian into a prestigious international exhibition.
The organisation of the event started by the studying of a statute devised by a specially appointed commission, and inspired by the Secession in Munich. The decision was taken not only to invite major foreign and Italian artists, but to include also the works of uninvited Italian painters and sculptors. Each artist could participate with no more than two works, previously unexhibited in Italy. Three commitees were formed: one of Venetian artists to develop the program of the exhibition, another for promotion, and another for the Press. Antonio Fradeletto was appointed General Secretary and became one of the most influential figures of the period. Thanks to his diplomatic skill he was involved in the selection of the artists, the installation of the exhibition, and later the construction of the foreign pavilions.
The pavilion which was to host the first exhibition was feverishly built in the public gardens in Castello, just in time for the opening ceremony with the presence of King and Queen of Savoy, and the enthusiastic participation of the Venetian public. There were over 200,000 visitors at the first International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice (later to be called the Biennale because it took place every two years). The special return train tickets, which included entrance to the exhibition, contributed to this great success.
The major Prize, being the result of an impartial judgement, was attributed both to Giovanni Segantini, for his Return to Native Village, and to Francesco Paolo Michetti for his painting Jorio's Daughter: since two artistic trends were recognised, the most representative personalities were commended. But the work that raised the biggest stirr, due of its risqué subject matter, was Giacomo Grosso's Supreme Meeting, depicting a dead man surrounded by nude female figures. This piece was to win a prize by a popular referendum which took place at the closing of the exhibiton.
In 1897 the new Mayor Filippo Grimani substituted Selvatico as the President of the Biennale. On the event of the second exhibition of that year, together with the foundation of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna of Venice, the jury opted instead for the purchase of the art works for the benefit of national and local galleries. The same jury set up a Critic's Prize, with the intention of improving the promotion of the event. On the one hand, this prize stimulated the production of articles and reviews, thus improving the quality of Italian art criticism in that period, and on the other, reached a milestone in the history of contemporary art criticism.
French art was quite neglected in the first Biennale exhibitions, whereas the priviledged relationships with the Secession drew much attention to German art. Already in 1899, Klimt's Judith II had been presented. In the meantime, the Biennale allowed a select few Italian artists, such as Michetti and Sartorio, the opportunity to exhibit in personal rooms, thus inaugurating the new formula of the personal exhibition which was to be adopted as of the third Biennale Exhibition in 1899.