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Art and Culture

The history of architecture, art and culture in general in Venice cannot be divorced from the physical and geographical constraints that throughout the ages the Venetians have had to overcome with mastery and ingenuity. The city still bears the stamp of the former Byzantine Empire, but over the years the streets have also succumbed to the influence of Renaissance, Classical and Baroque architecture. Artists have played a role in forging the atmosphere of the city, while remaining faithful to the Venetian spirit.


Building in Venice

Houses on piles

The city is not built on water, but in the water. It was built either on sandbanks above the water level, which gave rise to real islands, or on small sandy mounds which had remained at the water’s surface.

In either case, great larch or oak pali are driven deep through the sand, mud or silt, forming an unstable lagoon floor, to the bedrock of hard clay. These 2–4m/6ft 6in–13ft piles are organised in concentric circles or spirals starting from the outer perimeter of the building to be constructed, at intervals of 60–80cm/24–32in. In this way the piles provide a base onto which a raft-like platform ( zattera )of horizontal beams ( zatterone ) may be secured. To reinforce this wooden floor, it is lined with boulders of Istrian stone that provide a solid course for the brick and mortar on which it is possible to build.

The number of piles used can sometimes be considerable: 1 106 657 for the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, and 10 000 for the Rialto Bridge!

Building materials

Unfortunately, since the lagoon offers very little in terms of building materials, it is necessary to import these from other areas.

Most of the timber is brought from the Cadore forests and the Balkans. It is used not only for the foundation piles, but also for the frames and ceilings of the houses. Occasionally it is incorporated into masonry walls, not so much as reinforcement but rather as “shock absorbers”: this procedure lends greater flexibility to the structure, which resolves some of the problems raised by the instability of the subsoil. ­ Marble , used to front façades, is principally sourced from the Euganei Hills ( south of Padua ) or from Greece. Istria limestone , hard, white and marble-like, has the added advantage of being resistant to salt erosion; it is therefore frequently used in Venice for bridge copings and to face palazzi , churches, bell-towers etc. Only brick , which in Gothic times lent its charming pink hues to I Frari and many other quaint buildings in Venice, is made on-site from local clay.


All the houses, palaces and churches that have been erected in La Serenissima through the ages survive on these reinforced, drained, dried and consolidated areas reclaimed from the lagoon. It is almost as if the early Venetians made a pact with the lagoon that they would live with it rather than view it as a problem to be reckoned with. And so from the water rise mists and fogs that swirl and fade again to confer a thousand different moods on the urban landscape: one moment the millpond mirrors a perfect reflection and in another the choppy, churlish surface dissolves the shimmering profile according to whim. The lagoon intensifies the ethereal sunlight to sparkle and glitter and lend a festive air to the city, but it may also invade the landscape with a spirit of melancholy. Water consorts with the changing light and density of the air to exaggerate or deform the delicate stone lacework, the crenellated roof ornaments, the many recesses, loggias and arcades. However, poetic descriptions of atmosphere are an insubstantial preoccupation in comparison to the physical problems posed by the lagoon: it is rather the remoteness of mainland resources and the instability of the subsoil that preoccupy the Venetian authorities. Initially, it was the cost and transport of building materials that dictated a patron’s choice and influenced an architect’s design of a private palace or church. Up to the 16C, local brick had been the most obvious raw material available. However, when more sophisticated and reliable forms of transport were discovered, the economic factor became considerably less important. A second major element in the equation was the risk of subsidence. To reduce this threat, houses were erected no more than two or three storeys high, except in the Ghetto, where squat buildings had low ceilings so that the total weight was proportionally less. A constant reminder of instability was the angle at which certain palaces (Palazzo Dario) and bell-towers (Santo Stefano, San Barnaba) inclined, and the regularity with which the quays (Riva degli Schiavoni) and St Mark’s Square flooded. Through determination, patience and perseverance in an unpredictable environment, strengthened by a spirit of enterprise and ambitious business acumen, the Venetians learned to construct and embellish their magnificent city. Yet despite everything that has been accomplished and all the expertise acquired, the unpropitious site for this wonderful city means that it will forever be at the mercy of natural forces: the corrosive action of salt and water, and the instability of the lagoon floor.

The Campo

A square provides a point at which all roads, streets and alleys converge. It is at the very heart of community life, where housewives chat and hang out their washing and where children play in the open. It is not to be confused with the corte , a closed public courtyard with a single entrance, or with the cortile , a private courtyard hidden within a patrician town house.

The campo , sometimes dotted with a few trees, is encircled by fine patrician houses, Gothic or Renaissance in style, and blessed with its own church. At its centre, a well might occupy a choice spot. Given that the city was built on salty water and therefore had no natural drinking-water supply, rainwater had to be collected, purified and stored in cisterns that were excavated to a depth of 5–6m/16–20ft. The brick-lined tank collected water through several apertures in the campo floor, filtering it through fine river sand. Often the well-head, the vera da pozzo , would have been paid for by a patron and would therefore have been sculpted as a work of art.

Domestic architecture

Throughout Venice, with the exception of the Grand Canal, palaces rub shoulders with modest houses. Simply built in pink brick or stone, most of these houses are low in height. A few retain their openwork external staircase, double façade and “double” front entrances: one on the street and one onto the canal with its “water porch”. The inner courtyard is modelled on the Roman atrium: shaded in summer and protected from the wind in winter. On the first floor or piano nobile , a portego runs perpendicular to the main front, from the street, across the internal cortile , through the entire width of the house to open out onto a loggia on the canal side.

The altana is a veranda built on a tiled roof where typical Venetian high funnel-shaped chimneys, known as fumaioli , project; these distinctive features were immortalised by Carpaccio in his paintings. Forever short of space, the Venetians have made clever use of their rooftops by installing these charming terraces to increase their living area. The façades are enhanced with flower-decked balconies, small carved discs, ornamental reliefs and sculpted cornices. Down the side walls, houses with barbacani have corbelled projections to support the timber beams of upper floors (Calle del Paradiso).

The lack of space at ground level means that there are very few gardens in Venice, and those that do exist are small, sometimes consisting of a single tree or a few flower tubs, often jealously guarded from the public eye behind high walls.

Craftsmanship valued


The oldest monuments found in the Venetian Lagoon are on the island of Torcello: the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta and the complex of Santa Fosca bear witness to the close ties that once allied Venice with Ravenna, the Western heir to a Byzantine legacy.

For several centuries Venice, through its conquests and trade links with the East, maintained a close relationship with Greece and Constantinople: the Basilica of St Mark, rebuilt in the 11C, was modelled on the 6C prototype of Byzantium churches, the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, destroyed in the 13C (the immense and sumptuous Hagia Sophia was built subsequently by the same architect along the same lines). St Mark’s therefore directly transposes an expression of the Eastern Church, in terms of form, structure, volume and style, into the West.

This oriental Christianity was a major force in the fusion of an original “Veneto- Byzantine” style from the late Middle Ages onwards. The artistic iconography, strongly influenced by Byzantium, incorporates Islamic elements (decorative motifs, horseshoe arches), Palaeo-Christian features ( transennae , capitals) and Roman details from sculpted fragments (marble blocks, column shafts, flat bricks) salvaged from villas along the Adriatic coast that had been destroyed during the barbarian invasions of the 5C and 6C.


The Byzantine-style churches like Santa Fosca, Torcello Cathedral, Santa Maria e Donato on Murano and St Mark’s Basilica, best demonstrate the Eastern influence. This influence is clearly visible in the centrally planned Greek cross church or longitudinal hall church (nave and two aisles) prefixed by a narthex (covered porch which evolved into an arched portico) but independent of a free-standing baptistry (like that at Torcello). Structurally, Byzantium provided the expertise to erect domes over open spaces unencumbered by piers; it inspired the use of precious marble column shafts crowned with variously shaped capitals (basket-shaped, inverted pyramid) and carved ornament (organic decoration such as foliage, symmetrically arranged animals). The practice in Ravenna (12C–13C) of applying decoration in the form of shallow relief, open fretwork, or niello (deeply cut engraving) and mosaic with flat gold backgrounds to both internal and external walls, was quick to be emulated by Venetian mosaicists, who copied subjects from the Old and New Testaments. Other features to be accommodated include Palaeo-Christian transennae (open-work window screens), plutei (marble tablets) and paterae (small carved discs) encircled within a twisted rope moulding, acanthus leaves and vine leaf tendrils, Palaeo-Christian figurative motifs (gryphons, eagles, peacocks and lions often quoted from embroideries or manuscript illuminations), marble ambos (pulpits before the chancel), and iconostases (screens in Greek churches separating the sanctuary from the nave).

The Romanesque style , which seems to appear in Venice during the 11C and 12C, is also in its own way modelled upon Byzantine art. The main forces at play were revived by the Lombard invasion from the northwest and from Ravenna in the south through which the Crusader armies would have passed.

Typical of the Venetian Romanesque style is the external appearance of high, solid, austere walls, pierced with tiny windows, relieved only by simple decoration afforded by blind arcading. The interior featured a raised nave, a vestige of Palaeo-Christian civilisation, and two aisles. Churches were planned as basilicas with a tall nave flanked by side aisles. In simple terms it is a compromise of “Western” Romanesque and “Eastern” Byzantine styles, and it is precisely from this period that Venice’s oldest churches survive: San Giacomo (Rialto), San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, San Zan Degolà, San Giacomo dall’Orio and Sant’Eufemia (Giudecca). Although these churches were heavily rebuilt in the following centuries, many have retained their original massive, square, brick campanile or bell-tower, articulated with pilasters and blind arcading, capped with a loggia that screens the bells (San Barnaba). Only the roof, added later, differs from the original by being hexagonal, pyramidal or conical in shape. In some cases, the original church has long gone, but the Romanesque tower remains, as at San Zaccaria and San Samuele. All that survives of the famous 12C Sant’Apollonia monastery is its superb cloisters, a rare vestige of Romanesque architecture.

