The fate of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis (1) – the paintings for the galleries of Amsterdam’s Town Hall

From 21 March Rembrandt’s most ambitious painting of which only a fragment (now in Stockholm) remains will be temporarily exhibited in the Rijksmuseum. The Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, its full title, was created for one of the galleries of the newly built Town Hall (now Royal Palace) but it hung there only briefly. Why was it taken down? Who reduced the large canvas to the much smaller central fragment and why? An investigation, starting with the peculiar genesis of the series of paintings for the galleries of Amsterdam’s Town Hall, of which Rembrandt’s painting formed part.

View from Citizens' Hall (the "Burgerzaal") into one of the galleries

View from Citizens’ Hall (the “Burgerzaal”) into one of the galleries

Anyone visiting the galleries today will immediately be struck by the monumentality of these vast spaces, more than eleven meters high. On their outer sides they gave access to administrative chambers (now Empire period rooms) while on their inner sides windows look out on two inner courtyards. The galleries receive daylight only from the windows giving on to the inner courtyards so that the corners are especially dark, yet this is precisely where the paintings depicting the Batavian Revolt are placed.

The enormous arch-shaped works (5.5 x 5.5 meters) are situated above the lower moulding and are enclosed by the galleries’ barrel vaulting. In the north-east corner hang two canvases by Jacob Jordaens, in the south-east corner a work by Jan Lievens and a work by Govaert Flinck and Jürgen Ovens, the latter replacing Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis, in the south-west corner two frescos by Giovanni Antonio de Groot. The series was never completed: the fourth corner has always remained empty. Similarly unfinished is the series with four biblical heroes by Jordaens that was planned in the arches of the east and west galleries with access to Citizens’ Hall (the Burgerzaal). Only two (scenes with Samson and David and Goliath) were completed.

The analogy between the Batavian Revolt and Dutch Revolt against Spain

When the Town Hall was inaugurated on 29 June 1655, the building was far from finished but the destruction by fire of the medieval town hall next door necessitated the city’s administrators to move in prematurely. The idea for a series of gallery paintings depicting the Batavian Revolt against the Romans (69-70 AD) and complimentary Old Testament and classical heroes stemmed, so the poet Joost van de Vondel tells us, from Cornelis de Graeff (1599-664), one of Amsterdam’s four Burgomasters and a member of one of the city’s powerful and wealthy regent families.

As early as 1584 the Stadtholders of Holland, princes of the House of Orange, military commanders in the Eighty Years’ War against Spain that had ended in 1648, were likened to Claudius Civilis and Brinio, the leaders of the Batavian uprising. The story had become hugely popular after 1600 following the publication of Tacitus’ Histories (in Latin) and was featured prominently both in texts and images, the most important set of which, and also the most important iconographic antecedent of the paintings in the Town Hall, was produced by the Italian Antonio Tempesta based on designs by Otto van Veen (1612). In the spirit of the Twelve Year Truce (1609-1621), a lull in the hostilities, the prints did not glorify the war itself but rather the resulting peace which must have struck a chord with Amsterdam’s Burgomasters who envisaged not only a stunning town hall expressing Amsterdam’s growing prosperity but also a monument to the restoration of peace.

Govaert Flinck and Jürgen Ovens

Govaert Flinck, study for the Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis

Govaert Flinck, study for the Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, 1659-60, Hamburger Kunsthalle, b/w image

Naturally, to receive a painting commission for the magnificent new Town Hall, soon to be known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, was extremely prestigious. Nothing had happened by 1659 but in that year the commission suddenly had to be rushed on account of the impending visit by members of the House of Orange on 24 September of that year. As Vondel tells us in another poem, it was Govaert Flinck who managed to complete four gigantic sketches in August 1659 in the space of only two days. Because of this bravura act and because his designs, largely based on Tempesta’s prints, pleased the Burgomasters, he was awarded the commission for the entire series: he was to paint “12 works for the galleries, two a year at 1000 guilders a piece.” But Flinck died unexpectedly on 2 February of the following year without having completed any of the permanent canvases. This time, the Burgomasters prudently decided to spread the risk and invited several renowned painters to submit sketches and drawings for the series.

