Venice - City of Architectural Awe

To mark the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale opening in 2021, join us on a unique architectural tour of the 'floating city', both past and present.

Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace), Venice (1961) by Photographer: Edwin Smith and Architect: Bartolomeo Buon (1400- c1467), Pietro Lombardo (1435-1515), Antonio Rizzo (1465-1498), Antonio Scarpagnino (c1465-1549), Giogio Spavento (d1509)Royal Institute of British Architects

Venice is probably the most photographed and photogenic city in the world. Known for its iconic architecture and magical townscape, it has been captured by many photographers over the years and been a place of artistic inspiration for centuries. 

The domes - Basilica of San Marco, Venice (1961) by Photographer: Edwin SmithRoyal Institute of British Architects

Photography plays a large role in the history of Venice, capturing its cultural heritage before the arrival of mass tourism. In the late 19th century Venice had gone through many political, economical and cultural changes. With the Italian Unification in 1861 it was a city that was striving to recover from an unstable political history.

Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace), Piazzetta San Marco, Libreria Sansoviniana and Campanile seen across the Canale di San Marco, Venice (1900) by Photographer: AndersonRoyal Institute of British Architects

The advancement of photography happened simultaneously and meant that the unique architectural gems of Venice were captured by renowned international photographers. Many of their photographs are held in RIBA’s Collection and some shown here alongside contemporary views.

Piazza San Marco, Venice (1961) by Photographer: Edwin SmithRoyal Institute of British Architects

The uniqueness of early Venice photography is the number of people within the frame. Unlike today, with the impact of mass tourism bleeding into the shot, these photos reveal a more solemn Venice. The removal of human form and souvenir stalls allow the viewer to focus solely on the architectural details, appreciating the composition and form of the subject.

Ca' d' Oro, Grand Canal, Venice (1825) by Artist: Martin Joseph Stutely and Architect: Bartolomeo Buon (1400- c1467)Royal Institute of British Architects

Ca 'd'Oro, Grand Canal

One of the best examples of Venetian Gothic, the Ca 'd'Oro is located in the Cannaregio district overlooking the Grand Canal. The architects were Giovanni Bon and his son Bartolomeo Bon. The name of the building, translated to ‘House of Gold’, derived from the gold leaf trim that adorns its façade. 

Ca' d' Oro, Venice (1870)Royal Institute of British Architects

The architectural details of Ca 'd'Oro reveal a subtle transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance style. The marble patterns, the walls around the windows and the balconies are indicative of the late Gothic period, while the colonnade facing the canal and the small square windows on the right side of the building are more Renaissance in form.

The Ca ‘d’Oro has today been transformed and restored into a museum, housing the art collection of its late owner Baron Giorgio Franchetti, who donated the building and the collection to the Italian State.

Palazzo Ducale, Piazza San Marco, Venice (1870) by Photographer: Carlo PontiRoyal Institute of British Architects

Palazzo Ducale, or Doge's Palace

Surrounded by canals, Palazzo Ducale started out as a fortress before becoming the headquarters for the old Venetian government. Over the years the architecture has adapted and it is now one of the finest buildings in Venice. 

A Venetian Gothic masterpiece, the palace took its present day form between 1339 and 1342. In 1442, the architects Giovanni Bon and his son Bartolomeo added the Porta della Carta, the main entrance to the palace. 

The ground floor is a covered loggia (corridor), defined by an arcade of pointed arches. The second level contains an open balcony, featuring a prominent railing and pointed arches with quatrefoils (a clover-leaf decorative element) rhythmically displayed. A stone wall encloses the third and upper level, with a row of large-pointed windows punctuating the façade.      

Palazzo Ducale is unique with the solid wall above and the open loggias below. Most palaces have this the other way round. With a rhythmic sense of order and repetition of gothic arches and quatrefoils, the details on the architecture are captivating and aesthetically pleasing. 

Basilica of San Marco, Venice (1870) by Photographer: Carlo PontiRoyal Institute of British Architects

Basilica of San Marco

Located in Piazza San Marco (St Marks Square) next to the Palazzo Ducale, the Basilica of San Marco has historically been the centre of public and religious life. It became the cathedral of Venice in 1807.