Domestic buildings

The Veneto-Byzantine palazzo is no doubt the most original product of 11C–13C Venetian architecture. Known as the casa-fondaco (from the Arabic funduk , meaning depository or warehouse), this “storehouse” effectively combines the purpose of storage, commercial office and family home into one compact unit. The best preserved are the Fondaco dei Turchi, Ca’ Farsetti, Palazzo Loredan and Ca’ Da Mosto ( Ca’ being an abbreviation of casa , meaning house).

These houses further testify to the prodigiously rapid growth of the city’s merchant aristocracy, empowered and enriched by maritime trade which, in turn, nurtured an interest and appreciation for Eastern Byzantine and Muslim craftsmanship.

As the need for defensive fortifications receded – on a scale seen at the first Doges’ Palace – patrician town houses erected in the 11C began to conform to a set type that allowed for an easy and comfortable lifestyle. The structure would remain unchanged for several centuries to come, whereas its applied decoration would evolve according to contemporary taste. Split into three horizontal tiers, the main entrance into the storage or commercial area would have been on the canal side, through the porta d’acqua . On the first floor, the piano nobile , a continuous gallery or loggia would run the length of the façade between two solid walled towers, whereas at the top, a series of decorative crenellations would conceal the roofline. Only later would additional storeys sometimes be added.

Veneto-Byzantine arches have several forms: stilted round-headed arches (narrow arches with their springing line raised), horseshoe arches, Moorish ogee arches and high-pitched pointed “lancet” arches. These arches are often supported by highly prized marble shafts with decorated capitals, bearing Byzantine stylised and/or symmetrical foliage or animals. Further decoration might include Byzantine paterae illustrating real or mythical animals (peacocks, griffins etc) or medallions of different coloured marble, crosses or historical emblems.

Venetian Gothic

The term “Gothic”, a label attributed in the 17C to the style developed by the barbarian Goths, assumes a distinctive meaning when applied to Venetian building design from the 1400s. For it is this delicate, ornamental, elegant style that has given the city its most distinctive characteristics and its architectural unity. It graces nearly all the campi and houses giving onto the banks of canals, styling a pointed arch or a loggia’s filigree stonework. Unlike the structural changes that facilitated a new form of civil engineering in France, England and Germany, Venice merely used the Gothic style to ornament, flatter and decorate her buildings until the late 16C.


Politically, Venice was reinforcing her strength and autonomy. This prosperity allowed institutions to flourish both in the secular and religious domains, as demonstrated by the large-scale building projects undertaken by the principal monastic communities (I Frari, San Zanipòlo). With time, these were endowed by aristocratic patrons who wished to celebrate and publicise their wealth and standing (Madonna dell’Orto, Santo Stefano), entrusting to the churches their refined funerary monuments.

These were days in which the plague was rapidly spreading and they were characterised by a strong sense of urgency: poverty and charity were preached by the Mendicant Orders , and measures were taken to build monasteries and scuole , the characteristic Venetian institutions that sustained their confraternities in exchange for charity. Thus around 1245, with the benediction of Doge Giacomo Tiepolo , the Dominicans and Franciscans began erecting the city’s most beautiful churches.

Exterior – From the 14C, designers of religious buildings began combining curved and rectilinear features in drafting their façades (San Giovanni in Bragora, I Frari, Scuola Vecchia della Misericordia). Although the structures remained austerely simple, porches and windows suddenly became encrusted with Gothic features. The severe flat-brick west front was divided into three parts: the central, nave section soared high above the flanking aisles. Plain surfaces were relieved with decorative elements in white Istrian stone: portals were framed with engaged columns and pediments, hood mouldings articulated the gables, a cornice was supported by a frieze of niches that curved around the lateral walls. Only porches made in marble or white Istrian stone carry ornamentation: crowned by recessed arches with acanthus leaf motifs as well as elegant relief decoration such as cable fluting, knot-work and foliage, they are often flanked by statuettes or engaged columns. At the east end, apses proliferated and extruded to form chevets (I Frari, San Zanipòlo), whereas the tall square pink-brick campanili point skywards with a white marble open loggia (St Mark’s, I Frari, Madonna dell’Orto).

Interior – The Gothic church, based on the T-shaped Latin cross to accommodate the long processions required by the liturgy down the nave, was abutted by aisles; at the east end, a wide transept could accommodate a chancel and numerous transept chapels endowed by private patrons (I Frari, San Zanipòlo). Sometimes the internal space was enclosed by a fine open timbered roof built by local shipwrights in the form of an inverted hull (Santo Stefano, San Giacomo dall’Orio) and articulated by arches painted with string-courses of acanthus leaves, or by carved wooden tie-beams.

Domestic buildings

Gothic-fronted palazzi enclose all the campi and line the secondary canals, but the most magnificent examples are to be found along the Grand Canal, which began to resemble a wonderful “triumphal waterway”.

Fanciful creativity – The Venetian-Gothic palazzo was derived from the Byzantine model, retaining its three main characteristics: portico, loggia and decorative merlons. However, it now assumed a more noble, confident and sophisticated canon of ornamentation, which continued to be implemented until the fall of the Republic. As the patrician families stabilised their social status, they affected changes to their houses, most notably on the piano nobile . The simplicity of the earlier Veneto-Byzantine façades (portico and continuous loggia) was replaced by a centralised, more important arcaded loggia with cusped arches and quatrefoil motifs. In the corner section, single isolated windows interrupt the solid wall area now enhanced by the use of brick and stucco in two-tone colour combinations.

Interior layout – The palazzo is traditionally U-shaped in plan: a central block with perpendicular wings extended around a courtyard ( cortile ) with a well-head. Access to the piano nobile would have been via an open external stairway supported on Gothic arches up to a colonnaded portico with wooden architrave (Palazzo Centani). On the first floor, a broad passageway or, if enclosed, a reception hall ( portego )ran the entire width of the house to open out onto the loggia on the canalside.

Extrovert beauty – Unlike the Florentine palazzo , austere, plain and impersonal, the Venetian façade may be seen as an extrovert, openly flaunting its charms to those who walk by. The windows, the eyes that open onto the outside world, are therefore natural vehicles for additional decoration.

Venice is still laden with oriental references both Christian and Muslim, and the characteristic loggias are strongly reminiscent of Palaeo-Christian stone fretwork; windows borrow from their Moorish counterparts a profile that echoes a cusped lancet and the temptation of inserting sculpted Byzantine paterae is still too great to resist.

By looking at the windows and their arched profiles, the various phases of Venetian Gothic may be discerned. Curvilinear arches of Moorish influence from the 14C sometimes rest on colonnettes (Corte del Million); early-15C three-cusped, four-light centred arches are often topped with a finial (Palazzo Duodo); late-15C Gothic or High Gothic arches, the most original and varied phase which might be compared with the French Flamboyant, grace the Doges’ Palace. Here, one or more rows of quatrefoil oculi surmount the three-cusped arches of the loggias. The Ca’ d’Oro, where Marco d’Amadio , a member of the Bon family, worked from 1421–61, is also expressive of this joyful, endearing exuberance.

Gothic sculpture

As with building, the first notable works of sculpture by known craftsmen date from this period. With Pier Paolo and Jacobello dalle Masegne (d.1403 and 1409 respectively) a style, explored by the School of Pisa, was evolved out of the static Byzantine tradition towards greater movement and expression, and mixed with a taste for Gothic ornament. Their work combines the use of delicate and complicated architectural elements with figurative statuary (iconostatis at St Mark’s).

The Venetian School of Sculpture seemed unable truly to inspire the artistic community. La Serenissima was therefore forced to continue soliciting foreign artists or awarding commissions to craftsmen passing through the city.

Following in the footsteps of Pisa, Venice succumbed to the influence of Florentine art, to that of Niccolò Lamberti and to Sienese artists such as Jacopo della Quercia . Marco Cozzi , a remarkable woodcarver from Vicenza, created the splendid wooden chancel in the Church of the Frari, the only example of such work to survive in Venice.

Funerary monuments – The earliest 14C tombs consist of a simple sarcophagus with the recumbent figure of the deceased in front and the figures of the Madonna and Child and saints incorporated at the four corners; above, set into a recessed arch, is a lunette, painted or sometimes sculpted. Later a Gothic baldaquin of stone drapery was added, seemingly suspended in the middle from the ceiling, its drapes drawn aside by figures (angels or warriors). It is in this vein that the Dalle Masegne brothers worked from the 14C to the 15C.

Portals – Almost all the 15C portals that adorn the Venetian churches are attributed to the architect Bartolomeo Bon (Santo Stefano, San Zanipòlo, Madonna dell’Orto, I Frari). Each is made of stone or marble to contrast dramatically with the main fabric of the brick building, and each is decorated with a series of hood mouldings and courses of twisted rope with cusps of foliage around the pointed ogee archway; elements are further embellished with acanthus leaves, the gable is surmounted with a free-standing statue, and inside the portal shelter small niches or aedicules. Bartolomeo Bon’s unquestionable masterpiece is the elegant Porta della Carta, the main entrance to the Doges’ Palace, executed in Flamboyant Gothic.

Venetian Renaissance

The success and popularity of the International Gothic canon was such that it delayed the adoption of Renaissance principles in Venice. However, once introduced, the style quickly took hold and soon graced the traditional structures with a new refined magnificence. During the 1400s, under the patronage of Doge Francesco Foscari , La Serenissima’s civilisation changed direction: artistic links with Tuscany and Lombardy were strengthened and, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, ties with the Eastern Empire were severed. Humanism flourished: it drew its inspiration from Hellenistic culture and was enriched by the sagacity of Greek scholars who had fled from Constantinople.

In 1495 the printer Aldo Manuzio began publishing the Ancient Greek classics as the city witnessed the divide between Scuole Grandi and Scuole Minori . By the second half of the 15C, Florentine supremacy had dwindled. The new style, which originated from Tuscany, spread throughout Italy thanks to the wandering lifestyle of her artists, and gradually began to display regional characteristics – elements which Venice, in her inimitable fashion, absorbed and interpreted in her own way.

In the beginning

The earliest traces of the Early Renaissance are to be found in Venice’s archways. The entrance to the Arsenale (1460) survives as the first full expression, complete with its Classical lions, mythological figures and Greek marble columns. Three other examples showing the same characteristics include the portal of San Giobbe, one at the Gesuiti in the Zattere quarter, and the Foscari doorway at the Doges’ Palace.

