Chimneys: the uncovered mystery of the obelisks
The uncovered mystery of the obelisks: not a matter of honour and glory, just one of smoke
It happened on a sunny day last June; my husband Giulio, our poodle Gillo and I were on a waterbus along the Grand Canal, when Giulio asked me: “Have you ever found an explanation for the presence of the two obelisks on the top of Palazzo Papadopoli and other palaces in Venice?”
As an official tourist guide in Venice, spending a considerable amount of my time on books about Venice, I had an answer, but a bad one: “Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. Most scholars, such as Concina, Howard, Bassi, among others, seem to be embarrassed about them: either they forget to mention them, when describing the façade, or they don’t use the term obelisk, preferring pinnacle, or spire, even if it is absolutely clear that they are obelisks. Elena Bassi, who calls them obelisks, writes that they were a distinguishing mark of honour granted by the government of the Republic of Venice only to the capitani generali da mar (the admirals of the Venetian war fleet), but she does not seem to believe in what she is writing, and as for me, I absolutely don’t believe that: in fact Palazzo Papadopoli was built by the Coccina family, we can see all of them portrayed on a wonderful painting by Paolo Veronese, and they were not patricians let alone admirals. So, I don’t know.”
Silence followed, and I was already thinking about something else, when Giulio remarked: “Could they have been chimneys?” Dazzled by his insight, I immediately realized that he was right. “Of course, Giulio, they are not on the corners, they are exactly along the line of the fireplace inside, you are a genius!”
Giulio the genius is a historian of Architecture, his curiosity had been aroused, so he was to spend the next 2 months trying and verify if he was right or not, and the result was an essay, which was recently published.
On one side, he found out that the famous architect Vincenzo Scamozzi had asserted in one of his treatises on architecture published in Venice in 1615, that the shape of an obelisk was the best for a chimney (the eleven Venetian palaces which were provided with obelisks date back to a period of time spanning between 1560s and late 1600); on the other side he crawled along the attics of a couple of palaces with obelisks, where he could ascertain that the outlet of the chimney flues was still there and visible, in perfect correspondence with the obelisk though they had not been used for a long time; and he eventually found out that this system for chimneys was used not only in the city, but also on the mainland, where in some ancient Venetian villas these obelisks-chimneys are still functioning.
Giulio’s essay focuses on the architectural composition of the façades, and it is very interesting, but here, in this post for Best Venice Guides, I guess your question might be: “When, and why did they lose their function?”
Well, between the 20s and 30s of last century, most Venetian ancient palaces were provided with electricity, bathrooms, radiators in cast iron for central heating; many fireplaces were consequently demolished and as for our obelisks, some of them were even demolished, while in others the outlet for smoke was walled up.
They are not small things, they are 7-8 meters high, they don’t pass unnoticed! And yet, a few decades were enough, after they lost their function, for people (and even scholars!) to forget what they were for.
And where memory fails, uncertain pondering roots in and spreads.
Giulio Lupo, La forma “all’antica” del comignolo veneziano: l’obelisco, in ArchiStor, n. 5, 2016, http://pkp.unirc.it/ojs/index.php/archistor