In Venetian art, Venetian history

Although surrounded by water Venice has always feared fires. Wood is not just the bedrock of the whole city, it is also what all buildings inside are made of. Technically all constructions in Venice are ovens, bricks around, wood within. And they dangerously stand very close to each other.

When the Fenice Theatre burnt down in the night of the 29th of January in 1996, you could see the flames from the airport so high they were. Firefighters worked for five hours. For the first time in a city they used helicopters: they collected the water opposite St Mark’s square and extinguished the flames.

More than 400 years ago, when the Doge’s palace was also destroyed in a major fire, an etching portrayed the dramatic event that destroyed works of art by Carpaccio, Bellini and Titian and affected the fresco by Guariento representing the coronation of the Virgin Mary.

Venice, The doge's palace burning down in 1577

Venice, The doge’s palace burning down in 1577

Here is what is left of an angel after the fire in 1577 in the fresco by Guariento:

The coronation of the Virgin Mary by Guariento, Detail

The coronation of the Virgin Mary by Guariento, Detail

No wonder glass blowers were forced to move to the island of Murano or, well, much more prosaic but still very significant, why brick ovens for pizza are not easy to find in Venice…!

Are you wondering how cold it gets in the winter here? It may snow, the canals can freeze, look at this painting by Gabriel Bella showing Venetians iceskating in the lagoon!

Venice, Frozen lagoon, Gabriel Bella

Venice, Frozen lagoon, Gabriel Bella, Querini Stampalia Museum

So you definitely needed chimney pots and fireplaces… And what I love is that such a necessity brought to great art! Or do you think Venetians would miss the chance to turn something functional and even dangerous into something, allow me to say so, truly flamboyant? Exquisite design. The triumph of ornate. And fire.

Let’s start with the chimney pots at Ca’ Dario, for example:

Venice, Ca' Dario, Chimney Pots

Venice, Ca’ Dario, Chimney Pots

Fancy, different shapes, different heights. Maybe some of them placed up there just for beauty. Once all frescoed as we see in Carpaccio’s painting:

Rialto bridge, Vittore Carpaccio, Accademia Galleries

Rialto bridge, Vittore Carpaccio, Accademia Galleries

But all of them cleverly designed to extinguish fire sparks and to help them fall within.

And what about fireplaces designed in the Renaissance, when artists would pick up all that concerned interior design from classical Roman architecture and were told, sorry, no ancient architect of the past has given instructions how to design a fireplace… oh my, you could then invent an object inspired by the ancient pagan world starting from scratch, feeling free to create a new classicism 🙂

Pure freedom of imagination. To which you need to add the flames, echoing glory and power.

So while in Tuscany fireplaces would be built without a hood on top, in the Veneto region the upper part of the fireplace invaded with amazing sculpture the space above, experimenting with great imagination new solutions to emphasize the status of the family living there and responding to their ambition. The revival of the classical Roman empire would then depend on sculpture and be described in the works by Sebastiano Serlio, Jacopo Sansovino and Alessandro Vittoria. As Michelangelo would have loved it, here one finds statues holding a capitol, stucco-made allegories or frescoes that created the illusion of architecture.

In the Doge’s palace there are beautiful ones. Designed by Pietro da Salò and Danese Cattaneo in 1553 near the courtroom of the Council of Ten. Or the one designed by Giulio Del Moro, representing peace between vigilance and loyalty in friendship in the Collegio Hall. Or the one by Vincenzo Scamozzi and Gerolamo Campagna (1599) with Vulcano’s workshop by Tiziano Aspetti in the room before:

Venice, Doge's palace, Bussola Hall

Venice, Doge’s palace, Bussola Hall


Venice, Doge's palace, Bussola Hall, detail

Venice, Doge’s palace, Bussola Hall, detail


Venice, Doge's palace, Collegio Hall

Venice, Doge’s palace, Collegio Hall


Venice, Doge's palace, Anticollegio Hall

Venice, Doge’s palace, Anticollegio Hall

And among the private ones, don’t miss the very unique ones in the home of the Patriarch of Aquileia, Giovanni Grimani. Accused of heresy and therefore missing his chance to become a cardinal, Patriarch Grimani shaped his home in Venice as if he were in Rome. His rooms display fireplaces you cannot see anywhere else in Venice.

Have a look at the severity and the marble Wunderkammer of Grimani’s grandfather’s room, doge Antonio Grimani. Covering the wall with a facade of marble bricks. And once scattered with ancient sculptures of the Roman empire. Straight lines, no space for imagination. Rigorous and precious. You can breathe history and memory in a room where the powerful presence of the Doge lingers everywhere.

Venice, Grimani Palace, The Doge's Room

Venice, Grimani Palace, The Doge’s Room


Venice, Grimani Palace, Fireplace in marble

Venice, Grimani Palace, Fireplace in marble


Venice, Grimani Palace, Fireplace in marble

Venice, Grimani Palace, Fireplace in marble

But I also adore the monster ironically opening its mouth in the room nearby, leaving me wonder if the reason for such an exuberant work of art comes from some fear we need to control or from pure horror we need to face, as creatures of hell coming from the depth intrude in our safe homes like in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Venice, Grimani Palace, Monster fireplace

Venice, Grimani Palace, Monster fireplace


Venice, Grimani Palace, Monster fireplace

Venice, Grimani Palace, Monster fireplace

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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A gate in metal and glass designed by Claire Falkenstein for the Peggy Guggenheim collection in VeniceVenice, Campo del Ghetto Novo