Palazzo Lezze and Alchemic Symbolism

Palazzo Lezze and Alchemic Symbolism. This baroque palace in Cannaregio, features curious high reliefs; that are alchemical in theme.  It was thought by some to be suggestive of a “Philosopher’s House”.

Palazzo Lezze, takes its name from Giovanni De Lezze, an important military and political figure, who died around 1624. The family, originally came to Venice around 973, from Lecce in Puglia – hence their name.

The original palace was built between 1611-1617, however, the later facade carrying the reliefs, was designed by the famous Venetian architect, Baldessare Longhena.

Evidence of this interest in esoteric symbolism, can still be seen, on historic buildings and monuments; throughout the city.

This post describes the location and history of the Palazzo, the alchemical significance of the high reliefs and gives an introduction to alchemy in Venice.

  • Location and History
  • The High Reliefs and Alchemic Symbolism
  • Brief introduction to Alchemy
  • Modern appreciation of the role of Alchemy
  • Links (internal-external)


Palazzo Lezze and Alchemic Symbolism – Location and History

Palazzo Lezze, is located close to the eastern end of the Rio della Misericordia, near to its intersection with the Canale della Misericordia.  The southern facade, overlooks the Fondamenta and the building stands between the “Scuola Grande Nuova della Misericordia” and Calle Largo Lezze.

The palace has a well-preserved exterior with a ground floor, two piani nobili and a low fourth floor. The ground floor has “ashlar” (finely cut rectangular) masonry and the upper floors are heavy with balustraded balconies; similar to those seen on Ca’ Pesaro. There are also fine decorative female heads.

Palazzo Lezze Cannaregio Venice

Palazzo Lezze (centre-left) and the “Scuola Grande Nuova della Misericordia” (right)

While the major Venetian architect Baldassare Longhena (b. 1598 – d. 1682), is often quoted as the architect; the building (1611-1617) was commissioned by Giovanni da Lezze di Andrea (1554-1625), who served as Procurator of Saint Mark.

Thus, the contribution of Longhena, appears to be limited to the three-arch facade, facing the campo of the adjacent Scuola; which had a grand entrance and stairwell. Longhena’s contribution was said to have occurred in 1654; the architect had served as architect for the family’s villa, at San Biagio di Callalta.

(Note: Longhena’s masterpiece, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (1631/32–1687), at the entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice; was commissioned by the Republic in thanksgiving to God, for deliverance from the plague of 1630.)

In Sansovino and Martinoni’s 1663, “Guide to the City of Venice”, the palace is described as: “large in circuit, with copious noble rooms, a facade highly ornamented in marble, with most lovely carvings, especially graceful and delicate are in particular the heads of women, placed on window keystones and arches. The internal courtyard, On marble bases placed in the walls, are placed several half statues, busts and heads diligently sculpted by Francesco Cavrioli.”

Scuola Grande Nuova della Misericordia”

Photo above: Scuola Grande Nuova della Misericordia”.

A small casino (2-stories reception building), also designed by Longhena, which served as the garden water entrance to the palazzo; can be seen on the Rio della Sensa, just to the north of the Misericordia canal.  Opposite the casino, is the “Scuola Vecchia della Misericordia”. The old and new schools, are linked by a small bridge. (See my linked posts on the two Misercordia schools below).

The casino, has recently been restructure internally, to cutting edge architectural standards and offered as accommodation. (I have included a link below to the architect’s website, as it is really worth looking at; as an example of the fusion of old and new).

The interior decorations once included a storied art collection and a frescoed ceiling by Tiepolo. These were either sold during the 18th century, or destroyed or looted after the fall of the Venetian Republic.

Members of the Da Lezze family, which died out in 1817, are buried in the Gesuiti church.

Today, it is used as exhibition space and forms part of the Biennale as well as apartments.


The High Reliefs and Alchemic Symbolism

The smaller facade facing east to the small campo of the Scuola Grande; has several curious and esoteric “patere” or carved high reliefs, that are alchemic in theme. In Longhena’s design this was originally the main entrance.

Palazzo Lezze - High Reliefs

The first and most visible (above), is found on the corner nearest to the canal. It shows a king, crowned with flames and flanked by two figures borne on pelicans and surmounted by the sun and moon, respectively.

The king, is the alchemical symbol for Philosophical Gold, the Solar Conscience; which is symbolised by the philosophical element Sulphur. The two side figures, represent Mercury and Salt (associated with Sun and Moon respectively. This not in the sense of ordinary substances; but rather as “quintessenses”***; they also refer to the “Solve Coagula” (dissolutions – evaporations), that were part of alchemy. The latter, is what is symbolised by the pelicans at the base of the image.

