A Renaissance staircase in Venice
The Renaissance staircase at the Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista in the district of Santa Croce is a true, hidden jewel of Venice. Designed by Mauro Codussi in 1498, this staircase strikes you at first for its apparent sobriety and discretion and enchants you in the end. For several reasons.
Mauro Codussi, an architect from Bergamo
Mauro Codussi was originally from Bergamo, in those years a city lying under the control of the Venetian State. Codussi is documented to be in Venice in 1469 and received important commissions both from the clergy and from the aristocracy. In those times the language of the Renaissance, “new” to Venice, was embracing all artistic expressions. It was thanks to artists from Lombardy that this “style”, originally born in Tuscany, spread in Venice at the beginning of the 15th century. Mauro Codussi, Pietro Solari called the Lombardo, Antonio Rizzo, just to mention some of the best-known architects, were all working in Venice in those years.
After a devastating fire destroyed the Scuola Grande San Marco in 1485, Mauro Codussi was entrusted with the construction of the main staircase for this outstanding charity brotherhood, a Renaissance staircase in Venice.
The importance of the staircase at the Scuola
If you ever visited any Scuola Grande in Venice, you will remember its own special staircase. It does not just join the ground floor hall for the religious services with the chapter hall for the brethren’s assembly upstairs. Starting in the 15th century, a Renaissance staircase in Venice would also allow for a sense of wonder as when you enter a theatre. The staircase in all these charity brotherhoods conveyed scenographic effects and an atmosphere of grandeur. However, it was not meant to represent the clergy, nor the aristocracy, but to glorify the lay personalities of a new, ramping social class —lawyers, doctors, merchants, scholars, notaries.
The stairs facilitated processions, too, namely the most important events of a Scuola. It was during a procession that the Scuola could show off its wealth and its authority in Venice, and possibly acquire new members.
A new model for a staircase
Maybe it was because of its function and because of the social class it referred too, that Mauro Codussi introduced a new typology of staircase. Giulia Foscari in her Elements of Venice describes it as the “covered external staircase”. An outbreaking, revolutionary idea for a new social class who, in the Scuola, arranged the social assistance network of the Venetian State.
The challenge at the Scuola Grande San Giovanni
After building the staircase at the Scuola Grande San Marco (unfortunately demolished in the 19th century), Mauro Codussi faced an even higher challenge at the Scuola San Giovanni Evangelista. Built similarly to that of the Scuola Grande San Marco, namely with two parallel ramps, the new staircase needed to be built on marshland lapping a canal nearby. No previous foundations existed there before, this time it was as if a sumptuous staircase had to be built on water.
An incredible balance for a Renaissance staircase in Venice
The staircase is 35 meters long, it elevates up to 12 meters and below the highest point there is a little chapel, too. But the most amazing aspect is that there was not enough room for a proper staircase. So Codussi built the steps on the higher part of the staircase 70 centimetre wider than the ones at the foot. He also added small domes, landings in between, side windows and a vaulted ceiling all along the ramps. A very elegant dome overwhelms the upper part, with its inlay marble in black and white and the four arches on each side.
In other words, exploiting the law of perspective and light sources, Codussi created the effect of a much more imposing staircase as an optical illusion. Both when we go up and when we go down, the staircase looks bigger than it actually is.
The current restoration
Having built the staircase on marshland lapping a canal would clearly bring up static problems. After the analysis run by the Proto Architect Bruno Ranuffi in 2016, it became clear this unique masterpiece of the early Renaissance in Venice needed restoration.
The collaboration with the international non-profit organisation Venetian Heritage for the fundraising campaign started spontaneously. Contacted by Dr. Cristina Scarpa, the Event Director who had been entrusted by Antonio Cecchini, at that time the Guardian Grande of the Scuola, Venetian Heritage promoted the project and made it possible to start. A major contribution came from the Gritti Palace Hotel, as well.
After the lockdown last Spring, UnisVe began with the restoration work. UnisVe is the Union of Stucco Decorators in Venice and they proved to be the right ones to take care of the restoration, both involving structural interventions and restoration of the marble and stucco decoration.
The landing and the vault
Each tile had to be removed and taken care of. Below the tiles, there were layers of sand, bricks and ancient debris.
It was all removed to access the vault below that proved to be all over cracked. In fact, the external wall of the staircase was threatening to belly out and strip part of the staircase. All over the ramp, cracks showed the single steps were breaking apart in the longitudinal direction. Cracks had to be put in tension so that the vault would not collapse.
To this purpose, wedges in mahogany wood were stuck in the cracks to start with. Special mortar was then injected and Kevlar bands were laid where needed.
As you can see in the following videoclips posted by Venetian Heritage, restoration of the landing upstairs was the first phase:
Once the vault was fixed, new problems had to be faced with the steps, in particular along that part of the staircase near the canal. In the 1950s in fact, concrete was used to increase static stability. However this allowed for humidity to rise and deeply affect the staircase. Each step has to be removed and so the concrete below.
The fund raising project
At the moment I am writing the hope is to conclude the work in 7 months. The fund raising campaign goes on, so there is need for more help. If you think that the staircase is no longer what it was in 1498, but it is rather like a living artefact of several centuries of maintenance, this is the beauty about financing such work.
You become part of it, as if you were still in that Renaissance incredible age of challenges and creative innovations sharing their sense of harmonious proportions.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
A final, personal note follows…
I grew fascinated by Venetian staircases a few years ago when I moved to an apartment in Venice located on the top floor of a 500-year old house.
Those that know me will remember the 78 steps that I need to climb to reach what originally were the servants quarters of the house of the Salvazo family. Additionally, while the first two flights proceed with a proportioned riser, the last two instead increase in steepness as they need to skip the second noble floor. It did not take too long to wonder how you would reach that second floor if the staircase skipped it.
And so I discovered the second staircase that inside the same building runs parallel, or rather intertwines with the other, occupying the same area, but like a plait leading to the second noble floor and to the other half of the servants’ quarters. Not to mention a third staircase that leads to the mezzanine. This is what one calls the leonardesque staircase, designed to help residents reach their apartment units without mingling with other families living under the same roof.