Private Tour of Secret Venetian Palazzo and Garden
April 21, 2014 by Robin Plaskoff Horton
If I’d ever imagined a sumptuous antique-filled palace with verdant gardens spilling onto Venice’s Grand Canal, well the Countess Anna Barnabò’s Palazzo Capello Malipiero Barnabò would be this vision. And so I found myself absorbing it all on a private tour of this secret Venetian palazzo and garden.
From the street, one would never know that hidden behind the palazzo’s heavy carved doors and centuries old walls stood a magnficent narrative of Venetian history, art, and culture. On my recent trip to Venice as part of the Modenus BlogTour, I soaked up the Palazzo’s historical narrative and anecdotes during a private palace and garden tour led by local guide Cristina Gregorin of Slow Venice.
Originally built between the 10th and 11th centuries as the Cà Grande of Saint Samuel by the Soranzo family, throughout the centuries the palazzo withstood a number of subsequent additions and modifications by the Capello family, followed later by the Malipieros. Purchased in the late 19th century by its current owners, the Barnabòs, the palace underwent a major renovation in 1951 which restored it to its eighteenth-century grandeur.
Palazzo Capello Malipiero Barnabò became home to the Contessa when she married into the venerable and influential Venice family more than 30 years ago. Contessa Anna Barnabò occupies the palace’s third floor, an expansive space which includes the enormous fresco-walled drawing room we visited.
Suspended from the decorative high ceiling, a tremendous Murano crystal chandelier refracted the light from the afternoon sun pouring in through the canal-facing Venetian Byzantine round-arched windows.
From the drawing room, we visited the adjcent antique-filled library where the Contessa reads and watches television and in which another impressive Murano chandelier dripped light from the ceiling. The palazzo’s dining room was not impressively large (am I jaded already?) yet it contained a number of magnificent antique pieces, including a ceramic buddha, below, whose head rocked back and forth when you tapped his hand.
Through the windows in the long hallway connecting the drawing room to the dining room, I was able to get my first glimpse of the Palazzo gardens below.
Centuries old antiques and fabulous artifacts aside, I couldn’t wait to descend those ancient stairs, pass through the courtyard, and into the garden.
We accessed the gardens through a massive set of doors whose leaded glass transom was eblazoned with a decorative scrolled Barnabò “B” monogram. An elegant entrance into an elegant garden.
But, ah, the gardens! Created at the end of the eighteenth century, Palazzo Malipiero’s gardens occupy a large parcel on the Campo San Samuele beside French businessman and art collector François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi, a contemporary art exhibition space which I visited last summer. A central walkway between two symmetrical hedge-bordered ornamental gardens form a straight site line from the back of the Palazzo Malipiero garden to the canal.
For me, the palace gardens were the highlight of the tour, and where I had the honor of speaking privately with the elegant Contessa. (She said her English was not great, and although my Italian had improved after a few days and several glasses of wine, it was not as fluent as my French which served me well in this instance.) The gardens are one the Contessa’s prized personal endeavors.
When she first became the lady of the house, she explained, the Contessa knew very little about gardening. This is did not stop the adventurous former correspondent for the European press. Her keen interest in history, art, and color led her to learn all she needed to design the gardens, now featured in numerous books such The Gardens of Venice and Veneto, photographed by Alex Ramsay.
Under the her direction, a gardener now maintains the lush grounds where the Contessa hosts parties and elegant dinners, sometimes for her neighbor Pinault’s art openings.
As we walked the gardens together, the Contessa described her colorful and well-traveled life before and after marrying the late Count Barnabò–first as a child living with her family in Paris, then later as a journalist living in Rome. On a stroll alongside the flower beds, the Contessa pointed out with obvious pride what would soon be in bloom: pink camelias and little white roses on one side, blue irises and soft pink baby roses that would be lining the garden’s canal frontage. Walls of hydrangeas were just beginning to sprout little buds, while jasmine would scent the air soon after my departure. And although I’d seen massive amounts of gorgeous wisteria everywhere in Venice, somehow seeing its rich hue here against the backdrop of the intense terra cotta walls…well, sigh.
In addition to numerous perfectly placed sculptures, a large water well sculpted with the family coat-of-arms, she explained, was moved from the courtyard to the garden for the wedding uniting the Cappello and the Malipiero families.
The Contessa motioned toward the water where once Elisabetta, the bride, and Caterino, the groom, took their vows overlooking the Grand Canal. I could almost hear the music and imagine the guests in the their festive attire celebrating the newleyweds in what must have been one hell of a garden wedding.
You too may live like royalty for a bit at the Palazzo Malipiero. I found out upon my return from Venice, that several of the Palazzo’s apartments are for short term rental. One, a beautifully furnished 2-bedroom, 2-bath canal front attic apartment can be yours for $356 per night, $1991 for the week, or $3698 for a month via airbnb, below, and still others on the Palazzo website.
If you go, please give my regards to the Contessa.
Nota Bene: My trip to Venice as part of the Modenus BlogTour was made possible by the generosity of the following sponsors: Modenus, BLANCO, Clever Storage by Kessenbömer, Dekton by Cosentino, National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), and Gessi. All opinions exressed herein are uniquely mine and not indicative of any sponsor opinions or positions.
Unless otherewise noted, all images by Robin Plaskoff Horton for Urban Gardens.