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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

House Of Gold

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Venice slowly grew on me. At first the tourist mono culture was a turn off, a distraction obscuring the treasures to be discovered. My attention was swallowed up by the hordes of tourists disgorging from the cruise ships, train station and the vaporetto (water bus), plus the endless shops selling tacky Venetian masks and glass knick-knacks. In a one-day visit most will get to see San Marco and ten thousand tourists. Finding some quieter spots off the main tourist tracks – primarily getting away from the vortex of San Marco – and spending a few Euro to enter some palaces and museums can be greatly rewarding. Slowly the historical and celebrated Venice will unveil itself.

Venice is sensory overload. It is so unique and completely different from mainland Italy. Everything about Venice - art and architecture, its origins, the stability of the Republic for 1,000 years - is distinctive. One palace tells a story about Venetian art and social history. How did the Venetians live six hundred years ago? The Ca’ d’Oro, or House of Gold, will serve as our guide.

Ca' d'Oro, Venice

Ca' d'Oro, Venice. View from the Grand Canal

Having been to Venice a number of times and seen the major sites, I concentrated solely on one district on my last visit: the Cannaregio. Venice is made up of six sestieri or neighborhoods. Venice is really a mass of small islands without distinct boundaries between the neighborhoods, amid narrow, turning alleys, waterfronts, numerous bridges and stunning views.

Upon exiting the train station, take a hard left and you enter the Cannaregio district which meanders along the northern part of the Grand Canal. It remains one of the few neighborhoods that retains a local feel. At first the tourists are as thick as molasses but thin out farther away from the train station.

Ca' d'Oro exterior detail

Ca' d'Oro, exterior detail

Location, location, location

The approximately 70 islands that make up Venice were home to refugees fleeing repeated attacks from barbarians following the fall of the Roman empire. The lagoon and islands became home to a determined people who built not only a city but an empire of their own. This is an unlikely story for a silty, salty tiny bunch of islands that grew to dominate the Adriatic.

Getting to Venice is easy nowadays, just a short train ride from the mainland or power boat from the airport. Imagine for centuries the only way to get to Venice was a five-mile unmotorized boat ride. The lagoon that separates it from terra firma offered protection and opportunity to develop extensive trade to Constantinople and beyond.

Venice dominated the Adriatic Sea and consequently had a long history without foreign invasion. The incredibly stable government became known as La Serenissima, the most serene one. Trade access to luxury goods from the East brought Islamic influenced art and goods plus rare minerals and materials for artists. Exported goods, including devotional art, were brisk business. Palaces and government buildings, such as the Doge’s Palace next to San Marco, were open to the canals and sea. Buildings were not constructed as fortifications but for magnificence and to let the citizens and visitors know of their conquests. Grand Canal palaces in Venice look more like a very old Disneyland and less like a castle. The Ca’ d’Oro was built for such lavishness and display on the Grand Canal.

Ca’ d’Oro

Tourists ready their smart phone cameras as the waterbus passes down the Grand Canal in front of the Ca’ d’Oro. They lean out of the vaporetto to get the best shot of the exterior. This is picture postcard Venice. Its grandeur remains an eye catcher nearly six hundred years later. On foot, the Ca’ d’Oro is reached after a Google map promise of 26 minutes, which really turns out to be 40 minutes because to visit Venice is to get lost. The street entrance is unassuming considering the fame and artistic magnificence of the Grand Canal façade.

Inside the palace has been transformed into the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti art museum. Sadly, not much of the original furnishings remain, having gone through many owners in over six centuries. There is some interesting art and a small but varied collection. I’m grateful to Signor Franchetti who saw value in maintaining the palace and opening it to the public. So many other palaces have been turned into hotels.

The highlights of the palace are the view out to the Grand Canal and the ground floor courtyard and the grand hallway opening up to the canal. It’s easy to miss these two items and at the time of my visit I was the only one in the courtyard, enjoying the scenery and hearing the water lap against the mosaic floor. There were very few visitors inside the palace and many more just taking photos from the vaporetto.

(L) View of the Grand Canal from the 2nd floor; architectural detail; Ca' d'Oro vaporetto stop.

Origins and Opulence

1421 marked the beginning of the Ca’ d’Oro. Different architectural influences are blended together that epitomize Venice: Eastern, Islamic, English Gothic. The ogee arch – a pointed arch – is a hallmark Venetian architectural element. Ca’, which is Venetian for casa or house, was never referred to as a palace by Venetians; only the Ducal Palace could hold that honor out of respect for the Republic.

Marino Contarini, the original owner of the Ca’ d’Oro, belonged to one of the oldest Venetian patrician families. He hired stone cutters from Milan and Venice as well as a French painter to place real gold foil on the balls of the parapet, finials of window traceries, foliage, mouldings on bosses and lions on corner capitals. Ultramarine was painted on additional architectural elements and the Istrian stone was touched up with white lead. No expense was spared to make an impression. The exterior emphasizes decorative elements rather than symmetry and balance.

Ground floor open to the canal.

Ground floor open to the Grand Canal.

A rich merchant, Contarini wanted his house to reflect his wealth and status. Like most Venetian merchants, his wealth was not land based but built on trade import and export. Merchant houses served as residence, merchandise receiving, storage, and expedition. The impact of the house as seen from the Grand Canal was of great importance. Rather than show impenetrable strength and a fortress-like building, the house declares “I’m rich and I’ve been to exotic places.” The entrance and even the well-head to collect water were designed to impress. Houses represented not only the owners but the Republic.

