by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Detail of the frescoes by Camillo Mantovano, 1576 in the Stanza di Pranzo at Palazzo Grimani

Reopening of Palazzo Grimani Revives Memory of Creator

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 17 March 2010


The Renaissance rediscovery of ancient art and architecture also led to the revival of another Greek and Roman concept - the museum.

That Venice was a leader in the refounding of these institutions was primarily thanks to two patrician Venetian collectors, Domenico Grimani and his nephew Giovanni, who in the 16th century gave the city two pioneering museums.

In 1596, Domenico and Giovanni's legacies of Greek and Roman antiquities inaugurated the Public Statuary in the vestibule of the Library in Piazza San Marco, designed by the Florentine Jacopo Sansovino. Enriched by further donations over the centuries, the Public Statuary later became the Archeological Museum.

Less well known is that Giovanni Grimani was also the founder of a private museum at Palazzo Grimani off Campo Santa Maria Formosa, a few minutes' walk from Piazza San Marco. Palazzo Grimani was once one of the most famous residence-museums in Europe. Early visitors, who came as much to marvel at its astonishing marbled, stuccoed, gilded and frescoed interiors as at its numerous treasures, included King Henry III of France in 1573. It became an essential landmark on the Grand Tour between the 17th and 19th centuries.

But during the 19th century the moveable contents of the palazzo began to be sold to other public and private collections and, after the last of the Grimani died without an heir in 1865, the building gradually fell into neglect and disrepair.

Rescued by state intervention in the early 1980s, after a series of research and conservation programs Palazzo Grimani is at last receiving visitors again, reviving the memory of its remarkable creator, Giovanni Grimani, who turns out to have been not only a passionate collector and patron of the arts but also an extraordinary planner and interior designer.

Indeed, even though much of the legendary contents of this collection is no longer here, the richness of the décor and figurative decorative schemes, now dazzlingly restored, makes this 'museum in itself' as absorbing to visit as any picture gallery.

Armed with the vast wealth inherited from Domenico's father, the merchant and financier Antonio Grimani - who ended his days as Doge of Venice from 1521 to 1523 - Domenico and Giovanni were exceptionally well placed to build up superlative collections of antiquities. Their contacts throughout Venice's trading empire brought them marbles and bronzes from the mainland and islands of Greece, Constantinople and Asia Minor.

Domenico had been made a cardinal in 1493 and excavations in the vineyard on the north side of the Quirinale Hill, bought as the site on which to build his new Roman residence, proved a fertile source of Roman finds, supplemented by purchases on the local antiquarian market. Family estates on the Venetian mainland also yielded yet more ancient art works.

Giovanni Grimani, born in 1501, followed his uncle Domenico into the church. But his alleged Protestant sympathies blocked his appointment to high office in Rome. Although finally absolved of these accusations at the Council of Trent in 1563, he had to remain satisfied with his appointment to the historic Venetian Patriarchate of Aquileia. However, the disappointments of his ecclesiastical career kept him closer to home and free to devote more of his undoubted talents and energies to realizing his palace of art at Palazzo Grimani, which he originally was left a share of in the 1520s but had become the sole owner of by 1558.

While he had close and clearly stimulating relations with the great architects of the age - notably Sebastiano Serlio, Michele Sanmichele, Jacopo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio - Giovanni himself seems to have been chiefly responsible for the palazzo's design. His own collection was expanded by major additional influxes of sculptures, bronzes, paintings, coins, medals, gems, cameos, manuscripts and books in the 1530s and 1540s, when he inherited his uncle Domenico's and his cardinal brother Marino's collections. And eventually he more than doubled the size of the Palazzo to accommodate these thousands of objects.

The Grimanis were important patrons of contemporary art. Their collections not only embraced Venetian painters - including Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Jacopo Bassano and Tintoretto - but also Northern artists, like Memling, Patinir, Bosch and Dürer. The Grimanis owned some of Bosch's most celebrated images - 'Visions of the Other World' - which, after being displayed in more recent times at the Doge's Palace, has now come back to Palazzo Grimani.

Giovanni's determination to model a modern palazzo on ancient Roman houses was reflected in his construction of a large, square central courtyard with columned arcades. And when it came to commissioning the stucco and frescoes of the interiors, he turned to Mannerist artists from central Italy more attuned to the current classicizing trends. In the 1530s, he recruited Giovanni da Udine, Raphael's close collaborator, who was credited with the rediscovery of the secrets of ancient stucco techniques, to initiate the adornment of a suite of three rooms inspired by stories from Ovid, the first devoted to the nymph Callisto. He also contributed to the second, the 'Psyche Room,' executed principally by Camillo Mantovano, Francesco Menzocchi and Francesco Salviati. The last, the 'Apollo Room,' brought together Giovanni da Udine, Salviati and Lambert Sustris.

Mantovano later frescoed the 'Greenery Room,' creating an amazing illusionistic leafy, fruit-laden, bird-filled canopy and featuring even recent arrivals from the Americas, like corn and tobacco plants, and esoteric emblems and mottos referring to Giovanni's struggles with the church authorities.

Federico Zuccari was summoned from 1563 to 1565 to fresco a grand new vaulted monumental staircase - with motifs based on ancient gems in the Grimani collection - the likes of which were only to be found at the Doge's Palace and Sansovino's Library.

Giovanni's most astounding interior is that of 'La Tribuna,' the sculpture gallery, with its soaring white coffered dome, into which light floods from a four-sided lantern high above. This once contained about 130 of the finest pieces in the collection, many of which can still be seen at the Archeological Museum.

A key sculpture has been brought back from there, a precious marble said to have come from Constantinople, of Zeus in the form of an eagle carrying away the beautiful young shepherd Ganymede. Returned to its original position, it is dramatically suspended from the lantern of this uplifting, airy space.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024