Govaert Flinck/Jürgen Ovens, the Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis during recent restoration

It was Rembrandt’s Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis that replaced Flinck’s temporary painting of the same subject but when that was taken down, with another important visit (that of the Bishop of Cologne) scheduled soon afterwards, the empty space needed to be filled in a hurry and Flinck’s gigantic sketch was retrieved from storage. The German artist and former Rembrandt pupil Jürgen Ovens was commissioned “to work up a sketch by Govert Flinck into a complete ordonnation.” Ovens painted over Flinck’s faded water-colour and charcoal composition in oils and added another ten or twelve figures. On 2 January 1663 he was paid a paltry forty-eight guilders for the four days he had spent completing Flinck’s work. The planned replacement of Flinck/Ovens’ painting never materialised.

In 1664, due to a shortage of finance, the city governors decided to postpone all commissions or purchases of paintings for the Town Hall for five years. Almost illegible now, the painting still hangs in the arch in the south-east gallery today. Already severely compromised – unprimed and painted with water-based paint so that it discolours as it ages – the painting’s problems were compounded by earlier treatments by people who had no understanding of its unique nature. In the 18th century, for instance, the painting was lined using glue, a treatment that involves considerable amounts of water so that Flinck’s gum paint was partially dissolved. In addition the painting was varnished several times which is totally unsuitable for water-based paint. But the most damaging of all was the wax-resin lining of 1960 which permeated the fine linen so that it has now acquired a dark orange-brown colour.

Jan Lievens

Jan Lievens, Brinio raised on a Shield

Jan Lievens, Brinio raised on a Shield

Somewhat better fared Jan Lievens’ painting next to it. Lievens received his commission on the same day as the Antwerp master Jacob Jordaens, 13 January 1661. Both finished their paintings within six months, both executed the final touches in situ. Lievens’ Brinio raised on a shield shows the Batavians’ allies, the Canninefates, electing Brinio as their leader. To honour him, Brinio’s warriors raise their new commander on a shield, a scene also illustrated in Tempesta’s prints. The scene was significant for the Dutch Republic. Heated discussions concerning the Stadtholder’s hereditary leadership were taking place in which Cornelis de Graeff was a key figure. Brinio’s election made the point that military leaders should be elected and not installed by right of birth, a model of government that the Amsterdam Burgomasters strongly supported.

Jan Lievens, small scale study for Brinio raised on a shield, oil on paper on canvas, 60x59 cm, Amsterdam Museum

Jan Lievens, small-scale study for Brinio raised on a shield, oil on paper on canvas, 60×59 cm, Amsterdam Museum

The painting is more colourful and lighter than most of the other canvases in the series but even so specific passages such as in the sky have darkened considerably. In addition, Lievens did not wait for underlying paint layers to dry thoroughly before applying further layers and as a result, particularly in shadow paints, the paint surface has crinkled and developed deep cracks which makes it difficult for layers of old varnish, grime and wax to be removed.

Jacob Jordaens (and workshop)

From an account referring to his accommodation at the Lijsveltse Bijbel (an inn on Warmoesstraat) it appears that the Antwerp master Jacob Jordaens submitted his first painting for the series shortly before or after 17 June 1661. A Roman camp under attack by night is the only battle scene in the galleries. It is a complex, baroque composition showing a mass of writhing figures and the impact of the work is heightened by strong contrasts between light and dark. His Peace between the Romans and the Batavians illustrates the final episode of the story. In addition, Jordaens made a painting for the series of heroes in 1662, showing Samson defeating the Philistines. The Burgomasters were delighted with his work and awarded the painter a gold medal which was presented to him on 13 June 1662, along with his fee of 3000 guilders: 1200 guilders for the two Batavian paintings and 600 guilders for the Samson.