Grand hall looking from the Grand Canal towards the courtyard.

Grand hall looking from the Grand Canal towards the courtyard.

Picture arriving via a gondola on the Grand Canal (each house also had an alley or street pedestrian entrance) and stepping into a grand hallway called the androne. Interior rooms were opulently decorated with expensive wall tapestries, gold finishing, and expensive decorative items. Paintings were not as common or expensive as wall tapestries. Although not in its original condition, the spacious entryway gives one the spectacular sensation of what it would be like to arrive at the Ca’ d’Oro.

(L) On the Ground Floor: mosaic floor, well head by Bartolomeo Bon, ceiling detail, mosaic detail. The well head was highly decorated and important to daily life as Venice had no access to fresh water other than rain water.

Domestic Life

The view of the Grand Canal from the Ca’ d’Oro piano nobile, or what we would call the second floor, is remarkable. The comings and goings of transport of all shapes and sizes is captivating. Everything must be delivered by water. As I look out over the glistening water brightly colored balloons are delivered by motoscafo, a varnished wood motorboat. Imagine the pageantry and trade conducted on these waterways, especially in the heyday of Venetian Adriatic dominance. There was a lot of activity also inside the homes of the nobility.

Looking up to the second floor to the private living spaces. The pointed inverted arch is the Venetian ogee arch with Eastern influences.

Rich families often held banquets, theatre shows, plays and concerts in their palaces. The home was multi-functional as business and entertainment center. Venetians loved music so there were elaborate concerts staged for voice and instruments. Most elite Venetians owned musical instruments. Fewer owned books, but as Venice was a printing center, books were readily available. Contarini was most likely quite literate but his wife, if typical, had basic reading and writing skills. Games, especially chess and cards, were likely enjoyed at Ca’ d’Oro. Tarot cards were popular and the hand painted cards were considered high art. Astrology was frequently practiced by the highly educated, especially to schedule important events.


Rare green space in the Ca' d'Oro courtyard.

The Venetian lavish life style became over the top for some visitors and regulators, especially when it came to wedding festivities. The government tried through sumptuary laws, mostly in vain, to regulate opulence. In 1472 no more than three dishes, non-gilded, were allowed at banquets. Forbidden dishes included pheasant, peacock, and dove. Servants who ratted on their employers received a monetary reward. Venetian hospitality was centered on display rather than impressing with lots of servants and good food. Paintings of banquet scenes include lots of material goods but little food.

And the Women?

Houses had specific gendered spaces for women and girls primarily so they were not seen by visitors. A woman’s domain was separate from the outside world and largely excluded from public life. Noble wives sat out on terraces, often making lace, or going to church. Did the Contarini women sit and make lace on the second floor overlooking the Grand Canal? It is entirely possible.

Men did the marketing, usually in the Rialto area, not women or servants. Getting the best bargain was a man’s job. When women did go out they did it in style, decked out in platform shoes, jewels and opulent fabrics. Like their residences, they were representing not only their families but the Republic.

Unmarried daughters were cloistered away until marriage. Married women had a little more freedom. Fashion morphed frequently and Venetian women were known for a lot of décolleté with heavily veiled faces. In the late 1500s twenty-inch-high wooden platform clog shoes were in fashion. I can’t imagine navigating the alleys and cobbled streets with a veil and this footwear!

Courtesans were in a unique category. Choosing their own lover, they entertained in their “chamber of recreation” usually in their own homes. These women could sing, play music, read and had unique social status and freedom. In many ways courtesans were like other luxury objects in Venice, for show and social status. Prostitution was profitable and provided good tax revenue. Bordellos were common, although not condoned, in the Rialto area and were popular with foreigners.

Ferrando Bertelli, Venetian Woman with Movable Skirt, 1563. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. This print of a courtesan was part of a series of Venetian courtesans with revealing lift-up flaps. This woman's skirt lifts up to reveal carnal pleasures.

Back to Reality

Standing in this now empty vast hall with the Grand Canal on one end and the private courtyard on the other made me wonder how many families, merchants, or foreigners came to the Ca’ d’Oro for social occasions or business. I imagined their opulent clothing, sparing no expense to impress. The Ca’ is now known to thousands of smart phones owners who have snapped a quick photo on the Grand Canal, perhaps unaware of its history and place in Venetian society.

As I concluded my visit to the House of Gold I exited onto a narrow Calle that led to the aptly named Strada Nuova (New Street) with shops, Venetians and tourists. The unwelcome sight of a McDonalds across the street motivated me to immediately get going to my next Venetian church/museum/palace/restaurant away from the crowds and back into the Venetian culture that made La Serenissima special.


Brown, Patricia Fortini. Art and Life in Renaissance Venice. Laurence King. 1997.

Brown, Patricia Fortini. Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: Art, Architecture and the Family. Yale University Press. 2004.

Brown, Patricia Fortini. "The Aesthetics of Water: How Venice Conquered the World." April 18, 2018, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Guest Lecture.

Howard, Deborah. The Architectural History of Venice. Yale University Press. 2002.

Wood, Paul. “Art in Fifteenth Century Venice: ‘an aesthetic of diversity’.” Carol M. Richardson, ed. Locating Renaissance Art, vol. 2. Yale University Press. 2007. Pp. 213-247.

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