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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo in Venice

What is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo?

The Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is a late-15th-century palazzo in Venice with an unusual snail-shaped exterior staircase that was constructed by the influential Contarini family.

Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

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Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo History

The Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is smaller and less well-known than many of Venice’s palazzi. Its external, multi-arch, spiral staircase, however, is spellbinding and rightly celebrated. Down a small calle (or sideroad) just off Calle de la Vida o de le Locande is a little garden where you can glimpse the remarkable design that mixed Gothic and Renaissance styles. In the garden are eight well-heads from across the city – look out for one decorated with berries and leaves of a laurel tree from the 16th century. Casting your eyes upwards, you can study the staircase and loggia built by Giovanni Candi in 1499. The tower is cylindrical around a central pillar with the steps curving around it in helical form. It’s affectionately called the Scala del Bovolo (or Staircase of the Snail Shell), recalling its elegant twisting aesthetic. You can climb its 80 steps to its belvedere (or fair view) and enjoy Venice’s skyline of domes, turrets, bell towers, and altane (or rooftop terraces).

The Contarini family had the staircase built to beautify the otherwise obscure palace. As one of the twelve founding families of the Venetian Republic, they were certainly accustomed to conspicuous displays. When the republic was dissolved in 1797, the Contarini family had produced 44 procurators and eight doges (more than any other family), let alone numerous naval commanders, cardinals, and ambassadors. Some of the best surviving Venetian Gothic structures from the 15th century, such as the Ca’ d’Oro and the Palazzo Contarini Fasan, were built by the family. Whilst in the 16th century they employed Andrea Palladio, who created some of Veneto’s finest Renaissance buildings. This staircase is one of their most memorable constructions, featured in Jacopo de’ Barbari’s famous printed map from 1500 and Orson Welles’ 1951 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.

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