The monumental Palazzo Rezzonico is home to the Museum of the 18th century Venice. Ca’ Rezzonico is a palazzo on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro sestiere of Venice, Italy. Today, it is a public museum dedicated to 18th-century Venice (Museo del Settecento Veneziano) and one of the 11 venues managed by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.
The quality of the numerous works exhibited, together with the extraordinary architecture and setting, made Ca’ Rezzonico a veritable temple of the Venetian 18th century. Alongside precious furnishings and decorations, it hosts major paintings by Venetian artists, such as Giambattista Tiepolo, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi.
The palace which houses the Museum of 18th-century Venice was built at the behest of the Bon family, one of the old noble families of the town. Halfway through the 17th century Filippo Bon commissioned the building from the most famous architect of his time, Baldassare Longhena, who also built Ca’ Pesaro and the basilica of La Salute. The monumental project proved however to be too ambitious for the Bon finances. The palace had not yet in fact been completed when the architect died in 1682 and soon afterwards, in view of the family’s inability to bear the considerable expense of the project, the works were brought to a halt and the building remained incomplete.
In 1750 Giambattista Rezzonico, whose family had recently received a noble title by paying a large sum of money, bought the building and commissioned Giorgio Massari, the fashionable architect of the time, to complete the works. The palazzo took the name of the Rezzonico family. The works were completed in just 6 years, in time to celebrate the family’s lightning rise in society, which peaked in 1758 when Carlo, Giambattista’s son, was elected pope under the name of Clement XIII. Their success was however fairly short-lived and had already come to an end with the next generation. Lacking male heirs, the family died out in 1810 with the death of Abbondio.
During the 19th century the palace changed owners several times and was gradually stripped of all its furnishings. Later tenants included the poet Robert Browning – who spent the summers of 1887 and 1888 in the palace, and died here in 1889 – and the composer and songwriter Cole Porter, who rented the premises from 1926 to 1927. It had been reduced to a mere empty receptacle when it was purchased by the city of Venice in 1935 to house the 18th-century art collections. In just a short time, furnishings were added to the paintings: everyday objects, also stripped frescoes or ceiling canvases from other city palaces.
The result is an extraordinary environmental museum in whose rooms we can see works of one of the most fortunate periods of European art, together with the lavishness and splendor of an 18th-century Venetian mansion.
The main entrance to the building was originally the one on the Grand Canal, through the monumental water entrance where all guests entered. The architect Baldassare Longhena radically revised the usual concept of the façade of the Venetian palace; this was traditionally divided into three parts, with a row of windows in the central part and two wings at the sides. Longhena instead chose to use a single architectural module for the whole surface, in this case derived from the New Office of the Procurators in St. Mark’s Square (which he himself had completed) and reinterpreted in a Baroque style. The accentuated projection of the various elements created a striking interplay of light and shade.
The ground plan of the building was also innovative. The continuous closed portico which traditionally crossed old Venetian palaces longitudinally, from the water entrance to the land entrance, was here broken up by an inner courtyard. This was typical of the scheme for land palaces and was not used in Venice. The solution is simple but effective.
Instead of an extremely dark area which has no architectural or scenographic impact, a succession of light and dark areas was created. This dilates the space and attracts the viewer’s eye to the family coat-of-arms, which is positioned in full light above the fountain at the end of this rhythmic chiaroscuro cadence. The effect was accentuated by the fact that the coat-of-arms was originally the only coloured element within the perspective telescope which was created by the succession of closed and open spaces.
The ground floor portico today houses a 19th century gondola fitted with the traditional “felze” a removable cabin shielding passenger from onlookers and guaranteeing their comfort and privacy.
The Rezzonico family
The unfinished palazzo had been bought from the impoverished Bon family by Giambattista Rezzonico. His family, like their friends at the Palazzo Labia, had bought their noble Venetian status in the mid-17th century following a war with Turkey, when the Venetian state coffers were depleted. Hence the mere rich, as opposed to the wealthy aristocracy, could make a large donation to the Serene Republic, thus purchasing patents of nobility and having their names inscribed in the Libro d’Oro (the “Golden Book”).
