Jacopo Sansovino: cupola of San Marco, Zecca and the Biblioteca Marciana

Jacopo Tatti, later on Jacopo Sansovino, was born in Florence. He became a sculptor. Michelangelo who didn’t want any competitors made sure Sansovino did not get any orders (click [here] to read this story).

Tintoretto ‘Jacopo Sansovino’  1560-1579  big size
Tintoretto 'Jacopo Sansovino'

Desperate, Sansovino left for Rome. Bramante, Raphael, Giulio da Sangallo and later on Michelangelo all worked here. Through Sangallo, Sansovino came in touch with the papal court. He remained mainly a sculptor, but did start building two churches, among those the San Giovanni dei Fiorentini and one palazzo for the banker Giovanni Gaddi. The Venetian painter Loretto Lotto described Sansovino as the second best sculptor after Michelangelo. After the Sacco di Roma (Sack of Rome) Sansovino fled to Venice in 1527. After arriving in Venice, he solved the technical problems with the cupolas of the San Marco quite brilliantly. He probably used a similar construction that was used for the Pantheon. Rings were applied on the outside to contain the thrust (click [here] for the story about the Pantheon).

Outside cupola San Marco and Cross section original round cupola
koepel San Marco Venetië

The Zecca

Sansovino landed his first big job in 1536. The Coin, the Zecca, had to be rebuilt. It had to meet the following conditions: it had to be burglar-proof, fireproof and suitable for smelting furnaces. Funding for the Zecca was quite remarkable: slaves from Cyprus were freed for 50 ducats per head. Because of fire risk and a booming economy (more coins had to be minted) it was necessary to have a new Zecca. The original design existed of two floors. The precious gold would be minted on the Piano Nobile and the less valuable silver would be minted on the first floor. If there were to be a fire, the gold would not be lost in the fire because of the stone vaults. There was a fair chance of fire because of the smelting furnaces that had to melt the gold and silver. The stalls in front of the old Zecca were included in the new Zecca, which would provide a lot of money.

The painter Caspar Andriaans van Wittel from Amersfoort around  1700 big size
detail Jacopo de’Barbari’s map ‘View of Venice’  fore the construction of the Zecca and the Biblioteca Marciana Woodcut  1500 big size
 Caspar Adriaans van Wittel uit Amersfoort ca. 1700 Molo Venetië

The stalls with cheese and salami belonged to the Procuratie de Supra. A third floor was added in 1558. The heat of the furnaces and the flat roof made this absolutely necessary. Furthermore, the first floor needed expanding to accommodate the shops. This was all combined with heavy rustication to make the building look like an invincible fort.

Luca Carlevaris ‘The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco’  c.1709, 50.5 x 119.7 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York  large size
Luca Carlevaris 'The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco'  c.1709, 50.5 x 119.7 cm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Antonio Joli ‘Procession of Gondolas in the Bacino di San Marco’ 18th century National Gallery of Art, Washington large size
Antonio Joli 'Procession of Gondolas in the Bacino di San Marco' 18th century National Gallery of Art, Washington
Canaletto ‘View of Venice from the Island of San Giorgio’ 1697 detail big size
f.l.t.r. Granaries (broken down under Napoleon), Zecca and Biblioteca Marciana whole painting
Canaletto 'View of Venice from the Island of San Giorgio' 1697

Facade of the Zecca, Jacopo Sansovino (1536-1558)

The arcades ws given simple rustication, fitting their daily function. The piano nobile gets the manly Dorian order, the shaft of the columns gets rings of rustication. The whole makes a robust impression. The windows are closed with a heavy entablature, and are placed exactly between the rings. The mannerist Guilio Romano loved rustication, particularly when used in columns (Mantua and Rome). This was used in the classical antiquity, as seen in Porta Maggiore in Rome. In Venice it was used by Codussi at the San Michele. However, the rustication by Sansovino differ from this: the whole has to emit force, or as Serlio described in his Book IV:

“It is pleasing to the eye and looks forceful. Because of these reasons I consider this more suitable for a stronghold than anything else.”

