The Contarini Family and their Snail Staircase in Venice

Jan 6, 2017 | architecture, art, history, minor architecture | 0 comments

The extremely rich noble family Contarini in the 13th century owned quite a relevant gothic palazzo, which displayed an elegant façade with two original five-mullioned windows. This palazzo was located in a strategic position, halfway between the political center of Venice, Saint Mark’s Square, and the economic and commercial one, Rialto. Yet the Contarinis were not really satisfied with their house, which faced St. Luke’s Rio, a minor canal, whereas the Venetian nobility used to build their magnificent palazzos along the much more prestigious Grand Canal. Moreover, although quite imposing, Palazzo Contarini had no particular architectural or decorative elements that would make it unique. As a consequence, the family thought that it could not represent their splendor properly.

What could they do, then, in order to show both to locals and to foreigners the real grandeur of the family? The Contarinis decided to embellish their palazzo with colorful frescoes, which were painted not on the almost hidden main façade along the canal, but on the façade on the courtyard, the one actually facing St. Mark’s area, as if they wanted to attract the attention of the State Power. Unfortunately, frescoes in Venice do not last long, due to the salted humidity… Within a few decades this decoration was almost gone.

surviving frescoes in the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo in Venice

surviving frescoes in the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo in Venice

Still the Contarinis did not give up. At the end of the 15th century they took the resolution of renovating their house with a monumental and quite expensive work of art. The architect (Giovanni Candi? Giorgio Spavento?) came up with a very unique project: an external spiral staircase (bovolo in Venetian, which means snail), which had to be built in the courtyard with a mere decorative purpose. It was quite a difficult undertaking: the staircase had to be adapted to the preexisting palazzo, taking into consideration the different height of its floors. It had to be innovative and daring, but at the same time it had to meet the peculiar Venetian taste of the period. The result was literally surprising: a cylindrical tower was built, with 80 steps displaced in helicoid form around a central pillar, with a belvedere at the very top, at a higher position with respect to the roofs of the Venetian houses. From such a high position, the view is spectacular: roofs, bell towers, domes, altane (the typical Venetian gardens on top of the houses) and… cats!

spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

view from the spiral staircase - photo by Cinzia Maestrini

view from the spiral staircase – photo by Cinzia Maestrini

Did the Contarinis succeed in attracting the attention on their family? Definitely they did. The staircase, venetian-byzantine-medieval-renaissance in style (all at once), was immediately admired by quite a few visitors. It was also represented in Pianta Prospettica by De’ Barbari in 1500 (this is a woodcut of a bird-eye view of Venice, preserved at the Correr Museum). We can also suppose quite reasonably that this staircase attracted the attention of the Government as well, because of its excessive costs (the structure was almost entirely built with Istria stone of the highest quality). The Republic had issued in fact several sumptuary laws meant to prevent the noble class from showing off their wealth excessively (these laws, however, were frequently ignored…). This staircase, then, could not have remained unnoticed by the Government representatives. Sometimes, though, negative comments can rise even more curiosity, so the Snail Staircase acquired so much popularity that eventually this bovolo (snail) became part of the last name of the family, which in the end would be known as Contarini dal Bovolo (the Contarinis of the Snail).

view from the spiral staircase

view from the spiral staircase

detail of the garden and the wellheads of the Palazzo Contarini - photo by Cinzia Maestrini

detail of the garden and the wellheads of the Palazzo Contarini – photo by Cinzia Maestrini

Would you like to visit this place, hidden so well in the Venetian maze? Would you like to learn more about the Contarinis, their palazzo and their Snail Staircase? The BestVeniceGuides can tell you this story and a number of other true stories about Venice. We would like to share with you our professionalism and our love for our city, and hopefully we will be able to let you fall in love with our Venice.

Monica Gambarotto
BestVeniceGuides
www.guidedtoursinvenice.com