01 September, 2006

99. The only real palace

For a long time, the Doge's Palace was the only building in Venice allowed to be called a 'palazzo'. All the other palaces in Venice were simply called 'casa' – house – hence the names Ca' d'Oro, and Ca' Rezzonico, and Ca' Dario for some of the other magnificent palaces in this finest of all cities.

And that was justified, because all of the others shrink from comparison with this greatest of all gothic palaces, so different from everything that preceded it, whose architectural influence was felt almost immediately and reverberated for centuries.

The beautiful cloister-like colonnade at ground level - which has a biblical story carved into each corner (see #22, June 14), and a unique carved marble theme on every capital low enough for passers-by to see every detail - anchors the structure almost like guy ropes holding it down as if the whole thing would fly away like a hot air balloon if they ever let go.

Above it, even taller gallery arcades along the whole length of the Piazetta and Riva Schiavoni sides of the palace carry twice as many columns as the arcade below. Quatrefoils, not on top of the arches at the point like those in the Frari church but nestling between each of the arches, look from below like decorative details yet each one is taller than a man and massive enough collectively to support the forty foot high wall above.

And yes, the wall above. Boxy and rectangular, the palace's upper story is half the height of the building and houses some of the most spectacular rooms you could imagine, high-ceilinged council chambers capable of commanding awe and loyalty from friends of the republic, but equally capable of striking terror into its enemies. It should seem oppressively heavy for the delicate tracery below that supports it, yet the effect of the pink diamond patterned brickwork is light and airy like a damask tablecloth skirt. The massive flat wall area is punctuated by window holes that echo the shape and size of the lower arcade arches.

This palace started life as a 9th century fortified castle, and was rebuilt and enlarged several times after a series of fires. The design of the facades are from the 14th century, and the upper story was rebuilt after a fire in the 16th century destroyed most of the top half including – among many other artworks - several huge Giovanni Bellini murals. Oh, what a loss that was.

This palace is unique in so many ways, and it defined the meaning of the term 'Venetian Gothic' for everything that came after it. I love the fact that it is about 700 years old but it looks like it could have been built yesterday.

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