Venetian architecture doesn’t follow the same patterns as anywhere else. Nothing illustrates this better than the city’s most iconic style, which goes by the rather inadequate label of “Venetian Gothic”. As anyone who has seen the Doge’s Palace can attest, Gothic forms are only one of many influences. “Gothic” also implies pre-Renaissance, but Venetian buildings in the 14th and 15th centuries already incorporated plenty of modern ideas.
In fact, Venetian Gothic architecture isn’t very Gothic at all. It describes a period when the city incorporated some decorative elements from Gothic structures, most notably pointed arches, into its own distinctive building style. It also coincided with the city’s historical peak, when its dominance of Mediterranean trade brought in wealth to fund expressions of power and taste. Most of all, Venetian Gothic arose out of the city’s unique physical and cultural environment.
Venetian Gothic Churches
Italians never fully embraced the traditional Gothic style, and Venice had even less use for it than most of the peninsula. The heavy stone piers and buttresses required to support soaring vaults would never work on the lagoon’s marshy landscape. Walls of stained glass were also impractical – not to mention incongruous against Venice’s rich Byzantine heritage and Islamic influences. By the time the French created the first Gothic cathedrals, Venetians already had their own magnificent edifice: St. Mark’s, with its jaw-dropping mosaics and opulent domes.
As new orders within the Christian community spread, they brought the Gothic style with them to Venice. Among the most prominent groups were the Franciscans and the Dominicans, who both required large churches for the crowds they attracted with charismatic preachers.
The Franciscan Frari and Dominican Santi Giovanni E Paolo churches share many characteristics. Both began construction in the mid-13th century, and finished in the 15th. In order to reduce each massive structure’s weight, they both adopted the Lombard tradition of building in brick rather than stone. Because their monks swore vows of poverty, they favored austere rather than ornate exteriors for the churches.
Giovanni e Paolo (above) and Frari (below)
Although the orders remained under mainland control, their churches nonetheless exhibit a few Venetian peculiarities. For instance, unstable ground required the addition of cross-beams for the vaults. Instead of minimizing them, the Venetians decorated them with characteristic flair.
Madonna dell’Orto and San Giovanni in Bragora
The Gothic style spread to other local churches. Notable examples include the Santo Stefano, San Giovanni in Bragora, and Madonna dell’Orto.
Venetian Gothic Palaces
Unlike traditional Gothic architecture, Venetian Gothic blossomed in non-religious buildings. Gothic cathedrals developed vaulting with pointed arches as a means of supporting a roof without solid walls. The glorious height worked better for church rituals than day-to-day life, where people required easy access to multiple floors for residential and business activities. The absence of vaults, normally the very core of the Gothic style, is a sign of Venice’s idiosyncrasy.
By the time the Gothic style arrived in Venice, locals had already developed a standard model for secular buildings. The city’s density encouraged construction of narrow buildings, usually four to six stories in height.
With most of the light coming from the side on the water, a profusion of windows and loggias grew along the canals. As the part of the primary façades, the openings became a way to exhibit style and power.
While the shapes and ornamentation might borrow from Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, or any number of other traditions, Venetian palazzos maintained roughly the same layout.
On the left, the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti and Palazzo Barbaro are classic examples of late and early Venetian Gothic styles. On the right, whirling motifs on the balconies of the Palazzo Contarini-Fasan (a.k.a. Casa de Desdemona)
The scope of Gothic architecture in Venice may have been limited, but its forms appeared peculiarly suited to the environment. Intricate carvings, both fanciful and geometric, complemented the Byzantine and Islamic styles. More importantly, the Gothic emphasis on light and permeability – with lacy filigrees and delicate spires rather than heavy walls – became the ultimate expression of Venetian identity.
Venice moved beyond the architecture-as-fortress mentality hundreds of years before the rest of Europe. Unlike other government seats, the Doge’s Palace doesn’t resemble a castle. Instead of thick, rusticated walls with few openings on the ground level, the Palazzo Ducale features a double loggia on the bottom. In terms of volume, this 1340 building looks more like a 20th century modern structure than its contemporaries in cities like Florence.