Jordaens' two paintings in the .... gallery

Jacob Jordaens’ two Batavian paintings in situ

In November 1664 as we have seen, the Burgomasters adopted a resolution not to buy or commission any further paintings for a period of five years, but two weeks later they made an exception:

Approval is given to fill the space in the gallery that has already been reserved for a painting with a work that Jordaens has already begun, representing the story of David and Goliath. Taking consideration for his advanced years [Jordaens was 71 years old at the time], one may assume that the master will not be working as an artist five years hence.

Jordaens completed David and Goliath, the second and final painting for the series of heroes soon thereafter.

What is interesting for our understanding of the architectural context is Jordaen’s modello for the Samson. When King Louis Napoleon took up residence in the Town Hall in 1808, making it his royal residence, its appearance was changed dramatically. Today the galleries and their vaultings are clad in white marble, but in the 1660s the painters would have known that their pieces would connect above with a stone-grey surrounding, just as they knew that in the walls below a marble finish was intended.

This is what Jordaens’ modello shows: the struggle is enacted above a trompe l’oeil arch that was intended as an illusory continuation of the actual arch above the doorway to the Citizens’ Hall. For this arch a white marble finish was envisaged and so the trompe l’oeil arch on the modello is also painted whitish-grey.

Jacob Jordaens David and Goliath lunette

Jacob Jordaens David and Goliath lunette

Giovanni Antonio de Groot’s “secreet”

Giovanni Antonio de Groot, Roman spoils laid at the feet of Claudius Civilis

Even more clues to the architectural finish of the galleries are found in the two frescos by the Italian artist of Dutch decent Giovanni Antonio de Groot who appeared before the Council of Amsterdam in 1667 where he presented ambitious plans for the completion of the decorations. By that time, the paintings were in a deplorable state as damp in the walls had not only damaged the plaster layer but had also caused a number of paintings to deteriorate badly. The Council acknowledged that the existing paintings had already largely perished and that the paintings were barely visible from below. De Groot claimed to have invented a secreet, a secret recipe that could be used to stabilise the plasterwork and prevent it from detaching from the wall. If granted the commission, he would paint eight frescos with scenes from the Batavian cycle. Primarily because of his proposed solution he was granted the commission. On 3 October 1668 he was paid for two frescos but for some unknown reason no other frescos were produced and the – damaged – original paintings remain in place until this day.


Giovanni Antonio de Groot, the Peace Negotiations between Claudius Civilis and Quintus Petillis Cerialis

De Groot’s works are curiously clumsy and do not represent the artistic qualities of this artist. This is because, in spite of his “secret recipe”, during the course of the first half of the 18th century the frescos must have been quite seriously damaged. Jan van Dyk (ca. 1690-1769), a restorer of paintings employed by the City and never one to mince words, described their condition as follows:

In the corner by he Thesaurie Extraordinaris, two pieces have been painted in fresco, which are actually good artistically, were it not for the brackishness in our walls, which have been spoiled by the sweated salt, and not much that could be done about it, [and also] had not one of the Know-nothings [“Weetnieten”] of art scrubbed both these pieces with water and Brussels sand, to which there are still living witnesses who confirm this, yes, who even warned him.

Van Dyk deemed the situation so serious that, in 1756, he thought restoration no longer possible. He decided to overpaint the frescos completely. In doing so, he remained faithful to De Groot’s composition and left remnants of the original composition visible wherever possible. Unfortunately, at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century the works were overpainted once more, this time not closely following De Groot but Van Dyk. The result today is that the works have become even further removed from their original appearance.

Detail from Giovanni Antonio de Groot's Peace Negotiations between the Romans and the Batavians showing the trompe l'oeuil architecture

Detail from Giovanni Antonio de Groot’s Peace Negotiations between the Romans and the Batavians showing the trompe l’oeil architecture

De Groot’s frescos do, however, provide an important clue as to the original 1660s wall finishes envisaged by architect Jacob van Campen, namely that the now white vault must originally have been sandstone-coloured: along the curved upper edges of both frescos is a trompe l’oeil architecture of sandstone blocks which must have been intended as a continuation of the surrounding “real” architecture, creating the illusion that the heroic deeds of the Batavians were actually being acted out before the eyes of the visitors in the galleries.

