12 November 2018

Four palaces on the banks
of the Grand Canal in Venice

The Palazzo Bembo, built in the 15th century, combines old Venetian elements with Byzantine influences (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Tourists find a number of ways to travel the length of the Grand Canal in Venice. Some want to experience a gondola, but then are disappointed when they find the journey is short, expensive and often takes them on side canals rather than along the main route through Venice. Others take a water taxi, but once again can be disappointed when it comes to cost and the length of the experience.

But one of the best tips I got last week was to buy a day ticket and take a vaporetto or waterbus. A 24-hour ticket costs only €20. There are 19 scheduled lines, and apart from the freedom of hopping on and off along the length of the Grand Canal, it is possible to vaporetti throughout Venice and out to islands such as Murano, Burano and Torcello, and out into the Lido.

The waterbus lines are is operated by ACTV, the Venetian public transport system, which provides a 24-hour schedule.

During the week, my journeys up and down the canal gave me perfect views of many of the Venetian palaces I know I could not find time to visit during one short visit. So in postings over the next few days, I hope introduce some of these palaces, their architecture and their stories.

I was particularly struck by the Palazzo Bembo, close by the Rialto Bridge, because of its architecture and because of its associations with Iraklion in Crete. It is on the San Marco side of the Grand Canal, wedged in between Rio di San Salvador and Calle Bembo.

This palazzo’s red façade combines old Venetian elements with Byzantine influences and it is regarded an exceptionally fine example of the Venetian Gothic-Byzantine style, an architectural style that originated in 14th-century Venice with the confluence of Byzantine styles from Constantinople, Arab influences from Moorish Spain and early Gothic forms from mainland Italy.

This palazzo was built by the Bembo family in the 15th century. Although it was remodelled several times over the centuries, seen from the outside it still maintains the original structure.

Palazzo Bembo is the birthplace of Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), a Venetian scholar, poet, literary theorist, and cardinal. He was an influential figure in the development of the Italian language, specifically Tuscan, as a literary medium. His writings helped the 16th century revival of interest in the works of Petrarch. Cardinal Bembo’s ideas were also decisive in the formation of the madrigal, the most important secular musical form of the 16th century.

The Bembo Fountain in Kornarou Square in the centre of Iraklion, which is still preserved in good condition, takes its name from Gianmatteo Bembo, the Venetian Provveditor General or governor of Heraklion. He built the fountain in Iraklion in 1552-1554 and lived in the Palazzo Bembo in Venice in the 16th century.

The fountain brought fresh spring water into the centre of Candia or Iraklion for the first time along an aqueduct, and it was the first time the people of Iraklion had clean running water in their city.

The Palazzo Santa Sofia is known as Ca’ d’Oro or ‘House of Gold’ because of the gilt and polychrome external decorations that once adorned its walls (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Palazzo Santa Sofia or Ca’ d’Oro on the Grand Canal is one of the older palaces in Venice. It is known as Ca’ d’Oro or ‘House of Gold’ because of the gilt and polychrome external decorations that once adorned its walls. Since 1927, it has been used as a museum, under the name Galleria Giorgio Franchetti.

The palace was built between 1428 and 1430 for the Contarini family, who provided Venice with eight Doges between 1043 and 1676. The architects of the Ca d’Oro were Giovanni Bon and his son Bartolomeo Bon.

The principal façade of Ca’ d’Oro facing onto the Grand Canal is built in the Venetian floral Gothic style associated with the Bons. Other nearby buildings in this style are the Palazzo Barbaro and the Palazzo Giustinian. This linear style favoured by the Venetian architects was not totally superseded by the Baroque one until the end of the 16th century.

On the ground floor, a recessed colonnaded loggia gives access to the entrance hall or portego de mezzo directly from the canal. Above this colonnade is the enclosed balcony of the principal salon on the piano nobile. The columns and arches of this balcony have capitals which in turn support a row of quatrefoil windows. Above this balcony is another enclosed balcony or loggia of a similar yet lighter design. The palace also has a small inner courtyard.

The palace changed ownership several times after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. One 19th century owner, the ballet dancer Marie Taglioni, removed the Gothic stairway from the inner courtyard and destroyed the ornate balconies overlooking the court.

