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The Grand Canal

[Venice - First Impressions]  [The Story Of Venice]  [The Stones Of Venice]  [The Painters Of Venice]  [The Heart Of Venice]  [St Mark's Church]  [The Doges' Palace]  [The Grand Canal]  [Some Venetian Churches]  [Venetian Islands]  [More Articles About Venice] 

( Originally Published Mid-1900's )

The Grand Canal is not only the loveliest street in the world, but the most interesting, for the palaces and churches which border it include representatives of every style of architecture from the twelfth to the eighteenth century.

Let us begin our exploration of the canal at the San Marco station on the Piazzetta.

On the right as we leave San Marco we see the Zecca, which was once the Mint, and which now accommodates the library of St Mark. The Zecca was built by Sansovino, and is a poor attempt to plagiarize the massive style of Sanmicheli, whose most famous work is perhaps the magnificent Porta del Palio, at Verona. Apart from other faults the building is marred by the weakness of the crowning cornice, a weakness which is emphasized by the fact that the cornice over the second floor is actually larger than the summit cornice.

The church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on our left, was begun by Palladio, and contains some fine pictures. The view from the Campanile is the finest in Venice.

The Dogana di Mare, the customs house, on our left, was erected in 1676, and is described by Baedeker as a baroque building, but there is nothing of baroque exuberance in its dignified and balanced composition. Here again I think we can discern the influence of Sanmicheli. The magnificent church of Santa Maria della Salute adjoins the Dogana. I fancy that even the most fervent Ruskinian must experience a twinge of doubt as to the utter abomination of the Renaissance school when he contemplates the balanced grouping of the Dogana and the Salute. Ruskin indeed grudgingly admitted that the Salute was

impressive by its position, size, and general proportion. These latter are exceedingly good; the grace of the whole building being chiefly dependent on the inequality of size in its cupolas, and pretty grouping of the two campaniles behind them.

Ruskin then proceeded to scold the Salute for the ridiculous disguise of the buttresses under the form of colossal scrolls ; the buttresses themselves being originally a hypocrisy, for the cupola is stated by Lazari to be of timber, and therefore needs none.

A structural deceit always provoked Ruskin's rage. He assumed as an axiom the highly debatable theory that the aesthetic impression produced by a building must be based on the true constructive facts of that building. If we accept this premise we must condemn out of hand the domes of the Salute, St Peter's, and St Paul's, for in all these cases the aesthetic impression is due to concealing, rather than to revealing, the essential construction of the domes in question.

The dilemma of the dome may be stated as follows: the best effects within the building are produced by a shallow dome, but the shallow dome is dull and unimpressive as a silhouette.

The Renaissance solved this dilemma by the subterfuge of a double dome, the inside shell of which was intended to produce the desired effect on those who looked up into the dome from within the building,and the outside shell was added simply and solely for its aesthetic value. Most of us, when we contrast the squat domes of St Mark's as seen from the Piazza with the noble dome of the Salute, will agree that this deception was not only venial, but admirable.p> More than once in this book I have quoted The Architecture of Humanism. If I quote at some length from the author's description of the Salute I do so partly because the discerning reader will be grateful for an opportunity to reread this description as the gondola glides under the shadow of the Salute, and partly because there are few passages in architectural literature which can be set beside this for penetrating discernment.

Weight, pressure, and resistance are part of our habitual body experience, and our unconscious mimetic instinct impels us to identify ourselves with apparent weight, pressure, and resistance exhibited in the forms we see. Every object, by the disposition of the bulk within its contours, carries with it suggestions of weight easily or awkwardly distributed, of pressures within itself and upon the ground, which have found or failed to find secure and powerful adjustment... Nature, like the science of the engineer, requires from objects such security and power as shall in fact be necessary to each ; but art requires from them a security and power which shall resemble and confirm our own. Architecture, by the value of mass, gives to solid forms this human adequacy, and satisfies a vital instinct in ourselves. It exacts this adequacy in the detail of its decoration, in the separate elements that go to make its structure, in the structure itself, and in the total composition. The Salute at Venice to take a single instance possesses the value of mass in all these particulars. The sweeping movement suggested by the continuous horizontal curve of the Grand Canal is brought to rest by the static mass of the church that stands like its gate upon the sea. The lines of the dome create a sense of massive bulk at rest ; of weight that loads, yet does not seem to crush, the church beneath ; as the lantern, in its turn, loads yet does not crush the dome. The impression of mass immovably at rest is strengthened by the treatment of the sixteen great volutes. These, by disguising the abrupt division between the dome and church, give to the whole that unity of bulk which mass requires. Their ingenious pairing makes a perfect transition from the circular plan to the octagonal. Their heaped and rolling form is like that of a heavy substance that has slidden to its final and true adjustment. The great statues and pedestals which they support appear to arrest the outward movement of the volutes, and to pin them down upon the church. In silhouette the statues serve (like the obelisks of the lantern) to give a pyramidal contour to the composition, a line which more than any other gives mass its unity and strength. Save for a few faults of design in the lower bays, there is hardly an element in the church which does not proclaim the beauty of mass, and the power of mass to give essential simplicity and dignity even to the richest and most fantastic dreams of the baroque.

