Just as Venice possesses but a single piazza among dozens of campi, it has only one building correctly called a ‘palazzo’. The singularity is important: the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), like the Piazza San Marco, was the locus of the Serenissima’s public identity and seat of her republican government. Unlike her rivals in Florence and Milan she had no ruling dynasties to dictate polity, by contrast developing a deep aversion to individual aggrandizement and over-concentrated power. While the person and Palazzo of the Doge embodied their municipal identity, it was in their private houses that Venice’s mercantile oligarchs expressed their own family wealth and status.
These case (in Venetian parlance ca’) were built throughout the city. In the absence of primogeniture, many branches sprung from the two hundred-odd noble families, leading to several edifices of the same name – an obstacle for would-be visitors.
These houses were unlike any other domestic buildings elsewhere in the world: erected over wooden piles driven into the mud flats of the lagoon, they remained remarkably uniform over the centuries in their basic design, combining the functions of mercantile emporium (ground level) and magnificent residence (upper floors).
They were however built in a fantastic variety of styles, Veneto-Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo. Sometimes there is a touch of Islamic decoration. As new families bought their way into the aristocracy during the long period of the Republic’s economic and political decline, they had their residences refurbished in Rococo splendour by master artists such as Giambattista Tiepolo. Many of these palaces have survived the virtual extinction of the Venetian aristocracy and retain their original, if faded, glory.
Palaces for nobles will be considered in conjunction with those for the non-noble cittadino (wealthy merchant) class and the housing projects for ordinary Venetian popolani, which rise cheek by jowl in the dense urban fabric.
Some of the places visited are familiar and readily accessible to the public. Others are opened only by special arrangement with the owners, whether a charitable organisation, branch of local government, or descendants of the original occupants. Some of these cannot be confirmed until nearer the time.
A private, after-hours visit to the Basilica San Marco, the mosaic interior illuminated for your benefit, is a highlight of this tour. As is an opportunity to see up close ‘the most beautiful street in the world’, the Grand Canal, from that most Venetian of vantage-points, a gondola.
Fly at c. 12.30pm (British Airways) from London Gatwick to Venice. Cross the lagoon by motoscafo (water taxi) and travel up the Grand Canal to the doors of the hotel. Luggage is transported separately to the hotel by porters. There is an evening visit to a privately-owned palace, the 16th-century Palazzo Corner Gheltoff Alverà (by special arrangement).
See the palazzi on the Grand Canal from the viewpoint of a gondola. The former Casino Venier is a uniquely Venetian establishment that was part private members’ bar, part literary salon, part brothel (by special arrangement). Designed by Longhena (c. 1667) and Giorgio Massari (c. 1751), the Ca’ Rezzonico is perhaps the most magnificent of Grand Canal palaces, and contains frescoes by Tiepolo; it is now a museum of 18th-century art. Visit the grand ballroom of late 17th-century Palazzo Zenobio (by special arrangement).
Visit the Palazzo Ducale, supremely beautiful with its 14th-century pink and white revetment, late Renaissance gilded halls and paintings by Tintoretto and Veronese. The Palazzo Grimani at Santa Maria Formosa became in the mid-16th century the purpose-built site of the family collection of antiquities, which were then bequeathed to the Venetian Republic. There is an after-hours private visit to the Basilica San Marco, an 11th-century Byzantine-style church enriched over the centuries with mosaics, sculpture and various precious objects.
With its elegant tracery and abundant ornamentation, the Ca’ d’Oro, also on the Grand Canal, is the most gorgeous of Venetian Gothic palaces; it now houses the Galleria Franchetti. The 13th-century Fondaco dei Turchi is a unique survival from the era; today it is the natural history museum. In the afternoon visit a privately-owned palace, the Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo-Polignac (by special arrangement).
Visit the privately-owned 17th-century Palazzo Albrizzi which has some of the finest stucco decoration in Venice (by special arrangement). Travel by motoscafo to Venice airport. Fly to London Gatwick, arriving c. 6.15pm.
The tour is dependent on the kindness of many individuals and organisations, some of whom are reluctant to make arrangements far in advance, so the order of visits outlined above may change and there may be substitutions for some palaces mentioned.
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott
Associate Lecturer in History of Art at Birkbeck College, specialising in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College, University of London and lived in Rome for several years. He has written articles for Arte Veneta, Burlington Magazine and the Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,560 or £2,450 without flights. Single occupancy £2,910 or £2,800 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); a vaporetto pass; travel between the hotel and Venice Airport by water-taxi; luggage porterage between the hotel and Venice airport; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Hotel Palazzo Sant’Angelo, Venice: a 4-star hotel in an excellent location on the Grand Canal near Campo Sant’Angelo and the Rialto Bridge.
The nature of Venice means that the city is more often than not traversed on foot. Although part of her charm, there is a lot of walking along the flat and up and down bridges; standing around in museums and palaces is also unavoidable. The tour should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Fitness is essential.
Between 8 and 18 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'A really interesting selection of palazzi…Some very special features (such as the private out-of-hours tour of San Marco and the visits to privately owned palazzi) on which it is hard to put a price.'
'The itinerary was splendid and access to otherwise closed venues were an added plus.'
'This was our first trip and will not be our last.'
'The three private palazzos we visited were fascinating, and the hosts were interesting people in their own right who talked fascinatingly about their homes and histories.'
'The content of our tour was priceless, especially the visits to private palazzos and the private tour of St Marks , which was unforgettable. '