A ruined Venetian palace, restored to life
As if freshly cut from the quarries of Istria, the white mullioned facade of Palazzo Vendramin Grimani shines in the May sun. Located on the west bank of the Grand Canal, just above the Rio di San Polo, the historic palace once belonged to the Grimani de San Polo, a minor branch of the ancient Grimani family. More illustrious branches of this Venetian family once owned the Palazzo Grimani, now a museum, and the Palazzo Grimani di San Luca, which houses the Venice Court of Appeal. Smaller and less imposing, Vendramin Grimani was until recently just another dilapidated palace, rather overshadowed by its neighbors. Today, for the first time in 500 years of history and after two years of restoration, it is open to the public.
Under the aegis of the Fondazione dell’Albero d’Oro (“ Foundation of the Golden Tree ”), which bears the name of the Grimani of San Polo, also known as the Grimani dall’Albero d ‘ Oro, the palace is intended to be a cultural center that will combine exhibits of works of art that previously belonged to the families who lived there with contemporary works produced by artists on site in response to its history. According to Daniela Ferretti, former director of Museo Fortuny (another historic palace turned museum in Venice) and now administrator of the foundation’s board of directors, one of the main objectives of the project will be to investigate the history of the palace, his art. collections and the families who lived there. After recovering these forgotten elements from Venice’s past, the foundation plans to use them to inspire future generations of artists and show that the city is more than “ masks, plastic and stacked windows ”. It may be the most photographed city in the world, but, Ferretti tells me, there are still many “hidden gems” to be discovered. Béatrice de Reyniès, director of the board of directors, hopes that the project will encourage visitors to “continue to love Venice”.
The foundation was created in 2019 by five friends – including De Reyniès, Ferretti and Gilles Étrillard, the president – united by their love of art and Venice. Étrillard is president of the LFPI group, an international asset management company which bought the palace in 2019 and leases it to dell’Albero d’Oro; he is also president of the Geneva philanthropic organization Fondation Étrillard, which claims dell’Albero d’Oro as his “daughter” foundation and has loaned works for the opening exhibition. This exhibition demonstrates the founders’ dual interest in recovering the past and using it as a stimulus for contemporary art. On the ground floor and on the first floor, two photographers, Patrick Tourneboeuf from Paris and the Venetian Ugo Carmeni, responsible for documenting the restoration of the palace. The past is represented on the first floor, or piano nobile, by works including portraits of the Venetian doge Andrea Contarini (by Tintoretto) and his wife Maria Ragazzoni (by Montemezzano), both purchased in 1857 by a later heir to the palace, Marcantonio Grimani Giustinian.
Finding the right palate was a challenge, says De Reyniès. While there are a number of vacant palaces in Venice, the interiors of many are in ruins, meaning that a restoration project could take years and incur huge costs. As an example, she cites the restoration currently being undertaken by the Anish Kapoor Foundation of Palazzo Manfrin in the Cannaregio district. The Manfrin Palace is significantly larger than Vendramin Grimani; the project is expected to last several years and cost tens of millions of euros. On the other hand, the directors of dell’Albero d’Oro wanted a palace already in good interior condition and of modest dimensions. It took them more than two years to settle in Vendramin Grimani.
According to records, there was a Venetian-Byzantine house on the site of the present palace dating from at least 1365. Around 1500, Giovanni Vendramin, the son of the former doge Andrea Grimani, rebuilt it with a stone facade harmonious decorated with panels of Egyptian Porphyry and Greek marble. The facade can be inscribed in an imaginary square and circle. When the owner stepped out of the middle window of his high-ceilinged reception room onto the balcony, his head was positioned exactly in the center of the facade, as if it were a huge picture frame. The architect is unknown, but some have attributed the building to one of Lombardo’s masters, the main artists of Renaissance Venice. In 1517 Giovanni’s daughter, Elisabetta, married Antonio Grimani and brought the palace as a dowry. A highlight of the palace’s history was in the first half of the 18th century, when Pietro Grimani, doge and former ambassador to England, encouraged a circle of Enlightenment poets and playwrights to congregate in his library.
Restoration work began in 2019 and was completed earlier this year. They involved a complete cleaning and restoration of the facade, as well as internal modernization, such as installing electricity, heating, lighting and air conditioning, resurfacing the floors and removing heavy curtains around it. of some interior doors. Only certain parts of the ground floor and the first floor, location of the opening exhibition, will be open to the public. The second floor, a second piano nobile which is almost as large as the first, is notable for a series of frescoes from the 1820s depicting the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, painted in honor of the marriage of Marcantonio Grimani Giustinian to Paolina Manin, the niece of the last doge of Venice, Ludovico Manin. For now, at least, it will be used for corporate functions as a means of raising funds. The third floor, in the eaves, will contain quarters for guests and workspaces for artistic activity.
One of the goals of the foundation is to bring together works that originally belonged to the Grimani family and exhibit them again. So far, progress has been slow. Much of the collection was sold in the 1790s and has spread throughout the world; a neoclassical statue of Orpheus by Canova, commissioned by Marcantonio Grimani Giustinian di Pietro in 1777, now stands in the Hermitage of St. Petersburg. The foundation already has art historians browsing the archives, but it is often difficult, according to Ferretti, not only to identify the works, but then to find where they are today, as many are in collections. private. Even then, not all museums or collectors are willing to lend. ‘It’s a task out of Indiana Jones,’ she says.
The origins of the name “dall’Albero d’Oro” are uncertain. It was attributed to the Grimani of San Polo in the 18th century, either because of the supposed purity of their lineage, or because of the once golden decoration of the facade of the palace. Ferretti also sees the name as a metaphor for the foundation’s intended cultural role: “A tree is something which has deep roots but which diffuses its products outside. We who dig into its history are the roots, and those who create will be its branches and flowers.
Palazzo Vendramin Grimani opened its doors for pre-booked tours on May 24; these will be free until June 6. A more comprehensive program of cultural events is expected to be announced in September.