Venice and Florence are certainly among the highlights of a tour of Italy. Both cities grew massively in size, wealth and power, especially in the late Middle Ages, and were among the most important metropolises in Europe during the Renaissance. The gigantic dome of the Florentine Cathedral above the red roofs of the city or the graceful arch of the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal are world-famous and popular views.
As important as religion and economics were in those days, the real centres of power in the Middle Ages were elsewhere in both cities. In the Republic of Florence, this was the Palazzo Vecchio, the Old Palace, originally called Palazzo della Signoria, i.e. the palace of the city parliament. In Venice, the Doge ruled as head of the city and his seat was the Palazzo Ducale, the Doge’s Palace in St Mark’s Square.
The period in which both secular buildings were erected, i.e. the 14th century, belongs to the late Middle Ages. The predominant style at the time of their construction was the late Gothic, but this was quickly replaced by the Renaissance. Even the effects and last foothills of the plague could not slow down the veritable building boom in the 14th and 15th centuries, i.e. in the late Gothic and early Renaissance. This affected both sacred and secular buildings.
Florence was still a leader in the textile industry and later in banking during this period. Venice, on the other hand, had extensive trade relations in the eastern Mediterranean and thus close ties to the Byzantine Empire.
The Palazzo Vecchio in Florence strives for verticality. In the Republic, which was often beset by unrest, a defiant, fortress-like building was an advantage. The lower floors with their rustication appear massive, while this impression changes considerably towards the top. The tower and also the battlements, originally conceived for defensive purposes, contribute to the beauty and dignity of the building with their almost playful and elegant forms.
The Palazzo Ducale in Venice, on the other hand, strives towards the horizontal. The incredibly wide façade nevertheless appears very light and open due to its continuous arcades. Only on the upper floors does the palace become more massive.
At first glance, Florence and Venice offer two different impressions of how power can be presented, on the one hand by being closed and fortified, and on the other hand by being open and insightful. The spatial concepts of both buildings reflect urban power in their individual ways.
Architecture has not only a practical but also a social and societal use. One usually recognises the important buildings by their form, size, preciousness and beauty. But not only the grandeur, but also the style could have social value. The Renaissance was always associated with progress, utility and humanity. The governments of Venice and Florence, but also Rome and many other cities, adopted the new style sometimes also because of its symbolic meaning. People liked to borrow from antiquity, not only in Italy.
In Venice, on the other hand, this did not mean borrowing from Rome, but from the Second Rome in the East, from Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, Gothic forms were still found well into the 16th century, sometimes even longer north of the Alps.
Although Gothic was often considered barbaric and old-fashioned during the Renaissance and Humanism, it was also considered to have a certain dignity and tradition. Both the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Ducale are fundamentally Gothic. There have been numerous occasions when both buildings have been rebuilt or altered, and in some cases elements of the Renaissance or other stylistic periods have been added, not to mention the interior decoration. But in their basic form, the style of the two buildings has never been fundamentally transformed, partly because tradition and legitimacy were seen in them.
Both buildings have been characteristic of their respective cityscapes for centuries. Both buildings are style-defining for the architecture of their hometowns and beyond. And both buildings are important secular buildings of the late Gothic and the early Renaissance and at the same time an expression of spatial concepts of urban power, once through enclosure and once through openness.