Ca’ Zenobio and the Armenian Collegio in Venice
Ca’ Zenobio, a ‘party palace’
In the area of Dorsoduro, a short walk from Campo santa Margherita and the church of the Carmini, is a late-baroque palace looking onto a canal.
Sober from the outside and sumptuous on the inside, this rather intriguing palace is Ca’ Zenobio. In the last years it has become the perfect location for parties, weddings, and even music videos (anyone who was young in the 80’s will surely recall Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” which was shot on a gondola and, you guessed it, in Ca’ Zenobio).
But when does the story behind this palace begin?
The name Zenobio refers to a very rich family from Verona who around 1690 decided to turn a small gothic palace into a modern patrician estate. So let’s go back a bit and follow their tracks.
The Zenobios, important landowners, have recently spent a fortune to acquire the title of noble Venetians. They are waiting for the right opportunity to enter into society, not an easy thing for ‘foresti’ like them, which is how Venetians refer to all outsiders. The moment presents itself a few years later when a young Zenobio girl is promised in marriage to a Venetian nobleman. And the palace is ready for the occasion, being, after all, the perfect place for grand celebrations.
There are at the very least two good reasons to visit the palace: the garden and the ballroom.
Once inside, the garden spreads out far and wide in all its brightness but it remains completely invisible from the outside, a bit like a country estate. This garden is something of a rarity in such a greenless city like Venice. At the back of the garden is a small 18th-century small loggia which the Zenobios liked to use for literary gatherings.
The ballroom is located on the first floor of the palace but it covers the second in height too. It’s called “hall of mirrors”, as it feels like you’ve stepped into a different dimension. One thing is for certain, it maintains a party atmosphere at all times, which is helped by the overloaded decorations made of stuccos, gold, false perspectives, mantelpieces, spirals, festoons and medallions. The sense of unity and harmony is special in this room. The ceiling and walls are frescoed with mythological subjects inside trompe-l’oeil architectures, among which is striking the myth of Apollo, god of light, as he glorifies the Zenobio family. The great mirrors on each side, magnificent, amplify the gold and light, the whites and pinks on the walls, with a scenographic effect worthy of a great theatre. A half-hidden gallery used to accommodate an orchestra. All that seems to be missing are the guests.
The Armenian Collegio, a long history of relations between Armenians and Venice
Since 1851 the palace has been the Venetian headquarters of the Armenian Mechitarist Collegio.
But what have the Armenians got to do with the Zenobio family? Well, nothing. The family actually disappeared in the early 19th century and so the Armenian friars on the island of San Lazzaro decided to buy the palace to turn it into the Collegio’s centre, an institution which for centuries had been a firm reference point for Armenians around the world.
No surprise that to this day Venice has two immensely important Armenian centres, the island of San Lazzaro and the Collegio. For centuries now the relations between these two peoples have been tight, based on mutual respect and flourishing commercial exchanges. Since the days of Marco Polo, Armenia had been considered an extremely fertile land. We need only think that Venetians call apricots (which came to Europe from Armenia in Roman times) ‘armelin’.
Armenians had always imported valuable merchandise: gold, silver, diamonds, spices, colours for Murano glass, silk, linen, cottonwool, furs and carpets. The commercial understanding in time became social understanding. And when Armenian relations with the Ottoman Empire turned sour, Venice became a real safe haven for fleeing Armenians. Here, in fact, they have always been free to practice their rituals, print their books, in essence to guarantee that their history continues. Their history is, moreover, yet more proof of the cultural tolerance that has always distinguished Venice.
Today, even though the Collegio has sadly been shut for lack of funds, the palace keeps organising cultural events and hosting contemporary art exhibitions, mostly during the Biennale period. You may very well find it open, so it’s definitely worth going in to have a look.