Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 5, 2006
Juergen Schulz The New Palaces of Medieval Venice University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. 368 pp.; 218 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0271023511)

Juergen Schulz’s varied and rich career has been capped by a book that can only be termed revolutionary. Venetian scholarship has clung to the idea that the Venetian palace is a Byzantine import. Venice was closely tied to Byzantium politically for much of its early history, and it has seemed logical to assume that the East provided the city with its architectural models. That Byzantine or Byzantine-style embellishments—what Schulz terms, in a marvelous phrase, “borrowed finery of pseudo-antique grandeur”—were the decoration of choice for early Venetian palaces seemed to clinch the matter. The issue has been compounded by the early chronicle tradition attesting that San Marco was designed by an architect from Constantinople, a “fact” not much favored by modern scholars.

Instead, Schulz proposes that the early palaces of Venice represent an import from a building type that already had a prominence on the continent in the tenth century. First developed as a palatium, the seat of secular and ecclesiastical lords, the type gradually acquired a residential component, and as such it later filtered down to the wealthy urban merchant. The type consisted of a narrow rectangular block with a long upper hall—in royal residences this would be the aula regia—and an arcade below, features it would retain throughout its long history. Schulz’s opening chapter is devoted to defining the type, first as it appears in Europe, and then in its Venetian incarnation. Just as the brickwork of San Marco follows Italian, not Byzantine, practice so, Schulz argues, medieval masons in Venice used the terra ferma residences of both secular and ecclesiastical lords as their model.

In Venetian documents, when the building type had already become an urban presence, the term domus magna is used, or ca’ grande and ca’ mazor in the vernacular. As Schulz shows, the best surviving examples in Italy, even if heavily restored, belong to the ecclesiastical sphere. The twelfth-century abbot’s palace at Pomposa preserves the look of the long, low structure that was the hallmark of the palatine type, with the large hall running across the full length of the upper story and the open loggia below. The episcopal palace at Parma, from the third quarter of the twelfth century, presents the same basic format, although here much of the surface articulation belongs to the Gothic and early Renaissance periods.

Having reconstructed the “upper-hall house”—Schulz’s preferred nomenclature—he goes on to outline the absorption of the type in Venice during the course of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It is in this endeavor that the real detective work of the study comes forward. Schulz has found evidence of some eighteen early examples of the type in Venice, either extant to some degree or reconstructable from early sources. Crucial to his analysis is his contention that the upper-hall house turned up in two versions in Venice: the continental version of the low, elongated façade type, and a specifically Venetian version in which the palatium residence was turned sideways, with the short side of the building becoming the principal façade. In the Venetian-adapted version, the upper aula gradually became the well-known Venetian portego running down the middle of the piano nobile. By the end of the thirteenth century, this sideways version of the palatium was the standard palace type of Venice. Schulz maintains that all later palace architecture in Venice, from Gothic through Baroque, descends from it. Finally, Schulz sees the refined version of the upper-hall house developed in Venice as throwing its influence back onto the later history of the palatium on the mainland, affecting residential building in centers as diverse as Florence, Siena, and Mantua. The implication is that Venice in its twelfth- and early thirteenth-century houses had much to teach the continent about what upper-class living was all about.

Schulz argues forcefully and with confidence, and to my mind makes an extremely convincing argument. But I suspect that the thesis of the book will meet with some resistance. The visual and documentary substructure he assembles is impressive, but there is no denying that imaginative acts of recreation are built into every stage of the analysis. The tangible record of the palatium type is to a large degree lost today, and the buildings that would testify to its early life in Venice in large part no longer exist. Then there is the fact that the book runs counter to a long tradition of scholarship. It is always difficult to dislodge entrenched and cherished ideas. Schulz goes toe-to-toe with scholars currently working in the field, chief among them Wladimiro Dorigo, who has dealt with some of the same material and stands firm for the Byzantine heritage. To a lesser degree, Schulz’s view also runs counter to the emphasis on the East in Deborah Howard’s recent book, Venice and the East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), although Howard’s discussion covers a broader chronological span and emphasizes the appropriation of a large range of Eastern details, especially focusing on Islamic sources.