In terms of sculpture, the Florentine masters Donatello and Verrocchio endowed the Serenissima with only two works, both of major importance: an evocative wooden polychrome figure of John the Baptist (1438) at I Frari, and an impressive equestrian monument in bronze of the Condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni from Bergamo (1458) that now stands in the campo in front of San Zanipòlo.

Lombardo dynasty – At the turn of the 15C, the spirit of innovation that was to animate contemporary sculpture and architecture was largely due to the genius and expertise of the Lombardo family – from Lombardy as their name clearly implies – and in particular to Pietro (1435–1515) and his two sons, Antonio and Tullio . Seeking to promote a complete re-evaluation of contemporary design and the widespread implementation of the new canon, the Lombardo family fashioned the highly public façade of the Scuola San Marco dominating its prime site, the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and the unusual yet noble Ca’ Dario giving onto the Grand Canal. In each case structural and decorative elements (porphyry medallions, marble rosettes) interact to form a perfectly balanced ensemble governed by a harmonious system of proportions.

Stone and marble replace the brick used earlier by Gothic builders. Façades may be asymmetrical, articulated with cornices, sculpted busts, figurative statues, pilasters – fluted or with cartouches of delicate graffiti (Classical reliefs featuring masks, the attributes of the Liberal Arts and the Gods of War) – friezes of vines or festoons of foliage, animals and putti .

In the field of sculpture, Pietro Lombardo undertook for San Zanipòlo a series of important and distinguished funerary monuments in Istrian stone to commemorate doges (those of Pietro Mocenigo, Pasquale Malipiero and Nicolò Marcello). Tullio, meanwhile, who worked extensively with his father, is responsible for the fine reliefs set into the front of the Scuola San Marco, and for the monuments to Giovanni Mocenigo and Andrea Vendramin in San Zanipòlo.

The Lombard tradition is reflected in the formal design of such memorials, as shown in the use of the triumphal arch on several levels with superimposed niches housing allegorical statues of the Virtues, acting as a cornice over the sarcophagus. On the other hand, the fine workmanship of the figurines, along with the poise and elegance of their stance, undeniably testify to Tuscan influence.

Mauro Codussi (1440–1504) – This architect from Bergamo, a contemporary of the Lombardo brothers, seemed happier to celebrate the decorative rather than the structural function of architecture and to this end returned to the Tuscan vernacular for inspiration. Despite adhering to the guidelines pronounced by the Humanist Alberti in his treatises on architecture for a Canon of Beauty formulated according to mathematical proportion and harmony of component parts (spatial organisation, symmetrical elevations, correct application of the Classical orders – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – the use of rustication and niches), Codussi’s designs appeared to lack homogeneity. Instead, he forged a personal style distinguished by semicircular pediments for the fronts of churches and the Scuola San Marco, which he completed, rustication on the ground floor of his palazzi , engaged columns and cornices to differentiate superior storeys, and circular oculi inserted between the coupled arches of an arcade supported on coupled columns.

His early projects, which included the Clocktower and the Church of San Giovanni Grisostomo, all showed trace elements of Byzantine styling (portico decoration, Greek cross floorplan), whereas his more mature works, the sumptuous palazzi Corner Spinelli and Vendramin Calergi on the Grand Canal conformed to his distinctive style. This style developed into an even bolder statement at San Zaccaria and San Michele, his masterpiece, where marble or white Istrian stone were applied across all three carefully articulated sections of the elevation, both on the horizontal and vertical axes; the nave towers over the aisles linked with semicircular pediments, and friezes, shell niches and porphyry roundels provided ornamentation. Two additional designs by Codussi included Santa Maria Formosa and the beautiful Istrian stone campanile of San Pietro di Castello.

Antonio Rizzo – Antonio Rizzo (d.1499) was responsible for the internal (courtyard) façade of the Doges’ Palace and the monumental Giant’s Staircase faced in marble. Examples of his sculpture included the poised figures of Adam and Eve that once flanked the Foscari arch. He also varied the design of the archetypal funerary monument initiated at I Frari for Doge Nicolò Tron in 1473 by articulating it with five orders up to a semicircular pediment, and ornamenting it with several niches filled with free-standing figures.

Venetian High Renaissance

A heightened Classicism affirms itself only in the 16C, marking a distinctive, second phase of Renaissance design.

Rome, which had displaced Florence, the capital of the arts at the beginning of the previous century, as the seedbed for new ideas, was badly damaged by Charles V’s Imperial army, which sacked the Holy City in 1527. From 1530, Venice established herself as the model city of Italy. For a short period, she basked in the limelight, implementing a new Classicism that soon, alas, degenerated into Mannerism.

Arcaded porticoes proliferated at ground level with ever bigger openings, supporting ordered storeys above. Imposing palazzi with carefully articulated lines are rusticated the entire length of the ground floor, punctuated by large centrally planned openings and ornamented with masks. For the piano nobile , rectangular windows, framed with fluted or coupled columns, are pedimented with circular or triangular tympana in symmetrical formation; projecting balustraded balconies add to the sculptural effect. Below the entablature, the rhythm is maintained by a series of small oval apertures.

Sansovino, master of the Classical style – The Florentine-born Jacopo Tatti, known as Sansovino (1486–1570), an accomplished sculptor and architect, was responsible for introducing to Venice a Classical canon of design formulated from the Antique. Seeking refuge in Venice after the Sack of Rome (1527), where he had been apprenticed to Bramante and Raphael, Sansovino succeeded Bartolomeo Bon as proto or Chief Architect to St Mark’s. He was thus entrusted with the Serenissima’s ambitious plans for reconstruction and embellishment, beginning with the reorganisation of the Piazza San Marco. He drafted designs for the new Library, its portico based on an archaic model, the Fabbriche Nuove in the Rialto, Palazzo Corner della Ca’ Granda on the Grand Canal, the elegant loggia at the foot of St Mark’s campanile (for which he also produced the bronze statues and low-relief panels), the heavily rusticated, Tuscan- inspired Palazzo della Zecca, the imposing but incomplete Scuola Nuova della Misericordia and the Golden Staircase. Robust, but not overly austere, his initial projects (including Ca’ Granda) show Sansovino completely at ease with the traditional Venetian vernacular style (buildings around the Piazza San Marco and the Piazzetta), enriching his Classical forms with original and majestic ornament; decorative detailing encrusts the portico arches and enhances the flat surfaces, whereas statuary, low-relief panels and festoons add a touch of fantasy and convey a vivid sense of movement.

To affirm Sansovino’s brilliance as a sculptor, one need but cite the figures of Mars and Neptune that grace the Giant’s Staircase and the highly expressive John the Baptist in I Frari – they speak for themselves.

Grandiose domestic buildings – At this time, the Grand Canal assumed its claim to be a true “triumphal way” fronted by ever more elegant and ennobled patrician houses.

Veronese Sanmicheli (1484–1559), having served his apprenticeship under Sansovino, earned recognition for his military projects (Fortress of Sant’Andrea on the Lido) and for his design of the Palazzo Corner Mocenigo in the San Polo sestiere and the Palazzo Grimani on the Grand Canal.

Andrea Palladio (1508–80) – Late in the 16C, the architect Andrea Palladio, a Paduan by birth, moved to Venice. He had established his reputation by designing villas in the Brenta Valley. His distinctive style, which is characterised by a balanced sense of proportion and formulated from a profound appreciation of Classical architecture, was applied to buildings that were designed to suit their purpose, their site and, most importantly, were practical to inhabit. Encouraged by the Humanist Trissino, Palladio visited Rome on several occasions to study Classical architecture in the context of theories outlined by Vitruvius (1C BC). In 1570, he published his theories based on observation in a treatise entitled I Quattro Libri di Architettura ( The Four Books on Architecture ). This grand opus was to have far-reaching consequences in the spreading of Classicism to the rest of Europe.

The essential principle of this “modern” Classicism is structural simplicity, achieved with the use of basic geometrical volumes of space (cube, sphere and pyramid) and symmetry. Designs for building elevations conform to the same rules, with a façade having a central portico (San Giorgio Maggiore). Palladio received commissions, in particular from the Serenissima’s important and wealthy patrician families with estates in the hinterland (La Malcontenta on the Brenta). These variations on the villa design provide a new canon for informal domestic buildings that reflects both their function as country retreats and their location: besides boasting pure Classical form and a sound knowledge of decoration as well as gardening, these houses blend in perfectly with the surrounding landscape. The scenery may therefore be enjoyed from the house and the house may be admired as a point of interest punctuating and enhancing the scenery. This consideration was later explored and developed in garden design by the 18C English exponents of Palladianism (Campbell, Burlington, Kent, Adam, Capability Brown and the like). Palladio based many of his villas on Antique pagan temples; only the domestic buildings have forsaken monumentality for utilitarian considerations.

In Venice itself, Palladio’s sense of austerity and perfect harmony is reflected in his magnificent churches: San Giorgio Maggiore, Il Redentore, le Zitelle, San Francesco della Vigna. Recurring features in his architecture are long, slender engaged columns, Corinthian capitals, triangular pedimented porticoes borrowed from Roman temples, huge domes thrown into contrast by symmetrically arranged geometrical forms; whereas inside, the enclosed space is airy and light.

After Palladio’s death, Vincenzo Scamozzi saw a number of his master’s projects to completion, ensuring the final effect was true to Palladio’s vision, and thereby consolidating his reputation.

Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552–1616), born in Vicenza, also inherited Sansovino’s projects for the redevelopment of the Piazza San Marco and erected the Procuratie Nuove (1586) modelled on the Classical example proffered by the former Library nearby. What is new however, is the interplay of decorative elements that pre-empt the advent of the Baroque. Also by Scamozzi is the Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni on the Grand Canal.

Lo Scarpagnino completed the Fondacco dei FF and the Scuola di San Rocco initiated by Bartolomeo Bon. His style echoes that of Codussi (openings on the ground floor) although now there is a greater sense of movement and dramatic contrast, achieved in part by the use of free-standing columns that project from the façade. He was also involved in the rebuilding of the Palazzo dei Dieci Savi and the Fabbriche Vecchie in the Rialto district.