Serlio, Tutte l’opere d’architettura et prospectiva, Venezia, 1633, p. 133

Zecca  big size   detail    Zecca
Zecca Munt Jacopo Sansovino Venetië


Canaletto large size
Canalettoi View of Venice from the Island of San Giorgio detail 1697


Zecca and the Biblioteco Marciana
Zecca and the Biblioteco Marciana Venice

photo: Dimitris Kamaras

Giuseppe Bernardino Bison  ‘The Molo, looking towards the Zecca with the column of Saint Teodoro’ 1844 big size
Giuseppe Bernardino Bison   'The Molo, looking towards the Zecca with the column of Saint Teodoro' 1844

The Zecca was very much appreciated by contemporaries of Sansovino. Vasari called it ‘the best, richest and strongest of all buildings by Sansovino’. It is often compared to a stronghold. Sansovino himself called it ‘a worthy prison for the precious gold’. It is no wonder that the real prison next to the Ducale of Rusconi from 1566 copied many aspects of the Zecca.

Canaletto  Prigione big size (detail)      Current Prigione prison of Ruconi
Canaletto Prigone Venice

The most famous building by Sansovino is the library. According to Palladio ‘The richest and most decorated building since antiquity’. The building on the west side of the piazzetta looks dreadful with its short side next to the Zecca. The way these two buildings are connected is quite painful. Two completely different styles that do not get along.

Construction of the library began in 1537, a year after the Zecca. The Library was built to store the famous collection of cardinal Bessarion (Justus vanGent) of Trebizond. The procuration of the San Marco already owned the lot. It was full with inns and taverns. There were also a lot of stalls that sold meat. It was an architectonical mess.

Biblioteca Marciana

Biblioteca Marciana big size   Facade
Biblioteca Marciana facade Jacopo Sansovino Venetië

photo: Tirga K

Biblioteca Marciana big format
Biblioteca Marciana Venice

photo: Stuart Smith

The Zecca and Jacopo’s library were built at almost the same time. Deciding on building a library took almost half a century. Cardinal Bessarion (Pedro Berruguete made after a design by Joost van Gent) had left the city a very valuable collection of five hundred manuscripts, mainly in Greek. The way the city handled the inheritance was considered a big scandal by the then Venetian citizens. Even though Venice was a centre for Greek studies, the will of the cardinal stated clearly that a library was to be built for the collection in or nearby the San Marco. The procurator Vettor Grimani and the new librarian cardinal, Pietro Bembo, fought for a new and good library. Bembo had a lot of influence and used it skilfully to make the construction of a library happen.

Titian ‘Pietro Bembo’ 
Titian Pietro Bembo

The construction of the piazzetta was finished exactly a month before it was decided that a new library was to be built. It was impossible to break down all the taverns and inns on the lot all at one time. This slowed the process tremendously. The rental fees brought in a lot of profit for the Procuratie de Supra (especially the inns brought in a lot of money). The Supra could ill afford to miss out on this money.

Jacopo de’ Barbari detail  ‘View of Venice’ 1500 large        View of Venice google       Before the construction  of the Biblioteca Marciana
Jacopo de' Barbari detail uit 'View of Venice' Piazza San Marco 1500

According to the plan of Sansovino the first floor would be comprised of smaller shops. The procurators had no qualms against this idea. The rental income of these shops could replace the income from the inns. According to Vasari, Jacopo also considered commercial needs in his design. He knew this was essential to getting approval for the construction. In Vasari’s words: ‘he earned their [the procurators ed.] approval and affection’.