A Canaletto painting of the early 18th century shows only the ground floor and first piano nobile completed, and a temporary roof protecting the structure from the elements. The completion of the palazzo symbolised the completion of the Rezzonico’s upward social journey. The pinnacle of the Rezzonico’s power and the Palazzo’s grandeur came in 1758, when Carlo, son of Giambattista Rezzonico, was elected Pope as Clement XIII, the same year Ludovico Rezzonico married Faustina Savorgnan in Venice. Ludovico later became the procurator of St. Mark’s Basilica. By 1810 the family had died out, leaving only their palazzo to preserve the Rezzonico name.
Ca’ Rezzonico stands on the right bank of the canal, at the point where it is joined by the Rio di San Barnaba. The site was previously occupied by two houses belonging to the Bon family, one of Venice’s patrician families. In 1649 the head of the family, Filippo Bon decided to build a large palazzo on the site. For this purpose he employed Baldassarre Longhena, the greatest proponent of Venetian Baroque, a style slowly replacing the Renaissance and Palladian architectural style of such palazzi as (its near neighbour) Palazzo Balbi and Palazzo Grimani built over 100 years previously. However, neither architect nor client was to see the completion of the Palazzo Bon: Longhena died in 1682, and Filippo Bon suffered a financial collapse.
The design was for a three-story marble façade facing the canal. The ground floor rusticated, containing a central recessed portico of three bays without a pediment, symmetrically flanked by windows in two bays. Above this the piano nobile of seven bays of arched windows, separated by pilasters, above this the “second piano nobile” was near identical, and above this a mezzanine floor of low oval windows. The slight projection of the two tiers of balconies to the piano nobili accentuate the baroque decoration and design of the building. The palazzo today follows this form, although it was not finished until 1756 by the architect Giorgio Massari, who had been brought in to oversee the completion of the project by the new owners – the Rezzonico Family. Massari however, seems to have adhered to the original plans of Longhena, with the addition of some concepts of his own which reflected the change in architecture between the palazzo’s conception and its completion 100 years later.
In 1758, the newly completed palazzo was enhanced further, by the addition of frescos to the ceilings of the state rooms on the piano nobile overlooking the rio di San Barnaba. The artists selected for this task were Jacopo Guarana, Gaspare Diziani and most importantly Giambattista Tiepolo. These frescos remaining today are among the finest preserved in Venice.
The Palazzo’s principal rooms are arranged on the 1st piano nobile; on all floors the famous canal facade is only three rooms wide. On each side of the building a suite of four state rooms lead from the grand canal facade to the largest room in the palazzo – the magnificent ballroom at the rear. This room, created by Massari, is of double height. The walls are decorated in trompe l’oeil by the Lombard Pietro Visconti. The images are of an architectural nature, which create the feeling that the large room is even more massive than it is. The ceiling, painted by Giovanni Battista Crosato, depicts Apollo riding his carriage between Europe, Asia, Africa and The Americas. The Ballroom and following state rooms are reached by the vast staircase of honour, its marble balustrades decorated with statuary by Giusto Le Court. Le Court the leading sculptor in Venice in the late 17th century worked closely on many projects with the first architect Longhena, which suggests the regal importance the ballroom and staircase give to the palazzo was one of the intentions of the patrician Bon family rather than the ‘arriviste’ Rezzonicos.
The piano nobile also contains such rooms as the Chapel, and the beautifully frescoed Nuptial Allegory Room decorated to celebrate the 1758 marriage of Ludovico Rezzonico. The ceiling has a trompe l’oeil depiction of the groom and his bride ferried by Apollo’s chariot. The frescoes in the adjoining room continues the celebration of the happy union. This room and the Palazzo Labia ballroom house major ceiling frescoes “in situ” by Tiepolo in Venice.
At the centre of the rectangular palazzo is a small courtyard decorated with sculptures and a small fountain; the court is overlooked by the colonnaded balcony of the piano nobile. The ground floor resembles a mere expansion of the vaulted portego – a hall which links the canal entrance to the land entrance at the rear.
The staircase alongside the café leads to the Browning Mezzanine, which houses the Mestrovich Collection, including works by artists such as Jacopo Tintoretto and Bonifacio de’ Pitati.
The visit to the museum collection begins at Giorgio Massari’s large ceremonial staircase on the side of the palace opposite to the Grand Canal.
On the first floor, eleven rooms exhibit paintings, sculptures, frescoed ceilings, and collections of 18th century furnishings.
