Venetian Palaces


Palazzo Grassi

On our first few visits to Venice, we were stunned at the magnificence of the palaces that line the Grand Canal. We adored admiring their fading façades by sitting on the stern of the accelerato, the Venetian name for the Number One line of the water buses - which are called vaporetti, after the Italian word for steam, vapore, the original means of propelling the boats. 

Not being schooled in the details of historical architecture, the distinction between buildings from the 14th or 16th Centuries alluded us, and we certainly couldn't tell a Gothic building from Renaissance one.  So this little page is intended to help the person on their first visit to Venice get the most out of viewing these magnificent palaces.  It is not at all an in-depth study, just a quick reference guide to put things in perspective so that you will know a little bit about the history and origin of these buildings. More detail is contained in the mouse-over notes.

The Venetian Republic was one of the most powerful City-States in the world for 700 years from the 11th through the 17th Centuries.

The history of this power and splendor can be traced in the palaces that still line its canals. 

There is no place in the world like Venicewith the number and magnificence of grand palaces.  Rome, Florence and Milan – all huge past world powers – have 6 to 8 major palaces each.  Venice has almost 100 palaces!

The most important address in Venice has always been the Grand Canal – the major waterway that snakes through the city.  It is natural, therefore, for the most glorious palaces to be on the Grand Canal.

By ancient law, only one palace was allowed to carry the title Palace (Palazzo) – and that is the Doges’s 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 carry the title Palazzo, but there still are some huge and very famous palaces with humble names like Ca’Rezzonico & Ca’d’Oro.

Piazza San Marco

Another interesting law states only one plaza is allowed to carry the name Plaza (Piazza) and that is the huge and beautiful Piazza San Marco in front of the Doge’s Palace and the Doge’s Church, San Marco. All other plazas had to be called simply Campo, meaning field, even though these “fields” have been paved over for centuries.

The front of  a Venetian palace always faces the water because that was the way one approached it – by boat.  Venice’s canals are its streets. The backs of the palaces face the campos behind them and are not elaborately decorated like the water sides.

These houses were owned by the merchant nobility who were the driving force in the Venetian economy and the rulers of the Republic.

These palaces served as both homes and businesses, the trading headquarters for their business.  The ground floors acted as warehouses (the fondaco) to store the goods the family traded in distant lands with their fleets of ships. The wide and deep Grand Canal made it ideal for delivering goods in large ships right to the palace-warehouse.

By taking the accelerato along the Grand Canal it is possible to trace the history of this magnificent city in the design of its palaces.

Enjoy the ride. Click on the pictures for a better view.

Byzantine Palaces

The Byzantine palaces were the first of the grand palaces and were built from the 5th to almost the 13th Century.

There are still a few examples intact today, but most have become much modified and "updated" to Gothic or Renaissance styles by previous owners .

Byzantine palaces are caricaturized by very graceful rounded top columns that face the windows of the main floor, generally running the entire width of the building, and face a gallery on the ground floor that was used to unload goods from the ships. These palaces also had beautifully decorated facades.

This example, the lovely Palazzo Corner Loredan near the Rialto Bridge, was completed in 1362. The upper two floors were added later, but it is still a stunning example of this very early architecture.

Check-out the detail showing typical Byzantine Arches which are very graceful and elegant.

This building today is Venice's Town Hall.

 Palazzo Corner Loredan
Palazzo Corner Detail

Gothic Palaces

The beautiful Gothic palaces were built in the 14th and 15th Century.

The style of these building is very particular to Venice and is, in fact, called Venetian Gothic. In the rest of the Europe, Gothic buildings are bulky, stone fortresses that were necessary to protect the owners from the warring neighbors in the Middle Ages. In Venice, where the water protected them from attack, they are open and airy and among the most stunning structures in the world.

There are many of these palaces still in Venice. You can easily identify them by there characteristic ogival arches - the pointed top arches, which are, in fact, today called Venetian Arches. It was very common to decorate the spaces between or above these arches with round lacy cutouts in stone called quatrefoils.

