Marino Contarini, a procurator of San Marco (the Venetian equivalent of a prince), purchased a Veneto-Byzantine palace on the Grand Canal to match his newly elected dignity, and hired Marco d’Amadio to redesign it and Matteo Raverti to rebuild it in Venice’s unique brand of fairytale Gothic. Raverti used Lombard craftsmen, but many of the finest touches on the Ca’ d’Oro are by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon.
Finished in 1434, it was known as the ‘Golden House’ because of the golden pinnacles along the roof, while the intricate floral tracery on its main façade was dazzlingly illuminated with vermilion and ultramarine. The original gold is now long gone, and the next owners didn’t always keep the old place up, most notoriously the 19th-century ballerina Maria Taglioni.
In the early 20th century Baron Giorgio Franchetti bought the palace and filled it with his art collection, which he left to the State in 1916. After restoration, the lovely courtyard was salvaged, with its fine open stair and well-head with allegories of virtues by Bartolomeo Bon.
Inside, however, the restorers were guilty of overkill, blasting away all the old palatial clutter, making the walls plain white like any new art gallery. Upstairs, the first exhibit, set in its own little marble shrine, is Andrea Mantegna’s grimacing, unfinished St Sebastian, one of the artist’s last paintings (1506). Sebastian here looks like a hedgehog.
Sculpture lines the walls of the portego, or main hall, with its loggia overlooking the Grand Canal: a charming double portrait bust called The Young Couple by Tullio Lombardo, bronze reliefs by Andrea Briosco, a lunette of the Virgin and Child by Sansovino, and a 16th-century English alabaster relief of the Life of St Catherine, one of many that made their way to Italy.
In the little rooms to the right of the portego, look for the fine collection of Renaissance bronzes, statuettes and medals by Pisanello and the Mantuan Pier Alari Bonacolsi, known as ‘L’Antico’ for his classical style. A carved 16th-century ceiling survives in one room, overlooking two of Carpaccio’s paintings on the Life of the Virgin from the Scuola degli Albanesi.
On the left side of the portego are paintings by non-Venetians, among them a minuscule Flagellation by Luca Signorelli and the Coronation of the Virgin by Andrea di Bartolo.
The beautiful 15th-century stairway in carved wood was brought here from another palace; it leads up to a collection of minor works by major artists, such as Tintoretto, Titian, Van Dyck, Pordenone, and some good sculptures by Vittoria.
One room has a fine coffered ceiling from a palace in Verona; another contains the ghosts of Giorgione and Titian’s exterior frescoes from the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, including a once-juicy pink nude by Giorgione, now bleached into a cartoon character. The two fine views of Venice in the same room are by Francesco Guardi.
The Gallery often hosts special exhibitions during the season.
Images by: Nick Bramhall