The Salute was built between 1631 and 1650 by the Venetian architect Baldassare Longhena as a thanksgiving for the cessation of the plague in 1630. The Renaissance interior is dull, except in so far as it has a technical interest, for it represents one method of solving the problem of carrying the main order round an octagon. There are some fine pictures in the church, notably Tintoretto's magnificent Marriage in Cana.

A side-canal separates the Salute from the charming fourteenth-century Gothic abbey of St Gregorio. A little farther up on the same side we pass the small, but very attractive, Palazzo Dario. It was built in 1450, and is a most important example of the first phase of Renaissance architecture in Venice. "So soon as the classical enthusiasm," writes Ruskin,

required the banishment of Gothic forms, it was natural that the Venetian mind should turn back with affection to the Byzantine models in which the round arches and simple shafts, necessitated by recent law, were presented under a form consecrated by the usage of their ancestors. And, accordingly, the first distinct school of architecture which arose under the new dynasty was one in which the method of inlaying marble, and the general forms of shaft and arch, were adopted from the buildings of the twelfth century, and applied with the utmost possible refinements of modern skill.

The Palazzo Dario is encrusted with porphyry decorations. This red or purple volcanic stone is found in Egypt on the coast of the Red Sea.

The chief importance of the Dario Palace and the Contarini dagli Scrigni, which we shall pass before long, lies in the fact that the coloured marble with which they are faced is, in effect, the rearguard action of the colour which the Venetians loved, colour for which there was ample scope in the Byzantine and Gothic palaces, but which was expelled by the severe monochrome of Renaissance architecture. "And the hues of this autumn of the early Renaissance," writes Ruskin,

are the last which appear in architecture. The winter which succeeded was colourless as it was cold ; and although the Venetian painters struggled long against its influence, the numbness of the architecture prevailed over them at last, and the exteriors of all the latter palaces were built only in barren stone.

Certainly the colour had faded out of the early Renaissance architecture when Sansovino constructed the monotonous Palazzo Corner della Ca Grande, which is almost opposite to the Palazzo Dario.

A little beyond the iron bridge, Ponte di Ferro, the canal sweeps round in a broad curve, and the Palazzo Rezzonico comes into view on the left. This palace, which was built by Longhena, served as a model for the Army and Navy Club in Pall Mall. It was here that Browning died. A little farther up on the same side we pass the Palazzo Foscari, which dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, and which was described by Ruskin as "the noblest example in Venice of fifteenth-century Gothic."

On the right-hand side of the canal just before the steamer station of St Angelo we pass the Palazzo Contarini delle Figure, another fine example of early Renaissance. "In the intervals of the windows of the first storey," writes Ruskin,

certain shields and torches are attached, in the form of trophies, to the stems of two trees whose boughs have been cut off, and only one or two of their faded leaves left, scarcely observable, but delicately sculptured here and there, beneath the insertions of the severed boughs. It is as if the workman had intended to leave us an image of the expiring naturalism of the Gothic school.

Directly facing the side-canal, and just beyond the steamer station of St Angelo, we pass the fascinating Palazzo Corner Spinelli, where Byron usually resided when he was in Venice. This palace, which was probably the work of the Lombardi, is the most representative and beautiful example in Venice of the transitional architecture of the earlier Renaissance. The rusticated basement suggests that the architect was familiar with the new style of palace in Florence which had been developed there fifty years previously. The lightness and grace of the building is largely due to the fact that very little use is made of the orders, and that they only appear in pilaster form to strengthen the angles of the palace. Great skill is shown in producing variety by the different shapes of the balconies: note, for instance, the charming trefoil balcony on the first floor.

The window tracery is still Gothic in feeling.The tracery is definitely Gothic, a survival from an age when a window was a thing of beauty, and not a square hole in a wall. The windows of the Palazzo Vendramin, at the other end of the canal, are very similar in treatment. A little farther up on the right-hand side we come to the Palazzo Grimani, a sixteenth-century building described by Baedeker as "the chef-d'oeuvre of Sanmicheli." I dissent from the verdict, for the greatest work of this great architect is surely to be found not in Venice, but in Verona.

The Grimani is a fine building, and Ruskin, much as he hated the Renaissance, was unqualified in his praise of this palace. " Nor is the finish of its details," he tells us,

less notable than the grandeur of their scale. There is not an erring line, nor a mistaken proportion, throughout its noble front ; and the exceeding fineness of the chiselling gives an appearance of lightness to the vast blocks of stone out of whose perfect union that front is composed.

A modern architect, William J. Anderson, has detected more than one fault of "mistaken proportion" which escaped the eagle eye of Ruskin.

The lowest storey is magnificent ; but the comparative lowness of proportion of the two upper storeys offend. The squatness of the first floor is contributed to by the balustrade, which cuts off the actual height of the arch orders.

But in spite of these faults the Grimani is a noble building, perhaps the finest example of Roman Renaissance in Venice.

