Despite their relatively small scale, the palazzi which line the grand canal are as monumental as the pretensions of their builders and were originally very lavishly decorated. One of the grandest is the Palazzo Labia, now headquarters of RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) with its famous frescoes by Tiepolo. At one of their banquets the Labia are said to have ostentatiously thrown their gold plates into the grand canal and then secretly had their servants recover them with nets. Even more opulent was the Palazzo Grassi where William Hazlitt admired marble floors, looking glasses and fine portraits by Titian observing that “Aladdin might have exchanged his for it and given his lamp into the bargain”. Next in grandeur, according to Hazlitt was the Palazzo Pisani with its “glittering curtains of pea-green silk” and a “noble saloon enriched by Paul Veronese, with heads equal to Titian”. Such opulence did not appeal to Lady Miller, who complained in 1771, that “the Venetians cover their walls with pictures and never think their apartments complete until they have such as shall fill the spaces from top to bottom completely” with the consequence that there are “many more bad paintings than good”. Nevertheless the art collections of palaces remained a big draw to tourists and, although many great pictures were sold off in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some palaces, such as the Ca’Rezzonico boast important museum collections.
This is also true of a house which is far from palatial in scale: the Ca’d’Oro. An exquisite Gothic jewel, it was hugely admired by Ruskin, who recorded its facade in a beautiful watercolour while it was being vandalised by its then owner, the dancer Maria Taglioni, and Isabella Stewart Gardner salvaged some some balconies from there for Fenway Court. During the nineteenth century, the impoverishment of the Venetian aristocracy meant that many of the great palaces were sold off to foreign buyers for trifling sums notably the Palazzo Barbaro which was acquired by the Bostonian Curtis family and the Ca’Rezzonico bought by Pen Browning, son of the poet.
In the audio below, William Dean Howells, American Consul and author of a classic book on Venice describes moving into one of the palazzi on the Grand Canal: