Category: Insight Venice Sotheby's Realty (45)

This week we’re celebrating the great Renaissance architect Jacopo Sansovino, who died 447 years ago, on 28 November 1570.  Florentine by birth, Sansovino spent much of his early career in Rome, where he absorbed the influence of classical antiquity.  Following the Sack of Rome in 1527, he was invited to Venice by Doge Andrea Gritti, and shortly afterwards, he was appointed chief architect in charge of the fabric of St Mark’s Basilica and Piazza.  He remained in Venice for the duration of his career, and when he died at the age of 84, he left behind some of the city’s most iconic buildings.  Here are just a few examples:


Libreria Marciana: Regarded by many as Sansovino’s masterpiece, this grand stone façade stands proudly opposite the Doge’s Palace.  With a Doric ground floor, Ionic piano nobile with elaborate frieze, and a balustrade topped with obelisks and statues of gods and heroes, its monumental design is a bold declaration of Sansovino’s admiration for classical Roman architecture, adapted for a Venetian setting.


Palazzo della Zecca: Begun in 1536, the Zecca was Sansovino’s first commission in Venice – a building which once housed the official government mint, or offices responsible for coining money. Since the mint contained high temperature ovens that posed a risk of fire, little wood was used in construction; the building was primarily constructed from solid blocks of Istrian marble carved in a robust, rusticated Doric style – standing in stark contrast to the ornately adorned Libreria Marciana next door.


Loggetta: At the base of the bell tower in St Mark’s Square, built from red Verona marble, the loggetta was one of Sansovino’s earliest works to be completed in Venice (1537-46).  Originally a meeting place for patricians during sessions of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace, it was subsequently used as a military guard room when the Council was sitting.  Its design is derived from a Roman triumphal arch, and its sculptures celebrate the glory of the Venetian Republic. Sadly, when the campanile collapsed in 1902, the loggetta was crushed and badly damaged – but it has since been painstakingly restored.

Lying in the heart of the lagoon between Venice and the Lido, the tranquil island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni is just a ten minute vaporetto ride from San Zaccaria, yet it feels a million miles away from the bustling atmosphere and lively crowds thronging around St Mark’s Square.

Formerly a leper colony, the island was gifted by Doge Alviso Mocenigo to an Armenian monk named Mekhitar, who fled persecution in Constantinople in 1717, and arrived with 20 followers to found a monastery dedicated to the cultural and spiritual rebirth of the Armenian people.

Unlike many of Venice’s religious houses, San Lazzaro was not shut down under Napoleon’s rule, and thankfully it still remains in operation today, renowned as one of the most important centres of Armenian culture and scholarship in the world.

Home to 12 vardapets (learned monks) and five novices, the island is closed to the public except for a couple of hours every afternoon when a guided tour offers visitors the chance to explore the monastery’s principal rooms such as the monks’ refectory, chapel and libraries containing over 200,000 volumes including a superb collection of rare illuminated manuscripts.

The tour also encompasses the classroom where Lord Byron spent six months in 1816 studying Armenian – “the language to speak with God” – now occupied by a perfectly preserved Egyptian mummy called Nemenkhet.  Other precious items on display include Greek, Roman and Phoenician antiquities, a Koran created after the death of Mohammed, gold coins from the first century BC and a 15th century Indian throne.  Before you leave, be sure to visit the monastery shop to purchase a jar or two of the monks’ rose petal jam, made from flowers picked in the island’s exotic gardens.

To reach the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni in time for the daily tour, take vaporetto number 20 which leaves from San Zaccaria at 3.10pmThe tour starts at around 3.25pm.  Bookings are not required.

Albrecht Dürer, Paesaggio con il cannone (1518). Acquaforte, Venezia Museo Correr, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of a Catholic church in the German Town of Wittenberg – an action that sparked the birth of Protestantism, and changed the course of Christianity forever more.

On the occasion of this momentous event, the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti is staging a fascinating exhibition that features a series of important German engravings by artists including Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach, whose printed works played a vital role in spreading the Lutheran doctrine around Europe in the 16th century.