The corner bay

The corner bay was designed in 1539 and it is a brilliant solution to Vitruvius’ demands. Sansovino invited all the architects to think of a solution for the corners. Vitruvius demanded that the frieze had to end at the corner with half a metope. He also demanded that the triglyphs should be exactly above the column. When Sansovino invited all the architects, however, he had already thought of a solution, according to his son Francesco. By adding an extra pilaster on the pillar and on top of that the triglyph, the metope has more space. The metope was bended around the corner that put both halves on different sides. With that Sansovino answered to Vitruvius’ demands. The corner solution was admired everywhere.

The collision of a vault

After this demonstration of virtuosity came disaster. The vault of the first bay seen from the campanile collapsed in the night of the 18th of December in 1545. This is the bay beneath the library. Sansovino was arrested in the same night and thrown into jail. Jacapo had to fix the vault on his own behalf, he wasn’t paid for his services, despite the support of Titian, Aretino and the Spanish ambassador Mendoza. Only Vettor Grimani escaped judgement.

In hindsight, the procurators overreacted. The damage was limited. Sansovino wrote to Bembo regarding the incident: ‘it wasn’t as bad as it first seemed, the window had fallen down, along with the top vault. Jacopo estimated the repair costs at 800 to 1000 ducats. Jacopo thought it happened because of the frost. Moreover, the bricklayers removed the wooden formals too soon.

Nonetheless, Jacopo admitted flat wooden ceilings might have been more convenient. The procurator Antonio Capello had pointed this out. This would have been a better fit for Venetian tradition, which was familiar with the unstable ground that made stone vaults dangerous. Sansovino did not have any experience with this problem. He had worked in Rome, where the ground was stable, so stone vaults were never a problem for him before. Wooden ceiling beams were more elastic and certainly lighter. A report was made a year after the collision that said: ‘Stronger, more safe and more durable than before the collision’.

The completion of the library

Around 1550 the first seven bays were completed, so the library could be taken into use. The next phase was the demolition of the inns that were left. This seemed to go easier. Three tenants could be ridded easily. The last three had to move, that eventually worked out. The last inn ‘The Lion’ moved to the Campo Rusulo near the new Cavaletto. According to Vasari the profits of the new shops increased with 400 ducats per year. The procurators had met the obligation to preserve at least three inns near the San Marco. Only a small block with a meat market remained.

The procuration had its sights set on finishing the whole block. The inflation increased in the fifties of the 16th century, but the construction had to be finished quickly. In a long request the procuration spoke about the completion of the project: ‘for honour and dignity of our Republic, and as extra advantage to the church’. The money needed was gathered: properties on the main land were sold, uncollected rent was collected. Thanks to these financial efforts the construction got along quickly. Fourteen bays were completed in 1554 and two years later another two were finished. After these only three remained. After about 1555 the interior of the library was built and the library opened its doors.

The last building that had to be demolished had a meat market on the first floor. The original intent was to include this building into the library. This was waved eventually because the butchers would not have enough room for their daily business. The room on the second floor of these last five bays was meant for apartments for the procurators. The meat market was moved and Scamozzi completed the last five bays.

The building was admired everywhere. Vasari spoke of a masterpiece. Palladio wrote: the richest and most beautiful decorated building since Antiquity. The all’antica character made a deep impression.  The poet Aretino wrote to Jacopo: ‘You are the man who knows what a Vitruvius should be’.

After the pictures and the writings of Serlio, Venice finally had its ‘real’ classical building for the people to admire. In a note from the Senate it is clearly stated that the library was a deliberate attempt to outdo the antiques (emulatio, the commandment of an artist in the renaissance).

Vitruvius (download), but also Alberti, have spoken about their admiration of classical libraries. Though, neither of them has described what a good and beautiful library should look like. There are some hints in classical literature, for example in Pausanius. He describes a library near the Hadrianus temple in Athens as follows:

‘The hundreds of columns of Phrygian marble, with walls built just like the columns, and pavilions with gilded ceilings and alabaster, decorated with statues and paintings.’

