Hidden in the center of Venice, unknown to most tourists, is a spiraling “snail” staircase that winds up the tower-like facade of a historic palazzo. It was so unique at the time it was built at the very end of the 15th century that it’s responsible for naming both the palace it’s attached to and the entire branch of the Contarini noble family that lived there.
Secluded in the middle of the sestiere of San Marco, the palazzo’s crowning feature is the large interior flight of winding stairs that spirals up into the sky, named the Scala Contarini del Bovolo. “Del Bovolo” translates to “of the snail” in the Venetian dialect, referring to the spiral shape of the scala (staircase).
The winding tower was so popular, the “bovolo” name became forever attached to not only the palace but also the Contarini family, one of the founding families of Venice, who had the spiraling facade built to showcase their great wealth.
Though it’s not far from the Campo Manin, the staircase can be quite difficult to find. It’s located on a small backstreet that requires navigating Venice’s notorious maze of narrow alleyways. It is worth the effort. The scala with its attached arcades spirals 90 feet high, combining elements of Gothic, Renaissance, and Byzantine styles. Visitors can climb to the top of its 80 steps, from which there is a beautiful view over the rooftops of the city.
The architectural gem is depicted in Jacopo de Barbari’s famous bird’s eye view of Venice, painted in 1500 (now held at the Museo Correr). The storybook staircase also made a prominent appearance in Orson Welles’ 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.
- Salvadori Rizzi, L., “Giorgio Spavento e la Scala del Bovolo di palazzo Contarini”, in Arte Documento, 10, Edizioni della Laguna, Venezia 1996, pp. 43-47.
- Stevanato, P., “La Scala Contarini del Bovolo. Volume 10 of Carità e Assistenza a Venezia”, IRE, Venezia 1999.
- Bassi, E., “Palazzi di Venezia: Admiranda Urbis Venetae”, La Stamperia di Venezia 1976.