The Grand Canal in Venice is lined with palaces, churches and warehouses, stretching as far as the eye can see. Each building is a treasure trove of history, events and drama. A perfect example is the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ a very large white stone building, right next door to the elegant Rialto Bridge.
VENICE was a city built on trade, goods flooded in and out of the city, bringing tremendous wealth to the merchants of Venice. As early as the 13th century a group of traders from Germany were given permission to build a warehouse on the Grand Canal. They built the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ literally the German Warehouse. From this building they were able to buy and sell goods. The location of their warehouse was perfect for trade, adjoining the Rialto Bridge and opposite the fruit, vegetable and fish markets of the city. Every morning the Rialto bustled with merchants, buying and selling. Shakespeare’s Shylock, the famous Jewish money lender plied his trade in these very streets and alleys.
THE ‘FONDACO DEI TEDESCHI’ handled the shipment of timber from the Alps, transported by river to the lagoon of Venice. Wood was an essential commodity in Venice, used for creating secure foundations for buildings, quays and bridges, and of course for boat building. The German traders were also important buyers of luxury goods coming into Venice from the East; spices, silks, perfumes, oils and elaborate textiles. They purchased whole cargoes to ship north to their home towns of Augsburg and Nuremberg. Every time the German merchants bought or sold a cargo the Venetian Republic took a percentage! When the ‘Fondaco’ burned down in a huge fire one January night in the 1500s the Venetians granted all the necessary permits to rebuild almost overnight. The building was replaced by the grand, white, imposing edifice that we see today.
THE WEALTH of the German merchants in Venice was so great that local painter Giorgione (the most famous of his generation) was commissioned to paint the frescoes on the walls of the new building. He brought along his trainee pupil, a young man called Titian, to assist him! It actually makes me laugh when I consider that Giorgione and Titian were both employed to decorate this spectacular building. As the phoenix rose from the ashes so the new ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ continued to act as an exchange and commercial centre for hundreds of years, generating vast profits for the merchants and for the state of Venice. The building itself bears witness to its trading past. Many of the stone columns inside the building have been carved with graffiti indicating the names of the merchants that worked from a particular spot. I like to image the building as a type of stock exchange filled with people shouting, making bids and jostling to buy the most recently arrived cargo.
JUST across the Rialto Bridge is the Church of San Giacomo, one of the oldest in Venice, here in the cloisters of the church traders would huddle together, speaking in low earnest voices, negotiating a transaction, lending or borrowing money or perhaps facilitating a deal. Numerous languages would be heard, Greek, Hebrew, German, Venetian and Armenian. This was the commercial crossroads of Europe.
AFTER centuries of trading the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi‘ fell into disuse in the 19th century. Then in the 1920s it was taken over by the Italian Post Office, as the main mailing office for Venice. It maintained its role as a sorting office and mail distribution centre until the 1990s. When I first visited Venice in 1980, mail boats still pulled up outside the building’s famous arches to load and unload sacks of mail. But of course the internet and online communication has transformed and reduced the need for postal services completely. By 2000 the building was empty, languishing. There were pigeons nesting on the roof and gutters dangling jauntily from the eaves. The Benetton family approached the City of Venice to purchase the building, with the intention of opening a luxury shopping centre, in the heart of the historic centre of Venice. After much bureaucratic wrangling permission was finally granted in exchange for a very large quantity of cash! Two years ago the ‘Fondaci dei Tedeschi’ reopened its door as an elegant department store, a luxury goods emporium filled with designer clothing, fabulous shoes and all manner of branded goods. The building has been reborn in a 21st century context.
THERE’S BEEN the usual objections to the transformation of a venerable ‘fondaco’ into a shopping centre, but actually, in my opinion it makes sense. This building has always been an exchange for the buying and selling of goods. You could argue that as a post office it was not being appropriately used. However as a modern day commercial centre, it’s daily use is perfectly aligned with the original function of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. This would not have been a clean and peaceful palazzo. Rather it would have been a noisy, chaotic, sometimes aggressive environment. A place where goods were bought and sold sometimes in a very competitive manner. Relatively speaking the current reincarnation as a luxury goods emporium is actually quite serendipitous, almost sublime. Maybe the stones of the ‘fondaco’ wake up in the morning and say to the stones next to them ‘have you seen those Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, now I wouldn’t mind a pair of them, do you think they’ve got them in my size’.
- The lovely Director of Sales at ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi‘ is Mary Guerzoni, a dynamic, Veneziana – always working hard to promote her city.
- Next time you are at the Rialto pop in – you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
- Other articles on Venice that you might enjoy:
- Venice – there’s treasure in every church
- Venice – Botticelli in Venice – seriously?
- Venice is and always has been a trading city, of course we should visit the city respectfully and with appreciation. However visit it we must. Spend money in the shops, cafes and bars. Where possible spend money in Venetian owned businesses.
- For ideas and advice on how to visit Venice and for unique tailor-made journeys visit our specialist travel company: www.grand-tourist.com