Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel, Venice, 1479
Photographer: Ralph Deakin, 1930s
Copyright: Ralph Deakin / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
The form of the Venetian palace evolved from the basic need of its noble-merchant owner to combine his trading headquarters with living accommodation for himself and his family. The unique physical conditions of the city also had an enormous impact on the development of palace architecture.
The original model for the Venetian palace is the Veneto-Byzantine type called 'casa fondaco' - from the Arabic word 'funduq' meaning warehouse or trading post - which offered warehouse space on the ground floor and living apartments on the upper floor. This type of house was also found in the eastern Mediterranean and usually featured a ground floor arcade which facilitated the loading and unloading of the merchandise and an upper floor arcaded loggia occupying the full width of the façade. Very few of these houses survive in Venice and almost all of them have been substantially altered over the centuries, especially with the addition of extra storeys.
This type evolved to suit the specific needs of the inhabitants of the city. Often erected on long and narrow plots of land, most of the palaces had both land and water entrances, as the latter was essential for the unloading of goods. A single portal replaced the arcade found in earlier houses. The ground floor consisted of a deep hallway ('androne') with storage rooms on both sides and a courtyard at the back. Corresponding to this hall on the upper floor ('piano nobile') was a large central hall. Predominantly a circulation space, this was also used for entertaining and was flanked by living areas composed of smaller rooms. A third floor housed more storage space and the servants’ rooms. This internal distribution led to the articulation of the façade into three equal bays, the central one of which consisted of an arcaded loggia indicating the position of the hall. The bays on either side were more solid and punctured only by a single window or later by two paired windows. This symmetrical, tripartite model was to prove very long-lasting and was still in use at the time Palladio arrived in the city.
This arrangement meant that the spines of the building were four load-bearing walls which carried the weight of the timber floors and roof. The façade consequently only had to carry its own weight. This factor, together with the high degree of security the lagoon setting afforded the city, allowed the façade to be opened up through the use of large windows, arcades and loggias. These in turn allowed light to be admitted into the furthest recesses of the house – an important consideration given that Venetian palaces were typically long and narrow. In this way the Venetian palace developed a form of façade that was unprecedented in Europe. It became the showpiece of the palace not only celebrating the wealth and prestige of its owner but also enhancing the beauty of the city.