Spavento began the Classical façade onto the small Senators’ courtyard of the Doges’ Palace, while Guglielmo dei Grigi, better known by his epithet il Bergamasco , was working on the Palazzo Papadopoli and the Palazzo Camerlenghi on the Grand Canal.

High Renaissance Sculpture

Together with Palladio and Sansovino, the third important figure to import the artistic spirit of Michelangelo to Venice was Alessandro Vittoria (1525–1608). Famous for his austere and dignified portraits, Vittoria sculpted two lively representations of St Jerome, now at San Zanipòlo and I Frari. He demonstrated further skills in the art of applied decoration by executing the stucco ceiling of the Libreria Vecchia and the fine gilded coffered vault of the Golden Staircase in the Doges’ Palace.

Other artists of note working during the 1500s include Lorenzo Bregno , to whom several funerary monuments are attributed (including that of Benedetto Pesaro) and the high altar at I Frari; Girolamo Campagna (bronze figures – I Frari and Correr Museum); Tiziano Aspetti (bronzes in Correr Museum, statues of Hercules and Atlantes flanking the Golden Staircase) and Andrea Riccio (bronzes in Correr Museum).

Venetian Baroque

Throughout the 17C the predilection for the Classical style was underpinned by the continued popularity of Palladian design. As a result, Venetian Baroque is more tempered than it ever was in Rome or elsewhere.

Baldassare Longhena (1598–1682) – This architect and sculptor is both the instigator and leading representative of Baroque art in the City of the Doges. His lasting legacy was to inspire a taste for stone and a solemn architectural language which, some say, verges on the whimsical. It is essentially Classical in inspiration but with charged ornamentation, frequently copied from the Antique.

His undoubted masterpiece is the Church of the Salute. It is also the most eloquent embodiment of this peculiarly Venetian strain of Baroque: it exudes confidence and an air of triumph with its vast proportions, towering dome, sense of movement conveyed by modillions featuring curved scrolls, and crowds of angels and prophets.

Charged with designing the finest Baroque palazzi along the Grand Canal, Longhena turned to Sansovino for inspiration. He endowed both Ca’ Rezzonico and Ca’ Pesaro with grand entrances, heavily rusticated ground floors, superimposed orders of tall windows deeply recessed into archways, separated by large columns and richly ornamented with masks. Particular emphasis is given to the piano nobile, with sharply defined architectural elements such as cornices, balustraded balconies, and dramatically sculpted putti or coats of arms. A similar boldness marks his high altars and commemorative monuments, of which perhaps the most exuberant is the sepulchre of Doge Giovanni Pesaro at I Frari.

After Longhena – Following the death of Longhena, the completion of his main projects was supervised by Antonio Gaspari (Ca’ Pesaro) and Giorgio Massari (Ca’ Rezzonico) (1687–1766), possibly Venice’s greatest architect in the first half of the 18C. The remarkably exuberant ornamentation (deeply cut garlands of fruit, niches, entablatures, pediments, fluted columns, crowning statuary) is evidenced in the Church dell’Ospedalletto with its great and ponderous atlantes. The three churches designed by Sardi , a collaborator of Longhena, are Santa Maria del Giglio, which houses depictions of naval battles and is planned like a military fortress, Gli Scalzi and San Salvador. Two other Baroque churches are San Moisé by Tremignon (1668) and San Stae. Among the bell-towers are those of Santa Maria Formosa and All Saints.

The architect responsible for the great Church of the Gesuati (18C) is Domenico Rossi , who also designed its splendid white and green marble decoration imitating huge draperies falling into heavy folds. In contrast, the interior ceilings painted by Giambattista Tiepolo attain an unchallenged brilliance and lightness more often associated with Rococo. In sculpture, however, perhaps the main representative of the Venetian Baroque is the Flemish artist Juste Le Court , whose works include altar fronts, allegorical figures and panels of low relief (Santa Maria del Giglio).


During the 18C, Venice improved her image by erecting new buildings and remodelling a number of existing ones. In counter-reaction to the Baroque, the city reverted to a pure form of Classicism that was to be labelled neo-Classicism – well before any revival had taken hold anywhere else in Europe. The emergence of rational thinking during the Age of Enlightenment had affected all disciplines, including architecture, and given birth to a novel trend dubbed neo-Classicism. One of the advocates of this new style was a Venetian Franciscan, Carlo Lodoli , who claimed “only that which has a definite function or is born out of absolute necessity is worthy of existing in architecture” ;and so artists turned to Antiquity for inspiration. Simple arcading, domes and pronaoi (projecting vestibules fronted with columns and pediments) grace monumental palazzi and churches. The linearity of each structural element is clearly defined and elaborate schemes for interior decoration are replaced by plain, simple arrangements based on the Palladian or the Baroque model. The buildings that best illustrate this trend are the Palazzo Grassi by Massari and the Napoleon Wing enclosing the Piazza San Marco.

The architects Andrea Tirali (1660–1737), Scalfarotto , Visentini and Temanza all implemented a neo-Classical style founded on simple form and basic geometry derived from Palladio (including the use of the pronaos); a sense of grandeur was imparted from Giovanni Battista Piranese (1720–78), the Venetian-born architect and engraver who studied Roman civilisation and published the famous Carceri d’Invenzione (c.1745).

Tirali employed neo-Classical principles in designing the façade of the Church of the Tolentini, endowing it with a large pronaos and Corinthian columns, a design that was to be inspirational later for other buildings. Other neo-Classical monuments of note include the Church of San Simeone Piccolo, erected in 1720 by Scalfarotto on a circular plan, with a gigantic porch copied from that of the Tolentini, and reached up a massive staircase. Unfortunately it is somewhat overwhelmed by the gigantic green dome and Temanza ’s Church of the Maddalena, also built on a circular plan that is crowned by a great dome, but with a foreshortenedpronaos.

Perhaps the figure who dominates the artistic output of the period, however, is Giorgio Massari (1686–1766), from whom we have inherited such grandiose statements as the Gesuati Church on the Zattere with its Palladian façade, the Church of the Pietà, and the main door of the Accademia (1760).

Antonio Canova (1757–1822) – The last great personality in the Serenissima’s illustrious history of art is Canova who, in many ways, embodies the very essence of neo-Classicism in sculpture. Highly esteemed by his patrons at home and by Napoleon, Canova left the Republic to work in Rome and Paris, where the spirit of the style was distilled into painting by Jacques-Louis David, another imperial protégé.

His work exudes great purity and sensitivity. The velvety polish imparted to the white marble – his favourite material – together with the fluid compositions and elegant forms, in which line rather than texture is emphasised, combine to suggest fragile sensuality. Venice still retains a series of low reliefs in the style of the Antique and the famous group of Daedalus and Icarus (Correr Museum). His grandiose memorial can be visited in I Frari: it was executed by pupils and lies opposite the monument he designed for Titian.

From eclectic to modern times

The second half of the 19C was dominated by an eclectic assortment of revivalist styles in architecture: neo-Byzantine (Hotel Excelsior on the Lido, 1898–1908), neo-Romanesque, and most especially neo-Gothic (Pescheria by Rupolo, 1907, Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti by Camillo Boito, 1895); the curious Mulino Stucky on the Guidecca (1883), remodelled in the International Gothic canon, has high walls punctuated by a spired corner tower.

Since then, no particular trend has dominated Venice: only a few isolated personalities have had interesting projects built, now well integrated into the urban landscape. These include the residential districts around Sant’ Elena from the 1920s, the railway station (1954) and the Savings Bank designed by Pier Luigi Nervi and Angelo Scattolin on Campo Manin (1968). Certain projects drafted by well-known personalities never got beyond the drawing board: a student hostel by the American Frank Lloyd Wright intended to stand on the Grand Canal (1953) and a public hospital by Le Corbusier (1964).

The area that accommodates the Biennale provides space for various contemporary experimental projects. Even if the gardens where the pavilions are built are dismissed as part of the urban environment, it is worth acknowledging the more original and obsolete: Hoffman’s Austrian Pavilion (1933), the Venezuelan designed by Carlo Scarpa (1954) and the Finnish by Alvar Aalto (1956).

The most famous 20C Venetian sculptor is Arturo Martini (1889–1947).


Venetian painting

Venice’s pictorial tradition has one constant: its profound sensuality achieved by a predilection for colour and for light, which lends a strong poetic touch to the landscape. It is an art that mirrors the personality of the lagoon city as a watery world where everything is suffused with light: the blur of the skyline, the shimmering volumes, the haze rising above the canals that adds a bluish tinge to the scene. It is this distinctive greyish light, opaque and iridescent at the same time, that inspired the artists of the 18C.


The art of mosaic, inherited from the Romans, came to the lagoon long before the art of painting. In the 12C and 13C, Venice, inspired by the art of Ravenna, proceeded to arrange the mosaic murals from Torcello ( Last Judgement ) , Murano and St Mark’s Basilica. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, Greek decorators and mosaic artists came to Venice to work on the great Golden Altarpiece and the mosaics in St Mark’s. Consequently, the biblical iconography of the Eastern Church became markedly oriental, with Christ featuring as the central character (central apse), opening and closing a story which unfolded along walls, arches and cupolas, thus observing established biblical chronology.

The use of mosaic continued throughout the city’s history. The very last ones to grace San Marco were executed over a rather long period running from the 16C to the 19C. The assumption that early mosaics were more impressive can be explained by the simple fact that artisans were unable to arrange the small pieces of glass in a regular fashion: the myriad uneven surfaces lent “flexibility” to the mural. This effect was enhanced by the light, which caught irregularities, acting as a kaleidoscope of twirling colours and reflections. If all the pieces were aligned on a perfect flat plain, the effect would be dull and lifeless.

Quattrocento Primitives

A few artists began to paint in fresco in the 13C, a process that involves applying pigment to small sections of wet lime-plaster. Paintings from this period, however, if they have survived, are all badly damaged. As regards the style of these first Venetian frescoes, they soon conformed both in design and subject matter to Byzantine iconography, drawn for the most part from portable devotional icons typical of the Eastern Church, where the Madonna and Child usually occupy pride of place.

