The most stunning palaces in Venice - Citimarks

The Doge’s ring

Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-1503) by the great Venetian master Vittore Carpaccio.


“Those double-gilt palaces, lavishly adorned by Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Bellini [...] are filled with bronzes, marbles, granites, porphyries, precious antiques, rare manuscripts; their internal enchantment matches their external splendor.”
François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 1833
chapter 1

The triumphant city

“‘Tis the most triumphant city that I ever saw!”

And yet it is no longer the Venice of the Minister of Louis XI; the Venice-Bride of the Adriatic and mistress of the seas; the Venice that gave emperors to Constantinople, kings to Cyprus, princes to Dalmatia, the Peloponnesus, Crete; the Venice that humiliated the German Cæsars and received the Popes as suppliants at her inviolable hearths; the Venice of whom monarchs esteemed it an honour to be its citizens, to whom Petrarch, Pletho, Bessarion bequeathed the remnants of Greek and Latin literature, saved from the shipwreck of barbarism; the Venice, a republic in the midst of Feudal Europe, that served as a buckler to Christianity; the Venice, the “setter-up of lions,” that trampled on the ramparts of Ptolemaïs, Ascalon, Tyre and overthrew the Crescent at Lepante, the Venice whose doges were men of learning and whose merchants knights; the Venice that laid low the Orient or bought its perfumes, that brought back from Greece conquered turbans or recovered master-pieces; the Venice that issued victorious from the ungrateful League of Cambrai;

the Venice that triumphed through her feasts, her courtesans and her arts, as through her arms and her great men; the Venice that was at once Corinth, Athens and Carthage, adorning her head with rostral crowns and floral diadems.

It is no longer even the city through which I passed when I went to visit the shores that had witnessed her glory; but, thanks to her voluptuous breezes and agreeable waters, she retains a charm: it is especially to declining countries that a beautiful climate is a necessity. There is enough civilization in Venice to lend a niceness to existence. The seduction of the sky prevents one from requiring greater human dignity: an attractive virtue is exhaled from those vestiges of greatness, those traces of the arts which surround one. The ruins of an old state of society which produced such things as these, while giving you a distaste for a new state of society, leave you no desire for a future. You love to feel yourself die with all that is dying around you; you have no other care than to adorn what remains of your life as it is gradually laid aside. Nature, which causes young generations to reappear amongst ruins as quickly as it covers those ruins with flowers, keeps for the most enfeebled races the habit of the passions and the enchantment of pleasure.

François-René de Chateaubriand
Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 1833
Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos in François-René de Chateaubriand, The Memoirs of François René Vicomte de Chateaubriand sometime Ambassador, Fremantle & Co, 1902

A fabulous hallway at the Palazzo Mocenigo.

chapter 2

The new ambassador

As capital city of an independent Republic, Venice hosted the embassies of numerous European States. Notably, the embassies of the Emperor of Austria, the Kings of France, Spain, and England were situated in various palaces across the city, deliberately positioned at a distance from the Doge’s Palace.  

The arrival of an ambassador presented an additional opportunity for Venice to showcase its grandeur, with the city’s inhabitants seizing the occasion to add more celebrations to their calendar.

On the first day, the ambassador makes a solemn entry aboard a luxuriously decorated boat, leading a convoy of 4,000 boats and gondolas.

After docking in front of the Doge’s Palace, the ambassador addresses the crowd, delivering a few words and receiving their homage and applause. On the second day, the enthronement ceremony takes place in the Hall of the College within the Ducal Palace. The Doge, adorned in a golden mantle, sits on the throne, surrounded by his six counselors, three chefs of the Quaranzia Criminale, the six Great Sages, and the five Sages of the Dry Land. The ritual remains unchanged, as documented by the Abbey of Pomponne, who was solemnly received in May 1705: 

“The Doge, upon the arrival of the Ambassador, stands up without removing his bonnet, while the senators rise, taking off theirs. The Ambassador performs three bows: the first upon entering, the second in the middle of the room, and the third at the foot of the steps leading to the throne. Subsequently, he takes a seat on the right of the Doge. There, he presents the letters of the King and Monsieur le Dauphin to the Doge, who entrusts them to the Secretary for a public reading. Following the reading, the Ambassador removes his cape and delivers his speech, punctuating key mentions of the King, Monsieur le Dauphin, and the Republic by removing his hat. The speech lasts approximately half an hour. In response, the Doge offers brief words, then rises, bows three times as he did upon entering, and rejoins the knight. […].” 

