Venice – Venetian Gothic architecture

Besides Murano glass (see previous post), the other reason I went to Venice was for the architecture, in particular the city’s distinctive variety of Gothic architecture. The Venetian Gothic architectural style, which originated in the 14th century, is a synthesis of Byzantine styles from Constantinople, Arab influences from Moorish Spain, and early Gothic forms from the Italian mainland.

The most famous example of Venetian Gothic, from which all the other buildings in the genre take their inspiration, is the Palazzo Ducale, the Doge’s Palace, built in 1340.

A common feature of Venetian Gothic is the loggia, the covered exterior gallery or corridor on the main floor (the ‘piano nobile’, usually the first floor, containing the most important rooms).

Most Venetian Gothic palaces were built in the 15th century when the Venetian Republic achieved a peak of prosperity, especially after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. As Venetian merchants made their money from seafaring and trade, their Fondaco residences (merchant houses) featured a portal on the ground floor for loading and unloading goods from boats, as well as double loggias on the upper floors looking out over the canal.

A very famous example of a Fondaco (the next best-known Venetian Gothic building after the Doge’s palace and a personal favourite) is the Ca’ d’Oro (House of Gold), pictured above and below. Built between 1421 and 1444, its ground floor portico and double gallery were originally gilded, giving the palace its name.

The beautiful white stone used in these palaces comes from Istria, once part of the Venetian republic but now in modern day Croatia.

The most distinctive characteristic of Venetian Gothic is the ogee arch, used for doors and windows, where the apex of the arch is met by two double serpentine curves, which flow from concave to convex, or vice versa.

Venetian architects generally preferred it to the pointed lancet arch, where two simple curves formed a point (similar to the head of a lancet), which is more typical in European Gothic architecture.

Also common in Venice are trefoil (three leaf) arches. Elsewhere they are often used in churches in reference to the Holy Trinity.

Very often ogival arches contain a trefoil arch within them.

And sometimes they contain a tympanum, a decorative surface above the door or window.

The ogee, lancet and trefoil arch styles all originated in the Middle East, with which Venice had strong trade connections, so it’s understandable that local architects should look to the east rather than the west for inspiration.

Later, during the Rennaisance, arches would become rounded like these doorways…

…but many buildings happily display a combination of arch styles from different periods.

A polifora is a multi-light window, divided by small columns or pilasters. Poliforas can also be labelled according to the number of windows they have eg a quadrifora (four windows) or a pentafora (five windows). In Venice, ogee poliforas often have quatrefoils (four leaf) openings above them in reference to the Doge’s palace.

For example, Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore (probably erected around 1470) features a quadrifora loggia with a later balustrade.

The façade of Palazzo Genovese features a double loggia with two hexafors (six window polifora) on the upper floors. The upper hexafor features lancet windows containing trefoil arches, with quatrefoil and trefoil openings above them, while the lower hexafor has trefoils within ogee windows and quatrefoils above. On the sides there are single-light windows with half-quatrefoils over them. The ground floor has three lancet portals.

Palazzo Genovese was actually built in 1892, making it neo-Gothic or Gothic Revival.

Many of it’s stylistic features take inspiration from the neo-Gothic Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, another personal favourite.

Originally built in 1565 it was renovated in Gothic Revival style in the 19th century.

Right next door are the Palazzi Barbaro; a pair of conjoined palaces. Palazzo Barbaro Curtis on the left, built in 1425, is Venetian Gothic while Palazzo Barbaro on the right was built in 1694 in Baroque style, hence the contrasting window styles.

Palazzo Giustinian is another double palace which was once inhabited by two branches of the same family. The building on the left is known as Ca’ Giustinian dalle Zogie while on the right is Ca’ Giustinian dei Vescovi, now part of the Ca’ Foscari university building next door (furthest right in the pic). Built towards the end of the 15th century, it’s one of the best examples of late Venetian Gothic.

Unusually the piano nobile is on the second floor. While the hexafores seem decentralised, they are in fact arranged symmetrically with respect to the axis of the central portal. Again they display the famous motif of arches intertwined with a quatrefoil. The first and third floors have more simple, four-light polifora.

The single-light windows that surround the central polifors are ogive or trefoil arches. The two on the second floor just off the central axis are slightly wider and have elaborate openwork (decoration with holes) which helps the continuity of the architectural phrasing of the façade.

Next door, Ca’ Foscari displays a classic three-part façade with loggias and poliforas in the centre and single-light windows on the sides. It was built in 1453 for the doge Francesco Foscari and is now the main building of the University of Venice,

Palazzo Pisani Moretta, built in the second half of the 15th century, has a similar layout.

Palazzo Bernardo a San Polo, which dates from the 14th century, also has a tripartite façade. The presence of two water portals and the misalignment of the hexafors suggests two-family use.

Palazzo Bembo (built in the 15th century) has a three-part façade with two double pentafors of ogival windows. I think the balustrades on the continuous balconies may be add ons from its restoration in the 17th century.

The floors are separated by stringcourses carved in bas-relief.

One of the oldest existing buildings in Venice is Palazzo Falier, originally built in the 11th century but destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1105 and subject to numerous structural alterations since.

Another neo-Gothic beauty is Palazzetto Stern (renovated between 1909 and 1912). It’s now a luxury hotel (160€ a night in 2021) that I hope to stay in next time I’m in Venice.

The small circular bas-reliefs on the walls are known as Peterae which are intended to scare off evil spirits.

You’ll find all the buildings mentioned on my map (key top left).

Unlike other cities, most surviving Gothic buildings in Venice are residential rather than religious. One exception is the Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari which we’ll see in the next post, along with some other churches.

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