As a consequence of the present-day white finish of the vaults, we perceive the gallery canvases as darker than they really are. In a surround of sandstone the paintings must have been decidedly more legible even though, as we have seen, the corners in the galleries where they hung were dimly lit from the start. We will see in the next post how Rembrandt was the only artist who, in his majestic Nocturnal Conspiracy under Claudius Civilis, took into account the dark location where his painting would hang.


I am greatly indebted to the publications with regard to the recent (2007-2009) restoration of the paintings in the galleries which present hitherto unknown facts regarding the paintings’ genesis and  restoration history.

NB: Amsterdam’s 17th century Town Hall (now Royal Palace) is open to the public when not in use by the Dutch Royal family.


Follow-up: a discovery becomes a dilemma

In an earlier post I reported on the recent discovery of 17th century ceiling paintings in the Trippenhuis, the home of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam. They were hidden behind an early 19th century plaster ceiling and the dilemma arose whether the plaster ceiling should be preserved or whether the 17th century paintings should be uncovered. In order to do the latter, the entire plaster ceiling would have to be removed. A seeming dilemma – but is it? Time to take a closer look. Last week I was able to visit the house which is not normally open to the public and to take photos.

Piano Nobile, Justus Vingboons, 1664

Piano Nobile, Justus Vingboons, 1664, Stadsarchief Amsterdam

In order to understand the significance of the newly discovered paintings for the decorative programme, one has to understand the layout of the Trippenhuis which consisted of two homes annex offices for the Trip brothers Hendrick and Louys, under one roof. The two homes/offices were strictly separated but were each other’s mirror both in layout and in their decorations. The partition wall between the homes ran straight down the middle which posed a problem since the façade consisted of seven windowed bays allowing, according to classicist principles, for a corridor to run down the center. This, however, was not what the brothers intended. In order to solve the problem architect Justus Vingboons opted for the solution to board up the central façade windows as the partition wall divided these in two. The partition wall was removed when the Rijksmuseum moved into the building in 1815.

Canon shaped chimney

Canon shaped chimney

Since the Trip brothers made their fortune in the weapons and iron industry, the decorative programme both on the outside and on the inside was devised around the motto Ex bello pax (from war, peace), a firmly held belief at a time when armed conflict was always lurking: the Second Anglo-Dutch war was in fact not far off and the end of the 80 years war with Spain not far behind.

The decorative programme was consistent in both houses, with the distinction that the interior decorations were complementary: while the paintings and decorations in Hendrick’s home expressed the need for good weaponry, the decorations in Louys’ home celebrated peace and prosperity brought about by (successful) war efforts. The uniting theme of both programmes was the Peace of Münster (1648) which had ended the 80 years war with Spain.

Left: from Hendrick Trip's house; right: from Louys Trip's house

Mirrored houses and decorations reflected in ceiling paintings in the rooms. Left: from Hendrick Trip’s house; right: from Louys Trip’s house

It is inevitable that the house was altered over time. That so many of its original decorations survive is due to the fact that it remained in the family until the end of the 18th century, although Elisabeth van Loon (member of the Van Loon family whose house on Keizersgracht is now a museum) extensively altered Louys’ part of the house in 1730. Unfortunately, this meant that the ceiling paintings by Nicolaas de Heldt Stockade in Louys’ main salon have not survived, but we get a good impression of their splendour and quality from Hendrick’s salon where they survived intact.

