The Fondaco of the Turks, located in the Sestiere of Santa Croce, is the first large building to be found in Venice along the Grand Canal: imposing and graceful, it will attract your attention with its sinuous and oriental shapes.

A bit of the Orient in Venice

We are in the twelfth century and the Venetian Byzantine art comes from the economic trade that the Serenissima interwove with the East. The Venetians let themselves be inspired by the oriental artistic language, but they do not make a simple copy, but develop entirely original shapes that best match the lightness of the buildings of a city on the water: in Venice the geometric rigor is not acceptable but prefers the imaginative freedom of the East.

The Fondaco is the expression of the Venetian Byzantine style and is also one of the first great patrician residences built in the city.

Symmetrical and light: the marble facade of the Fondaco of the Turks

Its magnificent and imposing façade, covered with marbles and completely decorated, is symmetrical and rhythmic: on the ground floor there is a portico with 10 arches that allowed the mooring of the boats; on the upper floor there is a splendid loggia with 18 arches behind which the main hall is hidden; two side towers, typical constructions of the Veneto of the '200, frame the whole closed by a crowning battlements.

Like any self-respecting patrician residence, it had a foundation, a large courtyard with a real well in the center and a staircase on the main front that allowed easier access to the portico from the canal: but this is visible only when the tide the lagoon is very low and leaves it to emerge from the waters that usually penetrate between the columns invading the entire portico, now completely covered with algae, giving the building a sort of immaterial lightness.

From patrician dwelling to fondaco: a story of splendor and decadence

But what is a fondaco? What lies behind this singular term that seems to have survived only in Venice? It is a building of medieval origin, which in the cities of the sea carried out functions of warehouse and often accommodation for foreign merchants: a perfect synthesis between the house, the modern hotel, the warehouse and the showroom, where foreign merchants could show their goods brought from afar, do business and stay.

But the palace was born, as we have already said, as a patrician residence: built in the thirteenth century, around 1220, by Giacomo Palmieri of the rich Pesaro family, it was after the second half of the 500 that his life changed radically, when Francesco Dimitri said Fria, asked to be able to use a private place for the exclusive use of the Ottoman merchants, to then build a warehouse. The Pesaro’s Palace was chosen. This decision involved a complete overturning of the building: the part destined for foreigners was separated from the houses of the Venetians, and for this on the façade a wall was erected with a door to allow access to the warehouse and for loading and unloading of goods . The two side turrets, considered a means through which the Turks could spy the city, were ruined. Within it a further division was created: an arrangement divided the European Turks from those of Constantinople, as Persians and Armenians; 20 warehouses were built on the ground floor and 50 rooms on the main floor, each of which could accommodate up to 6 people, services that could meet the needs and uses of foreigners, such as the ritual bath, and a large space for prayer.

The functioning of the fondaco: the Turks in Venice

The functioning of the fondaco was based on precise strict rules: it was managed by a custodian appointed by the government who opened the doors at sunrise to close them at sunset; guns and gunpowder could not be introduced and women and children could not enter. The business took place in the presence of special mediators who assisted in negotiations to overcome linguistic difficulties and also drafted contracts.

But what did the Turks bring from their distant lands? Well, inside the warehouse certainly the atmosphere was  luxurious and oriental: foreigners had introduced to the Serenissima precious silks for the noblewomen 'clothes, carpets, colored and perfumed spices of all kinds, oils, raw wool, camel hair drapes , sheepskin leather, tobacco.

During the 18th century the affairs of the Serenissima with the East suffered a drastic reduction and the warehouse was slowly abandoned. For a short time it hosted the Manifattura dei Tabacchi, and subsequently it was even used as a deposit of building materials, until 1838 when it was purchased by the Municipality.

From abandonment to rebirth: the restoration

But how was the building presented at the time? Unfortunately, the sumptuous and oriental fondaco showed itself in a total state of abandonment, having ruinously lost all the marbles and stones that adorned it and presenting itself completely covered with simple red bricks: a real naked king, stripped of his precious garments.

An intervention of restoration and reconstruction was necessary and urgent: the delicate operation was entrusted to the engineer Federico Brecht, who began work around 1862 and ended them around 1890.

In his work, Brecht attempted to recover the original material of the thirteenth-century building, but this was not enough to divert the operation from a didactic copy, since he could not bring back the light and the heat that belonged to the original factory, so much so that today the palace appears ghostly, far from the patrician splendor and the exotic and oriental dynamics that had animated it and seen protagonist for centuries.

The fondaco of the Turks today: the Civic Museum of Natural History

Brecht, however, proposed the intended use of the museum which then led to the opening of the Civic Museum of Natural History in 1923: it remained inactive for 15 years and was officially and definitively reopened on March 8, 2010.

Today the Museum houses an important collection that through a studied communication succeeds in involving visitors and letting them interact with all the installations.

The installations occupy the ground floor and the first floor; but suggestive are the skeletons of a whale and a sperm whale arranged in the Cetacean Gallery on the ground floor, suspended from the ceiling.

Let yourself be influenced by this timeless building, suspended between ancient and modern, which will make you travel through oriental atmospheres and scientific paths that will immerse you in the depths of the sea to get in touch with its creatures and make you go back to know the strategies of life and show you the most diverse living forms.

Have a nice trip!

Salizada del Fontego dei Turchi, 1730

perhaps you do not know that...

During his search for the recovery of the original material and decorations that have been lost, the engineer Brecht found an architectural element of the façade portraying a bird, a sort of duck, that catches a fish. Do you know that this decoration today represents the Museum's logo?