The works on display are primarily drawn from a precious volume of engravings collected by the Venetian aristocrat Teodoro Correr (1750-1830), whose vast, encyclopedic collection of manuscripts, prints, paintings, sculptures, antiquities, coins and curiosities eventually formed the basis of the great Correr Museum in Piazza San Marco.  Alongside these works is an extremely significant book on loan from the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, published in Venice in 1516 by Alexandro Paganini and including a powerful and emotive series of woodcuts designed by Dürer, depicting scenes of the Apocalypse.

On view at Palazzo Loredan in Campo Santo Stefano until 10th December 2017, this gem of an exhibition offers a timely reminder of Luther’s extraordinary legacy, and presents a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with some exceptionally fine works that are usually hidden away in Venice’s most important archive collections.

“Wittenberg 1517.  Intorno a Dürer. Incisioni tedesche dell’età della Riforma” is on view at Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti until 10th December 2017

Described by Henry James as a place of “endless strange secrets”, Venice has historically been regarded as a place of intrigue – its labyrinthine alleys, enclosed courtyards and shadowy archways creating a sense of drama, especially on winter nights when the sea mists shroud the dense network of canals in pitch darkness.

Today, this sense of mystery simply adds to the city’s romance and charm, but during the time of the Republic, Venice’s atmosphere of secrecy was highly potent and real, fueled largely by the existence of the notorious Council of Ten – a formidably powerful political institution responsible for maintaining public order, preventing espionage and uncovering conspiracies and treason.  Under their authority, spying and covert investigations were rife throughout the city; their brutal torture methods were infamous, and executions were common. The result was a highly efficient regime of civic surveillance, fear and obedience – where no one was to be trusted.

Although this era has long since passed, of course, traces of the Council of Ten’s reign of terror can still be found around Venice in the form of bocche dei leoni, or ‘lions’ mouths’ – stone letterboxes, often carved into the shape of grotesque heads, where informers were once able to post accusations against their fellow citizens.  Crimes could be of any nature or scale, ranging from adultery to financial extravagance and beyond – and if the accusation proved correct when tested under trial, the accuser would be financially rewarded, with their name kept secret by the Venetian State, to protect their identity.

In his Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote “These were the terrible Lions’ Mouths. … these were the throats down which went the anonymous accusation thrust in secretly in the dead of night by an enemy, that doomed many an innocent man to walk the Bridge of Sighs and descend into the dungeon which none entered and hoped to see the sun again.” In reality, anonymous accusations were not officially permitted; incriminating letters had to be signed, along with the signatures of two witnesses – but the quote effectively conjures up the sense of fear that swirled around the city during this period.

Fine examples of these Bocche dei Leoni can be found by the Church of Santa Maria della Visitazione on the Zattere in Dorsoduro, on Calle della Testa, Cannaregio, at the Church of San Martino in Castello, and in the Loggia of the Palazzo Ducale.

Over the last few years the Abbey of San Giorgio Maggiore has established a reputation for staging powerful contemporary art installations that sensitively integrate and resonate with the historical and spiritual context of the ancient monastic complex.  Their latest offering, an official collateral event of the 2017 Venice Art Biennale, is no exception.

Titled “One and One Makes Three”, the exhibition is a site-specific solo show by Michelangelo Pistoletto – an Italian artist who played a major role in developing the conceptual movement “Arte Povera”, which helped to project Italy onto the international arts stage in the late 1960s.

The current exhibition is based around the artist’s deep-rooted concern for the destiny of mankind, and the urgent need to overcome “the differences between people and social groups, in order to finally give meaning to the word “humanity””. 

In the centre of Palladio’s soaring Renaissance basilica, Pistoletto presents a circular installation of suspended mirrors with the phrase “Love Difference” inscribed on the back of them in different languages; step into the circle, and the mirrors look identical, suggesting that all human beings are essentially the same inside, despite their ethnic, cultural and religious differences.  Elsewhere in the Abbey complex, you’ll find a series of mirrored photographs of people that Pistoletto encountered on a recent trip to Cuba – a place that he sees as a “fertile land for experimentation, innovation and change”.

