Scala Contarini del Bovolo, situated at the courtyard side of the Palazzo Contarini; is Venice’s most impressive and admired spiral staircase.
The name of this multi-arched structure is derived from the word “bovolo”, or “snail” and features alternating red cotto bricks and Istrian stone arches. The staircase is about 28 metres high and features 80 stone steps.
It features a perfect amalgam of different architectural styles. The Renaissance capitals, Gothic construction technique and the typical Byzantine Venetian shape; make it a real rarity in the city.
Grafted sympathetically onto the rear of the existing 13th century palazzo structure in the late 15th century, the staircase features a ground floor arcade entered from a small courtyard garden with well-heads, five spiral arcades and a further top viewing platform. The architectural complexity and success of the design is apparent, because the actual Palazzo has only a ground floor and four stories – the ground and first two floors of the palazzo are much higher than the two above (see photo below).
The second level has access to a gallery and at the top is the arcaded viewing platform with great views; especially south to St Mark’s Basilica and its campanile.
Despite not affording any views of the Canal Grande, the Palazzo’s position in the central San Marco district, is nonetheless a privileged one; the building being equidistant from Rialto the economic centre and from Piazza San Marco, the political heart of the Republic.
You can admire the outside of the Scala del Bovolo and the small courtyard with its well-heads for free. However, there is an entrance fee for climbing the staircase, visiting the Sala del Tintoretto gallery on the second floor and enjoying the panorama from the domed viewing arcade.
The palazzo is located in the middle of the San Marco district, in a small secluded side street close to Campo Manin. It is about half-way between Campo San Bartolo, at the foot of the Rialto and the Piazza San Marco, about 300 metres due south 300.
The courtyard and staircase to the rear of the palazzo, is found a short distance up a narrow side street known as “Calle Locande”; whilst the main facade overlooks the Rio di San Luca and still preserves its pristine late-Gothic appearance.
Right: Rear of Palazzo Contarini with courtyard and spiral staircase Left: Gothic canal frontage of Palazzo Contarini on Rio di San Luca.
The fascinating history of Palazzo Bovolo in Venice spans over more than five centuries and is characterised by a succession of periods of great splendour and inevitable decline.
The Contarini’s bought the palace in 1489 from the Morosini di San Paternian Family, who had owned the building since the 13th century. At the time of the purchase, the property was composed of two different buildings; a late Gothic older part and a later rectangular building.
It was considered inadequate to express the prestige of the powerful Venetian family; therefore, an ambitious renovation project of Renaissance inspiration was soon started.
These major structural modifications, were commissioned by Pietro Contarini; who became the owner of the palazzo in 1489 and apparently entrusted the works to a local artisan named Giovanni Candi. The alterations to the inner courtyard with the introduction of loggias also date to that same period.
Beyond its functional role, the staircase was built to increase the power and prestige of the family itself, via a monumental sculpture; that was to become renowned throughout the city.
In the 19th century, the new owner Arnaux Marseille; made the building into an inn called “the Maltese”. One of the guests, German astronomer Wilhelm Tempel, discovered comet C/1859 and the Merope Nebula of the Pleiades from observations made from the top of Palazzo Contarini’s tower.
From 1849, it became the property of the “Brotherhood of the Poor of St. Luke” and since then; it has been connected to the city of Venice’s welfare services and is today owned and used by I.R.E. and the City of Venice. The IRE; was responsible for the recovery of the works exhibited in the Sala del Tintoretto.
WHO WERE THE CONTARINI FAMILY?
A noble family of Venice’s patricians, the Contarini’s were one of the pillars of the power of the Serenissima. Suffice to say that among its wider members over the centuries; were eight doges, three female “dogaressa” (doge’s spouses), several bishops, cardinals, Venice priors and cardinals, St Marks procurators, ambassadors and bailiffs.