***(Quintessenses. 1.  the fifth and highest element in ancient and medieval philosophy that permeates all nature and is the substance composing the celestial bodies. 2. the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form.)

Palazzo Lezze - High Reliefs


The second, is now behind grills, and more difficult to see. It depicts a crouched figure, of indeterminate sex; holding a bush in each hand. To either side is an imaginary creature, with a human-like head; which rests on a double headed lizard.

The human figure, represents the alchemic “rebis”, an hermaphrodite figure, that is suggestive of the human perfection; which results from the synthesis of mercury and sulphur. One a fixed and the other a volatile substance, are represented, by the two lizards alongside. The gryphons take up the symbolism of this synthesis suggesting the “vase”; representing the profundity of the alchemic learning.

The third, (above) higher up, is an angel, with in each hand an ear of corn; that are being pecked by birds on each side. Below, again to each side, are pelicans; resting on fish, each with a snake in its beak

The angel symbolises sublimation, or the principles of evaporation in alchemy. The birds pecking at the corn, are an allusion the “Divine Grace of Charity”; the main virtue in alchemy and the equivalent of God’s love for humanity.

The pelican itself, is the symbol of the alchemic art and it is pecking at the serpents, that represent the male and female energies; which oppose each other during the course of the “Great Work”. They ultimately blend together in androgyny – here evoked by the angel. This is why the pecking of the serpent, pecked by the beak; represents the fixing of the volatile element.

Finally, the fish represents the element of Water; linked to the Salt of the Earth. This is the densest principle and hence the two fish are shown bearing up the whole allegory.

The fourth, high relief, represents a crowned two headed eagle, opposite a bare heraldic shield. This signifies the union and volatilisation (or evaporation), of the male and female principles; now immersed in eternity.

The presence of the bare shield, under the two heads, is signifies the eagle dominates Earth and Heaven; by virtue of its Temporal and Spiritual Powers.

This is why the two-headed eagle, was often chosen as the symbol of imperial rule.

Finally, just above the entrance doorway, midway along the canal side aspect of the facade; can be seen the crowned female head – the traditional human symbol of alchemy.


Brief Introduction to Alchemy

Alchemy, (from Arabic: al-kīmiyā; from Ancient Greek: khumeía), is an ancient form of philosophical and proto-scientific tradition; that was historically practiced in China, India, the Muslim world and Europe.

Alchemic Symbolism

In the cosmopolitan crossroads of Greco-Roman Egypt, the two streams of craft traditions (practical knowledge) and philosophical traditions (speculation on the nature of matter), coexisted. Their merger – probably in the third century AD; gave rise to the independent discipline of alchemy in its western form.

Practitioners, routinely developed an obscure secret language of symbolism, cyphers and metaphor; to hide and protect their knowledge and secrets.

Their hope of discovering the secret of preparing the philosophers’ stone – a material supposedly able to transmute base metals into gold; was one powerful incentive for their endeavours.


During the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, the esoteric philosophical beliefs of alchemy and its rituals, found fertile ground in Venice.

At this time, most religious orders, considered alchemy (from the Coptic term “al Chemia” or Divine Chemistry); as the “Art of the Holy Spirit”, or the “Royal Art of the divine creation of the world and man”. It was connected to Orthodox Catholic doctrine.

The followers of this art, divided it into two forms:

  • Spiritual Alchemy”, exclusively concerns the inspiration of the soul, transforming the impure elements of the body into refined states of spiritual consciousness (or raising the vibrations). This was also known as “The Way of the Repentants
  • Laboratory alchemy”, reproduces the alchemic universe of the transmutations of nature’s impure elements into noble metals; such as silver and gold, in the laboratory. This was known as “The Way of the Philosophers”.
  • These two alchemic practices, are generally followed in combination; thus becoming “The Way of the Humble”. This is where humility, is that of man faced with the grandeur of the universe; reproduced in the laboratory. The alchemy of the interior soul, is expressed exteriorly in the laboratory.

Those who practise Laboratory alchemy, with the sole purpose of finding silver and gold, thus neglecting the essential aspects of the betterment of the “soul”; will fail and become charlatans. They may be “widely cultured”, but not have the required “moral” qualities.

Unfortunately, the transmutation of base metals (“chrysopoeia”), such as lead into gold and the creation of elixirs of eternal youth and health; became open to abuse by charlatans. Achieving any one of these goals would have brought an alchemist, incredible fame, wealth and power. As a result, many would-be alchemists used trickery or outright lied about their findings; eventually tarnishing the concept of alchemy and linking it to the idea of fraud.

