(PALAZZO SANTA SOFIA)
By Nathaniel Dorn
The Palazzo Santa Sofia, or otherwise known as the Ca’ d’Oro (Golden House in English), is located on the bank of the Great Canal within Venice, Italy. It is recognized as one of the oldest standing palaces within the city of Venice being constructed in 1430. The designers of the building were Giovanni Bon, and his son Bartolomeo Bon who constructed the building for the Contarini Family, who were one of the founding families of the city Venice and one of the oldest families to belong to the Italian Nobility.1 The Palazzo over the years became the home of many of Venice’s most wealthy families. During these times, undergoing many restorations that make it one of Venice’s main landmarks today. Today, the Palazzo Santa Sofia is known as one of the most notable examples of Venetian Gothic architecture. Venetian Gothic architecture is a combination of Gothic, Moorish, and Byzantine architecture.2 The style is very unique in that it symbolizes the Venetian Republic’s cosmopolitan mercantile empire.3
My paper will analyze the elements of the building’s façade and interior in its relationship to how it reflects Venetian architecture during the time it was constructed. I will dive into the ornamentation and symbolism within the building and how it reflected the high-end Venetian life that it entailed to capture. I will also be relating the building to the Italian Renaissance as a whole, and how this building may differ or has similarities with Renaissance architecture within Italy. I will explore how Venetian Gothic became recognized as a prominent design technique within the city of Venice, and throughout the country of Italy.
Venetian Style and Venetian Gothic
The history of Venice fascinates people given it is the birthplace of outstanding art, but Venetian architecture is one of the focal points of why people love the city. Venice is located on a marshy lagoon, so the design of many of the buildings within Venice were meant to fit the terrain, which makes it unique from many of the designs you see throughout the rest of Europe. There are many types of Venetian architecture styles, but the most famous type is known as Venetian Gothic architecture, which the Palazzo Santa Sofia is influenced by.
The style of Venetian Gothic was meant to resemble that of high nobility, and also to serve as a symbol of national identity.4 Gothic architecture as a whole was meant to encompass an expression of a higher republic, especially the nobility aspect of it. Marin Sanudo the Younger once said, “Venice, rich in fane, but standing more solid on a foundation of civic concord, ringed with salt waters, but more secure with the salt of good counsel.”5 in retrospect, Sanudo meant that Venice was a city that was built upon civic duties, and good counsel. So, the aspect of Venetian Goth was meant to resemble that of high nobility within the city.
There are three different types of Venetian Gothic architecture, Islamic influenced, secular gothic, and religious gothic.6 Venetian Gothic was given to certain buildings in Venice that were able to combine the Gothic lancet arch, with Byzantine and Ottoman influence as well.7 Throughout the 14th century, there were various architectural styles that needed to be implemented in Venice due to the city being built on water. So, many of the homes in Venice had to be built above canals. Many of the buildings constructed during the time were placed on wooden piles in order to make the base of the building more structured and based in the water.
The first iteration of Venetian architecture was heavily influenced by the Byzantines. Many of the buildings within the city were tall and skinny and utilized rounded arches. These buildings were also very classic in their design and simple with its textures in its decoration. Within them, they included galleries and a central dome, which was commonly seen in many Byzantine buildings.
Following this, through the time period of 1300-1500, buildings like the Palazzo Santa Sofia were constructed, and they had a heavy Islamic influence within the gothic architecture that was built. “Venetian Gothic architecture is unique to Venice because it is designed to acquire lightness and grace of the building, whereas other cities in Europe favor heavy buildings.”8 Eventually, Secular and Religious Gothic architecture became a prominent design technique. Both differed from one another as Secular was very decorated and ornamented while Religious is not. Specifically speaking about the Ca’ D’Oro, the palazzo has a very unique Islamic feel to it. The profile of the building is very narrow with its placement of the inflected arches on the windows. This arrangement can be seen in many Christian precedents, while the arches have heavy Islamic influence. There is also a stone and marble frame around the main floor windows,9 which was used during the Gothic period to show the importance of the centralized windows.
Eventually when the Renaissance came around, Venetian Gothic architecture and Renaissance architecture were able to combine to create one style that influenced many of the buildings that were constructed in Venice during the time of the Renaissance. But ultimately, Venetian Gothic architecture was the prominent design technique that Venice used to construct many buildings like the Palazzo Santa Sofia. The heavy use of ornamentation along with its Islamic influence, created a beautiful and unique style that Venice was praised for during the time of the Renaissance.
Materials and Ornamentation
One of the most important aspects of the Palazzo is the use of its ornamentation throughout the façade, and the interior of the building. What really makes the Palazzo stand out, is that the “Palazzo Santa Sofia was primarily built using brick, which was lighter and cheaper to use than stone. Typical practice at the time was to cover brick structures with lime mortar, which provided an aesthetically pleasing finish; the bricks of the Palazzo Santa Sofia, however, were sheathed with marble. It is perhaps no wonder that the building’s construction required the combined efforts of forty stonemasons – a full half of the craftsmen involved in the entire project.”10
In terms of the ornamentation of the building, you immediately notice the stone elements that align the roof of the structure, these decorations consist of leaves on the capitals of the column’s other sculptures. You will notice how most of the decoration revolves around the gold leaf, thus the nickname of the building being the “House of Gold”. The other elements on the façade were painted with “hues of ultramarine blue, black, white, and red, accentuating the fine stonework underneath. The ultramarine paint was a marker of great wealth, as it was made of crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan.”11 The influence of Islamic architecture is seen here as well, with the portray of light and gracefulness of the building’s façade, which is different compared to the rest of Europe that favored heaviness.
