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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of Palazzo Grassi in Venice

What is Palazzo Grassi?

Palazzo Grassi, or Grassi Palace in English, is an 18th-century Venetian palace that hosts provocative modern and contemporary art exhibitions.

Palazzo Grassi

Palazzo Grassi History

Home to the private collection of French entrepreneur François Pinault (founder of the luxury goods company Kering), this provocative museum is a must-see for any lover of modern and contemporary art. Pinault is one of the world’s foremost art collectors, and has made it his life’s work to share his passion for 20th- and 21st-century art. In a cutting-edge programme of temporary exhibitions, innovative and often controversial works from his own collection are exhibited alongside exclusive loans from international museums and institutions.

Juxtaposed under ornate and gilded ceilings, you might find Arte Povera, Minimalism or Pop Art, or perhaps work by some of our most challenging contemporary artists: Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Urs Fischer. Living artists are often asked to create site-specific installations, drawing on the unique Venetian waterscape for inspiration.

The collection is housed in an imposing Neoclassical building; the last palace built on the Grand Canal before the collapse of the Venetian Republic. It was designed by the architect Giorgio Massari for the powerful Grassi family. Its interior is elaborately decorated; dynamic figural groupings on the walls of the main staircase have been frescoed by Michelangelo Morlaiter and Francesco Zanchi, and the extravagant ceilings were decorated by artists Giambattista Canal and Christian Griepenkerl.

A dramatic turn in their fortunes forced the Grassi family to sell their beloved palace in 1840. It passed through the hands of several different owners over the next hundred years, before becoming the International Centre of Arts and Costume in 1951. When the centre closed, the Palazzo Grassi was bought by Italian automotive group Fiat as a space to mount art and archaeology exhibitions, focusing on ancient civilisations.

François Pinault acquired the palazzo in 2005 for 29 million Euros. His intention? To turn it into a space where he could exhibit his enormous (and fast-growing) collection of modern and contemporary art. Pinault commissioned Japanese architect Tadao Ando to redesign the space. A former boxer and self-taught architect, Ando’s sophisticated and highly contemporary renovation also saw the transformation of the palace’s disused theatre (once the site of a small garden with fountains and pergolas) into a beautifully designed curvaceous auditorium. It hosts an exciting programme of cultural events, including creative workshops, films, concerts, lectures and performances. The Palazzo Grassi reopened in 2006 with its inaugural exhibition Where Are We Going? showcasing some of the most confrontational pieces from Pinault’s private collection.

Boasting over 10,000 artworks, the collection is so big it spans two separate venues in Venice, both of which hold temporary exhibitions that change at least once a year. So, if you haven’t had your fill at the Palazzo Grassi, head over to its sister museum, the Punta della Dogana, in Dorsoduro. But before you do, make sure you visit the museum café, which will be themed according to the latest exhibition, and from which you can enjoy stunning views of the Grand Canal.

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