In 1894, the palace was acquired by its last owner, Baron Giorgio Franchetti. During his lifetime, he amassed an important art collection and personally oversaw its extensive restoration, including the reconstruction of the stairway and the Cosmatesque courtyard with ancient marbles, in a style of geometric decorative inlay stonework that is typical of mediaeval Italian architecture, and derived from the Byzantine Empire.

In 1916, Franchetti bequeathed the Ca’ d’Oro to the Italian State. It is now open to the public as a gallery known as Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro.

The gallery houses the collection of works of art collected by Franchetti, as well as some state collections, including bronzes, sculptures and many as numerous Venetian and Flemish paintings, including the ‘San Sebastiano’ by Andrea Mantegna and the ‘Portrait of Marcello Durazzo’ by Antoon van Dyck.

The Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti has been home to Habsburgs, Bourbons and Rothschilds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, close to the Ponte dell’Accademia and next to the Palazzo Barbaro, was built in 1565.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was awarded the territories of Venice. A series of owners in the 19th century, decided to internally modernise and externally enrich this palace in Venetian Gothic style, with rich window framing.

The first neo-Gothic alterations were made after 1840, when Archduke Frederick Ferdinand of Austria (1821-1847) reassembled the property, the Palazzo Cavalli-Gussoni, which had become divided among heirs, and he embarked on a complex project to give the Habsburgs a more prominent presence on the Grand Canal.

When he died unmarried in his mid-20s, the palazzo was bought in 1847 by Count Henri de Chambord, regarded as Henri V of France by one Bourbon party.

Baron Raimondo Franchetti (1829–1905), who married Sarah Luisa de Rothschild (1834–1924), daughter of Anselm Salomon Rothschild of Vienna, bought this palazzo and in 1878. He commissioned further work by the architect Camillo Boito, who built the grand staircase.

The palazzo was sold in 1922 by Franchetti’s widow to the Istituto Federale di Credito per il Risorgimento delle Venezie. Since 1999, it has housed the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti and hosts frequent cultural events.

Ca Rezzonico … the poet Robert Browning died here in 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Ca Rezzonico is a particularly notable example of 18th century Venetian baroque and rococo architecture and interior decoration. It stands on the right bank of the Grand Canal, at the point where it is joined by the Rio di San Barnaba.

In 1649, Filippo Bon, a Procurator of the city and patron of the arts, decided to transform two houses into one single, large palazzo, and he commissioned Baldassarre Longhena (1597-1682), the architect of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. However, neither architect nor client saw the completion of the palazzo. Longhena died in 1682, and Filippo Bon, who was ruined financially by project, was forced to halt the work before he died in 1712.

The palace was unfinished and decaying when it was inherited by his sons and grandsons, but none had the funds to complete the building. The unfinished palazzo was bought in 1750 by Giambattista Rezzonico. a banker, who found most of the structure was a ruin, in danger of collapse.

Rezzonico commissioned Giorgio Massari (1687-1766), the architect of the Church of the Pieta in Venice, to rebuild the palazzo.

The façade was finished between 1750 and 1752, the interior work was almost complete by 1756. Giambattista Rezzonico’s younger brother, Carlo, was elected Pope as Clement XIII in 1758.

The last member of the Venetian branch of the Rezzonico family died in 1810, 50 years after the completion of the palace, and it then passed through several families. In the 1880s, it became the home of the painter Robert Barrett Browning, whose father Robert Browning, the poet, died in his apartment on the mezzanine floor in 1889. At this time, the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent also had a studio in the palazzo.

The American songwriter and composer Cole Porter rented Ca’ Rezzonico for $4,000 a month in the 1920s. He engaged 50 gondoliers and employed a troupe of high-rope walkers to ‘perform in a blaze of coloured lights.’

The city of Venice purchased the palazzo in 1935 and began to transform it into a museum of 18th century Venetian art. Today it is a public museum dedicated to 18th-century Venice (Museo del Settecento Veneziano) and holds paintings by many leading Venetian artists, including Francesco Guardi and Giambattista Tiepolo.

This evening: The myths and legends of four more palaces along the Grand Canal in Venice

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