Hendrick Trip's former salon. The wooden floor is original; the paintings all originally belonged to the Trips

Hendrick Trip’s former salon with original wooden floor; the paintings originally belonged to the Trips. This room is still known as “Rembrandt Room” as it is here that, from 1815 to 1885, Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” hung – or rather: stood, in front of the fireplace at the far end (© MD)

In the 17th century the house must have exuded a sumptuous luxuriousness that rightly earned it the name “city palace”. It had gold leather hangings on the walls as well as many paintings and chimney pieces commissioned from Ferdinand Bol and other leading artists of the day, there were elaborate carvings, and this was not limited to the rooms but implemented throughout. In spite of the alterations the house underwent in later times, it still boasts one of the most complete surviving decorative programmes in any Dutch house of the period.

Fine 17th century carvings and tiles in one of the stairwells at the Trippenhuis

Fine 17th century marble carvings and original tiles (© MD)

We have seen in my previous post that between 1815 and 1885 the Rijksmuseum shared the premises with the Royal Institute of Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts and that architect Abraham van der Hart had altered the rooms where the museum housed as well as the corridors and passages leading to them. Corridors were fitted with lowered plaster ceilings in the part of the house where the museum was located. Because so much knowledge had been gained concerning the mirrored decorative scheme elsewhere in the building, restorers felt it would be justified to drill holes in the plasterwork to see if there could still be paintings behind them. They discovered bird paintings similar to those in the corridor of the mirror house. The latter, representing Aesop’s fable of the crow and the raven, have meanwhile been restored. It stands to reason that van der Hart’s plaster ceiling hides another bird fable.


Holes drilled into van der Hart’s 1815-17 plaster ceilings reveal 17th century bird paintings (© MD)

An important question to ask is whether the quality of the early 19th century plaster ceilings in any way equals that of the 17th century ceiling paintings that have already been restored in the mirror house. Now that I have been able to assess the situation in situ I would say they do not. The plaster ceilings are in so far a part of the history of the house that they stem from the period when the Rijksmuseum was located here, but is that enough?

Fine 17th century proportions complemented by ceiling paintings and Swedish landscape over door by Allaert van Everdingen

17th century proportions complemented by ceiling paintings and Swedish landscape over door by Allaert van Everdingen (Sweden is where the Trip brothers had their canon foundry and weapons factories)

The corridor adapted in 1815-17 by van der Hart - disruptive?

The corridor adapted in 1815-17 by van der Hart. The ceilings are lowered hiding the original top lintels )

17th century depiction of Louys Trip on a falcon hunt on a stairwell ceiling

17th century depiction of Louys Trip on a falcon hunt on a stairwell ceiling

There is such a thing as a building’s integrity and historic dignity. Given the well-preserved 17th century proportions of the corridors, the high quality of the 17th century carvings and ceiling paintings and the spatial coherence of the virtually intact concept, van der Hart’s contribution seems negligible, even disruptive, since his lowered ceilings, hiding the original lintels, violate the spatial proportions. The building is best served by removing the plasterwork. Perhaps, by drilling so many holes that it almost appears as if the plaster ceiling cannot be recovered intact, the restorers anticipated this, but this is speculation on my part.

As I write, a decision has not yet been taken. This could have to do with the fact that, should the plaster ceilings be removed, the paintings behind them will have to be restored: a not unimportant cost factor at a time when the government (the owner of the building) has announced ever more cultural budget cuts. It could also be that decisions are delayed simply because two government agencies are involved: the Government Buildings Agency (Rijksgebouwendienst) and the Government Cultural Heritage Agency. Whenever a government agency is involved, a decision-making process is invariably slow and ponderous and here we have two such agencies.

To be no doubt continued.

More ceiling paintings have been discovered, but these have been whitewashed so are in worse condition. Uncovering these is currently not being considered.

More ceiling paintings have been discovered, but these have been whitewashed in the past and are therefore in worse condition than those hidden by the plaster ceilings. Uncovering them is currently not being considered.

