Charles 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Grande. But 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?
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.