Palazzo Barbaro Curtis, an American ‘hideway’ in Venice

The Palazzo Barbaro at San Vidal is one of the most interesting 15th century patrician homes, not only for its architecture but also for the story of its owners during the days of the Republic and well beyond.

The building is actually two palaces, the gothic building that can be dated around the 1420’s and the wing added in 1698. The 17th century renewal was massive, the oldest part was connected with the new wing and large ballroom was made at the level of the second noble floor were the greatest artists of the time left their mark for the indoor decoration.

The older part is a good example of a Venetian merchant home, where the functions of warehouse, account offices and living quarters were hold together in the same building.

The Barbaro was one of the preeminent noble Venetian families illustrious both for the loyal service given to the State at its top ranks and intellectual endeavor. The true founder of the dynasty was Marco a soldier who fought in the crusades in the 12th century and created the family crest, a red circle. The legend says that Marco designed it by dipping his sword in one of the enemies’ blood and drawing a circle on a white cloth.

The palace was bought by Zaccaria Barbaro in 1465 who became Procurator of San Marco, the highest office after the Duke. One of his sons was Ermolao, an ambassador, patriarch of Aquileia and a high rank humanist. And not be forgotten two of Zaccaria’s descendants, Daniele and Marcantonio who commissioned the building of villa Barbaro in Maser to Andrea Palladio and the wall decoration to Paolo Veronese. And finally we can recall Antonio who was a navy commander and military chief in Crete and Dalmatia in the 17th century and whose likeness in stone can still be seen on the façade of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio.

The last members of the Barbaro family to have lived in the palace were Marcantonio and Matilde. The couple didn’t have children so decided to sell the palace in 1858. In the hands of the next owners along thirty years, the building underwent a period of spoliation during which most of the works of art were deteriorated or sold.The most famous of these is the great canvas called ‘The Glorification of the Barbaro family’ painted for one of the ceilings by Giambattista Tiepolo now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

The Curtis family
Daniel Sargent Curtis (1825-1908) and Ariana Wormeley Curtis (1833-1922)
Daniel belonged to an old Bostonian family whose ancestors arrived to America in the Mayflower. Ariana’s parents were land owners from Virginia but she was born and raised in London. They returned to the US in 1848. Daniel and Ariana got married in Newport in 1853 and settled in Boston where the sons were born Osborne and Ralph who became a painter.

The Curis left their town in 1877 and got to Venice in 1880 where they will live most of their lives except for the many travels they took abroad renting the palace when not at home.

Starting from 1881 they first rented a part of palazzo Barbaro when in Venice but later in 1885 they bought the second noble floor and the upper floors for 13.500 dollars. Ariana said the palace was worth much more because its value shouldn’t be set by the number of rooms but by its original 18th century decorations. After it was sold by the last of the Barbaros the palace was in great decay and most of its original decoration, above all paintings, was gone. The Curtises begun a thorough restoration and kept the palace with love and dedication bringing it back to social and cultural life and making it the meeting place for some cosmopolitan Americans of the time. Other non American visitors were also there to visit or entertain the hosts, among others the British poet Robert Browning who was a regular at the palazzo Barbaro during his stays in Venice. Daniel developed a true friendship with the poet, the spent several hours together including leisure walks at the Lido. He gave his last public reading for the Curtises and their guests in November 1889 some thirty days before his death.

A small book is needed to have enough space where to write about all the distinguished visitors that visited palazzo Barbaro. In this short presentation we picked the three most known Americans.

Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), the American art collector and foremost patron of the arts in her time.
At the end of a world tour she arrived in Venice with her husband in 1884 and she fell in love with palazzo Barbaro renting it several times from 1890 when the Curtises were travelling.
Isabella hosted in the palace her own entourage of artists including Harper Pennington, Joseph Lindon Smith, Robet Blum and writers of whom the most known is Henry James.
In the following years the Gardners brought together a world-class collection of paintings and statues above all but also including tapestries, photographs, ceramics and single architectural features like doors, and stained glass among others. Some 70 works were bought with the advice of the art critic Bernard Berenson including masterpieces by Botticelli, Titian, Raphael and Velazquez.
In 1898, after her husband death, Isabella commissioned the building to host her entire collection in the Fenway area in Boston. It was built in the shape and architectural style of a medieval Venetian palazzo very similar to the palazzo Barbaro she loved so much and it was opened in 1903.
It is now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Henry James (1843 – 1916) the American writer and novelist.
He had visited Venice several times, the first one in 1869. He’ll came again to the lagoon city in 1872, 1880 and 1887 when he was hosted for the first time in palazzo Barbaro where he will be a guest of the Curtises and the Gardners. As a result of his many visits to Venice, James will take inspiration for some of his works like ‘Venice’, ‘The Grand Canal’, ‘Casa Alvisi’ and ‘The Aspern Papers’. It will be from the palazzo that James will send to his publisher the last pages of this last work. James’ love affair with Venice will come to an abrupt end in 1894 when his writer friend Costance Fenimoore Woolson committed suicide by throwing herself out of the window in the palazzo Semitecolo. James was deeply shaken by this act feeling a sense of guilt. He was her last will executor and to file all of her papers he came again to Venice living in the same Casa Biondetti were Costance her lived before. This distressful experience can be felt in his masterpiece novel ‘The Wings of the Dove’ set in the fictional Palazzo Leprorelli clearly inspired on the palazzo Barbaro. James will visit Venice the last time in 1907. A movie was made upon James novel in 1997 with Elena Bonham Carter playing Kay Croy and Alison Elliott playing Milly Theale, some scenes being shot inside Palazzo Barbaro

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) American painter.
He was a friend of Ralph Curtis son of Daniel and Ariana and a painter himself. His parents have left the US after John’s sister death engaging in a nomadic life through Europe. His mother got pregnant in Florence and he was born there.
John arrived in Venice with his family for the first time in 1873. He’ll return in 1880 as a painter after his art education in Paris renting a studio in the palazzo Rezzonico. He will be back again in 1882 and this time as a guest of Ralph Curtis in the palazzo Barbaro where he portrayed the Curtis family members. He visited Venice many times after 1898 and until 1913. In 1898 he painted ‘An Interior in Venice’ a group portrait of the four Curtises, Danel and Ariana and their son Ralph with his wife Lisa. John presented the work to Ariana as a present for her hospitality but she prefered not to accept it. She remarked the ‘easy going’ pose of his son and the fact that she was apparently looking older than what she was. The painting ended up in the Royal Academy of London as a diploma work and it is still there.
He was a highly productive painter and portraitist of several known people of the international ‘good’ society of his days. In Venice he was captivated by the picturesque figures of Venetian commoners caught in their daily activities and of course also by the great vistas the city has always offered to all visitors.
He travelled extensively, Europe, the Middle east and the US were some of his destinations of which he left around 2000 watercolors. In 1922 he co-founded the Grand Central Art Galleries in New Yok City

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