The façade is also divided into three stories, “a lower loggia (covered corridor) of pointed arches open to the water, a middle balcony with a balustrade (railing) and quatrefoils (four-lobed cutout), and a top balcony with another balustrade and fine stone openwork.”12 In a way, the building is almost like a sculpture with its use of delicate and ornate façade. You will see how there is an increased use of ornamentation as you go higher on the façade, this creates a vertical emphasis. But there is also a horizontal focus because of the use of balustrades on the balconies and the cornice near the roof. The lower portion of the façade has a wide arch in the center of it, and preceding to the left and right of it, there are smaller and more narrow arches. One of the main aspects of the façade, “is how the arrangement of columns and arches in the upper two balconies perfectly corresponds with one another: column over column, arch over arch. The façade’s harmonious arrangement suggests the architects in Venice had similar interests to those of the classicizing architects working in Florence.”13
The aspect of the façade that stand out the most are the Gothic influenced quatrefoils on the second and third stories of the building. On the third floor, the arches follow Islamic architecture influence from its use of horseshoe shapes and borrow Gothic influence from the edgy and pointed form that they consist of. The use of tracery connects the columns, almost making it seem like the elements are intertwined together.
Even though the elements are complex and there are many points of inspiration of the ornamentation, the building’s elements come together very uniquely. The entire structure encompassed real Venetian architecture, and not just Byzantine, Gothic, or Islamic. The Venetian architects were able to combine these elements, to create very detailed and unique ornamentation throughout the building.
When the building was first constructed, the palazzo was meant to symbolize the Venetian Republic’s cosmopolitan mercantile empire. Early on in the 15th century, Venice was seen as a growing republic, which ultimately resulted in the city being a precursor to la Serenissima’s “Golden Age”. Through many war victories, Venice was able to become one of the most powerful forces on the Italian peninsula. Eventually through trade networks and new acquisition, Venice became the wealthiest state in Italy, and in Europe.
The first construction of the house was meant to resemble the wealth and power of the Contarini family, who were known as one of Venice’s most noble families. The size of the Palazzo was meant to be vast, and grand. Preceding the city of Venice, many cities were crowded and dense, and Venice was one of those cities, housing over 100,00 people. The site of building was measured 35 by 22 meters, so even the vast size of the building helped incorporate the symbolism of power, and wealth. As time passed, the palace was passed down to many families, and continued to represent the richest of Venetian life.
Now the palazzo stands as a museum that houses many medieval art and sculptures, showing the importance of high Venetian life, and why it was essential for the city to grow and expand as one of Europe’s finest cities.
The Ca’ d’Oro is recognized as one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings within the city of Venice. In its early stages, it was constructed to encompass the idea of high nobility within the city. Over the years, the Palazzo became the home to some of Italy’s most wealthy families, thus allowing it to fulfill the role that it sought to fill.
One of the most important aspects of the building is its use of Venetian Gothic architecture aesthetics. The building was able to combine Venetian Gothic, and other Renaissance architecture techniques to create a style that helped influence many of the other buildings that were constructed during the time. With the heavy use of ornamentation, expensive materials, and connection to historical Islamic precedents, this style was unique and one that was praised heavily during the time of the Renaissance and even today we see some characteristics of Venetian Gothic within modern buildings.
When observing the Palazzo, you can’t help but to notice the detail of the materials and ornamentation of the building. The building utilizes brick, along with lime mortar and marble, giving it an expensive and luxury finish to it. You will also notice how the decoration of the building revolved around the golf leaf, which is why it has the nickname “House of Gold”. These symbols just help emphasize the importance of wealth and power within the city of Venice and also within the building.
Through the years, the building has been called home for some of Italy’s most wealthy families, like the Contarini family. It has also been through many renovations through the years, and now stands as a museum for the medieval arts and sculptures that show the public what high venetian life used to resemble. The Palazzo Santa Sofia is one of Italy’s finest buildings and really does show how Venetian life and architecture became such a prominent aspect of the Renaissance.
1. De Michelis, Marco, and Alta L. Price. “Architecture Meets in Venice.” Log, no. 20 (2010): 29-34. Accessed December 14, 2020. http://www.jstor.org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/stable/41765363.
2. Fiederer, Luke. “AD Classics: Palazzo Santa Sofia / The Ca D’Oro.” ArchDaily. February 15, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2020. http://archdaily.com/782044/ad-classics-palazzo-santa-sofia-the-ca-doro.
4. Goy, Richard. “Venetian Gothic: A Symbol of ‘National’ Identity?” In Warfare and Politics: Cities and Government in Renaissance Tuscany and Venice, edited by Butters Humfrey and Neher Gabriele, 201-26. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. Accessed December 14, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctvs32qm7.12.
6. Gimmanco, Sara. “Venetian Architecture.” Imagining Venice. April 16, 2013. Accessed December 14, 2020. http://imaginingvenice.com/2013/04/16/venetian-architecture/.
9. Scalbert, Irénée. “The Nature of Gothic.” AA Files, no. 72 (2016): 73-95. Accessed December 14, 2020. http://www.jstor.org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/stable/43843009.
12. Hurst, Dr. Ellen. “Ca DOro (article) | Venice and the Marches.” Khan Academy. June 12, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/early-renaissance1/venice-early-ren/a/ca-doro.