Paolo Veneziano

This artist, also known as Paolo da Venezia (active 1333–58), emerged as the first distinctive personality in Venetian painting, his name appearing with that of his son Giovanni on a Coronation of the Virgin (now in the Frick Collection in New York). Working in the Byzantine tradition, his painting showed him moving away from archaic stylisation (gold backgrounds, flat and confrontational compositions, hieratic attitudes) towards greater decorative refinement and distinctive use of line. This freedom of expression and sensitive treatment of Western subject matter forestalled the evolution of the International Gothic style characterised by graceful movement and elegant form. The work of Lorenzo Veneziano , traced to the years 1356–72, is characterised by expressive faces, vigorous bodies and a subtle use of strong, bold colours. (Note: these painters were not actually related; the epithet Veneziano simply means Venetian.)

Venetian International Gothic

At the beginning of the 15C, the work of Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello and that of the Paduan Guariento , who were engaged in painting a cycle of frescoes in the Doges’ Palace (destroyed by fire in the 16C), marks the city’s endorsement of the “International Gothic”. This was a refined, bejewelled style that combined Tuscan elements already assimilated in Padua (derived from sculpted Antique decoration on the one hand and by Giotto’s cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel on the other) with a more courtly style practised in Ferrara (notably portraiture).

The stimulus provided by these two influences blended with the local, Venetian predilection for naturalism, elegant linearity, fluid movement and strong decorative appeal (even the gold-embroidered and brocade clothing is celebrated) led to a distinctive regional style akin to the International Gothic that flourished in Siena, Prague and Avignon.

Other painters worthy of note include Nicolò di Pietro (recorded 1394–1430), Jacobello del Fiore (recorded 1394–1439), a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano who practised a detailed and intricate style, and, most especially, Michele Giambono (recorded 1420–62) who produced highly refined works in which Eastern oriental influence can be felt ( St Crisogono – San Trovaso, St Michael – Accademia).

A new pictorial tradition

By the mid-15C, attempts at perspective are reflected in the portrayal of floors and ceilings; depth of field is suggested in the background by landscape scenes or buildings.

The first hint of the Renaissance is to be found in the works of the Vivarini family from Murano. The shift in emphasis comes with the break of the generations: the earlier pictures have the same quality as Gothic goldsmithery and are markedly influenced by Byzantine iconography. These pictures are by the father, Antonio (active 1441–50), who worked with his brother-in-law, Giovanni d’Alemagna ( Triptych with Madonna and Child with Saints – Accademia; polyptychs – San Zaccaria), and his brother Bartolomeo ( Triptych of St Mark – I Frari). If these are compared with works by the son Alvise , however, the latter’s awareness of the Renaissance becomes evident ( St Anthony of Padua – Correr Museum; Triumph of St Ambrose – I Frari; Christ Carrying the Cross – San Zanipòlo). Strangely, in the following generation, Marco Basaiti (1470–1530), a pupil of Alvise Vivarini, is decidedly backward-looking in his delicate treatment of landscape and use of colour ( Vocation of the Sons of Zebedee – Accademia).

Serenity in Early Renaissance Painting

Long after the flowering of the Renaissance in Florence in the early 1400s, during the latter half of the century, Venice’s artists turned their attention to defining three-dimensional space and volume, and to an improved articulation of landscape and topographical views. They also gave up the abstract use of gold background and the Gothic taste for overly decorated and complicated pictures.

Bellini family

First Jacopo, the father (d.1470), followed by his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni, managed to emancipate Venetian painting from Byzantine and Gothic influences. The actual founder of the Venetian School is probably Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516), also known as Giambellino, who admired Florentine painting for its pure, idealised forms, and Flemish painting for its clarity in terms of light and observed realism. He was markedly influenced by his master and brother-in-law, the Paduan-born Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), who settled and worked in Venice. Mantegna was fascinated by Roman Antiquities which were commonly traded in Padua at the time, an interest acquired from his adoptive father, the painter-archaeologist Squarcione. From his study of relief carving, Mantegna forged a bold style that is completely uncompromising to the point of coldness, where perspective is almost obsessively defined, and details are drawn with scientific precision ( St Sebastian – Accademia).

His style was, however, in some ways tempered by the example of Antonello da Messina who worked in Venice c.1475–76 ( Pietà – Correr Museum) after learning to use oil paints in Flanders. Giovanni adopted this medium and developed his own deeply sensitive style that is characterised by a playful suggestion of light, a delicate and harmonious use of colour, elegant rendering of form and a strong sense of realism derived from Mantegna. Landscape assumes a dominant role and is used to convey the atmosphere of the picture: it provides a context in which the figures appear as pawns, set below an expanse of sky relieved by drifting clouds. These expressions of mood are worked over and over again in countless Madonnas looking tenderly down at a sleeping cherub or a Christ Child in benediction ( Madonna degli Alberetti – Accademia), in portrayals of the Dead Christ and many Sacre Conversazioni ( St Vincent Ferrer Polyptych – San Zanipòlo).

Giovanni’s brother Gentile (1429–1507) was the first artist to be nominated Venice’s official painter, a position which underpinned a brilliant career. He emerged as a talented portrait painter (Doge Giovanni Mocenigo) and applied his observational skills to portraying views of Venice, known as vedute , which became an influential genre in itself in the 18C. The overall objective was for painting to be true to life: The Procession of the Relics of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco (Accademia), for example, is a factual or documentary representation of 15C Venice, even if the painter, conscientious in every detail, was careful to align the façades and order the attendant crowds.

The advent of High Renaissance

Vittore Carpaccio (1455–1526), following in the wake of Bellini and Antonello, suffuses a lesson learned from Flemish painting with his own personal creativity to execute the cycles of paintings commissioned by the “Scuole” : Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at Rialto for Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista; Legend of St Ursula (Accademia) in which Brittany is represented as a Venetian Renaissance city; and Legends of St George and St Jerome for Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, which depicts an exotic Orient. Carpaccio surpassed Bellini in sensitivity and in his inimitable talent for story-telling. His pictures are imaginatively populated with well-observed and delightful details: he even manages to reconcile his penchant for miniaturist precision with a love of broad views. In his landscapes, a key element in his paintings, are representations of a luxuriant, flowery vegetation, peopled with a host of animals (dogs, birds, rabbits, peacocks, parrots and deer). Renaissance buildings stand out, embellished with marble inlays that might have been designed by the Lombardo family, surrounded by numerous oriental motifs (palm trees, Moorish turbans). All of Carpaccio’s works display the same distinctive features: boldness of line, luminosity, vivid colours, perfect sense of proportion, attention to detail and crowd scenes.

Giambattista Cima (1459–1518), known as Cima da Conegliano, drew on Giovanni Bellini for his strong, radiant light and on Carpaccio for his love of detail. His are the glorious portrayals of dignified figures, pictured in beautiful landscapes under broad open skies ( Madonna of the Orange Tree – Accademia; Adoration of the Shepherds – I Carmini). By the close of the 15C, Venetian painting had reached the height of its artistic expression.


His name was Giorgio di Castelfranco but he went by the name of Giorgione (1475–1510). It was he who revolutionised the course of painting in the early 16C despite his short life. Giorgione is considered the first “modern” artist in the history of painting. A Renaissance man in every sense, he drew inspiration for his work from Humanist ideology, making it intellectual and sometimes shrouded in mystery, as well as open to controversial interpretation. Few works have been attributed to him with any certainty, and these are poetic in feel, almost dreamlike, but always charged with allusions to literature, music and philosophy: ephemerality and vulnerability are the subject of The Tempest ; La Vecchia depicts the passage of time (both in the Accademia). His style appears more sensual than Classical. The landscape now plays an essential role in the painting; man is no longer the main subject, it is Nature itself that becomes the true protagonist – human drama is reduced to just one element in the force of Nature (such as in The Tempest ).

Palma il Vecchio (1480–1528) followed in the same vein, although in later life he betrays the influence of Titian’s handling of light, his juxtaposition of contrasting colour and the asymmetry of his altarpiece compositions. Palma il Vecchio specialised in Sacre Conversazioni and painted the portrait of Paola Priuli (Querini-Stampaglia Collection). His art does not match that of the most talented masters but its appeal is one of spontaneity and exuberant colour.

The Bergamo-born Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556) is another major early-16C painter with a distinctively personal style. His pictures are disconcerting and strange, they betray the influence of Dürer’s scientific treatment of detail (Dürer visited Venice in c.1495) and the painter’s liking for bold contrasts ( Portrait of a Young Gentleman in his Study – Accademia). He avoided the sensual, colourful appeal of Giorgione and Titian, preferring to employ a rather frigid, angular style modelled on the precise, slightly archaic style of Alvise Vivarini.

16C masters and their pupils

In the 16C, Venetian painting affirmed its supremacy; this was the era of the great European masters and highly skilled painters who, thanks to their respective talents, succeeded in establishing a distinctive style that was to become the hallmark of Venice and which soon earned her European recognition.


Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian (c.1485–1576), is unquestionably the most famous artist of his time. Born in Pieve di Cadore, he remained highly active until his death, aged 90. He served his apprenticeship under Giovanni Bellini and was subsequently influenced by Giorgione (some of whose works he completed) and then Raphael. The author of large altarpieces undertaken for churches (I Frari) and Scuole (La Carità) alike, he favoured colour over form and breathed life into his canvases with a dynamic handling of paint and bold composition ( The Assumption – I Frari; Martyrdom of St Lawrence – Gesuiti). His reputation far outreached the realms of the lagoon city, and led to him being commissioned to paint portraits of all the leading lights of his time at the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, Florence and Urbino; he worked for the Pope, François I and Charles V, who knighted him in 1553.

During the early part of his career, Titian’s painting was fundamentally Classical in inspiration. However, between 1535 and 1545, he was seduced by Mannerism before reverting to a more dignified and serene style. At the end of his life, the melodramatic tension inherent in some compositions ( The Pietà – Accademia) betrays the artist’s mysticism at the imminence of death.

