Venetian Renaissance architecture

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Santa Maria dei Miracoli, 1480s, by Pietro Lombardo, who was mainly Venice's leading sculptor.

Venetian Renaissance architecture began rather later than in Florence, not really before the 1480s, and throughout the period mostly relied on architects imported from elsewhere in Italy. The city was very rich during the period, and prone to fires, so there was a large amount of building going on most of the time, and at least the facades of Venetian buildings were often particularly luxuriantly ornamented.

Compared to the Renaissance architecture of other Italian cities, there was a degree of conservatism, especially in retaining the overall form of buildings, which in the city were usually replacements on a confined site, and in windows, where arched or round tops, sometimes with a classicized version of the tracery of Venetian Gothic architecture, remained far more heavily used than in other cities. The Doge's Palace was much rebuilt after fires, but only behind the Gothic facades.

The Venetian elite had a collective belief in the importance of architecture in bolstering confidence in the republic, and a Senate resolution in 1535 noted that it was "the most beautiful and illustrious city which at present exists in the world".[1] At the same time, overt competition between patrician families was discouraged, in favour of "harmonious equality", which applied to buildings as to other areas,[2] and novelty for its own sake, or to recapture the glories of antiquity, was regarded with suspicion.[3] Though visitors admired the rich ensembles, Venetian architecture did not have much influence beyond the republic's own possessions before Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), whose style of Palladian architecture became hugely influential some time after his death, not least in the English-speaking world.


Venice is built on alluvial mud, and all buildings in the city were (and mostly still are) supported by large numbers of timber piles driven into the mud. Above that the normal building material is brick, although the Renaissance facades were usually faced with Istrian stone, a fine limestone that is not strictly a marble, although it is often so called. This came by sea from quarries in Istria in the terrafirma, now in Croatia. Other stones with different colours were often used for contrast, especially a red stone from Verona. Marmorino stucco, made from grinding limestone, brick and terracotta fragments, was the typical finish for interior walls, and sometimes exteriors.[4] Flat ceilings supported with timber beams were preferred to vaults, which might crack as the building settled on the pile foundations.[5]

The main city was already very largely built up, with buildings tightly packed in the centre; this is shown clearly by Jacopo de' Barbari's huge woodcut with an elevated view of the city in 1500. Most of the grander Renaissance buildings were replacements, which had to fit in to the existing site boundaries. Because buildings were tightly packed, Venice was even more prone than other Italian city centres to fires, creating the need for many of the new buildings. In particular the Doge's Palace had bad fires in 1483, 1547, and 1577, although the Gothic exterior facades survived. The almost permanently busy building activity in Venice meant that skilled workers abounded.[6] Despite this, finishing major buildings often took ten to twenty years, or more.

Unlike the palaces or houses of wealthy families in other cities in Italy, defence was not a major concern for Venetian palaces, which in any cases often had "moats" on some sides. The crowded city centre encouraged building high by the standards of the period, and the main access for light was often from the front facade, which therefore typically has more and larger windows than palaces elsewhere.[7]

Architects and their principal buildings[edit]

Most Venetian architects were not natives of the city, or even of the terrafirma or mainland territories of the Republic of Venice. But the large budgets available in Venice tempted architects from all over north and central Italy.[8] Artists mainly known as sculptors also worked as architects. Apart from Sansovino (discussed below), the most important of these are the Lombardo family, especially Pietro Lombardo (1435–1515), and then the Mannerist Alessandro Vittoria (1525–1608). The history of Venetian architecture is complicated because of the habit of appointing what might today be called a "managing architect" or proto, to report to supervising committees, whose name often survives in archives. The extent to which they were actually responsible for the design varies greatly.[9]

Mauro Codussi (1440–1504) from Lombardy was one of the first architects to work in a Renaissance style in Venice, with his son Domenico assisting him and carrying on his practice after his death. His works in public buildings include the upper storeys of San Zaccaria, Venice, San Giovanni Grisostomo (begun 1497), and Santa Maria Formosa (begun 1492). He probably designed St Mark's Clocktower (from 1495), and worked with sculptors to rebuild the Scuola Grande di San Marco after a fire in 1485. His palazzi include Ca' Vendramin Calergi (begun 1481) and Palazzo Zorzi Galeoni.[10]

Other architects active in the early Renaissance period include Giorgio Spavento (active from 1489 or before, d. 1509),[11] and Antonio Abbondi, often known as Scarpagnino (died 1549), who was active from at least 1505. San Sebastiano, Venice, begun 1506, is an early work. Both of these had many government commissions.