The other Venice

Picturesfromitaly_titlepageCharles Dickens’ account of his trip to Italy in 1846 is quite unlike those of other literati such as Goethe. In Pictures from Italy (1846) you will not find meticulous and lyrical descriptions of the wonders of Italy’s art but rather, like a child on holiday, Dickens indulges in the sheer delight of being abroad, of waking up in an Italian bed. The book, as its title suggests, is very much a photo album filled with Italian people and their customs and, so characteristic of Dickens, his indignation at what he perceives as social injustice (which he blames on the roman catholic church).

But the tone changes when he reaches Venice. While other chapters have prosaic topographic titles, the chapter devoted to Venice is simply entitled An Italian Dream and throughout it Dickens maintains the dream metaphor. Yet even in this dream of a city where “golden crosses glittered in the light, atop of wondrous churches”, he could not escape from the city’s desperate plight:

“… for the greatness of the city was no more […]. Indeed, it seemed a very wreck found drifting on the sea; a strange flag hoisted in its honourable stations, and strangers standing at its helm.”

With this description, Dickens strikes at the core of what Venice is today, as a result of events that occurred during the early years of the 19th century: the brief Napoleonic rule following the fall of the Republic in 1797 and three subsequent periods of Austrian rule lasting until 1866. Events that deprived the city of the political and economic role it had exercised for hundreds of years and moreover of its identity, reducing it to a monument of the past, robbed of its organic existence. This, in Giandomenico Romanelli’s words, established “a climate of apathy and weariness, of general demoralisation in the way lives were conducted in a city that had outlived itself.” That this had a lasting impact on Venice’s unique architecture may be self-evident.

Francesco Albotto (1721-1757), The Canal Grande with the Fondaco dei Turchi (sold Sotheby's 2005, presents whereabouts unknown)

Francesco Albotto (1721-1757), The Canal Grande with the Fondaco dei Turchi (right)  (sold at Sotheby’s in 2005, presents whereabouts unknown)

Ruskin Turchi

Ruskin, watercolour of the Fondaco dei Turchi

The Fondaco dei Turchi (Turkish warehouse) was not built as such but as a family palace of the old-fashioned Veneto-Byzantine sort in the first half of the 13th century by Giacomo Palmier, an exile from Pesaro. From the early 17th century through to 1838, the Fondaco served as a combination of home, warehouse and market for Turkish traders. As shown by Francesco Albotto (above) it had just been altered in 1751 but it was already in poor state of repair. The building was sold in 1838 to the builder Petich who made it his office, yard and warehouse. He tried several times to obtain permission to demolish the building and rebuild it on the site, but in the 1860s, when it had become, in Ruskin’s words “a ghastly ruin”, plans were finally initiated to restore what was left of it. By that time, Petich had sold the building to the Commune: the plan that was eventually carried out was designed by the engineers Federico Berchet and Agostino Sagredo.

"A ghastly ruin". The Fondaco dei Turchi photographed c. 1860

“A ghastly ruin (…) blanched into dusty decay by the frost of centuries”. The Fondaco dei Turchi photographed c. 1860

Bechet and Agostino Sagredo's project for the restoration of the Fondaco, 1860

Berchet and Sagredo’s restoration of the Fondaco dei Turchi, 1860s

One of the problems with 19th century restoration in general – and glaringly obvious today – is that imaginative interpretations of still existing historical elements were forced onto structures without fully understanding them. For the Fondaco dei Turchi this resulted in two towers being added on either end against any historical evidence that these were ever there. In addition, “Turkish” crenellations were supplied, inspired, incredibly, by the triangular crenellations on the mosque of Ahma Ibn Tulin in Cairo. The cladding of the building, though still incorporating a few original elements, was largely provided from the Greek marble left over from the restoration of the north façade of San Marco while the decorative reliefs and cornices were retrieved from the attics of half the city. After lengthy discussions whether or not to polish the marble cladding, Berchet cleaned it severely with a lead-plate polisher. The result looks rather, to stay with Dickens, like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

The Fondaco dei Turchi today

The Fondaco dei Turchi today houses Venice’s Natural History Museum

Venice had its Fondaco dei Turchi back but at the cost of the building’s integrity and history. Formerly a “ghastly ruin”, today it might be called a “ghastly failure” and it is ironic that the building is still described as twelfth or thirteenth century. In 1985 Manfredo Tafuri wrote:

“[it] was the worst possible betrayal of Venetian “continuity”: in the face of an evident crisis in that continuity, “hypervenetianism” was invented. There is one name that summarises all this: Berchet.”

