The beauty of Venice lies in its details. The fascinating doorknobs for instance add grandeur to the Venetian houses and transform them into palazzos. You immediately wonder why the owner chose a specific sculpture and what it symbolizes. Hence, a trip to Venice doesn’t have to be limited to exhibitions or traditional events (such as those mentioned in my post ’15 reasons to visit Venice in 2018’). Enjoying small details can be as much fun. Besides, you can do it at your own pace, whenever and wherever you are in the city.
History of doorknobs
Doorknobs exist in many different forms, from very simple to lavishly decorated with sculptures. Some are only used as knobs to pull the door on your way out. Others replace a bell and are hence knockers. In the past, most doorknobs were made in bronze. Modern ones are usually in brass or sometimes iron.
Doorknobs originated thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece. It was considered impolite to enter a house without warning. You could therefore announce your arrival by shouting, or use a doorknocker if the owner was more sophisticated. The knocker was in first instance a short bar of iron attached to a chain. However, as this could potentially be used as a weapon, a new model was developed and attached to the door. The design was originally very basic, but over time the decoration became almost as important as its function. The first patent was only requested in 1878 by Osbourn Dorsey in the United States of America.
Doorknobs in Venice
I have to admit I assumed these beautiful sculptures were a Venetian specialty. However, researching for this article made it clear that it is also very common in other Italian cities, in Germany and the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, this doesn’t make them less intriguing and beautiful. However, due to the fact that Venice has so many old houses on a small surface, the density of doorknobs is much higher than in large cities. When you walk around the narrow streets, your eyes are immediately drawn to them.
Doorknobs became popular in Venice from 1546 onwards, when Jacopo Sansovino was asked to design a new door for the sacristy of the Basilica di San Marco. He surprised everyone with a huge bronze door with 6 heads as decoration. These depicted, amongst the others, himself and the painter Tiziano. This marked the start of the use of similar sculptures on doors of private homes or public buildings all over the city.
The most common sculptures in Venice show heads, which can be fictive or representing real people as on Sansovino’s door. You will also see creatures of the sea such as dolphins, mermaids or Neptune and of course lions. A doorknob with a hand refers to the Hand of Fatima, which is meant to protect the house and its inhabitants from the evil.
Even the knobs with a lion are not unique to Venice. Whereas those in Venice refer to the lion of San Marco, the lion in general symbolizes bravery, nobility and strength. Lions have been a symbol of Great Britain for centuries, so you will also see a doorknob with a lion on the door of Downing Street 10, the house of the Prime Minister in London.
I personally like the knobs that come in pairs the most. Sometimes these sculptures are identical, but they can also be complementary such as a man and a woman. One doorknob is purely decorative as usually only one side of the door can open. You can easily see which one is used to open the door, as it is more worn and shiny than the other. Sometimes you can hardly recognize the face or details anymore.
Next time you want to escape the crowds (see also my post ‘9 insider tips to escape the crowds in Venice’) or there are no exhibitions which interest you, just enter a quiet street and admire the doorknobs. You can easily spend a couple of hours with this.
If you want to know more about doorknobs and view more pictures, I can recommend the book ‘On the doors of Venice’ by Daniele Resini.
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