VENICE, Italy - The Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday won the Venice Biennale's Golden Lion award for best national pavilion - the first by a commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion since 1990.

In a ceremony at the Pavilion attended by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, the museum accepted honors for "Bruce Nauman: Topological Garden," echoing the capture of a similar top award two decades ago for its Jasper Johns show.

"We're all so happy," said Art Museum chairman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest. "What it represents to me is what a great loss it was when Anne d'Harnoncourt died a year ago, and the museum has not lost a step despite that. This to me is a great achievement . . . and nobody would have been more excited than Anne d'Harnoncourt."

Tobias Rehberger of Germany won the Golden Lion for best artist in the venerable contemporary art exposition, this year entitled "Fare Mondi/Making Worlds." Nauman won a Golden Lion in 1999 for lifetime achievement.

The award for Philadelphia, bestowed by a five-member international committee, confers welcome prestige, and comes after a week of steadily building critical praise.

At a Thursday-night reception hosted by the glamorous Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal, the chic art establishment chatted long into the jasmine-perfumed night - moving pale green mojito popsicles and cigarettes slowly from hand to mouth - about the Nauman show at the 53d Venice Biennale.

"The word I've heard is that you really must see all of it," said Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, about the three-venue Nauman show. Having viewed the portion in the U.S. Pavilion, he said, "It still seems really edgy."

"It looks more avant garde than ever," said ARTnews deputy editor Barbara MacAdam at the Thursday-night bash, the major American social event of the Biennale. "The videos are unbelievably spellbinding."

Early visitors to the Nauman show, or at least parts of it, have included Mick Jagger and Naomi Campbell, and reviews have been affirming.

"Nauman emerges as the big art-historical figure in this Biennale," wrote a critic for Bloomberg. "He's tremendously inventive, with a bleak Samuel Beckett-like vision of existence."

"That mad man Bruce Nauman brings his own particular brand of wackily serious gusto to the usually rather staid looking American pavilion," said The Independent of London.

The economy of the show's scale - 33 items on a checklist spread over the U.S. Pavilion and two local universities - perhaps allows viewers to spend more time with each piece.

"It's not a lot of work, but it's core work," noted Sueyun Locks of Philadelphia's Locks Gallery.

A substantial hometown contingent – members of the Art Museum's board and chairman's council of donors – met the larger art world at the Guggenheim party. New York dealer Sean Kelly attended, as did art writer Peter Plagens, artists, curators and museum directors.

"It's old-home week," said Philadelphia Museum of Art chief operating officer Gail M. Harrity.

Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute, walked over as a reporter and Harrity were talking about Japanese architect Tadao Ando, whose retrofitting of a Venice marine warehouse into a new home for French billionaire Francois Pinault's contemporary art collection has just opened.

What is going on with a new Ando building in Philadelphia for a Calder museum? asked Conforti. "I wish it could happen," he added. "The art would look terrific in it."

Then he volunteered that the rumors are not true he is one of three finalists for the Philadelphia Museum of Art director job. He hasn't even spoken to the search firm, he says.

Conforti expressed hope, however, that realistic expectations arrive with the new director, whomever it might be, pointing out that d'Harnoncourt's death a year ago came three months before the bottom fell out of the market, and that even she could not have shielded the museum from the current financial stresses.

Harrity introduced art museum chairman Lenfest to Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. "I used to live in a place called Pennsylvania," Armstrong said, referring to his days running the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Lenfest that morning had joined the rest of the Philadelphia crew in queuing up at the U.S. Pavilion to get (as one museum staffer put it) "VIP VIP" access to see the Nauman show several days before the public opening today.

"It's very good," said Lenfest, whose own collecting has leaned more toward Bucks County impressionist than audio installation and neon. He was particularly admiring of a room filled by Fifteen Pairs of Hands. "Hands are capable of so many different kinds of expressions."

A few hours after the "VIP VIP" visitors, the press arrived to get its first look. Poor Bruce Nauman – famously shy, he looked pained as he moved about, walled in by reporters and photographers. After his departure, more than a hundred members of the press lined up and waited their turn to see the work.

The Philadelphians celebrated this moment in the museum's life Wednesday night at Met, the one-star Michelin restaurant in the Metropole Hotel. After toasts by Harrity and chief of curatorial affairs Alice Beamesderfer, Lenfest couldn't resist piping up.

"Ann Temkin says we're the hot ticket in town," he said, referring to the Museum of Modern Art curator who once worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"There is a real feeling of celebration in response to the Nauman installations - beautiful, important work, thrilling to see and hear," said Temkin.

The group – which included Jeannette and Joe Neubauer, Lyn and George Ross, Constance and Sankey Williams, Ira Brind and Francine Tabas, and Robbi and Bruce Toll – settled in for a four-course dinner that started off with Adriatic scallops injected with their own coral (foam on top), sevruga caviar, and shards of crunchy violet nougat.

The museum's cheerleaders – several of whom also came to Venice in 1988 when the Art Museum curated the U.S. Pavilion with the greatly admired Johns show - spent time visiting museums and churches, shopping in the designer boutiques around St. Mark's Square, and "eating, eating, eating," in the words of more than one museum staffer.

The keys to Venice have been provided by Art Museum curator Carlos Basualdo. He teaches at one of the universities in Venice, and, after an initial suggestion from his colleague Michael Taylor, pursued the idea of spreading the Nauman show beyond the traditional venues at the Giardini and Arsenale into the two university campuses.

The contact is not insubstantial. With a combined student and professor count of 30,000, the two schools account for half of the population of Venice's Centro storico - historic area.

Basualdo got a long embrace from Nauman Friday night when the two stood to accept applause at the dinner in the Scuola Grande di San Giovannia Evangelista honoring the artist and lenders to the show.

Nauman gave a short acceptance speech that successfully deflected attention. Looking over at Chiara Barbieri, the project manager for the Guggenheim Collection who has been liaison for the U.S. Pavilion, he said:

"You showed me where the best pistachio gelato in town is. Thank you."