Sitting on the northern bank of Venice's Grand Canal is a great house whose ornately carved marble facade only hints at its original splendor. The Palazzo Santa Sofia—or the Ca D’Oro (House of Gold), as it is also known—is one of the most notable examples of late Venetian Gothic architecture, which combined the existing threads of Gothic, Moorish, and Byzantine architecture into a unique aesthetic that symbolized the Venetian Republic’s cosmopolitan mercantile empire. Built to serve as the grand residence of wealthy Venetian businessman and politician Marin Contarini, the palazzo has seen a number of owners and renovations over its lifetime before ultimately coming to serve as a museum for medieval painting and sculpture.
The early 15th Century saw a period of unprecedented prominence for the young Venetian Republic – a precursor to la Serenissima’s ‘Golden Age’. A succession of military victories in the preceding decades had absorbed the mainland cities of Verona and Vicenza into the Republic, transforming the maritime city-state into one of the most powerful entities on the Italian peninsula. The resources gained from these new acquisitions, combined with Venice’s impressive web of trade networks, proved so profitable that, by the 1420s, Venice was officially the wealthiest state in not only Italy, but the whole of Europe.
Amid this atmosphere of optimism, Marin Contarini commissioned the construction of his new palace on the banks of the city’s Grand Canal. The Contarini family were among the most influential of Venice’s noble families; indeed, it was under a Contarini’s leadership that the Republic had defeated Genoa in 1380. Following the battle, the clan remained a major player in both mercantile and political affairs. It was therefore to be expected that Marin’s new home would symbolically, and physically, reflect his family’s standing.
Its size was to be the first indicator of the new palazzo’s grandeur. Medieval cities were dense, crowded spaces, and Venice—although different in its morphological grain, with over 100,000 residents—was no exception. Therefore, to be able to afford a site 35 by 22 meters in the heart of Cannaregio, was extravagant in itself. The building’s greatest expression of wealth and power, however, was to be achieved through the palazzo’s waterfront facade.
As with many buildings in Venice, the Palazzo Santa Sofia was primarily built using brick, which was lighter and cheaper to use than stone. Typical practice at the time was to cover brick structures with lime mortar, which provided an aesthetically pleasing finish; the bricks of the Palazzo Santa Sofia, however, were sheathed with marble.[6,7] It is perhaps no wonder that the building’s construction required the combined efforts of forty stonemasons – a full half of the craftsmen involved in the entire project. The most notable of these masons were Zane and Bartolomeo Bon, a father and son pair who would contribute their talents to a multitude of palazzi and civic structures throughout Venice.
The combination of several dozen artisans working on a single facade for over a decade resulted in a complex mosaic of decorative elements. Embellishments differ from floor to floor, as work on the facade was completed by two groups of stonemasons with two different masters, all at different times, before being assembled under the supervision of an (unrelated) master builder. Certain elements, like the balustrades of the upper levels or the capitals supporting the ground level arcade, were recycled from the house that had previously stood on the site; everything else was carved specifically for the new palazzo.
As opulent as the stonework was, it was not enough to satisfy Marin Contarino. Many of the palazzo’s decorative elements, such as the spherical stone elements which top the ornamental crenellations at the roof line, the leaves on the capitals of columns, and various other sculptural details, were subsequently embellished with gold leaf. Other elements were painted in brilliant hues of ultramarine blue, black, white, and red, accentuating the fine stonework underneath. The ultramarine paint was a marker of great wealth, as it was made of crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan. Venice was the gateway through which ultramarine pigments entered Europe; the commodity was considered more valuable than gold. Despite this, it was the gilding of the facade that would make the most lasting impression – even centuries after it has worn away, the palazzo retains the nickname Ca D’Oro—the ‘House of Gold’.
