A visit to a university might not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning your trip to Venice. However, a visit to the Ca’Foscari University is a unique experience which you shouldn’t miss. The headquarters are based in a monumental palazzo in the widest bend of Canal Grande. This gives you a spectacular view from the Rialto bridge to the Accademia bridge. On top of that, the architecture and interior of the different sites is really stunning.
This post starts with some historical background on the Ca’Foscari palazzo and university. I will then tell you about their main locations at Ca’Foscari, Ca’Giustinian, Ca’Dolfin and Ca’Bembo. Finally, I will give you some tips on how you can explore all this beauty.
History of Ca’Foscari
The palazzo in Dorsoduro was originally called ‘Casa delle Due Torri’ and dates from 1420. In 1452, Doge Francesco Foscari bought it from the Republic of Venice. According to the official version, this was his personal favor to replenish the state treasury. In fact, he was more interested in reinvigorating his own waning power. Led by the famous Italian architect Bartolomeo Bon, the building was largely demolished, renovated and expanded with 2 additional floors. It has now the second largest courtyard of Venice, after the Palazzo Ducale. Since then, this masterpiece of Venetian Gothic style has been known as Ca’Foscari. Many distinguished guests, including the French King Henry III and Tsar Peter I stayed here during their visit to Venice. In 1868, it became the headquarters of the Ca’Foscari University.
DID YOU KNOW? Thanks to recent renovations and the implementation of best practices related to energy efficiency and environmental measures, Ca’Foscari received the LEED certificate for sustainability. It is the oldest building in the world with this prestigious certification.
In 1868, the Ca’Foscari University was founded as the ‘Scuola Superiore di Commercio’ (Advanced School for Commerce). It was the first Italian institution with an advanced education in Business and Economics. Today, the Ca’ Foscari University teaches approximately 20,000 students and covers four large scientific and cultural areas: Economics, Foreign Languages and Literatures, Humanities and Sciences. It also offers English-taught programmes and double/joint degrees, thanks to the numerous cooperation agreements with European and extra-European institutions and universities. Which student wouldn’t love to follow an Erasmus program or something similar in Venice?
INSIDER TIP: In 2018, the Ca’Foscari University celebrated its 150th anniversary with several events and exhibitions. The celebration started with the official inauguration of the academic year at Teatro La Fenice. Other activities included classes by Nobelprize winners for the best students, the opening of new locations abroad (in India, Turkey, Russia and Belgium), a Kids University and scientific projects on the patrimony of Ca’Foscari. Many cultural events were open to the public such as Art Night, a Short Film Festival, theatre and exhibitions such as ‘Art in the Dunhuang Grottoes’ in cooperation with a Chinese university.
The most stunning part of Ca’Foscari is the Aula Baratto on the first floor. The wide view on Canal Grande made it a very popular place for parties. From the terrace, you can see the Rialto bridge on the left and the Accademia bridge on the right. I assume that, still today, guests are often distracted by the passing boats.
DID YOU KNOW? The famous Regata Storica finishes in front of Ca’Foscari as the rowers can be seen from a large distance thanks to this wide view. You can read more on this traditional event in my post ‘Don’t miss a thing of the Regata Storica’.
The room itself is certainly also worth a closer look. In 1936, the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpo completely redesigned it into the large aula of the university. The typical Scarpa style is recognizable in the wooden windows, the furniture and the marble stage. Originally, the busts of Mussolini and Emmanuel II decorated the marble pillars, but these have been removed. The fascist work ‘Venice, Italy and Scholarship’ of Mario Sironi remained however on the wall. In 1956, Scarpa converted the large aula into a smaller room for lectures. His woodwork, which separates the corridor from the aula, is very delicate.
INSIDER TIP: If you want to know more about Carlo Scarpa and discover his other works around Venice, I suggest you follow the walk from my post ‘Venice in the steps of Carlo Scarpa’.
Ca’Giustinian dei Vescovi
The building next to Ca’Foscari is the Ca’Giustinian dei Vescovi, which you can access via the courtyard. It’s a fascinating location which hides several intriguing stories. The stairs for instance have been financed by Lady Helen D’Abernon, one of the tenants who stayed here for a very long time. When the outer stairs were completely destroyed during the war, she could only access her room via the inner stairs. To guarantee her privacy, she decided to have the stairs rebuilt herself in 1912. She even adorned the stairs with the same decoration of flowers as the well.
Another element which was hidden for a very long time is the small painting on the wall opposite these stairs. This painting was only discovered approx. 10 years ago when they removed the plants which had covered it.
DID YOU KNOW? This is not the Palazzo Giustinian with the headquarters of La Biennale di Venezia. These are also located along Canal Grande, but near San Marco.
The 16th century Ca’Dolfin is located on the other side of the Rio di Ca’Foscari. It was acquired by the university in 1955. The impressive Aula Magna Silvio Trentin is now the main location for large events such as the opening of the academic year. As soon as you enter, you step into the sumptuous ceiling painting with 18th century frescoes. You feel really overwhelmed by the colours and images. One remarkable detail is the sculpture of a dolphin above the door. It refers to the Dolfin family who originally owned the building. Unfortunately, the 10 original wall paintings of the Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo have been sold by one of the former owners. The mirrors which now decorate the walls hide these empty spaces perfectly. The aula is really a delightful view.
Earlier this year, the university officially dedicated an aula at Ca’Bembo in honour of the Venetian Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia. She was the first woman in the world to receive a university degree, in 1678. She graduated at the university in Padua in philosophy, even though she was originally pursuing a degree in theology. This application was however rejected by the bishop of Padua, due to the fact that she was a woman. Elena was a woman of many talents. She was already fluent in Latin and Greek at the age of seven. She mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic. And finally, she was also an expert musician.
As the Ca’Foscari university is a public institution, you are allowed to explore the entrance. There is a small bar on the courtyard where you can have a drink. You can of course also attend a lecture in one of the auditoriums, assuming you are invited or it’s open for the public.
It is however much more interesting to follow one of the guided tours organized by Ca’ Foscari Tour. You will not only get a detailed explanation about the building and its history, but you will also see locations which are otherwise not accessible. On top of this, the guides are students of the university, which gives it an additional twist. You can choose between a tour of Ca’Foscari and the Aula Baratto, or of Ca’Dolfin. Both palazzos are quite different, so it makes sense to visit both. Tours last approx. 40 minutes and take place on Saturday morning. You can find all the dates and practical information on their website. To celebrate the 10th year anniversary of Ca’Foscari Tour, the guided tours (in English and Italian) are free in 2019.
Another possibility to get in touch with the Ca’Foscari community is by taking a tour on their dragon boat. You can discover Canal Grande and some smaller canals by rowing with the Ca’ Foscari team. This new experience was launched in 2017, but it hasn’t been communicated yet if and when you will get this opportunity in 2019. The tour lasts approx. 1 hour and reservation is required.
DID YOU KNOW? This dragon boat also takes part in the Regata Storica and other traditional rowing events in Venice.
Finally, the university also organizes temporary art exhibitions on a regular basis. Usually, you can visit these for free. This gives you the opportunity to enter some of the rooms in Ca’Giustinian.
Fans of Donna Leon’s books with Brunetti adventures might know that Paola Brunetti teaches English literature at the Ca’Foscari University. You can follow her daily walks and routine in my post ‘Follow Brunetti on a suspenseful tour around Venice’. Alternatively, you can continue your day with a walk along the architectural highlights of Dorsorduro based on this post ‘Dorsoduro: An amazing tour of intriguing architecture’.
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