Venetian Palace Architectural Styles: Byzantine – Venetian Gothic – Renaissance – Baroque – Neoclassical. The palaces, especially along the Grand Canal embody in both structure and style, not only the history of Venetian architecture; but also the entrepreneurial nature of the city’s ruling classes.
There is no finer way to appreciate these grand houses than from the water. A trip up and down the canal on a vaporetto (accelerato no.1), between the Stazione Ferrovia (railway station) or Piazzale Roma (bus station) and the Basino di San Marco (St Marks Basin), is one of life’s great experiences. The 4 km (2 ½ mile) canal shaped like an inverted “S”, bisects the six sestieri (districts) equally. Only a few of the palaces are still occupied by aristocratic families for whom they were built; most have been turned into offices, apartments, hotels, museums or government buildings.
By ancient law, only one palace was allowed to carry the title Palace (Palazzo) and that was the Doges’ Palace (Palazzo Ducale); the home of the head of the Venetian state. All other palaces had to be called simply House (Ca’ – short for Casa). Today, most of these magnificent building carries the title Palazzo, but there still are some huge and very famous palaces with humble names like Ca’Rezzonico & Ca’d’Oro.
The early palaces were both the home and workplace (warehouse) of the merchant nobility and known as casa-fondaco. Elements of this dual functionality can be traced through later architectural styles.
The front of a Venetian palace always faces the water because that was the way one approached it – by boat. The wide and deep Grand Canal made it ideal for delivering goods in large vessels, right to the palace-warehouse. The backs of the buildings are not usually elaborately decorated like the water frontage.
Venetian Palace Architectural Styles: Byzantine style
Byzantine architecture is the architecture of the Byzantine Empire. The empire emerged gradually after AD 330, when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, which was later named Constantinople and is now Istanbul. Early Byzantine architecture is essentially a continuation of Roman architecture. Gradually, a style emerged which imbued certain influences from the Near East and used the Greek cross plan for the church architecture. Brick replaced stone, classical orders were used more freely, mosaics replaced carved decoration, and complex domes were erected.
In Venice only a few examples of Byzantine palaces from the 13th and 14th century have survived and most of those that still exist have been thoroughly modified during later centuries; mostly to Gothic or Renaissance styles.
The distribution of the arches and windows on different levels of the facade, reflect the function of the casa-fondaco and the hierarchy of its internal spaces. Typically, at ground floor level, one can see an arcade of columns with smoothly rounded tops forming a loggia (or gallery), which opened into a portego (or main entrance hall), used primarily for loading/unloading. This was flanked on each side by a row of smaller rooms, used for storage. The loggia covered the central hall with a “T” plan view. To the rear was a courtyard with an external staircase to the piano-nobile (or noble floor) on the first floor.
LEFT: Ca’da Mosta 13th century, showing typical Casa-Fondaco style. Also note the two additional floors added above later.
The first floor contained a similar main hall or portego, used initially as a display area for merchandise but later it became a splendid setting for entertaining. The arched loggia generally took up most of the width of the first floor. Lateral wings were used as administrative offices. The stories above were used for family and servant accommodation.
Two ancient examples of this style, which demonstrate their casa-fondaco origins are the Ca’da Mosta (13th C) and the Palazzo Loredan/Ca’ Farsetti complex (14th C); just north and south of the Rialto Bridge respectively. Levels above the first floor are later additions.
Venetian Palace Architectural Styles: Venetian Gothic style
These beautiful palaces were built in the 14th and 15th centuries. Venetian Gothic refers to a style of building unique to Venice and is a term given to architecture combining use of the Gothic lancet (ogival or pointed arch) with Byzantine and Arab influences. It was common to decorate the spaces between or above these arches with round lacy cut-outs or tracery in stone called “quatrefoils. The design of the traceries was often based on those found on the upper floor gallery of the Doge’s Palace; a style known as gotico fiorito. The plan view of the loggia/central hall also changed from a “T” to an “L”. In 15th century Venetian gothic, the portego became a long corridor with a quadratic cross section, opened in many cases by a loggia with four arches. Towards the end of the 15th century, the lateral rooms gained importance.
Good examples of this period include Ca’ Foscari and Palazzo Pisani, the latter being in fairly original condition.
One of the most elaborate facades is that of the Ca’ d’Oro, built between 1421-1431 and now housing the Galleria Franchetti. It demonstrates intricate tracery, pinnacles and the use of marble, influenced by the design of the upper gallery of the Doge’s Palace. It was originally brilliantly decorated with the most expensive pigments available – vermilion, ultramarine and gold leaf (termed polychromy). It suffered much decline and abuse until the late 19th C, when Baron Franchetti bought the palace and restored it to house his art collections. In 1920, he bequeathed the building and its collections to the State.
It is also possible to see the structural-functional relationship of the palace elements, clearly of Byzantine origin. At ground level from the water one enters by an arched loggia into the main hall used for warehouse space. A courtyard with a beautifully decorated well -head featured a grand staircase to the first floor and also a small garden was incorporated.
The grand frontage shows two piano-mobile floors where business was conducted and the family lived.
Paintings from the 15th and 16th century, especially the “Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo” by Gentile Bellini, show the intensive polychromy of the byzantine and gothic architecture.
Gothic palaces were still built in Venice in the late 15th century, when in Florence the Renaissance style had succeeded it for almost a hundred years.
Venetian Palace Architectural Styles: Renaissance style
Renaissance architecture is the architecture of the period beginning between the early 15th and the early 17th centuries in different regions of Europe.
In fact, Renaissance architecture came late to Venice. Most of the great Venetian palaces were built in the 16th century and date from the apex of Venetian power. They are beautiful incarnations of the then ideal of emulating classical (ancient Roman and Greek) forms. These buildings reached monumental proportions attesting to the great wealth of their owners. In addition to the references to classical forms, they are characterised by perfect symmetry, proportion, geometry and the regularity of parts as they are demonstrated in the architecture of Classical antiquity and in particular, the architecture of Ancient Rome. Developed first in Florence, the Renaissance style quickly spread to other Italian cities and then to Europe and elsewhere. The term early and late renaissance styles relate to the degree of transition of constructional elements and decoration style from earlier medieval forms.
A frequent element of these palaces is the Palladian Window. Named after Andrea Palladio (1508-80) one of the most famous Renaissance architects who institutionalised their use. They always consist of a large central arched window in a grouping flanked on either side by narrow shorter rectangular windows with or without small square windows on top of the rectangles. These window groups are often faced with a porch across the entire group and/or a unifying pediment over the group. Another later form called the Serliana (after the architect Serlio), consisting of a round arch flanked by two colonnades; became the most popular solution for portego apertures and replaced the galleries.
The Pallazo Loredan Vendramin and Palazzo Corner Spinelli by Mauro Codussi, (?1440-1504) are among the most important edifices of the late 15th and the early 16th century. Though new forms are used for the details, the facade compositions are still Gothic. The Palazzo Contarini is perhaps the most elaborate palace of this family. Contrary to his religious monuments, Palladio never succeeded in building a palace in Venice. With regard to his new ideas, it was not possible to overcome the conservative attitude of the Venetians.
Another example is the Pallazo Mocenigo, actually a group of four buildings and relates to the 16th and 17th centuries. The oldest building, Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Vecchia is based on a Byzantine construction. In the early 17th century it was altered. The newest of the group, the Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova, was probably built by Alessandro Vittoria. Its late renaissance style anticipates Venetian baroque and is distinguished from its neighbours by the limestone applied on the facade.
ABOVE: Palazzo Corner Spinelli by Mauro Codussi, (?1440-1504) are among the most important edifices of the late 15th and the early 16th century.
In his Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Grande (as well as his library building on the Piazzetta), Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) uses elements having their source in Roman Renaissance.
Venetian Palace Architectural Styles: Baroque style
Baroque architecture, starting in the early 17th century in Italy, took the Roman style of Renaissance architecture and used it in a new fashion, expressing the triumph of church and state. New architectural concerns for colour, light and shade, sculptural values and intensity characterise the Baroque. But whereas the Renaissance drew on the wealth and power of the Italian courts and was a blend of secular and religious forces, the Baroque was initially at least, directly linked to the Counter-Reformation; a movement within the Catholic Church to reform itself in response to the Protestant Reformation. The Baroque played into the demand for an architecture that was on the one hand more accessible to the emotions and on the other hand, a visible statement of the wealth and power of the Church.
Venetian Baroque palaces are really a progression of the Renaissance style in which decoration took over the design. There were built mostly in the 17th century during the beginning of Venice’s decline. These are massive structures with some of the same characteristics as Renaissance palaces, but with extensive ornamentation and a much more imposing grandeur; but still with a feeling of order and symmetry.
By now the use of these buildings as palazzo-fontego (home or warehouse) had vanished and they became ostentatious centres for social life and entertaining.
The last grand palaces in the opulent Baroque style, Ca’ Pesaro (Photo on left) and Ca’Rezzonico (built 1649-1756), were designed by Baldassare Longhena (1598-1682) and are today both used as museums. Ca’Rezzonico is fitted on the inside with rooms decorated as they were at the height of the 17th century.
Venetian Palace Architectural Styles: Neoclassical style
Neoclassicism first gained influence in Paris, through a generation of French art students trained at the French Academy in Rome. The first phase was expressed in “Louis XV1 style”, whilst the second phase was termed “Empire style”; favoured during the Napoleonic period.
Beginning in the mid-18th century, moved away from the highly decorative elements of the Baroque and returned to the harmonious elements of classical architecture.
Intellectually, Neoclassicism was symptomatic of a desire to return to the perceived “purity” of the arts of Rome and to a lesser extent sixteenth-century Renaissance Classicism, the source for academic Late Baroque.
The last great palace to be built in Venice was the Palazzo Grassi and stands alone in Venice as a majestic example of neoclassical architecture. It was built in 1766, just before the Venetian Republic collapsed in 1797 and attributed to Giorgio Massari (1687-1766). It was probably started around 1748 and finished in 1772; after Massari’s death.
It led the trend in neoclassical architecture that lasted through the beginning of the 20th century and became the backbone of the monumental civic building of most of the world’s great cities.
LEFT: Palazzo Civran Grimani
Please click the link to see my related blog post: “The Grand Canal of Venice”
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