Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Venice: The gilded cage

For some, Venice is an idea. For Byron, it was a frequent home and place of many liaisons dangereuses. For artists, from Canaletto, Tiepolo and Ruskin through Wagner, Whistler and Turner to James, Browning and Hemingway, it was a place of pilgrimage and inspiration. For Napoleon, victorious, it was the symbol of one great power crushing another – in his arrogance, he abolished the thousand-year office of doge and erected a vast new building to complete, as he saw it, the historic Piazza San Marco.

That act, two centuries ago, led directly to today’s received image of Venice as an etiolated, decaying city, a romantic museum piece where flaking palazzos crumble gently into the water and where the expansive Arsenale, for centuries the source of the ships that gave the city its supremacy, is now one of the quietest districts. In many ways this is true, as will be explored. But even a brief experience of the city reveals it also to be very much alive, a genuine community that, to a degree, thrives. For many, Venice is home.

A morning walk sees the post delivered by men and women with the intimate knowledge of their ground that is a necessity in a city whose addressing convention omits street names, to leave only a house number within a district. Workers retrieve bags of household rubbish, carefully tied to railings or placed on the pavement overnight, and load them into trolleys which they push over bridges and along narrow fondimenti before rendezvousing with a special barge, whose crane empties each trolley and takes the contents to a larger ship in the basin. Greengrocers sell fresh produce from boats tied up in canals and pet dogs – always smaller breeds – are exercised.

At noon the larger campi or squares, the historical centres of Venice’s multiple island communities, remain a favoured place for sitting, chatting and eating. Washing is hung on lines suspended outside the windows of even the highest palazzo floors. The traghetti gondolas ferry commuters back and forth across the Canal Grande for fifty cents a time. In the late afternoon businessmen rush down narrow alleys to catch the water bus, and in the evening the sound of meals being prepared can be heard within gold-lit windows. On this evidence, Venice seems content. And yet…

Every conceivable object needed in a city, including food, hotel laundry and furniture, must be moved by canal. Their maintenance is vital but also difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Every square metre of space is used, with utilities routed beneath the paving slabs of bridges, requiring temporary routes for pedestrians during repair work.

Upkeep of the palazzos is equally fraught. Their characteristic flaking plaster, so photogenic for tourists, is a result of the damp, salt-soaked air, whilst footings need constant attention to prevent undermining by the wash from canal traffic. Following the disastrous acqua alta flood of 1966, which swept not just water but oil into homes, that fuel is banned throughout the city in favour of gas. There is no sewage treatment system.

At midday one can hear a pin drop in many of the calles and the tinier campi. A quarter of the dwindling population is of pensionable age, something immediately obvious away from the tourist areas. Children are occasionally heard, their laughter floating up from a hidden playground, but seldom seen. There are a handful of cinemas, half a dozen small supermarkets and a couple of theatres. Much of the city closes at five o’clock to allow those who staff the shops and museums to catch the last train across the causeway to the mainland, where housing is cheaper and the car confers freedom.

There is no major industry, no central business district and the only industry of note is the obvious one, Venice’s lifeline but popularly believed also to sound its death knell. The city’s resident population of around 65,000 is almost doubled every day by tourists. They bring money, but most never stay for a single night. They choke the streets and crowd the bridges that link the major sights but ignore the rest of the city. As one wanders it is common to observe a sea of people passing, entirely oblivious to you just yards away. As one guide book accurately states, Venice is “the embodiment of a fabulous past, dependant for its survival largely on the people who come to marvel at its relics”, but those people also present a threat to the very architectural legacy they have come to see. Meanwhile experts, contractors, pressure groups and successive governments have struggled with the implacable problem of flooding, committing and un-committing billions of Euros and hours of argument in an attempt to agree a solution that will protect the city for the future, whatever that might look like.

This debate is merely the latest iteration of a concern dating back to that Napoleonic victory. The end of Venice’s position as dominant maritime trading empire was swift and unambiguous. And yet its new life, as a hollow vestige of itself fit only for sightseers, began almost immediately. Already an important destination for the English gentleman on his Grand Tour, its crestfallen state only increased its attractiveness. Its light, the lagoon and its art treasures all became fair game for a renewed assault, this time cultural rather than martial.

Architecturally the dominant secular building type was the palazzo. In Florence, a landlocked town vulnerable to the internecine rivalry that characterised pre-unification Italy, this emerged as a building whose design enabled the owner and his family to trade, live and prosper with minimal assistance from the state in times of trouble. Of several stories, giving the advantage of height, the lower levels had few windows which were small and often barred. There was only one entrance and many had their own well. The façade was thickly rusticated, presenting a castellar image. All of these measures permitted the merchant to ‘live above the shop’ in relative safety, just as the ancient Romans had done centuries before.