This ceremonial event, attended by nobles and ladies adorned with masks, marks the commencement of a three-day celebration in Venice and is characterized by grandeur and spectacle.

One or two hours after returning to the ‘Palais of France,’ the ambassador received the gifts from the Doge: sixteen jars of various jams and twenty-four bottles of white and red wine. 

Throughout these two days, the embassy opened its doors to all mask-wearing attendees, offering two buffet feasts served by twelve men in black coats. Soldiers guarded doors and stairs to prevent disorder or theft of precious objects. Outside, the population received four thousand pounds of bread and six casks of wine. The illuminated streets resounded with the continuous play of twelve trumpets, twelve oboes, and twelve drums. The subsequent four days were dedicated to congratulatory visits from the Spanish ambassador, the nuncio, the receiver of Malta, the resident of Mantua, and the Duke Sforza. Those unable to travel sent their compliments.

Patrick Barbier
La Venise de Vivaldi, Bernard Grasset, 2002

Mannequins representing ambassadors from the Far East standing next to the “bucentaur”, the ceremonial barge of the doges of Venice.

Furniture pieces created by the Memphis design group were the object of a dedicated exhibition in Palazzo Franchetti.

A view to the Grand Canal from the “Ponte dell’Accademia” bridge.

Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti serves as the seat of the Academy of Science, Humanities, and Arts. This majestic palace regularly hosts art exhibitions and various cultural events.

chapter 3

Byzantine glory

In St. Mark’s, embossed with domes, encrusted with mosaics, loaded with incoherent spoils of the East, I found myself at the same time in San Vitale at Ravenna, in St. Sophia in Constantinople, in St. Saviour’s in Jerusalem and in those lesser churches of the Morea, Chios and Malta: St. Mark’s, a monument of Byzantine architecture, composite of victory and conquest raised to the Cross, is a trophy, as is the whole of Venice. 

François-René de Chateaubriand
Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 1833

We set off once more, our gaze fixed upon Saint Mark’s Basilica, its campanile, the square, and the Doge’s Palace. Perhaps there is no second gem in the world quite like this one.

The magnificent square, adorned with porticoes and palaces, unfolds a forest of columns, Corinthian capitals, and statues, perpetuating the elegant arrangement of its classical forms

At its eastern end, a captivating blend of Gothic and Byzantine influences, the basilica ascends under onion-shaped domes and pointed pinnacles. Adorned with arcades embellished with figurines and porches adorned with small columns, it features mosaic-paneled vaults, paving stones encrusted with colored marbles, and cupolas gilded with sparkling gold.

This is a unique sanctuary, akin to a Christian mosque, where cascades of sunlight dance in a reddish shadow, reminiscent of the wings of a genie in a purple and metallic underworld.

Just around the corner, the colossal campanile stretches skyward, as bare and upright as a ship’s mast, proclaiming the ancient splendor of Venice to sailors from afar. At its base, the delicate loggetta of Sansovino rests like a flower, while a lively assortment of elegant statues, bas-reliefs, bronzes, and marbles rush to embellish the campanile. Approximately twenty illustrious remnants, scattered throughout, form an open-air museum: square columns imported from Saint-Jean-d’Acre, a quadriga of bronze horses seized from Constantinople, flag-holder pillars, two granite column shafts crowned by a crocodile and the winged lion of the Republic. In front of them lies a broad marble quay and stairs where the black gondola fleet docks.

As we turn our eyes toward the lagoon, our focus becomes unwavering; we no longer desire to behold anything else. Although we have seen it before, it was only through the veil of Canaletto’s paintings: the painted light differs from the real light.

Enveloping these architectural wonders, the water expands like a lake, creating a magical frame with its greenish or bluish hues and its undulating, opaque crystal. A thousand playful waves glisten in the breeze, their crests sparkling.

On the eastern horizon, the masts of ships, the spires of churches, and the verdant expanse of a vast garden at the terminus of the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront emerge from the water. The inundation envelops everything; it enters through the canals, meanders along the quays, submerges into the horizon, weaves through the streets, and encircles the churches. The radiant, luminous, embracing sea infiltrates Venice, surrounding the city like a halo.