The extravagance of the canal facade stands in stark contrast to the relative austerity of the rest of the palazzo. The walls facing the inner courtyard did not have marble sheathing, thereby exposing the brick structure of the house. Even the eastern wall just around the corner from the canal facade remained uncovered, despite being visible from the Grand Canal itself. As these facades did not serve as the grand entryways to the house, they were assigned much lower decorative priority; other than a fanciful marble gateway into the courtyard, Marin had poured the vast majority of his fortune into the canal facade.
The internal structure of the Palazzo Santa Sofia was typical for a great Venetian house of the period. Ceremonial entry to the house took place not at the courtyard gate, but at the private quay located behind the ground level arcade. Most of the palazzo’s contemporary neighbors offered a relatively modest single portal for the same function; thus, the wide arcade was seen not only as a reference to Byzantine forebears, but as a conspicuously grand entryway. The rest of the ground floor was taken up by servant quarters, storage space, the courtyard, and Marin’s personal office.
The upper floors, or piani nobili, housed the main living areas of the palazzo. Accessible only by an exterior staircase in the courtyard, both floors shared an almost identical floor plan: bedrooms, kitchens, a chapel, and loggia – all radiating from a large great hall. That both floors were so similar—and especially that both supplied a kitchen—suggests that only one of the two may have been intended for use by Marin’s immediate family. It is likely that the uppermost floor was occupied by his father or one of his brothers, a typical arrangement for a Venetian palazzo.
Work on the Palazzo Santa Sofia began in 1420 and was not fully completed until at least 1436. After Marin Contarini’s death in 1456, the house was passed down repeatedly to his descendants until ultimately being abandoned in 1791. It was acquired in 1846 by the exiled Russian Prince Troubetzkoy, who gifted it to famed ballerina Marie Taglioni. The palazzo was subject to disastrous renovations under Taglioni’s stewardship; the gothic courtyard staircase was demolished, and many pieces of stonework—including Bartolomeo Bon’s ornamental wellhead—were sold off.
Fortunately, the palazzo changed hands once more in 1894, entering the ownership of Baron Giorgio Franchetti. It was the Baron who would restore most of what Taglioni destroyed; he rebuilt the courtyard stairs, undid many of the alterations to the famed facade, and recovered the sculptural elements that had been sold away. Once his restoration work was complete, he bequeathed the palazzo to the Italian government, and it was opened to the public as an art gallery in 1927.
After enduring centuries of use, abuse, and reconstruction, the Palazzo Santa Sofia now stands as a testament to the former glory of the Venetian Republic. While the famous gilding has long since faded from its facade, the ornate stonework and spacious apartments of the palace-turned-museum remain iconic examples of luxury design in a medieval empire at its greatest height. Thus, it can be said that history has vindicated the original intentions of Marin Contarini’s grand project; his House of Gold still stands as one of the most remarkable in all of Venice.
 Jepson, Tim. Italy. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2012.
 Goy, Richard. The House of Gold. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. p5-15.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p23-47.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p10.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p47.
 R. J. Goy. Building Renaissance Venice: Patrons, Architects and Builders c. 1430-1500. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. p82-83.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p19.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p65-66.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p139-145.
 "Ultramarine," Pigments Through the Ages, accessed February 8, 2016, http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/indiv/history/ultramarine.html, paragraph 1.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p227-228.
 Goy, The House of Gold, p51.
 Goy, The House of Gold, 52-57.
 Fasolo, Andrea. Palaces of Venice. Translated by Valerio Galeazzi. Venice: Arsenale Editrice, 2003.
 Fasolo, p17.
 Boulton, Susie and Christopher Catling. Venice and the Veneto. New York: DK Pub, 2010.
PhotographsWolfgang Moroder, Jean-Pierre Dalbera, via Shutterstock user InavanHateren, Courtesy of Wikimedia user Madpack, Courtesy of Wikimedia user Godromil, Courtesy of Flickr user saragoldsmith (CC BY 2.0), Courtesy of Flickr user HarshLight, Courtesy of Ruskin Foundation (RF 1590), Ruskin Library, Lancaster University