Domus Grimani 1594-2019: this is the title of the exhibition that has turned the Grimani Palace museum into a “not to miss”.
“Have you been to the Domus Grimani?”
That’s the new leit motiv for those searching for hidden jewels in Venice. A true success: the number of visitors has already jumped from 20,000 in 2018 to over 30,000 in the first months of 2019. As the exhibition will likely become permanent, it sounds like the Domus Grimani will be visited by many more.
Why Domus Grimani is such a successful exhibit?
When it opened in 2008, the Grimani palace struck everybody for its architecture, its frescoes and stuccoes, but many felt disappointed as all rooms lay empty. Now, a collection of eighty-eight ancient statues, original furniture of exquisite manufacturing, paintings, tapestries, and documents are back to the same rooms where they used to be.
You may argue you have seen many ancient statues while visiting Italy that you don’t feel like seeing more. Why visiting a place filled in with Roman or Greek antiquities in Venice?
Giovanni Grimani and his collection of antiquities
Giovanni Grimani (1506-1593), Patriarch of Aquileia, had a collection of antiquities that had no equals in Venice. Inspired by ancient Roman villas and by the cardinals’ mansions, the Domus Grimani was a unique place in the Venetian context. “He had been lucky, Giovanni Grimani” says Marco Mazzocco who works at the Domus Grimani museum. “All his family members died before him and he inherited all that belonged to them” —or could buy back from the Pope what his brother Cardinal Marino Grimani had lost because of his debts.
The story of the collection starting from a vineyard in Rome
The great collection began with the Cardinal Domenico Grimani. His father, Doge of Venice Antonio Grimani was very wealthy thanks to trading in spices. He had given his son thousands and thousands of ducats to buy some land in Rome to build a villa and a vineyard. While digging the ground for the foundations of the villa, Domenico could find Roman ancient remains with which he began his statuary. In those same first years of the 1500s, Domenico also fell fascinated by the unearthed treasures mirroring the lost civilisation of the Romans.
A collection of Flemish art and important libraries
But his collection grew also in different directions, including Flemish and northern European art, such as paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Hans Memling. It also included Pico della Mirandola’s library, over 15,000 volumes. Or the famous “Grimani Breviary”, one of the most wonderful codexes enriched by refined miniatures produced in the Flanders and today preserved in the Marciana National Library in Venice.
When a statue is not complete, fill the missing blanks!
Giovanni, inheriting such collection, enriched it with Roman and Greek pieces. With the help of talented sculptors, such as Tiziano Aspetti, he made sure the missing parts could be added completing the statues and bringing it to an ideal perfection. Can you imagine this Aphrodite without the head, the arms and the Cupid next?
Tiziano Aspetti’s hands perfectly integrate the erotic softness.
Architecture and interior design for a collection of antiquities
In his home in Venice, the Domus Grimani, the patriarch of Aquileia considered the architecture and the interior design as the perfect match for his collection (by the way, you may enjoy my previous blogpost on Grimani’s fireplaces here: www.seevenice.it/en/venice-and-fire-flames-ambition-and-horror/).
Especially when visiting the special room called “Tribuna”, where his collection of statues found its climax, you will feel overwhelmed by the sense of harmony emerging from the juxtaposition of the space and its content. All these sculptures talk to each other, empty and full spaces entertain a discourse on proportions.
Echoes of the New Sacristy by Michelangelo, optical illusions, soft colours and the light from above. It’s a vortex enrapturing the visitor, just like Zeus’ eagle abducted Ganymede.
Moreover, this place hosting the Patriarch’s statues, became a real home of Narcissus. The Domus Grimani mirrored Giovanni’s life and his conflictual relation with the Popes, the Roman Curia and the Venetian Republic’s politics, his ideas in regards to heresy and the reform of the Catholic church.
Giovanni Grimani’s will and his bequest to the Venetian Republic
A collection like this was dynamic. Giovanni kept on enriching it, changing the pieces, swapping them. He included precious marbles per se, as if the material was all that mattered, as we can see in the room he dedicated to his grandfather, Doge Antonio Grimani.
Wondering what to do of this collection after his death, he took a clear decision. In his will dated 1587, Giovanni Grimani expressed his wish to bequeath to the Venetian State the whole treasure, establishing two conditions. First, the collection of Roman and Greek statues, bas-reliefs, busts and Renaissance sculptures had to be illuminated from above. Second, it had to be public:
“So that foreigners, after visiting the Arsenale and the other wonderful things in the city, could enjoy these antiquities in a public space”
He considered his collection as a source of wonder just as much as the Arsenale. On one side a collection of antiquities, on the other side, the military industrial area.
In these words, we understand
“what makes this collection special”
as Mazzocco well states. The statuary of the Domus Grimani became a strategic present for the Venetian State that had supported the Patriarch in his career, especially when accused of heresy. Moreover, in this way, the collection would not be dispersed, as he feared: its integrity had to be protected. Finally, he offered the Venetian State the tangible ancient heritage to boast ancient Roman origins. Venice as altera Roma, more Rome than Rome, if you wish, was an important message at that time when the Roman Curia, the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire competed in this intricate contest.
A wish for the future of Domus Grimani
Giovanni would have been happy to see his collection back to his palace, now that it is a State museum. After he bequeathed it, part of it was housed in the Vestibule of the Marciana National Library (now under restoration) and part of it was moved to the National Archeological museum in Venice. But now, back to Domus Grimani, it feels it is the place where it can be enjoyed at its best.
Just a wish, though. If the precious replica made in 2009 of the Grimani Breviary were available to show to visitors, and if the room dedicated to the Doge Antonio Grimani were also enriched with its sculptures, then an itinerary on this incredibly fascinating period would stimulate more reflections on Venetian, and eventually, on European history, too.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
Special thanks to Marco Mazzocco, Polo Museale del Veneto – Museo di Palazzo Grimani for sharing with me his research and his passion for the Domus Grimani and for the patience he answered all my questions
Note: on the cover, Replica in resin of Leda and the Swan in the Tribuna at the Domus Grimani. The original statue dating back to the 2nd Cent. AD is at the National Archeological Museum, Venice