Photographing Venice’s Bovolo Staircase

Photographing Venice’s Bovolo Staircase

The Bovolo or Snail Staircase
Scala Contarini del Bovolo, Venice

Venice is one of the most photographed cities in the world. So how can you create new, fresh images of iconic sites? During the many festivals in the town, the answer is easy – add some costumed models to your pictures.

Interior of the Bovolo staircase, Venice
Climbing the Bovolo staircase

“Can you believe that we have never been to the Bovolo, even though we come to Venice every year?” Christian shakes his head in disbelief as we stroll through the tiny alleys of the city, crowded with Carnival visitors. He and Joelle, his spouse, are attired in full period costumes, complete with face masks.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for some unique photos,” he adds.

Hidden away in a maze of alleyways, the Scala Contarini del Bovolo (the Snail Staircase) is often overlooked by travelers to La Serenissima. However, if you climb to the top of the 90-foot tower, you will find the perfect location from where to photograph across the red rooftops of Venice. And what better way to bring the tower to life (and give you a feel for what it might have been like when Venetians masqueraded around town)  than with Christian and Joelle as our models?

The Contarini family

Costuemrs in the arches of the Bovolo
Looking out of the arches of the Bovolo, Venice

The multi-branched noble Contarini family is well-known in Venice; its members contributed eight Doges, as well as numerous bishops, cardinals, and ambassadors to the city’s history. The most famous of these is Doge Andrea who served for over 27 years in the 1300s, and under whose reign the Morosini family began construction of the palazzo.

Pietro Contarini purchased the old Gothic palazzo in 1489. As part of an effort to enhance the family’s reputation and show off its wealth and power, he renovated the building to bring it up to the standards of the Renaissance. The remodeling included the construction of a graceful, external, multi-arched spiral staircase attached to the Palazzo.

Costumers in the loggia of the Bovolo
The Loggia of the Bovolo, Venice

At that time, the construction of towers as part of houses was forbidden, to prevent Venetians from attacking the city and each other. Perforated arched windows were icluded on the façade of the spiraling staircase, thereby reducing its ussefulness as a military structure and getting around the ban.

Because of its shape, Venetians referred to the staircase as “Il Bovolo” or the snail, and the family became known as the Contarini del Bovolo.

Following the Contarini (who lived in the Palazzo for generations), the building passed through the hands of several owners until the City of Venice purchased and restored it, opening it to visitors in 2016.

The Tower

Red bricks and white Istria stones alternate between lacy windows on the façade of the tower (which includes Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance elements) as it climbs from a small courtyard up six floors to the Belvedere on the top. The three windows on each floor decrease in size so that by the time you reach the top, they are half the size of those on the ground floor. Three arched colonnaded loggias attach the staircase to the Palazzo. The loggia on the second floor leads to the Sala del Tintoretto where temporary exhibits are displayed.

As we climb counterclockwise up the 80 ancient, worn steps around a central pillar, Venice gradually opens up before us, until we reach the Belvedere where the arches frame the domes of St. Mark’s Basilica and the bell tower.

Costumers on the terrace of the Bovolo staircase, Venice
On the belvedere of the Bovolo, Venice

After photographing Joelle and Christian from various vantage points inside the staircase, through the arches and on the Belvedere, we also shoot them from the ground, which is a bit more challenging since it is hard to gain perspective in close quarters.

Even without models, the Scala Contarini del Bovolo is a photographic treasure. Using models in period costumes adds a layer of interest to the images and allows you to portray what the city might have been like in its heyday. It also offers a unique opportunity to photograph Venice from a high vantage point


Peering through the arches, Venice
Costumers fill the arches of the Scala Contarini del Bovolo

The Scala Contarini del Bovolo is open daily from 1000 to 1330 and 1400 to 1800. To find it, go to Campo Manin (located halfway between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco). As you face the statue in the middle of the square, look for a small alleyway on your right, about halfway down the block. Turn into the alleyway, and follow the signs for the staircase (go left on Calle Locande and then take the first right).

There is an entrance fee as well as a small fee for photographing models inside. (There is no charge to shoot the models from the outside).

If you want to learn how to photograph models in Venice, Jim Zuckerman offers a specific course on this subject during Carnevale.

Our images from Venice are at Allegria Photos.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2018 Diana Russler

4 thoughts on “Photographing Venice’s Bovolo Staircase

  1. You and Bill are now the experts on all things Italy. Those are some great photos. Might have to return to Venice again.

  2. Nice shots Diana! And great memories of our visit to the tower with you two years ago….


Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.