Cradles in the Portego

Nicholas Penny

  • The New Palaces of Medieval Venice by Juergen Schulz
    Pennsylvania State, 368 pp, £61.50, July 2004, ISBN 0 271 02351 1
  • Private Lives in Renaissance Venice by Patricia Fortini Brown
    Yale, 312 pp, £35.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 300 10236 4

The inexhaustible appeal of the palaces that line the Grand Canal in Venice owes much to their variety, of materials, textures, colour and relief, as well as period and style. But we cannot miss the common denominators: the ornamental richness that is conditional on freedom from defensive needs, the quantity of windows (with locally made glass) and their concentration in the centre of the façade, expressing, externally, the long hall, or portego, which is the defining feature of the plan of these buildings. Many have speculated that Venetian palaces are descended from Byzantine or late antique building types that were forgotten, ignored or unknown elsewhere in Europe; there are similar myths about the origins of the Venetians themselves.

Juergen Schulz, unhappy with the evidence adduced by proponents of these theories and struck by the absence of research on many aspects of the subject, decided to focus on five of the oldest palaces in the city (only three of which survive) and to trace everything that can be discovered about their history. Even as he tightened the focus of his investigation he broadened his search for comparative material, scanning ancient sites and archaeological publications for secular structures elsewhere in Europe and around the Mediterranean so that he could discover how exactly Venetian buildings differed from them. And, to complement his preoccupation with the bones of buildings – their piles and piers and beams – he decided to survey afresh their ornaments, especially the early ones of notably Byzantine character, since these may be taken to support the case for exotic influence.

His conclusion, which is sure to be controversial but will be very difficult to refute, is that the Venetian palace is entirely European in origin, a very ingenious derivative of a type found in many parts of early medieval Europe, with special features determined by the city’s unusual topography, density and political circumstances. He is well aware that the Basilica of Saint Mark is likely to have been designed to recall the Apostoleion of Constantinople, as churches elsewhere adopted the plan of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but he is not convinced that the design of living space would have been affected by thinking of this kind. He is also aware – perhaps more aware than anyone – of the extent to which the Venetians used capitals plundered from Byzantium on their façades, and of how they then imitated and varied them and also delighted in fabricating decorative reliefs in a Byzantine style. But these were perhaps at first more like trophies or campaign medals than testaments to an adoption of Byzantine values; and even when Venetian carvers reveal a remarkable imaginative sensitivity to the intricacies of Byzantine design and the stylisation of animals and vegetation this need not mean that their patrons took any interest in Byzantine floor plans.

As an exemplary archival historian, Schulz is especially alert to what was not documented. Inventories never mention the storage of boats and boating equipment on the ground floor, yet on his visits to palaces he is forever stumbling over these things and assumes that the ‘practice of keeping them there is age-old’. Indeed, ‘one would not know … where else to put them.’ He finds no evidence to support the widely held assumption, repeated in all modern books on Venetian architecture, that the ground floor of a palace was commonly used for the warehousing of trading goods and for the conduct of business. He can tell us, by reference to a wide range of sources dealing with such matters as the development of the Rialto and the modes of taxation, where storage and trade certainly did take place, and in so doing explodes one of the fundamental myths about the city’s merchant princes.

It is not perhaps surprising that Schulz feels it necessary to provide a succinct account of the growth of central government in Venice, since it meant the formation of a ruling class that came to express its distinction in buildings which turn away from local communities to face the chief thoroughfare of the city, the Grand Canal (the dinginess of the narrow pedestrian entrances to the great palaces always comes as a surprise). His book also includes information on many unexpected topics: the way that legal restrictions on the sale of family palaces were circumvented, the reliability of Venetian guidebooks, the sleeping quarters of servants, the entertainment of visiting princes. Schulz is one of those scholars who turns over every stone and then cannot resist telling us about the stone itself as well as what he finds, or does not find, beneath it.

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[*] Venice, Fragile City 1797-1997 (Yale, 550 pp., £29.95, November 2002, 0 300 08386 6).