Basilica of San Marco, Venice (1870)Royal Institute of British Architects

The Basilica began construction in 1063. Originally built in the Byzantine style – to represent the power of the prosperous Venetian Republic – it now features a unique blend of architectural styles added over the years. These include pointed Gothic arches, 17th- and 18th-century sculptures and the horses of St Mark. With five domes, the Greek cross base houses more than 4,000 square metres of mosaics, mostly originating from the 13th century.   

Rialto bridge and gondolas in the Grand Canal, Venice (1870) by Photographer: Carlo Naya and Architect: Antonio Da Ponte (c. 1512-1597)Royal Institute of British Architects

Ponte di Rialto, or Rialto Bridge

This stone arch bridge over the Grand Canal is the oldest in Venice. Originally built in 1181 as a pontoon bridge, its design adapted from wood to stone to accommodate the increased traffic. In 1551, a call for a new bridge design was issued and some of the leading architects at the time put forward ideas, including Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Andrea Palladio and Michelangelo. Their designs were not successful as they included several arches, which would hinder the river traffic. The chosen single span design was by the Swiss-born Venetian architect and engineer Antonio da Ponte.

Today Rialto Bridge is a key destination for tourists to visit. Pedestrians can access the bridge via two inclined ramps with shops on either side and three walkways leading to a central portico. 

Palazzo Dario, Grand Canal, Venice (1880) by Photographer: Fratelli Alinari and Architect: Pietro Lombardo (1435-1515)Royal Institute of British Architects

Palazzo Dario, Grand Canal

The 500-year-old palace, Palazzo Dario, was built in 1479 by the aristocrat Giovanni Dario, secretary of the Venetian senate. The details of the façade and the building's composition are in the Gothic style. There is a visible tilt to the right due to its foundations being constructed over an old Templar cemetery. Other notable features include a neo-Gothic balcony on the second floor, which was added in the 19th century. 

Fratelli Alinari

This photograph is taken by renowned studio Fratelli Alinari. Established in Florence in 1854 by brothers Leopoldo, Giuseppe, and Romualdo Alinari, their reputation grew for capturing views of historic monuments and panoramas of cities. They gained popularity with Italian royalty and this extended to England with Prince Albert commissioning photographs of artwork. 

Chiesa del Redentore, Dorsoduro, Venice, seen from the Canale della Giudecca (1880) by Photographer: Carlo Naya and Architect: Andrea Palladio (1508-1580)Royal Institute of British Architects

Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore (Il Redentore The Redeemer)

This church was commissioned by the Senate to mark the impact of the plague, which devastated Venice from 1575-77. Andrea Palladio was the appointed architect. However, he died in 1580 after which his foreman Antonio da Ponte completed the design as originally proposed. 

Located on the island of Giudecca, across the lagoon from the Palazzo Ducale and Piazza San Marco, it is one of the most recognised churches of Venice. It is also the centrepiece of one of the city’s key public celebrations, the Feast of the Redentore, on the third Sunday of July, when a pontoon is built to bridge Giudecca with Zatterre, enabling people to come together and celebrate this festival.  

Il Redentore, Venice (2017) by Photographer: David Valinsky and Architect: Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), Antonio Da Ponte (c. 1512-1597)Royal Institute of British Architects

The architectural elements and composition of the building is recognisably by the architect Andrea Palladio with a number of triangular gables fragmented over the façade, supported by columns and united by a horizontal band. The mouldings and sculpture on the outside of the building add more ecclesiastical detail.

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Explore more from RIBA Collections here. 
All images are from RIBA Collections unless listed.    

Image: Rooftop view of Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Rights: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections
Image: The domes of Basilica of San Marco, Venice. Rights: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections
Image: Piazza San Marco, Venice. Rights: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections
Image: Il Redentore, Venice. Rights: David Valinsky / RIBA Collections

Curation and Interpretation by RIBA Public Programmes.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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