To do justice to Berchet, he did conduct detailed historical research, only with so little left of the building he superimposed his own imprint on it with a total disregard for the material reality of what was there. Anyone looking at the ruins of the Fondaco and comparing it with historic prints can see that the medieval Veneto-Byzantine building it once was was lost forever. This is easily said with hindsight and in those early years restoration as we know it today had not been born yet – in Venice the term was “archeological engineering” – and it was John Ruskin’s great merit to be the first to insist on the distinction between conservation and restoration. For many unique Venetian buildings, however, this distinction was not heeded.


Canaletto, Canal Grande with the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (left) showing the two towers at either ends of the building (c. 1670)

Ironically, while the Fondaco dei Turchi acquired turrets where there had never been, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the German Warehouse near Rialto Bridge, lost them. The history of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi goes back to 1228 but after its destruction by fire it was completely rebuilt between 1505 and 1508, resulted in a functional four-storey building with a grand inner courtyard. The ground floor, accessible by water, was used for storage, the first floor was dedicated to offices and an upper area contained about 160 living quarters.

Fondaco dei Tedeschi; Triumph of Justice; Giorgione, Titian, Galleria Francetti, Venice.

Fondaco dei Tedeschi; Triumph of Justice; Giorgione, Titian, Galleria Francetti at Ca’ d’Oro, Venice.

In 1507 Giorgione was commissioned to decorate the façade with frescos and the young Titian either assisted him or received an independent commission. Unfortunately, the salt water wreaked havoc and the frescos started to deteriorate not long after their creation. In Canaletto’s painting above, they are only just discernible. Only a few tantalising fragments have been preserved.

Fondaco dei Tedeschi, 1853

Fondaco dei Tedeschi, 1853

In this 1853 photograph, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi has already lost its two towers (see the painting attributed to Dominichini above). As early as 1838, a Venetian report indignantly states:

“When this building was recently restored, the two external torricelle were demolished, and for them were substituted merlature along the rooftop like those already existing. What may have induced those responsible to do such a thing we have no idea. (…) Their action had two other unfortunate consequences: first, that the two historic inscriptions between the windows of the towers (…) disappeared; secondly, that the two figures by Giorgione were destroyed, and they were perhaps the best preserved among those that survived.” (Le fabbriche e i monumenti più cospicui di Venezia, 1838).

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi today

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi today

Today the Fondaco dei Tedeschi remains an unhappy building. It was very radically restored in the 1930s when it became the central post office. The original structure was reinforced by the insertion of an iron grid or cage of reinforced concrete, utterly destroying the basis on which the building had been constructed and irreversible. This solution to counter sagging is used even today since it is a cheap and, so it is believed, permanent remedy, but when a building is immured and can no longer organically counteract the movement of the soft soil, in the end concrete reinforcement proves detrimental for a long-term survival.

When, in the early years of the 21st century, the post office was moved to the mainland and the building was put up for sale the only interested buyers were hotel consortia and in a desperate attempt to prevent such a fate, the Commune negotiated its purchase. Failing to find a permanent destination, in 2008 the Commune sold it for GBP 45 million to clothing giant Benetton. The prestigious architectural firm OMA was engaged to convert it into a combined shopping mall and cultural center.

Plan for the inner courtyard of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi by OMA architect Rem Koolhaas, 2012.

Plan for the inner courtyard of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi by OMA, 2012.

