The Patricians Palaces Of Venice
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE elegances of art have a great influence upon private manners. Towards the end of the Fifteenth Century the manifestations of taste were everywhere in evidence, and it might be said that even costume borrowed its forms from Art, which reigned everywhere, in the modest dwelling of the poor as well as in the Doge's palace. Along with wealth was augmented the magnificence of the palaces that sprang from the waters as if by enchantment. In his Voyage, Constant says: " I do not speak of the multitude of great and beautiful and rich palaces, one of a hundred, another of fifty, and a third of thirty thousand ducats, nor of their owners, for it would be too hard a task for me, and one fitted only for a man who had to stay a long time in the said city of Venice." The annual rent of houses for the use of nobles was from fifty to one hundred and twenty gold ducats.
The interior of these mansions was in no way inferior to the exterior. The graceful twines of the arches and the spiral columns that support the ogives of the marble facades were reproduced in the interior ornamentation and in the furniture of the apartments that were not very spacious, but painted and decorated with severe elegance. The commonest utensil and the furniture of even the most trifling importance had an artistic value. Splendid friezes ran around the upper portions of the rooms the ceilings of which " remarkable for their mouldings," as Sansovino says, and their arabesques, were sometimes of carved wood, gilded and coloured, and sometimes, after the style of the Thirteenth Century, with long and thick beams painted and carved in the style called intelaradure alla tedesca.
The walls covered with tanned, gilded or silvered leather, with ornaments and figures (cuori d'oro), or with silken hangings, sometimes embroidered with precious stones or striped with thin plates of gold; the folding doors, the jambs and lintels, all carved or incrusted; the chimney-pieces decorated with fantastic interlacings of foliage, chimeras, sirens and cupids in the Lombard taste: everything was admirable for its richness or its exquisite form. Among other examples, there still exists in the Ducal Palace a wonderful model of Fifteenth Century mural decoration in the room degli Scarlath, which at first was the Doge's room, and afterwards the place where the Twelve nobles, who wore scarlet robes, met. Around the ceiling, decorated with golden rose work on a blue ground, runs an elegant frieze carved throughout; the chimney piece, a work by Lombardo executed when Augustino Barbarigo was Doge, that is to say, between 1486 and 1501, is a masterpiece for the marvellous delicacy of its ornamentation, which twines in and out with supple elegance.
But what we have fewest examples of are the furniture and hangings, Time having consumed the greater part of these, and the mercantile spirit of the age having relinquished the remainder to foreigners. We will nevertheless endeavour to the best of our ability to reconstruct in imagination the interior of a patrician mansion of the Fifteenth Century. In the middle of the room usually occupied by the nobles were to be seen an the walnut table of chastened style, and along the walls or on brackets, in charming disorder, amphorae, ceramics, gold and silver vases, great swords, medals, cymbals, lutes, and books bound in guilloched leather. The taste for the antique was already in the ascendant, and in glass cases were assembled the statuettes and other objects discovered in the excavations. Hanging from the ceilings, or fixed to the walls, gleamed lamps of Oriental style in gilded copper or bronze enamelled, inlaid, chased, and ornamented with crystal of a thousand hues; or lanterns adorned with little wreathed columns, closed with mirrors of various forms, which on the walls produced an effect of painting in chiaroscuro; or again lanterns of hammered iron with the most elegant volutes and open-work. In the libraries were preserved those precious parchment manuscripts whose pages painted with miniatures, with infinite patience in the silence of the cloisters, still breathe forth the amiable ingenuity of that period. The table-service was of gold and silver; the glasses and flasks of Murano had an individual transparence and elegance; even the copper vases used to cool the drinks were covered with strange damaskeening. The bedrooms served also as reception rooms. Around the mirrors, and magnificently hung beds, and alcoves supported by gilded caryatides, were framings of carved open woodwork, bordering panels, marquetry work and other ornaments of extreme delicacy. During the early years of the Sixteenth Century, the Doge's bed was covered with gold, and Contarini says, in describing the palace, that in the ducal chamber he saw the lettiera coperta de aurea maiestate. Beside the bed was placed the Prie Dieu, beneath those diptychs or little wooden altars with little open spires, and with saints with golden aureoles ;beautiful works on which the carver often cut his name beside that of Vivarini and others who had painted the images. The presses, coffers, trousseaux chests, jewel caskets for wedding presents (which on that account were justly called marriages), were carved or painted with domestic and battle scenes. People ran into such wild expenditure for the furnishings of an apartment that a law of 1476 ordered not more than 15o ducats of gold were to be spent on wood, gold and painting.
The Venetian palaces had several doors that did not all lead into the vestibule (entrada), but sometimes into vast courtyards surrounded with walls battlemented in the Arab fashion. In these courtyards were wells with artistically sculptured curbs; and here were found those picturesque stairways without carcass that we still admire in the Sanudo Palace of St. Mary of the Miracles, the Capello Palace at St. John Lateran, the Centenni Palace at San Toma, etc., etc.2
In the Sixteenth Century the change from the ideas of the Middle Ages to those of renascent Antiquity is already accomplished. Pagan grandeur revives in all its splendour. The demand for luxury grows more marked from day to day and in the interiors furniture becomes richer and less simple. Sansovino writes, towards the end of the Sixteenth Century: " As for the apartments, furniture and incredible riches, one cannot even imagine them, far less describe them clearly.
And although our elders were economical, they grew magnificent in the adornment of their dwellings. There are innumerable edifices with the ceilings of the chambers and other rooms gilded and painted, and covered with historical pictures and excellent fancies." Franco, also, in his turn, says: " The buildings of this city offer an admirable spectacle to one who looks at them from the outside. But when one sees the interiors, they are still more astonishing and wonderful, for they are adorned with very beautiful paintings, carvings, mouldings, tapestries, gold and silver and such a quantity of other precious ornaments, that, if a man wanted to enumerate them, those who have not seen them would take him for a liar." Riches, nevertheless, were never separated from beauty; and, moreover, there was no cessation in the invention of new forms of presses, credences, tables, chairs, doors and stools. Sansovino says : " In fact, nowhere else are to be seen more commodious, more concentrated, or more fit for man's use than these." The private life of that century was written in the pictures, tapestries and furniture; just as the public life was written in the monuments. With time, luxury constantly became more external and was displayed principally in the state and reception rooms, each one of which could contain a whole modern apartment. From the vestibules, ornamented with mouldings and bas-reliefs, household goods gradually disappeared and the ancient arms were replaced by gigantic show halberds with handles covered with crimson velvet, studded with yellow leather and ornamented with red silk fringes and shining steel on which are engraved fruits, victories and trophies. On the landings of the staircases are statues, and fragments of antique columns with inscriptions. Even in the hall (or portico), are hung precious trophies of arms, gemmed shields and flags. The doors with casings of rare marble lead into great rooms where gold, velvet and silk reflect the light in a thousand ways upon the walls adorned with pictures by celebrated Venetian masters. The notices on the works of design of the first half of the Sixteenth Century, by an anonymous author believed to be Marc Antoine Michiel, and published by Morelli, show us the quantity of admirable works with which the walls then had to be hung.