12 November 2018

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

The Palazzo Contarini Fasan (left) … was this the home of Desdemona? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier today, I was writing about the joys of using public transport in Venice, and four palaces I had seen along the Grand Canal: the Palazzo Bembo, the Palazzo Santa Sofia also known as Ca’ d’Oro, the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti and the Ca Rezzonico.

But there were many more palaces and fine works of art to notice during my visit to Venice last week. This afternoon I was to introduce four more palaces on the Grand Canal: the Palazzo Contarini Fasan, the Palazzo Capello Malipiero, the Palazzo Cavalli or Palazzo Corner Martinengo Ravà and the Palazzo Corner Spinelli.

Every building on the Grand Canal of Venice seems to have its own stories and legends. Facing the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, the beautiful Palazzo Contarini Fasan is said to have been the home of Desdemona, in Shakespeare’s play Othello.

Legend has it that Nicola Contarini lived here. He was a hero in the Venetian wars against the Turks in the first half of the 1500s, and his complexion was so dark that he was called the ‘Moor.’

But his story a little different to the story told by Shakespeare. Contarini’s wife, Palma Querini, was extremely exasperated by the terrible jealousy of her husband and returned to her original family. He was then accused of trying to strangle his wife and was killed.

Another tradition, however, identifies Shakespeare’s Othello with Cristoforo Moro, who was nicknamed the ‘Moor.’ Moro was an admiral of the Venetian fleet, and in 1515 he married a daughter of Donato from Lezze, nicknamed ‘White Devil,’ from which the name Desdemona is said to be derived, although her name may also come from the Greek δυσ and δαίμων, meaning ‘ill-fated’ or ‘unfortunate.’

While Moro was leaving for Crete in 1508, it is said, his wife died in mysterious circumstances.

Legends aside, this small, beautiful, Gothic palace has elegant balconies and fretwork design. It is regarded by many as one of the highest expressions of Venetian Gothic architecture, and is built on three levels.

The ground floor has three small rectangular windows but has no access to the water. On the first floor, there is a pointed six-light window with a balcony, whose openings are supported by white stone columns. On the second floor there are two small single ogee windows, and under a small square opening there is a large coat of arms of the Contarini family in bas-relief. The top of the façade is crossed by a jagged cornice, below which traces of 15th-century frescoes that once decorated the surface can still be seen.

The Palazzo Capello Malipiero … once associated with Casanova in the mid-18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Palazzo Malipiero stands on the Grand Canal in the Campo San Samuele, across from Palazzo Grassi Exhibition Centre. The adjacent Italian-style garden with a view of the Grand Canal is a rarity in Venice that makes it more distinctive.

The building is built in three parts, each closely merged with the other and representing three eras: the Byzantine style, the International Gothic style and the 17th century style.

Initially built in the Byzantine style, it has seen many modifications over the centuries. The Ca’ Grande or grand palace of Saint Samuel was probably built in the early 11th century by Soranzo family, who also built the Church of San Samuele facing the land-façade of the palace.

The original part of the building was probably built between the 10th and 11th centuries by Soranzo family in the Venetian-Byzantine style, seen in the large door and the quadruple windows with round arches later amalgamated into the gothic structure, seen on the San Samuele side.

In the mid-14th century, the Soranzo family added the third floor or second main floor, as can be seen in the pointed arch windows. This Gothic design was perfectly amalgamated with the floor below, respecting and incorporating elements of the older construction.

In the early 15th century, the Cappello family inherited this palace through marriage. The Cappello family used the palace storehouses for their printing and publishing enterprises, and they enlarged the building in the mid-16th century, giving the Grand Canal façade its present appearance.

By the mid-15th century, the Cappello family expanded the narrow palace, when the façade on the Grand Canal was widened to the dimensions seen today.

When the Malipiero family moved into the palace at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, they gave their name to the palazzo, including a new large entrance.

Giacomo Casanova lived in Palazzo Malipiero in the mid-18th century. He was just 15 when he began his social life in these very rooms, frequenting the palace when it was the home of Senator Alvise Gasparo Malipiero.

One day, the senator caught Casanova with Teresa Imer, whom the Senator desired for himself, and Casanova was expelled from the Palace, and later from Venice. It was an age of the decadence, when Venice had a reputation for its gamblers and prostitutes. The fortunes of the Malipiero family suffered at this time, and the family had died out finally by 1770.

The palace was deteriorating when it was bought in the 19th century by the Barnabò family, who undertook substantial restorations, returning the palace to its 18th century style. The Venetian contemporary composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari died in Palazzo Malipiero in 1948.

The Palazzo Cavalli or Palazzo Corner Martinengo Ravà … James Fenimore Cooper once lived here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Palazzo Cavalli or Palazzo Corner Martinengo Ravà also overlooks the Grand Canal. It has a three-storey façade that is typical of Venetian palaces built in the 16th century.

The ground floor has two doors overlooking the the Grand Canal. The two floors above are embellished with arches and parapets, including two quatrefoil round arches with balustrades, flanked by three single side with parapets.

On the side facing the street, the building retains one of the few surviving examples of an ancient wooden, terraced classical loggia, once typical of Venetian architecture. A small rooftop penthouse in the centre of the building has been built more recently.

The palazzo once belonged to the Martinengo family, which gave its name to the Martinengo Bastion in Iraklion. The American writer James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), author of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) once lived in this palazzo in the 19th century. In The Bravo (1831), he depicts Venice as a place where a ruthless oligarchy lurks behind the mask of the ‘serene republic’.

The palazzo was later transformed into a hotel before becoming the headquarters of the Istituzione Centro Maree.

Palazzo Corner Spinelli … a prototype for renaissance mansions in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Palazzo Corner Spinelli was commissioned in the late 15th century by the Lando Family. It is an outstanding renaissance palace built in 1490-1510 to designs by Mauro Codussi (1440-1504), and it became a prototype for other renaissance mansions in Venice.

Mauro Codussi (1440-1504) was one of the first architects to introduce the classical style of the early renaissance in Venice to replace the prevalent Gothic style.

Codussi was born near Bergamo about 1440, and he is first recorded in Venice in 1469, when he was working on the Church of San Michele in Isola on the island between Venice and Murano, where Venice now has its cemetery.

Codussi’s other works include San Zaccaria, San Giovanni Crisostomo and Santa Maria Formosa, and the palaces Ca' Vendramin Calergi and Palazzo Zorzi Galeoni. The Torre dell’Orologio or Clock Tower, built in the Piazza San Marco in 1496-1499, is also attributed to him, although the clock itself is the work of father and son Gian Paolo and Gian Carlo Ranieri.

In the 16th century, the new owners, the Corner family, asked Michele Sanmicheli to rebuild the interior of the Palazzo Corner Spinelli.

This morning: Four palaces on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice

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