The design and building of Sansovino looks a lot like this description. Arcades and columns of temples, separate vestibule and library, rich ceilings and statues. Even the place of the library resembles the classical demand that light should come from the east, this matches with the library that is on the left side of the piazetta perfectly. The books won’t be damaged by the sun in the morning, when it’s not at full strength, yet there is enough light to read.

Luca Carlevarijs ‘The piazzetta and the Biblioteca Marciana’ 1720-1730
Luca Carlevarijs 'De piazzetta and the Biblioteca Marciana' 1720-1730


Biblioteca Marciana big size                Floor plan Biblioteca
Biblioteca Marciana facade aan de piazzetta Jacopo Sansovino Venetië

foto: Tirga K

Vasari writes that this building was built with a Vitruvian mind-set, but this is wrong. The intersection of the column wasn’t used as a module for the entire construction. Sansovino used the grammar much more loosely, as is found in Roman architecture. It all had to look all’antica, not just because of the library, but mostly for the grandeur of the city.

Biblioteca Marciana facade detail big size
Biblioteca Marciana facade detail Venetië

Some all’antica elements unknown to the Venetian public made a big impression. For someone who wasn’t from Venice, the building looked, despite its classical elements, very Venetian. Sansovino designed a synthesis between Venetian and classical tradition. That said, the library does fit in with already existing buildings, because they have a few characteristics in common:

  • Two floors: the ground floor has arcades.
  • Eastern tilts that are modified into a different decoration: a balustrade with statues. The statues look like the figures in the San Marco, in classical style however.
  • The building material: Istrian stone.
Biblioteca Marciana facade statues
Biblioteca Marciana facade beelden Venetië

The façade of the library has no structural or tectonic function. It’s nothing more than just a pretty front. Behind the marble is ordinary brick.

Why has the façade of the library become so famous outside La Serenissima?

The main feature: a large piano nobile with great windows above a loggia was typical Venetian, absolutely not new. This does also apply to the richly cut Istrian marble and the classic setting of the façade. Codussi had applied this to all his churches and palazzi. It is most likely that the Venetians were looking for the façade.  A classic Roman style on Venetian soil, following the Venetian tradition. There are many classic elements like spandrel figures, a rich ornate frieze, putti with garlands, obelisks and keystones with lion heads. The right use of Dorian (1st floor) and Ionian (piano nobile) orders, gave the façade a classic look, much more than the Venetians were used to. This will be very clear when we compare the two opposite facades. The combination column and arch is from the theatre Marcellus and was later applied to the Colosseum.

Facades Palazzo Ducale and the Biblioteca Marciana big format
facades Palazzo Ducale en de Biblioteca Marciana Venetië

photo: stella.iloveyou

A big staircase leads to the second floor. The square vestibule was used as a class room. The reading room is lit beautifully and plentifully by a long line of windows on the east side. It is no coincidence that Vitruvius recommended the east side, the same goes for bedrooms.

Biblioteca Marciana salone
Biblioteca Marciana salone Venetië

The ceiling contains paintings by Paolo Veronese, Titian lost the game. Click here by Web Gallery of Art for the paintings of Paolo Veronese. Originally there were rows of benches, which are  still visible in the library of Michelangelo in Florence. The other rooms were used as offices for the Procuration. The first floor was used for shops and these brought in quite a lot of money. Looking at the exterior it isn’t very clear where the library is. Concerning this, Sansovino was much more liberal than with his Zecca. Sansovino took the whole square (the piazetta and the piazza) in account in the original design. He made sure that the already existing campanile became detached. By detaching the campanile he created a trapezium shaped plaza (click [here] for the map of the plaza with the campanile; downside after the interference of Sansovino). This makes the San Marco the centre of attention when standing on this part of the plaza. The comparison between the current situation and the painting of Gentile Bellini in the Academia makes this even more clear. Sansovinos solution for the Ducale is visible too.

Click here for continuation day 4