According to Ruskin the Grimani narrowly escaped demolition, its proprietor in Ruskin's time having intended that it should be pulled down and sold for its material. It was, however, rescued by the Austrian Government and transformed by them into a postoffice.

Next to the Grimani are two palaces, the Farsetti and the Loredan, both of which are in the Romanesque style of the twelfth century.

We are now approaching the Ponte di Rialto, which is such a famous feature of the canal. Rialto is the name of a district, and is derived from the Rivo Alto, the original name of the most inaccessible of the island lagoons which was chosen as the seat of government in 811.

Ruskin writes as follows:

The Bridge of the Rialto is the best building raised in the time of the Grotesque Renaissance ; very noble in its simplicity, in its proportions, and in its masonry. Note especially the grand way in which the oblique archstones rest on the butments of the bridge, safe, palpably both to the sense and eye ; note also the sculpture of the Annunciation on the southern side of it ; how beautifully arranged, so as to give more lightness and grace to the arch the dove, flying towards the Madonna, forming the keystone, and thus the whole action of the figures being parallel to the curve of the arch, while all the masonry is at right angles to it... The bridge was built by Antonio da Ponte in 1588. It was anciently of wood, with a drawbridge in the centre, a representation of which may be seen in one of Carpaccio's pictures at the Accademia delle Belle Arti : and the traveller should observe that the interesting effect, both of this and the Bridge of Sighs, depends in great part on their both being more than bridges ; the one a covered passage, the other a row of shops, sustained on an arch. No such effect can be produced merely by the masonry of the roadway itself.

From St Mark's it is much quicker to reach the Rialto Bridge on foot than by the Grand Canal. Consequently, when I was studying the Grand Canal for the purposes of this book I made a habit of taking the steamer to the Rialto and walking back on foot. Similarly, you can walk to the Rialto and then take the steamer from the Rialto to the station. An odd hour can always be spent profitably in studying one or other of the two halves of the canal. There are two habits which I advise the reader to acquire-the Grand Canal habit and the St Mark's habit.

There are few pleasanter places on which to spend an idle twenty minutes than the Rialto Bridge itself ; few spots which command a finer view of the canal. If you cross the bridge you can walk down the righthand side sufficiently far to reach a point opposite to and from which the Grimani Palace may be studied at leisure.

Continuing our journey, we see just beyond the bridge, on the left, the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, an early Renaissance building which was completed in 1525, and on the right the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, which was built in the twelfth century, and used as a hostel for Germans until the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the sixteenth century it was rebuilt by the German architect Girolamo Tedesco. Giorgione and Titian adorned the walls of this building with magnificent frescoes, which have now, alas, disappeared.

Farther up on the right we pass the Palazzo Michele delle Colonne, originally Gothic, but rebuilt in the seventeenth century. The interior can be visited if the owner is absent. There are some fine tapestries by a pupil of Rubens, a portrait by Moretto, and a ceiling painting by Tiepolo.

Just beyond the steamer station we pass the Ca d'Oro, the most attractive Gothic palace on the canal. It takes its name from the gilded ornamentations of the facade, from which the gilt has long since disappeared. It was built early in the fifteenth century, and has suffered many vicissitudes of fortune. In the middle of the nineteenth century it was inhabited by the dancer Taglioni, who sold many of its treasures. It was rescued from decay by Baron Franchetti, who restored it and presented it to the city of Venice. It has recently been turned into a State museum, open to the public, which contains some fine pictures, notably a portrait by Tintoretto and Ulantegna's St Sebastian in the little chapel.

A little higher up are two Renaissance palaces, the Palazzo Corner della Regina, built in 1724, and the Palazzo Pesaro, perhaps the finest example of a baroque palace in Venice. Like the Rezzonico, which it resembles in many respects, it was built by Longhena (1679). It now contains an admirable gallery of modern art. The building has been much admired, but the choppy effect produced by the broken and pointed rustication on the ground floor is not very happy, and the restlessness of the baroque sculptury is emphasized by the interruption to the cornice, which is broken over the column.

The Palazzo Vendramin-Calerghi, just before the steamer station of Santa Marcuola, is a magnificent example of the early Renaissance. It was begun in 1481, and completed at the beginning of the sixteenth century by Pietro Lombardo.

Gothic influence can be traced in the window tracery of the Palazzo Corner Spinelli, but the delightful leaf like shape of the Spinelli 'eye' has degenerated in the Vendramin to a rather dull circle. The grouping of the central windows is an arrangement very common in the Renaissance palaces of the Grand Canal.

It was in this palace that Wagner died in 1883. The inscription on the memorial tablet was written by Gabriele d'Annunzio.

The Fondaco dei Turchi, on the left-hand side, dates from the thirteenth century, and was very effectively restored in 1861. It is now a museum of natural history.

The Chiesa degli Scalzi, on the right-hand side just before the station, is one of the most exuberant of the baroque churches in Venice. The ceiling fresco by Tiepolo was wrecked by a bomb dropped from an aeroplane in 1915.

San Simeone Piccolo, which faces the station, is said to be an imitation of the Pantheon at Rome.

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