In conclusion, Titian was largely responsible for reviving interest in the large altarpiece. He succeeded in taking painting to unimagined heights of monumentality by abandoning symmetry of composition ( Pesaro Altarpiece – I Frari), opting for large contrasting blocks of colour, displaying a sure stroke and a perfect sense of harmony.

Il Tintoretto

Contemporary with Titian, Venice harboured the genius of Jacopo Comin, known as il Tintoretto (1518–94), the most original and most prolific of the Venetian masters. He was born the son of a dyer (hence his name) and never left Venice (save once, maybe, to visit Rome), but he never really enjoyed success in his lifetime. Tireless and passionate about his work, an ardent admirer of Michelangelo, he preferred biblical subjects to those of Classical Antiquity (Scuola di San Rocco) and chose to portray common people instead of focusing on the excesses of the nobility. He developed a restless style: despite the interaction of rapid precise brush strokes and gentle soft touches, his work is always lyrical, a quality that is projected from his dynamic handling of paint and from the arrangement of figures in groups or alone, brought together by strong lines of composition ( Crucifixion – Scuola di San Rocco). The use of chiaroscuro (strong contrasts of light and shade), juxtaposed complementary colours, elongated figures, daring foreshortening and a filtering light that blurs the contours of figures and architectural settings, all contribute to reinforcing the charged atmosphere of his Mannerist work.

His best pictures include the Miracles of St Mark painted for the Scuola di San Marco (Accademia), the Marriage of Cana (Santa Maria della Salute), Paradise (Doges’ Palace, Grand Council Chamber), The Triumph of Venice (Doges’ Palace), and The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (Madonna dell’Orto), not forgetting the 50 paintings, the largest cycle of its kind in Venice, executed for the Scuola di San Rocco, on which he worked for 23 years in collaboration with his son Domenico Tintoretto .


In direct contrast with Tintoretto, Paolo Caliari (1528–88), born in Verona, hence his nickname Veronese , specialised in portraying the wealthy, opulent and carefree aristocracy of the Renaissance; in luminous colour (including the famous “Veronese green”) that set off to theatrical effect the most sumptuous fabrics used for their clothing. His works in the main are endowed with optimism, fantasy and spontaneity, they seem permeated with spring light; towards the end of his life, however, Veronese’s paintings change to more sombre and melancholic mood, muddied by the influence of Tintoretto’s chiaroscuro and Bassano’s style. Mythological scenes proliferate on the walls and ceilings of the Doges’ Palace ( Apotheosis of Venice ) . The subject of The Last Supper was reworked by Veronese several times for the refectories of Venetian monasteries, including the famous, huge canvas Christ in the House of Levi (Accademia), commissioned for the Dominican monastery of San Zanipòlo. This was contrived as a depiction of an entirely profane meal, while providing an excellent pretext for a work of grandiose proportions. The magnificent decoration of San Sebastiano is another masterpiece, appropriate, perhaps, given that it was his chosen ultimate resting place.

Mannerism in Venice

Whereas Tintoretto forged his style from Titian and Michelangelo, and Veronese was heir to Bellini, Giorgione and Raphael, their legacy, like that of Titian, was both powerful and influential beyond the confines of Venice, for several generations. It also naturally led to Venetian Mannerism.

Titian had many followers: Palma il Vecchio (1480–1528); Pordenone (c.1483–1539), who worked successfully in Venice from 1535–38; Paris Bordone (1500–71), who delighted in Venetian Renaissance architecture ( Handing the Ring to the Doge – Accademia; Martyrdom of St Theodore – San Salvador) and charged his canvases with vivid colours; the prolific Palma il Giovane (1544–1628), the grandson of Palma il Vecchio, with an eclectic style, who provided nearly all the city’s churches with large-scale paintings.

An exponent of the sensuality and silky colours explored by Giorgione and Titian, Andrea Schiavone (c.1510–63) moved away from realism in favour of elongated form and restless movement typical of Mannerism, in the style of Parmigianino.

Impressed by Tintoretto’s painting, Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte, 1512–92) paints in a provincial style marked by an exaggerated preoccupation with naturalism ( St Jerome Meditating – Accademia), while using light effects to suggest the intensity of the scene ( Nativity – San Giorgio Maggiore). His sons Leandro and Francesco shared this tradition of maniera painting, in which the pastoral and rustic element becomes the prime subject rather than the religious or profane content.

18C revival

Venetian painting, in decline during the 17C and overshadowed by the great personalities of the previous century and the Roman Baroque, enjoyed a new creative and glorious burst of energy during this period of lavish receptions in the Age of Enlightenment.

Decorative painting

Long after the taste for grandiose interior decoration had flourished in Rome and Florence during the 16C–17C, Venice revived her interest in the decorative art of Veronese found on the walls and ceilings of her churches and palazzi and in the Palladian villas along the Brenta.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734), the Baroque painter of rather sentimental religious pictures, reinforced his strong compositions with bright colour ( Madonna with Saints – San Giorgio Maggiore). It was with Giambattista Piazzetta (1682–1754), who excelled in religious painting, that huge ceiling compositions became popular, and that figures began to be shown from below, aspiring to dizzy heights among the clouds, drawn awkwardly towards a mystical light ( Glorification of St Dominic – San Zanipòlo). Influenced by Caravaggio, Piazzetta also painted genre pictures (featuring people from common, everyday life in mundane surroundings) with strong chiaroscuro ( The Fortune Teller – Accademia).

Piazzetta influenced the greatest artist of the century: Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770), the pre-eminent genius of Venetian Baroque decoration and creator of huge compositions of great virtuosity full of delicate colour, golden light and infinite space. He painted vast altarpieces and covered entire ceilings with frescoes (Palazzo Labia, Scuola dei Carmini, Church of the Gesuiti, Ca’ Rezzonico), turning his hand as easily to religious subjects ( Our Lady of Mount Carmel – I Carmini) as to mythological ones, including huge Virtues set before grandiose architectural backdrops.

Portraiture and Genre

Long-established patrician families and those of an aspiring bourgeoisie altered their household arrangements to reflect changes in lifestyle. In keeping with fashions elsewhere, it became acceptable to have informal, intimate and private rooms, separate from grandiose function or occasion rooms, in which to conduct everyday business, and this trend was reflected in contemporary art. Painters were asked to provide portraits that were both flattering and informal, a genre favoured by Rosalba Carriera (1675–1758), who produced delicate, vibrant pastels that earned her international fame (Ca’ Rezzonico, Accademia), and Alessandro Longhi .

Around the same time, Venetians appeared to appreciate the small-scale interior scenes painted by Pietro Longhi (1702–85), such as masquerades , dancesand duck hunting scenes (Hemingway’s future pastime in Torcello), all revealing his acute powers of observation (Ca’ Rezzonico, Querini-Stampalla Collection).

Topographical painters

Besides the maniera and genre scenes devoid of religious, allegorical or mythological meaning, landscape for its own sake began to provide artists with a worthy subject for easel pictures. In Venice, studies of the environment focused on the city herself, and it is for these views, vedute in Italian, that Antonio Canal (1697–1768), known as Canaletto , became so famous. In his pictures, he delineates in minute detail his on-the-spot observations of the city. Although his vision is almost photographic, he exaggerates perspective and paints huge, monumental buildings. He was also known to portray festivals and regattas. Unfortunately, most of his works are now exhibited in museums outside Italy and few can be admired in Venice itself. Canaletto inspired a great many artists, namely Bernardo Bellotto (1720–80), one of his pupils who was also a relative.

Quite distinct from Canaletto, Francesco Guardi (1712–93) was bewitched by the atmosphere of the lagoon city. His vision is not photographic; instead his bold use of paint succeeds in freezing the ripples of the water and the flickering light – a preoccupation that was to fascinate the English Romantic painter Turner and the French Impressionists a century later. Besides views of the lagoon, he also painted scenes of everyday life in the manner of Pietro Longhi: Nuns’ Parlour , Interval Time in the Foyer (Ca’ Rezzonico), as did his brother Giovianni Antonio .

Freed from the influence of his father, after painting the Stations of the Cross in San Polo, Giovanni Domenico (Giandomenico) Tiepolo (1727–1804) painted 18C Venetian society on the Brenta Riviera with humour and irony, depicting the holidaymakers as buffoons (Ca’ Rezzonico: Villa Zianigo frescoes).

Modern and contemporary age

Between the 19C and the 20C Venetian painting continued on academic lines, ever faithful to the traditions set in the 18C with landscapes or urban scenes by Caffi and Ciardi, and fine portraits by Alessandro Milesi.

Motivated by mainstream developments in Europe during the early 20C, several painters produced interesting work (International Museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro): Federico Zandomeneghi (1841–1917) who was born in Venice, worked with the Macchiaioli group before moving to Paris where he befriended Degas; Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916) was a founding member of the Futurist movement and painted in a style reminiscent of Signal ( The Grand Canal ); Fragiacomo was an Impressionist much inspired by Turner ( St Mark’s Square ); Casorati was a Symbolist painter and portraitist.

Members of the Burano School (Scuola di Burano) , such as Moggioli, Gino Rossi, Sibellato and Semeghini, painted the islands of the lagoon, experimenting with techniques inspired by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne, and of the Post-Impressionists Bonnard and Vuillard.



The history of Venetian literature begins in 1271 when “Master Marco Polo , a wise and noble citizen of Venice” embarked on a journey to the Orient. Despite his tender age, the 16 year-old decided to accompany his father Niccolò and uncle Matteo, both Levantine merchants, on a very long expedition to the court of “Kublai, the Great Khan of the Mongols”. Never before had such an ambitious journey to those parts been undertaken by Westerners. Unfortunately the return journey was to prove Marco’s undoing, for during one of the many naval battles between the Venetians and the Genoese, the explorer was taken prisoner by the enemy. As he languished in prison, he came to know a writer from Pisa, Rustichello, who undertook to set down on paper an account of the Venetian’s experiences. So The Book of the Wonders of the World was born; it achieved success under the title Il Milione , an epithet given to Marco Polo when he described the quantities of gold he claimed to have seen. In the years that followed the death of the traveller, Venice appeared to dedicate itself less to literature than to commerce. Indeed, Venetian literary circles seem to have been affected by Humanism.