The newest work on display is titled “The Time of Judgement”, speaking about religious tolerance through the juxtaposition of religious symbols including a Buddhist statue, an Islamic prayer mat, a Christian prayer kneeler and four mirrors representing Judaism’s Tables of the Law.  It’s arguably one of the most thought-provoking exhibitions in this year’s Biennale – so be sure to catch it before it closes on 26th November.

‘Michelangelo Pistoletto: One and One Makes Three’ is on view at the Abbazia di San Giorgio Maggiore, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, until 26th November 2017

This autumn the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is presenting the first ever museum show dedicated to the “Salon de la Rose+Croix” – an exhibition that took place annually in Paris between 1892-1897, dedicated to the late nineteenth century Symbolist movement.

The Guggenheim’s exhibition brings together around 40 highlight works that featured in these original Parisian shows, by a transnational cross-section of Symbolist artists who rejected the secular outlook, scientific theories and Realist aesthetics of the period, and instead championed all things spiritual, imaginary and stylized, in a quest for the ideal.

Although the artists possessed wildly diverging ideologies – ranging from politically conservative and Catholic to radically anarchist and anti-clerical – their works are visually united by characteristics such as sinuous lines, elongated bodies and flattened forms.  Common themes include allegorical, mythical and visionary subjects – often drawn from literature, Greek mythology and New Testament narratives, as well as other sources such as the art of the early Italian Renaissance.

Displayed on rich red walls and accompanied by an ethereal musical soundtrack, the exhibition conveys the spirit of the Salon experience, and invites a fresh look at the revelatory and significant mystical Symbolist movement, which although popular in its day, has long since been overlooked.

 Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892 – 1897 is on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection until 7th January 2018

In just over two weeks’ time, the 2017 Venice Biennale will draw to a close – but there’s still time to catch some of the top quality contemporary art on offer, before the festival ends on 26th November.  We’ve chosen three of our favourite pavilions around the city:

IRAQ: Housed in Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti in Campo Santo Stefano, this pavilion presents the work of eight modern and contemporary Iraqi artists in dialogue with forty ancient Iraqi artefacts spanning six millennia, on loan from the Iraq Museum.  The exhibition explores the notion of the “archaic”, referring simultaneously to Iraq’s ancient cultural past as well as its existing political, administrative, social and economic reality – which is arguably as archaic as the historical artefacts on display.  The show also considers the way the country’s history has affected its Modern and contemporary visual languages, and examines the opportunities and restrictions presented to the nation by its immense ancient heritage.

Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, San Marco 2847

GRENADA: Situated on the Zattere in Dorsoduro, the Grenada Pavilion presents an exhibition titled “The Bridge”, exploring the idea that art is a bridge than connects and unifies people from diverse islands, countries and continents of the world.  Amongst the highlights is a display by Jason de Caires Taylor, known for his ethereal underwater sculpture parks where human statues are submerged on the seabed to create new habitats and support marine conservation.  The show also includes an installation by Asher Mains titled ‘Sea Lungs’, portraying the life and death of an ocean reef, and dwelling on mankind’s relationship with the sea.

Grenada Pavilion, Fondamente Zattere 417, Dorsoduro

NIGERIA: 2017 marks the first time Nigeria is participating in the Venice Biennale.  The inaugural exhibition, titled “How About NOW?” features work by three of the country’s most prominent living artists – Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku – each reflecting on contemporary Nigerian life.  Invoking themes of history, fantasy and memory, alongside more fundamental concerns related to nationhood and post-colonial self-awareness, the artists respond through installations, painting and performance to the multifaceted way in which Nigerian contemporaneity may be conceived today.

Scoletta dei Tiraoro e Battioro, Campo San Stae, Santa Croce

When walking through Venice, there are so many ornate churches, grand palaces and eye-catching shops that it’s easy to overlook some of the city’s smaller – yet still highly significant – architectural features, such as the stone well-heads that sit at the centre of many courtyards and squares.

