Venice, Architecture in

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VENICE, ARCHITECTURE IN. According to Giorgio Vasari, the first historiographer of Italian Renaissance art, the modern era penetrated into Venice only with the arrival of the Florentine Jacopo Sansovino in the 1520s. Indeed, together with the Veronese Michele Sanmicheli and the Bolognese Sebastiano Serlio, who also arrived in the capital of the Venetian republic in the wake of the Sack of Rome of 1527, these architects were responsible for its Roman Renaissance. This is not to say that later fifteenth-century Venetian architects had not aspired to create a style all'antica or sought to bring glory to the city by emulating the architecture of the ancients. However, in its close trading ties with both Byzantium and the Levant, it is to Constantinople, as the second Rome, that Venice had traditionally looked. If the proud display of spolia such as the horses from the Hippodrome (looted from Constantinople and placed on the facade of San Marco) represented this veneration of antiquity, the lacy and ornate late Gothic style nevertheless persisted into the fifteenth century (Ca' d'Oro, begun 1421). This survival was due to a taste for rich materials and lavish decorations that was imported from the East and to the practices of stone masons imported from the West who had been trained in the tradition of a flamboyant Lombard Gothic style. Such was the case with architects like Mauro Codussi (St. Michele in Isola and the clock tower in the Piazza San Marco) and Pietro Lombardo (Santa Maria dei Miracoli), who were responsible for some of the most original buildings of the late fifteenth century in Venice.


It is against this tradition favoring lavish surface decoration, colorful marble veneers, and effects of light and shade that the work of the great sixteenth-century architects must be understood. Although the fifteenth century saw the rise of Venetian economic power and the zenith of its maritime influence and the sixteenth the beginning of its gradual decline (after the wars with and defeat by the League of Cambrai between 1508 and 1529), it is paradoxically in the latter period that the most important monuments of the republic were built. The state sponsored major building campaignsamong which the complex surrounding the Piazza San Marco was the most conspicuous and importantprecisely with the object of maintaining morale and projecting an image of security, power, and wealth at a difficult moment in its history. The architect of this renovatio urbis was Jacopo Sansovino (14861570), whose Zecca (the mint, begun 1536), Library of San Marco (begun 1537), Loggetta facing the Doge's palace (begun 1538), and Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto (market buildings, begun 1554), with their opulent and assertive classical style, displayed convincingly the importance and stability of the republic. The palaces he built for the patrician families (Dolfin, begun 1538, and Corner, begun 1545) as well as those by his contemporary Michele Sanmicheli (14841559) (Palazzo Grimani, begun 1556) which similarly relied on sequences of columns, tall facades, rich ornamentation, and equilibrium between horizontals and verticals, extended this image into the private domain.

In a city that had taken an early lead in the book publishing industry and where most of the principal Renaissance architectural treatises had first seen print (commentaries of De architectura by Vitruvius, the books on the orders and antiquities by Serlio, the treatises of Andrea Palladio, Giovanni Antonio Rusconi, and Vincenzo Scamozzi), patrons were both knowledgeable in matters of "modern" architecture and eager to see it built. This enthusiasm was reflected not only in the city but also in the countryside, toward which the patrician economic interests had turned after the mercantile fortunes of the republic had been threatened. Starting in the sixteenth century, the construction of villas, both as rural retreats and centers of estate management, rose dramatically. It is in villas such as Emo and Badoer, with their arcaded granaries flanking frescoed and meticulously proportioned central blocks set on a podium, that the Vicentine architect Andrea Palladio (15081580) consecrated the confluence of working farm and classical allusion that characterized the genre thereafter. Palladio's restrained interpretation of the temple front as church facade (San Giorgio Maggiore, begun 1566, and Il Redentore, begun 1577) also set the stamp on Venetian religious architecture of the late Renaissance and provided a model for churches into the eighteenth century. His intervention must be seen in contrast to the tradition of flamboyant facades particularly associated with the seats of lay confraternities attached to churches, such as the Scuola di San Rocco by Bartolomeo Bon and Antonio Scarpagnino (begun 1515).


If in the sixteenth century Venice was a center of architectural innovation and learning that could boast a great number of prominent architects, in the seventeenth century the uncertain fortunes of the elite and of the state led to something of a slowdown. Scamozzi, who succeeded Palladio, taking on the role of chief architect of the city, completed the remaining side of the square of San Marco with the Procuratie Nuove (the seat of the administrators of San Marco). Indeed, it was mainly the state and a few of the richest families who commissioned buildings of importance in this period. In this context the work of Baldassare Longhena, architect of Santa Maria della Salute (begun 1631) and of the Pesaro and Rezzonico palaces (begun 1652 and 1667, respectively), towers above the rest. His vocabulary drew on the Venetian traditional love of surface ornament and displayed rich sculptural decoration, heavy rustication, balustrades, masks, volutes, and keystone heads as well as dramatic effects of light and shade. Nevertheless, his architecture remained disciplined (drawing on Sansovino and Palladio) and resisted the scenographic effects associated with the Jesuit-inspired ecstatic religiosity current in Rome. His successor, Giuseppe Sardi, took the church facade type inherited from Palladio and refashioned by Longhena to an extreme of excessive ostentation from which no further development was possible (Santa Maria degli Scalzi, begun 1672, and Santa Maria del Giglio, begun 1678).

In the eighteenth century the economic fortunes of patrician families continued to decline and important architectural commissions came mainly from religious orders such as the Carmelites, Dominicans, and Jesuits. This reduction in wealth also led to a restraint in architectural vocabulary. Unlike other European countries where the baroque gave way to the rococo, in the Venetian republic this was only true of interiors. Their architecture, however, became increasingly sober and simple, and architects and theoreticians reacted more and more vociferously against the excesses of the baroque. Author-architects such as Antonio Visentini and Tommaso Temanza initiated a tradition of criticism as well as a renewed interest in the work of the great Renaissance architects. This Palladianism flowed easily into an incipient neoclassicism and marked the work of architects like Andrea Tirali, Giovanni Scalfarotto, and Giorgio Massari. Their buildings (San Nicolò da Tolentino, begun 1706, San Simeon Piccolo, begun 1718, and the Palazzo Grassi, begun 1748, respectively) display a move toward rationality, rigor, rules, and simplicity not only in the handling of ornament but also in floor plans and volumes.

Simultaneous with this trend was a rise in interest in the science of architecture. The tradition of military engineering (going back to the maritime power of the republic) and the work of Sanmicheli on the Arsenal, as well as the importance of hydraulic engineering in the city, contributed to this development. The work of Carlo Lodoli and Giovanni Poleni promoted an understanding of building science that ultimately saw a standardization of architectural training in Venice (as well as in Verona and Padua) and the development of a corps of military engineers educated on a model drawn from the French École des Ponts et Chaussées. Gianantonio Selva's theatre of La Fenice (finished 1792), severe and heavily dependent on the aesthetic of the plain wall, thus closes the century as a perfect illustration of the new classical sobriety and rationalism that pervaded both theory and practice.

See also Architecture ; Baroque ; City Planning ; Neoclassicism ; Palladio, Andrea, and Palladianism ; Venice .


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Payne, Alina. The Architectural Treatise in the Italian Renaissance: Architectural Invention, Ornament, and Literary Culture. New York, 1999.

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Alina Payne