United colors ...OMA’s plans include cutting out part of the roof to create a terrace, building two new entrances and fitting escalators inside. Heritage campaigners, among which Italia Nostra (Our Italy) protested that the alterations would cause “serious damage to the building’s physical integrity and historical identity” – but one wonders, after the many aggressive interventions that took place in the past centuries, what historical identity remains? The protests had no effect other than postponing the inevitable and in 2012 OMA was given the go-ahead to transform the Fondaco into a shopping complex and cultural center.

The question is, of course, whether Venetians, or indeed Venice, needs yet another luxury shopping area and whether Venetians are not better served with affordable infrastructure rather than a cultural center. A city dies when its citizens leave and that, alas, is currently the tragic fate of Venice.

Ca'da Mosto

Ca’da Mosto in 2005

The 20th century has seen two major restoration campaigns, one between 1902 and 1912 following the collapse of San Marco’s Campanile and one, which is still ongoing, after the floodings of 1966. One of the grand buildings along the Canal Grande to be restored in the 1902-1912 campaign was the Ca’ da Mosto, the oldest building along the canal. The uniqueness of Ca’ da Mosto lies in the fact that it managed to escape the devastating “archeological engineering” of the 19th century, perhaps because it served as a famous inn, the Leon Blanco from the 17th to the early 19th century and so had not fallen into “dusty decay” like its unfortunate contemporaries.

Ca' da Mosto, detail of Veneto-Byzantine facade

Ca’ da Mosto, detail of Veneto-Byzantine facade

Ca' da Mosto, c. 1853

Ca’ da Mosto, c. 1853

The palazzo’s origins are Veneto-Byzantine of the thirteenth or even twelfth century. It was extended in the 16th century with two further storeys. The holes of the former grilles are (or I should say: were) still visible in the lateral single windows of the first floor, each of which is crowned by a patera (an oval feature). An aperture of the central loggia was bricked up later but reopened in the early 20th century restoration. Apart from the paterae, this loggia with its seven arches has reliefs with floral motifs in the marble incrustation. Remnants of an open stairway can be seen in the public courtyard.

Detail of ceiling, Ca' da Mosto

Detail of ceiling, Ca’ da Mosto

Ca’ da Mosto has been decaying and its fate remained uncertain. With its structure becoming unsound and sagging, its lower floor is permanently submerged in the salty water (the difference in the lower floor level can clearly be seen when compering the recent images with that of 1853) that eats at its stonework. Certainly, for some it must have been a sight for sore eyes among the splendours of the spruced up palazzi along the Canal GrandeBut while the building requires conservation, it may well be asked how desirable it is that it should be pristine. Is there not something immensely appealing to its “dusty decay? And most of all: should not its historic integrity be respected rather than “rendered like a corpse in a funeral parlour to a decent state of viewing” as Gianfranco Pertot phrased it?

Ca' da Mosto, 2010, photograph author

Ca’ da Mosto, 2010, photograph author


The gutted interior of the Ca’ da Mosto

Some ten years ago, Ca’ da Mosto passed into the hands of a buyer who had intended to refurbish it but was unable to obtained the necessary funds. As always, when a historic building of such importance falls into the hands of a private investor, the object is not altruism but economic viability and profit with its inherent dangers of negation of a building’s integrity. We have seen this in the case of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, but there is so much more to lose here as the building, though practically gutted on the inside, is still so much more intact. What would be required in an ideal world is a sensitive restoration, or better: a minimally interventionist conservation to ensure this unique building continued life.

But this is not to be: apparently between 2010 when I last saw it and today funds have been raised and the restoration of the façade is well under way. On a photograph taken earlier this month it looks as if Ca’ da Mosto will, like the other grand buildings along the Canal Grande, look pristinely polished. Of course one should reserve judgement until the end result is known but the signs do not look promising.

Ca’ da Mosto’s destination is as yet uncertain: it is “for sale as a residence, hotel or gallery.” Just what Venice needs.

Ca' da Mosto, September 2013. By kind permission of John and Carol Isles

Ca’ da Mosto, September 2013. By kind permission of John and Carol Isles