Jacopo Sansovino (1486–1570), also an important sculptor, was a Florentine with a successful career in Florence and then Rome. He fled to Venice after the catastrophic Sack of Rome in 1527 and in 1529 was appointed chief architect and superintendent of properties (Protomaestro or Proto) to the Procurators of San Marco.[12] According to Manfredo Tafuri, his first project in Venice, a Palazzo Gritti, was never built as his plans, though brilliant, were considered too full of exhibitionist novelties; he had failed to grasp the ideology of the sober and restrained magnificence required by Venetian patricians.[13] He created the appearance of much of the rest of the Piazza San Marco beyond Basilica of San Marco itself, designing the Biblioteca Marciana (1537 onwards) and other buildings. His palazzi include Palazzo Corner della Ca' Grande (1532 onwards) and Palazzo Dolfin Manin from 1536.[14]

Michele Sanmicheli (1484–1559) from Verona in the terrafirma, trained further south, and on his return to Verona in 1527 was hired by the state as a military architect. Most of his work was fortifications and military or naval buildings around the Venetian territories, but he also built a number of palaces that are very original, and take Venetian architecture into Mannerism. The Palazzo Bevilacqua in Verona (begun 1529) is the most famous of these.[15]

The principal architect of the later Venetian Renaissance, was Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), who was also the key figure in later Italian Renaissance architecture, and its most important writer on architecture. But apart from the two large churches of San Giorgio Maggiore (1566 on), and Il Redentore (1577 on), he designed relatively little in the city itself, for a number of reasons. He designed many buildings in the terrafirma, in Vicenza and a series of famous country houses, relatively small compared to some further south, for the Venetian elite. Palladio's style was later developed in the Palladian architecture of both Britain and the American colonies,[16] and his Venetian window, with a central arched top, took a very Venetian element around the world. The World Heritage Site of the City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto includes 23 buildings in the city, and 24 country villas.[17]

Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548–1616) from Vicenza only moved to Venice in 1581, the year after Palladio's death. He designed the Procuratie Nuove Piazza San Marco, and completed many projects Palladio had left incomplete.[18] His pupil Baldassare Longhena (1598–1682), who was for a change born in the city, in turn completed Scamozzi's projects and, while he introduced a full-blown Baroque architecture to Venice, many buildings, especially palaces, continued to develop a Baroque form of the Venetian Renaissance style.[19]

Venetian books on architecture[edit]

The woodcut Map of Venice by Jacopo de' Barbari, 1500, was considered the definitive work depicting the city for much of the century[20][21]

Venice was a major European centre for all book printing publishing, and became the major centre for achitectural publishing. Vitruvius is the only significant classical writer on architecture to survive, and his work De architectura was keenly studied by all Renaissance architects. Although the Latin text had been printed before, the first edition illustrated with woodcuts was produced by Fra Giovanni Giocondo in Venice in 1511;[22] he had designed the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in 1505-08.

The "Seven Books" or Tutte l'opere d'architettura et prospetiva of Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) were also published in Venice, in several volumes from 1537 onwards. These were also heavily illustrated and became essential reading, and quickly copied and translated around Europe. The patrician humanist, clergyman and Venetian diplomat Daniele Barbaro was a patron of Palladio (Villa Barbaro), and Palladio illustrated his Italian translation of Vitruvius (1556). Palladio's own I quattro libri dell'architettura (1570), illustrated by himself, again had a huge influence across Europe.[23]

Vincenzo Scamozzi's main book L’Idea dell’Architettura Universale was published in 1615, and essentially looks back to Palladio; it was influential in spreading Palladianism.[24]

Byzantine revivalism[edit]

Venice had no history as an ancient Roman settlement, being founded on mudbanks in the lagoon after the fall of the Empire. But its history was much tied up with the Byzantine Empire, and references to Byzantine architecture were regarded as congenial to the ethos of the city's identity. This can be seen in the interior of San Salvador, Venice, begun 1508, on which several architects worked. Begun soon after the Basilica of Saint Peter's, Rome, among other things this large church with an interior based on Greek crosses represented a Venetian riposte to Roman revivalism.[25]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burns, 28
  2. ^ Tafuri, 3-4; Wolters and Huse, 15
  3. ^ Tafuri, 5-13
  4. ^ Burns, 24
  5. ^ Burns, 24
  6. ^ Burns, 24-25
  7. ^ Burns, Howard, 24
  8. ^ Hartt, 423; Burns, 24
  9. ^ Burns, 24-25
  10. ^ Hartt, 423-424
  11. ^ ULAN, ""Giorgio Spavento"
  12. ^ Hartt, 632-634; Burns, 26
  13. ^ Tafuri, 5-6
  14. ^ Hartt, 632-634; Burns, 26
  15. ^ Hartt, 631-632; Burns, 25
  16. ^ Department of European Paintings (October 2002). "Architecture in Renaissance Italy". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Archived from the original on 26 August 2018. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  17. ^ "UNESCO World heritage site number 712". 2007-01-03. Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  18. ^ Burns, 28
  19. ^ Wittkower, 290-300
  20. ^ Wolters and Huse, 3
  21. ^ Collaborative work. "Venice Time Machine" (PDF). Fondation Lombard Odier. Archived (PDF) from the original on 19 February 2019. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
  22. ^ Burns, 25
  23. ^ Burns, 25
  24. ^ Wittkower, 115
  25. ^ Tafuri, Chapter 2


  • Burns, Howard, "Architecture", in Jane Martineau (ed), The Genius of Venice, 1500–1600, 1983, Royal Academy of Arts, London.
  • Hartt, Frederick, History of Italian Renaissance Art, (2nd edn.)1987, Thames & Hudson (US Harry N Abrams), ISBN 0500235104
  • Tafuri, Manfredo, Venice and the Renaissance, 1995, MIT Press, google books
  • Wittkower, Rudolf, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600–1750, Penguin/Yale History of Art, 3rd edition, 1973, ISBN 01405611161
  • Wolters, Wolfgang and Huse, Norbert, The Art of Renaissance Venice: Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, 1460-1590, 1993, University of Chicago Press