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The palace and the staircase

The Palace has known several owners in its long existence; a stylistic examination puts the first constructions in the mid- 1300s, a time when the Doge Andrea Contarini was in charged, one of the most powerful members of the family Contarini Branch San Paternian.

Initially, it was owned by Morosini, later the building was sold to the Contarini as dowry by the marriage of Caterina and Zuanne Contarini Morosini. Towards the end of 1400 a special spiral staircase built by Pietro Contarini, son of Zuanne and Caterina, probably enriched the palace. It is true that, on the occasion of redecima in 1514, Pietro Contarini claimed that he was living in a residential house located in San Paternian.

In 1518, the year of his death, Pietro left the property to his daughter Contarina, where she lived with her husband and children. Another member of the family of successive generations will declare to live in the same building.

The ownership of the property remained to the Contarini’s family throughout the eighteenth century, however, gaining the name of Minelli following the marriage between Elisabetta Contarini and Giovanni Minelli. The last heirs of the family Minelli sell their shares to Dominic Emery Toulon.

The palace was coming from a period in which was assigned to Arnaux Marseille called the Maltese who had opened a motel which still derives the name of the street (Calle delle Locande/ Calle of the motels) that leads to arrive to the small square of the Palace .

Since 1849 the property is linked to the “Foundation Emery” managed by the Fraternal of the poor of San Luca who assisted the needs of the parish. Since then the history of the building is linked with the story of assistance care in Venice: before the building came under the management of the Congregation of Charity and became the administrative center; then it is transferred to the Institute Manin changing jurisdiction from welfare to recovery.

This step is crucial because it will make that the Palazzo Contarini move to the IRE (Institution for recovery and Education) and will become in the manager of all institutions of refuge around the city.

From 1937, the building will become a branch of ECA (Municipal Assistance Entity) until 1975, the year when the duties of assistance will go to the district; while from 1939 the same will also host the offices of the IRE, that always in the ’75 abandon it to leave space for restoration work.

The IRE, in addition to the social function, has a very important cultural function having inherited an artistic and architectural heritage of the ancient charities. During the Serenissima (Republic of Venice), in fact, the art was accompanied by social commitment, beautifying and enriching the different branches of the brotherhoods charitable. In this context we find the work of prominent artists and architects such Longhena for the Church of Beggars and the Church of Ospedaletto, Palladio for the Zitelle Church and Derelitti, Palma the younger for the Oratory of the Crociferi, Jacopo Guarana for frescoes in the Ospedaletto music room, Tiepolo for the Church of Mercy and the Church of Ospedaletto.

Who created the staircase?

The Scala Contarini del Bovolo was commissioned by Pietro Contarini roughly towards the end of 1400 for reasons of prestige and social success, as a decorative element of the adjacent building, at the time his place of residence. Even today there is nothing certain about the identification of the designer of the staircase, but there are two main hypotheses.

The tradition has attributed the authorship to Giovanni Candi based on some information obtained from his last will and testament. Here, in fact, he appears as a creditor of a large quantity of money against Pietro Contarini.

This first proposal, however, has some limits: firstly, it is not said that Giovanni has its own credit for the construction work of the staircase; secondly, Candi was not named “architect”, instead it is seen as a “joiner”, position addressed for a person who perform purely carpentry and joinery, and it seems strange that Contarini had entrusted a work of such great importance to a carpenter. Moreover, in this case, it could be justified some architectural inconsistencies in the construction and that classicism, a bit medieval in the style, still far from the Renaissance consciousness.

Lea Salvatori Rizzi, in a recent study, advanced in the alternative hypothesis of Giorgio Spavento, an important architect of that time. It seems strange indeed that Contarini had not consulted an expert for a work of such great value. Incidentally Spavento had contact the Contarini of San Paternian for the design of the Church of San Salvador.

There is lack of evidence in relation to the intervention on the building, however there are stylistic similarities by comparison with other works of his creation: as the neo Byzantine character, the precision, the essential decorative without plastic elements and accentuated by the use of brick. In addition to the most significant work of Spavento, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the architect uses square pillars instead of columns supporting the arches on the ground floor, the choice made for the Scala Contarini del Bovolo.


It is likely that the work was not well seen by the government of Venice for the huge outlay which entailed: interventions of this type, in fact, on one hand the impoverished local economy and on the other hand, the idea of taking some risks creating dangerous competitions between different families. The main cost for the realization of the staircase is due to the materials used: Istrian stone of excellent quality.

An architectural gem

The property is developed widely in height above the average of the Venetian palaces. This required great technical skills by manufacturers because the property was completely perforated by arches and lodges. In addition there was the need to adapt to an existing building, as well as the problem of unstable foundations due to the peculiarities of the Venetian subsoil.

Another obstacle resulted from the large range of construction, which greatly increased static and architectural difficulties.

The reference to the Tower of Pisa is immediate and we can compare that the technique used does not indicate that the Renaissance conscience, but it is distinguished by an original reinterpretation of classicism.

The staircase is the finest example of the neo- Byzantine Venice: here it was established a New Renaissance, in contrast to the taste of Lombards; Tuscans and Roman trends; and the model of Byzantine Ravenna buildings.

The Scala Contarini del Bovolo is composed of two sections linked together, a loggia and a cylindrical tower.

The gallery is open to the outside with large Renaissance arches, three per floor and decreasing height so that those on the top floor prove half of those on the ground floor. This trick of perspective gives the work a greater height.

The peculiarity of the staircase is to make the rest of the ground floor arches on square pillars instead of columns.

The cylindrical tower has 26 meters high and has a diameter of 4.70 meters. It sets on a central pillar around which are superimposed 80 monolithic steps that ascend counterclockwise.

The column ends on the top floor with a lookout with decorative Istrian stone. The steps have a trapezoidal shape and end with a ring that slips in the central pin; a layer of molten lead evens the contact surfaces between the various elements. The first flight of stairs rises straight and rests on arches of different sizes and is contained in the first lodge.

The capitals are characterized by a very original cut: the four spirals are connected as many acanthus leaves very simple and with little relief.


A small flight of stairs rebuilt in 800 allows access to the lookout. The wooden roof that is located inside the dome is 1874. Originally it had a lower frame and tiles.

It is important to point out the interior of the helical staircase, the alternation of empty and full of taste, typical Venetian and the contrast between the perforated facing the courtyard and the brick facing of the building. The contrast is given by the surface of the red – brown brick Gothic ancestry and the white of the ribs in Istrian stone.

The spiral staircase most impressive and valuable in Venice is a perfect synthesis of different styles: Renaissance (for the use of some elements such as the capitals), Gothic (for the construction technique) and Venetian-Byzantine (the form).