The State took exception to this and prosecuted those dishonest practitioners, who they considered “heretics”. They considered that followers of alchemy should balance their heart and soul, the cultural and moral and show penitence and humility; to become a true philosopher! Indeed, in 1530, Venice passed a law condemning alchemists to death. It was this persecution and the need to keep their discoveries secret, that led real alchemists to further develop a language rich in symbols and metaphors; that could only be understood by the initiated.

In the Venetian Republic, with its strong relationship between the State and Church; alchemy, was more linked to philosophical and spiritual concerns, such the exercise of Charity. The first hospitals, the “scuole” system, trade guilds and associations developed; benefitting ordinary citizens and the poor and needy.

As the Renaissance developed, the craving for knowledge, together with rudiments of physics, chemistry, metallurgy, medicine and pharmacy; took root in the city. (The process was also fostered in the Jewish Ghetto, by the awareness of Kabbalah; that had early connections with alchemic tradition). Their achievements and aspirations (as well as failures) inspired artists, playwrights, and poets.

With the emphasis on the “Scientific method”, the state recognised potential commercial interests and nurtured the development of chemical compounds; into the production of medicines, potions and other concoctions. The medicinal trade benefited from the near monopoly, that the city had in the spice trade with the East. Quality ingredients were imported at an economical price. In the 16th century, trade in medicines grew at such a rate, that authorities had to impose limits on the number of apothecaries opening up.

Due to the rapid development of the printing and publishing industry in Venice, the most significant books and texts dealing with medicines and pharmacology were produced.  (The present-day collection, held in the Biblioteca Marciano; contains all the fundamental texts on Arabic medicine). These works provided the Venetians with the intellectual and scientific understanding necessary, for production of different types of medicines. Venice developed an international trade in medicines and potions and the state highly regulated the market; to protect their lucrative interests.

In the 18th century, some of its rituals and symbolism, were carried on, with the emergence of Freemasonry.

Improved scientific knowledge, particularly in chemistry, also led to alchemy’s decline in the 18th and 19th centuries (the “Enlightenment”); as scientists learned many of the goals of alchemy, were not possible.


Modern appreciation of the role of Alchemy

Alchemy is full of mystery and secrets, but today; it is no longer dismissed as a waste of time or a fool’s quest.

Alchemy is now increasingly recognised as a fundamental part of the heritage of chemistry, of continuing human attempts to explore, control and make use of the natural world.

Alchemists developed practical knowledge about matter, as well as sophisticated theories, about its hidden nature and transformations.

Their hope of discovering the secret of preparing the philosophers’ stone – a material supposedly able to transmute base metals into gold; was one powerful incentive for their endeavours.

But at the same time, they contributed to mining and metallurgy and pharmacy and medicine and their achievements and aspirations (as well as failures) inspired artists, playwrights, and poets.

Their researches and goals had both commercial and scientific aspects, as well as philosophical and theological ones. Many alchemists expressed (often just implicitly) a strong confidence in the power of human beings to imitate and improve on nature and their work, included the exploration of the relationship of human beings to God and the created universe.

The work of historians of science continues to reveal the enormous complexity and diversity of alchemy, its important position in human history and culture and its continuities, with what we now call chemistry.

NOTE. A small casino (2-storied portico/store-house building), also designed by Longhena, which served as the garden water entrance to the Palazzo Lezze; can be seen on the Rio della Sensa, just to the north of the Misericordia canal.

i am including a link to the architectural company that redesigned the interior. It is fascinating to see great photographs of the amazing ultra-contemporary interior in the old exterior shell. Link below.

Very close to the Palazzo Lezze, are the Old and New buildings of the “Scuola Grande della Misericordia”. They are fascinating buildings with a great history – don’t miss them. Links below.


LINKS (interiorexterior)

Please see my other related posts, in the category of: History and Architecture

For those interested in the mysterious, mythical or dark side of Venetian history and culture; I have put together a list of links below to those posts that include elements of Christian Symbolism, Sacred Geometry, Kabbalah, Freemasonry and Alchemy, which I hope to expand.

Sacred Geometry

St Mark’s Basilica

The Lion of St Mark

Santa Maria della Salute

Symbolism of the Venetian Cross

Kabbalah and San Francesco della Vigna

La Maddalena and Masonic Symbolism

Doge’s Palace – Column Capitals

Mouths of the Lion

Pateras – Small Circular Reliefs


Scuole Grandi of Venice – Introduction

Scuola Grande della Misericordia 


Filippo Caprioglio: Casin of Palazzo Lezze – Domus (


Palazzo Lezze and Alchemic Symbolism    Palazzo Lezze and Alchemic Symbolism

Palazzo Lezze and Alchemic Symbolism    Palazzo Lezze and Alchemic Symbolism

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