Palazzo Labia in Venice

Che l’abia o che non le abia, sarò sempre un Labia‘. With these words, as he was throwing golden plates and golden glasses out of the window in the canal of Cannaregio, some say that the householder closed a sumptuous banquet, to which were invited forty ambassadors and gentlemen.

Evil tongues told that during the night the servitors brought all the stuff back, thanks to nets put before into the water.

The Labia family was known for his fortune and his generosity.

Textile merchants from Gerona in Catalonia, in 1528, got the residence in Venice and, paying 100’000 ducats, 60’000 donated and 40’000 on loan, in 1646 could buy the title of “Patrician” of the Serenissima Republic.

The acknowledged importance of the Labia family, which extended his patrimony buying also the feuds of the Frattesina with a large territory in the Polesine area, southern part of the Veneto region, needed a residence of representation which attested his new status. Andrea Cominelli, pupil of Longhena ‘tagiapiera, murer, proto’, who had already designed the Family Chapel in the church of S. Nicola da Tolentino in Venice, has been commissioned to design the Palazzo, which construction started in 1680 approximately and cost 1’171’300 ducats. The building was finished just in time to become the dwelling of Maria, the daughter of Giovanni Civran, which married in 1701 Giovan Francesco II°, first of a venetian noble birth to marry a Labia.

Woman of great intelligence and unique beauty, Maria enchanted also Federico IV°, to such an extent that the King ordered her portrait by the painter Rosalba Carriera and brought it in Denmark.

For the wedding of the son Paolo Antonio with Fiordaliso Emo, in 1738, it was asked to the architect Giorgio Massari to derive the Salone delle Feste, the Ballroom, modifying parts of the first and the second floors of the Palazzo. The result is a huge square-shaped room of approximately 12 meters for 12 meters.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo has been mandated to do the frescoes.

Fascinated by the story of the past, Tiepolo inspired himself from the love between the Queen of Ptolemies of Egypt, Cleopatra, and the ‘dux Romanus’ Marc Antonio.

On the west wall, we can see the ‘meeting’ in Tarsus in the actual Turkey, on the east wall the ‘banquet’; the inspiring muse, who has lent her face to Cleopatra, with blue eyes, blond hair, diaphanous skin, some say, she was Maria Labia herself, while the husband, Giovan Francesco II°, is historicized in the figure of the merchant on the right of the meeting scene.

Giambattista Tiepolo, with all his artistic maturity, assisted by Girolamo Mengozzi Colonna, has done in these paintings one of the most important moments of the illusionism, where proportion and balance create, in a admirable visual unity, the picturesque part and the architectural part.

‘In mari solitudo, in pugna fortitudo, in impero magnitudo’ was one of the motto of the Serenissima, which power shattered definitely the 17th of October 1797, when Napoleon signed at Campoformio the peace treaty between France and Austria.

Venice was forced to submit to Austria and her destiny was written.

After that, some members of the Labia family moved to Vienna to search other fortune and wealth. Some others retired themselves in their villas dispersed in the Veneto, taking actively part of the wars of the Risorgimento.

In the beginnings of the XIXth century, the Palazzo got into the hands of a Prince Lobkovitz, who bought it for 21’500 Austrian liras. Afterwards, it belonged to the Pia Israelite charitable foundation Königsberg, which divided it in apartments to rent and, with the rentals, helped poor children.

In 1885 in the rooms of the Piano Nobile, the first floor, were placed fifty looms to weave clothes and artistic silks. Contemporarily, on the top floor took place a sawmill.

In 1890 the municipality of Venice, which had already rented a flat used as public school, renounced to buy the entire building, which was proposed at the price of 50’000 lire of that time.

A so-called ‘Venitian Jew’ was the new owner in the first years of the XXth century, till the interwar period, when 27 families lived in the building. It is at this time that the frescoes of Tiepolo suffered severe damage: the nose of Cleopatra presented a whole, due to a nail fixed to sustain the rope used to hang out the laundry. This was to what the ballroom was reduced at the time.

After that, a certain Natale Labbia, merchant got rich (with the) with the wheat trade with South Africa during the fascist period, was called ‘prince’ from Mussolini. He bought the Palazzo with the ambition to own the residence of the ‘supposed ancestors’. With the precious collaboration of Nino Barbantini, expert of collectables and antiquities market, especially of the XVIIIth century, he wanted to bring the Palazzo back to its former glory.

The prince died in 1938, without offspring, and the widow, after having let the building unoccupied for around ten years, decided to sell it to the Hispano-Mexican magnate Carlos de Beistegui. Man of great financial resources, don Carlos, as the venetians liked to call him, didn’t get afraid of the status of the building when he bought it: no light, no water, no heating, precarious static, dirty rooms.

Responsible of the restoration, which lasted three years, Giovanni Giuseppe Pedrocco, under the guideline of superintendents of Monuments and Galleries, Ferdinando Forlati and Vittorio Moschini, while don Carlos travelled between Paris, Rome, Madrid and the British castles to find appropriate furnishings. The 3rd September 1951, during the period of the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art, all is ready for the ‘Party of the century’, with more than 1200 hosts from all over the world. Including Aga Khan with the Begum, sir Randolph, the son of Churchill, Orson Welles with Louise de Vilmorin. Dalì designed some costumes that Dior realized. They were all rigorous dressed with masks.

Even today somebody remembers the exceptional event and describes its magnificence.

With his restless character, always searching news and extravagance, the fickle nature Carlos de Beistegui leaved Venice and his Palazzo to move in the castle of Montfort near Paris.

In april 1964 he puts it up for auction with all the furniture. It seems that the most beautiful parts were already sold directly by himself.

The total revenue was of 514’000’000 liras, of which 350’000’000 were paid by the RAI, Radiotelevisione Italiana, which bought the building to get its artistic value and to transform it in a production center unique in the world for its situation.

In may 1970, the restored Palazzo is again alive. The ground floor, the mezzanine and the third floor are reserved for offices, the second one hosts three radio studios and one for television, the Piano Nobile is open for the public which is authorized to visit the thirteen rooms and to admire the precious work.

In addition to the Ballroom, Giambattista Tiepolo frescoed also the ‘Sala degli Specchi’, Hall of Mirrors, the ceiling of which stands the oval which represents ‘Zefiro and Flora’. From his son Giandomenico, another ceiling with ‘Bacco and Arianna’. There are also paintings of Lazzarini, Trevisani, Palma il giovane, and six precious tapestries of the XVIIth century from Flemish school, which represent the ‘Stories of Scipio the African’.

Labia Mea Laudabunt Te Domine‘ is a verse of the Psalms that the Labia family adopted as his proper motto with a crowned eagle as coat of arms.

 Article and photos by photoreporter Etta Lisa Basaldella

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Palazzo Labia in Venice


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