Photographers: Fratelli Alinari, 1880s
Copyright: RIBA Library Photographs Collection
The Gothic period in Venice coincided with a time of general overall prosperity in the city. Several new churches were built as a consequence of the huge numbers of donations and every wealthy family, not only those belonging to the nobility, was keen to have a fine new house.
Gothic forms were introduced into church architecture by the mendicant orders who brought to the city the traditions they had already developed on mainland Italy. Amongst the most imposing were the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, founded by the Dominicans, and the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, erected by the Franciscan order. They had a lot in common with other Gothic churches in northern and central Italy and their main concession to Venice’s traditions was the use of local building materials, in particular red brick and Istrian stone.
However, a distinctly Venetian version of Gothic architecture was developed in palace building. Inspired by the grandiose palace the Doges had started building in the mid-14th century, the builders of these palaces blended the new Gothic forms with Veneto-Byzantine and oriental motifs, both part of the city’s cultural heritage. They thus created a highly original style which remained deeply rooted in the city until the last decades of the 15th century when many other parts of Italy had already witnessed the introduction of Renaissance forms.
The reasons for the enduring popularity of Gothic architecture and the late arrival of the Renaissance in Venice cannot simply be ascribed to the conservatism of its ruling classes. The city still had strong connections with the East and the North and, unlike most major Italian cities, no Roman remains. Its prosperity was based on trade and it had less of a tradition of classic and humanist studies than Florence, or even nearby Padua. Its rich Gothic style was developed when the city was at the peak of its power and it was nurtured by the Venetian love of richly decorated surfaces and of the pointed arch.