THIS little palace on the Grand Canal known as the Ca’ d’Oro is one of the most charming buildings in Venice. It is one of the most striking specimens of that Venetian architecture which is the result of so many different influences that you can find neither laws nor principles, and which, though often disconcerting, always charms, perhaps indeed because it is subject to neither laws nor principles and permits the eye to be fascinated idly by the harmony of the design and the colour.
The history of the Ca’ d’Oro is very obscure, at least its early history. It is thought that it received its name from the fact that its ornaments were originally gilded, traces of gilding being still found on the little lions that decorate the corners of the roof. Then others have attributed this appellation to the admiring tribute of a people possessed of a lively and poetic imagination. It seems far more probable, however, that this palace was built by the Doro family, and that this family becoming extinct in 1355 with Nicola Doro, condemned to death for having been concerned in Marino Faliero’s conspiracy, popular tradition, while preserving the name of the palace, changed the origin of the name. This hypothesis seems to be confirmed by those golden lions which ornament the facade, for the arms of the Doro family was a golden lion on a silver field.
After the sentence of Nicola Doro, his palace was confiscated by the Republic. It is supposed that it was given as a present to Pandolfe Malatesta, lord of Rimini, for it is well known that the Senate gave him a palace after he had ceded his seigniory to the Republic, and moreover, Pandolfe’s shield is found over a stairway leading to the second floor in the Ca’ d’Oro. Official deeds tell us that this palace belonged to the Contarini and then to the Marcello, and about the middle of the Seventeenth Century it passed to the Bettignoli family. In the Nineteenth Century the celebrated Taglioni lived in it.
The architecture of the Ca’d’Oro has afforded much play to the imagination of archaeologists, who, finding so many styles and influences here are too puzzled to classify it and dare not assign a date. In truth it is better not to fix a date for it and not to try to classify it at all. It is one of those old buildings that have been successively transformed by different generations: Time has covered these changes with its marvellous rust made of sunshine and dew and has harmonised them into a magnificent spectacle, and we ought to admire this spectacle as we admire a landscape without inquiring how it is made, and as we admire flowers without asking the age of the tree that bears them nor the tissues of which they are composed. The Ca’ d’Oro is of this class, and we will now see how we are reduced to hypotheses as soon as we begin to analyse it.
We are struck by the lack of symmetry in this little palace composed of two parts in juxtaposition, one of which is all open work and the other gives the impression of a solid wall ; we seek for an axis and it has been supposed that in the original plan the doors were intended to be in the centre of the composition and should be flanked on the left by a wing similar to that which exists on the right, and that on account of lack of money or difficulties with the neighbours, this wing was never built. This is hardly possible. It is difficult to admit that such a palace would have been constructed until all the necessary ground was acquired. If we hold to the idea that the plan was originally a symmetrical conception, we may suppose, on the contrary, that it originally had two wings. We know that the Contarini sold one part of their palace to Alvise Loredano and another part to the Marcello; the left wing would therefore be separated, and, passing to other owners, might have disappeared in the Seventeenth Century to make room for a new building. These, however, are only conjectures made according to modern ideas. In the Middle Ages, in Venice, as in France, they never thought of composing a facade according to any determined order; everybody planned his house according to his individual needs, and the facade was the natural expression of the interior arrangement. Examples are not lacking in Venice; the large windows that ornament the facades of the Doge’s Palace on the Piazzetta and on the Riva degli Schiavoni have no axis and the other bays are not symmetrically disposed. There is every reason to believe that the Ca’ d’Oro never was symcal, and that its architects did not consider its lack of symmetry a defect.
And now what style shall we connect it with? At the first glance we discover that the ground floor is of the Twelfth Century; the first of the Thirteenth, and the second of the Fourteenth; but this division is far from being clear. The composition will not permit us to admit that the palace is made of scraps of all kinds; we feel a style subsisting under all the changes; however, it is certain that the arches of the ground floor are not of the character as the capital they surmount, and the same thing occurs on the loggia of the second floor. In fact, this palace must date from the Twelfth Century, perhaps the Eleventh, but it was altered and almost entirely remodelled in the succeeding centuries. Of the original building only a few bits are left; the capitals of the loggia on the ground floor, some of the balustrades and certain details of sculpture that are imbedded in the walls of the wing. As for the shafts of the columns, they must have come from older buildings, to judge by the diversity of marbles they exhibit: marbles from Greece, brocatello and paronazzetto. The gallery of the first floor, dating from the Thirteenth Century, is the most perfect part, but it has been changed ; the corners of the mouldings instead of turning round naturally, as they do in the upper part, are brusquely and awkwardly cut, and are spoiled by the neighbouring windows which seem to have been enlarged. The columns of the gallery on the second floor are crowned by arches that are thin in design, dry and out of scale. The old cornice has been mutilated, but the few traces that remain of it show that it was made under the Arab influence, in imitation of the stalactitic cornices.
And so the architecture of the Ca’d’Oro has followed the history of Venetian architecture itself. It is certain that this palace was in its full splendour in the Thirteenth Century, and if we have the right to regret anything at all, it is that it has not survived as it was during this period.
Is it necessary to add that here, as elsewhere, the most recent transformations have been the most unhappy? These are the projecting balconies that cut the ensemble and disfigure it, and the two twin windows with which the ground floor of the wing has been pierced.