History of a Prestigious Lineage
It all began in 1678, when Giovanni Leoni Montanari decided to have his home built in the historic centre of Vicenza.
Who, exactly, were the Leoni Montanari?
Though not aristocratic by birth, the family had managed to achieve a sound financial status thanks to the production and trade of fabrics. Seeking social affirmation, the family wished to be received into Vicenza’s noble class. The building of the palazzo in Contra’ Santa Corona thus served as a clear signal of the family’s ambitions and of the new role they aspired to hold in town life.
The fortunes of the Leoni Montanari family were not, however, meant to last: in the wake of the extinction of the family branch in the early 19th century, in 1808 the palazzo became the property of Count Girolamo Egidio di Velo, an amateur archaeologist and keen collector of Greek and Roman antiquities. The count partially “deformed” the Baroque structure of the building, enhancing the decorations of the piano nobile with plasterwork and frescoes in the Neoclassical style.
After a few more changes of ownership, in 1908 the prestigious town residence became the property of the Banca Cattolica Vicentina (later Banca Cattolica del Veneto), which established its general management in the building.
In the latter half of the 1970s, the building underwent important renovation work which allowed the restoration and enhancement of its architectural perspectives and opulent interior décor, of which the original layout was largely recovered.
In 1990, after the Banca Cattolica del Veneto merged with the Banco Ambrosiano Veneto, the building was released from its institutional functions in order to become a venue for exhibitions, meetings and concerts.
Following the incorporation of the Banco Ambroveneto into Intesa Sanpaolo and the adaptation of the building spaces to its new display requirements, the Gallerie d’Italia in Vicenza were established in 1999. Today, the museum houses three permanent collections: Attic and Magna-Graecia pottery, Veneto 18th-century art and Russian icons (regarded by scholars as one of the most important in the West).
Our museum also offers scholars and experts in the field:
- a secure storage environment hosting non-exhibited icons and pottery
- a well-equipped restoration laboratory for the safeguard and recovery of the works most damaged by time
- a special library devoted to iconographic and documentary research on Russian icons
A Baroque Emblem
The Leoni Montanari family vicissitudes strongly impacted the stylistic peculiarities of the building: indeed, the palazzo is the only Baroque dwelling in a city like Vicenza, which has always aspired to remain faithful to the classical artistic teachings of architect Andrea Palladio.
This choice in architectural language – so foreign to the urban fabric of Vicenza – was not random; the family wished to impress with their originality, meanwhile highlighting their distance from the conservative tastes of the local aristocracy.
The Leoni Montanari family’s desire to set themselves apart from the choices of Vicenza aristocracy is further corroborated by the interior décor of the building, the work of mainly non-local artists.
But let’s enter the palazzo to better explore its every detail…
Prepare to be left speechless even as you pass through the entrance: the arch is surmounted by half-bust figures and grotesque, monstrous animals, symbolising the poetics of the marvellous that characterises the entire palace décor.
The same decorative pattern occurs in the portico arches, which feature human heads alternating with pairs of imaginary animals.
Looking up, we notice the Genius loci (traditionally recognised as Apollo) set within a niche on the left. This great statue by Bassano sculptor Angelo Marinali is placed side by side with the beautiful Loggia d’Ercole, enclosed by glass walls.
The Art Nouveau-style iron balustrade that encloses the loggia is a 19th-century addition by architect Giovanni Miglioranza, as is the black-and-white stone courtyard paving.
On the back wall of the portico, we catch a glimpse of a statuary group detailing the rape of Proserpina, whilst on the right, against the wall, is a shell-shaped stone fountain with the figures of Juno and Venus.
Heading inside, we enter the Sala delle Arti (“Hall of the Arts”) and find ourselves facing a majestic fireplace with a red Verona marble frame featuring large volutes to the side and resting on lion claw feet, as well as a trabeated system with pulvinated frieze and opulent profiles.
The great hood rises to the ceiling beams, completely panelled in stucco figures symbolising the Arts. At the centre, a vast wreath surrounds an oval containing the tools of the Arts – a palette, pair of compasses, square, chisel and hammer – illuminated by the sun, the symbol of Apollo. The wreath is supported, above and below, by pairs of putti: the lower ones featuring bat-like wings perhaps hinting at the nocturnal star chased away by the Sun, whilst the ones above twirl merrily as they carry a basket of fruit, a cheerful meeting of Art and Nature.
On the right and left sides, respectively, the female figures of Painting – with her paintbrushes – and Sculpture – with a statuette in hand – emerge in high relief. The composition is rounded off by a drape flowing from the ceiling.
A vast, and equally noteworthy, staircase, leads to the piano nobile.
The niche placed beneath the lower flight hosts a small but exquisite statue of Venus by Angelo Marinali.
On the ground-floor landing, we first encounter the soft, pasty Baroque stucco decorations that characterise most of the rooms. The frescoed tondi depict deities from the Greco-Roman pantheon.
The first landing hosts four statues portraying Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, respectively.
The first floor of ancient patrician dwellings – also known as the piano nobile – carried out state functions. It was comparable, in a way, to a prestigious calling card for the palazzo and the grandeur of its owners who, in order to impress their guests, didn’t hesitate to embellish the ambiences with frescoes, stucco decorations, art collections and impressive libraries.
Indeed, some of the rooms on this floor of Palazzo Leoni Montanari used to house a vast painting collection: over fifty works by renowned artists, sadly was lost during the many changes of ownership.
The Sala dell’Antico Testamento (“Hall of the Old Testament”) once housed the important collection of Pompeiian vases assembled by Count Egidio di Velo in the early 1800s.
The palazzo restoration work carried out in the latter half of the 1970s led to the discovery of fragments of frescoes depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The best-preserved scene, located on the right-hand wall, portrays the biblical Crossing of the Red Sea. We find the Judgement of Solomon above the door, whist the opposite wall hosts Belshazzar’s Feast, the last of the Old Testament episodes that make up the decorations in this hall.
On the walls we can admire dancing muses and satyrs in the Pompeiian style; these monochrome paintings were commissioned in the 1900s by Count di Velo, who wanted decorations that fit in with his collection of antiquities.
The history of the Sala dell’Antica Roma (“Hall of Ancient Rome”) is quite similar to that of the Sala dell’Antico Testamento: this hall also showcased the count’s collection of Pompeiian vases, and the frescoes decorating the frieze that runs along the walls below the ceiling draw inspiration from Roman history.
The whole left-hand wall is taken up by the famous episode of the Rape of the Sabine Women. Above the door, we can admire the Death of Sophonisba to the right, with the Temperance of Scipio on the other side. On the opposite wall, the only recognisable episode is the fresco on the right – Coriolanus halted by his wife and mother.