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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Museo di Palazzo Grimani in Venice

What is the Museo di Palazzo Grimani?

The Museo di Palazzo Grimani is a unique Roman-inspired palace in Venice that once belonged to the noble Grimani family, and is now a state museum that houses a varied collection of art and sculpture.

Sculptures in the interior of Museo di Palazzo Grimani

Palgri, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Museo di Palazzo Grimani History

The Palazzo Grimani is an exceptional Roman-inspired building right in the heart of Venice. Redesigned in the mid-16th century to showcase the Greco-Roman sculpture collection of Giovanni Grimani, this unique palace gives a fascinating insight into the luxury, wealth and creativity then to be found in the city. Although much of Giovanni’s impressive collection now resides in the city’s Archaeological Museum, the building itself is a work of art. The staggeringly decorated interior boasts frescoes, stucco and fantastical grotesques that include religious allegory, floral arabesques and mythological sea monsters; intricate work created by Italy’s most inspired Mannerist artists.

The palazzo had originally been the family home of Doge Antonio Grimani. After his death in 1523, he left it to his two high-ranking grandsons, Vettore, Procurator of San Marco, and Giovanni, Patriarch of Aquileia. Giovanni was a great collector of antiquities and had the palace redesigned as an ancient Roman residence, the ideal setting in which to show off his outstanding collection. Sculpture niches (or alcoves) were built into the existing rooms, and two wings were added to the L-shaped building to create a Roman-style interior courtyard. Stucco was mixed to an ancient recipe, a style of decorative plasterwork never before seen in Venice.

Giovanni was closely involved in the palace’s redesign. He was inspired by the decoration of the ancient Domus Aurea in Rome, a palace of the decadent Emperor Nero discovered in the late 15th century. With this in mind, he chose each artist involved specifically for their aptitude in the painting of grotesques and Pompeian-style mythological scenes. This was a skill common in Rome, where the taste for classically inspired palaces was omnipresent, but it was almost unheard of in Venice, making the Palazzo Grimani an architectural curiosity in the 16th century and even still today. Giovanni’s chosen artists included Francesco Salviati, famed for decorating Rome’s Palazzo Farnese, Federico Zuccari and Giovanni da Udine, pupil to Raphael and Giorgione. As for da Udine, the artist’s fascination with ancient grotesques came about as a result of visiting the Domus Aurea.

Camillo Mantovano’s Sala a Fogliami is a definite highlight. The room is alive with painted plants and birdlife and even includes New World species like tobacco and corn, only just discovered by Europeans in this exciting period of global exploration. The room isn’t solely decorative however. The Latin mottoes and pictorial language actually allude to a devastating episode in Giovanni’s life, in which he was accused of heresy. The room’s iconography and choice of mottoes can be interpreted as alluding to his innocence and faithfulness to the Church of Rome.

Look out for the dramatic staging of the Roman Ganymede and Eagle statue, which you’ll only spot if you look up; it hangs in the upper reaches of the Tribuna. You’ll notice that, just as in Rome’s iconic Pantheon, the only light source comes directly from above. The Palazzo Grimani houses a predominantly classical collection, so you may be surprised to discover the Bosch room, dedicated to the uneasy and often nightmarish paintings of Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.

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