A few visual tricks make the boxy upper levels on the Palazzo Ducale seem to float over the loggias below. Smooth surfacing and soft colors reduce the feeling of mass and also reflect the light of the lagoon. The dynamic pattern of diagonal lines creates a sense of movement. Most subtly of all, the innermost diamonds use random colorations, giving the façade a shimmering quality.
Thanks to its location within a lagoon which required years of experience to navigate, Venice never required defensive structures. The openness of the city’s architecture also celebrates its remarkable internal stability. While her neighbors went through crisis after crisis, “La Serenissima” cruised through a thousand years under the same constitution. Keeping the Doge’s residence and seat of government open to public traffic on the piazza was a symbolic expression of its strength.
The lower levels feature a wealth of carvings. Given the level of crowds passing by the Palazzo Ducale these days, not all visitors get a chance to appreciate the stories they tell – but it’s worth peeking at the capitals. (The columns are much shorter than they used to be, because the sinking piazza has been raised so many times.) Adjacent to the basilica, the monumental Porta della Carta takes Venetian Gothic to florid extremes and tends to attract the densest crowds.
Characteristics of Venetian Gothic Palaces
In order to stand out and impress, Venetian Gothic palaces experimented with new combinations of forms. Arches in particular showed up in virtuoso layerings, drawing from traditional Gothic, Byzantine, and Islamic iterations as well as new variations. The latter included the ogee arch, with an S-shaped curve on either side meeting in a point.
The combination of arches and four-lobed openings on the residential floor of the Palazzo Guistinian is a hallmark of Venetian Gothic.
Masons gave the inner and outer edges of arches different forms, and even decorated the spaces between them. They might create a panel with a relief or a polychrome pattern, or carve further openings. The most characteristic combination, introduced in the Doge’s Palace, used quatrefoil (four-lobed) apertures between the ogee/three-point arches.
Venetian painters tend to steal the limelight, but the city produced some impressive sculptors. Most notably, the work of Bartolomeo and Giovanni Bon includes the central portals of the Giovanni e Paolo and Madonna dell’Orto churches, the Porta della Carta, and much of the Ca’ d’Oro façade.
Even without its original gold-leaf sheathing, the Ca’ d’Oro’s over-the-top opulence remains striking.
One wonders whether Venice’s poverty-bound monks saw any commonality between their churches and the Ca’ d’Oro. The latter took the Gothic forms of the Doge’s Palace and went wild, then clad the ensemble with 22,000 leaves of pure gold. Some parts got a double coat of ultramarine blue instead; the rare shade came from ground lapis lazuli. Of course, the precious materials didn’t hold up for long in the salt-rich environment.
The Ca’ d’Oro’s façade represents the work of several teams coordinated by the patron. As such, some purists find it more of a patchwork than a cohesive design. But no one can deny the exuberant inventiveness of the masons, or the impact of their work on future palaces.
Venetians experimented endlessly with Gothic forms: even the area under a staircase becomes an opportunity to play with variations on an arch.
Inside, things get even more extravagant, notably the floor mosaics. Not all the elements are original: both the floor and the checkered marble walls were added by a later owner. The consistency of the colors and patterns gives a unified feel, even as they highlight Venice’s Byzantine heritage.
The End of Venetian Gothic, Further Reading
By the end of the 15th century, several developments signaled major changes in Venice’s international position. Ottoman Turks were taking over Mediterranean trade, the Portuguese opened their own naval routes to east Asia, and Columbus discovered a new continent – it was the beginning of the end for the Venetian Empire. Henceforth the city began to focus more on mainland Italy, and the Renaissance style began gaining ground.
By the time Napoleon conquered Venice, the city was a shadow of its former self. John Ruskin’s book The Stones of Venice raised awareness of its distinctive architecture and helped spark the Gothic Revival movement. Ruskin’s exhaustive work remains a touchstone for any study of Venetian Gothic.
For more on Venetian Gothic architecture, we recommend Deborah Howard’s book The Architectural History of Venice.
All sites above are marked on our Google map.
The post-Gothic work on the interior of the Palazzo Ducale makes it one of Venice’s most important destinations.
Besides the spectacular interior, the Ca’ d’Oro holds an impressive collection of art. The joint ticket with the Palazzo Grimani was a highlight of our recent visit to Venice.