Take a careful look at the two arcades of windows of the piani nobili to see their beautifully nuanced differences of the fenestrations.

Palazzo Pisani's  façade stands today virtually unaltered from its original construction, and it is one of the few palaces still occupied by the descendants of the original owners. 

Palazzo Pisani is still today privately owned by descendants of the Pisani family. If we could choose to see the interior of only one privately owned palace, this would be it, with it's sumptuous decoration and original Murano glass chandeliers which have never been wired for electricity.



Palazzo Pisani Moretta
15th Century

Renaissance Palaces

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 characterized by perfect symmetry.

A frequent element of these palaces is the Palladian Window, seen here on the second and third floor and echoed in the water entrance.

In the example we see here, there are two large obelisks on the roof that were decorations granted by the Venetian Republic for the homes of the capitani da mare - the sea captains who lead the Venetian navy.

The Palazzo Coccina Tiepolo is used today by the University of Venice.


Palazzo Coccina Tiepolo

Baroque Palaces

Baroque palaces are really a progression of the Renaissance style in which zealous decoration took over the design. There were built mostly in the 17th Century during the beginning of Venice’s decline.

There are massive structures with some of the same characteristics as Renaissance palaces but with extensive ornamentation and a much more imposing felling of grandeur, but still with a feeling of order and symmetry.

By now the use of these buildings as palazzo-fontego (home/warehouse) had vanished and they became ostentatious centers for social life and entertaining. 

Ca'Rezzonico shown here is today a wonderful museum fitted on the inside with rooms decorated as they were at the height of the 17th Century.


Ca' Rezzonico


Neoclassic Palace - Palazzo Grassi

Postscript: The last great palace to be built in Venice was Palazzo Grassi, pictured at the top of this page.  It was built in 1766 just as the Venetian Republic was collapsing and Napolean came marching in. 

It stands alone in Venice as a majestic example of Neoclassic architecture.  It is instructive that it turned its back on the highly decorative elements of the Baroque and returned to the harmonious elements of classical architecture, reflected in the early Renaissance.  It lead the trend in Neoclassic architecture that lasted through the beginning of the 20th Century and became the backbone of the monumental civic building of Washington D.C. and most of the world's great cities.

This palace was purchased in 1984 by the Fiat car company and beautifully restored by the famous architect Gae Aulenit.  On our first trip to Venice in 1987, almost all of the other great palaces were like great old dowagers wearing dirty, tattered ball gowns with their torn ruffles in the water. You could only imagine what they looked like in their youth. PalazzoGrassi stood out like a shining, magnificent example of what the entire Grand Canal once must have looked like. 

An inspiring treat over that past decades has been to watch as the great palaces have been restored. One-by-one returned to beauty and splendor.  I don't know who has been buying them and spending the millions necessary to rehabilitate them, but we are forever thankful.

In 2005 Fiat ran into financial difficulty & had to sell the great Palazzo Grassi.  It was picked-up by the Casino di Venezia - which means the city owned it.  Alas, in April of 2005 the super wealthy Frenchman Francois Pinault purchased an 80% stake in the building.  It will become the principal home for his immense art collection, much to the scandal in Paris.  Pinaualt has entrusted the interior reconstruction to Takao Ando. The Japanese architect has decided on a radical change, demolishing the permanent mountings that Gae Aulent mounted twenty years ago and which used light-colored surfaces made of reinforced plaster separated from the original 18th-Century walls.  '

In the Spring of 2007 we returned to Venice with our grandson Dietrich and we stunned one evening as our vaporetto turned the corner on the Grand Canal and in front of us was Palazzo Grassi's façade completely encased in a spider web of blue lights.  Pinauat had obviously opened his museum. Although a bit jarring and not all what we expect in Venice, it was beautiful.  And out front on a raft guarding the palazzo was a heroic Jeff Koons sculpture Balloon Dog - Magenta. Somehow it all worked.

Palazzo Grazzi wth Spider Web Lights

All text and photos © Copyright Howard Case 2005