The Contarini family was subdivided into numerous branches, one of them being the “Contarini del Bovolo” branch, who had amongst its members Doge Andrea; who held one of the most difficult and longest 27-year reign, in the history of Venice.
Left: Small garden courtyard with old well-heads.
FEATURED IN LITERATURE AND FILM.
The architectural gem is depicted in Jacopo de Barbari’s famous bird’s eye view of Venice, painted in 1500 (now held at the Museo Correr). The storybook staircase also made a prominent appearance in Orson Welles’ 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.
RESTORATION; THE WORLD MONUMENTS FUND (WMF)
Though the staircase underwent several restorations in the 19th century, it remained in decaying condition until the late 1960s, when WMF’s Venice Committee adopted it as a priority conservation project. The structure, with its ascending rows of round-headed arches, is the only one of its kind to be found in Venice today.
Why It Matters. Before WMF’s intervention, the condition of the Bovolo Staircase; put it in imminent danger of collapse. The organisation’s conservation efforts restored the structure to its original glory, as an unusual and impressive blend of Byzantine and Renaissance architectural styles. Equally important, structural improvements made public use of the staircase safe and eliminated its threat to passers-by. The work, largely carried out by the Minnesota chapter of the Venice Committee, won that group the prestigious Premio Torta; awarded biennially to honour a significant contribution to the preservation of Venice.
Left: Note the amazing stonework of the staircase: one piece stone risers secured into the wall and the central pillar. Also note the carved column capitals of Istrian stone.
How We Helped. By the time WMF began its conservation of the staircase in 1966, the structure’s central core was on the verge of collapse, and the white Istrian stone used for its colonnade had become blackened from exposure to airborne pollution. WMF consolidated the central supporting column and repaired damaged treads, then inserted steel rods into the staircase to anchor the steps. Using a chemical treatment, WMF cleaned the staircase’s facade; returning the stone to its natural colour and removing incrustation that had amassed on its surface. Conservationists injected epoxy resins to stabilize the stonework and applied a resin film to prevent moisture from penetrating the stonework.
The staircase was closed to the public for restoration work which began in August 2015.
OPENING TIMES AND FEE STRUCTURE
Please check before visiting, due to possible Covid regulations in place.
Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo San Marco 4303 30124 Venice
- From May 27 to June 6, 2021: daily from 10 am to 6 pm (last admission at 5.30 pm).
- From June 7 to 30, 2021: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm (last admission at 5.30 pm).
- From July 1, 2021: Thursday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm (last admission at 5.30 pm).
- To visit Venice Bovolo Staircase with peace of mind and avoid possible queues or gatherings due to the restricted access required by anti-Covid-19 laws, we suggest you arrive at Scala Bovolo, Venice, a little before the hour and half-hour and avoid the usually crowded times at 11.30-12.00 and 15.00-15.30. Also, keep in mind that the entrance will be restricted and the visit will last a maximum of half an hour.
- Closed: all Mondays and 15th August.
- The ticket office closes 30 minutes before the closing time of the museum.
Adult: €7.00 Concessions: €6.00 – up to 26 years old and over 65 years old.
Entry to Scala Contarini Bovolo, Venice, is free for children up to 12 years old.
Additional concessions and free admissions are available only from the ticket office of Scala Contarini del Bovolo, Venice.
The Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo entrance fee includes access to the staircase and the gallery housed on the second floor of the building, which exhibits a selection of sculptures and paintings from the IRE Collection.
The gallery of Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, Venice, displays a short but significant itinerary dedicated to the arts scene in Venice, from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Among the works on show are a sketch of “Paradiso” by Jacopo Tintoretto, for the Hall of the Great Council of the Doge’s Palace, “Portrait of Catechumen Lazzaro Zen” by Francesco Guardi and a rare papier-mache sculpture by Jacopo Sansovino.
Please note – those with cardiovascular conditions and mobility impairments may find it unsuitable for visits to the Bovolo Tower.
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