In Venice, the protection that comes from geographical isolation, economic and political stability and, later, immense strategic power made such a defensive posture unnecessary. Instead, the lack of something as fundamental as solid ground on which to build became the single most important driver of the layout and appearance of its palazzos. This, plus their canalside location, gave rise to architectural features that became particular to Venetian palazzos. Each surviving example therefore shows a response to a specific set of design conventions that are Venice’s own version of the Florentine model.

With all buildings founded on tightly-packed wooden piles driven deep into clay, which could bear only limited weight, solid stone walls were impossible. Lighter brick was the material of choice, sealed with plaster where funds allowed. Stone and marble were used to clad wealthier owners’ palazzos, but even then only on facades facing the nearest canal. The tightly-packed nature of the city assisted by limiting views of side elevations, and so these were often left plain.

The multi-storey principle was preserved given the scarcity of land, but the cooler northern climate and proximity to the sea obviated the need for the deep projecting cornice so typical of inland palazzos further south, employed to cast shadows on the facade at the hottest time of the day. Open courtyards were rare due to the pressure on space, whist the reduced threat of civil unrest meant the communal well was perfectly adequate and so few Venetian houses had a private fresh water supply. The wonderfully distinctive Venetian chimney, a fat cone or funnel as seen in any Canaletto painting, was intended to trap sparks to prevent fire; a careful examination of the flanks of most palazzos will show that the chimney itself was usually built on the outside of the wall as a further safety measure.

The heavily-used ground floor was made of brick covered with terrazzo, a mixture of mortar and fine chips of marble. Poured over the brick substrate and left to harden, it could then be polished to a high sheen for a final result that simulated slabs of marble but was far more flexible in the event of settlement (invented in Venice, the same material is still used today in commercial interiors worldwide). Floors on the upper levels were entirely of timber to provide the necessary ‘give’ as well as for reduced weight. Joists were closely spaced to give additional redundancy and were often left exposed as a base for a decorative ceiling.

The andron is a wide, open passage that connects the water entrance to that on the landward side so that goods and people can move easily between the two. The waterside portal is invariably highly modelled, often as an arch using the family crest or other significant symbol as its keystone, and has a landing stage for gondolas.

The principal residential level is located on the floor above, an idea which naturally assumed great importance in Venice well before its popularisation – as the piano nobile – by Palladio in his villas. Here the andron is repeated but called the portego; it became an internal lobby from which other rooms could be reached and a function room in its own right. The portego also often ran the full depth of the building. Larger palazzos repeat this pattern on the remaining floors.

The portego was lit by windows at each end. The lack of a courtyard and the tight urban grain that caused windows in side elevations to be dark and overlooked led to the characteristic clustering of large windows with thin mullions in the centre of the main canal facade, to gather as much of the available light as possible. Locally-produced Murano glass, often coloured, was installed.

These conventions, deriving directly and rationally from Venice’s very particular circumstances, ensure that whilst one palazzo is never the same as another, all sit comfortably and identifiably within a relatively narrow aesthetic range of architectural embellishment reflective of each of the ages through which Venice sailed, whether Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque. The result is almost seven hundred years of continuous architectural development of the typology and an almost infinite variety of examples in a single compact area. That the city remained untouched by either world war assists. Today, the Canal Grande and the city as a whole present to today’s visitor what the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site inscription calls a display of architecture “whose exemplary value goes hand-in-hand with the outstanding character of an urban setting which had to adapt to the special requirements of the site”, and an “unreal space, where there is no notion of the concept of terra firma, [and where] masterpieces of one of the most extraordinary architectural museums on Earth have been accumulated for over one thousand years.”

The telling slip in that description – ‘museum’ – will be returned to in due course, but closer inspection of a handful of these buildings gives a flavour of the confidence Venice’s domestic architecture once represented.

The Gothic Ca’ (for ‘casa’) d’Oro was finished in 1440. As its name suggests, it was emblazoned with gold leaf but also employed ultramarine, the blue colour made from the hard-to-obtain mineral lapis lazuli, and the equally expensive red pigment vermillion, which occurred naturally in China or could be synthesised through use of poisonous mercury. For decades the Ca’ d’Oro remained the most celebrated palazzo in Venice.

The Palazzo Grimani at Santa Maria Formosa sits to the north east

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ven - Ca'_Pesaro (wiki)
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General views along the Canal Grande show the variety of palazzos; a typical example shows the clustered first floor windows common across all styles. The Ca' Pesaro (main image - Wikipedia) is unusual in having three facades that face canals, each of which is fully decorated. The ground floor andron is now glazed in.

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