Today there are approximately 230 well-heads in Venice, all of which are merely ornamental.  In the late 19th century, however, there were over 6500 – and until this period they played a fundamental role in Venetian life, as the principal source of the population’s drinking water

Each well-head covered a shaft which led to an underground cistern where rainwater was collected and filtered, before being drawn up in buckets via ropes and pulley systems.  So important – and indeed sacred – were these wells that the heads were often highly decorated as a symbol of their spiritual significance, embellished with fragments of altars and the stones of ancient temples, or engraved with religious signs and the crests of the families who paid for their construction.

Whilst some of the city’s wealthier individuals built their own personal wells within their private palace courtyards – examples of which can be seen at Ca’ d’Oro and Casa Goldoni – the vast majority of the population relied on the public wells in their local squares, which were locked with an iron lid each evening and reopened at 8 o’clock every morning.  As a result, these wells were the hubs of local life, central to the social routine of each parish community, and they remained as such until June 23rd 1884, when Venice’s first aqueduct was built, bringing fresh water from the river Brenta on the mainland.

Wednesday marks the 260th anniversary of the birth of Antonio Canova (1 November 1757 – 13 October 1822), the famed Italian sculptor and leading champion of the Neoclassical style that swept Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

For fans of Canova’s work, a trip to Venice is a must.  Not only do museums such as the Museo Correr boast a large number of his finest works in their permanent collections; over the next few months, the Accademia Galleries are hosting a major exhibition titled Canova, Hayez, Cicognara: The Last Glory of Venice”, including some of his most celebrated masterpieces.  What’s more, visitors to Venice can also admire the tomb containing the sculptor’s heart; a highly distinctive pyramidal monument in the Basilica dei Frari that Canova actually designed for Titian – the model of which can be viewed in the Accademia exhibition.

To fully get to grips with Canova’s life – and death – however, we highly recommend taking a day trip from Venice to Possagno, the beautiful little town where the sculptor was born and died, in the Veneto hills just north of Asolo.  Here, on the site of his family home, you’ll find the truly first-rate “Museo Canova,” featuring a wide range of paintings, drawings, sculptures and family artefacts including his deathbed – as well the barrel-vaulted Gipsoteca displaying almost all of the plaster models that he ever made.  A few minutes’ walk away, you’ll also encounter the astonishingly grand “Tempio di Canova”; a vast Neoclassical temple designed by Canova and inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, where his body is interred – minus his heart and his right-hand, which is contained in an urn at Venice’s Accademia di Belle Arti.

Canova, Hayez, Cicognara: L’Ultima Gloria di Venezia’ is on view at the Gallerie dell’Accademia until 2 April 2018

Museo Canova is situated at Via Canova 74, 31054 Possagno, TV

With the clocks going back this weekend, it seems like a timely moment to highlight one of our favourite Venetian sites – the Renaissance Torre dell’Orologio in Piazza San Marco.

Situated facing the lagoon so that anyone entering Venice by ship could see the time when they arrived, this magnificent tower was constructed between 1496 and 1506 by Mauro Codussi, to house an elaborate astronomical clock displaying 24 Roman numerals and decorated with gilded constellations and signs of the zodiac.  The tower’s monumental archway also served as a triumphal gateway between the city’s political and religious centre (the Piazza) and its financial and commercial centre (the Rialto).

While most people simply admire the tower’s impressive facade from the Square, few know that it’s actually possible to visit the interior too – via a superb hour-long guided tour that covers the fascinating history of the building, and allows you to examine the remarkable mechanics of the clock itself – which until as recently as 1998 was wound manually by a temperatore who lived inside the tower.

The tour concludes with a thrilling opportunity to climb up onto the roof for a close-up view of the giant bell cast in 1497, that’s struck hourly by two enormous mechanical statues known as the “Moors”.  While you’re up there, you can also enjoy a spectacular panorama across the domes of St Mark’s towards San Giorgio Maggiore – and if you’re in Venice on Ascension Week or Epiphany, be sure to witness the clock’s star turn, when a procession of figures including the Magi and an angel troop out on the hour and bow to a figure of the Madonna.

Guided Tours of the Torre dell’Orologio can be booked via the Ticket Office at the Correr Museum in Piaza San Marco, or online here.