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Venice’s Golden Palazzo: The Ca d’Oro
March 15, 2014
The Ca d’Oro is one of the most famous of the Renaissance palazzi along Venice’s Grand Canal. Known as the “House of Gold” by contemporaries because many features of the ornate façade were gilded in gold leaf, this archetypal example of the Venetian Gothic style popular during the 15th century was built during 1421-37 by Marino Contarini, a member of one of the city’s most illustrious patrician families.
Contarini received the property in 1412 from the family of his first wife, Soradamor Zen, who died only 5 years later in 1417. There are indications that he constructed the palazzo both as a reflection of his family’s social status and as a monument to his deceased wife. Contarini himself was responsible for the design of the entire project, both building and decoration, which perhaps accounts for some of the more unconventional features of the palazzo, such as its asymmetry. According to art historian Deborah Howard, this may have also reflected a shift in aesthetic tastes in Venice toward a more ornate, elaborate architecture that privileged ostentatious decoration over classical elements such as harmony and symmetry.
The most famous feature of the palazzo, the lavish painted decoration of the façade, was completed during 1431-37 by French painter Zuan di Franza. In his contract with Zuan, Contarini stipulated to the very last detail how the façade was to be painted, with directions about which elements to gild with gold leaf, where to apply the ultramarine pigment, a very rare and expensive material made of crushed lapis lazuli, and how to oil the inlaid sections of rare precious marbles to make them appear more brilliant. This undertaking required a total of over 22,000 sheets of gold leaf at a cost of approximately 8.3 ducats per thousands sheets, which came to be roughly 8% of the entire cost for the project. This expense is particularly remarkable given the fact that Contarini must have realized that the gold leaf and pigment would not last long in the harsh weather conditions of Venice’s Grand Canal.
Indeed, the present-day Ca d’Oro stands as stately as ever on the canal, yet the façade reveals little of its original polychromatic sheen. During the modern period, the palazzo underwent a series of unfortunate renovations that stripped it of many of its important original features, such as the inner courtyard’s Gothic stairway, ornate balconies, and the well head sculpted by Bartolomeo Bon. In 1894, Baron Giorgio Franchetti purchased the palazzo and worked to restore the palazzo to its original splendor. In 1922 the state acquired the Ca d’Oro in a bequest from Franchetti’s estate along with his art collection. The palazzo is now preserved as a museum and houses the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti.
Excerpted from Gold: A Cultural Encyclopedia, by Shannon Kenny Venable