Venetian Architecture: Old Meets New in the Floating City

| © Sam Peet / Culture Trip
Cajsa Carlson

Architecture & Design Editor

Venice may be best known for its canals, but there are plenty of marvels to see on dry land – as you’d expect from the city that’s home to the world’s most famous architecture biennial. The city’s best buildings are not just beautiful churches and palazzos, though there are plenty of those; Venice’s labyrinthine alleyways also reveal exciting contemporary buildings, if you know where to look.

1. Santa Maria dei Miracoli


Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a jewel box of a church
© JOHN KELLERMAN / Alamy Stock Photo

Built between 1481 and 1489, this is a jewel box of a church decked out in polychrome marble both inside and out. It’s all gloriously lavish, inspired by some High Renaissance ideas but combined with the Venetian love of patterns and colours. It is one of the few churches in Venice that was designed, built and decorated by just one artist (Pietro Lombardo) and his workshop – most of the other churches in the city feature a variety of overlapping styles – so its design is particularly harmonious. The Santa Maria houses a supposedly miraculous icon of the Madonna and child, a small but beautiful altarpiece.

2. Punta della Dogana

Art Gallery, Architectural Landmark

The Punta della Dogana is a contemporary art space
© Andrey Andronov / Alamy Stock Photo

This stern building, once the city’s customs house, points out into the lagoon from the tip of Dorsoduro, just under the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. It’s been thoughtfully renovated by Japanese architect Tadao Ando for the Pinault Foundation, to provide the French art organisation with its second art gallery space in Venice. While the exterior of the 17th-century building is charming, the thrill lies in entering it to experience the minimalist, contemporary interior that has seen the building largely brought back to its original structure. As well as the Punta della Dogana, don’t miss the other two spaces that together make up the Pinault Foundation – the Palazzo Grassi and Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi – which have also been renovated and transformed by Ando.

3. Scuola Grande di San Marco

Architectural Landmark

The Scuola Grande di San Marco houses Venices hospital
© Wojtkowski Cezary / Alamy Stock Photo

The current hospital of Venice, the Ospedale SS Giovanni e Paolo, is housed behind the facade of this lovely confraternity building. Much like the Miracoli, it combines Florentine Renaissance characteristics with the Venetian love of ornate decoration. Especially loved by architecture buffs are the shallow reliefs on either side of the two entrances, which create a masterful illusion of receding space.

5. Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark

This unique palace is named after its snail-like 15th-century spiral staircase
© Jim Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

This unique palace takes its name, bovolo (meaning ‘snail’), from the 15th-century spiral staircase that adorns its facade, leading from the ground level all the way up to an arcaded terrace with an amazing view of the city. The Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo is known for starring in the Orson Welles adaptation of Othello (1952), and regular art exhibitions are held here, which often play on the building’s incredible and unique architecture.

6. San Michele


The San Michele island has been the citys main burial ground since 1807
© Hercules Milas / Alamy Stock Photo

Nowhere but in Venice would you find not just a cemetery, but a cemetery island. The San Michele island has been the city’s main burial ground since 1807, and under continuous development for more than two centuries. In 1998, British architecture firm David Chipperfield won a competition to create an extension to the existing cemetery. The result is three rectangular structures that provide interlocking, serene garden courtyards for burials, cremations and ossuaries. The enclosing walls and colonnades of the deceptively simple Modernist design echo the 15th-century cloister of San Michele, and are a beautiful contrast to the romantic exterior of the cemetery island. If you go, remember that San Michele is an active cemetery, not a tourist location, so visitors are expected to behave with respect and be appropriately dressed.

7. Basilica di San Marco

Church, Historical Landmark

The first version of the Basilica di San Marco was built in AD 828
© Felipe Cespedes G / Alamy Stock Photo

The first version of this famous church was built back in AD 828, when the relics of St Mark were plundered from Alexandria by Venetians. The domed basilica that we know today was built in the 11th century and is a glittering patchwork of precious things, a magpie’s nest of beautiful parts. The facade’s mismatched columns, the sculpture of the tetrarchs and even the horses mounted on the top of the church are all spoils of war, stolen from what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul). The interior is equally stunning, a heady mix of Byzantine mosaics and polychrome marble.

8. Palazzo Fortuny

Art Gallery

The Palazzo Fortuny hosts temporary art exhibitions
© Geoffrey Taunton / Alamy Stock Photo
You can’t visit Venice without seeing a palazzo; they line the canals as memories of Venice’s splendour through the ages. This one belonged to Mariano Fortuny, an artist as well as a fashion designer and maker of fine fabrics. The Palazzo Fortuny was his atelier and the home of his collections, and now hosts regular art exhibitions. Visit it to get a peek into the life of an artist in 19th- and 20th-century Venice, and to marvel at the opulence that characterises this floating city.

9. Negozio Olivetti

Architectural Landmark

Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa is behind many of the most interesting buildings in the city, and the Olivetti Showroom (Negozio Olivetti) is an especially fine example of his work. It’s also easy to visit, as it’s located centrally, in St Mark’s Square. Originally designed in 1958 as a showroom for Olivetti typewriters, it’s now run by the FAI, the Italian Environmental Foundation, as a de facto museum to Scarpa’s design. He used marble, stone, mosaic surfaces, different types of wood, metals and crystals for the interior, and opened up the space to the Venetian light. The result is a gorgeous building described as “one of the clearest masterpieces of contemporary architecture” by art critic Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti in 1959.

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