It was not until Aldo Manuzio , the “ante litteram” publisher, arrived in Venice that the situation changed. In 1499 he published the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili , an amusing, anonymous work written in an explosive style, using vernacular language bastardised from Venetian and Latin. Its success was modest but it seems to have heralded one of the most successful literary spells in Venice.

Bembo to Goldoni: a period of great splendour

A more conventional writer to be published by Aldo Manuzio was Pietro Bembo . Born into a very aristocratic family in Venice in 1470, Bembo remained the touchstone of literary developments for almost a century. His importance is largely due to The Prose of Vulgar Language which came out in 1528, and which contributed to the age-old debate over the use of vernacular language in literature. In it Bembo argued that he was violently opposed to the language adopted by Dante, and offered a convincing alternative that in part has influenced the evolution of Italian into the language of today.

The Paduan-born Angelo Beolco (1496), meanwhile, was moving in a different direction. His nickname, il Ruzzante (The Playful One), was derived from the peasant protagonist of his plays, whom the author often impersonated, and so the character and his creator became synonymous. The most famous play, Il Parlamento del Ruzzante , is a merciless portrait of peasant conditions at the time of a long and bloody war between the French and the Venetians.

Contemporary with Ruzzante was the unknown author of the Veniexiana , an entertaining comedy in dialect which depicted the vices and virtues (mainly the former) of the inhabitants of the lagoon city. Its significance, however, lies not so much in the amusing story it tells, full of melodramatic action, but in its marking a turning point in the cultural milieu of Venice. For between 1530 and 1540, the popular trend suddenly passed from foreign imported theatrical productions to the blossoming of “original” domestic plays.

This radical change was no doubt precipitated by the presence of Pietro Aretino who, as his surname suggests, was born in Arezzo. After a stay in Rome, Aretino reached Venice in 1527, just in time to publish Il Marescalco and La Cortegiana , two of the most popular and well-crafted comedies of the 16C. Their success was immediate and very well exploited by Aretino, who was astute enough to engage the new resources proffered by the printing press to increase his fame. This collaboration was, in fact, to make both the Tuscan and his publisher Marcotini a fortune. Aretino, furthermore, showed himself capable of using popular, vernacular language for literature to nothing short of tumultuous effect. His plays mocked and lampooned the authorities, attracting audiences from all walks of life, but most notably from among those in power who were anxious to know what was indeed being said. It was no surprise therefore, that he soon earned the epithet “the scourge of the princes”.

Thus during the 17C, the Republic’s somewhat liberal attitude must have excused the considerable freedom of thought and action enjoyed in Venice: it is difficult otherwise to explain the success of Aretino and other such lax publications that would have been prohibited elsewhere. Venice became an important publishing centre, drawing all kinds of literary characters who wished to take particular care over typographical layouts and to oversee the output of their own book. Soon hundreds of printers mushroomed to service hundreds of authors, dependent one upon the other.


The theatre became a passion for citizens of all social classes. Plays proliferated, almost all written and produced on the spot. Comedies enacted in dialect enjoyed the greatest popularity; these were often based around sets of particular carnival characters identified by their traditional mask and costume, such as Harlequin . The needs of a growing number of theatre devotees, coupled with those of an important and thriving port, founded the beginnings of a modern news-spreading media.


The advent of journalism in Italy could only have been feasible in a milieu like Venice. In 1760 Gasparo Gozzi launched the magazine La Gazzetta Veneta , which appeared twice a week for about a year. Conceived along the lines of an English periodical, features included articles on orders of the day and useful practical information on life in the city (financial announcements, public notices, advertisement listings, stock exchange reports etc). It was in La Gazzetta that Goldoni published his first reviews on Rusteghi.

Carlo Goldoni (1707–93)

Goldoni’s father was a doctor who wished his son to follow in his footsteps but when Carlo was aged 13, he ran away from school to join a ship in Rimini that was carrying a troupe of actors to Chioggia. From there he went on to join his mother in Venice. Goldoni resumed his studies and qualified as a lawyer. Lacking the will to succeed, however, he soon turned his hand at challenging the tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte to improvise dialogue along the lines of a given plot.

In 1743 Goldoni wrote the script for La donna di Garbo . In 1750 the provocative comedy playwright impudently waged a bet with his rival Pietro Chiari that in less than a year he could write 16 new comedies: in fact he wrote 17, including the splendid La Bottega del Caffè ( The Coffee Shop ), set in Venice and satirising the bourgeoisie. The ingredients were simple: he used colloquial language for immediacy and formulated rounded characters based on observation of real life. He avoided political incorrectness by importing his gentrified personalities from afar, able therefore to exaggerate their airs and graces. Arlecchino, Servitore di due Padroni ( Servant of Two Masters ), La Locandiera ( The Innkeeper ) are all constructed according to the same format. Goldoni died in France.

An account of Goldoni’s stay in Venice can be found in the author’s memoirs ( Memorie ).

How the 18C and 19C saw Venice

Venice as depicted by Goldoni, full of humour and moral integrity, was a vital place that attracted the talented, the eccentric and the curious. These included Lorenzo da Ponte , Mozart’s celebrated librettist and author of the Marriage of Figaro , who lingered there for “a couple of years of adventurous libertinage”, and that specialist master of licentiousness Giacomo Casanova (1725–98) who, between one amorous assignation and another, found time to write his interesting Memoirs .

Another reprobate of the same school, if the term is appropriate, the poet Ugo Foscolo , landed on the Riva degli Schiavoni in 1793. He stopped in the city for four years, during which he demonstrated the true colour of his personality on numerous occasions. Abandoning his regular studies, he embarked on teaching himself the Greek and Latin classics to engineer his infiltration of the very refined salon of Isabella Teorochi Albrizzi, with whom he initiated a passionate affair, he aged 16 and she 34. In the meantime, he wrote the famous Ode to the Liberator Bonaparte ; only the “liberator”, in his political intrigue, paid no heed to the revolutionary ideals of the young Foscolo, but ceded Venice to Austria to further his own hegemonic aims. The repercussions on the writer were enormous, forcing him to seek refuge in Milan, where he devoted himself to drafting The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis , a prose account of the delusion he had suffered. During his sojourn in Venice, however, Foscolo also became involved with Melchiorre Cesarotti , an important forerunner of the early Romantic movement.

Cesarotti was a tutor in an aristocratic household whose salon Foscolo frequently attended. In 1760 Cesarotti came across a collection of poems by Ossian, a legendary bard, published by a certain MacPherson: in six months, Cesarotti had translated them into Italian verse, which he published in 1763. Le Poesie di Ossian, as they appeared in Italian, shot Cesarotti to fame, oblivious of the fact that these “Ossianic poems” were to be one of those most famous cases of literary fraud to be uncovered over the last 200 years. James MacPherson (1736–96) claimed they were a translation of a series of surviving fragments of some ancient Gaelic mythical poetry when in fact they had been fabricated, for the most part, by the Scotsman himself. Poor Cesarotti was one of the many innocents to fall for the trick.

By the end of the century, the foundations of Italian Romanticism had been laid. The Piedmontese Silvio Pellico , the fervent patriot and anti-Austrian agitator, was soon to write his famous and doleful Piombi . In Le mie Prigioni, Pellico narrates his whole experience from the day of his arrest (13 October 1820) to that of his release (September 1830), thereby securing a place in the heart of the nation as a hero.

Throughout the Romantic period, Venice reigned supreme. This was not so much as a result of her literary output but rather because she continued to distract so many intellectuals, such as Lord Byron , on their travels through Italy, happy to meet up under the shaded porticoes of the Procuratie, a custom that was to extend well into the next century.

In 1886 the Russian author Anton Chekhov published a collection of short stories. Story of a Stranger recounts his overwhelming passion for Venice, to such an extent that he feels “intoxicated with life”.

20th Century

The modern history of the lagoon city rests almost exclusively in the hands of foreigners, many of whom sought refuge there from persecution at home and soon enjoyed a protected social scene. Not only were there no Venetian-born writers of note to emerge, few Italians were attracted to the decadent beauty of La Serenissima . Gabriele d’Annunzio was a notable exception.

Marcel Proust arrived in 1900, inevitably accompanied by his mother, with whom he began translating the English writer John Ruskin , author of the famous Stones of Venice , while refining his own literary style. Proust’s sojourn was a particularly happy one: reflecting in A la recherche du temps perdu , he writes “However did the images of Venice give me such joy and confidence as to render me indifferent to death” .

The reflections of Thomas Mann are of a very different order: in Death in Venice , the city is portrayed as being in a state of decay. The protagonist of the novel is Gustav von Aschenbach, a German writer who, after a lifetime of rigorous discipline, feels attracted by a city described as crumbling and overrun with cholera.

In 1918 the Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler wrote Casanova in Spa , a book set in Venice and loosely based on his amorous adventures.

Among the most recent illustrious visitors to the city was Ernest Hemingway who set down his suitcases in the Hotel Gritti in 1948. He loved to be called “Papa” and while away the time with glasses of Montgomery, a strong Martini, at Harry’s Bar. Far removed from the more rugged places associated with the writer, Hemingway once confessed to his translator Ferdinanda Pivano: “Sitting by the Grand Canal and writing near where Mr Byron, Mr Browning and Mr D’Annunzio wrote makes Mr Papa feel he has arrived at where he is meant to be”.

The same year saw the publication of Cantos by the American poet Ezra Pound , who died in Venice and who wrote about the city in Canto LXXVI.

In the early sixties, the Italian author Giorgio Bassani used the Ghetto district as a backdrop to his novel Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini , which was made into a famous film by Vittorio de Sica .

The Russian writer Josif Brodskij , who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, was fascinated by Venetian water and canals, a passion he recounted in Watermark .

Another Slav author who evokes the lagoon city was Polish-born Gustaw Herling who, in Portrait of Venice (1994), evokes his “sentimental involvement with Venice”.


Prelude to Vivaldi


Whereas in Rome a brilliant revival in music flourished under the auspices of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–94), who headed a polyphonic school dedicated to sacred music, patronage in Venice was limited to more secular applications. Perhaps the turning point is marked by the Flemish Willaert (c.1490–1562), the choirmaster at St Mark’s, who set a trend that was to be continued by his pupil Andrea Gabrieli.

