The beauty of marble facades: Palazzo Santa Sofia


Architectural Style: Venetian Gothic 
Location: Venice, Italy 
Construction started: 1428
Construction stopped: 1430
Material: Brick, Marble 

Standing on the northern bank of Venice’s Grand Canal is The Palazzo Santa Sofia or the Ca D’Oro (House of Gold), whose intricately carved marble façade only gives a glimpse of its original glory. This house is one of the most notable examples of late Venetian Gothic architecture, which infused the existing concepts of Moorish, Byzantine and Gothic architecture into a unique aesthetic that symbolized the Venetian Republic’s cosmopolitan mercantile empire. Built initially as the luxury residence for Main Contarini, a wealthy Venetian businessman and politician, the palazzo has been owned by many people and has been renovated several times over its lifetime before ultimately becoming a museum for medieval paintings and sculptures.

The young Venetian Republic saw a period of unprecedented prominence in the early 15th century. A series of military victories transformed the maritime city-state into one of the most powerful entities on the Italian peninsula. The impressive trade networks coupled with the resources gained from these acquisitions proved so profitable that, by the 1420s, Venice was officially the wealthiest state in the whole of Europe.

During this optimistic time, Marin Contarini commissioned the construction of his new palace on the banks of the city’s Grand Canal. The Contarini family were among the most influential of Venice’s noble families. It was under their leadership that the Republic had defeated Genoa in 1380. Therefore, it only fitted that Marin’s new palace would reflect his family’s standing.

Its size and location were the first indicators of its grandeur nature. Most medieval cities were dense, crowded spaces. Therefore, just the cost of the site (35 by 22 metres) in the heart of Cannaregio was in itself an extravagant trait. However, the palazzo’s waterfront façade was the most significant expression of wealth and power out of all its qualities.

It was a norm at the time that buildings were primarily built using brick, which was lighter and cheaper to use than stone. It was a typical practice to cover the brick structures with a lime mortar to achieve a pleasant aesthetic finish. However, in the case of the Palazzo Santa Sofia, the bricks were sheathed with marble. This was without a doubt the sole reason why it took over forty stonemasons to complete its construction.

Several dozen artisans worked on a single façade for over a decade, which resulted in the complex mosaic of decorative elements that made up the building’s front. The decorative features differed from floor to floor, as the work was done on the building with two different groups of stonemasons lead by two different masters, all at different times, before being assembled under the supervision of another master builder. An exciting element of the design is that a few aspects like the balustrades of the upper levels and the capitals supporting the ground-level arcade were recycled from the old house that stood in its place previously. Everything else was carved and built specifically for the new palazzo.

As extravagantly luxurious as the stonework was, it was not up to the satisfaction of Marin Contarino. A lot of the palazzo’s decorative elements, including the spherical stone elements, the carved leaves on the capitals, and various other sculptural details, were embellished with gold leaf. Other elements were highlighted within ultramarine blue, black, white and red paint, accentuating the fine stonework underneath. This paint was a symbol of great wealth at the time as it was made of crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan. This commodity was considered more valuable than gold, and Venice was the gateway through which this paint entered Europe. Out of all this, it was the gold leaf coverings of the façade that had the most lasting impression even centuries after it has worn away. This gave the palazzo its nickname of Ca D’Oro, which translates to the „House of Gold‘.

The extravagance of the canal façade has a stark contrast to the rest of the palazzo. No marble sheathing is present on the walls facing the inner courtyard, thus exposing the true brick façade. Despite being visible from the main canal, the eastern wall just around the corner remained uncovered. These façades did not serve as the main gateways into the building; therefore, they were neglected with lower decorative priority. Marin poured the vast majority of his budget into the canal façade and the gateway into the courtyard.

After enduring centuries of use, abuse and reconstruction, the Palazzo Santa Sofia now stands as a testament to the former glory of the Venetian Republic. Although the famous gilding has faded over the years, the ornate stonework and spacious apartments of the palace remain iconic examples of luxury design in the medieval empire at its greatest height.