Not only overturning previous conceptions of what medieval building in Venice was about, Schulz’s book also throws attention back to the crucial twelfth-century period of Venetian development—the years when the open space of Piazza San Marco was established and the disparate parts of the city began to be woven together into a cohesive whole. It is fascinating to see these buildings, as Schulz presents them, first turned inward, toward the parishes and local communities, then throwing up new façades facing the Grand Canal. Schulz’s analysis adds an important dimension to our understanding of the process of unifying the city and knitting the prominent families into a ruling phalanx.

The first part of the book concludes with a stunning chapter on early Venetian architectural sculpture. Taking his cue from Ruskin, but relying more on documents than intuition, Schulz organizes the architectural sculpture of early medieval Venice in terms of four categories: arches, capitals, figurative reliefs, and horizontal accents such as cornices and string courses. Each category is examined in its chronological development, covering both antecedents in the West and, where relevant, related developments in the East. The elongated, narrow arch known as the stilted arch, which has long been considered a Byzantine hallmark, is presented here as a Venetian solution to the problem of reconciling façade openings of different widths. There is a fine mini-history of capital display in these early buildings, showing the passage from Byzantine spoglia to native Venetian variants. Patere—the small decorative rondels featuring fighting birds and animals—are seen as a Venetian invention, and the cresting of palaces with a battlement-like crown as an import from Sicily. The basis is laid in this chapter for a full history of a specifically Venetian early architectural decoration.

The challenge comes in proving the palatium-adoption thesis with specific examples of buildings in Venice. The second part of the book consists of five examples chosen by Schulz to prove his thesis; the author calls them appendices. Two have more or less completely disappeared, and one has been so thoroughly restored that it seems to have shed the medieval character it once had. The two remaining examples have been built up in height, substantially re-worked in many of their details, and altered in their interiors. Bringing his five demonstration pieces back to their twelfth- and early thirteenth-century origins has demanded Schulz function as archaeologist, historiographer, archivist, and connoisseur—not to mention prose stylist of a high order. He attacks his five buildings like a detective, taking their histories back one step at a time until the moment of construction stands clear. It is an astonishing demonstration of multiple skills that will no doubt be signaled by PhD advisors to their students for decades to come.

Each of the five buildings, presented in more or less chronological order, has a story to tell that brings into focus a different piece of the medieval history of Venice. Written and visual sources are detailed, followed by “ownership” segments. Schultz has researched scores of family histories in order to provide capsule histories that make absorbing reading and illustrate the changing aspect of the composition of Venice’s wealthy class. The story opens with an ecclesiastical palace, the residence of the patriarch of Grado. The building that has come down in history as the Ca’ del Papa, due to the fact that Alexander III stayed there during his historic visit to Venice in 1177, once occupied a huge building site behind what is now the S. Silvestro stop on the vaporetto. Its principal façade was originally turned landward. The building was erected, probably around the middle of the twelfth century, by an early relative of the famous doge of the Fourth Crusade, carrying the same name—Enrico Dandolo, patriarch of Grado, c. 1130–80. The long, narrow building is to a large degree identifiable on the Jacopo de’ Barbari map of 1500. Its enormous size, as reconstructed by Schulz, gives formidable testimony to the prestige of these early patriarchs of the Adriatic. The claims of the rival patriarchal seats of Aquilea and Grado for primacy in the Adriatic were played out over several centuries, but by the later twelfth century the ties between Venice and the patriarchate of Grado had reached a solidity that encouraged the building of this large and prominent palace. Its glory days were over by the 1450s, when the patriarchate of Grado and the bishopric of Venice had become one entity, relocated to the eastern tip of the city at S. Pietro di Castello.

The second building dealt with, the Ca’ Barozzi, in the area of the Rialto, consisted of a grand palace linked by a private bridge to a second group of Barozzi houses on the opposite bank of a narrow canal, testifying to the grandiose outreach of the trade-rich families of twelfth-century Venice. Again, the principal façade originally faced away from the Grand Canal; the upper hall was placed along the front of the land façade. When the building was extended during the first half of the thirteenth century and given a façade facing the Grand Canal, a second upper hall was created facing the water. The virtually complete disappearance of both Barozzi establishments tells of another dramatic moment in the history of Venice—the 1310 conspiracy to overthrow the Venetian government, known as the Baiamonte Tiepolo conspiracy, in which the Barozzi family was involved. Part of the Barozzi property was sold off; another part was razed. A market building of the Rialto was built over the former houses of traitors.