Hippolyte Taine
À Venise – Voyage en Italie, Hachette, 1866

The oldest mosaics in St Mark’s, located in the niches of the entry porch in the narthex, date to as early as 1070.

Detail from the golden mosaics of the Dome of the Creation in the narthex.

The oldest mosaics in St. Mark’s were executed by mosaicists who had left Constantinople in the mid-eleventh century to work on the cathedral of Torcello and then remained in Venice.

The facade of Saint Mark’s basilica is unique for its rich decoration featuring statues of Saints, carved borders of foliage mixed with figures derived from Byzantine and Islamic traditions, golden mosaics and 4 gilded bronze horses (the original ones are kept in the interior of the church), removed from the Hippodrome of Constantinople, during the sack of the city in 1204.

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chapter 4

The Palace of palaces

Like a singular diamond at the center of an ornament, the Doge’s Palace eclipses everything else.

We have yet to encounter architecture quite like this: here, everything appears novel, breaking away from convention. Beyond the classical or Gothic forms, there exists a realm where human invention knows no bounds—a realm where invention, much like nature, can defy all established rules to create a flawless masterpiece in absolute contradiction to those imposed on humankind.

In this space, all perceptual norms are inverted; with eyes filled with astonishment, one can marvel at an oriental fantasy boldly presenting fullness in the void, as opposed to imposing the void upon fullness. A colonnade of sturdy shafts supports a delicately carved second layer, adorned with ribs and trefoils. On this delicate foundation rests a robust wall of red and white marble, with intersecting slabs forming motifs that play with and reflect the light.

Upon entering, one is immediately engulfed in a profusion of shapes. Two cisterns, adorned with sculpted bronze, stand amidst four facades adorned with statues, embodying an architecture that radiates the vibrancy of the early Renaissance. There is no austerity or starkness; everything is adorned with reliefs and figures. […] 

In Venice, we reject austerity and resist confining ourselves to the strict dictates of architectural manuals. Instead, we desire an architecture that arouses all the senses. We embellish it with ornaments, columns, and statues brimming with opulence and joy.

We install pagan Colossi—Mars and Neptunes—alongside biblical figures like Adam and Eve. Rizzo and Sansovino grace staircases with precious marbles, embedding delicate stuccoes within arabesques, and adorning spaces with a profusion of poetic plants and animated animals. Ascending these regal staircases inspires a sense of shyness and respect; one might even feel a touch of shame that their somber black attire pales in comparison to the brocaded silk gowns, Byzantine tiaras, ankle boots, and noble splendors for which these marble steps were crafted. At the summit, the visitor is greeted by a Tintoretto Saint Mark suspended in the air like an aged Saturn, flanked by two magnificent women—Force and Justice—accompanying a Doge receiving the symbols of rule and combat. 

The government and ceremonial rooms are adorned with paintings. Within, the masterpieces of Tintoretto, Veronese, Pordenone, Palma the Younger, Titian, Bonifacio, and twenty other artists envelop the walls and vaults. Palladio, Aspetti, Scamozzi, and Sansovino contributed to the designs and embellishments.

All the local geniuses at the height of their artistic prowess, converge here to exalt the city by creating a monument to its victories and the apotheosis of its greatness.

Hippolyte Taine
À Venise – Voyage en Italie, Hachette, 1866

The courtyard of the Doge’s palace is closed by the junction between the palace and St Mark’s Basilica, which used to be the Doge’s chapel.

In 1485, the Great Council decided that a ceremonial staircase should be built within the courtyard. The design envisaged a straight axis with the rounded Foscari Arch, with alternate bands of Istrian stone and red Verona marble, linking the staircase to the Porta della Carta, and thus producing one single monumental approach from the Piazza into the heart of the building.

Detail from the “Scala dei Giganti”, the Palace’s ceremonial staircase flanked by Mars and Neptune, Sansovino’s colossal statues representing Venice’s power by land and by sea.

