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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca' d'Oro

What is Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro?

Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro is a gallery of Venetian and Flemish masterworks that opened in 1927 and is set in a magnificent 15th-century Gothic palace in Venice.

Interior of Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro

Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro History

One of the oldest palaces in Venice, the Ca’ d’Oro (or ‘Golden House’) was named after the exquisite gilt and polychrome decoration that once adorned its façade. It’s now home to Giorgio Franchetti’s exquisite collection of painting, sculpture, furniture, tapestry and ceramics – the result of a lifelong dedication to the arts. But the palace itself was built long before Franchetti bequeathed his stunning collection to the Italian State.

The palace was originally commissioned in the early 15th century by the wealthy merchant Marino Contarini, and built by architect Giovanni Bon and his son Bartolomeo. Its florid embellished style is a prime example of the Venetian Gothic. Notice its shining, lace-like exterior and Byzantine-inspired decoration along the roofline. The façade was decorated by French artist Zuan di Franza in the 1430s. Over 22,000 sheets of gold leaf were used; imagine it reflecting and shimmering against the light and water of the Grand Canal. As well as gilding, the exterior was decorated with outrageously pricey ultramarine pigment, made from crushed lapis lazuli. This decoration would have come at a remarkable cost, and one that was all the more extravagant since Contarini must have known that its delicacy wouldn’t endure many of the cruel Venetian winters.

Following the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 the palace changed ownership multiple times, become increasingly more dilapidated. In 1846, and now in need of some serious attention, it was purchased by the Russian prince, Alessandro Trubetzkoi, as a gift for famed ballet dancer Marie Taglioni. She employed the engineer Giovanni Battista Meduna to restore the Ca’ d'Oro, which saw him strip away many of its original Gothic features and sell the building’s original facing (for which he was brought to court).

It wasn’t until 1894 that the palace fell into safe hands once again, this time acquired by Baron Giorgio Franchetti. He was a dedicated and knowledgeable art collector, and oversaw an extensive restoration. In 1916, he bequeathed the palace and its contents to the Italian State, to be opened as a museum after his death. Combining his personal collection of early Renaissance and Flemish masterworks with bronzes, sculptures and artwork from other State holdings, the palace opened in 1927 as the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro.

Look out for Andrea Mantegna’s San Sebastiano, painted in around 1490. The work is displayed in its own marble chapel, one of the first additions Franchetti made to the palace after his purchase. Both brutal and deeply moving, Mantegna’s painting is the museum’s most prominent masterpiece. The stately Portrait of Marcello Durazzo by Anthony van Dyck is another highlight, as are Titian’s Venus at the Mirror and Paris Bordone’s Sleeping Venus with Cupid, two exemplary Renaissance female nudes.

While it tends to be a good idea in Venetian palaces always to look up, at Ca’ d’Oro you’ll discover some of the most noteworthy art right under your feet. The palace’s stunning mosaic floor was designed and even partly laid by Franchetti himself. A unique combination of marble tesserae from Greece, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey, the floor takes inspiration from Venetian basilicas and Byzantine architecture.

Once you’ve explored the collection, take the opportunity to rest a while on one of the balconies, which will give you an unforgettable view down the Grand Canal.

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