With the Fondaco dei Turchi, the third of Schulz’s case studies, we finally get to a building enough of which has survived to provide physical substance to Schulz’s argument. Despite major alterations, it gives an idea of how Schulz envisions the pre-Gothic palaces of Venice in the directly appropriated—that is, full upper-hall—palatine type. Going for breadth rather than height, it is close to the twelfth-century abbot’s palace of Pomposa or the twelfth-century palace of the Counts of Harcourt of Lillebonne in Normandy, the latter a ruin handsomely visible in the lithograph by Cotman and Turner. The Fondaco dei Turchi’s original façade, with the upper hall originally fronting on an interior courtyard, again faced away from the Grand Canal. The façade we see today was established in the thirteenth century, but maintains the approximate width of the first stage of building. As with most of the buildings dealt with in the book, the name under which it is known today masks its real history. Evidence points to its erection during the second half of the twelfth century by the Pesaro family, a Venetian family important throughout the city’s long history. It then had a glamorous middle period under state ownership in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when it became a “loaner palace” to the lords of Ferrara, a counter in Venice’s diplomatic relations with mainland rulers. The name by which it has come down to us today dates only from the seventeenth century, when it was leased to a Venetian entrepreneur of Greek descent and turned into a fondaco, a Venetian establishment that served both as warehouse and residence for foreign traders, in this case, Eastern traders, or turchi. Its later history is one of continuous disrepair. That anything remains at all is testimonial to another piece of Venice’s history, the nineteenth-century rise of a preservation mentality—Ruskin contributed to it—in which enormous effort went into maintaining the vestiges of the early heritage of the city. The outer slice of the former Pesaro palace—subjected to a punctilious restoration in 1860–69 in which every remaining scrap of the original fabric was cleaned, patched, and put back in place—survives as a façade on the Grand Canal. Though dry, over-restored, and with an entirely new surface skin of marble—inspired by a few shreds of a medieval facing—enough of the Fondaco dei Turchi survives to celebrate Venice’s early building energies.

The last two of Schulz’s case studies are examples of what he sees as the palatine type turned sideways. The Ca’ Farsetti and the Ca’ Loredan, side by side on the Grand Canal adjacent to the Rialto Bridge, are enshrined in architectural histories as representatives of the earliest phase of palace building in Venice; reading away the usual added stories and later restorations, that’s not far off the mark. The building now known as the Ca’ Farsetti has a special claim as the only one of the pre-Gothic palaces for which an exact construction date and owner can be nailed down. The lot was bought by Renier Dandolo, son of the famous crusader doge Enrico Dandolo. By 1208–9 the building appears to have been complete. In the fourteenth century, the various parcels into which the building had been divided were bought up by another member of the Dandolo clan, Doge Andrea Dandolo. The present name comes from a still later moment, in the seventeenth century, when it passed into the hands of the cultivated collectors of the Farsetti family. In the nineteenth century, it was bought, together with the adjoining Palazzo Loredan, to serve as the Town Hall of Venice, still its function today. Despite a series of changes and the glazing of what was once an open center arcade on the ground floor, the façade preserves a great deal of its early appearance.

Ca’ Loredan’s origins remain obscure. Schulz picks up its history in the early fourteenth century, when it was owned by the Zane family. Its original appearance—taking away the second residential story and attic—appears to have been close to what we see today. Like its neighbor the Ca’ Farsetti, this is another example of the palatium turned sideways, with a ground floor arcade and the broad corridor of the portego above it along the central axis. The most prestigious phase of its ownership came during the second half of the fourteenth century when it was owned by a branch of the wealthy and politically prominent Corner family, traders and landowners in Cyprus. Only in the eighteenth century did the building come into the possession of the Loredans.

The New Palaces of Medieval Venice is beautifully produced, with generous illustrative materials, including plans, views, historic photographs, and numerous close-ups of architectural details. Profoundly changing a sense of the architecture of medieval Venice, it will clearly be a touchstone for work in the field for many years to come.

Debra Pincus
Independent Scholar