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History - The Soranzo Palazzos

The two Soranzo Palazzos face the delightful Campo San Polo. The building referred to as the "old house" is situated on the left, whereas the one known as the "new house" is on the right. With their refined elegance, they undoubtedly enhance the atmosphere of airy, ordered beauty that fills what is surely one of the most lively and popular squares in Venice.

The superb, striking facade faces out towards the square, in marked contrast to the ancient Venetian practice of having the main entrance always facing the canals. That said, in this case it is highly unlikely that the builder intended to break with tradition, since there actually was a canal – Rio Sant’Antonio, covered over in 1761 – running past the front of the palazzo. It is still possible to confirm this by looking at the stone paving of the square, which was put in place many years previously, in 1493 to be precise.

The Doge, Giovanni Soranzo, in a late-19th-century engraving.

On studying the two elevations carefully, it is easy to see elements of a stylistic transition from 14th-century forms to late-Gothic models. The oldest part of the building dates from the mid-1300s and, indeed, the multi-mullioned first-floor windows are certainly reminiscent of typical 14th-century models, even though the two portals surmounted by Romanesque sculptures would appear to date back to an even earlier time. The second building, which features a stunning window with eight supporting arches, is clearly 15th-century in style and was once decorated with much-admired frescos by Giorgione.

The two buildings are slightly curvilinear because they followed the path of the canal, in accordance with a widespread Venetian practice that made it possible to exploit all available space as fully as possible. The buildings were accessible via private bridges that were taken down when the canal was paved over.

The particular stylistic mix of Medieval, Gothic and 15th-century influences that characterises the two facades – which are today unified by a single coat of plaster – was defined by English art critic John Ruskin as ‘Venetian Gothic’. The plans of the two palazzos certainly fit that description, since they have open portals that are slightly asymmetrical and stone porches on the piano nobile. The beautiful, stylish multi-mullioned windows give a sense of rhythm to the facades, which are framed by dentellated cornicing covered in marble and sumptuously decorated with polychrome tondi and paterae with embossed eagles and lions. Inside the frame of the multi-mullioned window on the second floor there is a tondo depicting the battle between Hercules and the Nemean Lion.

In this area, the Soranzo family asserted its presence from the middle of the 15th century onwards. Since it was part of the circle of ‘old houses’, the family provided Venice (‘la Serenissima’) with a total of sixteen ‘Procurators of Saint Mark’. Most notable of these was Giovanni Soranzo, the valiant sea captain, who defeated the Genoese at Caffa before being elected Doge in 1312. On his death in 1328, he was considered one of the Republic’s greatest princes. It was Soranzo who welcomed Dante Alighieri into his private home when Dante arrived in Venice as an ambassador of the noble Da Polenta family of Ravenna.

According to the testimony of 19th-century art critic Gianjacopo Fontana, the interiors of the Soranzo Palazzos were utterly spectacular: alongside the great profusion of marble and gilded stuccos both on the walls and the ceilings, there were also wonderful canvases by Jacopo Amigoni, Francesco Fontebasso and Gregorio Lazzarini.

It appears that a portrait of Soranzo as Doge, possibly by Giorgione, was stored in the building before being sold to a buyer in England. The residence still belongs to the descendents of the Soranzo family, who devote a great deal of care and attention to its maintenance. As a result, the building appears flawless even today.

Here’s an interesting piece of information: if you find yourselves passing under Casa Soranzo, take a discrete look at the brass plate on the doorbell and you’ll see that, next to the surname, there is an engraving of the Doge’s cap to indicate that this family could boast of a Doge among its members.

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