The oldest part of the palace is the wing overlooking the lagoon, the corners of which are decorated with 14th-century sculptures, thought to be by Filippo Calendario and various Lombard artists such as Matteo Raverti and Antonio Bregno. The ground floor arcade and the loggia above are decorated with 14th- and 15th-century capitals, some of which were replaced with copies during the 19th century.

chapter 5

The haunted palazzo

It is an old, beautiful palace with a three-floor facade overlooking a narrow rio and with doorsteps bathing in the water, under the shadow of a delicately carved female head. This melancholic warrior figure […] gazes at his reflection in the green water of this solitary canal […]. It is very rare that a gondola stops at the bottom of the stairs […] and that someone steps out to pull the bronze ring of the ancient door bell. A bell whose distant chime would have made the guardian of this noble house run to the door -in earlier times…

This magnificent house is for sale: an entire construction from the mezzanine to the “piano nobile”, from its vast reception halls and spacious galleries to its many bedrooms, stairs and immense attics; everything is for sale, even its silence and solitude, along with the well of the noble vestibule and its piece of garden where two dismembered statues lie and crumble in the mossy grass: Two statues too worn-out and disfigured for any antique dealer to care to buy them. 

[…] What a misery, what a huge disrepair, what an abandonment this place has suffered! Where is the beautiful furniture of yesteryear attesting to the richness and taste of the family whose palace still bears its patrician name? In the vast galleries, decorated with delicious stucco in green and pink arabesque motifs, the walls are emptied of the canvases adorning them.

Where are the mythological scenes and the portraits of pageantry? Where is the Senator painted by Tiepolo or by Longhi, in his beautiful red gown, with his loose powdered wig? Where is the fair lady in a costume parade or a carnival dress? Gone are the large armchairs with emblazoned backs! Gone are the chandeliers of the thousand candles and the mirrors of a thousand reflections. Dilapidation and abandonment rules the place, as silence and solitude.

And yet the old Palace keeps a surprise for its visitors. It’s over there, right behind that door lined with red leather shreds, miserably dangling in the air. Push the door panel, and here you are in this large room, where something was miraculously saved from the greediness of the bric-a-brac traders. Sure, the lovely chest of drawers has gone missing, as have the big wardrobes of green or yellow lacquer painted in flowers, birds and Chinamen. One can also feel the absence of the wall lights from Murano and the rococo console table. But the walls have kept their wallpaper, a paper dating back to the 18th century, featuring languishing garlands intertwined around rich flower bouquets on a silver background. And it seems as if these festoons and these bouquets are waiting to be offered to the person, who, maybe, one day, returns to this house something of its old splendor.  

And there’s even another surprise reserved to this imaginary future tenant; this one is only to be found in Venice: it is a charming, mini home theatre with its stage, its oil lamps, its backcloth featuring -what else?- Saint Mark’s square.

In this decor, a dozen cute puppets are hanging from their strings. They are the heroes of Goldoni or Gozzi: Venetian gentlemen and ladies in carnival costumes with the three-cornered hats and the bauta masks lying around with the famous characters of Commedia dell’Arte:  Pantaleone, Brighella, Harlequin and Lucinda […]. 

Ah! How pleasant were the hours I spent with these puppets! […] How fun was the show they gave me! The agile Harlequin wrapped his arms around a bending Lucinda. The silliness of Pantaleone responded to Brighella’s funny faces. […] Thanks to them, old Venice woke up in my reverie, in its pleasures and parties, its gaiety and fantasy, its pomp and voluptuousness. Popular and patrician, the maritime city revived in my mind. And the illusion was so strong that I felt that I had become one of the city’s old sons: Venice had adopted me. Me too, I was going to wear my ample black coat, my three-cornered hat and my cardboard mask. Wasn’t my gondola waiting to take me to the Piazzetta?  

Henri de Régnier
Esquisses Vénitiennes, l’Art Décoratif, 1906

Ca’ d’Oro is one of the oldest palaces in the city and the best surviving one of Venetian Gothic architecture. Its name means “golden house” due to the gilt and polychrome external decorations which once adorned its walls.

The palazzo’s beautiful quatrefoil openings inspired Francis H. Kimball, the famed American architect behind landmarks such as, the Empire State Building, to design the Montauk Club, a social club in Brooklyn, New York.

The beautiful Cosmatesque floor of the palace’s portego is marked by a style of geometric decorative inlay stonework, typical of the architecture of Medieval Italy.

The columns and arches of the piano nobile’s balcony have capitals which support a row of quatrefoil windows overlooking the Grand Canal.

Venice for architecture lovers

Explore Venice’s extraordinary palaces and museums: every piece of them unravels the city’s glorious past.