Andrea Gabrieli (c.1510–86) – Organist at St Mark’s, Gabrieli emerged as an important composer and influential teacher of organ and choral music in the Venetian tradition. His innovative use of the concertato (a small group of instruments or voices), contrasted with the ripieno (a larger body of musicians), forestalled the implementation of the concerto form developed and exploited later by Corelli. This allowed Gabrieli to experiment with harmony and dissonance by combining various “parts” for choir, or the human voice with instruments. His most lasting contribution is a large body of choral works for both sacred (motets for four to 12 voices, masses for six voices, the Psalms of David for six voices) and secular texts (madrigals for three to 12 voices).

Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1557–1612) – Andrea’s nephew Giovanni inherited the position of organist at St Mark’s and further propagated the fame of the Venetian School abroad (the Dutch master Sweelinck, Hans Leo Hassler, Heinrich Schutz, Bach’s precursor and founder of German church music, were already pupils). Among his compositions, which comprised sacred, secular and instrumental pieces, the most notable are his motets, the Sacred Symphonies . His more avant-garde works include ­ sonatas for violin, which he used to explore antiphonal effects: at the time the violin was the instrument that best sustained the popular taste for monophonic music (following a single line of notes). By adding a basso continuo or figured bass line, with long drawn notes, he was able to develop harmonies with the accompaniment, thereby providing sustained and textured melody. This Gabrieli applied not only to choral arrangements but to instrumental pieces for two violins and clavichord or cello.

The Baroque Period

With the 17C began another rich and fruitful period for Venetian music. Melodrama became a formal genre; formulated from accounts of contemporary historical events or legends, exaggerated stories were re-enacted to audiences in elaborately contrived stage settings. Francesco Cavalli (1602–76), a chorister at St Mark’s, Marc’Antonio Cesti (1623–69) and Giovanni Legrenzi (1626–90), choirmaster at St Mark’s, all collaborated at an operatic school in Venice which, in 1637, opened the first commercial opera house, San Cassiano. Here Monteverdi’s operas were later performed.

The 18th Century

By the mid-1700s, Venice was renowned for the more typically Neapolitan kind of comic operas by Baldassarre Galuppi , who, together with Giovanni Platti (1700–63), contributed to the development of the sonata (literally meaning “sounded”, implying music that is instrumental rather than sung) for strings and keyboard. In response to works by the Bach dynasty in Germany, they composed pieces for one (harpsichord) or two instruments (harpsichord and violin) in homophonic (several lines of notes moving in chords) and polyphonic (several lines of notes each with its own distinctive pattern) arrangements in several movements (usually three).

The harpsichord enjoyed particular favour, despite the advent of the piano, developed by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1732) by substituting hammers for quills. Among the most famous players of the harpsichord, besides Galuppi and Platti, were the two Marcello brothers, Benedetto (1686–1739), who also composed sacred music and concertos for five instruments, and Alessandro (1684–1750), who wrote sonatas for violin and basso continuo and concertos for oboe and strings that hitherto have been attributed to Benedetto. Also active in Venice in this period was Tomaso ­Albinoni (1671–1750), who more closely followed in the German Baroque tradition and foreshadows Vivaldi in his instrumental compositions.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

It is undoubtedly Vivaldi who best epitomises Venetian music: even JS Bach (1685–1750) drew openly on the compositions of the “Prete Rosso” , who was literally rediscovered in the mid-20C, after years of oblivion.

Vivaldi was a prolific composer, using a three-movement form of the concerto, allegro-adagio-allegro , and freeing up the Sonata da Camera as a series of contrasting descriptive passages as in the Four Seasons , the Goldfinch and Night concerti . Altogether, Vivaldi composed over 500 concertos for violin, viola d’amore, cello, mandolin, flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, cornet and string orchestra.

His parents

Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, father of Antonio, was a professional barber and musician: this would be surprising today, but many Venetians of the time combined both professions. Giovanni Battista, nicknamed il Rosso after the colour of his auburn hair, obviously a family trait, was a violin virtuoso in 17C Venice, more specifically in the area around San ­Martino where most of the city’s musicians congregated at the Scuola, the Sovvegno di Santa Cecilia , whose patron naturally was St Cecilia.

Camilla Calicchio, the mother of Antonio, was born in the area around ­ San Giovanni in Bràgora , where Antonio was baptised a second time, having been subjected to the formalities of a blessing at home on 4 March 1678, shortly after his birth, when it appeared that he might not survive.

Il Prete Rosso

Antonio was ordained at San Giovanni Novo , even though he dedicated himself to the cause of music rather than to the priesthood, content to remain a secular priest or abbot. He took up residence in Fondamenta del Dose, near the Ponte del Paradiso, before abandoning the Castello sestiere in favour of St Mark’s, where he lived on the Riva del Carbon. When he left these lodgings in 1740 it was to leave Venice completely, dying in poverty in Vienna the following year.

The Musician

Vivaldi’s main musical activity is associated first and foremost with the Pietà and the Theatre of San Angelo.

The Pietà was one of the great ­ foundling hospitals which, between the 17C and 18C, doubled as one of the musical conservatories of Venice, each having its own church where concerts were held. These “hospitals” functioned as charitable institutions and orphanages for girls( ospitaliere ), who received an education and, if gifted, musical instruction to enable them to take part in the choirs and orchestras of which the establishments were so proud.

Associated as it is with the fame of Vivaldi, the Pietà became the best known of the hospital-churches. Standing on the Riva degli Schiavoni it cannot be mistaken or missed, although the present church is not the original one where Vivaldi had been music teacher and composer. The former church stood where the Metropole Hotel now stands, slightly to the right of the present church.

The San Angelo Theatre no longer exists. It was there that the violin virtuoso acted as musical director, impresario, composer and performed more secular works.

After Vivaldi

The musical splendour of Venice, which regaled contemporary ears for three centuries and continues to survive today in churches and concert halls, faded with the passing of its most illustrious representative. In more recent times, one interesting composer emerges from the Venetian and German traditions and that is Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948), who was particularly impressed by Mozart’s operatic works and inspired by the theatre of Goldoni: both influences are evident in his own life’s opus Gioielli della Madonna, Le Donne Curiose, I Quattro rusteghi , Il Campiello, etc .

Yet more recently still, the city has resumed its role as a lively and innovative artistic centre by playing host to such experimental musicians as Bruno Maderna (1920–73) and Luigi Nono (1924–90).

Venice was also the birthplace of the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli (1946–2001), who was to become an authority on Mahler’s work.

Venetian by adoption

Tribute should also be paid to visiting composers who died in Venice.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) was one genius who breathed personality and characterisation into opera: he lies buried at I Frari. Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801), often regarded as the Italian Mozart, died in Campo Sant’ Angelo . The apparently aloof and detached Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) is buried in the cemetery of San Michele.

However, it was Richard Wagner (1813–83), possibly the most controversial composer in musical history, who most desired to be adopted by his beloved Venice. The maestro died on 13 February in the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi in the company of his wife, Cosima, and the gondolier Gigio Trevisan, nicknamed Ganassete.

During Wagner’s peaceful stay in Venice, he would go to St Mark’s Square daily where, seated at Quadri’s or Florian’s, he was sometimes recognised by the leader of the municipal band who would ask him to conduct: Wagner would agree, happy to direct his own compositions for the Venetians. It was here that Wagner composed the second act of Tristan (the English horn part having been inspired by the evening song of the gondoliers), wrote part of Parsifal and initiated work on the Maestri cantori inspired by Titian’s Assumption that he so admired at I Frari.


During the 18C, the Venice Carnival opened at the beginning of October and ended on the Tuesday preceding Lent, with only one short interruption for Christmas festivities. In those days, masks were worn throughout the carnival but they were also used in other circumstances: during the Fiera della Sensa lasting for two weeks, on the occasion of doges’ elections and their sons’ weddings, and when famous personalities arrived in town.

Today, the Carnival starts 10 days before Lent (Feb–Mar) with the “volo dell’angelo” or “flight of the angel”. In this ceremony, an acrobat descends the bell-tower of St Mark’s and glides over the piazza to the Doges’ Palace by means of two ropes. In the past, the acrobat was dressed as a Turk rather than an angel.

“Buongiorno, siora mascara”

A key feature of Carnival is the mask. It is said that masks were first introduced to Venice in 1204 when Doge Enrico Dandolo brought veiled Muslim women back to Venice after his conquest of Constantinople. As in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (Act 2), masked people greeted each other routinely with the saying “Buongiorno Siora Mascara” during the 17C. To go about one’s business dressed in the baùta – a mask complete with its hooded black shawl – was so normal that a formal request was lodged by the clergy for Venetians to remove their disguise at least in church.

Return of the Carnival

The greater the decline of Venice, the sharper her sense of fun. Come 1797 when the French assumed power, thus ending the glory of the Venetian Republic for all time, the city continued her revelries, thriving on her taste for jokes and riddles, laughter and carnival, which was eventually revived late in the 19C.

Even when this modern carnival was reinstated, with an open invitation to all to congregate in Piazza San Marco – the only time the space is truly filled by the crowds – it was a masked attendance. Whether it be with the baùta , the full-length cloak ( tabarro ) , the three-horned hat ( tricorno ) or the long-nosed mask ( maschera a becco ) that doctors used to wear during the plague epidemics, the rule of the game is always the same: never investigate the identity of the person wearing the mask.

The need to don a mask seems to come as second nature to a Venetian. Maybe because, in the words of Silvio Ceccat:

The streets are narrow, the population is small. You meet someone at every corner. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Today there are no cars to protect anonymity as yesterday there were no coaches in which to hide … People used to and still do feel naked in Venice. So naked, indeed, that clothes are not enough and hence the need for the mask … ”.

Today’s festivities are organised by the city and include various colourful historic pageants and performances, The finale is the Grand Ball in the Piazza on Shrove Tuesday. As only A-list celebrities and the great and good of Venice are allowed to attend this jamboree, mere mortals have to content themselves with lesser private and public parties. There is also a huge fireworks display.

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