The second floor opens with a long central hall typical of Venetian palaces in which there are two early works by Canaletto; the rooms dedicated to the work of Pietro Longhi and the Giandomenico Tieopolo frescoes originally on the walls of Villa Zianigo are not to be missed.
Further paintings by Tiepolo have been added, including an entire frescoed ceiling, depicting ‘The Allegory of Merit’, which was rescued from Palazzo Barbarigo, now in the throne room.
The Throne Room was originally described as a bridal chambers of the Rezzonico family; today it is of all the reconstructed chambers perhaps the most remarkable, consisting chiefly of articles pertaining to the Venetian patrician family of Barbarigo. One of the most remarkable items in the room after the ceiling, is a picture frame. This ornate gilt frame celebrates with putti, shields and other allegories the glories of the illustrious family of Barbarigo. It was originally given to Pietro Barbarigo whose portrait it surrounds. The room is named for the ornate gilt chair or throne by rococo sculptor Antonio Corradini. Two very similar chairs were included in the sale at Mentmore Towers in the 1970s, rather than serving as the thrones of monarchs, they were often used by high-ranking priests in the many churches of the city during the interminable masses.
In addition to the throne room, a Chinoiserie-style salon from the palazzo of the Calbo-Crotta family and many more entire rooms have been salvaged from decaying Venetian palazzi.
Numerous paintings including such artists as Pietro Longhi, Francesco Guardi, Giambattista Pittoni and Giandomenico Tiepolo are on display in the Palazzo. In addition to collections of antique furniture, there is also a fine collection of Venetian glass, showing that the skills of the 18th century masters at Murano were probably superior to those on the island today.
The third floor contains not only the three rooms of the Ai Do San Marchi Pharmacy, but also the noteworthy collection of paintings bequeathed by Egidio Martini.
Among the displays on this floor is the Egidio Martini’s painting collection of works from the 15th-century to the beginning of the 20th. They include Cima da Conegliano, Alvise Vivarini, Bonifacio de’ Pitati; Tintoretto, Schiavone, the Bassano family, Paolo Fiammingo, Lambert Sustris; Padovanino and Carpinoni, Pietro Vecchia, Giovanni Segala, Palma il Giovane, Bernardo Strozzi, Francesco Maffei, Giovan Battista Langetti, Pietro Liberi; Balestra, Niccolò Bambini, Piazzetta, Nicola Grassi, Tiepolo and sons, Pietro Longhi, Rosalba Carriera, Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Pellegrini, Amigoni, Diziani, Antonio Marini, Zuccarelli, Zais, Giuseppe Bernardino Bison, Natale Schiavoni, Ippolito Caffi, Mancini, Emma Ciardi.
Also represented in the museum collection, with a pastel, is the Venetian artist Maria Molin.
In the early years of the 19th century, the palazzo was to become Jesuit College, however through complicated inheritance it finally came into the hands of the Pindemonte-Giovanelli family. In 1832, the family sold the entire furnishings and collections of the palazzo. Only the frescos remained in situ. In 1837, Ca’ Rezzonico was acquired by Count Ladislao Zelinsky, he in turn let the palazzo to a succession of aristocratic tenants. In the 1880s, it became the home of the painter Robert Barrett Browning, whose father Robert Browning, the poet, died in his apartment on the mezzanine floor in 1889. At this time, the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent also had a studio in the palazzo.
In 1906, Browning, ignoring an offer from the German Emperor Wilhelm II, sold the building to Count Lionello von Hierschel de Minerbi instead. The extravagant, art loving de Minerbi (who refurnished the palazzo with objets d’art, sometimes in questionable taste) lived lavishly at the palazzo until 1935 when, like his predecessors the Bon family, the money ran out.
American songwriter and composer Cole Porter rented Ca’ Rezzonico for $4,000 a month in the 1920s. Porter engaged 50 gondoliers to act as footmen and employed a troupe of high-rope walkers to “perform in a blaze of coloured lights”.
In 1935, after lengthy negotiations, Ca’ Rezzonico was acquired by City Council of Venice to display the vast collections of 18th-century Venetian art, which lack of space prevented its display in the Correr Museum.
Ca’ Rezzonico opened as a public museum on 25 April 1936. Today, it is one of the finest museums in Venice; this is largely because of its unique character, where objects designed for great palazzi are displayed in a palazzo, thus, the contents and the container harmonise in a way not possible in a purpose built museum. Thus, today the palazzo is more sumptuously furnished than ever before.