At Carnival and in summer, Venice is submerged. But not by the green waters of the lagoon. St Mark’s Square, the Rialto and the main shopping streets are flooded by a relentless human tide. Tourists pose for interminable photographs on historic bridges and the narrow streets, known as calli, resound with the incessant rattle and bump of wheeled cases.
One glimpse of the heaving mass on the Ponte della Paglia is enough to deter the faint-hearted. Yet beyond the mayhem lie quiet oases and historic sites that offer a more tranquil view of Venice’s unique heritage.
Strung along the Grand Canal like pearls on a necklace are the palazzi: grand houses, hundreds of years old, some dating back to the middle ages. Originally built as private dwellings for Venice’s wealthiest citizens, a number of the palazzi are now open to the public having been converted into museums and galleries.
Here are two that should not be missed:
A real gem, the Ca’ D’Oro, or Golden House, dates from the 15th century and derives its name from the gilding that once adorned the façade.
Built for the merchant Marino Contarini, the Ca’ D’Oro was created by a number of outstanding craftsmen whose names have been preserved for posterity in Contarini’s book of accounts.
While stone well-heads are a feature of Venice, the one in the Ca’ D’Oro’s tiny courtyard is special; not only because it was carved by leading sculptor Bartolommeo Bon but also because of its location.
Unlike the majority of Venetians, the owners of the Ca’ D’Oro did not have to rely on water drawn from public wells located in the campi or squares. They had their own private supply of fresh water; a priceless commodity in a city surrounded by brine.
Other outstanding architectural features of this building are the loggias; roofed open galleries on three floors which face onto the Grand Canal. Each has a delicate screen of carved stone which would allow the occupants a degree of privacy while allowing them to take the air and view the activity on the Grand Canal.
In the 19th century, the ground-floor loggia received a spectacular make-over from the Ca’ D’Oro’s owner, Baron Giorgio Franchetti.
The floors were paved with elaborate mosaics, resembling those of medieval churches and the walls were covered with a two-tone design of white and red marble. Classical statues have been carefully placed around this space to lighten its shady aspect, creating a retreat conducive to thought and meditation.
From this loggia, a door opens onto a landing stage with direct access to the Grand Canal. You can imagine what it must have been like to arrive by gondola at night and enter this sumptuous grotto lit by candlelight. In summer, it would also have provided a cool refuge from the crowded alleyways and stifling heat of the City.
Today, the Ca’D’Oro houses exquisite works of art which include a painting of St Sebastian by Mantegna and numerous bronzes and sculptures.
This collection, together with the house, was donated to the Italian State in 1916 by Baron Franchetti whose remains lie in the atrium.
How to get there: Vaporetto, Linea 1, Ca’ D’Oro stop.
Accessibility: The entrance to the Ca’ D’Oro is just a few yards along the passage leading from the vaporetto stop. There is a lift inside to the upper floors. The public toilet is located at the top of a staircase. There are also some steps to the loggias and the bookshop.
Ticket price: Full ticket price 6 euros (more if this includes entrance to special exhibitions). Free entrance for European disabled people attended by a family member or care-worker. Check the Ca’ D’Oro website for reduced price tickets and concessions
A breath-taking example of an 18th century baroque palace, the Ca’ Rezzonico was designed by leading architect Baldassare Longhena who was also responsible for two other celebrated buildings on the Grand Canal: the palazzo Ca’ Pesaro and the famous plague church, Santa Maria della Salute.
From a British point of view, one of the most interesting residents was the poet Robert Browning whose son ‘Pen’ bought the palazzo for his father. Unfortunately, Browning did not have long to enjoy it, dying from bronchitis in the year after he took up residence.
Within the inner courtyard is a stunning example of a historic Venetian gondola complete with a shuttered cabin for passengers and exquisitely carved panels.
From ground level, a magnificent staircase leads to the first floor – note the charming sculptures of cherubs representing winter and summer on the bannisters.
The size and magnificence of the ballroom/reception on the first floor is jaw-dropping – worth every euro of the ticket price on its own.
It is impossible to describe every detail of this extraordinary building because there is so much to see; sumptuous furnishings, beautiful paintings, works of art at every turn. Highlights include:
Exquisite wood carvings in ebony and boxwood by Andrea Brustolon. While many are described as vase stands and furnishings, they are works of art in their own right. There are over 40 examples of his work in this museum;
Works by Tiepolo include painted ceilings and a series of frescoes transferred from his home at Villa Zianigo. See the accompanying video which shows how modern craftsmen performed this extraordinary feat of removal;
Paintings by Pietro Longhi which show intimate scenes from 18th century Venetian life such as The Fortune-Teller, The Seller of Essences and The Hairdresser. The collection also includes the charming Rhinoceros;
Paintings by Canaletto including View of the Canal from San Vio Square;
Magnificent Murano chandeliers decorated with coloured glass flowers;
Collections of antique china.
The third floor is devoted to the Egidio Martini art collection and three rooms displaying the interior of the Ai Do San Marco pharmacy complete with chemist’s jars. If, by this time, you are too saturated to absorb any more art, it is worth visiting this floor just for the view of La Volta, the bend in the Grand Canal.
How to get there: Vaporetto, Linea 1, Ca’ Rezzonico stop.
N.B. The Ca’ Rezzonico is not well sign-posted from the vaporetto stop. Hopefully, the following directions will help:
At the end of the passage leading from the vaporetto stop, turn right past the front of San Barnaba church. Cross a small bridge and, at the bottom, turn immediately right along Fondamenta Rezzonico, a path which follows a small canal back towards the Grand Canal. The entrance to the Ca’Rezzonico is at the bottom of this path.
Accessibility: The bridge from Campo San Barnaba to the Fondamenta Rezzonico has shallow steps on either side. The ground floor facilities of the Ca’ Rezzonico are well laid out consisting of toilets, a cloakroom, ticket office and bookshop on one side and a café on the other. There is also a lift. The view of the Grand Canal from the third floor window is from a platform accessible by a few steps.
For those unable to get to the Ca’ Rezzonico, the excellent website offers a virtual tour and a video.
Ticket price: Full price 10 Euros. Free entrance for disabled people with helper. Check the Ca’ Rezzonico website for reduced price tickets and concessions
More to explore
Other palazzi which are open to the public include: Ca’ Pesaro (modern and oriental art); Palazzo Mocenigo (Museum of Textiles and Costume) and the Fontego dei Turchi (Natural History Museum. For information on these and other museums, click here
Even the remarkably modern-looking Guggenheim gallery consists of the ground-floor of an unfinished 18th century palazzo
If you read Italian, the Polo Museale Venezia website is a useful source of additional information.
The best way to view palazzi on the Grand Canal is to take a trip on the Linea 1 vaporetto. This travels reasonably slowly and, if you are in the right position (especially at the back of the boat) will allow you to take some spectacular photographs.