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 so profusely embellished by Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Bellini [...] are filled with bronzes, marbles, granites, porphyries, precious antiques, rare manuscripts; their internal magic is equal to their external magic.”
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. Among the most important ones were those of the Emperor of Austria, the Kings of France, Spain and England, located in various palaces in the city, deliberately in a distance from the Doge’s Palace.  

The arrival of an ambassador was an additional opportunity for Venice to deploy its pomp and for its people to add more celebrations to the calendar.

On the first day, the ambassador performs his solemn entry on a luxuriously decorated boat, in the middle of a convoy consisting of 4.000 boats and gondolas.

After docking in front of the Doge’s Palace, the ambassador would say a few words and receive the crowd’s homage and applause. On the second day, the enthronement takes place in the Hall of the College, in the Ducal palace. The doge, dressed in a golden mantle, is seated on the throne, surrounded by his six counselors, his three chefs of the Quaranzia Criminale, the six Great Sages, the five Sages of dry land […]. The ritual always stayed the same, as indicated by the Abbey of Pomponne, solemnly received in May 1705: 

“The Doge, in the sight of the Ambassador arriving, stands up without removing his bonnet, while the senators rise removing theirs. The Ambassador makes three bows, one on entering, a second one in the middle of the room, and a third one at the foot of the steps of the throne. Then he sits down at the right of the doge […] and presents the doge with the letter of the King and that of Monsieur le Dauphin […]. The doge confides them in the hands of the Secretary who reads it aloud, after which the Ambassador removes his cape and pronounces his speech. Every time he names the King, Monsieur le Dauphin and the Republic, he takes off his hat, and speaks for half an hour. The Doge replies in a few words; after which he gets up, bows three times, as on entering, and joins the knight […].” A ceremony of great pomp was attended by nobles and ladies: they were already wearing masks since this official reception marked the beginning of a three-day celebration in Venice.

One or two hours after returning to the “Palais of France”, the ambassador received the gifts of the Doge: sixteen jars of all kinds of jams and twenty-four bottles of white and red wine. 

During these two days, the embassy was open to everyone wearing a mask; the participants could enjoy two buffet feasts served by twelve men in black coats. Doors and stairs were guarded by soldiers to prevent disorder or thefts of precious objects.  Outside, the population was distributed four thousand pounds of bread and six casks of wine. On the illuminated streets, twelve trumpets, twelve oboes and twelve drums played non-stop. The following four days were devoted to the congratulatory visits of the Spanish ambassador, the nuncio, the receiver of Malta, the resident of Mantua or the Duke Sforza. Those unable to travel were sending 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 again with our eyes turned to Saint Mark basilica, its campanile, the square, and the ducal palace. There may not be a second gem in the world like this one. […]

The admirable square, lined with porticoes and palaces, lays down a forest of columns, Corinthian capitals and statues, extending the noble arrangement of its classical forms.

At its eastern end, half-Gothic and half-Byzantine, rises the basilica under onion-shaped domes and pointed pinnacles; with arcades festooned with figurines and porches sewn with small columns; with mosaic-paneled vaults, paving stones encrusted with colored marbles, and cupolas of sparkling gold.

This is a strange sanctuary, a sort of a Christian mosque, where waterfalls of sunlight flicker in a reddish shadow, like the wings of a genie in a purple and metal underworld. 

Just around the corner, the gigantic campanile rises up in the sky, as bare and straight as a ship mast, announcing from afar the old royalty of Venice to seafarers.  At its feet, the delicate loggetta of Sansovino lies like a flower; and a joyful bunch of elegant statues, bas-reliefs, bronzes and marbles are rushing to adorn the campanile. Twenty or so illustrious remains, scattered here and there, compose an open-air museum: quadrate columns brought from Saint-Jean-d’Acre, a quadriga of bronze horses taken 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 wide marble quay and stairs where the black gondola flotilla moors.  We turn our eyes towards the lagoon and we no longer want to look at anything else; we have seen it already, but only through the veil of Canaletti’s paintings: the painted light is not the real light. 

Around the creations of architecture, the water, enlarged like a lake, spins its magical frame, its greenish or bluish colors, its swaying, murky crystal. Thousand little playful waves glisten in the breeze with crests that are sparkling.

On the horizon, to the east, one can see the masts of ships, the tops of churches, the greenery of a large garden at the end of the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront. All this comes out of the water; the flood comes from all sides, entering through the canals, wavering along the quays, sinking into the horizon, streaming between the houses, bordering the churches. The lustrous, luminous, enveloping sea penetrates Venice; it surrounds the city like a glory.

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 unique diamond in the middle of an ornament, the Doge’s palace erases the rest. […]

We have not seen any architecture that looks quite like it:  everything here looks new, pulled out of the conventional; you see, beyond the classical or Gothic forms […], there is a world where human invention is limitless; a kind of invention which, like nature, can violate all the rules to produce a perfect work on a model in absolute conflict with those that have been imposed on men. 

Here, all habits of the eye are inverted; with eyes of amazement one can admire an oriental fantasy posing the full in the void, instead of sitting the void on the full.  A colonnade of robust shafts carries a very light second one, serrated with ribs and trefoils, and, on this fragile support lies a massive wall of red and white marble, with slabs intersecting in motifs that reflect the light. […] 

One crosses the entrance, and all of a sudden, his eyes are filled with shapes. Two cisterns covered in sculpted bronze are surrounded by four facades featuring statues of an architecture that glows with the youth of the first Renaissance. Nothing is bare and cold; everything is populated with reliefs and figures. […] 

In Venice we don’t want to be austere, nor do we wish to imprison ourselves in book prescriptions; […] we want an architecture that wakes up all the senses. And we embroider it with ornaments, columns and statues full of opulence and joy.

We place pagan Colossi, Mars and Neptunes, biblical figures, Adam and Eve; […] Rizzo and Sansovino lay precious marbles on staircases; they insert delicate stuccoes on arabesques […] and a profusion of poetic plants and leaping animals. One climbs these princely staircases with shyness and respect; he may even feel kind of ashamed that his sad black clothing is a pale shadow of the brocaded silk gowns, the Byzantine tiaras and ankle boots, the noble splendors for which these marble steps were made. At the top of the stairs, the visitor is welcomed by a Saint Mark by Tintoretto launched into the air like an old Saturn, with two superb women, Force and Justice, companions of a Doge who receives the sword of rule and combat.  

The government and ceremonial rooms are all lined with paintings. There, the works of Tintoretto, Veronese, Pordenone, Palma the younger, Titian, Bonifacio, and twenty more artists covered the walls and the vaults of which Palladio, Aspetti, Scamozzi, Sansovino, made the designs and adorned them.

All the local geniuses in their finest are gathered here to glorify the city by erecting the memorial of 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.