Masterpieces of Venetian Art and Architecture

Travel through the ages and across the world to discover the art of Venice.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

The Piazza San Marco in Venice (Around 1723 - 1724) by CanalettoMuseo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

Piazza di San Marco

Venice occupies a collection of small islands sheltered from the sea within a large lagoon in northern Italy.  The square of Saint Mark boasts the Byzantine Basilica of San Marco, an enormous campanile (tower) and the loggia or open walkways that line either side of the square.

The adjacent Piazzetta of San Marco, a smaller public square, is framed by the Doge’s Palace and a Renaissance library—all with a view of the Grand Canal.

The domes, arches, decorative stonework, and dazzling mosaics are Byzantine in style. Before it became an independent Republic, Venice was controlled by the Byzantine Empire in the East and was an important connection between eastern cultures and Western Europe.

Above the door are replicas of four bronze horses that were stolen from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (the originals are inside). Centuries later, Napoleon placed them atop the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The horses returned to Venice after Napoleon’s defeat.

This free-standing campanile (bell tower) stands 323 feet. The original may have doubled as a lighthouse when the Piazzetta was seawater. The present tower was designed in the 16th century but had to be reconstructed early in the 20th century after it fell.

We are looking towards the Grand Canal past the arches of St. Mark’s Basilica (near left) and bricks of the Campanile (right), to two granite columns at the water’s edge with an ancient winged lion and a Saint slaying a dragon.

Ca' d'Oro on the Grand Canal

The Ca' d'Oro is the most famous private palace in Venice. Prominent families in 15th century Renaissance capitals, such as Florence and Venice, created architecture that expressed their wealth and sophistication.

But while Florence grew rich from wool and banking, trade made Venice a wealthy and cosmopolitan city. The Contarini family produced 8 doges and built the Ca' d'Oro to express the mix of cultural influences and luxury seen in 15th-century Venice.

The Ca' d'Oro (right) seems to rise out of the water. Ca' d'Oro means House of Gold and it was originally covered in shiny gold leaf. The building is clad in colored marbles and the style is a mix of Byzantine, Islamic, and Gothic.

The water leads past columns to delicate arched windows and the offices of the family’s business. The right side of the first floor includes Islamic-style arched windows at the sides and a small square window at the top center.

The upper floors are more elaborate and feel lighter. The large quatrefoils (the four-lobed cutouts) on the middle balcony are gothic motifs. The highest balcony is even more refined, with delicate pointed quatrefoils atop ever thinner columns.

The Grand Canal in Venice winds past many palaces and carries most of the city’s commercial traffic. Few of the houses that line the waterway have sidewalks and only four bridges cross it, so a boat is the best way to see the city.

Villa Rotunda, in The Architecture of A. Palladio in Four Books containing a Short Treatise on the Five Orders (L'Architecture de A. Palladio en quatre livres... / Il quattro libri dell'architettura) (Volume 1, book 2, plate 15) (1715 [1716–20]) by Bernard Picart|John Watts|James [Giacomo] Leoni|Nicholas DuBois|Andrea PalladioThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palladio, Villa Rotunda and Grounds

Andrea Palladio was one of the most influential architects of the Venetian Renaissance. The word “Renaissance” means rebirth and refers to a renewed interest in the art, architecture, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome.  Nowhere is this more clear than in Palladio’s design for the Villa Rotunda. 

He was particularly influenced by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. The principles behind Palladio’s classically inspired buildings would influence Neoclassical (18th century) architecture across Europe and the United States.

The tradition of the villa goes all the way back to ancient Rome. It was a country house, a refuge from the city especially during the hot summer months, and the Villa Rotunda’s breezy hilltop paths and gardens do just that.

Venetian art at the Frick Collection

We are surrounded by exceptional art at the Frick Collection in New York City and there are paintings and sculptures by the great Venetian artists of the Renaissance.

Henry Clay Frick amassed one of the great private art collections in the United States. His home, which we are standing in, was designed to display his collection and was turned into a museum after he and his wife died.

Hercules looks at the treasures. The inscription reads: “OMNIA VANITAS,” (All is vanity). Will Hercules follow the woman’s lead and ignore the riches? Also notice how the greens become bluer and paler as the landscape recedes, this is called atmospheric perspective.

Venetian art is known for its brilliant colors, clear light, sumptuous textures and dynamic compositions. Hercules turns away from the bejeweled woman who represents vice and reaches for modesty and virtue. The translated inscription says, “Honor and virtue flourish after death.”

The central sculpture shows Mars, the Roman god of war. He wears a plumed helmet, pulls a sword, and stands on armor above mermaids. Originally this figurine was paired with a Venus and expressed the nobility of human experience.

United States Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale

We are standing in the entry hall of the United States Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, an international festival of contemporary art held every two years.  The exhibition takes place in dozens of buildings scattered amongst the many warehouses and shipyards that fill this area.

Buildings that produced and supplied the great Venetian navies that made the Republic wealthy and powerful. The United States was represented by the work of the artist Joan Jonas at the 2015 Biennale.

This installation is a kaleidoscope of the artist’s concerns about the environment’s future. Video show children enacting ghost stories from Nova Scotia. A chandelier of Venetian crystal hangs above drawings, and japanese kites are reflected in distorted mirrors.

Simplified drawings of fish are reflected by rippled mirrors made by hand specifically for the exhibition on the nearby island of Murano. The room also contains some of the props used in the videos suggesting a stage set.

The artist has said of the installation, “Although the idea of my work involves the question of how the world is so rapidly and radically changing,...the ideas are implied poetically through sound, lighting and...images of children, animals and landscape.”

Chiharu Shiota, Japan Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale was begun more than 120 years ago. Artists from eighty-nine nations were represented at the 2015 exhibition titled, “All the World’s Futures.”

The Berlin-based Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota has exhibited widely in Asia, Europe and in the United States and uses large-scale installation to explore questions such as why we exist. We are standing in the Japan pavilion looking at her work titled, The Key in the Hand.

Here is a vast network of blood-red yarn and keys that rain down on boats. Keys keep things safe but also keep secrets. People donated old keys from all over the world so each key was a part of someone’s life.

The boats are metaphors, symbols of hands open to the rain of keys and yarn—catching memories and hope. More keys are scattered on the floor. The little boats, floating on a sea of memories and the infinite meaning of human existence.

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